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.

Have I heard that somewhere before?

Where do a writer’s words come from? From within them of course – but from the outside world too.

I swear I don’t do it on purpose – but I am as guilty as any writer of the occasional bit of word theft. I consciously try not to do it – and I would never nick a whole paragraph or anything as outrageous as that.

But there are times, when I look back over what I have written that perhaps the odd phrase here or there rings a distant bell – and I realise that’s because, one way or another – I have lifted it from something else I read or heard or saw years before.

Magpie_robinLook – I’d say it was inevitable really – because I don’t just adapt from art – I adapt from life – someone might say something to me in passing in the pub and ten years later those same words are coming out of the mouth of a fictional character on one of my pages.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the writer’s magpie mind picks up shiny things from other works of art and resets them later in their own work.

arden-king-lear-old-editionWant to see an example of it happening? Just look at any of the annotated student versions of Shakespeare’s plays – an Arden edition for example (do they still do those?) You get a third of each page of play – then two-thirds of notes telling you where each line, each phrase, each word, was used before or since.

So here’s the first paragraph from one of my short stories called The Runner – it was, and is, an important story for me first because it’s a good one and second because it won an award called the Bridport Prize which is quite a big competition in the UK.

One morning I remember I woke up and one of us was crying. And for a baffled, anxious moment I couldn’t work out whether it was me or my soon to be ex-wife.
Hollow, vacant sobs, lost under the duvet. It was me, but it could have been either, could have been both, united in the terrible grief of division.

I mean – that’s me, I wrote that. But there are echoes here and there

409px-ElvisCostello1979Here’s Elvis Costello – the only Elvis who really mattered for men and women of my generation. A sound bite of lyrics from his late period masterpiece ‘I Want You’. See the phrase in there which looks familiar?

Your fingernails go dragging down the wall
Be careful darling you might fall
I want you
I woke up and one of us was crying
I want you
You said “Young man I do believe you’re dying”
I want you

But there’s more – another source I think. Look at the opening paragraphs from Martin Amis’s The Information:

InformationCities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that … Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, ‘what is it?’ and the men say, ‘Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams.’

If I were to go through any of my work with a fine tooth comb I would find examples like that dotted through it I think. Some kind and careful readers have found examples for me in Song of the Sea God. Either on a macro level where they point out other books or movies which it resembles in terms of theme or on a micro level where they recognise a form of words, a turn of phrase.

None of us works in a vacuum I suppose is the message.

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.

Cheltenham literature festival memories

800px-Cheltenham_view_arpI work in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, UK, and it’s just about Cheltenham Literature Festival time here at the moment. White marquees are springing up surprisingly like huge alien mushrooms in parks across town. It’s one of the biggest literature festivals in the UK and all very exciting.

The bill features very many celebrities from television and movies who have a book out for Christmas, plus a few proper authors who make a living writing books. Well, you have to put bums on seats after all.

DSC00849 (2)Seeing it all magically appear reminds me of the couple of times I have been invited to the festival to read. Once was last year to launch my book – nothing fancy, just me and a few people in the festival book shop tent. The other time was a few years ago when I was invited to read my Bridport Prize winning short story on a bill with a few other ‘emerging’ authors.

I remember we met up in the reading room in the town hall which felt like quite a posh moment. I was hoping it would be crammed with famous authors, especially as Martin Amis was reading that evening, but he wasn’t there and the only well known face was a bloke called David Bellamy who was a TV naturalist and was surrounded by earnest young men talking about green issues. Still I was pleased to be there and sat in a corner trying to look writerly.

800px-Cheltenham_town_hall_arpTop of my bill was the woman who had won the Orange prize that year, but she didn’t show up, then there was a guy whose first novel had just been published, then me, then a couple of writers from a creative writing website which was sponsoring the event.

So we followed one of the organisers to the venue which turned out to be the student union bar for the University of Gloucestershire. Which was fine, you can imagine what it was like – same as all the other student bars you’ve been in.

The first person to read was one of the writers from the website. She was a middle-aged American lady with quite bright bottle-blonde hair and she was a ‘big personality’ – all full of beans and enthusiastic, which was nice. I asked her if she had butterflies as she was on first and she said no, certainly not. She was all full of vim and get up and go etc. She even punched the air to show how keen she was. But then when she got up on the stage she died a death – completely crashed and burned. She went down like Justin Bieber on an oil rig.

It wasn’t like the Glasgow Empire – people weren’t booing and throwing stuff – there was just monumental indifference. They’d turned the juke box off and dimmed the lights a little but people were still playing pool, the fruit machines were still beeping away, people were talking to each other at the bar and so on. The only people listening were us other writers, because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.

She’d picked the wrong story was part of the problem, a sort of comedy about an elderly couple in the Cotswolds and the denouement was that the old boy had left the tickets to Crete in his other smoking jacket (I’m not making this up). And she tried so hard – she was even doing voices – impressions of the posh English couple. But it was just uphill all the way for her. It was much too young a crowd to be interested in that kind of story. At one point she stopped reading and shouted at the people by the bar that it was rude to talk. I really felt for her.

And when she came off stage she was crying – proper tears running down her face. At which point I went to the loo. Which I know might not exactly cover me in glory, but I had to follow this on remember. When I came back she’d gone, without even taking her money – I know!

But the next writer up, again from the website, was only a bit older than the students. She’d brought various stories so she could test the water before deciding what to go with and she read a thing about teenage vampires (again – not making this up) which went down quite well as you would imagine.

I didn’t get to choose my story – I had to do my Bridport winner which was like my hit single at the time (I was a one hit wonder). But when I came back from another visit to the loo the lights had been dimmed further, seats set out in rows, bar shut and everyone sat down like a proper gig. So mine went ok.

I think of that poor American woman when I occasionally do readings though – it shows just how bad things can go if you are unlucky. It helps me prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

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.

The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI read an interview with Martin Amis once where he said that when you’re writing a novel you write about the things you didn’t know were on your mind. This certainly rings true for me.

When I’m writing I certainly don’t set out to write about myself and nobody who has read Song of the Sea God has suggested it might be CiderWithRosieautobiographical. My tale of the rise of a would-be god on an island of misfits told by a dwarfish mute is hardly Cider with Rosie.

And yet, I think that the big things and the little things in anything you write hark back to your own personal experience.

By big things I mean themes, and however much you marry these to your plot, your characters and so on, there will be something of your own concerns in there too. For example, in the book I wrote after Sea God, which is called the Pick Up Artist, and isn’t published yet, the main character’s mother died when he was young and this certainly influences his development and actions. I didn’t think much about this when I was writing but it’s certainly true that my own mother died only a couple of years before I wrote the book. And though I was a lot older when my mother died than when the character in my book lost his, well, we all feel too young when our parents die don’t we?

As for little things – here I’m taking about incident, asides, scraps of plot, flashes of character. I mean the jokes, the turns of phrase, the lines of dialogue, the descriptions. They all come from somewhere, and though they are all ‘made up’ in so much as they start life in your head and finish up on the page, many of them will track back to your own life, your own concerns or ideas.

So what of myself have I left on the page in Song of the Sea God?

People who have been kind enough to review the book on Amazon tend to talk about three things. They talk about the language, they talk about humour and finally they talk about the darkness. Where does this darkness come from?

Well firstly I suppose it reflects the confusion I feel about religion. I’m not religious, in so much as I wouldn’t identify with a particular faith and, if pushed, I would describe myself as agnostic. But admitting that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is definitely not the same as saying I believe there are no mysteries. The feeling that there must be something more than what our senses tell us, the god-shaped hole in our lives, is something we all share I’m guessing, and those feelings are at the heart of the book.

Then there’s a sense of isolation in the text I think. The island the story is set on, which seems divorced from the rest of the world; the mute outsider who tells the tale. There is a loneliness here despite all the jokes and wise-cracks. I’ve always been blessed with a fantastic and close family – both growing up and now as an adult. Still, I think it’s JohnDonnepossible to feel that as a person, you come into this world and go out of it alone, you are essentially isolated – an individual. John Donne said ‘no man is an island’ but I think Song of the Sea God suggests that’s exactly what each of us is.

I didn’t set out to write about these things, and yet that is what I ended up doing. I believe the process of writing goes far deeper than our conscious mind knows.

Don’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.