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.
I 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?
Shelby: 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?”
El 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?
Shelby: 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.