Writing

Writing Humor – A Classically Educated List

Few things are, I was rudely reminded, more difficult than writing humor.  I used to write a lot of humor until I discovered that writing things that aren’t humor is often both more lucrative and more rewarding.

The Malakiad Cover Image

But that changed last month.  I sat down with one of my contributor’s copies of The Malakiad and found myself laughing out loud at my own jokes (I know this is bad form, but for a bit of perspective, please bear in mind that Eddie Murphy would laugh at his own jokes on a certain Saturday night TV show before telling them.  That means that I can do whatever I like).

I realized that, huge effort or not, I had to write the sequel to this one, even if the publisher refuses to buy a sequel (to avoid this sad outcome, please go out and buy several copies of the first book at your earliest possible convenience, and gently persuade your friends to do the same.  At gunpoint if necessary).

Of course, I immediately found it tough going.  Humor is not for the faint of heart.  Want to know why?  Cool, because we’ve created a list.

1.  Humor uses up ideas at a breakneck pace.  If you’ve ever been to a standup comedy show, you’ll have realized that (unless it was really, really bad) the rhythm of the jokes is pretty rapid, with setup following punchline and vice-versa.  The idea is to keep the audience engaged.  Of course, it’s impossible to keep this kind of pace up in a 300 page novel (and if you know of exceptions, I want to read them, so drop me a line in the comments), but the temptation to make the book funny all the time is there.  Even so, all those funny ideas about Greek heroes and anachronistic secondary characters you thought would fill up a whole series, disappear quite quickly.

2.  Different kinds of people have a different kind of sense of humor.  This is probably the deepest pitfall of all.  My own sense of humor ranges from dry British wit to no-holds-barred, absolutely-nothing-is-off-limits humor of the type form the 1980s.  I don’t get offended at any kind of joke, no matter who it lambasts, as long as it’s funny.  I accept that humor is often cruel, and still revel in it.  But even though I’m extremely liberal in what I’ll accept, there is stuff that some people find hilarious that I think is juvenile and, not to put too fina a point on it, just plain dumb.  Nose-pick jokes.  Fart jokes.  The kind of stuff that makes four year-olds giggle has it’s place, just not in my library.

3.  There are different narrative structures to humor, and you have to choose between them.  Beyond the different types of sense of humor, the way its presented also makes a huge difference.  You can structure humor as a series of punchlines peppered within a different context, or you can tell, completely deadpan, a story whose premise is funny per se.  Or, you can go after the absurd.  In a novel, you will have the space to attempt all three, which makes attempting to balance them out a bit of a daunting task.

Example of Offensive Humor

4.  Humor is cruel.  This is the biggie.  We live in sensitive times in which most people who actually read are likely to be offended by perceived lack of sensitivity in a humorous work.  The problem is that humor often laughs at the subject as opposed to laughing with him.  Much of what humans find funny is based on taking a stereotype or common situation and then either turning it on its head or presenting it in such a way as to become ridiculous.  The problem is that those stereotypes are often offensive to someone, and the common situations are common because a lot of people do certain things, and they don’t necessarily want to be made fun of.  My solution to this one is to ignore the possible backlash and to write whatever the hell seems like a good idea at the time.  So The Malakiad pokes fun at everything from Greek Heroes to Jehova’s Cooking to Political Correctness.  I try to be an equal opportunity offender because everyone and everything has inherent humor in them… if only they also had the capability to laugh at it.  I strongly believe that the humorless, whether it be Puritans, Prohibitionists or any other holier-than-thou group are the ones who most need to be laughed at.

5.  The readers of your serious work might hate your humorous novels.  This is a risk, of course.  My SF novels tend to be aimed at people who enjoy thinking things through, a reasonable adventure or mystery, with a love story and usually an underlying philosophical question in there somewhere (I don’t do message fiction–I prefer readers who think to readers who want to be immersed in an echo chamber).  It’s quite likely that a lot of the readers attracted to that kind of book will find a novel about a Greek called Kopulus somewhat… well, I’d better leave it there.  Let the critics think up their own insults.

6.  If the book is actually funny, not funny is a painful Muriel’s Wedding sense, but actually funny, the critics will hate it.  Critics have no sense of humor.  Live with it and move on.

Hope that is enough to keep anyone from attempting a humorous novel.  The marketplace is crowded enough without you, so go write that deep, heartfelt experimental piece instead.  We won’t miss you in the least!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author with several novels and over 200 short stories published.  You can buy The Malakiad here.

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A Writer’s First Sale

Typewriter Blues

I think most writers will identify, at least a little bit, with the article below, which I wrote ages ago to try to convey the wonderful feeling and circumstances of my own first sale… I give it here as a public service to those who may not have felt the joy of publication yet.  Hopefully, it will inspire you to push onwards… If I could do it, so can you!

Like most writers, I have a regular job that pays the bills.  And my first sale, in 2005 actually came on a day when I was regretting a recent job switch.

The problem was my new boss, who seemed bent on removing all self-esteem and will to live from his subordinates. With the rest of them away on business, I had been left to bear the brunt alone.  It had been the worst week of my professional life.

Jupiter SF - Issue VII - Pasiphae

Arriving from work depressed and exhausted after nine o’clock, I was handed a manila envelope, with handwritten address.  Inside was a copy of Jupiter SF, a genre magazine printed in black and white.

At first, I was unsure what to make of this.  I had sent them a story, maybe this was a strategy to get me to subscribe.  But then it occurred to me that they might have decided to print my story, and had been unable to inform me due to my change of email.  I leafed through it quickly, and there it was!  “Tenth Orbit” by Gustavo Bondoni.  The magazine in my hand was a contributor’s copy.  The first payment of any kind for my writing.

I must honestly admit that, since changing jobs, I had let my writing slide.  I hadn’t written anything at all in months, and hadn’t even bothered to send rejected stories out to new markets.  Not enough energy.

Nevertheless, at the moment I realized that I was now a published author; my other worries were forgotten.  The satisfaction I felt was not monetary (although, having submitted by email and received a magazine worth four dollars, I had, unusually, come out ahead), but because someone had thought that my story was good enough that people should hand over their hard-earned cash in order to read it.  And that, somewhere, people were doing precisely that.

My drive to write and publish was instantly rekindled.  And I felt I had achieved something truly significant.

Which was something I had really needed.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is still writing, and has since sold over 200 stories and a number of novels.  His book Outside deals with the consequences of posthumanity and transhumanism.

Contributor Copy Reading – An Eclectic Mix

I’ve decided that, since people seem interested, I’ll be making the writing roundups of contributor copies I read a regular feature of the blog.  I’ve recently gone through three contributor’s copies of books that contained my work from 3 or 4 years ago (I make no apologies for this.  If you saw my to-be-read-pile, you’d understand).

For those of you who are not writers, a quick reminder: a contributor’s copy is a magazine or book containing a writer’s work that the publisher sends the writer to keep for his own records or to show it to his friends and brag about it.  They make writers happy, unless the writer’s name is spelled wrong, in which case they make writers homicidal.

Falling Star December 2014

The first of today’s eclectic mix is a small saddle-stitched magazine (saddle-stitching is when the sheets are folded in half and then stapled – a popular magazine binding format) entitled Falling Star.  This one contained my story “A Time to Reflect” which is the sequel to the ever-popular “Dangerous Skies”.  The mag was a quick read not only because of its short length but also because the weird holiday themes were very entertaining.  Recommended.

Love, Time, Space, Magic Cover

Next up is an antho we’ve featured here before.  You may remember that Elizabeth Hirst, the editor of Love, Time, Space, Magic, was here to tell us about the unique challenges of creating an SFF / Romance antho without offending the readers of both genres simultaneously.  She paints a much more edifying picture of that antho in her note than I ever could, so I will only say she succeeded.  I almost never read romance, but this book both entertained and, occasionally, moved me.  It’s a wonderful book.  This one holds my story “Modern Love”.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

The third book is perhaps the most interesting of all, as The Apex Book of World SF Vloume 2 aims to showcase the best of non-anglocentric genre work (the “SF” in the title is open ended and includes fantasy and slipstream).  A book like this will always be limited by what is available in English, but the effort to locate these stories is commendable. The book does do a good job of finding good examples and most people, especially anglo-centric people, will enjoy it.

In my case, the only criticism I have for this series is that it tended to focus a little too much on colonial concerns (as in how colonialism affects everyone) and not enough on the real stuff that happens in all these other wonderful countries. What most First World citizens seem to have trouble understanding is that post-colonial thought is of interest only to Americans, Europeans and certain academics or activists within the former colonies.  The rest of the people there don’t care, and aren’t interested in fiction that speaks to it.  However, as World SF which speaks to the concerns of the Americans and Europeans (its target audience, after all), this one works very well.

My story “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever” is reprinted here. It speaks to the concerns of post-colonial thinkers… because I write mainly for American and European audiences… (what, me, a hypocrite?  How can you say such a thing???).

This batch left me shaking my head at just how diverse the genre is thematically speaking.  SFF is wonderful when you stop to think about it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning novelist and short story writer who has just launched a new comic fantasy book in the Douglas Adams / Terry Pratchett vein.  He thinks you should read it.  It’s available here.  And also on Kindle.

Books About Writing – There is At Least One You Should Read

When non-writers learn that you are a writer, the reactions are generally classified into two major groups: the ones that think you’re some kind of celebrity who bathes in champagne and is airlifted everywhere on specially modified helicopters and the ones who assume (based on the fact that they haven’t seen your books at their local bookstore window) you are an unpublished novice who needs all the help you can get.

That second group wants to assist, so they tend to give you writing books as gifts.

I’m certain that there are newbies out there who call themselves writers who genuinely need these books.  In my own case, I never told a soul about my writing until I had a number of published stories under my belt (published by other people, not self-published), so I was pretty familiar with messrs Strunk and White (even though I never read their book until much later) when my friends started giving me writing books.

Writing books, I’ve found, are mostly aimed at the writer who’s never sold a word of prose in his life (I assume there are similar tomes aimed at the aspiring poet, but I have no first-hand knowledge of these).

Still, other writers will know that writerly self-image–even those of people who have published a lot–tends to be a fragile thing, so I always read the ones that people give me.  Can’t risk having hubris make you miss the piece of advice that turns you into the next gazillion dollar bestseller.

The latest batch I read included two books.

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

The first was Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (since updated to 55 it seems – god, I hope that the one I need to become a gazillionaire isn’t one of hose extra 5!)  This one is one of those that I consider a standard writing guide.  My impression as that it’s a solid primer that lists the things you need to do to avoid embarassing yourself and cut down on the unnecessary rejections (as well as the unfinished projects and the badly edited work sitting in your hard drive).

Perhaps the main thing I can say about this one is that it’s a great guide to what you need to learn and an even better list of the rules you have to break once you learn them.  A friend of mine says that you need to transcend the rules, not merely break them.  For that, I guess you have to know them first.  This is, as far as I can tell, a reasonable place to start.

Published authors may want to give it a miss, though.

The second book is the one writeng book I’d recommend to absolutely everyone.  The author starts by saying that he doesn’t know s**t about what works and what doesn’t and goes from there.

Stephen King On Writing

Most of you will already have guessed that I’m talking about Stephen King’s On Writing.

I won’t pretend that I’m an expert on King.  I don’t read that much horror, so I’ve read three or four of his books at most, and find his style accessible to point of annoying me at times…  but no one who can’t tell a story extremely well will have sold as many copies of any genre as he has.  Any writer who doesn’t respect King is likely either a snob or a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no clue what publishing looks like.  He has earned the right to make us listen.

And his writing book is marvelous.  He doesn’t try to tell us what we have to do.  He tells us what he did, and what he does.  He tells us his life story, and how he came to be a storyteller.  He tells us what it felt to make a life-altering (at least on the economc front) sale. He tells us how important it is to have a support structure in place.

Then, in the least interesting part of the book, he goes on to tell us what works and what doesn’t, contradicting himself, but giving us value for our money.  “If this is what works for Stephen King…” we say, and try to do it.  Even these bits are well written and a lot less dry than most writing books out there.  So, yeah recommended.

Anyway, if you’re just starting out, then read both of these.  The Clark first.  But if you know what you’re doing, and haven’t done so, pick up the King.  It is so much more than just a book on writing.  It’s the writing memoir you wish you could have written.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  If you followed a link here because you saw Stephen King’s name on the post, and are a horror fan, you might like Gustavo’s story Pacific Wind – available for Kindle at 99 cents!

Why Write?

On more days than I care to admit, I sit around and try to understand why writers write.  There are probably as many answers to this as there are internet sites devoted to writing out there, but I still wonder.  The fact that many sites title themselves with names such as Writing and Other Forms of Insanity (this is just an example I happened to see today, but many writing sites have a variation on this title) should be a pretty strong clue that even writers aren’t quite sure why we do it.

Is it the fame and fortune?

Sorry, I’m back.  Had to stop and laugh.  Even writers with a long career and several excellent books to their name, published by the right houses and available on bookshelves aren’t precisely rich.  Other than the hyper-famous ones, the lucky writers make about the same amount of money as anyone else does from their job… but with less benefits.

As for fame, I personally know a los of brilliant, successful authors whose names, if you mentioned them to a random stranger on the street, would elicit a single word reply: “Who?”

All right.  Yes, Stephen King exists, and so does J.K. Rowling.  It’s possible to become rich and famous through writing in a way that you probably can’t by pursuing a career as an accountant.  The golden dream is always there, but most writers who start along the path chasing these things exclusively abandon their ambitions for some easier way to make a buck.  You may get there through writing, but it will be neither easy nor quick.

So it’s not money and it’s not fame.  Recognition, then?

Again, some starry-eyed folk might, armed with their mother’s kind words and their college professor’s admiration, embark on a publishing career expecting unlimited praise and adulation.  That usually lasts until the first rejection.  If they can get up after that, the next ten usually finish the job.

What the world thinks of your book

Then why? (Btw, I have a print of the above cartoon sitting on my desk)

All I can give you is my case.  I’ve been telling stories since I can remember.  I had a brother who is two years younger than I was who had to listen to a lot of them when we were kids.  He still reads my novels because I give them to him, so he is likely to be canonized once his story gets out.

And then, I discovered that, when not sweating blood over a keyboard (yes, this happens), I often enjoy writing.  Yesterday, for example, I wrote 1800 good words without even realizing it (this is in no way, shape or form normal).  I had fun and wrote a scene which made me chuckle.

But it isn’t all fun and games.  Now I have to write the next bit, and I have no clue as to what comes next.  Time to sweat those bullets.

So, habit and occasional enjoyment.  Is that it?

Probably not.  The sheer joy of getting an acceptance email has never disappeared.  I no longer dance down hallways as I did when I learned of my first sale, but I still have a nice warm glow that lasts all day.  Kind of like when you drink Irish Coffee in front of a roaring fire.

That many writers give up before experiencing this is a true tragedy.

Also, no matter where you are on your writing career, there’s always another hill to climb.  You sold a story to a magazine?  Great!  Now sell another to a bigger mag.  Published a novel?  Cool, now publish a better one, or sell one to a bigger publisher, or hit the NYT bestseller list.  Already a millionaire bestseller?  All right, but are you a critical darling?  If not, that could drive the next book.

In my own experience, it might have been possible for me to stop when I was just writing for fun – I might not have stopped completely, but I might have just written occasionally for a laugh – but once that first acceptance happened… there was no question of ever giving it up.  Worse than crack, better than sex.

So there’s something.

And finally, there’s the fear of death.  The fact that our writing, even if it was just printed in a photocopied local rag, has the potential to connect with people long after we are gone.  If just one copy of one story survives to be puzzled over by scholars in a few hundred years, it will have left a much greater mark than several lifetimes of accounting or marketing or managing a restaurant.

To incorrectly quote Queen:  Who doesn’t want to live forever?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores immortality in a much different and less obvious way than this post.