Friday, March 28, 2008

Novel Writing: Humor Me

I'm spending a few weeks sharing tips and observations about novel writing. This week I'm going to focus on one of my favorite topics: humor. I've read many novels and believe over and over that light touches of humor would have improved the stories.

What is humor? I think in the simplest terms it is the ability of people, objects, situations or words to make us experience amusement or happiness. I do think that humor is really about touching the the universal incongruities that are connections between us all. Think about this quote from Jane Austen. "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?" Just so, Jane. Just so. Humor is something decidedly human. It's the slant in our worldview that brings much needed levity into our lives. We need that light in our stories.

Consider. It is hard to make someone laugh, especially without the support of any visual enhancement, like rolled eyes, yuk-yuks or guffaws. Still, this kind of writing is generally considered base and inconsequential. Humorous books usually don't win awards, but they do win the hearts of readers. I still have a dog-eared copy of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in my favorite books box under my bed. Destroying the Earth to make room for an interstellar highway touches the universal inside me. We all connect with the idea of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. I'm still laughing.

How do we incorporate humor into our books? Think of a book as a hand of cards, one played after another. The best writers are aware that jokers are lurking in the deck. Think about this first line of a book that is serious as a heart attack, Feed. "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." This line haunts me and makes me laugh at the same time. In Feed by M. T. Anderson nails the mix of humor and tragedy that is a spot on reflection of life. His observation certainly touches the universal feeling within us all that the great adventure of our life has often turned out to suck. As a collective we can connect with that idea. This is the heart of humor.

Humor relieves intense pain. Humor binds people together. Humor brings us together to laugh and play. It is an emotional response that is derived from the power of words. Our response to humor is instinctive. It is a response to the social nature of the human condition. Our minds search for patterns within stories. Think about this familiar pattern: Boy gets girl; boy loses girl. Boy gets girl again. Now let's disrupt the pattern: Boy gets girl; boy loses girl. Girl kicks boy's ass. The disruption of the pattern creates an opportunity for humor. Look for places to surprise your reader. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is created, the result can be a big laugh.

Look for opportunities to twist the familiar patterns. Step into satire. Try to get more out of humor by adding a barb of the writer's firm belief to that one liner. You can generate humor by approving of things you really wish to attack. Don't underestimate the power of humor.

Wow, I've got a lot to say about this topic! I'll write more about the nuts and bolts of generating a laugh later. I hope that you have found something here that will bring power to your storytelling. Think about it. Write it. Make them laugh.

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
William Shakespeare

Friday, March 21, 2008

Novel Writing: Revision

I'm taking time over a few posts to share some of my knowledge about novel writing. I've had at least five people moan to me recently about how hard it is to revise. I've shared a thing or two about revision before, but I thought I would expand on that today. Once you have written your first draft, do a jig out on the back deck. That is a big accomplishment! Next, you need to sit on a lawn chair and realize that this book is bad. Really Bad! I know that there are a few one draft wonders out there, but the rest of us write gosh awful first drafts. It's time to get to work. I break revision into segments, or I would never do it.

My first thing is to make sure the plot makes sense and that it has enough twists and turns to keep the reader reading. This is a vicious time and I toss entire chapters quite regularly, and, just to give you a hint, those chapters that get tossed, inevitably one of them is in first five. You may also have to toss out a third of the novel and rewrite it. You may have to toss more. Once you realize this, perhaps shut the laptop and go in search of chocolate, coffee and other useful medications. A great plot takes guts, grit and determination on the part of the writer.

Next, I print a few chapters at a time and take a red pen to them. Lots of scenes get cut. The question is simple: Does this scene move the story forward? I delete all inadvertent rambling about sunsets, excessive delving into how my characters feel, and gorgeous page long descriptions of rainbows and waterfalls. Yes, I delete them. No matter if they are genuis (and of course they are). When I'm done, I'm certain that I'm left the solid bones. This framework is cohesive and sound.

I run back on the deck and do another jig (my neighbors love me) and then throw the manuscript in a drawer for another few weeks. Whoa, what happens to the time. I pull that manuscript back out and work on characterization. I read the manuscript aloud and listen. Do my characters sound real? Are these characters worth caring about? Are their voices all true and unique? For some reason, in my first draft, I often find that I give a scene to the wrong character. I fix that. Does each character have a flawed personality or did I create perfect card board cut-outs? Do I need all the characters or do some need to be deleted or integrated with others?

That's about a month to a month and a half of revision for me. I hope you've found something helpful here. I'm going to add more later. Keep checking back.

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, "Make it shine. It's worth it." Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It's a new vision of something. It means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!

Naomi Shihab Nye

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Novel Writing: Setting As Character

I've been taking a few posts to share some information about novel writing. This week I will focus on setting, and specifically how to get more mileage out of the setting by considering it a character in the story.

What exactly is setting? It is the milieu: the social and physical environment that wraps around the characters and events of a story. The more present the writer is with this milieu, the more complex and textured the story. An effective setting must have depths and layers and be true to life just like a believable character. The setting must contain unexpected incongruities. The best settings are showcased by revealing flaws not perfections.

The setting will help create the tone of a story. If a story is lighthearted, pensive or tragic, specific setting details can bring cohesion to the author's intent. Tone is about considering how you, the author, view your story. Are you angry, amused, or passionate? Hopping bunnies and flitting fireflies may be just the ticket to slant in your sarcastic view of your story. You as the author may have very complex feelings about your story; the setting is a great place to connect the reader with your attitude.

Also, consider the mood of the story. Generally the mood of the story rises directly from the reactions of the main protagonist. Using the setting to reflect these reactions is a power device. Think about this classic moment. In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the Gothic lightning bolt strikes the tree just as the brooding Mr. Rochester makes a fateful decision to marry his Jane. This bolt signals the storm that will destroy his and Jane's happiness for a time. This is an over the top classic moment but gets the point across. Be mindful of the setting details and how they reflect the characters choices. This will serve as a support structure for the original voice.

It is a useful exercise to write a scene in a working story in a new way. Think about the context of the scene like a depiction of a first betrayal. Take this context and then rewrite the scene but use only the setting of your story to reveal this context. Does a spider pounce on its prey? Does the wind tear glorious fall leaves from a tree? Does the ocean wash away a fortress of sand? Will the unwelcome smell of burnt toast flood a rose garden? Exploring context through setting is a way to expand your storytelling skills. Give it a try.

I hope something here will bring richness to your endeavors. I've been traveling, so not very much writing over the past couple weeks. I've reached the 40,000 word mark with my work-in-progress. I turned in my two picture books, received copies of two other books and am working on a polish of a favored manuscript.

I leave you with a poem that perhaps says more about what I am trying to say than all my words put together.

The Fog
by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Novel Writing: First Chapters

Yes, my novel writing is continuing along. This was not the best of weeks for volume, but was decent for story structure, so yay! I'm at 38,780 words this week. I will be gone next week, so I won't be posting again until March 14, 2008.

This week I'm going to chat about first chapters. They are difficult to write, but I have a thought or two about how to make them happen well.

Don't be afraid of developing a setting. Be lavish in your description. I like to throw everything in at first. I give myself permission to be untamed and uninhibited in that first chapter, understanding at some point I will have to go through the entire thing at least dozens of times, refining and polishing.

I approach each first chapter from any angle. I open up to possibilities of shifting the voice, tense, and POV. This is where I pull out my mad skills. I find that a first chapter is not the place for a faint heart. Spin your tale out; believe you have a miraculous ability like a spider. Know you are able to cast out a web, though it starts as one thread after another, in the morning light, drenched by dew, it is a miracle to all that behold it.

Let every voice you've ever heard cheer you on. Be mad, fierce, fearless. Be willing to throw it all out and start again. The first chapter is the place to celebrate, anticipate, and conjure up that which is to come. This is the time to believe in magic, luck, angels, heaven, hell, hope, despair, just throw it all in, the more the better.

Here is the place that faith is born. Your words will create in your readers an unstoppable hunger, vision and passion; respect this with your whole heart. If you do these things, you will find your way. You will say, “This is what I meant to say.”

From Psalm 20, verse 5: We will shout for joy when you are victorious. . .