Saturday, June 30, 2007

The End

I love to write those words. Two hours ago I finished my 11th novel, the third WebMage book, and I'm pretty happy with the ending. There are the odd rough bits which need a bit of sanding, of course, but that's work for tomorrow, and the next day, and probably the day after. For now, I'm going to sit back in the screen porch which is my office, watch the sun go down and celebrate.

More Miss Snark's Greatest Hits (vol 4)

This link is to one her comments sections with many suggestions on where to look for agent information.

And what to do once you've found your agent is talked about here.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Writing Tools

I used to do three drafts. The first was handwritten and pretty rough. I would type it up and make changes as I typed, then revise with a pen. I would then type a clean version from the written all over second draft, making more changes. This second, clean typed version was the final draft.

I got my first computer in the late 80s to finish A Woman of the Iron People. It was the longest novel I have ever written, 750 pages in manuscript; and I could not imagine typing it twice.

I am not a good typist or a fast typist, and I do not like typing.

I've changed my writing method since then. I do some writing with pen, but most of my writing is now on a computer. My first drafts are largely done on the computer. When I go back to a story in progress, I often revise the last page or two on the computer, before adding new text. I still print out stories and revise with a pen, then input the changes to the computer. Thank the Goddess I don't have to type a complete clean version, after making minor changes.

I'm not sure how many drafts I do now, since they tend to merge. Two? Two and a half?

Because I don't have to worry about errors, and because the touch of a computer keyboard is so much lighter than any typewriter, I don't mind inputting as much as I minded typing.

I simply type as fast as I can, then run spellcheck. I notice that I make most of my spelling errors on words that spellcheck will catch. I don't often misspell my aliens' names, for example.

Of course, I have to read over for the errors that spellcheck doesn't catch: 'of' instead of 'to.' Since I have trouble seeing errors on the computer screen, I tend to print out a copy to proofread, and that gives me a chance to make final revisions with a pen.

I'm starting to revise/rewrite the sequel to Ring of Swords, which has existed since 1994. Until recently, I was not able to sell it. Aqueduct Press is now going to publish it. I've decided to use a mechanical pencil and erasers this time, to reduce the mess. Revising on the computer is not an option, since I can't find the e-files for the novel. My choices are to input page after weary page, to scan page after weary page on my home scanner, or cough up the money to have Kinko's do the scanning. I'll probably start by scanning on my home machine, then switch to Kinko's when I get fed up.

Quick Hit-Miss Snark's Greatest Hits (vol 3)

And more from Miss Snark's archives:

Miss Snark on:

. She didn't think much of it in professional terms at the time (2 years ago), and I doubt that opinion will have changed too much. There are a number of credible venues out there now, especially for short market F&SF, but as far as books go, not so much.

Form rejection letters and the contents of her slush pile. It's always good to remind yourself that rejection letters don't mean anything more than no.

Man, I miss the Miss.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Laptop, Desktop, Typewriter, Pen or Something Else?

So, how do you write your drafts? And why do you it that way? My first book was written on my first computer. This is not a coincidence. Without modern writing tools and the ability to freely move paragraphs around and make corrections I probably wouldn't be a writer. I love the freedom to change my mind.

In fact freedom is generally important to me in writing. My first book was written on a generation one MacIntosh which I could easily pick up and move around the apartment to suit my current whim. Much of it was written with my feet up on the couch, the keyboard in my lap, and the computer off to my right on the coffee table. Terrible ergonomics, but ideal for my thinking process.

Now I do all my writing on a laptop and I have for as long as I've been able to afford one. This means I can write on the porch, at the coffee shop, in bed, sitting in the corner under a stairwell at one of my wife's physics conferences, even tucked away behind a display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and I've written happily in all those places.

On the other hand, I know people who draft long hand with a pen, on an actual typewriter, using voice recognition software, or dictating into a tape recorder while walking in the mountains. Everyone does it differently and we all have our reasons. The only thing that really matters is that the writing actually gets done.

So, what about you? I'm endlessly fascinated about the way writers work and their reasons for doing it the way they do it.

Quick Hit--Miss Snark's Greatest Hits (vol 2)

More from the sadly retired Miss Snark's archives:

Updated below

Four days in the life of an agent. Great stuff for anyone who wants to know how the industry side of things work, and really if you're a writer you should probably want to know this stuff. I found it fascinating.

Day 1

Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

Update: One thing I found particularly interesting was her description of taking a client to a publisher meet and greet so that the publishers could give the client a once over with eyes to future promotion and the big prizes. That's day 2.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Another Re-Direct: SF Podcasts

Another writers' group I belong to turned me onto Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. They bill themselves as "bringing science fiction authors to you one podcast at a time." So, if you have the technology... go check them out.

Quick Hit--Miss Snark's Greatest Hits (vol 1)

So, Miss Snark has retired from blogging and this is a sad thing for writers. Since I discovered her late in her blogging cycle I have decided to go back and read through her archives. As I do so, I thought it might be nice to post links to some of the posts I think are going to be most useful to writers. Sometime I may make comments on the topic as well. Most of the time, I suspect she will have nailed whatever subject it is well enough to make anything I add redundant. So, without further ado: Miss Snark on why a carefully proofread manuscript matters...a lot.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Quick Re-Direct: Feminist Utopias

Interesting discussion going on here about science fiction feminist utopias.

Travel and Recharging the Batteries

So I'm just back from two weeks wandering around the Canadian maritimes with friends. On one level it was a vacation, on another level it was very much a business trip. One of the most important things a writer can do is collect new experiences, ideas, images, and places that can be filtered and focused and used as grist for the mill of our work.

For me, travel is one of the most important ways to develop new ideas and scenes for works in progress and works yet to be, in part because I'm a world driven writer. On this trip I had two particularly fabulous visits that will be incorporated into future work, as will the whole trip over time. Oh, and I might get a bit of blog fodder as well, if you hadn't guessed.

First was a place called Woodleigh. It was one of those weird tourist attractions driven by an eccentric genius with intense focus. In this case it was a good sized parklike area studded with miniature versions of important British landmarks in varying scales, including a Tower of London big enough to walk through and a Westminster with doors only a few inches high but with two tons of lead used in the roofing. Fascinating and utterly bizarre, it will be a major and important setting for parts of WebMage book IV. In fact, the book will take place almost entirely in the Canadian Maritimes.

Second and even more important for me was Halifax and in particular, The Citadel—an 1850s era British fortress with a mix of kilted re-enactors and actual soldiers manning it. The place was fantastic and I literally couldn't move without getting story ideas. In all I collected scenes and ideas there for WebMage IV, The Eye of Horus, Outside In, and a new as yet untitled book to be written after I've got some free time again, maybe 2-3 years out at the current rate. I took well over a hundred pictures and made a number of short cryptic notes that tie back to big ideas for various stories. A lot of it needs to marinate in the back of my head for a while, especially the future Halifax book, but some of it will come out more immediately with WebMage IV and Eye of Horus.

So, how do you recharge? What refills your writing batteries? Or makes your story-brain kick in extra hard?

Monday, June 25, 2007

He's Alive

Hey all,

Home and jetlagged and generally happy. Had a great two weeks in the Canadian maritimes, and will be back to blogging shortly. After playing wandersee for a while I'm feeling inspired on the books front and I think there's a writing post in that process somewhere. More when I'm coherent.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Book Promotion, A Poll

Mindy Klasky, a fellow SF/F/Romance writer, is running a poll on her LiveJournal about book promotion as part of an on-going discussion a number of SF/F authors are having about what makes people pick up a book. If you have an LJ account, please consider filling out her poll. The more people answer, a better sense we'll have of "the truth."


Thursday, June 21, 2007


The first thing I thought of on this topic was the Kipling line, which is below:
Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night:—
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

You can start a story any way you want, so long as you’re writing well. You can start the way the Icelandic sagas do, by giving the ancestry of an important character and maybe the stories of preceding generations. You can leap into the story in the middle, as Homer did. You can start at the end and work backwards.

“Once upon a time” works as an opening.

One element to consider is how long the story is. A long, slow beginning to a short story is not usually going to work, though I once wrote (and published) a two page short story with a nine page scholarly introduction.

I tend not to change the opening of my stories. For better or worse, it’s where the story began. Something about it was evocative and made me want to go on.

My hwarhath stories tend to start "there was a person named so-and-so." My Big Mama stories begin with a particular Big Mama walking along.

The first opening is from the Icelandic family sagas. The second is from the Lakota stories about the their trickster Itkomi, which begin with Itkomi walking along.

The rule for Lydia Duluth stories is -- Lydia's full name must be given in the first line.

Maybe all of these openings can be described as storyteller openings, like "once upon a time," or "sing, O Muse." They tell you that you are about to hear a story or epic poem.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Take Four

(cross-posted from Sean M. Murphy's blog)

Last Monday morning, I waded back in to this murder mystery. I've already started this book three times, but each time, something was off--the character wasn't likeable, or the story felt flat--something. Each time I started over, the piece I was writing kept getting shorter, too--another frustration, because it felt like my overall wordcount was going the wrong direction; 2,800 words became 1,900 words became 1,400 words. But until I get the tone right, there's no point in writing the rest of the story--I'd only have to go back and write a completely different story when I finally figured it out.

I think I've finally figured it out.

I needed snarky, I needed light, I needed a character that readers can connect with. Here's a quick snippet from the first chapter that I'm particularly happy with:

Melinda had broken up with Daniel--boyfriend of five years and fiancĂ© for the last nineteen months--just last Friday. She’d come home early from a girl’s night out, hoping to maybe watch a movie and snuggle before bed.

Mistake number one. Never come home early.

Daniel had company, apparently--a young woman from a few floors up in their high-rise. It was a party without any clothes, and Melinda had felt a little uninvited when she walked into the apartment she and Daniel shared and found them busy rearranging the living room furniture.

She counted it as a point of honor that she hadn’t killed anyone. Yet.

It was surprising, though, how quickly you could sell a two-carat diamond solitaire on eBay.

The word count went down to 1,000 words, but this time, it felt like they were the right words. And that makes all the difference.

Tuesday I smoothed them over a bit and added another 200 words, and this morning I put another 1,000 into the mix. Hopefully, the ball is rolling, and momentum will out!

Quick Hit: What We Always Suspected....

UK Publishing Co-Op Revealed:

The Times obtained a confidential memo from Waterstone's which sets out what it expects publishers to pay if they want their books to be well promoted in its network of more than 300 stores this Christmas. The most expensive package, available for only six books and designed to "maximise the potential of the biggest titles for Christmas", costs 45,000 pounds per title. The next category down offers prominent display spots at the front of each branch to about 45 new books for 25,000 pounds. Inclusion on the Paperbacks of the Year list costs up to 7,000 pounds for each book, while an entry in Waterstone's Gift Guide, with a book review, is a relative snip at 500 pounds. Similar packages are available at other bookshop and supermarket chains, too.

Anthony Cheetham, the chairman of Quercus books, a small independent publisher, said: "It's not a system you can opt out of. If Smith's offer you one of these slots and you say no, their order doesn't go down from 1,000 copies to 500 copies. It goes down to 20 copies." Which is why he's rather dismayed at having to pay for steep co-op for Costa winner Stef Penney's THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES because it will not make the booksellers' Christmas selections unless Quercus pays the going rate.

Neil Jewsbury, the commercial director of Waterstone's, defended the charges and said that the quality of books chosen for books-of-the-year lists and other promotions was not compromised by money changing hands. "Our expert booksellers, with years of experience, decide on what the best books of the last year are," he said. "It's only after that that we enter into a confidential commercial agreement with the publishers to decide how best to feature and promote these titles." Well, it ain't so confidential anymore, and it remains to be seen whether consumers, er, readers will care about co-op practices. Maybe in another world we'd see a scandal along the lines of the early 1960s payola days, but it's not exactly the 1960s anymore, now is it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Openings... A Can of Worms?

Now if we all agree hooking the reader is important, how do you do it?

A lot of writing instructors will suggest that you start the story in the middle of THE ACTION. You know, "Twang! The arrow barely missed her head," and such like. That method can be effective, and it's a good thing to try particularly if you feel like your story lacks a certain amount of movement or if you've been having trouble with your pacing.

Not every story needs to start with a literal bang, however.

In science fiction and fantasy, you can also start with an eyeball kick, as William Gibson did in his famous opening for Neuromancer: "The sky was the color of a television set tuned to a dead

Juxtapositions work well too. I'm not sure I can find the exact opening, but Mike Resnick's "Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus" would be a good example of how putting to disparate elements together can grab a reader's attention. Turns out it was downstairs. Here's how it goes: "A keyboardist was playing a selection of Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas, brief pieces one to three minutes long, very complex and refined, while the Hadrosaurus herd streamed by the window."

From the same collection, this alternative from "Mount Olympus" by Ben Bova, "Tomas Rodriguez looked happy as a puppy with an old sock to chew on as he and Fuchida got into their hard suits." What I like about Bova's is that nothing is really happening. It's the turn of phrase that sounds very American South coupled with a term I'm not sure of "hard suits" (space suits? something else?) that catches and holds my attention.

Let's see if there's anything else fun in here (BTW, I'm perusing the SEVENTEENTH ANNUAL YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Gardner Dozois). Okay, here's the beginning of Paul J. McAuley's, "How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen"--"You probably think you know everything about it." A provocative accusation in second-person (you) which jumps out and bites you, personally. This works for me, especially given the title of the story. Something like that could work for you, too, perhaps.

One thing that writing instructors will also tell you, but which I've actually found fairly useful, is that sometimes it's best to leave the beginning to the end. Which is to say, start the story wherever you need to in order to write it all the way to the end, and then, once all is said and typed, go back and revamp your hook so that it's catchier. Also, depending on how you write, you may not know what a story is about until it's over, and really, the beginning paragraph of a short story (or first chapter of the novel) should lay out the main conflict of the main character. It needs to answer the question: What’s at stake here? Who stands to lose the most?

Or not... what do you think?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Revisionism: Or, What I Do After "The End"

I’m finishing the rewrites and revisions on my novel, which has gotten me to thinking about the process of revision itself. Like writing, this is a very individual process, and there is no one way to do it – but it is something we as writers all do, to one degree or another.

Unlike some of my fellow Wyrdsmiths, I don’t revise as I go. I figured out long ago that I need to keep the momentum moving forward – that, for me, to stop and go back means possibly getting stuck in a cul de sac of rewrites. While this may lend a certain degree of spontaneity to the work, it also means that when I am finally done with the whole thing, I have one heck of a pile of comments from the group to go through.

So, how do I handle not only a pile of a manuscript, but also the five to seven printed copies with hand written comments, plus the notes I took at meeting, plus the changes I realize I need to make on my own?

Here’s what I did with the current book, "Dust and Steel". I will likely change it around next time, but in this case, the book was long, the plot and sub-plot complex, and the changes I ended up making significant in some ways. I also knew that I would only be able to work on the revisions in fits and starts due to life, which meant I had to start out organized so I could keep it all straight.

The Process:

1. First, I sit down and type up a rough Flow Outline of the book itself. This is a chapter by chapter break down of the key plot points and action in each chapter. I also note when characters are introduced for the first time. Even if you had a detailed outline to begin with, this is a good way to see what has changed in the writing, as well as get a feel for the overall flow of the book.

2. Next, I go through all of the notes I took during the critique process. Since I keep a specific Revision Notebook for this, they are all in one place, which makes life easier. I freely mark up, highlight and make margin notes throughout the notebook.

3. Then I open a new file on my computer and go through the MS comments from all of my critiquers, one chapter at a time. As I read each chapter’s comments, I type in key thoughts or suggestions under a separate bullet (and note who made them), along with any riffs and thoughts I come up with on my own. Note that I am already sifting at this point, taking some suggestions, discarding others, and so on.

If I have a change that will span several chapters, or will require me to back-track/leap forward in the book, I make a separate note in the back of my Revision Notebook.

4. After this, I go back through my critiquers’ notes (see step three) and add any that were left out to the revision file mentioned above.

5. Then, I re-read the book. All of it. However, I don’t linger over it. If something works, I leave it alone – if something is awkward, I note it in the margin and move on. I am not rewriting at this point: I am making a final pass, critiques in hand, and noting what I think needs to be changed on the page. I freely mark out whole pages, sections, and even chapters for deletion at this point if I feel I need to, only noting what will be used to replace them (if anything).

5 1/2. At the same time, I am keeping a set of what I call “Hand Notes”. This is usually a yellow legal pad with a page for each chapter. Here is where I scribble notes like “Foreshadow/build this up earlier” and “why does Character A do this if he wants that?” and so on. It is a conversation with myself that covers broader topics that I can fit in the margins.

6. Lastly, I take the Flow Outline and mark the bigger picture changes on it, including the ones in the back of my Revision Notebook, complete with lots of arrows and notes and all kinds of fun stuff. Yeah, I could type it all in, but I’m still a pen guy in many ways.

(Assembling the above can take a couple days to a week or two, depending on mow much you need to revise, length of MS, available time, how much coffee you consume, etc.)

Then I sit down, marked up master MS in one hand, revised flow outline in the other, hard copy of the revision file in the third, and hand notes in the fourth, and…

Hmm, four hands? I wish.

Is this a lot of work? Hell, yes. But if you are working with a more amorphous MS that has altered over time, like mine did, it is also a very good way of focusing your thoughts before jumping into the revision process. It is also easier to do if you are not on a deadline, or at least close to one.

Needless to say, this process isn’t for everyone, or even for every book. I am certainly going to work at keeping my next book tighter so I can skip at least some of this. At the same time, though, it is very thorough, and it gives you a chance to step back and see the book as a whole, rather than the specific sections you have been working on here and there. For that reason alone, I expect I am going to keep several of the aspects of the above process, only in a (hopefully) slightly more curtailed form.

So, what above works for you? What doesn’t? Too broad, too A-R, too limited? If you’re one of those writers who revises after typing “The End”, how do you do it?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Erotic Dark Fantasy: Things that Do More than Go Bump in the Night

A stolen idea for a blog from Catherine Lundoff:

"Stories detailing the romantic and sexual relationships of vampires, werewolves and other critters have been popular for years and are only getting more so. What's the allure? Who does this well? Would you really want to do the nasty with someone who smells like a wet wolfhound?"

No, and I also wouldn't want to have sex with someone whose skin is dead... and cold.

I actually have my character in Tall, Dark & Dead talk about this. In Garnet's own words she says: "The fact remained that he was dead. As a doornail. And dating doornails was no fun. Trust me, I tried being with a dead guy once and it was miserable. I found that whole cold skin thing a big turn off in the bedroom. You can only do so many things in a hot bath or shower, and even then the heat didn't... well, penetrate, if you know what I mean."

This was one of those contemporary fantasy moments where the reality, if you will, of having sex with an animated corpse makes for a humorous reflection by the main character. I intentionally asked myself the question Catherine wants the panel to consider: what nitty-gritty, true-life details would you encounter if you took a supernatural being to bed?

I also have Garnet deal with the fact that vampires are nocturnal, and eighty percent (smaller? higher?) of the world is not. Like the majority of people, Garnet has a day-job. Dating someone who comes out after sunset is hell on one's sleep schedule. I know a lot of people who exist on very few hours of sleep at night, but I'm not one of those. Even though I can do short bursts of late-night living, I find I generally need to get eight hours of sleep (or more!) or I get really cranky. And, part of how I deal with writing contemporary fantasy is asking myself: what would it be like for me? Thus, Garnet ended up skipping a lot of work to nap.

The question is actually a gnarly one, because there is a kind of line you have to walk when you write fantasy. Getting the details "right" makes the story ring true, but if you were to say go into great detail about sleeping with a corpse you run the risk of losing a large percentage of your intended audience (minus, of course, the necrophiliacs.)

I guess the answer is to put in just enough to keep things real and willfully ignore the rest.

Quickie Update: Book Title

My publisher didn't like any of my suggestions to them, after all. So, I just wanted to let you all know that the third Garnet Lacey book will be named....

(drum roll, please)


Between you and me (and the rest of the blogverse) I liked RIGOR GORGEOUS and DEAD ON AROUSAL better.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another Quick Hit

Since we often report on SF community dust-ups, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention this one that's been raging over on the Asimov's message board: Sexism and Science.

Beware: it's maddening.

Quick Hit: Read A Book in a Day

Here's a fun challenge I ran across on the web today: Read A Book In A Day. The idea is to take a day off during a specified time and spend the day reading. Sounds kind of dreamy, doesn't it? Anyway, if you want to participate, check out the link and follow the instructions. They do something quarterly, but if you joing the community you can post any time you read a book and encourage others to join you in an impromtu "cover to cover challenge."

I brought several books to Indiana (where I'm vacationing right now) and my just give it a try. My biggest question is... which book?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Title Woes

This happens to me with every book, and I need YOUR help. My editor rejected DROP-DEAD GORGEOUS as a title, because it's been used recently by MaryJanice Davidson. However, they'd still like a title with DEAD in it and, of course, there's an extra constraint... in order to be consistant with the previous books, the title needs to be a description of various states of sexiness, ala. TALL, DARK & DEAD and DEAD SEXY.

Currently, I've suggested DEAD ON, which might do in a pinch, but I'd welcome any and all suggestions. In fact, let's make this a contest.... if anyone from this blog comes up with a title I can use, I'll mention your name in the acknowledgements!

So... ideas, anyone?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reader's Reaction

I have to say one of the most interesting dynamics of the internets is the meta-conversation that goes on between people who have never met but nevertheless spend a fair amount of time reading and reacting to each other.

Morgan Dhu, one of our regular commentors, recently acquired our two group publications--our 2005 chapbook, "Tales from the Black Dog" and our 2006 anthology, New Wyrd. Ad then, because she longs for the days of yore when book kreports were requirements--or maybe because she needs a daily dose of pain--she writes up some rather lovely mini-essays on what she has read. All I can say is thank you, Morgan Dhu--your effort is our boon!

Recently, she gave her response on our two offerings. Read, if you have eyes with which to see! (And if you don't, read anyway! Your screen reader will work exceedingly well on her blog!)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Minor Infestation of Goblins

Due to a minor infestation of goblins and other such vacation related fancies I'll be off line for the next two weeks. So, if you're wondering why I'm not commenting, have no worries that the woodchucks have gotten me back in their clutches. It's just a case of goblins, and nothing to worry about.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard

One thing that all of us seem to agree on is that humor is difficult partly because it’s so subjective. As Eleanor says, what’s funny for me might not be funny for you.

One thing that Sean and I talked about when we first discussed this issue is that I’ve come to believe that one thing a writer needs to convey in order to successfully pull off interpersonal humor (like sarcasm, as opposed to say, slapstick,) is information. Interpersonal humor works when we _know_ the quirks and foibles of the people involved. They need to be people we can laugh with (or at). To do this well, in my opinion, you have to be superb at characterization.

I suggest then that one of the best places to start is by establishing your main character as someone the reader can trust to not mock people out of meanness, but out of a kind of appreciation or even love. Interpersonal humor is difficult because I think that there _is_ a fine line between laughing with someone and at them. An author needs to approach that division very carefully. I agree with Kelly that one of the best ways to deal with the issue of “meanness” is to remember that it is far more sympathetic for a main character to poke fun at themselves than at others. So, if you can establish your view point character who happily laughs at their own stupidity, I think a reader is then better able to accept when s/he pokes fun at other people’s idiocy, because you know s/he’s someone who is, at the very least, willing to laugh at her/himself for the same “mistakes.”

It establishes a baseline kindness. To be successfully snarky or sarcastic in text (and perhaps in life), I believe you ultimately have to be decent and nice. I think this especially important if you chose to introduce characters who are larger than life. I’m thinking of the character grandma in the Stephanie Plum series (by Janet Evonivich, ONE FOR THE MONEY). For me, those kinds of crazy, almost unrealistically hilarious characters work because Stephanie Plum loves them. She observes their insanity through the filter of familial bonds based in love. Even her father, who could read as dark and cantankerous reads as sweet and lovable because Stephanie’s word choice and description of him make her own appreciation for him obvious to the reader.

Just my two cents. Arguments? Agreements?

More about Humor

Kelly is right. The way to find out if your writing is funny is show it to other people. The very best technique is to do a reading and see if people laugh in the right places. Next best is to hand the m.s. to several readers.

I think all of my writing is funny, but I realize -- thinking about the topic -- that humor, neat ideas and sense of wonder are all pretty closely related in my mind. Even a bleak idea is can be funny, if it's really neat. Terry Pratchett's clowns are both bleak and funny.

Chick Lit humor, which I know only from Tate's novels, is a category of its own and seems to require lightness. I might be able to do Chick Lit humor, if a gun was put against my head, but it would be difficult and I might well get blown away.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Humor Again

Satire, parody, slapstick, comedy of manners, wit, puns, the humor of exageration, the humor of understatement... I'm not sure what they have in common, other than being funny.

Think of Terry Pratchett's clowns, who are funny because they are so unfunny.


So in response to Sean's question of how do you write funny, I have this to say: Use your toes.

But seriously, this is a really tough question, and I'm not sure there is a satisfactory answer. Humor is incredibly subjective and the line between funny for me and funny for you is thin one. There are jokes that I find hysterically funny that my wife barely laughs at and vice-versa. Likewise, delivery matters.

There are jokes that are funny when told by a master that aren't funny at all when an amateur tells them. There are jokes that are funny only because of very specific cultural contexts and jokes that are only funny when one person tells them. There are jokes tuned for gender, for age, for military experience. There is, in short, almost no such thing as a universal joke.

Medium matters too. I know people who are very funny in print but who aren't often funny in person, and vice-versa. That has a lot to do with context and subtext. When you tell a joke or make a funny comment in person, you're using a very different set of tools than when you do the same thing textually. Things that could sound quite mean or hurtful on the page can be delivered in person with the appropriate tone and body language to convey that the whole thing is really good natured. Just as something that might seem flat and overly subtle in person can be hysterically funny on the page.

None of which answers the question. I write humor almost as easily as I breathe. Even in my very earliest attempts at fiction I could often generate an out loud laugh in my reader. How do I do it?

Some of it is a talent for the funny in text, and I don't have any idea how to transfer it. Some of it is by creating characters with a long term friendly fencing relationship, so that the reader know that even the mean jokes are in the spirit of fun. Some of it is always directing the harshest jabs at my protagonist so that the reader gets it filtered through the (unhurt) eyes of my main character. Some of it is by making a lot of the humor self-directed. You're allowed to say awful but funny things about yourself that you would never consider saying about someone else. Some of it comes from always making sure that the characters are aware of the absurd in their situation--not by breaking the 4th wall and talking to the audience, but by realizing the inherent humor of being chased by a 600 foot firebreathing teal woodchuck.

Oh, and at least in my case, humor tends to be very very dark. A moderately funny bit in the midst of the world coming apart can be much funnier than the best joke ever while your characters are having a happy tea with no danger in sight.

Finally, a lot of it is hit and miss and fearlessness. You put the joke in and see who laughs. If you've got beta readers and writers group readers they'll tell you when you're funny and when you're not. You also understand that sometimes you fail with some readers, that something that's funny for one reader won't be for another and you accept that you can't make everybody laugh all the time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse, the author of the Jeeves stories, is a very funny writer. Early in his career, he wrote schoolboy stories -- a genre J.K. Rowling has continued -- and Broadway comedies.

His best fiction has the intricate plotting and flawless pacing of a good stage comedy.

In addition, he is a wonderful stylist.

But his fiction is almost content free. Think about Harry Potter without darkness or growth -- a schoolboy story where no one learns or changes.

It doesn't matter. Wodehouse is fiction as juggling or dance. And maybe some of the humor comes from the perfection of a story which says nothing important.

And maybe there is a content I can't see.

A friend found a chapbook edition of a P.G. Wodehouse story translated into Medieval Icelandic, bought it and gave it to me. The perfect gift, and a funny idea.


Hoo, boy. This is a huge topic. I don't think put downs -- of oneself or others -- are funny.

What is funny? Terry Pratchett is funny. Other than TP, disjunctions, incongruities and surprises are funny. The following is funny:

When the enemies of Gunnar of Hlidarend went after him, they snuck up on his house after dark. One man was sent ahead to find out if Gunnar was home, and Gunnar put a spear through the guy. He staggered back to where the rest of the party was. They could hear him, but couldn't see him clearly.

"Well," asked one. "Is Gunner home?"

"You will have to find that out for yourself," the scout said. "But I can tell you this much. His spear was home." And then he fell dead.

This is a 13th century Icelandic joke, and it is a laugh riot.

What's funny about it? Mostly the utter coolness of making a joke like this while you are dying. I mean, most of us would reply, "Shriek! Moan! Effing A he's home. I'm dying! I'm dying!" Thud.

Quick Hit

Eleanor is once again saying smart things about writing on her blog. This time on the subject of what the writer owes the reader. It's a fascinating topic and one I may take up when I return from vacation.

Can You Tell Me How To Get, How To Get To Humorous Street?

I've mentioned before that I'm currently working on a chick-lit murder mystery novel. It's been a strange process, because I'm really learning a different form--or perhaps, a couple of different forms. I've got to develop a voice for chick-lit, and I've got to work out the basic structure of how to tell a mystery effectively. Both reasonably difficult challenges when tackled for the first time.

So, as normal, I'm trying to work my way into writing this story, and I've written the first chapter a few times--testing out the waters, as it were. I've tried third person and first person, starting at point A and at point B. I've found I l=really like the use of the first person for developng the voice of the character, which is great for building the narrative. But when I had my first readers look at that version, I heard one thing back--"She's mean."


I thought she was snarky, a little sarcastic, funny in an audience-insider sort of way, rubbing elbows with the reader. "Isn't she funny?" I asked.

"No, not at all," I heard back. "She's just... mean. Angry."

Okay, well, she did just go through a break-up of a five-year long relationship, but still, she can't come across as mean. She needs to be funny, or the character won't work.

"Not funny?" I double-checked.

"Still no."


And I thought, and I thought, a long long deep think... and slowly I came to a terrifying realization:

I have no idea how to write funny.

Oh, you've got to be kidding. I've written funny before, but it seems that somewhere along the way I lost touch with the funny. Not sure where it went. Maybe Kelly's marauding woodchucks pilfered it.

It's so different from sounding or acting funny, where intonation, volume, accent, physical language, etc. can all be used as cues that something is not to be taken seriously, or that another character's voice is being adopted. Those things just aren't there as words on a page, and so there have to be other ways to cue the reader that there is a shift--without using a two by four and telling them (here's a joke coming up, get ready!).

So, dear readers: How much does your sympathy for a character relate, in a light, fun read, to how funny they are? What are some of your favorite funny characters, or scenes? And what makes them funny to you? How does reading something funny differ from hearing it, or seeing it?

Monday, June 04, 2007

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Outline

As I'm still recovering from WisCON, I thought I'd run one more re-run from my blog....

The only stories (including novels) that I have ever been able to finish are the ones where I already know the ending.

I don't have to know, chapter by chapter, what's going to happen, but I do need a sense of where I'm going. Science fiction author Joan Vinge once told me in an interview I did with her that the way she conceptulizes the process of novel writing is with the metaphor of a road trip. For her, novel writing is like knowing that you want to go to California with a bunch of friends. You don't know exactly where you're going (San Diego? Sacramento? Oakland?) or what's going to befall you on the trip (flat tire? in-car romances? too much drinking in Alberquerue that ends with a night in the poky?), but you've got your eyes set on California. Thus, there's plenty of wiggle room for that "magic" a lot of writers talk about where their characters do things the author isn't expecting them to, but you still have a goal, an end, in sight. This is exactly how I write.

I find, in fact, the more I've planned out my "trip," if you will, the tighter I write. I'm not a big fan of that bizarro advice often told to novice novel writers which involves colored index cards and a ridiculous amount of time spent organizing and brainstorming. But lately I've written to proposal, which is basically a synopsis of a book not written yet. A good synopsis is a sketch of the important emotional and action highlights, and knowing what those are going to be before I write saves me a lot of useless meandering down the backroads, if you know what I mean. I think of my synopsis as a kind of map to get me where I'm going faster and more efficiently.

Not everybody writes like me, though.

My bottom line feeling about outlines (and index cards for that matter) is that if you're having trouble writing, see if it helps. If you find the process a hinderance, stop. Anything that keeps you from writing is evil. This extends to index cards.