Five Storytelling Rules of Brad Bird

I loved Brad Bird’s work before I knew who Brad Bird was. Back in the 80s, Steven Spielberg put on a TV show called ‘Amazing Stories.’ One animated episode featured the strange, stressful life of a family dog. I remember laughing at that episode, and later noticing Bird’s name on a number of other animated projects I liked: The Simpsons, the Iron Giant, and the Incredibles. Over the past forty years, Brad Bird has proven himself to be a master at the business of storytelling, and with that in mind I wanted to jot down some notes on five rules his projects seem to follow.

To be fair, there are other blog posts like this that talk about Bird’s storytelling and they have value, too. However I want to dig deeper into what the rules are, what they mean, and how they apply to people like me who want to tell stories for a living. Let’s start the discussion with the most important rule:

Catch the Feels

One cool think about a Brad Bird project is, it’s never boring. Laugh, cry, or explode, Bird is going to make you feel something deep, and you can’t say that about every movie. Think about the emotional gut-punches you got in ‘The Iron Giant,’ or even the boiling frustration of Mr. Incredible as he grinds away in that office job.  Brad Bird knows how to tell a story that will catch you in the feels, and that’s why we love him. We want to feel something, we want to believe something. If you want to be a good storyteller, and lord knows I do, then you have to make your reader / audience feel something.

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New Microfiction – Pest Control

Created a new piece of scifi microfiction in response to the prompt: ‘Humans never managed to developed laster-than-light travel. Instead, they developed ways to discretely piggyback on ships that can. The other races in the galaxy are getting suspicious.’ So, I decided to write a story where humans are treated like pests. Guess how they decide to treat us? I hope you enjoy ‘Pest Control.’

“Oh god, here’s another one!”

“Quick, deploy the sentinel.” A whirring airbot hurtles from the darkness, lidar scans searching for the critters. They can’t hide forever, sentinels know what to look for. Air composition changes, skin oil deposits, spoor. Little beasts are cute in a way, but they’re dangerous to the traveling elite.

“There, there!” The airbot responds to the chief engineers shout, tracking to the left. They listen to scurrying sounds, feet scraping against metal and plastic. “seems to be more than one. I can hear two sets of mandibles.”

His assistant, the one responsible for sentinel maintenance, nods his head. “Should install vermin guards on the cargo bays. Keep waiting for them to appropriate the funds.”

“It’s in the next phase of ship mod work. We’ll get there. In the meantime, watch the fun!” The chief engineer cackles, one of six green bellies drapes over the handrail. “Go, go. Run you little turd!”

“Hey!” a third voice joins them. It’s Ry’legh, the midshipman. “I got five credits, says this one lasts longer than ten minutes against your sentinel.”

“You’re on,” the assistant replies. “I sent our best. This little booger don’t stand a chance.” His airbot seems to sense the new tension in the air and chirps with determination. This isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s a matter of cash! It re-acquires its target, another dirty-faced, nearly-sentient human, running for its life among the hulks of cargo containers in Cargo Bay 7.

Continue Reading ‘Pest Control’ here

Some Great Free Writing Advice

Chuck Wendig just tweeted about it, so I went through this Twitter thread and BOY are there some nuggets of free writing advice. Malinda Lo’s been doing this for 15 years and she’s accumulated some hard-won insights on the writing game. She passes them along in this doozy of a Twitter thread, so grab a cup of coffee and get reading …

No, Mesh is Not a Stephen King Rip-Off

I was watching the Colbert Show today – catching up on Youtube as one does – and I ran across Stephen King talking about his new book, “The Institute.” King described his book as a story where kids ‘fight the power,’ and I immediately got scared. Would readers of The Institute think Mesh is a rip-off of Stephen King? I’m happy to say the answer to that question is: no.

Here’s how I know. Quick google-fu gets us to the synopsis, which reads as follows:

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

My story’s about kids going to a school for super-smart teens. No murder, no telekenisis, no brutality. Here’s the synopsis again, for the curious: Continue reading

Mesh – Crowbard

Apologies for the delay in posts. I got some feedback about Mesh that essentially required me to take a look at the entire novel. Not a fun exercise, but valuable. It’s forced me to streamline the exposition, trim the fat, and add a new character. As frustrating as that can be sometimes, I’m happy that my Beta Readers are honest with me and I think ultimately it will help Mesh be a better book.

I use the crowbar metaphor to talk about the new character, because you can’t just force a new character into the story with a crowbar. They must be included in the story organically, and get a chance to grow and flourish along with the other characters. To give Mesh the right level of attention, I turned off blogging for a while.

Eventually, I’ll get back to posting. I have some thoughts on old sci-fi, bad storytelling, and whatever is going on with Walter Mosley at Star Trek. The book, the story, has to be first priority. I hope to have more to share with you soon.

The Rocket – Now Available for Free

You’ll be happy to know that I’m now including The Rocket in my list of titles available for free over at Free Stuff. The Rocket, of course, is my Twilight Zone-esque tale of a man confronting his absent father, right before humanity’s extinction. Not a bad read, according to people other than myself. Here’s the description:

In the last few hours before life on earth ends, a young dad has a chance meeting with his estranged father. Will this be a moment of reconciliation, or recrimination? How can you communicate with someone who refuses to listen? Mike Crane takes one last shot to save his father’s life before he boards THE ROCKET.

Get The Rocket For Free Now

One Big Fat Reason I Keep My Mouth Shut

I only ran across this article the other day, but the second I read it, I was like “I must blog this.” The cautionary tale of Kosoko Jackson perfectly illustrates the one big fat reason I keep my mouth shut when it comes to current events, social issues or anything not having to do with my writing.

Jackson, in a nutshell, is an underknown YA author like me. Not afraid to make his opinions known, he found himself the target of social media outrage when an upcoming novel met with accusations of insensitivity. Before you could say ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Jackson’s book was dead on the vine, a victim of the controversy. Kosoko Jackson has since moved onto other projects.

So imagine that you spend hundreds of hours developing and writing a story. Hundreds more finding an agent, a publisher, an editor. Here comes your moment, the part in the story where your book, your novel, is out there in the universe. Then, before that moment can happen, your project explodes. You watch your dream, your baby, burn like a roman candle. The dream is over before it got started. What an awful, sickening feeling that must be.

Reason makes no bones about the implications: “Maybe there’s some actual fire here, but determining that would require a close read of the sort that sociopathic social-media dogpilings rarely afford. Zooming out, these episodes will inevitably affect YA publishing, and perhaps other areas of publishing if the fever spreads.”

I’m just a guy, a guy who writes stories. News like this make me want to crawl in a hole, be happy with my disability check, and forget I ever heard of book called ‘Mesh.’ It also helps explain why my social media engagement is pretty neutral when it comes to controversy. My voice is something I’m responsible for, and honestly I can’t handle the responsibility of being a mouthpiece. Please don’t ask.

All of this makes me think of that famous quote: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. – Maurice Switzer, but commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln

I’m keeping my mouth shut, and writing my books. I hope, at the end of the day, that it’s worth something.

Here’s Why You Write Every Day: Jerry Seinfeld

Love him or hate him, Jerry Seinfeld is both talented and hardworking. His rockstar career in the world of comedy is due in no small part to his work ethic and the structure he brings to his craft. Here, in this video cast with Tom Pappa, Jerry discusses why you write every day. As a writer, I found a ton of valuable insights and you will, too. Take a look:

It would be fair call this a ‘masterclass in creative professionalism.’ You have to structure your creativity, hold yourself accountable, and get your stuff out there so you can learn and get better. Not everyone is willing to put the hours in, but Jerry is, and that’s why he’s Seinfeld.

So at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to put the work in. It can only lead you to good places. Enough talk for now. Time for me to get back to work.

Your Top Ten Biggest Scifi Writing Mistakes

You. Yes, you. Stop right now and jot this down. There was a thread over at /r/scifi that listed out the biggest mistakes in scifi and I couldn’t help but take note. You should too, because these people are our readers and when they talk, we need to listen with both ears. To keep it super-simple, I compiled some of the best ones into a handy Top-Ten format. I want to keep this for my future reference and yours, too.

Good scifi cannot save bad writing. I think we all know that. At the same time, bad writing can be forgiven under certain circumstances (Looking at you, Ready Player One). Ideas, premises, tech that would interest a PhD cannot be mated to sixth-grade prose, just like you can’t expect to run an F1 car with a toddler at the wheel. We know that, too. So the question is, how to you write good-sci-fi? I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, here are some ways to avoid writing bad science fiction. Let’s look at the top ten worst offenders, in no particular order: Continue reading

One Thousand and One Nights – Historical Scifi

Since I love since fiction, I’ve been doing some research about its background. Sci-fi is often viewed as a modern genre, but did you know that science fiction story elements date back as far as the 14th Century? It’s true. Sci-fi stories have a deep, historical background. In fact, they’ve been around about as long as The Canterbury Tales, and their birth took place during the Islamic Golden Age.

One Thousand and One Nights, AKA Arabian Nights contains many story elements we recognize in modern sci-fi. Wikipedia has more detail:

Several stories within the One Thousand and One Nights feature early science fiction elements. One example is “The Adventures of Bulukiya”, where the protagonist Bulukiya’s quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to Paradise and to Hell, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction; along the way, he encounters societies of djinn, mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In “Abu al-Husn and His Slave-Girl Tawaddud”, the heroine Tawaddud gives an impromptu lecture on the mansions of the Moon, and the benevolent and sinister aspects of the planets.

You can continue reading about those fantasy and science fiction elements here.

The main takeaway from all of this is that science fiction has been entertaining people for many years, perhaps over a thousand if my math is correct. Anytime a nerd complains about ‘tired story tropes’ in 2019, just know they were probably doing the same back in 1019.

Nerd on!