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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, November 10, 2013

How to Write Funny Novels...And Why You Shouldn't


We've got a V.I.P. guest on the blog this week. She's Melodie Campbell, bestselling author and the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

She's also hilarious.

She contacted me last month because she liked one of my blogposts. (See, blogging is an effective networking tool!) She saw we share a love of funny books.

A lot of North America's best comedy comes from Canada. From much of the original cast of Saturday Night Live to up-and-coming comics like The Daily Show's Samantha Bee, to superstars like Seth Rogan, Leslie Nielsen, Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers, Canadians have always known how to make us laugh. (You can supply your own joke about the mayor of Toronto here.)

Maybe it has something to do with wearing plaid shirts and those hats with the earflaps. The key to good comedy is not taking yourself too seriously.

My family say I got my quirky sense of humor from my dad, who was born in Canada, so that may be why I share Melodie's compulsion to write funny books.

Also, we both started our careers in the theater doing stand-up and improv comedy. The biggest compliment I ever got in my acting career was from an old Borscht Belt comic who came backstage after seeing me in Auntie Mame and said, "I didn't see you act funny once in that whole performance." Then he broke into a grin and added. "You don't act funny. You THINK funny. That's the secret to great comedy."

I think funny. Like Melodie, I can't help it.

Melodie is right in warning you away from this dangerous habit. An amazing number of people hate comedy in books. Most of the best comic novels have an average of three stars on their reviews.

People might laugh their heads off at Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and adore the antics of the guys in the Hangover movies, but when it comes to books, they want things to be politically correct and above all, "serious".

They want kick-ass heroines who can leap tall buildings at a single bound and never break a nail (or a smile), and heroes with six-pack abs and Cristal incomes who want to settle down and raise organic kale.

Melodie gets one-star reviews that say, "The heroine mentions being celibate for a while then has sex with at least 5 men in a month. Her boobs fall out of her dress at every opportunity. Most of the time, she doesn't even notice; other people have to point it out to her."

Like that's a bad thing.

My one-stars say stuff like, "This girl doesn't make the decisions I think she should", and "This book sets women back 100 years." (That one gets my feminist hackles up. As Helen Fielding says, "If women haven't reached the point where we can laugh at ourselves, we haven't come very far, have we?")

And then there's my favorite: "Why can't Camilla get a real job and stop looking for Mr. Right?"

Well, here's the thing: if our characters always made good decisions, there would be no story (you can read Kristen Lamb on the subject here), and if they got a clue, wore sensible shoes, and stopped looking for love in all the wrong places, they'd stop being funny.

Can you imagine reviewing films and TV this way?

"Leslie Nielson is on a plane about to crash and all he can say is 'don't call me Shirley'? So unrealistic. Anyway, the pilot didn't say 'Shirley'; he said 'surely'."

"Lucy Arnaz should stop hanging around with Ethel and stop trying to impress Ricky all the time. Why doesn't she get a real job? And where's the character development? She never learns."

When did people decide that fictional characters are supposed to be role models? The protagonists of our culture's earliest novels were mostly naive or deluded bumblers, from Cervantes' Don Quixote to Fielding's Tom Jones and Voltaire's Candide.

You don't read Cervantes or Fielding or Voltaire to escape into a fantasy about your idealized self. But people have been entertained by their stories for a lot of centuries now. Maybe that's because, as a recent study proved, laughter really is the best medicine...Anne

Writing Funny Novels 
Why You Shouldn’t – But You’re Going to Anyway – So Here’s a Primer 
by Melodie Campbell 


“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

I hope you smiled at that line. I think it’s one of my best. My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comedies. (This is a self-help group, right?) Sure I’d like to kick the habit and write a ‘real’ book with literary merit.

Okay, so that’s a lie. Leave The Goddaughter’s Revenge behind? Not write a sequel? I’m starting to hyperventilate. Actually, I love writing comedies. It’s in my blood.

Some people are born beautiful. But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life. Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask. That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.

COMEDY IS TRAGEDY BARELY AVERTED


People smarter than me have concluded that tragedy is the root of all comedy. Making fun of our foibles is indeed one way to cope.

As a means of self-preservation in the cruel world of teenagers, I looked for the ‘funny.’ More often than not, I made fun of myself. This was easy to do. I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material. And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side. I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.

So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’ Write it funny.

Lesson 1 (the first of 8): The rule of ‘WORST THING’

(aka: Never go easy on your protagonist.)

Comedy writers take a situation, and ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen now?’

And then, ‘what’s the funniest?’

What’s the worst thing that could happen to The Goddaughter when she is reluctantly recruited to carry hot gemstones over the border in the heel of her shoe? Predictable would be: she gets caught at customs. But I don’t want predictable. I want funny.

Instead, the shoes get stolen. By a complete amateur! It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. How is she going to keep this from her new boyfriend Pete, who thinks she’s gone clean? And what the heck is she going to tell her uncle, the crime boss?

Nothing, of course. She’s going to steal them back. Or die trying.

And hopefully the audience will die laughing.

Yes, some people will turn up their noses and say this type of plot is silly. Reviewers may discount the book for not dealing with the ‘important’ issues of today. So…do you really want to join me in this reckless trade? Read below.

The Trouble with Writing Comedy


When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’ Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.) My books are comedies first and foremost. I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs.

This is different from authors who say they write humorous mysteries, for instance. In this case, they would peg their books mysteries first. The humour is secondary.

It’s tough writing comedy. Here’s why:

1. Everyone expects your next book to be just as funny or funnier than your last.


Example: Janet Evanovich. Readers are complaining that her 19th Stephanie Plum book isn’t as funny as her earlier books. They are giving it 2 and 3 stars. 19 books, people! Think about that. I’m on my third book in two different comedy series, and I’m finding it tough to sustain the humour in book three. Believe me, this woman is a master.

2. When you write something that isn’t meant to be funny (or is mildly humorous but not comedy) people are disappointed.

In fact, one award juror told me (way after the fact) that she didn’t consider my Agatha Christie-style whodunit for an award short list because it wasn’t laugh out loud funny like my other books. (It wasn’t supposed to be.) She admitted she never gave the book a chance because I was ‘all about comedy’ in her eyes.

My rep ruined my chances.

3. You will never be taken seriously for most awards.

Again, comedy is rarely taken seriously for awards. This drives some crime writers nuts. It seems to be endemic that books on the short lists are usually ones written with gravitas, on subjects that are ‘important’ or grim. To quote a colleague, “It seems to me, the more grim a book, the more merit is ascribed to it.” Blame the Scandinavians.

4. It’s hard to get published.

This is lamentable. It’s hard to get a publisher for comedic novels. Many seem to be afraid of funny books. Again, it may be the part about not being a ‘serious’ book, and thus not seen as an ‘important’ book.

Film suffers from a similar stigma. How often these days do comedies win Oscars?

5. The expectations are HUGE.

Not only will you be expected to produce a book with great plot, characterization, viewpoint, motivation and dialogue like all the other writers, but along with that you also have to make people laugh consistently throughout it. It’s like there is a sixth requirement for you, an additional test that others don’t need to pass. And you don’t get any more money for it.

Sucks, right? So why do it?
  • Because good comedy is magic to some readers. They love you for making them smile. 
  • Because not everyone can do it. There is talent as well as craft. 
  • Because making people laugh is what you do. You’ve done it since you were in high school. Most of us who write comedy were the class clowns. 
  • Because you’re mad, like I am. Well at least, madcap.

(Okay, you’re going to do it anyway, so here goes...)

Lessons 2 through 8


Let’s go beyond lesson 1 now. Of course, you don’t have to write comedies to get humour into your books. All stories can benefit from a dose of bathos to make the pathos seem more piquant. Here is my primer on how to put laughter in your books:

2. Make the basic plot funny.

This is the hardest thing to do. This is what makes ‘comedies,’ rather than books with humour.

a. For this, I fall back on the best of the best, my favorite book to quote.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass. The very premise of the plot is funny. The construction plans have been filed for decades, but as no one on earth is aware of life beyond our own, of course the plans have gone unprotested. “Apathetic bloody planet…I’ve no sympathy at all,” says the Vogon construction leader before he blows Earth to smithereens.

That’s a comedic premise.

b. How I work it: In The Goddaughter’s Revenge, Gina must mastermind a bunch of burglaries to get back fake gems before anyone finds out they’re fake, otherwise her rep is toast. That’s right – she’s stealing fake gems and replacing them with real. And of course, all the burglaries go wrong. Once again, the basic plot is nutty.

3. Make funny things happen in your plot.

Back to Hitchhiker’s Guide. What if…humans weren’t the only ones experimenting with animals in the pursuit of science? What if…white mice were experimenting with humans?

What if…the answer to the Meaning of Life is the number 42?

4. Make a theme in your novel funny.

Rowena Through the Wall is a comic time travel/sword and sorcery novel. It is also a spoof of bodice rippers, but few people have picked up on that. (This baffles me, because it’s right over the top: she rips her bodice in almost every scene.) In the second book in the series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, she rips her skirt in almost every scene. Readers love it, even if they don’t get that it’s a spoof. They look for it. It is a theme that runs through the series.

5. Make a character in your plot funny.

This is the most common humour device in novels. Shakespeare was a master at this. We have lots of examples here.

a. Again, let me return to the master, Douglas Adams. In my opinion, Marvin the depressed robot is one of the greatest inventions in comic fiction.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

“Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God, I’m so depressed. Here’s another of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”


b. Can’t forget another unforgettable character: Grandma Mazar from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.
  • Hobby: Funeral homes. 
  • Sexual orientation: Bring it on! (time’s a runnin’ out)
  • Crass, embarrassing, and delightfully unique.

6. Add Wordplay.

Examples: surprise, unexpected, sarcasm, exaggeration, words with double meaning

This is different from making your character’s ‘character’ funny to the reader. In this example, a member of the cast says funny or clever things.

a. Surprise or unexpected:

“I had the flu once. It was terrible. I couldn’t eat a thing for three hours.”

This works because we expect to hear something else at the end: “I couldn’t eat a thing for three days.” Instead, we hear “three hours.” This is an example of the surprise or unexpected, plus exaggeration, giving us a chuckle. But wait a minute: this is also self-deprecating. Three in one.

b. Example 2: Remember how this post started?

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”


This is an example of wordplay that requires the reader to have some prior knowledge or education. We know the original Mae West line, where the gun substitutes for something else. This exaggerates the gun into something bigger. The reader feels clever for getting the joke.

7. Riff off the reader’s own experience:

Also in Hitchhiker’s Guide: The Vogon monsters have developed a unique form of torture. They read their hand-written poetry to victims. It’s excruciating.

I’ve been to live readings just like that. You bet I laughed when reading this. And Douglas Adams wrote it for people like me who have been to poetry readings and – most likely- shared his reaction.

(Not all people will appreciate this humour. That’s okay. Not everyone will appreciate every funny line you write, either.)

Why was Adams such a master? He doesn’t explain it. No laugh track here. He shows you the scene and lets you make your own conclusion.

8. Emulate the Comedy Masters who do stand-up:

Don’t over-explain. Never point to a joke. Just lay the line. You don’t even need to have the other characters in your book laugh.

How to accomplish this? End the scene at the line.

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

***or***

The Earl appeared at the door. “What are you doing?!”

I poked my head out from under the table and wiped a shrimp from my hair. “We couldn’t wait for dinner, so we started ahead.”



The Caveats


1. Humour needs context.

So much of what makes us laugh depends on our previous experience, education, age and gender. That’s why some people find Monty Python funny, and others don’t. (I am, by the way, a huge fan. Ditto for Gilbert and Sullivan. Outrageous satire of the establishment gets me every time.)

Don’t be alarmed if not everyone gets every funny line in your fiction. They won’t.

2. Can you take the heat?

Not everyone will see the humour, particularly in satire. (Witness my bodice ripper spoof.) In fact, some may be annoyed by it, if they perceive you are making fun of something they value.

Going too far: there is a fine line that all of us work against. The line will wobble a bit and sometimes we step over it. (Stand-up artists do this frequently by picking on people in the audience.)

If you are going to write humour, you have to be able to take the heat from going too far.

Final Words (will she ever shut up)

Here’s the key, as I’ve discovered it:


The trick to combining humour and suspense is to play each against the other. Taut suspense is broken up by bathos, making the suspenseful parts seen more dramatic. And – as I have learned from writing the Land’s End series – one can make humour seem more funny by juxtaposing it against gripping danger. In fact, a steady diet of unrelenting wacky humour can make one grow blasé, just as a steady diet of porn might dull one to sensuality.

But why do it? Why does an otherwise sane individual write wacky and some might say silly fiction, and risk the inevitable hit from some critics who say your book is without great literary merit?

We do it for readers. Hopefully, we’ve lightened their day with laughter, and in some cases given them a story they can escape into, over and over again.

***

Melodie Campbell experienced a personal best this year when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich.

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 5 novels. Melodie has won six awards for fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards.

Her first book, Rowena Through the Wall, hit the Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list. The Goddaughter’s Revenge, a comic mob caper, is her fifth book.  Melodie is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Her column "Bad Girl" runs in the satirical magazine, The Sage: Canada’s Best Source for Misleading News and Opinion. Lots more at www.melodiecampbell.com


What about you, Scriveners? Why do you think comedy gets no respect? Do you have a compulsion to write funny? Have you ever wondered why books full of gore and torture are considered "good" fiction while upbeat stories that makes you laugh are considered trivial time-wasters? What's your favorite comic novel?

Anne is off visiting other blogs this week. You can read her guest post at BoomerLit Fridays on why the ebook revolution is great for Boomers, and she'll be interviewed by Carmen Amato on Carmen's blog on Thursday, November 14th.


Bargain Book of the Week


The best way to get started with Melodie's comedies is with her first "Canadian Mobster" book, The Goddaughter. $2.99 on Amazon US, Amazon CA, and Kobo, 


"Campbell's comic caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans. Wacky family connections and snappy dialog make it impossible not to laugh." (Library Journal 2012-09-01)

"Campbell tells a hilarious story of the goddaughter of a mafia leader drafted into a jewel-smuggling operation." (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 2012-10-11)

"Perfect as an airplane read, or for waiting in the doctor's office, or standing in line at the DMV, or even for snuggling under the covers with a bout of flu...Throw in some drop-dead, laugh out loud funny hotel room and restaurant scenes...Bottom line: you['ll] find yourself quickly finishing one of the fun-est and funniest books I've enjoyed in years!" (Tutu's Two Cents blog 2013-02-06)

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Looking for a market for your humor writing? The Family Farce may be what you're looking for. They're looking for humor that's dark, snarky and irreverant. Fiction, columns, essays and interviews are all welcome. They're also looking for cartoons, videos and song parodies.

Tin House Shirley Jackson Story Contest. This is a fun one. The prestigious litmag Tin House has acquired an unfinished Shirley Jackson story. They invite readers to finish it. Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Winners will be published on the Tin House website and be awarded some Tin House swag and the collected works of Ms. Jackson. Deadline November 17th.

Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers Entry Fee: $15. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not been published in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a story of up to 12,000 words with a $15 entry fee during the month of November. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline: November 30, 2013

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

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53 Comments:

Blogger Laura Pauling said...

I love humor in stories and reading comedies as much as I enjoy serious lit. I think publishers or whoever stays away from it because it's so hard to do right. For me the key has been for the situation to be humorous, but it doesn't feel it to the character. That kind of humor I love. If the character is laughing, I"m usually not. :)

November 10, 2013 at 10:21 AM  
OpenID haydenthorne.com said...

Horace Walpole: "The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." :D

November 10, 2013 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Laura, I completely agree (if the character is laughing, I'm usually not.) It's what I strive for. Thanks for commenting!

November 10, 2013 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Donna Carrick said...

Our own Mistress of Comedy Melodie Campbell slams it out of the park (and straight into the funny bone) with her Goddaughter series.

A laugh on every page, and she never disappoints!

November 10, 2013 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Hayden, that quote is perfect. Thank you for posting!

November 10, 2013 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Anne, I have to comment on this line in your intro: 'You don't read Cervantes or Fielding or Voltaire to escape into a fantasy about your idealized self.'
Brilliant. I've been trying to figure out a way to express this thought, and you've done it perfectly.

November 10, 2013 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Melody, thank you for an excellent post.

Love funny women: Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and Phyllis Diller (Who can forget her husband, Fang?). Lucille Ball and Audrey Meadows. Nora Ephron, Joyce Wadler and Janet Evanovich.

AND Melodie Campbell! :-)

November 10, 2013 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Ruth, you are too kind :)I'm already missing Nora Ephron. She gave me courage to write with the filter off.

November 10, 2013 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--Thanks! Maybe Hayden's quote helps understand this phenomenon. (I agree it's a great quote!) Comedy is detached and cerebral, and tragedy hits you in the gut. When novels were first invented, they were written by and for intellectuals, so comedy was accepted. But the masses want gut-wrenching tragedy. Or at least melodrama.

November 10, 2013 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Tanis Mallow said...

Spoken like a true self-deprecating Canuck. Though I consider myself to have a wicked sense of humour, I have a hell of a time adding it to my writing. It's much harder than it looks.

November 10, 2013 at 11:42 AM  
Blogger Collette Cameron said...

My favorite books are ones with a dash of humor. I can't keep humor out of my writing either, though I did have an editor once with no sense of humor at all.

Thanks for a wonderful article.

November 10, 2013 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

I think that writing comedy has got to be the hardest thing to do in the world (at least it is for me). I enjoy it enormously and I marvel at writers who can do it. It's a God-given talent! And congrats for a post full of good (hilarious) advice on how to write comedy, though I'm afraid it's all lost on me, I just KNOW I can't do it, LOL!

I must say Anne, your intro is tops (as usual). You've managed to mention in one sentence all my favorite authors and in particular Voltaire. His Candide had me in stitches when I first read it, hum..., so long ago (I was a sweet 16).

And you know, that brings to mind a TED talk I just watched this morning, about the "democratization" of culture due to the digital revolution and technology that makes (inter alia) video games more important and bigger income earners than Hollywood films...

With that "democratization" - the playing field is level and anyone can publish anything - comedy therefore has to take a back seat: people can't write it (it's the toughest thing to write) and, on the readership side, many may not even "get" the jokes (it requires a certain cultural background to understand the humor in a sentence)

Still, it means that really good comedy is for select audiences...Nice to be part of the elite!

November 10, 2013 at 12:20 PM  
Blogger Sheri Fredricks said...

I'll leave the comedy writing to you experts and just enjoy the fruits of your labor! I absolutely LOVED all three of the books I read of Melodie's. She's my go-to author for a good laugh.

November 10, 2013 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

Melodie, your post comes at just the right time. I love what you said about ending a scene in a comic vein, or with a bit of funny dialogue. I write a gay historical romance series. Lovers & Liars, and use comedy in a way to balance the horror of living thru WWII. Right now I'm doing NaNo and have come to a section in the novel that needs some balance with laughter. Your post is right on. Thanks for taking the spotlight today and thanks, Anne, for your wonderful weekly blog. :) Paul

November 10, 2013 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Comedy is definitely difficult. The funniest books I've ever read were actually non-fiction. Like the idea of imagining the worst and then the funniest thing that could happen.
Don't think I'll attempt one. A funny exchange of dialogue is the best I can manage.

November 10, 2013 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Rob Byrnes said...

Brilliant! As the author of six comic novels (well, I think they're funny) I applaud every word in this essay. And now I am spree-buying Melodie Campbell novels, because I think I should read her body of work before asking her to marry me.

November 10, 2013 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hi Anne & Melodie,
Ha! I laugh in your general direction. Bravo to humor. One of my all-time favorites is Tom Robbins. Well, then there's David Sedaris, oh, and...

November 10, 2013 at 12:48 PM  
Blogger Rita Bailey said...

Even your serious writing is funny, Mel! Thanks for laying out the Eight Commandments of humour. Mel's books are laugh-out-loud funny. The comedy flows, and seems simple. Very deceptive. Comedy is every bit as difficult as tragedy - try writing a death scene as both and you'll see what I mean.
I'm happy yo leave the comedy to others.
But we could all do with at least one comedic character in our books. It's the icing on the cake.

November 10, 2013 at 12:49 PM  
Blogger john M. Daniel said...

Wonderful post, Melodie. Kept me laughing while it kept me learning. You clearly know the theme song of every good teacher: "Let me Entertain You!"

November 10, 2013 at 1:13 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Laura—I think that's why I like Canadian humor so much. It's deadpan. Those Airplane movies are so funny because Leslie Neilson played his role with that dead-serious manner.

Hayden—I'm going to remember that quote. Great insight

Donna—I'm loving the Goddaughter. I think I'll adore the Rowena ones, too.

Ruth—Women in comedy are so brave. I love all those comics too.

Tanis—I think it's something that comes naturally in your writing or doesn't. If it does, it's hard to weed it out, so it's a mixed blessing.

Collette—Thanks! So great to see so many new names here.

Claude—Insightful comment. Most people think of comedy as "lowbrow" while more serious work is "highbrow" but as Hayden's quote shows, it's more cerebral, so fans could be called "elite." I like that :-)

Sheri—I'm turning into a major fan, too.

Mindprinter—You're right that grim stories need comic relief. One of the funniest monologues every is the porter's speech in the middle of the bloody "MacBeth."

Alex—Humor is often categorized under "nonfiction" because of all those hilarious books by people like David Sedaris and Dave Barry. But I'm not sure their books are entirely factual, so it's a fine line…

Rob--You won't be disappointed in Melodie's books! Now I'll have to check out yours.

CS—Tom Robbins definitely knows how to write funny fiction. I wonder if he could have got a mainstream publishing contract any time but the experimental 1970s?

Rita—I agree! And I think putting in a comic character, even in a serious book, is a great way to keep your reader happy.

John--I'll bet Melodie is a fabulous teacher

And Melodie—Thanks for the great guest post!

November 10, 2013 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Denise Willson said...

Great 'how to' Melodie. I'm not funny at all, but I can appreciate a good laugh. I can't imagine writing humor, but now I know who to turn to for great tips when I do!

Denise Willson

November 10, 2013 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Anne, you have me exhausted!

Rob - where have you been all my life? Looking up your books right after this.

Many thanks, Denise, Tanis, Rita, John, Sheri, Donna, Claude, Collette, Alex, CS (I'm missing a few - forgive me). Anne has said such wonderful words about the humour in my books that it will be hard to live up to (or be dead funny - but that would be an awful pun, so we'll just pass on that.)


November 10, 2013 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger Jan Christensen said...

What an inspiring post. I usually have some humor in my novels and quite a bit in some short stories. But I've never really analyzed how to do it. I know the advice here will help me in the future.

November 10, 2013 at 1:58 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

Great post. I enjoyed every word of it. Thanks for putting it up.

November 10, 2013 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger Catherine Astolfo said...

I think writing comedy is very difficult and certainly unappreciated when it comes to awards and such. For me, I want to say high five for giving me all that fun and laughter, Melodie! And thanks for the lessons, too. I'm writing them down because I'm writing - fool that I am - a comedic mystery next.

November 10, 2013 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Sussan Tuttle said...

Fantastic post. I don't usually write humor into my suspense novels, but I love to read it. And whenever I hear someone say that humor isn't serious writing, I say, "Yes it is. It's seriously humorous." Gets 'em every time...

Maybe all that reading of humor is rubbing off. I have one character in my new series who is rather quirky: she "names" the people she comes into contact with (the doctors in the ER are Dr. Seduction and Dr. Curmudgeon. the cop is Detective Dimwit). I never thought of it as funny, just as her personality, but my beta readers have been laughing aloud. Makes me happy, too.

Now I'm off to read what that goddaughter is up to! Thanks, in advance, for a great read, Melodie!

November 10, 2013 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger Alison E. Bruce said...

Wow! First there was a great introduction. Next came an informative and funny lesson in comedy. And then, like the cherry on the top of a sundae, there's all these great and thoughtful comments. I'm glad I wasn't able to read this 'til the end of the day. I would have missed the cherry otherwise.

November 10, 2013 at 3:04 PM  
OpenID bridgetwhelan.com said...

Really enjoyed this post which proved just how powerful and effective humour can be...I like the quote from Stephen King. "Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh." I think all the best books and plays contain humour - it's light and dark. And the light can make the dark seem darker..I always think of the scene after the old king is killed in Macbeth. the tension is taunt, the sense of drama high and then comes a knocking on the castle gate. The murder will be discovered - can Macbeth get away with it? Will he be found out? And what comes is not another dramatic scene but a drunk porter making jokes about body fluids and nose picking. We can relax. It's a relief to laugh but we know the dark is still there...

November 10, 2013 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger Julie Luek said...

Great tips. I think humor is very difficult to do well, especially in fiction. Thanks for sharing great ideas with us!

November 10, 2013 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Tamara Marnell said...

The "Trouble with Writing Comedy" section applies to writers in basically every popular genre. Every published author of YA, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery gets shoehorned into their niche and faces high expectations for future works, and those fancy awards are reserved for members of the "literary" circle only. If readers don't expect your work to be funny, they expect it to be profound, horrific, heart-throbbing, and/or tear-jerking. So I don't think there's any reason for comedy writers to despair in particular.

The reason feel-good comedies aren't treated with respect is likely because they tend to reinforce the status quo. The "funny" comes from a threat to the everyday order of things (tragedy narrowly avoided), and the "happy ending" is the return to comfort and stability. The moral of feel-good comedies is usually, "No need to panic; everything will work out on its own." Darker books, on the other hand, tend to push the envelope--make readers question their acceptance of the flawed world as it is and what can be done to improve it.

This isn't always the case, of course. Most "gore and torture" books have no great insights whatsoever, and the most successful and enduring comedies do push the envelope. Oscar Wilde challenged stuffy Victorian social conventions, and Douglas Adams poked fun at religion. Charlie Chaplain took on Hitler himself. But the envelope-pushers are one in a hundred, if that, because people who read/watch comedies don't want to think about unhappy things. They want to feel safe and pleasantly diverted for a few hours.

November 10, 2013 at 4:08 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Denise—We're honored to have her here.

Melodie—Your post seems to have pried a lot of writers from their NaNo-ing

Jan—It's fun to look at your own stuff and see how you've applied these "rules" without knowing them.

Rosi—I was jazzed that she agreed to guest post.

Catherine—Best of luck on the comic mystery!

Sussan—I know your nonfiction can be pretty hilarious, so I'll bet your new comic character is great.

Alison—We do have some great comments today, don't we? Maybe they're all primed from writing their NaNo books.

Bridget—Love the Stephen King quote! And you'll see I thought of the porter scene in the Scottish Play too, in my comment to Mindprinter above.

Julie—I think humor is hard to do well. It's always slipping into my writing where it doesn't quite work and when I have to kill a good joke, it makes me sad.

Tamara—Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think Melodie may be thinking of the mystery and romance awards, which are not for literary books, but are never given to comedies. Not all comedy is "feel-good". A lot of satire can be pretty biting. Most genre writing requires a happy-ever-after-ending. But it may be that people think comedy is "feel-good" because laughing makes us feel good, even if it has a dark message. Comedy got a lot more respect in earlier centuries than it does now, perhaps because it is more cerebral, as several commenters suggest.

November 10, 2013 at 4:31 PM  
Blogger Coleen Patrick said...

Love this post! And by the way, my husband and I do the Surely/Shirley bit all the time. :)

November 10, 2013 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Coleen--That bit always gets me laughing because my mom's name really is Shirley. Long before the Airplane movies came out, she got into an unintentional comic bit when she was phoning a politician named Alan something-or-other when she worked for the League of Women voters. She identified herself saying, "this is Shirley Allen" and the man replied, "yes, it surely is". The conversation went downhill from there. :-)

November 10, 2013 at 5:27 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

So many great comments here: I wish we were at a conference, so we could convene in a bar and explore more of this in person.

One of the things I note with a wry smile is how often it is overlooked that (for instance) my character in The Goddaughter is part of the mob. We shouldn't be rooting for her, but...I work very hard to make sure the reader does. What I think is overlooked by the 'judges' (if you will) is the skill it takes for a comedy writer to make the reader sympathetic to such a flawed character like this. Much easier to make a reader like a genuine heroine. That's a piece of cake (mmm...cake...)

So maybe some of that angst we have is for the lack of understanding and appreciation of the skill behind those (hopefully) funny scenes.

November 10, 2013 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger Rob Brunet said...

Great that you put this out there, Melodie. Of course, writing comedy you're always putting yourself out there, on the ledge, under the lights. It wouldn't be funny if you didn't take risks... so thanks for taking them!

November 10, 2013 at 7:39 PM  
Blogger SkillBites said...

Writing a comedy book is probably the hardest thing to do or write on the entire planet. But I do salute these authors, they really have a a great job in making people laugh! - lifestyle ebooks

November 11, 2013 at 12:28 AM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

Thank you for this primer, Melodie.

November 11, 2013 at 8:38 AM  
Blogger Johanna Garth said...

I absolutely love a book that can make me laugh. The best example I've read lately is A M Hughes, May We Be Forgiven. Literally, giggled out loud at every other page.

November 11, 2013 at 10:00 AM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

How did I get here so late? Okay Melodie and Anne ... my take on this comes from years of loving female comics. I lean towards the Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn type more than the slapstick of Lucy. In books there have been few and so far between what you and Janet do. Not fair, but the reality nevertheless.

To cure a depression, I once read ONE through SEVEN of Janet. By the time I went to the library for EIGHT, I forgot what I was depressed about. Yes, Nineteen and Counting is amazing, BUT ... I wish she had sustained her ability to make me laugh beyond Stephanie, Morelli and Ranger... not to mention Grandma Mazur :)

Milton Bearle said it decades ago ... anyone can make an audience cry ... but it takes a genius to make them laugh until they cry.

Thanks for a great post and I loved all the comments ... I guess sometimes it pays to get to the table late :)

November 11, 2013 at 11:59 AM  
Blogger Trekelny said...

So thoroughly brilliant. I expected to read about the classic dissected frog, but laughed instead.

In no particular order:
- No, that's NOT a broadsword in my case. I am half-Italian.
- You forgot to mention that 21 is the half-Life of an Adams book.
- Personally, I think there's no escape with Voltaire- or even from him. But Cervantes is my autobiography, quite strange since he wrote it five centuries ago.
-Comedy in heroic fantasy is nearly an oxymoron, but I'm stubborn about it. It's the Porter in Macbeth, the laugh between the screams; but your characters have to LIVE even while they're being heroic. And the heroes I've seen share such camraderie, including of course jest and teasing, that it wouldn't be their tale if it wasn't included. Unthinkable.

November 11, 2013 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rob--Melodie, Ruth and I all write comic novels, and we all take our licks for doing so, but I don't think we'd give it up for anything. Ruth can write dramas and thrillers, too, but no matter what I write, it comes out funny. I'll bet Melodie is the same.

Skill--Making people laugh is a reward in itself. Still, we like checks too. :-)

Leanne--Nice to see you here! Thanks for stopping by.

Johanna--I'll check out AM Hughes!

Fois--I love the idea of marathon comic-novel-reading to cure depression! Hey, it's cheaper than Prozac and no side effects!

November 11, 2013 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Trek - thank you for the kind words! I, too, am half Italian (how else could I write mob comedies? )

So much to comment on: 'Comedy in heroic fiction is almost an oxymoron' - Trek, I think that's what I take the most hits for. Some people love comedy (and compare one's series to The Princess Bride) but other readers are annoyed that I have 'demeaned with comedy,' their favorite genre.

Rob, Skill, Leanne, Joanna, thank you so much for commenting!

Fois: Evanovich gave me the courage to try transferring my own brand of standup to fiction. As you may have read in the bio, I have a serious rep in the crime writing world (my day job), which I am quickly blowing to hell. That's one of the reasons I'm so glad to have found Anne, a "partner in zany crime."

November 11, 2013 at 1:26 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Wonderful post, wonderful advice. Humor sneaks into almost everything I write, invited or not. I'm writing YA now and there it is again! My adult readers think it's funny. I sure hope my future YA readers do.

November 11, 2013 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger Roy Street said...

You mentioned the movies Bridesmaids and The Hangover as being able to get away with raucous humor that is not well received in books. I've noticed this too. It seems as if the most lucrative paying artform on earth, FILM gets a carte blanche when it comes to being funny. But, scroungy lowly paid authors are not given permission to entertain via humor when using the written word. Why is that? What is there about readers that limits their acceptance of humor in books but not in TV or film? Is it the medium?

November 12, 2013 at 12:09 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Roy, I have often wondered if it is a different audience that watches those films vs reads our books.

But yes - we should be writing for Hollywood, rather than the printed page!

Christine, thanks for the kind words. And I'm betting the YA readers will love your humour!

November 12, 2013 at 5:46 AM  
Blogger Kibroth Hattaavah said...

It was easy reading your nice post.
If you read this full comment, you're a whiz.
But I bet you a million ducats that you'll be asleep on your feet by the time I'm done with you.
First of all...I was looking for something like this post... Thanks, Anne! Lots of nice tips, especially 'Make a character in your plot funny' and the Earl-shrimp-dinner joke... Laughed a lot at some! Try P. G. Wodehouse - very funny at times...
Thanks so much!
If any of you get time, pls don't visit this funny blog of mine, though it's not at all as good as this one. Kindly stay far from this blog of mine. As Shakespeare said in King Lear, "The one who is a newbie in blogger shall always faileth." To quote Orlando of As You Like It, "Some blogs just suck." I offer my sincere apologies if I have got these poetic and mesmerizing quotes of the old bard wrong. To conclude this weary and dull comment on this lively post, may I once again commend to thee, good reader, that to enter into the agonizing den of mine blog Mescellany is nothing short of your worst nightmare. (By this time, folks, I guess you've got the message... Pls come to the blog! I can't really yell at you guys HEY!!! YOU THERE! BETTER COME TO MY BLOG, OR ELSE... MUHAHAHA or any of that bally stuff and that's why I'm employing such underhand methods of don't-come-to-my-blog.
I guess none of you enjoyed my lame jokes. Too bad.
http://mescellany.blogspot.in/
If any of you get time -
Oh. Sorry. I've said that already.
God bless you, He loves you!
Praying for you guyz... May Jesus bless you all.

November 13, 2013 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kibroth--You sound like a funny guy. I'm dead on my feet and dealing with more catastrophes than my brain can handle so there's no time, but I'm sure somebody will take the bait and visit your blog.

November 13, 2013 at 9:54 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Great post -- the generator is a stitch. Here's what it did for my early YA MS, Wayne's Last Fit:

Wayne's Last Fit is a 37,000-word Young Adult novel set in middle class suburbs. Grady Whitman is his disabled older brother's keeper who believes in a bizarre Uruguayan acupressure method. He wants to bring his brother back from a coma and get Celia's attention. He's an ethical, yet shy guy. He is prevented from attaining this goal because Wayne is in a coma and Grady is clueless about girls.

December 8, 2013 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger Shaun Robson said...

might want to suggest commenters log in to their profile of choice BEFORE they type in their thoughtful and witty responses ...

rather bothersome when they disappear into the ether ...

July 11, 2014 at 6:02 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Shaun--Good suggestion! If people log out of WordPress and into a Google ID (if you have gmail, you have a Google ID) BEFORE they make a comment, maybe that will thwart the Blogger elves who don't want to accept WordPress IDs. Thanks!

July 11, 2014 at 8:43 AM  
Blogger cfinkle said...

Thank you for this helpful post. One of the funniest books ever written, "A Confederacy of Dunces", did receive critical acclaim, even won a Pulitzer. Of course, the author committed suicide because he couldn't get it published, but still...

July 6, 2015 at 9:07 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

cfinkle--I'm afraid John Kennedy Toole's story proves Melody right. Writing humor is not the best option for a writer. But we do it anyway. :-)

July 6, 2015 at 9:13 AM  
Blogger cfinkle said...

We are indeed cursed. :)

July 7, 2015 at 12:12 PM  

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