Category Archives: Writing Techniques

12 1/2 More Things I Know About Humor

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Do you see what she’s doing?

I know. I’m mortified.

Opening with a disclaimer again? Can she not jump in like a real writer?

I know. Grow some confidence already.

There’s no stopping her, is there. And those glasses. What?

I know. I can’t watch. Let’s go find a bigger mirror.

______________________

Disclaimer:  Writing rules, like the English language, are tufted with exceptions. Humor writing is particularly subjective. If one of the following tips does not speak to you, just remember tips can’t talk, my little apple strudel.

Funny Glasses 2018

Some days you gotta bring your own sunshine.

My 12 and a half subjective take ’em or leave ’em suggestions for writing with humor:

1. Study sit coms and stand up comics.

Notice how situation comedies  approach even heavy topics – infidelity, gambling addiction, shoplifting, sexual harassment, gender bias, challenges of aging and elder care, infertility, death, marital disputes, divorce/separation, socioeconomic disparity, juvenile delinquency, mood disorders. All of those were woven into episodes for The King of Queens!

Listen to stand up comedians. Catch the rhythm of jokes and notice the use of the rule of threes to get a laugh. 1 & 2 set the expectation and 3 flips it. Listen for it!

2. Give a character a funny namebut not all. Example – my current middle grade novel has a teacher named Mrs. Belcher.

3. Pace yourself. If your novel is a gut buster in the first chapter, you’ve set an expectation. If chapter two goes super serious, it feels like a bait and switch to your reader. Make sure you can keep the promise you made with chapter one. If you can’t or don’t want to keep the comic pace, take the opportunity to create an emotional equilibrium when you revise. Go from FUNNY to funny.

4. Be genuine. Just because humor adds levity to a story, it doesn’t mean you can’t include heavy issues or situations that would be meaningful to your readers.  (See Point 1.)

5. Be natural. Allow humor to bubble up and feel organic to the personalities of your characters and the world you’ve created for them. For me, that means writing to amuse myself in those early drafts. I do not worry if a kid will get it or will laugh. I can keep the gems and edit out the excess later.

6. Harvest funny details from your family like unique expressions, odd names for things, unusual habits or hobbies. These goodies give your story a taste all its own.

7. Consider the pun.  I love ’em, but keep in mind, they don’t always translate to an international market.

8. Play with words and make up new names for products or games.  Related to this, make Urban Dictionary your new best friend. Trust me on this one.

9. Switch up the situation. Put your character in an unfamiliar situation. A “first” experience is prime territory for this.

10. Funny characters still need to be people of substance. If you have a 3-D straight man, you can’t have a flat funny man. Related thoughts  . . .

  • Interview characters – this is really, really, really important. Really.
  • Your secondary characters can be a gold mine, so be sure to interview them too.
  • Personality quirks are fun, but they must contribute to the story in some way.

11. Don’t overlook the “serious” character as a source of humor. Being earnest, having zero sense of humor and taking things literally, can be amusing in its own way.

12. Recycle your embarrassing moments, especially if it will aid your emotional health.

And a halfLaughter is carbonated holiness. ~ Ann Lamott

BTW, this post has a companion. If you enjoy humor writing, I have a funny feeling you may want to read that one too.

_____________________________

Is she done? She took like forever.

I know. But she is kind of funny.

Smelling.

I know. It’s like Windex mixed with burnt toast and apprehension.

But we still love her.

I know.

 

Go Ahead. Make a Scene.

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Let me go out on a squirrel-infected limb here, and take a guess about you. Here goes– unless you’re a “Real Housewife of (Wherever),” it’s unlikely you would intentionally make a scene in public.

Am I right?

I knew it!

Receiving positive attention from friends or colleagues is swell, but drawing every eye in the room because you did something outrageous or embarrassing, well, that’s un-swell.

For writers of novels, however, making a scene can be a sign of progress. My wise chocolate mint grasshoppers, you know I’m referring to a scene in a story.

I plotted by current WIP by making a simple bullet point list. Thanks to that list, the writing moved along swimmingly [cue ominous music] until I got snagged on a BIG perplexing plot point. I felt daunted and discouraged.

wavesThen, I found a detour! I studied my bullet list. I picked a few points later in the novel that I felt ready to imagine. I wrote those scenes. Wow! That felt good. As I progressed from one scene to another, in any order, I experienced the delight of forward motion. I sailed from Daunted > Encouraged > Empowered. Those good vibes are infusing me with the courage I need to draft the tricky scenes I skipped.

A time to knit these disparate scenes together will come, and (gulp) I’m excited to see how well that process will work. If it doesn’t, I will scream @#$%&!! in the middle of a crowded restaurant, then sweep my arm across a table to upend coffee cups, slide china to the floor to shatter and send the salt shaker flying. Next, I’d quack and skip out the door with a bread basket on my head. Now, THAT would be a scene.

If you are slogging your way through a first draft and feel stuck,  why not free yourself to write a scene for any point in your novel–Act I, II or III. It may be just what you need.

As a bonus, here’s a practical, energizing article from Writer’s Digest with ten tips for launching strong scenes. And, as a bonus-bonus (that’s a thing), here are more options for regaining your momentum.

My best wishes to you as you craft your scenes. Pass your tips along too!

“[on scene execution] Interesting isn’t the point…storytelling momentum and relevance is.” ― Larry BrooksStory Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction

How to Unstuck Your Story

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outline

I hate outlining

It was incredible. Two steps to the left in Lane 32 and I was out of the gutter.

Mind you, I move with the precision and grace of a mudslide,  yet those steps made all the difference. I actually got three spares in a row. (A lifetime bowling achievement. I may retire in glory now.)

Remembering how changing angles at the bowling alley was a literal game-changer, I tried the same thing with a research question for my day job. I began by Googling the obvious key words and only found what I already had. Then, I decided to take two [metaphorical] steps to the left and come at the search from a fresh angle. My little snow peas, I could not believe the great stuff I found. It answered my question and much more.

Also related to perspective, when I watch movies I can get distracted as I wonder how the camera person captured a particular shot. Where were they exactly? Under the water? On the roof? In the floorboards? Filming a scene from just the right angle is pivotal to conveying the story. Imagine James Cameron opting to create Titanic with the exclusive use of close-ups or if Greta Gerwig directed the film crew for Lady Bird to shoot each mother/daughter scene in wide, aerial views. Pish posh on those perspectives!

All this to say, in my experience, when it comes to unstucking a story, it can be as “simple” as shifting your perspective and peering at it from a yet-to-be-explored point of view. (This, from the writer who is drafting her first novel in third person. I love it! I mean, she loves it!)

Children’s author and writing teacher extraordinaire Sarah Aronson offers these gleaming quick tips to help you get your manuscript out of the mud.

SarahAronsonWritingTip

(“Quick Tips for Writers!” is shared with Sarah Aronson’s permission. Just so you know.)

I hope this has been helpful, my little rose hips. Let me know your perspective.

A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way. ~ Allen Klein, past president of The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. (Yes, apparently, that’s a thing.)

 

Some & Soon & Specificity

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Let me give you the truth. (And yes, you can handle the truth.) I am frustrated by the lack of progress with my Work In Progress (WIP). Perhaps calling it a SIP–Snail In Progress is more accurate. I suspect one (of the many) reasons for my slogginess is the overwhelmingness of it all. Novels are so stinkin’ big and messy and apt to misbehave at every page turn. You know? I think maybe you do, my ginger snap.

So, I’ve been on high alert for a simple way to progressively make more progress, and I think I may have landed on something–specificity.  Lemme explain.

Last week, I was at this training for my day job and one of the speakers (Dr. Don Berwick) used a catchy phrase that sent up a flare in my brain:

“Some is not a number. Soon is not a time.”

Say, that’s, why, that’s true. The doc had something there.

Then! I read this quote by the brilliant and darling Kathryn Erskine recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She said, “I don’t like the word soon because you don’t know when it’s going to sneak up on you and turn into NOW. Or maybe it’ll be the kind of soon that never happens.”

 

But wait, there’s more.

Then! I listened to this guy I “met” on Facebook. Comedian Tim Minchin addressed a graduating class at the University of Western Australia. (You should listen to the whole thing, ahem, after you finish reading my post, si vous plait. It’s really kind of brilliant.) Anyway, among his many glinty shards of wisdom, Minchin imparted this gem–“I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious.”

Is it just me, or is there a theme emerging?

You see it too? Oh, good.

adams-pumpkin-2So, let’s say you (and by you, I mean, I) want to write a middle grade novel. You need at least a good solid 30,000 words. That’s daunting. But instead of diddling (or in my case, doodling), why not passionately dedicate to the pursuit of a short-term goal?

Let’s do the math and get very specific. (I cannot believe I’m going to do math in front of you. The terror.)

You are going to write 30,000 in 6 months.

That equates to 5,000 words a month.

And that means you’d need to pump out about 210 words a day (six days a week).

That’s less than one page of writing a day. It’s specific. It’s possible. (I want to see nodding here.)

It’s not easy, but it’s a lot less scary than staring down the whole 30K.

Am I right? Yes, yes, of course. (Again with some nodding please.)

Instead of being macro-lethargic, I can be micro-ambitious–and reach my goal. I will be declared dauntless! Okay, okay, so it’s not sexy, but a declaration of dauntlessness ain’t nothin’ poo-poo.

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

While I say “no” to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November (sorry, my little pumpkin muffins), I am sure the momentum it creates can be intoxicating. If that kind of specificity works for you, I say huzzah! Ever forward!

Remember, my chicken dumplings, some is not a number.  Soon is not a time. Specificity is the ticket to getting things done.

Now that you (and I) know this, let’s become micro-ambitious sometime soon, mm-kay?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring

 

For the love of critiques, line edits and proofreading, what’s the difference? I mean, seriously, what is the difference?

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cry baby

Quick–what’s the difference between developmental editing and line editing? What can you expect from a critique? Is line editing the same as copy editing?

Not sure?

Don’t cry, my little rose bud! Help is on the way.

These explanations may give you some clarity and clear up those tears.

Manuscript critique – a critique consists of a compilation of feedback in the form of a letter (typically) regarding  pacing, flow of narrative, transitions, voice, structure and other essential elements of stylish prose. This will provide a subjective view of the strengths and current weaknesses of your manuscript. You typically do not receive comments on the manuscript itself, as with a line edit.

Developmental editing – this extensive type of editing allows you to take a birdie’s eye view of your whole manuscript. With this type of editing, you may receive feedback in the form a of lengthy, detailed letter focusing on “opportunities for improvement,” regarding issues such as pacing, flow, transitions, voice, plot, structure, dialogue, character development and more. You may also receive positive observations and suggestions too. Developmental editing does not include the nitty-gritty elements of a line edit.

Line editing – what you have here is the big enchilada of edits, aka “comprehensive editing.” This level of editing, which can vary from heavy to “light” (don’t think fluffy here), consists of a careful combing of your manuscript regarding all of the important elements of fine writing, such as voice, pacing, rhythm, dialogue, character and structure.  Think of it as someone cleaning out the crumbs in your silverware drawer, only in this case, the toaster tidbits pertain to issues like transitions, voice, word choice and character development. You can expect many comments on the manuscript itself.

Not sure about the difference between line editing and copy editing? Check out this helpful article.

Proofreading – the main objective here is to ensure your manuscript is as clean as it can be–free of typographical errors, grammatical gaffs, style inconsistencies or other mishaps that will distract or confuse your reader. This article gives you a helpful rundown on what to expect.

Eventually, every manuscript will need all of these interventions, but for now, take a look at your manuscript and ask yourself what would help you take it to the next level, get you unstuck or unravel a plot knot for you. If you’re a visual learner like me, this chart from Yellow Bird Editors may also help you decide.

[Insert thought bubble here–“Sheesh. Isn’t she going to tell us where to find help?”]

So, my little summer strawberries, where can you get help with your manuscript? (I just had a hunch you’d like to know. ) Sources for critiques and editing are often offered in connection to writing workshops, and are also available via SCBWI, professional services like Yellow Bird Editors or even among your own circle of writing friends or critique group. (And about that last one–if you seek the help of an author/friend–unless you are able to reciprocate in kind–offer to pay them, okay?)

My very best shimmery, summery wishes to you, my talented friends! You can do this.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ~ Jack Kerouac

 

To my friends who write for teens

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Dear Friends Who Write for Teens,

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Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Car-less high schoolers in my neighborhood must meet at a bus stop a stone’s throw from my house. I heard them gathering this morning as I lay in bed. A loud-mouth girl shouted to her friends down the street. Other kids laughed. And although I didn’t peek out my bedroom window, I imagine there was at least one stoic kid standing solo in a sweat-drenched cocoon, clutching a sack lunch.

I rolled over on my pillow and thought about those kids. My heart went out to all of them, to the loners for certain, but truly to each of them, even Ms. Loud-Mouth. I knew that once they boarded that bus, they were headed to an emotional meat grinder. Part of me wanted to open my window and yell, “Listen! There’s some important stuff you need to know!” and then I’d talk as fast as I could before the bus roared down our street. But that part of me didn’t move off the mattress. And so, this is where you come in, my dear friends who write for teens.

Will you, in your own unique, skillful way, remind these kids of how precious they are? They are no less loveable than when they were darling, chirping preschoolers. I know some of those kids may not be or feel loved right now, but they are no less love-worthy.

Will you, somehow, in a way only you can, let them know that what the cool kids think of them during high school will not matter AT ALL after graduation?

Will you, using your subtle magic, encourage them to talk to everyone–not just the kids they like, to get involved at school, to take wise risks and to keep the long view in mind (i.e., there’s life after high school) because the choices they make now matter?

Will you woo them into seeing the value of a trusted adult friend–a teacher, a coach, a grandparent–who can act as a mentor and support?

Will you, with sincerity and without condescension, offer them some kind of hope for the future and a touch of inspiration that will spark imaginings and dreams?

Will you, with your prosey powers, help your readers feel seen and heard and known?

Yes, yes, I appreciate the pressure I’m placing on you. But you’re more than up for the challenge! I also know I probably sound idealistic and maybe even mushy (yeesh), but I know that you, like me, have who-knows-how preserved a soft, empathetic chamber in our hearts for teens. We remember that merciless emotional meat grinder and we’ve lived long enough to tell about it.

Finally, will you remember how much I appreciate what you do so well? Because I do.

Growing up is hard, love. Otherwise everyone would do it. ~ Kim Harrison

 

 

 

a fine use for bullets

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I hate outlining

I hate outlining

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Right you are E.L. Doctorow. I can’t argue with you.

Up until recently, I’ve been a writing pantser–someone who flies by the seat of her pants like a magic carpet. Weeeeeee!!! It was a fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, surprising, unfettered, chaotic, halting, sputtering, who-knows-how-the-heck-I-got-here way to write.

When I’ve considered a popular alternative, outlining, my skin literally crawled. No kidding. It wriggled clean off muh bones. (See why I can’t outline? I can’t even write without doubling back and making silly asides.) SO, anyway, outlining was not attractive to me. What a time and fun-sucker. Why not just jump in? I wanted to be surprised! At the same time, I liked the idea of pre-planning as a means of making steadier writing progress.

But as a card-carrying AntiOutlineist, I yearned for a way to enjoy the benefits of outlining without actual doing it. There were plenty of alternatives involving Post-it Notes, index cards or oversized sheets of paper, but I wanted something even simpler. It if could involve my adoration for list-making, that would be a bonus. That’s why I chose bullets. Round. Simple. Readily Accessible. Inexhaustible in supply.

Now, my little warm cinnamon crumb cake, you know I mean these kinds of bullets. . .

  • Yes,
  • I
  • knew
  • you
  • would.

When I recently approached an extensive novel revision, I chose bullets to help me compile the sequence of events and actions of my characters. I didn’t write long descriptions of each scene. I wrote just enough to ensure I’d have what I needed when I returned to my list later. As I compiled this list, naturally, I’d identify roadblocks. But then, I could easily scan back to see, and then change, the sequence of events to release that blockage. I was able to think through each character’s actions or responses and their natural consequences. I could think proactively about how to crank up the story’s tension or humor or tenderness.

And now, armed with my bullets (hardy har har), I’ve had an easier time approaching the revision process. Plus, I’ve felt energized and encouraged because the bullets serve as an assurance that it’s going to be okay. Keep going. You know you can work this out. You’ve already untangled your plot and mapped out a path for your characters. And I know they won’t fail to surprise me, so there’s still fun to be had.

E.L. Doctorow is right–we can’t just yack about writing, we need to actually do it. But, before you do, see how you like writing with a batch of bullets by your side. G’head. Give it a shot. (Ouch.)

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.  ~ Neil Gaiman