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Make "Em Laugh Tags: writing humour

 

MAKE ‘EM LAUGH

 

First thing in the morning I check the news headlines. Death and destruction dominate. There’s not much to smile about. No wonder humour is highly prized by readers, competition judges and editors. Something that makes people happy is always welcomed.

            So how can you inject some humour into your writing? Below are a few ways, by no means an exhaustive list, but something may strike a cord.      

Exaggeration – make something worse than it really is.

Take for example Christmas. Everybody knows the neighbour who starts with a Christmas tree in the garden and then collects all sorts of lights and ornaments that flash and glow until his house is covered in glitz and there is no chance of anyone sleeping as it is brighter than day.

            I’ve sold a couple of stories to magazines that exaggerate the mishaps of families on Christmas Day, from a power cut so the meal can’t be cooked to the family getting drunk and biting the tops of the chocolate liqueurs to suck out the fillings. Use your own family situations and exaggerate them to create an amusing situation — the barbeque no one can get lit, getting lost on a hike, the car breaking down…

Incompatible – something is unexpected and not what we would perceive as normal.

             In the same way as a punch line of a joke, incompatibility often works because it leads to one expectation but gives us another. You can read a short (50 word) story of mine here that uses this technique https://onthepremises.com/minis/mini_39/.

            In her novel, Faith Fox, Jane Gardam’s character of an elderly lady is taken out for a meal, not to the restaurant she is accustomed to, but a fast food chain. She comments on all the little details, like the food coming in cardboard packages, queuing up to order and the sachets of sauces. None of it makes sense to her, but she find she quite enjoys it.

Self-deprecating – be modest or even critical of yourself in order to invoke humour.

Alan Bennett is a master of this technique. From his diaries: “I’m sent a copy of Waterstones’ Literary Diary which records birthdays of various contemporary figures. I turn to my own… first British self-service launderette opened.”

Metaphors and similies – choose comparisons that make people giggle.

I have a copy of the novel Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling. The story is crammed full of interesting similies and metaphors, which make me smile each time I read it. “Talking to Jean was like trying to converse with a weather vane. She swung in all directions…”

Irony – using words that would normally signify the opposite meaning to underline the truth.

Bill Bryson’s travel books ripple with irony. Take the following example: “They were having a festival of litter when I arrived…”

Finally your characters dialogue can be used to humorous effect, showing up their own personality and possibly causing problems. In Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, her character Mark Darcy admits, possibly too honestly, “I don't think you're an idiot at all. I mean, there are elements of the ridiculous about you.”

But, be wary of confusing humour with insult. Mocking risks alienating your reader. But do humour well and you’ll be the popular with editors and readers alike.

Any tips for injecting humour into your work?

What are you favourite humorous novels/short stories and how do they make humour work?

 

Early Words
Category: Writing
Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers first books

Following on from Sue’s excellent post last week about what inspired us to write, I decided to look at our first reading experiences. I’m guessing that we all learned to read – or were read to – before we learned to write? That was certainly my experience.

I owe my early love of books and reading to my mother, who was an avid reader herself. Every night, when I was tucked up in bed, she read me a story. That was one of my favourite moments of the day. Like all children, I especially liked the stories I already knew by heart and I would say the words out loud when she came to them. (‘“Pooh,” said Sir Guy of Gisbourne.’)

It’s too far back for me to remember the very early picture books. My earliest memories are of the Ladybird books. They were little hardback books, both fiction and non-fiction. All were written as an illustrated story. The ones I particularly remember are the classic fairy tales, the Crusades, Robin Hood, What to Look for in Winter and What to Look for in Summer.

I was delighted to learn that the Ladybird books are still published under the Penguin imprint. But they are no longer in their original format. The company was founded in 1867 by Henry Wills when he opened a bookshop in Loughborough. In 1914, the company first published its range of children’s books, using a ladybird logo. The first ladybird with open wings was replaced by the classic closed-wing Ladybird logo in the 1950s.

You can see some of the old-style covers on this website, which is dedicated to the Ladybird books. 

I graduated from those to a set of Newnes Encyclopaedias with red leather binding and gold-tooled lettering. My favourite volume contained the Greek, Roman and Norse myths, to which I returned time and again. And, joy of joy, I discovered dinosaurs, an abiding passion during my childhood.

From there, my tastes veered towards the supernatural. I loved the idea of a parallel world to ours, peopled by strange, and sometimes menacing beings. Books that greatly influenced me included:

  • The Borrowers, tiny people who lived in the wainscot and “borrowed” things like empty cotton reels to make stools;
  • The Forest of Boland Light Railway, by a mysterious “B.B.”, in which a community of elves living in a forest construct a railway line to transport them from their village to their silver mines; and
  • Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

I must have been a rather whimsical child, but oh to recapture that “land of lost content.”

What were your first reading experiences?    

 

The Prize is Right?
Category: Writing

When the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced as Anna Burns’ novel Milkman, my curiosity was aroused, not so much by the book, but by the comments of chief judge Kwame Anthony Appiah. He said that the book was a challenge, “but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging”. He added that Milkman is “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”.

My curiosity was satisfied by Allison Pearson’s excellent and very balanced Daily Telegraph article, which not only laid bare the body of this strange work, but also buried it.

Experimental novel Milkman is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles and narrated by an 18-year-old girl who finds herself pursued by a sinister, much older paramilitary figure, the Milkman of the title. Anna Burns writes in long paragraphs and there are no names. Instead, the narrator is known as “middle sister”, while other characters are “third brother-in-law” or “first brother-in-law” and a chirpy, car-obsessed “maybe-boyfriend”. Even the book’s title is a dark joke: the IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates to doors at the corner of every street.

Allison considers herself a rather good and passionate reader, but judges the novel as “undeniably hard work” and not exactly the kind booksellers expect to fly off the shelves. She also takes issue with Appiah’s comment of “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”, being of the firm opinion that you shouldn’t need to persist with a great book, you shouldn’t be able to put it down. I echo the comments of the last speaker.

So why did what sounds like a real clunker win one of literature’s richest prizes? When Booker McConnell established the award in 1969, it was open to British, Commonwealth and South African writers. In 2002, the Man investment group took over sponsorship and increased the prize from £21,000 to £50,000. Most controversially, in 2013, eligibility was broadened to any English-language novel. To quote Allison once more: “it wasn’t hard to foresee what would happen when the juggernaut of US creative writing was allowed to bear down on a Morris Minor”. Since then two Americans have won, and the longlist and shortlist are packed with US novelists. There were two excellent US novels on the 2018 shortlist, one the bookies’ favourite, but with a prize now fending off accusations of American dominance, neither could be adjudged the winner.

Allison: “Not only is Milkman not the best book on the shortlist, it’s not even the best book on the longlist where Warlight cast its spectral magic and Normal People told a love story that had critics swooning”.

The Booker Prize seems to have been racked with controversy from the beginning. Winner of the 1994 award, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late provoked a storm of criticism. Judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger declared it “a disgrace” and “crap”. WH Smith’s marketing manager condemned it as “an embarrassment to the whole book trade”. It’s one of a long line.

Judges are not simply the same old faces. Each year, an advisory committee is formed which includes a writer, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. The committee selects the judges from amongst leading literary critics, writers, academics and important public figures. Rarely does any judge sit a second time. But many in the literary world cast serious doubts on the ability of a small number of insiders to choose a ‘best book’. The Guardian introduced the "Not the Booker Prize", voted for by readers, partly as a reaction to the system.

Literary prizes should be awarded to the best works. Period. We can do better.

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