QueryTracker Blog

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing humor

After last Friday's April Fools pulse, I was asked to blog about writing humor. But keep in mind: there's nothing more serious than writing about the techniques of humor. So…no laughing today. Sorry.

Satire is right up my alley. If you list every one of my publications, the majority of them are either satire or humor, and even my serious pieces have funny moments. I believe exercising our sense of humor makes us more human and less apt to get upset over small matters. I would never have survived the querying process without a sense of humor.

Humor in the middle of a serious novel can break up the tension and give your reader a much-needed break. Laughter helps us connect with the characters so we feel as if we're on their side. That doesn't mean villains can't use humor too. In fact, I think they should. But in general, humor makes characters and books more appealing. So we have to learn to use it well.

Humor in general arises from a surprise. When we're looking for laughs, the key is to take something familiar and frame it in an unfamiliar way, turning it on its head in the process. In order to do that, you need to know your material inside-out. For satire in particular, you need a thorough familiarity with every aspect of what you're satirizing, and then take every aspect of it and wrench it around sideways. 

Robert Darden, editor of The Wittenburg Door, rejected one of my pieces with advice that has paid off in spades ever since: keep it focused. Short humor pieces need one point, and you can build from there. (I rewrote the piece and he accepted it.) Sometimes we're trying to do too much. Neil Gaiman said that when writing Good Omens with co-author Terry Pratchett, the most shocking thing was how much hilarious material they threw away. It just didn't fit the focus. 

So let's go back to last Friday's Pulse, since it seems to have most of the elements of good satire and good parody (although that doesn't mean it was good -- only that it shares the same elements, like being written in full sentences):

The absurd: everyone announces movie deals, but would anyone really film a movie about a man designing a database? If you've been here for a while, you recognize that the "five hot women" who join his quest (database =/= quest) would be the five blogging authors in the sidebar. Then we take it over the top with a famous actor and musicians, and polish it off by saying one of the writers will have a cameo in the movie. It all sounds totally normal if you've ever read about a movie deal, but it's absurd.

Inversions: we're used to romance writers crafting stories about vampires; a vampire writing a story about romance is the reverse.

Hidden bonuses: Our artwork didn't win an award, but you wouldn't see that line unless you read the caption. Did you notice my author photo was flipped? Did you translate the Latin name of the shark?

Insider knowledge and subtlety: twisted agent names, subjects agents do blog on but wildly inverted, a new feature announced in exactly the wording Patrick normally announces them. Listen to master parodist Weird Al Yankovik: the littlest quirks of the songs he parodies will turn up in his versions, right down to holding the last note too long on "Spam." 

Irony: The "prize" for the one billionth query letter is that you get a response to your query. it's exactly the same as the "prize" for sending the 384,797th query.

Bad puns: well, those speak for themselves. I'm sure you found at least three.

A disappearing author: for satire and parody, you as the writer need to immerse yourself in the thing you're sending up so none of your own voice comes through. Become what you're satirizing. Again look to Weird Al as the master chameleon, and notice the range of voices he's able to imitate.

A point: satire should have a point, albeit subtle; parody doesn't need one. 

And finally, take it over the top.  If you have a singing query letter, follow your idea through all the way to the end. How did this start? How would it be implemented? How would the agents react? And then, how would you take a question authors frequently ask about their query letters (such as pitching a multiple-POV novel) and apply it to song?

There you have it. All the elements you need, although I have to add that a warped childhood and a decade of reading every issue of MAD Magazine  are extraordinarily helpful as well.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the unrivaled Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Deb said...

Thank you so much for this! I am printing it off. Love reading humor (love it!) and am working on writing it.

Kelly said...

Thank you for this! Love the humor: reading and writing it! (I heart Weird Al too)

Deb Salisbury said...

Hmm. Now I see why my humor falls flat - I try to be too subtle (translate that as: I'm too cowardly to take it all the way).

Thanks for a great post!

Josh Hoyt said...

Good post. I have the hardest time with writing comedy. My books lack this element and this is a great blog to help me improve this.

Nikki said...

Great post! The only thing better than a good laugh is being the source of that laughter.

Raising Marshmallows

Val Thevictorian said...

Now I know how my son felt when his third-grade teacher told him how hot dogs were made.

G said...

I haven't tried writing too much in the way of humor in my stories as I prefer to use it in my blog, where I have lots of fun poking fun at myself and everything else.

And I find MAD magazine and Looney Tunes to be an excellent source of material, along with pop culture too.

Carolyn Kaufman said...

Thanks for writing about this, Jane! Great post!

Jack LaBloom said...

Great post, Jane. Laughter is a good tonic for several ailments. Being a writer of hysterical romance novels, I keep hoping one of those romance publishers will swallow some of my medicine. Especially the one who wrote back that my romance was contemporary, not historical, and I should use spell check before querying again.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Yay, you wrote the post. Thanks, Jane. :D