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by Mark Ury

Blogging always seems to include sharing some sad truth about yourself, whether it’s your obsession with trash TV or one too many trips to the freezer for more mint chocolate chip ice cream (P.S. these are examples and any resemblance to my life is coincidental). So here’s my share: I can’t draw.

Admitting you can’t draw isn’t much of anything, really. Over 90% of the world can’t draw. But context is everything. Admitting I can’t draw to my bowling friends isn’t worth a second glance (P.S. I don’t bowl), whereas sharing it with picture book writers and illustrators is like asking your bowling friends to switch to five-pin balls since your wrist is to weak to use the grown-up sizes (P.S. this has never happened). It’s kinda sad and wimpy.

Now, don’t feel embarrassed for me (P.S. you are not my mother). I have at my disposal an entire platform to compensate for my lack of artistic skills. With it, I can inspire myself to great heights and pen imaginative stories that kids everywhere read and love. But, sleazily cross-promoting my venture is not what this post is about (P.S. unless you find my venture intriguing and possibly useful, in which case we should have coffee and be friends). No. This blog post is NOT about (shameful) marketing or even (sad) admissions of inferior uses of pencils. It’s about music. Or, more specifically, it’s about how music helps me get the feeling of a story long before (and sometimes after) I’ve seen the images or typed the words.

It’s quite possible you are already familiar with how music can shape your work. If so, perhaps you might be better off reading Sarah Dillard’s post—it has cute bunnies. But if you’re like me (P.S. heaven help you), you may only be modestly aware of how music can be used to give your story the tone or pitch your characters are longing for (and, eventually, if you score that deal with HarperCollins, your readers).

For the longest time, I *thought* what was inspiring the tone of my writing were the images I would paper on my walls, stash in my notebook, or hide under my pillow (P.S. the images under my pillow were not at all being hidden from my mother). Weathered photos of Sid Vicious and Marianne Faithful propelled my early poetry. An image of Kate Spade holding one of her early designs became the central figure in one of my (wretched and unfinished) screenplays, and a stark image of Vanessa Redgrave has been taunting me to start my graphic novel (P.S. yes, you read correctly that I can’t draw).

But, upon reflection (.PS. while searching for a theme for this blog post), only recently did I notice that while images were influencing *what* I was writing about, the actual tone came from the music around me.

This story, about memory and love, was shaped by This is the Kit’s Two Wooden Spoons—an earthy and lush little song that I couldn’t get off of replay on my iPod. And my story about a gruesomely self-centered girl rose from the the chill of Radiohead’s There There (P.S. This is ironic since Thom Yorke wrote the song as a kind of bedtime story for his son. P.P.S. I am glad I am not Thom Yorke’s son).

Music has shaped my copywriting and creative direction, too. Commercials, ads—even the design of products and services—have musical DNA from bouncy ABBA tunes, 80s Brit-pop, and recently, the alt-country acoustics of Kathleen Edwards. And why not? Music is this perfect mix of math and emotion, logic and passion. It’s the ideal stimulant for a tired mind and great whip to a lazy idea (P.S. my ideas need constant flogging). Mostly, it’s a great friend to writers, who need to balance structure and character with some sort of texture or flavor that they can’t quite articulate.

So here’s my suggestion: include music in your work. Better yet—let it muscle itself between your sketches and copy. Replay favorites and dig up old tunes. Drift through lyrics and free associate. Use sound to create new stories (don’t you WANT the East-End boys and West-End girls to meet?), vivid places (just what does the town in Simon & Garfunkel’s My Little Town look like?), and beguiling characters (surely Tom from Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner is worth examining?). Most of all, let music do what it’s meant to do: alter your rhythm. Great stories don’t come from staid patterns.

As for me, I’m wrapping this post feeling less insecure about my poor pencilmanship. (This is quite possibly because I’m listening to The Wild Strawberries and thinking of pie rather than having stared down my limitations (P.S. It is.).) Either way, music saved the day, again.

Mark Ury is the cofounder of Storybird, an occasional writer, and almost always nibbling chocolate.

Cheaper by the Dozen
by Mark Ury

Ideas are not a dime a dozen. They’re closer to $0.0001. That’s because they’re commodities. Everyone has them, everyone can think of them, and, as a culture, we’re saturated with them. Like most raw materials, ideas are worthless unless you turn them into something else, something of greater value.

How do you add value to ideas? With other ideas.

The concept of wit—one of our most enjoyable forms of ideas—is premised on taking one cliché and combining it with another to make something unexpected and remarkable.

An arrow pointing right is a cliché for a courier company. But burying it between the negative space of the “E” and “x” of FedEx makes it new. It makes the image memorable, if not surprising, and the idea valuable.

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” is the written equivalent of the FedEx logo, as are many of Dorothy Parker’s best quips. “Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves” and “It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard” whip two lazy ideas into shape and keep them marching for decades.

The economics of wit are 1+1=3. When your ideas are competing for a publisher’s or reader’s attention, those are valuable numbers to have on your side.

How do you create wit? The simplest technique is to tinker with clichés since they contain recognizable patterns that your audience can latch onto. For example, the cliché “ideas are a dime a dozen” gives you three things to mess about: ideas, money, and—thanks to the word “dozen”—eggs. If you were drawing, you might play with the notion of ideas as light bulbs and then substitute them for the eggs in a carton. You now have a new image to play with and the shadows of a scene. Who needs ideas? Inventors. But why cheap ones? Well, perhaps this inventor is down on his luck. Can’t you see him there at the register, digging into his empty pockets looking for a dime? Around him are other wealthy inventors, buying cartons of the stuff. But he can only afford one bulb for his last, terrible experiment…

The key to playing with clichés is to think visually AND conceptually. Sometimes the images line themselves up, like the example above. Other times, the concept is unlocked through narrative interplay. For instance, you might start with the visual of ghosts, creeping around in a mansion and scaring people. But then you flip to the narrative pieces and start toying with their DNA: the ghosts aren’t the antagonists. The ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts. The audience doesn’t know they’re ghosts. Before you know it, you’re in Spain with Nicole Kidman filming The Others.

In fact, if you want to study the blending of routine ideas into something fresh, Hollywood has a not unsuccessful record. Alien is the fusion of the shark thriller (Jaws) and outer space (Star Wars). Mad About You was pitched as thirtysomething, but funny. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village—many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films—rely on flipping everyday ideas to produce entertaining new ones that “unpack” their meaning as you watch.

That’s the benefit of folding two ideas into one. The audience experiences it in reverse: one idea unfolds into two and the brain has the joy of connecting the dots to find the hidden meaning.

Don’t worry about great ideas. Look for everyday, unbankable ones. If you invest and repackage them, they’ll outperform your reader’s expectations.

That’s my two cents.

Mark Ury is the co-founder of Storybird.


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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

illus by Ross MacDonald
October 15, 2019

illus by Vivienne To
Spring 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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