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Saturday, December 22, 2018

8 Things Writers Can Learn from Mary Poppins

by Gary Fearon

Thanks to the December 2018 release of Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt, many moviegoers have been revisiting the 1964 classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  Fans of the original can still hum along with the songs of Richard M. Sherman and his brother Robert B. Sherman. They may not be household names, but the story songs they wrote are beloved worldwide via Walt Disney films and parks, including what they considered their crowning glory, Mary Poppins

What many writers don't realize is that, in addition to their Oscar-winning score, the Shermans were key players in developing the story structure of Mary Poppins as well as other Disney favorites. Here are eight things all writers can learn from the prolific songwriting team Walt himself affectionately referred to as "the boys".

COMBINE USEABLE IDEAS
There are eight books in the Mary Poppins series. Scenes and concepts from different books were brought together to create a storyline for the original 1964 screenplay (an approach used for the 2018 sequel as well). Are there any ideas you've put aside that could find a new home in your latest work?

FIND THE REAL STORY
The magical English nanny had many colorful adventures, but Richard & Robert determined that these episodes had no character arcs and weren't enough to carry a story. They convinced Disney that Mary's employers should be distracted parents who rediscover the joy of childhood along with their children. Once a moral was chosen, the adventures took on a common purpose.

COME UP WITH A NEW TWIST
For Mary's signature song, the Shermans wanted to give her a clever proverb, like "An apple a day..." or "A stitch in time..."  The end result ("A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down") was inspired by Robert's young son, whose school had administered a polio vaccine placed on sugar cubes for easier consumption. You never know what phrase you write could become an instant classic.

SECONDARY CHARACTERS ARE PEOPLE TOO
In the books, Bert was only a minor character, a street artist known as The Match Man. He has much more prominence in the film, and his role as a chimney sweep was borrowed from a different character in the P.L. Travers series. Bert was given a presence and personality strong enough to be a companion for Mary Poppins. His equally charismatic signature song, "Chim Chim Chiree", won the 1965 Oscar for Best Original Song.

PICK THE RIGHT TIME PERIOD
The Shermans moved the story from the depression-era 1930s to the more hopeful turn of the century. Setting the story in 1910 London also allowed them to develop one character into a suffragette. Speaking of whom...

RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
Actress Glynnis Johns thought she had been cast to get the title role of Mary Poppins, only to learn that Julie Andrews had already been enlisted to play the title role. Walt appeased her by assuring her that the Shermans had written an especially great song just for her to sing. In truth, it wasn't even a thought up to that point. But Richard and Robert picked up the gauntlet and delivered a big and brassy number to give her lesser character a chance to shine.

SAVE SOME THINGS FOR A RAINY DAY
The Shermans wrote 32 songs for possible inclusion in Mary Poppins, but only 14 were used when Walt declared the rest "unnecessary" for the story. Some were repurposed in later Disney features including Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Jungle Book.

CLOSE THE DOOR
The Sherman brothers avoided distractions like the plague. When it was time to write, they shut out the world around them to concentrate on the project at hand. 

In everything they wrote, Richard and Robert believed that story always comes first. By adopting that same focus, we can give our writing a little extra magic that is practically perfect in every way.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Plug Thy Neighbor

by Gary Fearon

If the golden rule of writing is to do unto other writers as you would have them do unto you, that's a pretty easy assignment.  It could be summed up thusly: good will, good wishes, and a good plug.

The majority of authors are expected to do most, if not all, of their own publicity.  So it's a helpful shot in the arm when a fellow author offers their endorsement. When someone says, "So-and-so's new mystery is a page-turner I stayed up all last night to read," that's a convincing testimonial.
We all spend time propping up our platforms, building our branding, and staying savvy with social media.  We sometimes ...


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Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Sgt. Pepper Can Teach Writers

by Gary Fearon


It was fifty years ago this week that The Beatles released the album that made the music world's head spin. Sgt. Pepper may have "taught the band to play", but he also provided some teachable moments for writers.

A little friendly competition can be a good thing
Wordsmiths readily draw inspiration from other wordsmiths. The Beatles' Rubber Soul album (1965) motivated The Beach Boy's Brian Wilson to create their most ambitious album, Pet Sounds (1966). Then, after hearing Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney set out to create ...


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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Unfinished Business

by Gary Fearon

Having recently attended the funeral of a former professor, a writer friend was exhibiting a more philosophical side of himself than I usually get to see.  His contemplations led us to the question:

If you knew you had only a year to live, how would you spend it?


I think most of us would share some of the same answers.  We'd make sure our affairs were in order. We'd express our love and thanks to the people who've meant something to us.  We may travel to some place we've always wanted to go.

I'd like to take that question a step further and ask:

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

That Oscar Feeling!

by Gary Fearon

For my money, there is no greater example of artistic collaboration than movies.  Where else do writing, music, acting, directing, choreography, cinematography, set design, editing, etc all come together as one? The exhaustive list of credits at the end of any feature film catalogs hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who all contributed to the project in a significant way.

Of course, it all begins with a story.  When the Academy Award nominations are announced each year, it's an interesting exercise to look into the written origins of each Best Picture nominee.  In alphabetical order, here are the ones that made the grade for the February 26, 2017 telecast:

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Monday, February 6, 2017

The Other Faces of Conflict

by Gary Fearon

When we think of antagonists from literature, we typically think of the classic villains like Captain Hook, Injun Joe, The Wicked Witch of the West, Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, and the other memorable personifications of evil.  But there are many other faces of conflict not of the human variety that can be put to good use in a story.

Many children's books choose not to pit the hero against another person.  Instead, the dilemma comes from a small difficulty that can be turned into a problem-solving life lesson.  A terrific example is Pete the Cat, who loves his white shoes. When he steps in strawberries that turn his shoes red, what follows is a simple but brilliant story about learning to accept and love yourself, cleverly disguised as a tale about shoes.

Even as adults, conflict in story teaches us to deal with life, each dilemma in its own small way representing the eternal struggle.  A problem is a problem, no matter what form it takes.  Here, then, are some classic inhuman antagonists:

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Famous Songs Inspired by Real People

by Gary Fearon

A couple of years ago on the blog, in a post called Songs in the Key of Life, I chronicled some famous songs whose inspiration came from real-life situations in the writers' lives.  In this post, let's look at a few hits that were inspired by real people, some as well-known as the songs themselves.  I suspect you'll know several of these origins already, but some may surprise you.

This one goes back a ways, but 60s songster Jimmy Dean's claim to fame (long before he became a sausage king) was story songs about people, some imaginary, some drawn from life. While "Big Bad John" was fictional folklore, "P.T. 109" celebrated the heroic Navy background of...