Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to Write Humor - or Not

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by C. Patrick Schulze 
Listen to a four-minute PODCAST of this article. 
At my writers' group not too long ago, I brought a chapter from my current manuscript for everyone to critique. I wrote that specific chapter to introduce levity into a serious situation, comic relief and all that. 
The women at the table read with furrowed brows and penned their critiques in their continual and honest attempts to help. However, the one other guy at the table began to read, put his pen down and howled out loud. He guffawed until after he finished reading.

Now I wished for the humor of the scene to come through, but I wanted the women to enjoy it too. To say they did not, is quite the understatement. The guy thought it "great," whereas not a single woman so much as snickered. Why?

I had come face-to-face with the realities of writing humor. It's tough.

One difficulty we as writers face lies in the fact most of the tools of humor are lost to us. We don't have the advantage of props, facial expressions, tone of voice, foul or unusual noises, and of course, body language.

Another issue with writing humor is it's subjective. What's humorous to one is insipid to another. Further, one's sense of humor is steeped in their upbringing, their experiences and so many other personal aspects of their life.

Also, when writing novels you have a different storyline in play. This storyline, or plot, is often what distracts from the humor and vice-versa.

So, as authors, what can we do to improve our humorous writing?

First of all, believe truth is much funnier than fiction, so look at life. I have a life-long friend who is writing a novel about being a left-handed, only child.

The secret to overcome the subjective aspect to humor is to write about those universal truths in which all humans find levity.

Don't try to write a humorous novel, write a novel with humorous events.

Understand that humor is imprecise. You should, therefore, choose your words with care and take advantage of your thesaurus. Though humor can be defined by both "absurdity" or "wit," the difference between those two words can evoke a wide range of readers' emotions.

Try to surprise your reader. Few things create more humor than a fun shock. The fact the unexpected causes people to laugh is so common a phenomena it has a name. It's called the Incongruity Theory.

Humor, if effective, can improve the flow or pace of your novel and can even make it more memorable.

Become a thief. Yes, the best humor may just lie in the hands of others. Steal it and use it. Oh, yeah, and paraphrase.

Now here's a clue from the famous comedian Dave Barry. He says he uses the funniest sentence at the end of his paragraph and his funniest word at the end of the sentence.

The final secret relative to writing humor I'd like to pass along to everyone is this: Humor is not found in the writing of it. It's found in the editing of it. (I know you didn't want to hear that, did you?)

Now, here are some pitfalls to keep in mind.

Refrain from those jokes the demean others. With every one you write, you lose an entire segment of your audience.

Be certain your humor doesn't detract from the story.

It's far better to leave the humor out than to have a poorly received novel.

Shy away from physical humor. Why? Because your reader can't see it. This also applies to jokes related to the size of things, especially if your audience is male.

Your characters should not break into fits of laughter. It may appear the author finds his own jokes funny.

Does anyone care to share any humorous events they've experienced with writing humor?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writers' Groups: the Nuts and Bolts

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by C. Patrick Schulze

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Writing is a lonely life which is populated by little more than your imagination and a keyboard. Due to this inherent solitude, one of the best options for a writer who wishes to improve his craft is to join a writers' or critique group. The secret, as with so much in life, is to find the group that fits your personality.

Should you decide to join a writers group, you may wish to look for a series of group characteristics before you join.

The first important aspect to a group that comes to mind is the number of writers who possess skills better than yours among the members. Unless your goal is altruistic in nature, why join if there is nothing for you to learn?

There are two basic types of writer's groups, though you may find any number of variations within them. That is, some are well-organized and relatively strict, while others have more of a fluid nature. I find the more organized is more favorable as it makes the best use of my time.

With the first type, most everything is regulated. The number of members is somewhat limited, someone allocates who brings their writing and when, there is a limited time to discuss any specific material, and so on. The other is less structured and anyone brings what they wish to have critiqued. Meetings are not mandatory and the group expands and contracts in size according to the commitment of its members.

Some groups take work home or post via email, then bring their critiques to the next meeting. Others critique on the fly at the meeting.

Beyond all this, there are on-line groups, face-to-face groups, groups focused upon a single genre, local groups, national groups and many, many other subtypes. The variations are unending.

No one type is better than the other and they all have their benefits and liabilities. It depends upon your personality and your skill level as to which one works best for you.

What should you look for in a writers' group?

In all cases, it should have something to offer you. For example, I'd think it's important the group assist you in growing your skills.

Does the group have defined goals that mesh with your personal outlook? If they don't know what they wish to accomplish, you'll probably get less out of the association.

Do they have an interest in your type of writing? You'll learn more that relates to you if they do.

Do they screen members or can anyone participate? I found one group that required a writing test prior to acceptance.

What levels of writing proficiency is represented by the membership? Do they only allow published authors or can anyone join? You'll learn more, I think, if a variety of levels are in attendance.

Is it a social club or a serious writer's meeting? Why be there if they are not focused on their work?

Do they have critique guidelines? If not, the advice you receive may be haphazard in nature.

Do the members seem to appreciate, if not like, each other? Do they seem to appreciate your appearance? If they do not in either case, the critiques you receive may be of lesser value.

Each group, as you might suspect, has its unique personality and the real secret is to find one that meshes well with your personality.

What might your fellow members expect from you?

First, expect to receive, (duh), criticism of your work. With luck, it will be valuable.

Expect to criticize others' work. Are you capable of giving honest, useful criticism of another's masterpiece? Do you know what to look for and how to present a disparaging remark so it is accepted in the light which you intended?

Your advice should be honest and to the best of your knowledge.

They anticipate you will be helpful and encouraging.

People will expect you to be there on time and to participate.

Your fellow members will anticipate that you are prepared.

Regardless the type of group you find useful, most all of them offer the chance to make contacts, improve your skills and have the potential to make your lonely writer's life a bit more enjoyable.

Do you have any interesting writers' groups stories you'd like to share?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel "Born to be Brothers"

Monday, June 7, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

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Practice, Practice, Practice…

by C. Patrick Schulze

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I raised two daughters and one lazy Saturday afternoon when they were around six and eight, we decided to take a walk in a local park. This particular site contained a skate board stadium where only youngsters under the age of thirteen could play. We stopped to watch the skateboarders for a while and moved into the sideline bleachers to found a seat among the aluminum benches.

My daughters and I watched as the mostly young boys practiced their moves. More often than not, the skaters crashed down to their knees, but every time they'd get up and have another go at it. There was one young boy whose talents exceeded those of every other skater by a wide margin. He seemed to glide over the ramps as if born for the maneuvers. He took it all in stride but the onlookers, my daughters and I included, cheered his more adventurous moves.

After a while, one daughter said to no one in particular, "That guy is good!"

Of course I, the ever knowledgeable father with an age's worth of wisdom to impart, said to her, "You know how he got that good, don't you?"

You'd have thought I'd never asked any other question in my life by their reactions. Both daughters moaned and, in unison mind you, used the most bored tone a child can muster and answered, "Practice, practice, practice."

Well, that cracked me up! It did the same for every parent in the stands as hearty laughter rippled across the bleachers. I'd not been the first to hear that tone, I'm sure.

It's become such a joke in my family, one of my daughters even painted a plaque for me that states, "Practice, practice, practice."

The point, of course, is I was correct, despite their obvious familiarity with the concept. I'd just used that line one time too many, I guess.

The wisdom within, however, still holds to this day. In fact, it's true with almost every aspect of our lives, our writing included.

The moral of this story is obvious. Don't give up. In fact, I was interviewed not too long ago by a young author and her final question asked, "What advice can you give an aspiring author?"

My answer, in a word? "Perseverance."

That's my new way of saying, "Practice, practice, practice," of course, but as I mentioned before, the wisdom holds true to this day. If you wish to succeed in this terribly difficult world of writing, you must, "Practice, practice, practice."  Practice writing, practice reading, (yes, that's part of all this), practice editing, power verbs, characterization, dialogue, plot and all the rest. Only with practice and diligence, or as I now prefer to say, perseverance, will you succeed as a writer.

If truth be told, I've "practiced" my writing for about ten years and I've just now had enough practice to learn how to write that breakout novel.

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel "Born to be Brothers"