strategy


by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

Continuing in our series of writing for genres, this month we’re talking about Humor. Or Comedy. Or both.

Comedy Or Humor?

Kurt Luchs, founder of The Big Jewel and a writer whose humor has been featured in The New Yorker, The Onion and McSweeney’s, knows a thing or two about the topic. He makes a distinction between humor writing and comedic writing.

“Humor to me is something written by a humorist, which is to say something funny, yes, obviously, but also something smart and exhibiting some sense of literary style based on a deep knowledge of literary history,” says Luchs.

“Telling jokes and sort of stringing them together until you fill out the page or you feel like stopping, does not constitute humor writing. That’s what Dave Barry does. Is it funny? Quite frequently. Is it comedy? Definitely. Is it humor? I would say no, because it’s got no sense of literary style, no layers, no nuance, no form. For that reason I doubt people will still be reading him in the next century, but I bet they’ll still be reading Benchley, Ian Frazier and Veronica Geng.”

If we agree to draw this distinction between comedic writing and literary humor, does that mean Humor is the only kind of funny writing that has any depth?

Perhaps not. Eric Bosarge of Eric’s Hysterics was quick to remind us that, “comedy is really just drama in disguise,” which helps to explain the peculiar ability of humor to make serious point—something we’ll talk about a little later in this post.

Christopher Fielden has a more broad definition of the genre:

“Humor is a genre that should bring a smile to your face while you’re reading it.”

Milo James Fowler agrees and reminds us about the role of the author’s intent.

“Writers of humor want readers to enjoy themselves.”

There is, of course, an audience for both literary humor and for ‘stories that make you laugh’, but Luchs’ definition is a useful one to bear in mind as you try to find homes for your writing.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Why write humor?

Sometimes the answer is simple:

“It’s more fun to write than any other genre,” says Fielden, who likes fun so much that he created a uniquely silly prize for his literary contest: the winning stories are bound into an anthology, strapped to the front of his motorbike and driven from his home near Bristol, in the southwest of England, to Hull, on the opposite coast, and back—a round trip of almost 500 miles.

Sometimes the motivation to write humor is a reaction to events in the news, or to problems in society. Consider the Ezra Pound quote supplied by Kurt Luchs:

“Journalism is news. Literature is news that stays news.”

Sometimes it can even be a reaction to the prevailing tone in your favorite genre.

Milo James Fowler’s comic science fiction hero, Captain Bartholomew Quasar is pompous, ridiculous and hugely popular. He recently won Fowler his first book contract. So why write funny science fiction stories?

“A lot of today’s science fiction is pretentious, bleak, and nihilistic. Where’s the fun in that?”

But there is also a more serious side to Captain Quasar’s adventures, says Fowler.

“The fallibility of human nature is something we all can relate to. We should laugh at ourselves on a regular basis.”

Christopher Fielden agrees, “[Humor] can allow you to tackle sensitive subject matters in a way that people can relate to and appreciate.”

Just as long as you don’t forget to bring the funny, says Fowler. “There may be serious societal issues or thinly disguised current events at the heart of the story, but laughter is the ultimate goal.”

Making Funny Stories Funny … And Stories

Inspired to write a humorous story? Stop! Read on for tips from our experts about how you can write humorous stories that are more than a wannabe stand-up routine.

Humor is there to enhance a story, but the story itself is still the most important thing,” warns Christopher Fielden.

Eric Bosarge had a similar comment.

“I look for the piece to be grounded by a clear narrative thread and for the story to progress.”

And beware trying too hard:

“Some writers try and be funny for the sake of being funny, or try and be laugh-out-loud funny with every word. This can lead to melodrama, an overuse of exclamation marks and poor story structure,” says Fielden.

Fowler agrees. “Don’t go for a punchline. Readers can see one of those coming from a mile away.

Kurt Luchs offered this guide through the process of writing and revising a humor piece:

“Every single sentence needs to be either a setup to a joke, the joke itself, or a follow-up joke that may itself become another setup. There can be sentences without laughs, but no paragraphs without laughs.

“There should be running gags that ratchet up the premise in some interesting fashion, or even parallel sets of running gags that intertwine and conclude in some unexpected but satisfying way. The thing should both climb and cohere.”

A good humor piece is as tightly and carefully constructed as a sonnet.

Humor In A Flash

Happily, humor is one of the genres that lends itself to flash fiction the best.

“The longer a piece of humor is, the harder it becomes to sustain and the harder it becomes to keep building into a fitting conclusion by topping itself right up until the end,” says Luchs.

He describes the natural limit of most humor pieces as 500-1000 words, but that doesn’t mean that all short, funny tales are good flash fiction.

“A flash-sized tale is not an oversized joke,” cautions Fowler. “Weave the humor throughout your piece.”

And don’t forget to revise rigorously, says Bosarge. “[Writers] should look over the story and ask themselves, ‘did I miss any opportunities for a laugh’ before hitting send.”

Ending On The Right Note

“Endings are hard, and hardest of all in humor,” says Luchs. “Ideally the ending should be the funniest—or one of the funniest —parts. Again, if the piece has been cleverly constructed, and the writer has several plates spinning in the form of running gags, an ending will often emerge naturally out of that. Circularity, returning to the beginning in some way, can work, especially if there is some extra twist.”

Another option is to amplify the humor—or the satire—by changing the tone at the end. Luchs explains,

“Sometimes it’s better to let the ending twist away from humor a bit, if that fits with the premise. There is a reason that many albums by the audio comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre end on a wistful or tragicomic note instead of a punchline.”

An ending he can’t abide is the ‘shaggy-dog story’, where the entire story is a set up for a single punchline.

“We have an editor whose only job is to hunt down the authors of shaggy dog stories and put them out of their misery. It keeps him busy year round.”

We can only hope, here, that Luchs is being humorous.

On Selling Humor

Selling humor is hard. It was the one thing that everyone I interviewed agreed on. It doesn’t pay well and there aren’t enough markets. (Santa, are you listening?)

“There are perhaps half a dozen outlets worth being seen in,” says Luchs, “and even they don’t pay.”

It’s also hard because humor is such a personal taste.

“Not all funny bones are created equal,” admits Fowler, who had his own run-in with commenters at Every Day Fiction, not all of whom appreciated his sense of humor in Future Tense / Present Perfect.

“…. I just keep sending my work out there until an editor snatches it up.” Fowler adds. I can almost see his wry smile, even over email.

Christopher Fielden felt so strongly about this that he started his own humor contest. Luchs edits his own humor publication. Fowler has gone with a small publisher to bring out his first Captain Quasar novel.

“My advice is,” says Kurt Luchs, “if you don’t love this thing, if you aren’t passionate about it for its own sake, stay away.”

If you simply can’t help yourself, then take some encouragement from the words of the often-published Milo James Fowler:

“Some stories take a couple rejections before finding a good home; others take a couple dozen. I’ve sold 97 short stories so far, and I haven’t lost hope on any of my homeless tales yet.”

How does he recommend we follow his example?

“Weed out as many unnecessary words as possible. Polish until shiny. Rinse and repeat. Dunk and swish. Line dry. When ready, submit to a publisher as weird as you are. Then go write something new—and funnier.”

Now, doesn’t the thought of that make you smile?

____________

Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

by Mary-Jane Holmes

Mary-Jane Holmes

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh, a skipper for the Dutch East India Co., was sent from his native Holland to Australia to look for survivors of a ship thought to have been wrecked on the continent’s west coast. Despite all his efforts, he never found the vessel or any of its crew but he did come across something else: the presence of black swans. Many strange and exotic species were being discovered in these uncharted territories at the time but this sighting was of particular importance, for up to this point in history it was thought that only white swans existed. So adamant was this belief that a popular proverb had circulated in Europe since the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in 82 AD: rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan). This term was used ironically, in the same way that today we talk of pigs flying or pink elephants. The black swan was a metaphor for all that could not exist, until of course, due to an intrepid sailor, the impossible became possible. Once this happened the term’s meaning transformed: the black swan became a symbol of the improbable.

Nice story, you think, but what has this got to do with writing flash fiction? Well, quite a lot actually. The improbable, the random, the unexpected are what drive stories. If we followed a character who went about his or her daily business without a deflection of any kind, we wouldn’t muster much narrative tension or impetus, but when we lift that character out of certainty, introduce a glitch, a challenge to the status quo, then we assert enough pressure on them to reveal something insightful to the reader.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, explores this idea by looking at how society deals with seemingly random happenings and suggests ways to make our world black-swan-robust; in other words a society where we reduce the impact of events such as the market crash of 1987, and exploit the positive ones such as the internet.

Taleb defines the phenomena as something that:

  1. is a surprise to the observer,
  2. has an impact on their life,
  3. but with hindsight could have been expected.

These three criteria mirror closely the ingredients that a story moves through—conflict (surprise), deflection (impact) and resolution. The last condition is particularly interesting; this idea that the event was predictable. From the relative privilege of retrospection, we can work out the reason why wars start, why empires collapse, why economies crash. Often, the mark of a successful story is how, when looking back over the series of actions and choices the character has undergone, the outcome feels inevitable. With hindsight we say ‘of course!’ rather than ‘where did that come from’?

Whereas in the real world we strive to reduce the impact of negative black swan events, as writers we want to harness their power. Of course, this is flash and whatever surprise we present the observer/character, it has to be kept to scale so here’s an exercise[1] in Black Swan generation:

Start with a character immersed in their daily routine and have them find a physical object which threatens their status quo either physically or emotionally. Keep the setting small—a room, the car, the garden shed, a cupboard. The object should create a strong reaction in the character, strong enough to change the course of their trajectory within the scene you have placed them in and act as a conduit to reveal something meaningful to both the protagonist and the reader. For example, a woman racked with remorse for an affair she had years ago, finds an earring in her husband’s sock drawer. And of course the outcome needs to fit within the whole; however slight or subtle, every twist and turn of the action must support the ending.

This idea of randomness and uncertainty can help in the creative process of writing itself. Much of the art of storytelling involves making connections between details that don’t seem to have any link. It is the tension created in this process that causes the reader to think “I must know how this is resolved.” If you are struggling for inspiration, try developing a story combining a character from one of your story ideas with a predicament or setting from another. This may be enough to produce that single and interesting rare action that will push your character and story deeper. If you are at a loss for a seed idea, use a plot generator site (there are a variety of them on the web) for the same reason.

And remember that creativity thrives on the impossible. What you might think is difficult to achieve today will no-doubt become possible in the future and that includes producing a crafted and original work of flash fiction. So persist and you too may create your own positive Black Swan.

[1] Adapted from Michelle Brook’s Rattlesnake In The Drawer writing exercise.

____________

Since 2009, Mary-Jane Holmes has been chief editor of Fish Publishing Ireland, an organisation committed to supporting emerging writers. She is the director and co-ordinator of the Fish creative writing and mentoring programs including the longest running online flash fiction course in Europe dedicated solely to the genre. A passionate Flasher herself, her work has been published and anthologized in various places. Recently, she was shortlisted for the 2014 Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction and won the 2014 Dromineer Flash Fiction Prize.

 

By Gila Green

Gila Green

An abbreviated version of this post first appeared at WOW-Women on Writing.

I have great news for flash writers. There’s no reason why you cannot write character-driven flash fiction. You do have time to create a compelling character. The catch is that you can only create one really undeniably forceful character, so you need to do it well. Briefly, character-driven fiction is popular and fun to read and write. It focuses on the emotions and inner conflict of the protagonist vs. an action-packed plot that dominates the story. Really great writing contains both, but many writers need to strengthen one or the other.

Character-driven flash fiction is different from all other forms of character-driven fiction in two ways. The first is that your heroine can have only one compelling goal (hint: it’s usually a character’s need to go towards something or to go away from something).

This leads us to the second major difference: all of your compelling character’s qualities must be there to back up this need only.

For example, if the main goal of your seventeen-year-old heroine is to get herself thrown out of school, so that she can hop a bus to see her boyfriend, you must make sure she is interesting (read: we care if she achieves her goal or not), flawed (i.e., she cannot be totally justified in her desires) and that your entire focus is on her one defining moment. You don’t have time to explain why her boyfriend moved, why her mother forbids her to skip school, how they met or their future hopes.

You do have time to write about the moment her best friend pretends to faint, so that she can offer to get a nurse and slip off to the bus stop only to be met by her raging father/to see her handicapped boyfriend in the arms of another girl/to get hit by the bus/ choose the wrong bus and end up saving someone’s life/return to the classroom and confess that she cannot lie to her favorite teacher. I could go on, but you get the idea.

You’re wasting time describing her hair and eye color and favorite cake decorating hobby. You’re on the right track if you tell us that she’s never been able to pull off a prank (or the opposite, that she’s known as an untrustworthy prankster), or that she has a neatly packed suitcase of clothes hidden in the bushes by the bus stop (or you guessed it, the opposite, she plans on taking nothing but her favorite pen knife along for the ride).

Do you see the difference? In a novel or short story you’d have plenty of time for a physical description, but for character-driven flash, physical description is only important if it supports her main goal or her defining moment. If she’s so thin that she can slip out the window, or so heavy that the only way out of the room is the front door, then yes, put it in. Otherwise, delete it.

Most of all, if you are enjoying every minute of writing about this character, there is an excellent chance your readers will, too.

____________

Canadian Gila Green moved to Israel in 1994. Her novel King of the Class was released in April 2013 by NON Publishing, Vancouver. Her stories and articles appear in tens of literary magazines in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Israel, UK and Hong Kong. Her collection, White Zion, is a finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award and her work has been short-listed for WordSmitten’s TenTen Fiction Contest, the Walrus Literary Award, the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award and the Ha’aretz Short Fiction Award. She’s been teaching fiction on the WOW-Women on Writing site since 2009. Her next classes in Flash Fiction and Literary Devices begin January 12. Please visit: www.gilagreenwrites.com

 

by Mark Budman

Mark Budman

In a quote often misattributed to Mark Twain, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” As applied to flash fiction writers, the masters of compressed work, that probably means we have too much time on our hands. Our letters/stories are short (but not necessarily sweet) and to the point. We don’t mince words. We are looking for redundancies, imperfections and dead waste that get in the way, and cut them off like a surgeon or a sculptor.

I didn’t know that when I started to write flash. I foolishly thought that a shorter fiction requires less time. Don’t you need to hit fewer keys on the keyboard to write short? And most people are always short on time.

It was too late when I realized my mistake. I already fell in love with the genre. I loved it so much that I just had to start my own magazine of flash fiction, Vestal Review. We didn’t have an overabundance of magazines specializing in flash at the time. In fact, to my knowledge, we had none back in 2000.

It seems to me that a cliché is the number one enemy of a writer. We must say something that hasn’t been said before, and do it in a new way. While conventional writers can afford to go on and on, we, the flash fiction writers, have to know that we must stop before any of our colleagues do.

Dorothy Parker once said: “Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” While limited in the number of words, we still can’t be like Katharine Hepburn in Dorothy’s Parker interpretation. We still should strive for our gamut of emotions to run at least from A to Y. Let the writers of the longer works work on their Zees.

Actually, to me, limitations are enhancing creativity rather than constraining it. The mind finds ingenious solutions that the writers of longer fiction might overlook. Flash writers are the enemies of fat. While fat could taste delicious to some, lean muscles are more effective.

To me, flash fiction is both a stepping stone to great longer works and an exciting genre on its own.

Read this story for the example of consecutive halving of the number of words in each part. The plot stays the same, but the effect changes dramatically.

This is a great illustration of what flash fiction is about. Word and sentence compression is a lean, muscular and energetic writing device. That’s why I write this way.

____________

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction(UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel, My Life at First Try. was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton. He is at work on his novel about Lenin running for the president of the United States. Read more at his website http://markbudman.net.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

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