Writing Humor is No Joke

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I’m taking my attempt seriously at making my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, funnier. I need readers to understand immediately that this is a humorous take on bullying. It’s Revenge of the Nerds for the new millennium. No one thought that movie was pro-bully and neither is my book. So I have to make readers see that from the first line.

Could I teach myself to write funnier? Are there rules? Guidelines? It could be, as it is said with novel writing, that there are three rules – but no one knows what they are.
In the introduction to the book Comedy Writing Secrets by Mil Helitzer, we are told that the truth is anyone can learn to write humor. Humor writing can be taught and the skills can be acquired. This three-hundred page book with loads of overwhelming advice, gives a recipe for humor. The ingredients are Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion, and Surprise. It all starts with one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. Its better to take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around taboos. Nihilistic humor is based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to be beyond ridicule. That should include bullying, right? I mean, bullying is not a laughfest and I don’t mean it to be, but we can look at it with some humor, can’t we?
Gene Perret agrees in his book Damn! That’s Funny! Writing Humor You Can Sell. He says a quality that’s helpful to a humor writer is a sense of irreverence. By being irreverent, we purposely look for the fun rather than the gravity in everything. Mr. Perret encourages humor writers to “see the unusual, the bizarre, the zany, the wacky, the funny in whatever we observe. Don’t allow reality and pomposity to obscure your humorous point of view.”
One component for writing humor is realism. There has to be some fundamental basis of truth, something with which the reader can associate. The challenge is to take that truth and use another of those ingredients, exaggeration. Alex Bullied has that. A thirteen-year-old starting eighth grade in a new school, and the trepidation he feels, is reality based. The way The Mathia go after Alex is exaggerated almost to silliness. But maybe I need to up the silliness, the nonsensical. That’s what humor is, turning sense into nonsense. Stretch the truth to its limit.
Getting back to the recipe, three more ingredients are Hostility, Emotion and Surprise. I can think of few things more hostile than bullying. Emotion seems self- explanatory. How could you have humor without emotion? It’s no surprise that surprise is a major element of humor. Damn That’s Funny says it’s the essential element to humor. The funniest jokes are those with punch lines that surprise and, sometimes, shock us into laughter.
Finally that first ingredient in the recipe for writing humor – Target, which is the reader, our audience. The humorist expresses what the reader is thinking. I have to express what is going on in the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. Whatever made me think I could do that? But then, why not?
There’s the voice, Alex’s voice, since it’s in first person POV. He should have a wry voice. His observations and thoughts should be twisted a bit. How do I do that? I think wry must come naturally, either you have it, or you don’t. The closest I may get is wry adjacent.
“Funny” is basically an attitude. It’s a whimsical, irreverent (that word, again), tongue-in-cheek look at practically everything. Humor is also subjective, so I know I won’t get everyone to laugh or even smile. Some readers are not going to like this book. Some are going to be offended by any humor associated with bullying. So be it. But this book also has an anti-bullying message, and may give a giggle to the bullied out there, to see Alex get what he’s given.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog post and the challenge of telegraphing to the reader that this is a comedy. I need to hint in the first line that this will be a humorous book. Even with bullying, laughter may be the best medicine.
I think I’m going to start with a fart. Stayed tuned.

Bone Gap

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A librarian once told me her favorite book was usually the one she’d just read. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby fits that sentiment for me. Have you ever reached the end of a book and all you want is for everyone you know to read it? That’s how I feel about this book. I feel like recommending the crap out of it.

I also felt an immediate compulsion to contact the writer and drool all over her. It’s easy these days –. look up the author’s website, go there and send an email. So I did. I don’t think any writer every gets tired of hearing how her story affected a reader. The last time I wrote a fan letter to an author I was twelve and the author was Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote the Lad a Dog books. I received a return letter from Mr. Terhune’s son. His dad had passed away some years before. I hadn’t written a fan letter since.

Bone Gap is the story of two brothers, the girls they love, and the town they live in, Bone Gap. It begins with the kidnapping of one of these girls. And that’s all I feel I can tell without spoiler alerts. I will say it’s a great example of magical realism, has some gorgeous language, and with characters that jump off the page.

I’ve been in a bit of a writing malaise. When I’m in this state, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad that I read a book like this. To be able to write a book with so many levels, that touches a person so deeply, must be awesome. I don’t know if I will ever write anything remotely resembling Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap. On the other hand, the book makes me want to try harder to achieve something close to it.

My malaise may be lifting.

Thank you, Laura Ruby, for this wonderful story. Thank you for the inspiration and challenge. You’ve made me want to try again.

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Trying NOT to Kill Our Darlings

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One night, when I was about twelve-years-old, my sisters and I watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. We huddled together under blankets, ready to cover our eyes when the scary parts came on.

Then our mother came into the room. “Oh, Abbott and Costello,” she said, “I always loved them. They’re so funny.”

We looked at each other. Funny? We lowered our blankets.

That’s right, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a comedy. We went into it thinking Horror.

That, I think, is a big problem with my middle grade novel Alex Bullied. Readers go into it thinking it’s a story about the horrors of bullying but what I intended to create is a comedy. Bullying is horrible and this book reflects that too. But I don’t know if readers are getting it.

When I conceived it, Alex Bullied was meant to be a silly, funny, Abbott and Costello book about a bully who learns when it’s like to be bullied. It was meant to be Revenge of the Nerds for the middle school set. It was not meant to be a serious look at bullying. There are plenty of books for that. I hate bullies as much as the next person, but it is not my platform. My platform, I like to think, is that of storyteller, creator, writer.

I’m done with making excuses, whining and bitching about this book. I know how hard I worked to make it great, not just good. Maybe, ultimately, I don’t have what it takes, but I tried. I read a lot — novels, both middle grade and adult, and how-to books — attend two critique groups, and I am Hospitality Coordinator for the local chapter of SCBWI, through which I attend workshops and conferences. I used a professional editor.

I guess this one got away from me. Honestly, I don’t know what went wrong.

Hopefully I have learned from this experience. My next one will be better. MY husband recently shared that he’d been reminded of the Ten Thousand Hour Theory. Many successful people agree that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at whatever you’re striving to do.

And wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

When I began this blog it was to be a journal of sorts of my process getting this book published. I was filled with faith and optimism. I honestly thought this one would go the distance and I tend to be cautious and painfully objective. I’ve been knocked around a bit since then.

I still think, if the right person reads it, it could make it. I will stand by it for another round of queries. Each of my books, and I’m sure yours, are their own entities. In that way they are like our children, our darlings. It’s hard to watch the creation we have poured our hearts and minds into, go through the torment of growing pains and rejection.

I’ve decided I will write for the next year or so, and not focus so much on querying or what others think. I will write for the fun, the joy and the challenge. Write for my number one reader, Me. And while I’m doing this I will make these stories the best yet.

So that’s the plan and I’m excited about it. I am glad to be posting in this blog again. I will continue on towards publication. And I’ll let you know how it is, every agonizing step of the way.

Stay tuned.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Clip

 

Perplexed, Puzzled and Perturbed

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Happy New Year!

This is a follow up, a continuation of my last post. It’s the last time I bitch about this, I promise.

I’m perplexed.

I’ve been told, several times, that the main character in my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, is unlikeable. His attitude on entering his new shcool, the way he sees the other students as beneath him, his swagger and unrelenting meaness make him unrelatable. I need to soften him up, give him reasons for his bullying. Give him heart, so readers can accept and root for him.

When I started this book, I wanted Alex to be unlikeable. So, when he becomes the bullied, the reader doesn’t immediately sympathize with him. I have done as agents and several readers suggested. I have smoothed the rough edges and given him the motivation needed to explain his actions.

Then a book on a store shelf caught my attention — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully. The cover seemed to suggest that it could be similar, if not spot on, to Alex Bullied.

I bought the book and read it. It’s written in comic book style — the text looks handwritten and the story is told with drawings. It is set to resemble a journal.

The kid writing the journal is a bully in the first degree. He’s been caught dunking a smaller student head-first in a toilet. His mother is furious, his principal is at his wit’s end. So he is forced to see a therapist who insists he keep a journal and write down his feelings, to get to the root of his aggression.

His journal, instead, is a how-to manual for bullying. This kid is unrepentant. he glories in his bullying. In the end he’s as big a jerk as when the book began. I never had any sympathy or empathy for him. I never cared about him at all.

Not at all like Alex Bullied. Alex changes over the course of my story. He comes to understand that what he’s done is wrong and he’s sorry.

So I’m puzzled.

The author of Journal of a Schoolyard Bully is Farley Katz, an American humorist and a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker. This is his first book, followed by a sequel — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully: Cyberbully. I didn’t read that one but I’ll take a guess that this time around we’ll learn how to bully online.

Agents and editors are more forgiving of an author with an established name, I assume. Even if writing cartoons is his primary expertise. I say this with all due respect for Mr. Katz.

I’m just perturbed.

Maybe it’s true that an as-yet-unpublished writer cannot defy conventions, although I’m a bit confused as to what the conventions are.

I will stand by the revisions I made. I like this warmer, baffled, reactionary Alex. He does seem more fleshed out. By the end of the story, he has a change of heart. And the story does not glorify bullying.

Querying begins again in a few weeks. Stay tuned.

Should I Regift This?

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I always felt, from the moment the initial idea hit me, that Alex Bullied was a gift. I often feel this way when the lightning bolt of creativity crashes into me, but this time, with Alex Bullied, it was like a Christmas gift I didn’t know I wanted until I held it in my hands.

I was working on another book at the time and for almost a year, as more and more of Alex’s story revealed itself with characters, plot points, scenes, and dialogue, I wrote them down and deposited them in a basket.

Facing another revision of that other, defiantly stubborn novel, I put it aside and pulled out the note basket.

Alex Bullied was conceived as a boy’s book, full of humor, middle grade high jinks and fart jokes. But it’s about a bully, from his point of view.

People get very serious about bullying, as they should. I am certainly not in favor of bullying. I just had a different take on it. I played it for humor, yes, but in my book the bully has the tables turned on him. He experiences what he’s dealt out. He learns. He grows. With high jinks and fart jokes.

Apparently, though, my story is one-dimensional. Critique groups and agents question Alex’s personality and his tendency towards name calling and physical intimidation. They also question Alex’s tormentors, the Mathia’s motives. Are they just nerds turned into bullies?

Revise. Revise. Revise.

I am softening Alex, who wants to turn over a new leaf in this school but, as he’s done so many times, he is judged on his looks. To the Mathia, he looks like the poster boy for bullying. They don’t try to get to know him, instead begin to pick on him. And Alex, mystified and then angry, does the only thing he know to do, fight back.

I’m wondering if I’ve dulled the edges of my story, if I’ve compromised my original idea. I started out writing for middle grade boys, reluctant readers, even. Now I feel I might be writing for agents. The agents point out books like Wonder and Okay for Now, both of which I loved. But I doubt I will ever write those kinds of books. I don’t know that I have the chops. I do, however, want to make Alex Bullied the most amazing book of which I am capable. I hope it’s a fun read for anyone.

So how do I please both middle graders and agents? I’m making changes as best I can and, hopefully, changes that are best for the book, while trying to maintain the original flavor of the story.

Will I be successful? Who the heck knows. I suspect, time will tell.

Stay tuned.

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The Results Are In

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On May 25th I posted a blog, Delusions of Perfection, about my writers’ group convincing me that my fourteenth chapter would be better as chapter one. And how I changed it and then submitted the first fifteen pages, including the new chapter one, for critiques from two agents at an SCBWI writers’ retreat. How I was enthusiastic about the change and looked forward to the responses. The agents did not attend, but gave their critiques in writing, handed out the day of the retreat.

In the interest of Show Don’t Tell, I’m sharing the critiques word for word.

They didn’t care for the first chapter:

  • Beginning feels like a set up. Need something to propel the plot forward. Start the story with action. Feels like a lot of recapping at the moment.
  • I might find a different starting point.
  •  I might cut Chapter One and start here. (This was on first page of former chapter one, now chapter two)

On the subject of empathy for Alex, the main character, a bully getting bullied:

  •  At the beginning I didn’t get to know Alex much besides he’s a former bully and it was a bit hard to really relate to him. He had negative thoughts about nearly everyone he encountered. Perhaps we could see other sides of him?
  •  Need to make reader sympathize and like Alex. Why should we root for him? Have to start with that otherwise hard to get invested in his redemption arc.
  •  Love the bully turned victim premise, but protagonist needs to be more compelling. Reader will need to empathize with him. Commercial premise, but character has to really win the reader over.
  •  I didn’t get a good sense of Alex. Too, I worry about Alex’s likeability a bit as he’s often calling people names and criticizing them. I know he was a former bully, but I might tone it down a bit as you want your readers to be able to connect and relate to him. Perhaps you could get more into other traits of his personality, hobbies, etc. and show a bit of his better side. Perhaps show vulnerability/hurt feelings over being bullied.

Finally, they both had thoughts about the need for subplots:

  •  It doesn’t seem there are many subplots outside of the bullying and I might make this just one part of the story, not the main focus.
  •  It seems the main storyline is primarily about bullying and it doesn’t seem there are any other major storylines.

The feedback wasn’t all bad. Both agents complimented my writing, the voice and the overall premise. It seems I’m good at those, not so much at pulling off the story. It’s the story, the characters and plotting that pull readers into wanting to take this trip with Alex. I know I can fix it.

I’m revising Alex’s character, starting in the first chapter. I am amping up the secondary characters’ subplots. I can already see how this will improve the book, thus improving my chances of attracting an agent. Querying begins again in September, after three beta readers have read the full manuscript. So, cross fingers.

And stayed tuned.

 

 

Other People’s Blogs

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So many blogs, so little time. To keep up, we’d have to spend most of every day reading. Not even Sunday off. There is so much media out there: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and those of which I am not aware. When do we ever have the time to read them all, much less write our own?

And how do we find the ones we might like?

After I post a new entry, as I will this one, I receive half a dozen or so emails from Word Press telling me how So and So loved my blog and maybe I’d like theirs.

I have found a few that I like. But mostly, not so much. Sometimes I think the posts are a kind of vanity, equivalent to posting selfies on Twitter. Empty and pointless. There are a lot of would-be writers out there and a blog is a good place to start. But remember, quality still counts for something.

It’s not only aspiring writers who create blogs. Agents and editors have blogs. And, as hopeful published authors, we should follow these, right? But which ones? In pursuing some of these, I’ve noticed they tend to be sporadic about their postings. If you “follow” them, you’ll get a notice when they post. So if you find a couple or few you connect with, you may only hear from them once a month, if that.

I follow one in particular, Nathan Bransford, and I recommend his blog. He posts regualrly. He is an agent turned author and knows all sides to the business and has valuable imformation to impart. Sometimes he will take submissions of first chapters or queries and will pick a few lucky ones to critique and edit. Also, he’s funny and fun to read. Recently he posted about the demise of the blogosphere and while I don’t know that I agree with him, it’s interesting. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/

Many of the sites I’m directed to by Word Press are “Indie” authors. In the interest of supporting fellow struggling authors, I “followed” a few. I found them mostly annoying. Not  because they’re Indie, aka self-published, but because their blogs are devoted only to selling their books. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s nothing there to interest me.

For instance, one is constantly having contests in which a reader can win a signed first edition of his hightly-acclaimed novel. He doesn’t say acclaimed by whom or what. And I can’t help but wonder how many other editions there will be.

I know this sounds snarky, but because of the convenience of Kindle, I can check a book out in a matter of minutes by getting a sample. I read the first chapter of the book written by the above blogger and it was obvious he didn’t have a critique group. If he did, he needs a new one. I know what we like is subjective, but poor writing is poor writing.

Another Indie author supplements his book promotion with almost daily quotes about writing. This just takes up space in my inbox. It’s funny, though, once I’m following someone I hate to unfollow. I don’t know what that’s about but the fact that I will watch shows I don’t even like because theyr’e on my DVR might have something to do with it.

Then there’s the guy who constantly announces his book is on sale on Kindle for ninety-nine cents. I read a sample of his novel and I liked it well enough. If he’d done his due diligence on the editing, I might have bought it. When I read something I think is so close to being publishable, I can’t help but wonder what the writer was thinking. Not that I know what’s publishable, clearly. Just my opinion. But to put all that work into something and then self-publish without trying to get traditionally published puzzles me. Unless he did and gave up. His site says he has 42,500 followers. Is that even possible? I wonder how his sales are.

Again, I know I’m being snarky. I am not down on self-publishing. Anyone who can sit and put between fifty thousand and a hundred and fifty thousand words on paper has my respect and admiration. If they can put those words into an order that makes sense and transports me, even better. But just because a writer decides to forego the agony of prospecting for an agent and go the independent route doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try hard to put out the best book possible. Also, unlike this blog I just checked out and didn’t “follow,” if you’re going to have a blog to promote your book, for heaven’s sake, at least proof the writing on the site. This person had so many obvious mistakes, it was embarrassing.

I like a theme to a blog, not just promotion and filler. I like an essay, maybe. I’d like to read about an Indie author’s struggle. What else are they doing to market their book? What do they want for their next one? Will there be a next one? What is their ultimate goal?

I think it helps to have a theme. It keeps the blog centered. A couple of friends in my writers’ group have blogs devoted, not to their books, but to the subjects of their novels.

For instance, C.L. Woodhams, author of The Outreach Committe, a story about a group of women who murder each others’ abusing husbands, writes a blog about domestic violence. It’s informative. Womenbreakfreefromabuse.wordpress.com

R.W.Richard, author of Autumn Breeze, Double Happiness, and A More Perfect Union, is a man writing in the woman-dominated romance genre. His blog, Romance:the guys’ POV, gives the man’s view of writing romance, but also general writing tips and helpful advice. http://romancetheguyspov.blogspot.com

Of course, C.L. and R.W. promote their books on their blogs as well and want to sell copies. But they give us more while they’re doing it.

Fortunately, I have been directed to a few blogs I’m glad I follow. These women are on their own journeys to publication. They also write young adult or middle grade. Theya re doing what I’m doing. And misery loves company, right? They post often enought to maintain interest. One of them plumps her blog with book reviews. I’ve bought a couple because of her reviews. Sometimes the blogs will feature an interview with an author or reblog something someone has written about the business of writing. Check them out at  www.wordsreadandwritten.com    and    https://dawnewebber.wordpress.com   and   http://lorellepage.wordpress.com.

What makes these blogs stand out for me is the writing. It’s personal, it feels chatty, not like I’m being taught something or being sold something. They’ve beenproofed and spell checked. And they care as much as I do.

By the way, chances are you’ll find mistakes in these posts of mine. I hope not, but it happens. I just want you all to know, it’s not my writing, they’re typos.