Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hitting the Funny Bone

     Kids love funny stories.
     So do editors! They know that funny stories make reading fun for their readers, even the kids with poor skills or little motivation. They understand that humor makes age-old themes seem fresh. And they appreciate how moral lessons become more palatable and less preachy when served up with some laughter.
      How can you give editors what they’re looking for? Just write something funny.
      If only it were that simple! Writing humor is serious business – and more difficult than most people realize. No one can tell you how to write a funny story, but here are a few practical suggestions for getting humor into what you write.

1) Make your main character interact with a "little" kid. In a children’s story, a "little" kid is anybody younger than your readers. From the lofty reaches of your readers’ greater maturity and experience, a little kid’s mistakes, character flaws, and reactions are terribly funny. A further element of humor comes in with your main character’s frustrations dealing with the little kid. The Fudge books by Judy Blume are, of course, masterpieces in the use of this method, but it works well in short stories, too.
     For example, the humor in my story, "Horse Fever," (My Friend, February, 2001) comes from both little sister Ruthie’s belief that she can grow up to be a horse and big sister Amber’s difficulties convincing her of the truth. In the following scene, Amber tries to use a book about horses to get Ruthie to understand reality:

     When we came to a picture of a colt, I said, "Why is that horse so little?"
     "Because," Ruthie said, "it’s a baby horse."
     "And one day it’ll be a grown-up horse, right?"
     "Unless is wants to be a efelant," she said.
     "A what?"
     "Efelant! You know, with a long nose!"
     "Ruthie!" I cried. "A baby horse isn’t going to grow up to be an elephant!"
     "You’re probably right," she said thoughtfully. "Being a horse is the best thing. I bet that baby horse doesn’t want to change."
     "It can’t change!" I shouted.
     "Amber," said Ruthie very seriously. "The baby horse has to decide for itself."

2) Let your main character dig himself a nice, deep hole. Whatever wrong thing the main character is doing, don’t let him get caught too quickly. Build humor by allowing him to succeed awhile, making ridiculous excuses, and fooling himself (but not your readers) that he’s going to keep getting away with things.
     For example, in my play "Would I Lie to You?" (Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004) the main character tells big stories to impress the other kids. Of course, they eventually realize that she’s lying, and she loses everybody’s trust. Pretty deep hole, huh? But the main character digs herself in even further by pretending to be her own twin sister in order to get a fresh start! This situation provided lots of opportunities for funny interactions between the girl and the other characters before she had to do the right thing and ‘fess up.

3) Annoy your main character. If you want to really crack up your readers, bug the heck out of the main character while he deals with his troubles. For example, a story about a kid whose parents send her to summer camp even though she hates the outdoors has great potential for humor. But the story becomes even funnier if she has to partner up with someone who’s a camping fanatic. That secondary character can drive her nuts by relishing everything she detests!
     A lot of funny things could happen in a story about an only child staying with a swarm of cousins, especially if the main character has a hard time adjusting to being around so many people. However, more humor might develop if the cousins live in a teeny house where the main character has to share a barracks-like bedroom and one little bathroom. The extra layer of aggravation could push the humor over the edge from amusing to hilarious.

4) Write in first person. In a third-person story, you can report what your main character is thinking and feeling, but you can’t flavor the whole story with the character’s attitude. Compare these two examples, written about the same incident:

     For the next week, Sophie’s brothers hid in their room, working on their Christmas gifts for her. They often borrowed art supplies from Sophie. And they told her that she would never guess what they were making. The boys were excited about their gifts, but Sophie didn’t expect to be impressed by anything they made.

     Over the next week, the boys acted so-o-o secretive about the gifts they were making for me. They kept borrowing things like crayons and markers and other supplies. And they kept saying "mysterious’ stuff like, "You’ll never guess what I’m making, Sophie!" Like they could be making anything good with old tissue boxes and cardboard!
("A Handmade Christmas," My Friend, December, 2001)

     The second sample has a more humorous tone because every sentence is filtered through Sophie. Her underwhelming enthusiasm for her brothers’ homemade gifts couldn’t be clearer. Her attitude makes this paragraph funny – and sets the stage for later laughs when Sophie’s gifts are even worse than she expected.

5) Use a funny event from real life as the seed for a story. The humorous anecdotes that people tell you...the family stories that crack everyone up...the embarrassing moments that eventually become cocktail party stories...Don’t write about them just as they happened. Almost NEVER does a real-life event make a good story when told factually. However, a funny happening can inspire a funny story.
     For example, my grandfather visited my parents the night before their first Thanksgiving together. When he found they didn’t have the money for a feast, he insisted on buying them a turkey. The store had closed just before they arrived, but Grandpa got my parents their dinner by flapping his elbows and gobbling loudly until the store workers cracked up, reopened the store, and sold him a turkey.
In my family, we always laughed when my dad told that tale, and I often thought I might write about it. The problem was: it made a nice anecdote, but there wasn’t really a whole story there.
     Eventually I realized that I could just use the incident as an inspiration. I wrote a story (and later a play) about a boy whose grandfather moves in and does all kinds of embarrassing things. ("My Roommate - Grandpa!" story - Pockets, May, 1993; play - Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004.) When the family’s financial troubles keep the boy from having the special feast he wants for his birthday, his grandfather does my grandfather’s turkey act with the same results. The real-life incident became the pivotal moment that showed the main character the love behind Grandpa’s antics.

6) Remember that the humor isn’t the point. Sure, kids enjoy reading funny stories, but a good story doesn’t just make readers laugh. A good story makes them think and feel. Setting out to "write a funny story" without any purpose or direction usually won’t work. The story doesn’t hold together well, and the humor often falls flat because it doesn’t have a real point. Before you write, decide what you want your readers to get out of your story. If you can communicate those ideas and feelings through humor, then go ahead and write a funny story. If not, stick to a more serious style. Editors need good stories of all kinds!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Getting motivated to write

Maybe you’ve heard the story about Michelangelo and the block of marble that would one day be his statue of David. Some important guy – a prince or something – heard that Michelangelo hadn’t done anything with the marble even though he’d had it for months. The man went to see about this himself and found the artist just standing there, staring at the huge block of stone. “What are you doing?” asked the visitor.

Michelangelo replied, “I’m working.”

I imagine Michelangelo was thinking, planning, visualizing, dreaming up and rejecting ideas, preparing himself to create. He really was working!

A lot of a writer’s work is invisible, too, because it goes on inside the mind. But too many times we tell ourselves we’re doing the Michelangelo thing when we’re really just stalling around. Writing is tough. It’s hard to start writing. It’s hard to keep writing. It’s hard to rewrite as much as you should.

Here are some ideas for getting and staying motivated. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, but hopefully one or more of these suggestions will help!

Set a reasonable goal.Okay, everybody tries setting goals. The problem is that most writers set pie-in the-sky goals that are just too hard to meet. (Like you’re going to get up a four in the morning every day and work on your novel!) You need to set a goal you can actually achieve. And if you really have trouble getting yourself to write, make your goal so easy that you’d feel ashamed to miss it. That way you’ll get somewhere with your writing even if it is just a little at a time – and you can feel proud when you overachieve!

Lose the not-worth-it attitude.It’s wonderful to have a whole hour, a whole afternoon, a whole day to write. (I was so happy when I was able to quit teaching and write!) But usually real life doesn’t allow that. It’s easy to feel there’s no point in even trying to write when you have tight time limits. Why, you’ll barely get started! And you certainly won’t get very far! And the end is nowhere in sight! Why bother? But even though it’s slow and inefficient, writing in little pieces can really work. Eventually you’ll write a whole something. Keep waiting until you have plenty of time, and you’ll eventually write…nothing whatsoever.

Work on several projects at a time.
It seems counterintuitive, but working on several pieces of writing at once can be easier than concentrating on just one. When you have a single writing project, hitting a snag can stop you cold. You sit there for ages, unable to decide what to write next, getting more and more discouraged until you finally quit, never to return to the computer until you’ve worked through the problem, which, face it, could take months. But if you keep several projects in the works, you can set aside a piece that’s not working and move on to something else. And something else if you have problems with that piece. Having several projects also makes it easier to start writing because you have a choice of possible projects.

Make the job fit.To keep yourself working for all of your valuable writing period, match your writing tasks to your personality and energy level. If you’re someone who works best when you’re fresh then start writing as soon as you hit your desk. Don’t squander your most productive time on checking your email, printing address labels, doing research, and the like. You can turn to those tasks later when you’re getting tired. Having some easier jobs at that time can keep you from quitting early. If you’re someone who needs to settle in a bit first, then go ahead and do some of those jobs. Just be sure to watch the clock so you don’t piddle away your time.

When you’re wrestling with a story, taking a moment away can really help. You can do that by setting the story aside and working on another writing project. (See #3.) Doing something unrelated to writing can help, too, so you might just step away from your desk for a few minutes, get a cup of coffee, sit on your deck awhile, or walk the dog. But be careful – and honest with yourself. If a certain activity tends to lead you into the temptation of just quitting for the day, don’t even start it. Substitute a less tempting activity and set a time limit for it.
You can keep your writing energy up over time by refreshing yourself with some nonverbal activities. Art classes, hobbies, and sports give you a break from all those words, words, words so you can come back to writing feeling renewed and open to new ideas.

Join a critique group.Getting together regularly with other writers is one of the most motivating things you can do. Reading other people’s work inspires you to write yourself. The support you get from writing friends keeps you going. Other writers’ suggestions help you improve your work which makes you want to write more. And needing material for your meetings encourages you to write on a routine schedule.

End with a jumpstart.
When you reach the end of one writing session, set things up so it’ll be easier to get started next time. Some writers stop in the middle of something – an exciting scene, an interesting dialogue, or even a sentence! I sometimes jot a few notes about where I’m planning to go next: a few words about plot, a snippet of possible dialogue, a question. If you’re using some kind of outline, check off what you’ve finished. Even just straightening up your desk and setting out what you need next time can help you get a good start.

Be nice to yourself.You’re trying to do something really hard so cut yourself some slack. Gag that critical inner voice, and take joy in what you’ve written. Write as much as you can but don’t hate yourself if that darn stupid real life gets in the way. When you can’t write, let your mind imagine, dream, plan, and prepare what you’ll write next. Who knows? You might be working on your masterpiece!

For more about writing, visit