Megan Woodward, Author-Episode #301

Jun 25, 2024 | 0 comments

“…learning how to take what I did in screenwriting and put it in picture books…it’s such a similar media, really, with the pictures and the visuals…having to have those work well together and the magic that happens between those two things.”
~Megan Woodward

The author, ghostwriter, copywriter, and freelance editor, Megan Woodward recently published her beautifully written and illustrated debut picture book, This Book is Definitely Not Cursed, which is published by Simon and Schuster. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, Jake Maddox Dance, Gymnastics, and Cheerleading Jokes.

Megan specializes in all things humorous and finds no greater joy than making kids laugh. She’s also a produced comedy screenwriter and the scriptwriter for the Chicago Thanksgiving Parade.

Megan holds an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, where, for the record, Megan she I met while in school together.

When she’s not writing, or procrastinating from writing, you can find her cooking, hiking, singing, laughing or working part time at a children’s bookstore called Green Bean Books.

For all those reasons and many more, I’m so very happy to welcome to StoryBeat today my friend, the very funny writer, Megan Woodward. Megan, welcome to the show…




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Megan Woodward: Going from screenwriting. And then learning how to take what I did in screenwriting and put it in picture books. It’s such a similar media, really, with the pictures and the visuals and, like, having to have those work well together and the magic that happens between those two things. Whereas a novel, it’s, you know, everything’s all in your head, but you have to really just tell the story through prose and dialogue, simply. And it’s very hard to do. Most picture books, they want to be around 500 words or under, which is really hard.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden. A podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us, as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and Entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Well, I’m truly delighted to speak with the author, ghostwriter, copywriter, and freelance editor Megan Woodward. She holds an mfa in screenwriting from UCLA, where, for the record, Megan and I met while in school together. Her beautifully written and, illustrated debut picture book, This Book is Definitely Not Cursed is published by Simon and Schuster. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book  Jake Maddox Dance, Gymnastics, and Cheerleading Jokes.  Megan specializes in all things humorous and finds no greater joy than making kids laugh. She’s also a produced comedy screenwriter and the scriptwriter for the Chicago Thanksgiving Parade. When she’s not writing or procrastinating from writing, you can find her cooking, hiking, singing, laughing, or working part time at a children’s bookstore called Green Bean Books. So for all those reasons and many more, I am so very happy to welcome to StoryBeat today my friend, the very funny writer Megan Woodward. Megan, welcome to the show.

Megan Woodward: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Steve Cuden: so let’s go back in time a little bit. At what age were you when you first thought to yourself, you know, I like this thing called show business, and entertaining and making people laugh. When did that start for you?

Megan Woodward: As a child, I loved performing. I loved being on stage. I wanted to be an actor for a while. and I did a lot of writing as a kid as well. But for some reason, that never occurred to me to foresee that as a career.

Steve Cuden: You didn’t think you could make money at it?

Megan Woodward: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. It just wasn’t something that I considered until I got into college and I took a screenwriting class. So it kind of just occurred to me that, oh, yeah, somebody writes these movies and that’s something I would like doing.

Steve Cuden: You mean the actors weren’t just making it up?

Megan Woodward: Yeah, maybe that’s what I thought. I’m not sure.

Steve Cuden: This is when you were a kid, you were doing some funny things, you were writing stuff, but you weren’t considering it as a professional track.

Megan Woodward: No, I always wanted to be a chef or a dancer or an actor. Those were, like, my main things. And then in high school, I kind of was interested in film. I went to film school in Undergrad and with, I think, the intention of directing or. I wasn’t really sure what type of role I wanted to play, but I knew that that’s was something I was interested in and that I really liked movies. I was like, I’m going to be a film major. And then, yeah. And then I took a screenwriting class and I was like, oh, this is the thing that really I love to do.

Steve Cuden: What were the movies early on that you really liked? And thought, this is the kind of thing I want to do.

Megan Woodward: When I was a child, as bit of a strange child, I watched a lot of black and white movies. And, one of my favorite movies still to this day is bringing up baby. But I used to watch that a lot as a kid, and the dialogue was what I really I loved. And in those movies, a lot of those movies were just the banter back and forth was amazing, and I wanted to do that. I was like, I want to write banter like that. Like hilarious back and forth. And while a lot of people, I think, get into movies because they love the action or the StoryBeat, I really loved the talking. I loved talking movies like, where people just talked.

Steve Cuden: So that movie begat my favorite comedy of all time, which is, what’s up, doc?

Megan Woodward: Okay. Also a great movie.

Steve Cuden: I love. Also full of banter, but also full of incredible action, which is why I love it so much.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: You’ve seen that movie, obviously.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: And you know how much Peter Bogdanovich was relying on Howard Hawkes and bringing up baby to make what’s up talked.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. Yeah. All of those movies just have a special place in my heart. The kind of slapstick comedy and the clever dialogue. Just all of that.

Steve Cuden: Indeed. So have you always then thought of yourself as some kind of a person who tells stories, a storyteller?

Megan Woodward: Yes, definitely. And as a kid, I look back now and I was writing, like, a novel when I was, like, seven, and I was always writing stories. And in school that was my favorite thing to do. But I think in part, it’s at a certain point, and you get into junior high or high school, and really creative writing becomes a thing that you don’t do anymore. You just write essays. And, while I was good at that and still liked that to some degree, it wasn’t the kind of writing that I loved. So I think I maybe forgot that writing was a joy and that storytelling was something I enjoyed for a period of time until I found it again.

Steve Cuden: Do you think that school then, as you were growing up, was sort of kicking the joy of writing out of you, then you had to find it again?

Megan Woodward: Yeah, I would say so, and I think that’s really sad, but I think it’s definitely true. Yeah. Because I don’t remember doing much creative writing in junior high or high school, with the exception of, like, one high school teacher I had in boarding school asked us to do a creative writing assignment, and I remember writing that and feeling really good about the thing that I had written and just feeling like, hey, this is something I’m good at. And then again, nobody asked me to do it again for a really long time, so forgot. So, yeah, it’s something that kept coming up, but I didn’t really find the way I wanted to tell stories until I was in college.

Steve Cuden: So I want to ask you an opinion. You say that you love all things humorous, that you specialize in things that are humorous. I’m wondering. I’ve never asked anyone this question before. Do you think there’s a difference or a distinction between humor and what is known as comedy, or are they virtually the same thing?

Megan Woodward: m that’s a question I not really thought of. I would, yeah, I think comedy overall is a, is a genre, so, like, it’s what we categorize as, you know, things that we consider funny, but humor, I would. When I think of humor, I think of it as a very subjective thing. Everybody’s humor is different. While we may classify a movie as a comedy, the humor in it may not be for everybody. You know, that’s a comedy that some people like and some people don’t. Humor, to me, I guess, is more personal. It’s like what you find personally funny.

Steve Cuden: I ask, because it dawned on me as I was preparing to talk to you, that there are people that we call humorists and there are people that we call comedians, and they’re kind of different in a way. They’re both saying things or doing things or writing things that are amusing in some way and funny, but I think of a humorist as someone who maybe you don’t laugh out loud at, but you find very amusing in some way.

Megan Woodward: That’s it. Yeah. I don’t think that I’m laugh out loud funny when I’m talking. I can’t think of jokes, like, on the spot. If anyone put something on the spot, I’m like, I can’t remember a single joke. My brother’s very good at that. Very good at remembering specific jokes, and I cannot, you ask me jokes, and I’m like, I don’t know, but I wrote a whole joke book. Like, I sat down and wrote it, but I had to think. So I think that for me, I’m, A lot of people are just naturally funny, and they’re funny when they talk and they’re funny. Their personality is naturally funny. But I’m a funny writer, which is a different kind of funny. And I think sometimes people expect me to be funny in person.

Steve Cuden: The great interesting part about this is that the business of comedy, for you is serious.

Megan Woodward: It is. It’s very serious sometimes.

Steve Cuden: The truth is, if you’re going to write comedy, play comedy, be a comedian, it’s actually hard work and serious business. It’s not. Some people, they can throw it off and toss it off, but most people have to work at it.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. Comedy writers, when they’re writing a script or a, novel or anything, you not only have to do the regular things that everybody else has to do, the plot, the characters, you have to have the StoryBeat structure and the character character arc, and it has to be a good StoryBeat and have all the drama and conflict that everything else does. But on top of that, you also have to add humor and jokes. So it is kind of like you’re doing an extra level of something that many other people are not.

Steve Cuden: Are there kinds of stories that you tend to avoid because you can’t see your way into making them funny?

Megan Woodward: I would say that I naturally come up with funnier ideas. so I don’t really try to avoid serious stuff, but I am hired to write. So I’m currently actually rewriting a medical drama pilot for somebody, for adults. Yes. Yes. Because, I do lots of freelance work, so I pick up random things, but that is definitely not something I would write on my own. I can do it. I understand how to do it. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I’m capable of doing it. There might be jokes that wind their way in there.

Steve Cuden: I mean, there are obviously subjects that are not terribly funny on the surface. I mean, if you’re going to talk about people being ill or war, those kinds of things, they tend not to be terribly funny on the surface, but occasionally somebody comes along and writes something that’s funny on those topics. But speaking of funny, let’s talk for a moment about this book is definitely not cursed, which you recently published. Obviously, you have an MFA in screenwriting, and you’ve written screenplays and you’ve written scripts, but now you’re a published book author, and it’s a kid’s book.

Megan Woodward: Yes, yes. So the idea for that just kind of came from, I was reading a lot of books to my kid, and I was writing picture books at this time. I had written a whole bunch of them and just hadn’t managed to sell any and, you know, humorous to some degree. But this was the first one that was really meta and kind of interactive in a way that gets the kids to do things and gets them to kind of interact with the StoryBeat, and the book speaks to them, and you open it and you’re cursed, and then it tells you what’s going to happen when you read the book and you’re cursed and all the different things that the curse is going to cause. And then, it tells you what you have to do to reverse the curse, and then you have to do all these silly steps. So that was the first one. I kind of like that.

Steve Cuden: So where did the idea initially come from to do a book about being cursed?

Megan Woodward: So my son at the time was really, well, he still is. He really likes spooky stuff. And somehow we, I don’t really remember how the conversation got started. We started talking about curses and different things that can be cursed. And I, at the time, I was also trying to write a picture book that was kind of interactive because I had read BJ Novak’s the book with no pictures. I don’t know if you know this picture book, but kids love it. And my son used to want me to read it over and over and over again. And I was like, it’d be great if there was another book like this, so I didn’t have to read this one over and over and over again. So I was like, I can write one. I can write one of these books. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be about. So that was kind of in the back of my head. And then the conversation about curses happened, and those two things kind of just merged in my brain, and I was like a, book that’s cursed, and then it curses you when you open it.

Steve Cuden: Let’s talk about how one writes a picture book. Because I have not talked to anyone on this show before about picture books, which is a very big part of the publishing industry, especially in the children’s end of things. So when you’re writing it, are you dictating on paper what the pictures should look like?

Megan Woodward: So a little bit. And then this was an adjustment from writing screenplays, but also kind of a natural progression into a different type of writing because it is similar in that you are writing something that somebody else will put the visuals to. And that’s not true of all picture book writers, obviously. many of them also illustrate. But as a picture book writer who only writes text, to me, that was very similar to writing screenplay. I was like, here’s this thing I’m going to create for somebody else to like, then complete with the visual. So you do kind of set it up that way. But I had to learn very quickly that most editors and agents do not like you to put very many illustration descriptions. And I still put more than I probably should. But a lot of them is for humor effect, because I want to write some. You know, if you want to contradict what’s in the picture, that’s part of the humor. You know, you say something and then the picture shows something else. There’s a joke in there. Often that’s kind of what I had to learn to do is just to minimalize that illustration description to just be. When it’s completely necessary for a joke. Or like when you don’t know what, what’s going on if the picture isn’t there. But you have to really just tell the StoryBeat through prose and dialogue, simply. And it’s very hard to do because it’s very sparse. Most picture books, they want to be around 500 words or under, which is hard.

Steve Cuden: That’s tiny, that’s really short.

Megan Woodward: It’s really hard. and when I first started writing picture books, actually, anyone who writes picture books would laugh at this because I had no idea what I was doing. And first one I wrote was 1400 words and rhyming, which rhyming is okay, but you have to make the rhyme perfect. And rhyme is a really hard sell unless it’s perfect. And so this 1400 word picture book without perfect rhyme was a mess. I was like, sending that out to agents, like querying them. and I’m just embarrassed now that I, that I did that.

Steve Cuden: Well, anybody writing in rhyme is going to be held up against Doctor Seuss.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, exactly. And I was a huge doctor Seuss fan. So that’s partly why I think I wanted to do that. I had it in my head I was going to write like Doctor Seuss. But anyways, it was a progress of learning, you know, kind of going from screenwriting and then learning how to take what I did in screenwriting and put it in picture books.

Steve Cuden: What do you mean? Explain that.

Megan Woodward: So I wrote a blog about this recently, but I think that it’s such a similar media, really, because, like I said, with the pictures and the visuals and having to have those work well together and the magic that happens between those two things, whereas a novel, everything’s all in your head, you’re imagining all the visuals, but you really have to work with that. So it’s being sparse in your words is also similar to screenwriting. But I took all of these screenwriting things that I had learned at, UCLA and ah, all of the StoryBeat beats and everything. And I usually try to apply that to a picture book. And I would say the one that I’ve published this book is definitely not cursed, probably is the exception to that rule, because it’s not a typical narrative. but the rest of them that are more traditional narrative type stories with a character and a character arc definitely follow. I try to follow that inciting incident and then I m follow some of the same beats. So I think actually having the screenwriting background was very helpful.

Steve Cuden: Well, I’ve read your book at least three times, and it’s not real long. Like you say, it’s 500 words, and, I don’t know what it is, 30 or 40 pages of pictures. And so it’s easy to read for, obviously, for an adult, it’s easy for me to read, but it’s lots of fun because there are things in it you’re not expecting. For instance, where in the world did you come up with the name cluster crump McTooty boots?

Megan Woodward: I don’t know. Being around kids, they love silly words and they’re constantly saying silly things. And so I was like, and what are some funny words? And I’m just gonna put them together, smash them together into a name. And also I had Fred Rubin in my head from UCLA going hard. C’s are funnier. I don’t know, I’m still like, that was a lesson that he taught in one of his, pilot writing classes. And I still use that. I’m like, if I need, the end of a line to be funnier, the end of a joke to be funnier. I’m also often like, what’s a word that begins with c or ends in c, hard c sound, because he said it was funnier, and I find that it’s actually true. So originally, I had celery as the thing that was all your food would taste like, and I changed it to cabbage. And I actually think cabbage is way funnier, partly because of the hard sea, I think. I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s funnier, but it is.

Steve Cuden: Well, shout out to Fred, who’s also been on this show, and one of the great, wonderful human beings who’s ever been in show business. That is a, for certain.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. Do you remember that lesson that he taught about the hard sea?

Steve Cuden: You know what? The truth is, I never took any of Fred’s classes.

Megan Woodward: Oh.

Steve Cuden: But I became friendly with him, and he’s a really wonderful human. I’m wondering, did you have an illustrator in mind before you started to write it, or did they assign it you, or how did you find your illustrator?

Megan Woodward: So, no, in picture book publishing, they definitely do not want you. That’s actually a very big no no for you to find your own illustrator. unless you are the illustrator, you should never pair with somebody. You should never get it illustrated. That the publisher wants to find an illustrator. It’s like, think of it like a producer or director of a movie. They want to be in charge of that. They don’t want the writer to be like, here’s what you know, that’s not, that’s not your job. So it’s kind of the same thing as the publisher, and they are good at it because they know, they know many illustrators, they’ve worked with them, and they know who would be good for what book. And so they have a lot of skill in finding an illustrator and pairing with an illustrator. So they did, they asked me a little bit. They did get my input, but it was sort of like, they provided one illustrator, and they were like, what do you think? And I was sort of like, yes. Because I didn’t have anyone in mind, and I was like, what was I going to say? And also, she seemed great.

Steve Cuden: So how do you pronounce her name? Is it Risa?

Megan Woodward: Risa Rodill. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Risa Rodill. She’s very creative in the way that she does the pictures.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. So she’s, also, like, really known for her lettering, which is partly why the publisher chose her, because they wanted a lot of the book is so much not based on illustrations and actually the words that they wanted fun lettering to the words that I wrote so they wanted, like, these big, bright fonts and stuff.

Steve Cuden: Did you interact with her through the process or were you completely separate?

Megan Woodward: I did quite a bit, and I had heard that other people did not have any input, so I was really thankful that they involved me a lot in the process and that my editor got me, you know, sent her work to me and asked my opinion. was really nice. So, yeah, even some of the earlier sketches, the character sketches of the narrator, she did, like, four or five, and then I was allowed to, like, pick one that was my favorite. And then, you know, several times they sent the art to me to just give feedback. And actually, she had completed final art on, on most of it. And I had a big note that I didn’t like, and I was really scared to say something because I felt bad because she had almost. She’d almost completed it. And I was like, is this going to be a really big pain for her to go back through and fix this on every page? And finally, I was like, if I don’t say something, I’m going to regret it. I just, I feel like I need to say something. And so I did. And they were so nice. And the, and she was so nice about doing it. She was like, oh, yeah, no problem. It was like, I don’t know, because everything’s done, you know, digitally. A lot of people, like, most artists work digitally. So she was like, it was a layer she had to remove or something. So it ended up hopefully not being too hard for her. But, yeah, I was really relieved that I had the guts to ask for what I wanted.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s interesting, you know, I, over my career, I wrote 90 cartoons for kids. So that’s the animation world. When you write a script in animation, you are describing what you think the action will be in the shot. You frequently don’t describe the detail of it other than what’s happening, but not the detail of it. And it sounds a little similar, though. A bit different in terms of kids picture books. Is that. Would you agree with that?

Megan Woodward: Yes. Yes. I mean, they really want you to leave a lot of it up to the illustrator. And, that’s part of, like, not putting too many illustration notes in because they want the illustrator to have creative freedom to also put their stamp on the book and their input. So, yeah, it is. It is releasing a lot of that to the illustrator, but providing a StoryBeat there that, you know, the best picture book texts are the ones that, like, as soon as an illustrator reads it, they can imagine stuff they can visualize in their head. And also, when an agent or an editor, anyone, is reading it, you want to write a StoryBeat that, like, people are like, oh, I can see this, I can visualize it. And if you’ve done that, then you’ve done a really good job. So. But it’s hard. It is hard to do.

Steve Cuden: Oh, no doubt. And frequently, what you’re thinking and what you write sometimes are translated into m images different than what you were thinking and writing. And so there’s that crossover sometimes that doesn’t work out and you kind of have to have that conversation. It sounds like things worked out really well in your case. Was there anything you think you did in the writing of the book, in the creation of the character and the StoryBeat of it and what the character is saying? Is there anything you think you did right that got it published?

Megan Woodward: I think just the general humor that the, the finished book that you’ve read. Yeah, it changed a little bit from the beginning. Mainly, I edited the words down quite a bit, so it was shorter and simplified and just easier to read. But a lot of that humor, that kind of cheeky, irreverent style was there from the beginning. And so I think that was unique. So I think that some of that humor, some of the, like symptoms of the curse where you try to lick your elbow, you know, which is obviously impossible to do. But, yeah, I think a lot of that kind of stuff. And the idea, the concept, I think I tend to write very high concept things.

Steve Cuden: What do you mean? Quiet concept? What does that mean?

Megan Woodward: High concept? Sorry.

Steve Cuden: Oh, high concept.

Megan Woodward: So it’s like that. That’s easy to describe. You know what I mean? Like a book that’s cursed and or tells you it’s not cursed, but then you open it and it’s cursed, and you have to do things to reverse the curse. It’s just a very easy and simple concept for anyone to talk about.

Steve Cuden: So did you test it out on anyone?

Megan Woodward: I did, yeah. I tested it out on my son, obviously, who thought it was hilarious. And I also sent it to a friend of mine who has a kid about my son’s age as well, and he gave feedback, which was really cute. And, my son was sort of just like, oh, it’s funny. And, like, didn’t have anything to say. But my friend’s son actually had feedback, which is amazing. He said that also why I changed it from celery. He didn’t understand why celery was so, disgusting, because he really likes celery.

Steve Cuden: But doesn’t like cabbage.

Megan Woodward: I’ll bet so, yeah, so I was, like, trying to think of something that I’m like, oh, actually, that makes sense. Celery is actually kind of a kid friendly food. You know what I mean? A lot of kids eat celery and peanut butter or whatever. So I was like, what’s kind of a more obscure food that a lot of kids may not eat? And even adults, even though I like cabbage, I wouldn’t want all my food to taste like cabbage. No, that’s horrible. That’s a terrible idea. and I think it sounds worse than celery. And again, maybe the hard c is also contributing to that.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think what makes the book work in a large way is what you were alluding to earlier, that the storytelling is counterintuitive to what you’re saying, and that contradiction within the StoryBeat itself is what makes it very funny to read.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: And I assume that was very intentional on your part.

Megan Woodward: Yes, yes, very much so. And, you know, the kind of reverse psychology of, like, don’t turn another page. And, you know, it’s very much. Kids want to do things that they’re not supposed to do.

Steve Cuden: They want to rebel.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So now you’re going to publish a book called Jake’s Dance Gymnastics and cheerleading jokes. What’s that?

Megan Woodward: So that was more. That was, like, something. I got hired. That was a work for hire job, but I think it’s funny, so I like to include it because it’s so random. But, yeah, that was. I got hired to write a book of dance jokes, and I was just applying for work for hire jobs from, like, various education publishers, and Capstone wrote me back, and they were like, oh, you’re a comedy writer. Like, do you want to write a joke book? And I was like, sure. And they were like, well, we have this sports series of joke books. And they were like, would you write a sports joke book? And I was like, I don’t know much about sports. And they were like, well, what about dance? And I was like, yes, I can do that.

Steve Cuden: So you found your milieu within joke books.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. Although I will say that I knew nothing about cheerleading or gymnastics.

Steve Cuden: Did you have to do a lot of research then a little bit just.

Megan Woodward: To, like, find kind of glossary in a term, like, different terms to, like, kind of use to make jokes out of, because I was like, I don’t know, many gymnastics terms or many cheerleading terms.

Steve Cuden: So how do you construct a joke out of something you don’t know much about?

Megan Woodward: Yeah, you just read what the thing is, and then I don’t know, it’s most of, it’s most of the jokes. When you’re writing jokes, a lot of it’s just plays on words and puns and stuff. So you just play around with the word and try to figure out how to use it in a pun, you know.

Steve Cuden: Is this for what age group?

Megan Woodward: I’m not sure, actually.

Steve Cuden: I think that is it under ten.

Megan Woodward: Maybe like seven to eight to twelve, something like that.

Steve Cuden: And so you’re writing jokes that are a little bit silly and a little bit punny.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Would you say that they’re what we now call dad jokes? Those kinds of jokes?

Megan Woodward: Oh, yes, definitely. I don’t like to refer to as dad jokes because I kind of think it’s really sexist. And I’m like, moms are funny too. So I just, you know. Yeah, cheesy parent jokes, I guess.

Steve Cuden: Oh, I can tell you firsthand, moms are hilarious.

Megan Woodward: So I’m always saying ridiculous puns to my kid and he just rolls, rolls his eyes at me like, oh God.

Steve Cuden: he has to be. Your first test is you probably say a joke to him and if you get a reaction, a good reaction, you know, you’re onto something.

Megan Woodward: Yes. And it’s really cute because now he does it too. I noticed that he’ll, he’ll come out with like, he tries really hard to be like. And then he’ll be like, get it? You know, afterwards he’ll be like, get it? He’ll explain it to me. I’m like, you don’t explain the joke. It’s funny if you don’t explain it.

Steve Cuden: It’s definitely funnier if you do not have to explain the joke. Well. So how long did it take you to write that many jokes? Is it also 500 words or less? Is it a picture book?

Megan Woodward: I don’t know how many words it was, but it was 250 jokes.

Steve Cuden: Oh, they gave you a specific number of jokes to hit?

Megan Woodward: Yes.

Steve Cuden: And is it also a picture book?

Megan Woodward: It’ll have a few pictures, but no, it’s just going to be like a joke book with, I don’t know, this would be like one of those paperback ones that has mostly jokes, but then a picture every page or two.

Steve Cuden: It doesn’t also have things for them to do in it like crossword puzzles or drawing or anything like that.

Megan Woodward: Nope, just jokes.

Steve Cuden: Just jokes.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: And this is part of a series of books of jokes.

Megan Woodward: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: And this particular one, they just wanted to focus on dance, gymnastics and cheerleading.

Megan Woodward: Yes. It’s a series called Jake Maddox. So Capstone was a publisher, and then they have, like, different ip works. And, so Jake Maddox sports series is, like, one of their intellectual properties. And I think they have ones that are, like, stories about sports and then maybe sports facts. They have different kind of series under that Jake Maddox category. So their newest one was a joke book series, and those are all sports jokes. So they have, like, a soccer joke book, a baseball joke book. Like, every sport has its kind of own book. And then, yeah, they were like, do you want to write a baseball one? And I was like, I could try. I actually played softball. so I was like, that was when I was like, oh, I can maybe try that. But then they were like, oh, well, how about a dance one? And I was like, that might be better. I’ll do that.

Steve Cuden: And I have to imagine, for that particular age group that you’re writing for, you have to be careful to stay away from adult topics. Certain innuendo, sexual things, things like that.

Megan Woodward: Ida had a twerking joke in there that was like, somehow I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was a thanksgiving. What, ah, do dancers eat for thanksgiving or something? And it was like, twerky. I don’t remember. It was something like that. And they were like, you have to take that out.

Steve Cuden: You can’t have twerky in a kid’s book.

Megan Woodward: It was not appropriate, I guess. I was like, I didn’t think twerking was bad. It’s a dance move. But they were like, no.

Steve Cuden: So did you have to write a lot more than 250 jokes and have them cut things out?

Megan Woodward: I did. I think I wrote maybe, 20 more or something. I did. I wrote more than they asked for. And I was like, just tell me the ones you want me to cut. And I did. Some of them were also just really bad. I was like, this is terrible. And it’s a very big strategy.

Steve Cuden: So you don’t have an editor on these books. They tell you what to put in and out, and you don’t have anyone editing the book for you, for the joke book.

Megan Woodward: The editor was the one who hired me, and then he edited it. he was the one who, you know, went through and was like, he marked the jokes that I was like, this. He was like, this one needs improvement. Or, like, I don’t understand. Or, like, ones that just didn’t. Weren’t working or ones that he felt were inappropriate for a kid’s book. So, yeah, there was a lot of, like, him going through and just, you know, figuring out which ones were better. And then getting back to me, is.

Steve Cuden: This someone you had worked with before, or was it a first time?

Megan Woodward: That was the first time, yeah. And then my editor on the, this book is definitely not cursed. She was very involved, and, like, even before really agreeing to the contract, she had certain edits that she wanted and she wanted me to agree to before she agreed to buy it. She was like, I want to change these things. Are you okay with that? And I had to be like, either say yes or, you know, decide to go somewhere else with it, so. But, I liked her ideas, and I thought they were smart, and so I was like, yes, absolutely. Like, I can change those things.

Steve Cuden: So what have you learned along the way in the process of dealing with a publisher, an editor, whatever you’re dealing with, whoever you’re dealing with, are there things that you do now differently in the process that make it easier for you that you did not know early on and had to learn?

Megan Woodward: I mean, I think overall, just like writing many picture books, I don’t know if, like, my interactions with editors and publishers have really changed the way I write.

Steve Cuden: So your approach is the same in dealing with them or whoever you’re dealing with. Nothing has shifted in that. You just are doing what you do.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, yeah. And I think, like, a lot of that also comes from a screenwriting background. And having worked with producers and gotten notes, like, I knew how that went, and I’m very good at, you know, from that, from coming from a screenwriting background, you know, taking somebody’s notes and being like, okay, yeah, I can work with that. And I think a lot of people do struggle with that if they hadn’t done that before, because that’s hard.

Steve Cuden: I ask lots of guests about the notion of giving notes and taking notes because notes is a huge part of the process of being a writer. It’s frankly, a big part of the process of any kind of creative work and many other kinds of work as well. But in writing in particular, if you’re going to get published or produced, you’re going to get notes. There’s no question about it. with maybe really rare exceptions is your attitude toward notes, to take the notes. Do you have a particular take on what you do as a writer?

Megan Woodward: I always just, I’m really open minded when it comes to notes.

Steve Cuden: You’re willing to take them, you take the note.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, I think that it’s important to at least give them a try. A lot of the time, I’m very open to being like, yeah, I’ll try that. And if it’s not working, I can then be like, I don’t think this is working. or a lot of what people say, and I think this is very true. It’s the note behind the note. So when somebody gives me a note and I’m like, okay, I don’t agree with that exact note, but I think that the thing that’s the problem is something slightly close to that. And I know what the fix is. Or like, I have an idea, ah, that might fix that note that you gave me, but isn’t that exact thing?

Steve Cuden: So you’re trying to read through the basic note to figure out what you think they think the problem is.

Steve Cuden: Even though they’re not expressing it.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, sometimes people don’t know, they’re like, like, there’s something wrong here, and they say it’s something else, when in fact I’m like, no, it’s actually, it’s a character problem or it’s something else entirely. So, yeah, so I think sometimes you just have to be like, okay, I’m hearing what you say and I’m going to listen to that and then figure out exactly what I need to do to make sure that you’re not tripping over that part of the StoryBeat.

Steve Cuden: I imagine that when you’re on work for hire or when somebody’s giving you money, that kind of thing, that you tend to listen to their notes a little more carefully.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. And, a lot of the work I’d done, I’ve done, especially in screenwriting, has been more work for hire type things where people hired me to do stuff. So I’m, very used to being like, okay, yeah, sure, I’ll do that. and when I disagree with something, I say it, though.

Steve Cuden: Is there a smart way for a writer to disagree and not be disagreeable?

Megan Woodward: I think just be nice to people.

Steve Cuden: When you respond, oh, that’s too easy. That’s too easy.

Megan Woodward: You know, always the compliment sandwich. I really like what you’re saying here. You know, like, start out nice, but I disagree with this part of it. and here’s another suggestion, you know, like sandwich. It would be to things that are.

Steve Cuden: Like, seem agreeable, but you said something key in there. You give them another suggestion. You don’t wait for them to solve the problem for you.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, I think nobody wants to hear, I don’t like your idea, but I don’t have another one. That’s not a fun thing. No editor wants to be like, oh, yeah, here’s a problem. And then have their writer be like, yeah, you’re wrong, and then not return with anything you want to be like, okay, I see what you’re saying. And here’s another thought that might fix that problem. Like, if you come to the table with something, it’s hard for them to dislike that or be angry at you. You’re coming up with something to help solve the problem. So as long as you have some kind of solution, even if it isn’t the one they thought of, I think most editors are usually happy with that.

Steve Cuden: so of all the things you’ve written, how does one write a Thanksgiving parade?

Megan Woodward: That is, again, as a random freelance job that I got, and now I think I’m going to be doing it every year. They really liked what I did, and it’s just, it’s a lot of, like, describing the different acts coming out, the different, dance groups or, you know, bands, and then finding also, like, some humor in there, putting some puns or some, like, cheesy jokes for the telecasters, the people who are, you know, hosting.

Steve Cuden: The parade, to say, so you’re not writing the creation of the parade, you’re writing what the telecasters are saying. The hosts of the show.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, the hosts. yeah, like, all of their kind of dialogue, their jokes, and just like, also taking. Because what happens in the parade, apparently, which I knew nothing about parades before I started doing this, but, like, all of the different units that they have will send them information about themselves, or at least this is how it works in the Chicago Thanksgiving parade. But they send them like, a bunch of, like, bio information. And some of it’s, you know, it’s not well written or it’s kind of a mess, or there’s too much information. It’s boring, whatever. You know what I mean? They provide, like, so many different facts. So it’s like parsing that down and figuring out, what do people really want to hear about this group? You know, what’s the most interesting thing, and how do I word it? In a way that is concise and easy to listen to and easy to say because they don’t want to read this long paragraph about each group.

Steve Cuden: I think many people would be surprised to know that the hosts are not just off the cuff talking about what they’re looking at. It’s actually scripted.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. To be fair to the host, they do do some ad libbing. They often come up with their own little quips or their own jokes, and as people who are professionals do, and sometimes their stuff is better than what I wrote. I’m not going to lie. Sometimes I’m like, oh, wow, I wish I’d thought of that. But a lot of the times, they need something to go off of. They need some ideas or something fun to say, because it’s hard to think of things in the moment when you’re talking about things. And if you don’t have something scripted to read or to memorize, yeah, they would be a mess.

Steve Cuden: So what do the producers of that show do? They send you images of what you’re going to be writing about, or how do they do it?

Megan Woodward: They send me this huge document full of. And it’s very well organized. Every group is, like, on this spreadsheet where they have, like, the name of the group and then where they’re from, and then, you know, all their information, linked to their website, a link to a video of them online, and then, like, a bio that they’re, like, some information that they’ve been required to provide about their group, or their performance or whatever. And so then I just take all of that and figure out what I want to take out of it and write into a script format. So I have, like, one person say one line, and then the next person say another. That’s kind of like, feels like banter, like they’re discussing it back and forth, but also getting out information.

Steve Cuden: You’re really writing a script for them to talk.

Megan Woodward: Do it in final draft and everything.

Steve Cuden: Do you ever find that they don’t deliver it the way that you were expecting?

Megan Woodward: Oh, yeah, yeah. And sometimes I watch. A couple times I watched it, I was like, oh, man, they didn’t say that. Really good joke, but I think a lot of it, they don’t have time. It doesn’t always the time. It’s hard to know how much time that they’re gonna exactly have in a, live parade. Things don’t always go exactly as planned, so sometimes they have to cut things or, like, not say things, but I’m always a little bit disappointed when I’m like, oh, that was a really fun one they left out.

Steve Cuden: All right, so last area to talk about is ghost writing. Are you able to talk about what you’ve ghostwritten, or are you not able to talk about it?

Megan Woodward: No, I can talk about it. It’s just various things, like some children’s book stuff. I work through, a freelance site called upwork. So all kinds of people are on there looking for writing, and a lot of it is terrible. I’ve seen people asking somebody to ghost write a novel for them for, like, $500. And I’m like, what do you think people work for, like, a cent an hour? Like, what is going through your head? How long do you think it takes to write a novel?

Steve Cuden: Well, haven’t you had anybody ever come up to you and they ask you what you do, and you say you’re a writer, and they say to you, I’ve got this great idea, and all you have to do is write it for me.

Megan Woodward: All you have to do is write it. That’s the easy part, right? Like, the idea is the hard part.

Steve Cuden: That’s the opposite of reality. The idea is the easy part. The execution is the difficult part.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, some of it is, absolutely. You have to dredge through it. But now I’m at the point where, like, people are contacting me. When I first started on the freelance site, I had to search for jobs, but now I’m getting a lot of job proposals sent to me, asking me to do stuff, and some of which are great, some of which are still terrible. I got one the other day that was like ghost writing chapter books and early readers, and I forget what the pay was, but I think I calculated in my head that it would end up to, like, a dollar an hour or something. Ridiculous.

Steve Cuden: And aren’t you worth that?

Megan Woodward: It was like, $50 per book that they wanted, like, 10,000 words or something. And I was like, I just, this is insane.

Steve Cuden: Well, writers are unfortunately not thought of with great deal of respect most of the time.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, I know.

Steve Cuden: If you’re famous writer, yes. But if you’re not a famous writer, almost dead. Any level, people just don’t want to respect that. They think that there’s nothing to it. All you got to do is sit down with your computer, and you can just churn this stuff out. Right?

Megan Woodward: Yep.

Steve Cuden: Well, you can’t. It’s harder to do than you think.

Megan Woodward: It’s just as fast as you can type, Steve. Like, if you can type fast, you can write fast, right? Like, all it is, of course.

Steve Cuden: So going back to this book is not cursed. How long did that take you to write, all told, from the idea to a completed book?

Megan Woodward: I didn’t actually track my hours on that, and to be honest, I wrote it the first drafts. I often write first draft picture books in, like, a few hours, which is actually fast. But, yeah, the rewriting process ends up, taking quite a bit of time because you have to go back through and change so much. So I really don’t know how many hours it actually took. And since I didn’t work on it consistently, like day to day. But, it was over a process of months of back and forth with critique groups, critique partners, and then my agent, and then sending it to the. Then once the editor had it, getting feedback from her, and then rewriting based on that. So, yeah, it was rewritten a bunch of times.

Steve Cuden: And that’s also important for listeners to understand is that even a low word count picture book for kids takes a lot of revision and a lot of work, and people with their own takes on it within the organization that’s going to publish it to make it the way that everyone’s happy about, or at least think they’re happy about.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, it takes a lot. And picture books, people often think they’re really easy because they are short, and people think, oh, short things are easy. It is actually opposite of true. I mean, trying to tell a good StoryBeat and, you know, have interesting characters and all of the things that people want in, a fulfilling StoryBeat is harder to do. The fewer words that you have when you don’t, when you’re not able to go into detail and not, you know, go on, write these long pages. It’s really, really, really difficult.

Steve Cuden: Well, I’ve definitely said it more than once on this podcast that, I think the single most difficult thing to do as a writer is to write a really short short StoryBeat. And then you can take it all the way down to haiku, 17 syllables. That’s really hard to do. Well, because that brevity is extraordinarily difficult to get to. I have been having the most marvelous conversation with my friend, Megan Woodward for almost an hour now, and we’re going to wind, the show down a little bit. And I’m just wondering, in all of your experiences, are you able to share with us a StoryBeat that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or just plain funny about things that you’ve been through?

Megan Woodward: Yeah. I think that a lot of my screenwriting stories are kind of depressing and disappointing, or projects fell through, or, you know, my representation dumped me because I had a child. Like, things were just really sad. But I think writing a picture book has been just, in general, a really fun and funny experience. And I don’t know if it’s quirky or weird, but everything’s been so remote now that when I was a screenwriter, I was meeting with producers in person and meeting face to face with a lot of people. But this has been, a book that is written and produced without ever having met my agent even, or not having met my editor or the illustrator, who I probably will never meet because I think she’s in the Philippines or Singapore or something. but, yeah, she’s overseas, so I probably won’t ever meet her. So this is a collaboration done by people who I probably will never meet in person, which I think is just really strange.

Steve Cuden: You’re telling me that your publisher, your agent, your illustrator, all these people, you’ve never actually met them face to face?

Megan Woodward: No, none of them. And probably one won’t. Ever.

Steve Cuden: Have you met them on Zoom?

Megan Woodward: Yes. my editor, yes. And my agent, who I am no longer with. But she was great. Yes, we had a bunch of Zoom meetings, but, the illustrator for the book I’ve had very little communication with at all personally. And I actually, until the book was, like, completed, almost none. But then I contacted her a little more recently because I wanted a t shirt made that says, this shirt is definitely not cursed. This is, like, books crossed out and then shirts written, and I wanted those to use as promotional materials or to sell if people are interested. so I had to contact her to ask her to do that, and she was. She was really nice. but that was the first email I had to write the editor and be like, can I get the illustrator’s email? And I was like, this is really weird, because she worked on my book, and I, like, not spoken to her or had any contact with her personally. Everything came through my editor, so all the illustrations were through my editor. And then I would respond to the editor, and then she would respond to the illustration. I had no contact with her whatsoever. We didn’t email, we didn’t message nothing until recently.

Steve Cuden: It is, it’s got to be a little bit, disconcerting not to actually have any kind of contact face to face with people that you’re collaborating with.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, but, you know, it is weird, but in this, like, after Covid and everything, I’m like, it’s kind of great how that works because I don’t know, when people don’t have to go into the office, it’s just. Or, like, go in somewhere, and it makes everything so much easier, and I don’t know. It makes sense in a way. It’s like, I don’t need to be face to face with you to work on this. There’s no need for it. It would be nice, but it’s not necessary.

Steve Cuden: It’s a brave new world, that’s for sure.

Megan Woodward: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Last question for you today, Megan. You’ve already shared with us a huge amount of really useful and helpful advice. Along the way. But I’m wondering, do you have a solid piece of advice that you like to give to those who are starting out in the business, or maybe they’re in a little bit and trying to get to that next level?

Megan Woodward: Don’t. No, I’m just kidding. Only half joking. sometimes I’m like, why did I become a writer? like, if I could tell my younger self, any advice, don’t do it. But that’s really kind of a joke because there’s nothing I would want to do any more than. Than writing. But I think it is important to have a side hustle or, like, some kind of backup plan or something else you can do financially to support yourself, because it takes a really long time. Like, everything takes forever when you’re just any kind of creative career, unless you are extremely lucky and in the right place at the right time. It’s a long process, and it’s a lot of rejection and a lot of failure and disappointment, until you get anywhere. And if you don’t have the ability to support yourself in some way or have somebody in your life who can support you, I think it’s really hard to continue doing it. And that’s, I think, why most people leave. So that’s one piece of advice, I would say. The other one is to just write a ton. The only way to get better at anything. And like I said, when I first started writing picture books, did not know what I was doing, you know, and a lot of that was just, I had to write more. I had to read more. The more I read picture books, the more I understood the way they worked. And same thing with screenplays, read screenplays, you know? You know what I mean? Like, it’s great to take classes and, like, you know, I went to UCLA and did all those classes. It was amazing. But I think, like, had I just sat down and read, like, a Bazillion screenplays, it might have ended up in the same place. Like, just read a lot of what you’re trying to write. I’m trying to write a middle grade novel now, so I’m reading a ton of middle grade. So, yeah, just reading a lot of what you’re trying to write and just writing tons of it. And, like, even if it’s bad, just keep going and just keep trying and writing more and more and more. But again, you only have the ability to do that if, like, you’re not working in a full, time job or you’re. So it’s trying to balance that with something that, ah, you can do on the side to make money. It’s very difficult. That’s my advice, because I don’t really have a backup plan. This is my, this is my thing. I don’t, I’m m not really good at anything else, so I kind of back myself in the corner, and now I’m like, I have to make this work.

Steve Cuden: That’s the Life of a writer is you often don’t know where it’s coming from next. So you have to be prepared.

Megan Woodward: Yeah, yeah, so, but, yeah, I’ve expanded, you know, that’s the other thing is like expanding, expand your version of what you think you can write or what you want to write. And I started out just wanting to do screenplays, and now I’m doing children’s books, but I’m also doing copywriting. I’m doing the script for the Thanksgiving. I had to expand my idea of what do I want to write and be okay with writing many different types of things as long as it’s some kind of writing and specifically more creative writing.

Steve Cuden: Yeah, I think that’s very wise advice because you have to be flexible and willing to do many different things. And maybe not exactly what you want to do, though you can keep doing that as you’re doing other things as well. If you’re a kid, at heart or you’ve got a kid at home, please check out this book is definitely not cursed by Megan Woodward. This has been such a joy for me to have you on the show today, Megan, and I’m so grateful for your time, your energy, your wisdom, and for just you being you.

Megan Woodward: Thank you.

Steve Cuden: and so weve come to the end of todays StoryBeat. If you liked this episode, wont you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform youre listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat beat episodes to you. StoryBeat beat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartradio, Tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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