The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Quick writing tips from top authors

I thought this week I’d share a few one line tips from top writers – just because I think they’re great and are the sort of thing which make us think about what we write. In the end I believe we all find our own best way to get words down on the page, but I also believe it’s a good idea to listen to good advice which comes from experts – so here is some.

Annie_Proulx_Frankfurt_Book_Fair_Conference_2009Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.

Annie Proulx

I’ve always written first drafts by hand in notebooks – I think it gets you in touch with the words and what they mean – also it ensures that when you come to type your work up on a computer later you are effectively doing a second draft. I think it also slows you down and that’s a good thing – there’s no point in writing faster  than you can think. As far as writing about what interests you goes – writing a novel is a marathon – if you are writing about something which doesn’t fully engage you then you are running uphill.

Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portraitBe a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr

I always think a book should really be about something – that there should be issues and events in there which are worth the weight of all those words. I suppose that’s what Kurt Vonnegut is saying here in a way – that there‘s not much point having characters just drifting about unchallenged. The awful things of which he speaks can take many forms of course

479px-Zadie_Smith_NBCC_2011_ShankboneTry to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Zadie Smith

This touches on the power and importance of rewriting – which, for me, is a crucial part of writing. I think the ability to self-edit successfully is a hard-won but vital skill and it really does depend on the ability to come to your own work as if it belonged to someone else and view it with a critical eye.

800px-Elmore_LeonardDon’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Elmore Leonard

I wrote a blog a while ago about words being in some ways better at describing ideas and emotions than they are at describing things. I believe, as clearly Mr Leonard does, that a good way to bog your book down with detail which could bore and baffle the reader is to describe things in tortuous detail. Often less is more and an impressionistic approach can be more satisfying.

Do you have any favourite writing quotes? Share them with us in the comments!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.