A Writer’s Process 9(b)

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We’re back with the always-leave-’em-laughing Shelby Rosiak. Grab a bagel and get comfortable. If you missed part one of our discussion on humor in writing, please click here. Up to speed? Then, let’s do this thing!

El Space: What advice led you to the biggest writing breakthrough recently?
Shelby: A. M. Jenkins told me, “Step away from the computer and try writing by hand,” and that has made the biggest difference in my writing career. I feel more free on real paper, less inhibited, less judgmental. I can cross things out, write in the margins, make notes to myself, repeat myself. You can’t delete if it’s on paper, and deleting is a single line strikethrough, not completely missing from the page.

Stipula_fountain_penI have several different notebooks going on, so I’m not hugely picky about paper, but I almost always write with a fountain pen. There’s something about connecting liquid ink, delicate nib, to paper that is unique to a fountain pen. If you’ve written with one, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then try one! I’d say about 90% of my work is done on paper and then transcribed to the computer (the boring part).

El Space: How do you balance humor and seriousness in your work in progress?
7172060Shelby: I asked Alan Silberberg this exact question about his novel Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, which is a hilarious story of a boy coming to terms with losing his mother, a decidedly unfunny topic. He said, essentially, that you just go on instinct. I think that’s true as well, but I think the balance is really struck in the revision process. You have to think, Is this the character or is it me? Have I created this situation only for the punch line? Feedback from my critique group and classmates helps tremendously in finding that balance.

But it’s still not perfect. I once wrote a short story—I know you’ll remember this one, L.—about a vegetarian zombie named Trixie.

El Space: I do! An absolutely hilarious story.
Shelby: The piece was intended to be purely absurd. I just let loose and tried to be as funny as possible—Trixie missing half her face and holding a bag on Sun Chips, a zombie with his head under the Slurpee machine at 7-Eleven pouring it directly into his mouth—and while I put structure in the story, I would say about half of the workshop group didn’t get it. Many mentioned that they wanted more motivation. I was like, “Dude, the main character is RUNNING FROM ZOMBIES! What better motivation is there?”

Face PalmEl Space: I remember that discussion. I did a couple of facepalms at some of the comments.
Shelby: Others wanted more character development, still others wanted more of what you’d find in a traditional story. Part of me was thinking You’ve totally missed the point, but at the same time, you can’t exactly affect a French accent and decry, “You don’t understand my art!” A reader’s reaction is always legitimate, and it was a good exercise writing that story where I really wasn’t able to find that balance for some people.

One more piece of advice I got from A. M. Jenkins—well actually, this was more life changing than the one I mentioned above; can I change my mind?—came after she read dozens of pages of my work and finally said, “Stop being funny—it’s holding you back from your best writing.” That was a huge revelation for me, since part of me thought that funny WAS my best writing, and it took that to see that I was capable of a lot more. It’s easy for me to hide behind the humor. I don’t have to take risks; I don’t have to feel vulnerable. But that’s not what good writing is about. Once she pointed that out to me, I think my writing drastically improved, both the serious AND funny parts.

El Space: Glad you had that breakthrough! I see what you mean by life changing. But now, I’m dying to know: what books do you find funny?
project-jackalopeShelby: More than books, I tend to find authors funny. In YA, definitely Libba Bray (all of her work), John Green (all of his), and Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian); middle grade would be Roald Dahl (a serious master of humor), Louis Sachar (Holes), Alan Silberberg (Milo), Emily Ecton (Project Jackalope), M. T. Anderson (the Pals In Peril series); picture books—Mo Willems (Pigeon), Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back); adult—Christopher Moore (Lamb), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and many others that aren’t immediately coming to mind.

Actually as I’m coming up with this completely off the top of my head, I’m noticing that nearly all are male writers. I wonder why that is? THAT would be an interesting topic to look at!

It sure would be! Alas, we’re out of time! We’ll have to talk about that another time. I’ve enjoyed this discussion immensely. Thank you, Shelby!

If you have questions for Shelby about her process, would like to share a joke, or mention a book you find hilarious, please comment below. Thanks for stopping by. On your way out, you might watch out for those banana peels on the floor. I hear they’re very slippery.

Project Jackalope cover from the author’s site. Other book covers from Goodreads. William Riker and Jean Luc Picard facepalm from onlyhdwallpapers.com. Fountain pen photo from Wikipedia.

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32 thoughts on “A Writer’s Process 9(b)

  1. “Stop being funny—it’s holding you back from your best writing.” What an incredible insight for you to hear and embrace. World changing, I’m sure. I can’t wait to see more of your writing.

    • Thank you Sandra! It was a real revelation for me. I suddenly felt like the class clown who suddenly realizes that the reason why she can’t truly connect with people was because she refused to let her guard down.

  2. That zombie story sounds great. Do you think it’s harder to be a humorous author than a serious author? Not everyone has the same sense if humor, so I’ve found that my funny scenes rarely have 100% success.

    • Hi, Charles. I’m waiting to see how Shelby will answer your question. As for me, I think being an author known for humor is harder. Humor is so subjective, and there are many, many critics.

      I was given the same advice Shelby received by the same advisor. She could tell whenever I was on default mode–throwing a joke in when I wanted to avoid the hard work of getting at the character’s emotional core. It’s not that she didn’t appreciate humor. She just knew the book needed a balance. I think of authors like Roddy Doyle and Terry Pratchett who can be painfully funny and also convey the depths of tragedy in the same work. Now, that’s hard!

      • I’m learning how to do that. I throw in humor with a few gags and character banter. I think I get better at the balance with every book and edit. Just takes practice.

    • Wow, this is a GREAT question! My first response is that it’s hard to be a writer PERIOD. We all have our comfort zones, and for me, humor is definitely one of them. My writing partner Melissa Crytzer Fry, http://melissacrytzerfry.com , writes this stunning, knock-your-socks-off setting, whereas my setting sucks. People are like “Where are we in this scene?” and I’m like “Oh, you mean outside of these people’s heads? Yeah, I don’t know.” Getting out of your comfort zone is hard, no matter what it is.

      But I think humor does add a different layer because as you said, not everyone has the same sense of humor. And what’s worse is that with humor you always run the risk of offending or alienating someone. Sometimes social commentary hits a little too close to home. That’s always something to be aware of, and if you’re a member of a majority group (race, gender, socio-economic status, neuro-typical level, etc.) you really need to check your privilege baggage before you joke about other people to make sure you’re not perpetuating stereotypes. That part is super-important.

      I also have a particularly wacky sense of humor that often goes over people’s heads. For example, totally not writing related, but around here it’s common for grandparents to have a license plate frame listing a “scorecard” for their grandchildren, saying “Final Score: Boys 4 Girls 3” which a lot of people find quite humorous. I mean a LOT must, because trust me, I see these frames EVERYWHERE. I find them so eyeroll-worthy I often have difficulty driving because my eyes rolled so far back into my head they got stuck. Well back when I only had my son, I really wanted to get a frame that read “Final Score: Boys 1 Girls 0.” I thought that was a completely hilarious way to mock the originals. Except when I brought up the idea to my friends, pretty much nobody got it. It’s a quirky joke, I know, but not a hugely usable one.

      That said, I do love my current license plate frame that my husband got me for Christmas. I got my undergrad degree from Albion College http://albion.edu/, a small, private liberal arts school in Michigan that very few people in California have heard of. Every time people asked where I went to college, I described it pretty much exactly that way. So my license plate frame reads, “Alumni: Small Midwest Liberal Arts College.” Some people don’t get that either, but I get a lot of laughs (probably from other Californians who went to small midwest liberal arts colleges). It’s a broader joke, but you can still be quirkly.

    • Thanks, Jill. I’ve never tried writing with a fountain pen. But I know how I am. I’d have ink blotches galore!! I have a hard enough time with gel pens! If I write anything by hand, I use the cheap Bics. But yeah, typing everything gets tedious.

      • Actually ink blots are few and far between with modern fountain pens, even the cheap ones, unless you let the tip of the pen rest on the paper for an extended amount of time while you fall asleep or something. Not that that’s ever happened to me or anything. I have two children under 5 so fatigue is clearly never an issue. I actually get more blobs with cheap ballpoints.

      • I fell asleep using a gel pen and wound up with green ink all over the edges of a page. So, I’m one of those people who should not be given nice things.

    • Isn’t it a fantastic feeling? The writing, that is. The computer part is AGONIZING. One rule I had to set for myself is no editing between written page and computer transcription. I found myself judgmentally removing or changing things from page to computer and lost a lot of original work that way. That’s hard too, when you’re like “OMG, this totally sucks and I’m embarrassed that I ever wrote this.”

  3. L.Marie — thank you for another great interview! Shelby, a couple of lines in your interview hit home for me. “You have to think, Is this the character or is it me? Have I created this situation only for the punch line?” — This is true for me even when not writing humor. I often need to sit back and look hard at a good line and wonder if it’s something that my *character* would actually say or think or if it’s just a line that *I* would say or think.

    Also, you and I had A.M. Jenkins at the same time and I remember that breakthrough for you — when you realized that your entire value is not inherent in your humor. That is a *huge* revelation, not only as a writer, but as a person. Humor is fantastic, but many of us hide behind it to avoid deeper stuff. You are brave to step outside of that and explore where you’re writing can go.

    The funniest book I read recently was ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. I literally laughed out loud while reading to the point of embarrassing my son in public and keeping my husband awake (but not at the same time, that would be weird).

    • I should have just copied your answer, when I commented on Charles’s comment. 🙂 You put it so eloquently. I should’ve grabbed that book you just mentioned. I had my hand on it at the bookstore, but walked away. Now I need to get it. I also think of John Green’s book, especially The Fault in Our Stars. Funny, sad, beautiful.

    • Thank you Laura! That was an intense semester with A.M. Jenkins, with many big realities. I think it’s easy to hide behind any comfort zone to avoid deep stuff, but humor is particularly easy because it’s very distracting, and very “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” when you get people laughing at what you’re staying. I haven’t read ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL yet but I’ll put it on my list!

  4. I love Milo Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. The perfect blend of funny and sad. Books that do this well relate truths through the humor. I think that’s why humorous stories have universal appeal. It’s great to be able to laugh while feeling that heart tug. Great interview, you guys!

    • I agree. Milo is fantastic, especially his use of graphic novel format to express the pain that Milo himself is unable to express. The best use of humor also breaks your heart. Going Bovine by Libba Bray is another, as well as The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Humor can be a powerful tool when used carefully.

  5. I’m writing by hand now too and I love it! I have another seven or so chapters to cover and then I’ll start the transcribing to the computer. I saw a commenter who resists the urger to edit during the transcription. I think I’ll have to remind myself of this whenever I get tempted!

    • Keep telling yourself to just transcribe! Don’t edit. It’s almost automatic, but don’t do it. There are gems in there that you could edit out, and tons of crap you WILL edit out later, but don’t stress it. Just transcribe exactly as you’ve written :).

  6. There are plenty of funny female writers. My #1 and #2 laugh-out-loud recommendations are Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. I can’t wait for the third volume in that series.

  7. Great interview, L. Marie and Shelby! I love the advice from A.M. Jenkins to stop being funny sometimes so that humor doesn’t become a shield. I’ve been thinking about humor a lot lately. Last summer, I pushed through to the end of a draft of the novel I’d been working on at VCFA. I’d spent a whole lot of time on the first half of the book, but I wrote the second half much more quickly. One comment I got from friends who read the draft was that the second half of the book wasn’t anywhere near as funny as the first half, so I should make it funnier. The problem was, I hadn’t intentionally made the first half funny–I had just done a better job of inhabiting the main character and relaying her observations, which were sometimes humorous. Once I got a better handle on the plot of the second half and spent a very long time revising, the humor of the main character’s voice seems to have surfaced more. But it was hard for me to purposefully add humor.

    I’m starting to work on another project, which has a main character who is rather prickly and angry. I’m a little apprehensive about it because I think this one *has* to be funny if it’s going to work, which is a lot of pressure. I need the narrator’s humor, and her occasional flashes of vulnerability, to keep her from becoming unlikable. In a way, *she’s* going to use her humor as a shield in the way we, as writers, shouldn’t.

    Thanks for this interview, ladies! Great insights and great book recommendations! I’ll add one of my favorite humorous authors, Jaclyn Moriarty.

    • Hey, Laurie! I love Jaclyn Moriarty! Loved A Corner of White. I hear you on the challenge of adding humor. But your plan of having your character use humor as a shield makes sense. When I was a teen, a teacher called me on the fact that I used sarcasm as a shield because I was angry and feeling powerless. So, I totally get that.

      My latest WiP is pretty angsty. My three point of view characters haven’t displayed any humor so far. The humor comes from the people in their lives. But when the three characters finally meet, I don’t want all of the humor to die out of the story. I haven’t reached that point yet, so I need to give this some careful thought.

  8. I couldn’t agree with Shelby more about writing by hand – I try to that as much as I can (usually taking a notebook to a cafe for an hour or two) and I think it works wonders. The words just seems to flow better. A great interview. Oh and I love the sound of the vegetarian zombie story – genius!

  9. I also start by writing with pen and paper before I sit at the computer. In fact, my first draft of a new pb was started at a local garden where I could get away from home to focus on the story, let the ideas flow and write.

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