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.

A Writer’s Process 9(a)

A funny thing happened on the way to the blog today—if you recognize that well-known setup to a joke, you’ll have an idea of the subject of today’s discussion: humor in writing. With me today and tomorrow is the awesome and splendiferous Shelby Rosiak, whose blog My Year with The Mouse just might be your cup of tea.

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Shelby laughing after a friend’s daughter cheated at pin the tail on the donkey

If you haven’t visited Shelby’s blog, click on the blog name above, and witness Shelby valiant visiting many wonderful places at Disneyland and reporting on them, thereby making us wish we were her. Alas, MYWTM is on a hiatus now while Shelby gathers her wits and tries to find at least two shoes that match.

Give yourself a gold star if you can guess where I met Shelby. CoughcoughVCFAcoughcough. Now grab your rubber chicken, bonk yourself over the head, and join us!***

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El Space: Let’s start with four quick facts about yourself, for those who haven’t sat in Noble Lounge on campus reading books about Scaredy Squirrel with you like I have.
Shelby: (1) When I was thirteen years old, I was on a TV game show. I lost, but got a VCR as a “parting gift.” (2) I have been to twelve countries including China, where my family adopted our now two-year-old daughter, Violet. Our four-year-old son Theo came with us—it was a real adventure. (3) I live near Disneyland and can see the fireworks from my back porch. It’s pretty much awesome, because who DOESN’T want to see Disneyland fireworks from their back porch? (4) I used to be a technical writer for the world’s largest computer company. I much prefer creative writing.

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El Space: Love the Disneyland fireworks! And I’m glad you love creative writing, since that brought you to that place I coughed about earlier. Who are the authors who most influence you?
225px-JudyBlume2009(cropped)Shelby: I think influence is a funny word because, to me, it implies that I’ve changed my work based on their writing. I can’t think of anyone like that, but I have been inspired by a number of amazing writers. I cried when I met Judy Blume [left]. I’m not kidding. She must have thought I was a total whackadoodle, but she was so sweet and gracious about it. As a young person, I was very inspired by writers who wrote strong female characters—Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, Jean Craighead George, Scott O’Dell. And you didn’t ask this question, but the three authors I wish I’d had a chance to meet before they died? Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, and Roald Dahl.

220px-Dave-barry-post-hunt-2011El Space: I wish I could have met them as well. Now, everyone who knows you knows you’re hilarious. In a recent PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, Dave Barry, considered one of the funniest writers in America, said this:

[W]hen I’m writing columns, it’s—all I’m thinking about is jokes, joke, joke, joke, setup, punch line, joke, joke, joke. And I really don’t care where it goes. I don’t have a point the [sic] make. . . . With a novel, you have to have a story. It’s much more important to have it matter to the reader what happens to people, and it has to make sense and end in a way that is satisfying.

What are your thoughts on humor and your writing? How do you make it satisfying as Dave Barry suggested?
Shelby: This is a great quote. Articles, and nowadays blogs, are perfect for short one-liners—off-the-cuff jokes for an easy laugh. Novels present a different challenge, but also a real opportunity for the humor writer, because you can establish something humorous, like an inside joke between the author and the reader, and refer back to it as an ongoing aspect of the novel and it can become funnier and funnier as you go. You can also start building humor with the narrative, with establishing a small joke and growing with it.

Think of the song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This old lady swallows a fly—that’s funny, but we also sing “perhaps she’ll die” at the end of each verse. Then the old lady swallows a series of animals, each funnier than the last (a dog? Seriously?). And at the end she swallows a horse, which is funny in and of itself, but then you get the HUGE payoff with “She died, of course.” By building the humor, you get a much bigger payoff than you would with a one-liner. And that kind of payoff in and of itself is very satisfying.

And that’s something that you can do with longer fiction that is more difficult with shorter fiction. I think the big difference is thinking long term in the humor, in addition to one-liners. Making it satisfying means tying it all back to story, because it’s always about story. The humor needs to serve the story, otherwise it doesn’t belong there.

The big drawback of being a humor writer, however, is having to cut funny lines. I’ll write something I think is absolutely hysterical, and my feedback says it has to go because it doesn’t serve the story. It’s hard to cut lines when you think, But that’s hilarious!! But it needs to be done. It always comes back to story. Always.

And we’ve run out of time for today. But tune in tomorrow and we’ll talk more with Shelby about humor. Don’t forget to bring your rubber chicken. In the meantime, if you have questions for Shelby about her process or want to share a tip about humor writing, please do!

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***Glad you made it to this footnote. Um, you don’t really have to hit yourself on the head with a rubber chicken, since we’re not talking about the physical humor you see in movies. I just wanted to see if you would do it. 🙂

Rubber chicken from spirithalloween.com. Disneyland fireworks photo by Kevin Hogan. Judy Blume and Dave Barry photos from Wikipedia.