On Writing Humor
Every morning I get up knowing that I’m going to be making between two and four humor posts, and that people need to laugh right now perhaps more than at any time previously in my life. I also know that it might be a reach day when I go beyond the baseline. I don’t always succeed, but I do always try.
One part of that is understanding that there are lines that you have to cross to make things funny and lines that shouldn’t be crossed if you don’t want to hurt people. My process for humor is largely built on top of poking at the English language and seeing what falls out.
That means following the loops and puns of language to places that can be pretty fucking dark. When I get there I always pause before posting and think about who this joke might harm. That means that something between ten and sixty percent of what I come up with on a given day gets thrown away. Humor is transgressive by nature, and that means that you have to explore where the speculation takes you, and you also have to pause and assess whether a given transgression is going to hurt people who are vulnerable and who have already been hurt too much.
I have come up with things that are hella funny that would probably make ninety percent of my audience laugh pretty hard at a moment when they really need a laugh, but which comes at a cost of hurting some portion of the ten percent who wouldn’t laugh in a way that is unacceptable for anyone who cares about paying attention to the vulnerable.
In humor, as in life, restraint is as important as pushing yourself to the limits.
Aches and Pains and Privilege
I have a great orthopedist who has done wonders for me over the years including three knee surgeries, diagnosing my labrum tear and brachial tendonitis, and various other odds and ends.
I have incurred quite a few injuries over the years because I’m very physically active, both in terms of doing things like major house projects and on the exercise side with running, weightlifting, biking, punching bag work, and a dozen or so other fitness regime elements. I’ve torn cartilage, pulled muscles, broken bones, etc. The current crop includes a couple of lightly fractured knuckles, fading brachial tendonitis from last summer, tennis elbow, and a spot of carpal tunnel, all of which requires a daily PT regime. It sounds worse than it is, and now that I’m done with the heavy house reconstruction stuff until next spring, most of it should clear up in a few weeks.
My injuries had me ruminating on privilege today while I was cleaning up from the demolition work I just finished in the storeroom. I was feeling a bit on the stiff and sore side as I was hauling bags of broken plaster up the stairs. You see, when I say that I have a great orthopedist, it elides a couple of things. One, obviously, is the privilege of good insurance.
Another, much subtler, issue is that I have an orthopedist who is great for me but who might not work as well for everyone. I think the fact that he’s an excellent surgeon and diagnostician will work pretty well for all of his patients. His manner, maybe not as much. He’s brusque and smart and he doesn’t pull punches about what he thinks you need to do, or risks and potential for recovery. That works well for me, but I’m a middle-aged, cis, white guy who has always been taken seriously by my medical professionals.
I know that I will be listened to and respected simply because of who I am and how I project myself. I know that the reason he is being brusque with me is because he’s brusque, not because he’s reacting negatively to some part of my identity. I know it’s not personal. Not all of his patients have that privilege. I also have the benefit of arriving at his office for an appointment without having to first plow through a bunch of institutional and societal barriers that might cause me to be worn down beyond the injuries that brought me there. I arrive without the baggage that might make it harder for me to handle someone telling me what I need to do in a not particularly gentle way. I have a great deal more patience for this particular bit of mild friction in the machinery of my life simply because I have so much less friction everywhere else.
It’s a thing I always remember when I recommend my orthopedist. I tell people he’s a really good doctor, and a good surgeon, and I recommend him very highly, but I always note that his bedside manner is definitely not for everyone. I also try to remember that part of why he works so well for me is because the cultural baggage that I bring with me everywhere I go is a lot lighter than that carried by so many of those around me.
Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD
Community Means Helping People
I had an experience today that reminds me of why I support the social safety net and why I wish we were doing better at creating and maintaining those systems.
I biked to a doctor’s appointment this morning. When I pulled my bike in under the shade of a tree to lock it up, I noticed a young woman sitting there, somewhere in the 19-25 year old range. She was looking more than a little ragged around the edges, and tired, and she was on her phone.
I nodded at her, but I was very careful not to pay too much attention to her. As a burly white guy I know that it is incredibly easy and not unreasonable for women to see me as a potentially serious danger. I figure I pretty much register as the threat equivalent of a puma entering your space. As I was locking my bike up I couldn’t help overhearing her making an effort to access local social services in hopes of finding a safe place to sleep.
Once I was completely locked up and ready to go in, I pulled out a $20 and offered it to her, saying I’d been in rough places too, and I hoped she found what she needed. Then, as soon as she took it, I immediately went in to my appointment. Again, I wanted to be as minimally threatening as possible.
When I got done with my appointment I came back out to my bike. The woman was still there, but no longer on her phone. She didn’t make eye contact, and I made sure to do no more than nod in her direction and then ignore her as I got my bike loose and put my gear back on. Just as I was about to start pedaling and after it was obvious I wasn’t going to bother her more she called out, “I wish you safe travels.” So I wished her luck and went on my way. I don’t know if she found what she needed, but I hope she did.
I would have liked to have done more for her, but it was clear from her body language that she was very wary of me, and I feel it’s important to respect that because I’m quite aware that while personally I am not a threat to her, for her demographic she has every reason to be super cautious around folks like me. So, all that I can hope is that through my taxes and my efforts at supporting good social services as a local elected official that the resources are there for her to access.
As far as I’m concerned, being there for people like her who are in obvious need is one of the important reasons for government to exist, and it’s why I would cheerfully pay more in taxes to make those resources available. I’m glad I was able to help a little, and I would happily have helped more, but I think that it would be better for community and general well being if there were stronger systems in place to make sure that help is available on an institutional rather than a personal level. It’s a hugely important investment in people and the community we are all collectively a part of. I don’t want people like that young woman to have to be afraid of those who are offering help.
Some Thoughts on Publishing Contracts
Dear Writers: You should be reading your contracts at least as many times and at least as closely as you do your prose or poetry. Because that misplaced comma that has you so freaked out in your story? That’s not half as bad as the misplaced comma in your contract.
Over the past few days I’ve been going over novel contracts for a new project. I’ve been posting notes on how I think about contracts and why reading them carefully is so important. This post gathers all of that information in one place.
We (writers) tend to focus heavily on craft to the occasional detriment of the business side of publishing. Contracts are vitally important and signing a bad one can be deeply harmful to both your career and your psyche. So far, I have been lucky in that I haven’t yet hit a bad clause in a contract that I couldn’t live with or get changed. But part of that “luck” is knowing that there is a point at which walking away makes more sense than signing, and being willing to push on stuff you don’t like. This is one of the reasons why I’m glad to have an agent, and why my first criteria for an agent is contract comprehension and negotiation. It’s much easier if you’ve got an agent to do the bad cop side of things.
Without further ado some random thoughts while reading contracts:
Just finished the third pass through the new contracts. This one was quickly cross comparing clauses with previous contracts. I.e. have I signed something like this before without it blowing up. If yes, hooray! If no, lets double check that bit there. Next up, close read of the whole thing with notes. Whee.
Beyond the important who gets paid how much for what stuff, one thing the boilerplate part of a publishing contract represents is a sort of archaeological record of previous author flame-outs. Also, previous publisher flame-outs, rights grabs, etc. It’s instructive reading in that way as well.
The how have things gone wrong with this publisher’s past deals portion of the reading is especially critical for smaller houses. (Catherine Lundoff reminded me of this bit)
Finished 4th pass (close read) through new book contracts. Brain melty now, so, I’m off to kill orcs for a bit (Shadows of Mordor). Next up: Reeading critical bits (things I’ve flagged on this or previous passes). Hopefully by this time tomorrow I can actually sign the things.
Finally, in response to a question about whether my agent shouldn’t be taking care of this:
Rule 1 of agents and contracts: No matter how good your agent is and how much you trust them, it’s still YOUR contract and your work on the line.
I like and trust my agent. I’m very happy with my publishing house and I adore my editor. Verifying everything is still part of my job. If your book is truly successful, that contract could be a big part of your life for the next 20 years. If it’s a smash hit, that contract could be a part of your heirs lives 20 years after you’re dead. You want it to be solid and as favorable as you can get it.
Post Script: This time I’ve done six passes through the latest contracts. Now I just need to briefly discuss two paragraphs with my agent to verify my reading and I can sign them and get them out the door.
Some Thoughts on Communication: Clarity, Engagement, and Codeshifting
An academic friend asked me if I would be willing to put together some thoughts on how I use communication skills in my profession. Since I’m a novelist, a wall of text fell out. I thought it might be of use to others, so here it is.
As an author with a dozen novels in print, my entire job is communication. Primarily that’s via the written word in my fiction, and on social media which I use to keep in touch with my audience and draw in new readers on the professional side, but I also do a lot of public speaking and appearances.
In the written form I mostly work at novel length, but also do things like twitter micro-fiction to keep people entertained in the long gaps between novels. Working at 140 characters is a particular challenge as you’re forced to pack a lot of meaning into a tiny space. Often, in my case including a full joke including punch line, since much of what I do is humor.
That tiny space in need of a big punch is also something I do on the public speaking side of my job. I do a lot talking on panels at science fiction conventions and literary events. When you’ve got four to six people all talking over the course of an hour event, you have on average 10-15 minutes total to address the topic, and to make an impression on the audience. Usually that will come in a series of 30 second to 2 minute chunks in which you need to try to do as many of the following as possible: address the topic, be wise, be clever, be funny, be profound, share your love of the work, share the space with fellow panelists, don’t be a jerk, advertise for you work. Note, I put advertise last. On panels your job, beyond addressing the topic, is to make yourself interesting and likable enough for people to want to look into what you do.
On the public speaking side, I also do personal appearances at schools, keynote speeches, and readings/signing at bookstores and other venues. Each of those requires different sorts of public speaking skills.
Schools are generally mix of reading from my work and question and answer. Kids are a tough audience. They get restless easily, they don’t want to be talked down to, and they’re very curious. I generally keep reading sections with kids to very short pieces and try to spend more time addressing their questions. I’ve found that treating them with complete honesty and like miniature adults in terms of respect is what works best for me there.
Another note on question and answer involves making sure your audience has heard the question and that you’re answering the right thing. With quiet speakers or people who are anxious or otherwise garble the question, I will often restate it for the audience while making eye contact with the speak to make sure I’m really representing what they’ve asked. Sometimes this involves code-shifting, i.e. taking a question that’s asked in a very academic way and shifting it into a more vernacular sort of speech. Or, taking a convolute or slangy construction and rephrasing it more succinctly and clearly.
Keynotes are tougher. I’m a writer by trade which means I normally spend my days alone with a keyboard. Giving a 30-50 minute speech followed by question and answer is a radically different environment and it always makes me very happy that my background is in theater which taught me the value of clarity, enunciation, speaking at a conversational pace, vocal discipline and sustain and how not to say “um” all the time. It also taught me to practice my speeches beforehand.
My theater background is also a huge benefit to me for readings, where it helps me with characterization, dramatic timing, and making sure my audience feels I’m engaging them. For example, I simulate lots of eye contact during a reading—making sure to look out into the audience and rest my eyes on faces in different places. That’s my theater teachers taught me to do even when completely blinded by spotlights and a dark house. I used to do actual eye contact when I could, but I can’t shift between near and far vision that well anymore.
Signings, which often coincide with readings are another and different communication challenge. You need to give a little time and genuine attention to everyone who comes out to have a book signed. These are your hard core readers, the people who most care about your work and they’ve earned that consideration. Especially those who come out again and again. I’m terrible with names, and I make that part of my patter. I let people know that I remember their faces and when I’ve seen them before even if I can’t remember names or spell them to save my life.
That connection is what’s really at the core of all of my non-fiction communication. Whether it’s chatting with people on twitter who’ve liked my work, answering fan mail, meeting readers at signings, or making eye contact while reading and giving speeches, you have to make sure to actually connect with people, to respect them, communicate clearly, and to make sure you’re giving them your best self.
I’m a local politician as well as an author, and many of these things are cross platform skills: the speech making, the clarity and engagement, etc. This is especially true of the code shifting, which I want to talk about a bit more, as it’s something that’s often overlooked or undervalued. My most valuable skill for politics, which is mostly meetings, is code-shifitng. English isn’t really one language, it just sounds like it.
Academics, for example, use one primary set of jargon when speaking casually with each other, a separate one for written communication that will be part of the permanent record, and wide variety of in-disicpline lexicons. Or, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a corporate lawyer may well use the same words but with meanings that vary from the same, through similar, to wildly different. I do a lot of inter-English translation as part of the politician side of my life.
Code-shifting is a skill honed through theater and public speaking, but developed through growing up in a variety of settings. My earliest memories are of being rural poor in North Dakota living with my single mother and grandmother—one version of English. At six I moved to Saint Paul and became urban poor—another version. As I went to a hippie school and we moved into the middle class, I learned two more sets of the English language. At ten my mother remarried to a carpenter—yet another set terms and meanings. When I went to college I learned both basic academic and the professional jargon of theater. When I later married and my wife went to grad school, I learned both of the more advanced forms of basic academic as well as the specialized versions of education and physics.
Being able not just to code-shift, but to recognize when people are speaking different versions of English and help bridge the gap between the two is one of my best and most useful communication skills. It helps with every part of my job as a novelist and public speaker as well as my political hobby.
People like stuff that you don’t. Get over it.
This is a rant that grows out of the whole anti/pro steampunk kerfuffle that the f&sf genresphere has been aflutter with of late, in which many on the two sides are flinging great gobs of words at each other like punctuation-laden poo. It’s not pretty and in many cases it seems to be a mix of sour grapes and tribalism, and it looks just like every other variation of this argument we’ve had for the last fifty years. The only real difference being what sub-genre/genre/literary sensibility we’re arguing about.
One of the things that we as a genre community seem to be most vulnerable to is the idea that our personal favorite type of writing is the only type of writing that other people should love and pay attention to, and that anyone who disagrees that our pet subgenre is the one true form of worthwhile writing is a poo-poo head. This tends to be expressed in one of two ways:
1) I want more of my stuff, and why isn’t everyone writing and publishing that? “Waaaaah!” *POUT* It is often accompanied by the stomping of rhetorical feet and tearing of hair. It mostly looks like highly articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
2) How can anyone believe that XXXXX is worthy of their attention and dollars? XXXXX is immoral and anti-intellectual or just plain bad. The people who read/write it are dupes/exploiters or simply uncultured. If people really understood the underlying dynamic of XXXXX they’d realize their mistake and come over and read YYYYY which is the one true way. It mostly looks like even more articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
People, get a freaking grip! Not everyone likes what you like, and that’s okay. In fact it’s wonderful and healthy and necessary for the survival of a culture. Diversity of thought and idea and taste is one of the single most important parts of our ongoing survival as a species. It’s what drives us to try that funny looking new fruit, or accept that those who don’t look and think like us are people too, or to take a long walk over the hill and find out there’s also cool stuff over there.
The tendency of people to act as though stuff they don’t like is awful and bad for the culture if not downright immoral is one of the human tribal reactions that I find least attractive. It’s genre fundamentalism and it’s ugly and petty and basically unhealthy, both for the culture and for the head of bile it builds up within the person in question.
Does this mean I’m immune to the impulse? Of course not. There are sub-genres I think are stupid or hateful or bad for people. When my stuff doesn’t sell as well as somebody else’s stuff I get a little jealous and pouty. Hey, I’m human. However, I really do try to throttle it down, because it’s bad for me and indulging the impulse is bad for the culture. And I sure as hell don’t throw a public tantrum about it.
If you were a geek in school (and if you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good) you remember what it was like to have the cool kids looking down on you for loving Star Trek or Dr. Who or reading those funny Lord of the Rings books. This impulse to say my genre/subgenre good = your genre/subgenre bad is the exact same shit. Do you really want to be doing that?
(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 10 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)
How to Train Your Dragon II (Wasted Opportunities)
As it turns out, I have strong feelings about this movie and the bloody stupid waste it makes of great storytelling opportunities.
I watched about two thirds of How to Train Your Dragon II last night with my wife. When we hit the lovely reunion scene we decided the story was about to go to hell in a terribly predictable manner because older people aren’t allowed to have happily ever afters in this sort of movie. So, I went and looked up the rest of the plot online and we stopped the movie at that point and put it back on the shelf. This is because we were quite happy with the movie up to that point and didn’t feel any need to go on to the unnecessary cost scene that we had both seen coming. While I’m sure that the rest of the movie is lovely, I have no desire to see any of it.
I have zero patience for the whole: It’s a cartoon movie, some beloved parent/mentor/older person must die or sacrifice their happiness for the young protagonists to learn the true meaning of sacrifice/responsibility thing. It’s sloppy, lazy storytelling and doubly so in this instance.
Hiccup doesn’t have a responsibility problem with being chief—he’s plenty willing to take responsibility in dangerous circumstances. We’ve seen that time and again. What he’s got is a scatterbrained creative personality problem. I’m an author, I know dozens of scatterbrained creatives. Tragedy does not magically transform them into decisive organized leader types. It just transforms them into _heartbroken_ scatterbrained creative types. Dad’s death will not magically make Hiccup an appropriate choice for the next chief.
Compound this with the fact that there’s a natural successor on hand, one who has even been identified as someone who is going to become part of the chief’s family in the near future—in the first minutes of the movie we see Stoic identifying Astrid as his future-daughter-in-law—and the argh factor goes through the roof. I’m not a huge fan of leadership transfer by heredity, but if you have to do it, Astrid fits that bill, as well as the much more important one of being a natural leader.
Astrid is decisive, smart, adaptable, understands how to manage people (Hiccup included), willing to listen… She’s a perfect candidate to be the next chief. How much better would the movie have been if Astrid had rescued Hiccup (safely), instead of having the stupid sacrifice scene, and, this had caused dad to realize it was his future daughter-in-law who ought to become the next chief, and not his entirely unsuitable son?
Not only would that have made a less cheaply predictable story, it would have given Hiccup the chance to continue to roam and do the things that made him happy without feeling guilty about the fact that Astrid is running the village—because, let’s be honest, she’s the one who’s going to be doing the job anyway. Astrid would have the title as well as the workload, Hiccup would continue to do what he’s best at, and it would be much easier to justify a sequel. Wins all around.
It’s the sheer laziness of the writing there that gets to me. Sigh. Deep breaths.
Here endeth the rant.