On 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.

Advertisements

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!