Funny on purpose by accident

There’s a film called Planet Terror (well half a film really because it’s one half of Grindhouse). In it there’s a character called Cherry Darling played by Rose McGowan. She’s a go-go dancer who wants to be a stand up comedian, not because she thinks she’s funny but because guys find her hilarious when she’s being serious.

I’m funny deliberately, or at least I try to be, but sometimes I feel like her (only fat and old and with two crap legs instead of one good one and one machine gun prosthesis).

I try really hard to be funny but I know that there’s a lot of people in the world who are far better at it than I am. Both my younger brothers are funnier than me. I have a few friends whose Facebook posts are properly, laugh until you can’t breathe, funny. I know people who’ve done stand up. But still I try.

I try so hard to be funny because for me humour is a lifeline. A lot of the time I’m laughing to keep from crying. When I write about my life I try to make it funny because otherwise it would be unbearable. If I just whinged about how much my life sucked no-one would read it and writing it down would make me feel worse instead of better.

When I’m writing fiction I try to be funny because the writers whose work I most love – Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Warren Ellis – are all funny, though in very different ways. I want to be funny because that’s the writing that gives me the most joy to read.

But the thing about writing humour is that you can’t tell if it’s actually funny till other people read it. You can’t even tell if people can tell it’s meant to be funny till other people read it. Sometimes you can’t even tell then. It’s not telling a joke to an audience that will either laugh or not laugh. You write something and send it off out into the world and even if people like it you can’t tell if they find it funny unless they take the time to tell you and you can’t tell which bits they found funny.

Sometimes I’m writing humourously about stuff that is not funny. In my fiction, because most of what I write is some species of thriller, I find that I’m often writing about the worst day of someone’s life. Terrible things are happening and I’m writing gallows humour because that’s how I deal with terrible things but is it really funny? When I’m blogging about what it’s like to be in pain all the fucking time that is not funny but I’m kind of trying to make it funny so people will keep reading.

I’ve spent so long trying to be funny that sometimes the funny just kind of happens. Sometimes I’m not sure if I meant it or not. Sometimes it’s just how I talk, or how I write, or how I am. So is funny something I do or something I am? Or neither? When people laugh are they laughing at me or with me? Does it matter?

I shall stop now. I’ve tied myself up in enough knots.

X Because Y

The other day I realised that I’ve never shared one of my favourite narrative games with you all. I didn’t come up with it the idea and I’m probably not the first person to call it this. I might be the first person to call it a game though.

I first put a name to it when I was trying to explain the plot of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to my brother and I said, “Abraham Lincoln because Vampires.” By which I meant “The real, known events of Abraham Lincoln’s life with the gaps filled in with Vampires and the Vampires used to explain the events.”

It’s closely related to the much better known X meets Y technique. You all know how that works. Noir meets androids gives you Blade Runner kind of thing. Note that the two techniques do not give the same results. Abraham Lincoln meets Vampires could still be an interesting story but not nearly as powerful. Noir because androids could be something but it ain’t Blade Runner and androids because noir sounds like a Westworld spin off.

You can use both techniques with any combination of fictional tropes, plots, people, stories and historical events. You can use it to generate your own ideas or break down existing ones.  They usually won’t give you a whole plot but it’s a good place to start and it’s great for settings and world building.

Why not play at home? Pick up any two DVDs, comics or books and combine. For added credit pick three. Make the first one the plot then create the background, setting or premise using the other two.

I got Crimson Peak, The Conan Chronicles by R.E. Howard, and The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. So that gives me a tortured gothic romance for the plot. From Conan I could take the hero himself or the idea of a slave who becomes a king. From The Night Watch I could take time travel, or becoming one own’s mentor or the cynical commander of a police force. So one version would be Conan the Barbarian because time travel in which a barbarian king travels back in time to mentor his youthful enslaved self through his rise to power. The whole thing is horribly derailed by a romance plot when the old king and the young slave fall for the same person who plays them off against each other.

Do tell me how you get on.

Advice to a young writer part 1

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

Since her problem is with writing that’s what I’m going to focus on but hopefully this will be helpful for other arts.

There will be many more parts. Each one will set some homework.

You are not alone

The very features of the mind that make a person creative also make it harder to stick to just one thing. The very imagination that flits from place to place and links together disparate ideas and images is also as distractible as a puppy in a room full of squirrels.

All artists have trouble finishing things. All artists try to find methods to harness their imagination to the task. Some struggle with it their whole careers, some beat the problem so comprehensively that you would think they had never had to fight it at all.

Vincent Van Gogh was so prolific he could complete several paintings on a good day, but he sold only one in his lifetime and had to be supported by his brother. Leonardo Da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator who completed only 15 works but was supported by a series of wealthy and powerful patrons.

But they were painters. How about writers? The two greatest writers of humorous sci fi/fantasy of my lifetime were Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. At his most prolific Terry was completing two or more novels a year as well as countless short stories and articles. He was so successful he had to change banks because he filled the old one up. Douglas Adams wrote some of the greatest Doctor Who scripts ever, he wrote the groundbreaking radio drama Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also wrote several novels and a book on natural history. He was such a chronic procrastinator that some of the episodes of the Hitchhiker’s where completed minutes before they had to be recorded. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” One of his novels took three and a half years to write, but most of the actual writing was done in the last two weeks, and most of that was done over a single weekend.

My point is that having trouble finishing your stories does not mean that you are not a writer. It means that you have the same problem that every other writer has. And because it’s a problem that every writer has there are loads of solutions to it. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing in advance which one will work for you so it’s going to be trial and error.

Homework

Your first task is to research some solutions for yourself. Pick a couple of your favourite writers and do some googling. You’re looking for interviews, articles and blog posts that talk about how they work. For example if you google “Derek Landy on writing” you’ll find the writer of the Skulduggery Pleasant books giving his thoughts on writing and answering questions about his method.

 

A tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett

Yesterday I wrote about the death of Sir Terry Pratchett.  Today I want to pay tribute to him.

It’s possible that I only write because of him.  Growing up I always told stories but I had no ambition to be a writer.  I drew a lot and I wanted to be an artist but there was an underlying frustration.  I think I knew that I wanted to tell stories but that visual art wasn’t working for me. I could always do a better job with words than with pictures but the words weren’t good enough either.

Whenever I tried to write everything came out lumpen.  The stories were clunky and obvious.  They were the worst kind of wish-fulfillment, self-insert, Mary-Sue fantasies.  I stopped writing.  I went to Art School and that did not work out well.  It turns out that if you have serious un-treated depression then Art School is probably a bad choice.  But while I was at Art School someone lent me a copy of Colour of Magic.  I was instantly hooked.

A lot of people, many of them fans, will tell you that Colour of Magic isn’t great, that it doesn’t represent what the Discworld stories became and that it might not be the best place to start.  All I can say is that it worked for me.  It’s not as deep as the later books, it’s not as polished, and Terry himself said that it was written before he discovered the joy of plot.  All that is true but it’s still hilarious.  It’s a farce and a satire and there was something in it that called to me.

That something became stronger in the later books and I found it, or something like it, in the works of Ken Hite and Warren Ellis.  It was, to me at least, a different way to tell a story.  It was a way to take something of the real world and then twist it ,and tweak it, and change it, and then stick it in the story.  It was a road map of how to steal like an artist.  It was a way to make a fantasy a vicious satire of the real world and still have it be a fully formed story with rounded characters set in a world that worked.

I’m not sure if I’ve learned more from Sir Terry or from his characters but I know I am a better person for both.  From Terry I learned that when building a fantasy city first you must ask how the water gets in and how the sewage gets out.  I learned that you write one word at a time, and you keep going till it’s done, and sometimes you have to throw out the entire first draft and start again and that’s ok.  I had already learned from Douglas Adams that funny and deep could exist together but Sir Terry’s work reinforced that.

From Hwel, the playwright in Lords and Ladies, I learned that what every artist really and truly wants is to get paid.  From Granny Wetherwax and Nanny Ogg I learned how to deserve and expect respect and I learned that if someone calls me a witch or a bitch I can wear it as a badge of pride.  From Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt I learned that I might not always feel like Granny or Nanny but that’s ok and people can’t always tell.  From Moist Von Lipwig I learned that sometimes what people really need is for you to have faith in them, or at least say you do. From Rincewind I learned that fear can be a superpower.  From Angua I learned that self-control can be one too.  From Sam Vimes I learned that it’s always better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness.

I suppose the greatest lesson I’ve learned both from Sir Terry and his characters is that it’s ok to be angry as long as you don’t stop at angry.  Anger can be a dynamo that drives you to be useful and creative but if you don’t use it for something then the anger will end up using you.

Terry Pratchett is dead and that is not ok.

I never really met Sir Terry.  I got a book signed by him in person and I  once unintentionally pissed him off on alt.fan.pratchett but that’s not really meeting the man.  I certainly didn’t know him.  And yet today I grieve.

I’m grieving for the man who taught me that writer’s block is not actually a thing.  I’m grieving for the man who taught me that genre fiction can be literature and still be genre fiction.  I’m grieving for the man who changed the way I look at libraries, and little shops, and witches, and snowmen, and fantasy tropes, and magic, and gods, and growing up, and time, and Death.

I’m not just grieving for Sir Terry.  I’m grieving for the Patrician, and Granny Wetherwax, and Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, and Agnes Nitt, and Tiffany Aching, and His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vines, and Lady Sybil, and Nobby Nobbs, and CMOT Dibbler, and Captain Carrot, and Angua, and Rincewind.  I’m grieving for all the stories untold.  I’m grieving for all the lessons unlearned.

I don’t know how to make this horrible thing ok but I think we can all learn from his examples. We who write can commit to writing better an writing more.  We can donate to research to beat Alzheimer’s.  Sir Terry did say he wanted Alzheimer’s to be sorry it caught him and we should make that happen.

Lastly I want to leave you with one of my favourite memories about Sir Terry.  Years ago one of his books (Interesting Times, I think) was featured on a very posh show on BBC Two (Newsnight Review).  Most of the panel said about what you’d expect.  Then the  poet, writer, columnist and critic Tom Paulin exploded with irritation and said “The man’s a complete amateur.  He doesn’t even write in chapters.”

This wasn’t in the early days of Terry’s career.  He was already a respected and beloved figure on the fantasy scene and was being accused by many mainstream critics of actual literature.  How did Sire Terry respond to this criticism?  He put it on the book.  It’s right there with the quotes from the great and the good about how wonderful it is.  That’s how you deal with the haters