Friday, August 8, 2014

Why I Write Funny/Sad Novels


WHY I WRITE FUNNY/SAD NOVELS

Hi, my name is Brian and I write funny and sad novels. This mix is at the heart of any story I tell, no matter what else is in the story.  I don’t write comic novels, though I want you to laugh when you read my novels. I don’t write sad novels, though  I want you to experience the emotional roller coaster of my characters as they struggle through their stories.  Both humor and sadness are in my novels and that’s a big part of what makes them mine.


I see the world as funny and sad. People laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. Sometimes they laugh and cry at the same time. We’re complicated, we humans. Surgeons make jokes when they’re operating on patients. Cops joke at crime scenes. Are they doing this because they enjoy other people’s pain? Of course not.  Are they less serious about their jobs than someone who never jokes about anything? NO. They have difficult jobs dealing with life and death situations and humor helps them handle the things they must handle. There are many moments in life when funny and sad are side by side like this. For me it seems perfectly natural that funny and sad can both be in a novel, sometimes in moments right next to each other.

I’ve written novels that are mostly realistic (MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD) and speculative novels (ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES) and realistic novels with supernatural elements (the upcoming UTOPIA, IOWA—February, 2015) and my last recently finished WIP told from the POV of a dead boy in a library between life and the afterlife (again, mostly realistic but with  supernatural elements), but what they all have in common is the mix of humor and sadness. Of course there are writers far more successful than I who also have this mix at the heart of their work:  Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gabrielle Zevin,  and Neil Gaiman, come to mind.  If you’re a writer who is forcing your writing to be either serious or comic because you think it must be one or the other, I’d ask you to consider the success of these writers.

 I know I didn’t really find the voice for my fiction until I began to work toward a balance of funny and sad in my work.  Now I can’t imagine writing fiction that doesn’t have both.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to make the reader want to read on... create suspense


"Maybe because he has a laptop and a confident air, I’m not that surprised he has the gift of speech. Or maybe when you’re dead and you died the way I did, it takes more than a talking golden monkey with a laptop to surprise you."

This is from my WIP. It's just one paragraph out of context but here's the point I want to make. Along with all the other things you're trying to do at once--create voice, use language well, develop characters,plot, and so on and so on--creating surprise at all levels (sentence, paragraph, chapter) is helpful in engaging the reader. 

So here--yes, in my quirky way--there's the surprise of the monkey himself and the fact that he can talk and has a laptop. But how I make this particular paragraph create suspense is I want the reader to want to read on because there's something the text raises that makes he/she want an explanation for  "...maybe when you're dead and you died the way I did...". I hope the reader reads this line and wants to know more about my death, in particular how I died.

It's helpful to look at your use of language in this way during revision. With me--and I've noticed this in others--sometimes I word my sentence in such a way that I miss an opportunity to make the reader want an answer to a question--whether it's on the local level of the scene or a bigger question in the larger story.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How do you reveal character?

I suppose there are many nuances to the revelation of character but for me the two most present in any work of fiction are what a character does and what he/she say and how these things direct his/her emotional and intellectual world.

Sometimes we try to tell how a character is feeling and that is that bad kind of telling that writing craft books are always decrying. (There is a good kind and I wish those books made this distinction and I'm sure some of them do but I've seen many that don't. Good telling--info that doesn't need to be shown...but that's another post). Also authors might think something to the point of exhaustion for both themselves and the reader.

So revelation of characters, in my humble opinion, should be shown through the action they take in the various situations that the story requires them to move through. These will be choices they make and others that are made for them and that they react to.

But for me--I LOVE DIALOGUE Yansky...what characters say to each other can reveal just as much. Each character tells a lot about who they are both in the way they say things and the things they say. Again sometimes they're initiating the conversation, moving it along, and sometimes they're reacting to what others have said.

Also dialogue shows the voices of characters who aren't narrating the story.  It not only gives them their say but shows who they are by the way they say what they say.

For me, a lot of how I get my characters comes from how they talk.

 Elmore Leonard, in talking about writing dialogue, said that he would let his characters talk and he'd follow the interesting ones. He'd kill off the ones who weren't interesting. Harsh? That's a writer for you.

What characters do and say are most important for me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

the Walking the Dog School of Writing



There is so much on the net about the craft of writing.  Some good, some bad. Some good, in my humble opinion, is the simple advice to read a lot and write a lot. You must do these things to be a writer. I’ve written this advice myself. Simple but true. If you don’t like to read, you don’t have much chance of being a writer. You won’t get the nuances and subtleties of form and structure and language etc… And you have to write. That’s pretty self-evident.  You can’t finish work if you don’t write. So, internet writerly advice is often “butt in chair” and “just write” and things like this. While all this is true and, I’d add, reading up on craft, it’s also true that a lot of writing isn’t done when you’re writing.

Or, at least, for me.

A lot of writing is done when I walk the dog. So I would also advise that you consider this aspect of writing. Working out characters and what they do and have done to them is a lot of times accomplished when you’re doing something mindless like walking the dog. When I sit down to write, I do my best to be in my characters and their world and I try not to force things upon them. When I do, I usually head in the wrong direction. So a lot of times when I’m walking the dog, I’m thinking over questions about the story that have come up because of the writing I did earlier that day or the day before. There are always a lot of decisions to be made in any story.  Walking the dog is an excellent time to work on these problems. And it has an added bonus: it makes your dog happy.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

situation

I've written before about how I start a novel, how I get going.  Situation.

I do think Patrick Ness's idea that a good idea for a novel will attract other ideas is helpful. It highlights one thing that I think confuses a lot of novice writers: one idea is not enough. It's not, usually, near enough. When people come up to you at a party and say, "I have a great idea for a novel" they might as well be saying, "I saw an interesting bird today."Birds are everywhere. So are ideas. You have to be able to develop an idea and one way to do this is to push deeper into it, creatively develop it, and other ideas will come out of that first idea and help you develop your story.

For me, I need a little more than an idea to get started. I need a situation. For example, an idea might be that aliens invade the earth. That's not really a situation yet. A situation makes it more specific. Telepathic aliens invade the earth; they're so advanced that they conquer it in ten seconds. That's a situation. Now I develop that.

One powerful advantage to working from a situation is you can keep coming back to it to focus your story. Think about it as you wander your way down the narrative path. It's where your story comes from. What does this mean to your characters? How they react develops not only the story but the characters. What do they want because of their situation? What's at stake? All these kinds of writer questions come out of the origin of your story.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014



Here's some good advice about bad advice in writing that is sometimes good and sometimes bad---depending. And that could be all I have to say on the matter because it does, in a way, say it all. OK--not really but sort of. Your way has to be your way. A lot of the bad advice that you'll see in the "ten worst pieces of writing advice" is good for some, especially inexperienced writers. BUT people repeat it as gospel to others who it is harmful to. My advice is to listen to everything you hear about writing, read everything you can about writing,   experience everything you can, but first and foremost write. Write every day. Write different things. Push yourself. Find what you do well and not so well. Learn from doing. You'll find your way.


http://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The good and bad of writing advice: one size does not fit all

If you're a writer who has published, then you get asked to speak or be on panels and talk about the various aspects of writing. Many writers are teachers or teach now and then. In the modern writing world, writers often articulate their process, their thoughts about character and so on to audiences or classes. This can be very helpful to inexperienced writers--but not always.

I am not talking about responses to specific work by a new writer (the direct responses that speak to a person's work)  but the more general advice writers give to other writers. When a writer gives a talk or talks in general about an aspect of writing, he or she is really talking about something that they've built a lecture around. They're making a point. They're making a point that they feel at that particular moment.

Voice is the strongest thing in fiction
Characters make the story.
Never outline.
Always outline.
Outline sometimes.
Write fast.
Write slow.

It's not just that different writers have different opinions about many aspects of writing. The same writer (I speak from experience here) will feel differently about their writing process etc... at different times. They'll focus in on an aspect and maybe get carried away by how they view it at that moment because they're learning something new or relearning something or simply excited about some approach to writing.

I think it's good for the person who is listening to writing advice to be aware of that. The writer may be talking like he's convinced of something--and he is--but that conviction isn't necessarily going to last a life-time. Writing is complex. The continent of writing is vast and writers are constantly stumbling upon new things.

On the receiving end: what's good advice for one writer may not be good advice for another. For example, I teach a creative writing course sometimes and I tell my students to slow down within a scene. That's generally good advice because inexperienced writers tend to rush through a scene. But it is not universally good advice. I may have one writer who includes way too many details. They get so bogged down in details that the reader falls asleep trying to slog through them. AND/OR that writer may be giving the wrong details so the whole scene is out of focus and harms the narrative drive and character development. So that writer hears "slow down" and they try to stretch out their scenes even more, and their writing not only doesn't improve, it actually gets worse.

SO, if you're taking a course, listening to a lecture, in a workshop, my advice is to listen to whatever the writer, writer-teacher, writer-speaker says AND THEN see if it works for you. In other words, writer beware. All writing advice is not for you. One size does not fit all.