Five Practical Tips for Writing Humor

January 18, 2017

I originally wrote the article below for the Dark Cargo blog, which now appears to be defunct. Deborah Walker also kindly hosts a copy of it on her blog. However, with the UFO6 submission window looming, I wanted to take advantage of the extra eyeballs my blog is receiving for the submissions guidelines and post it here, for an entirely selfish reason: I want the stories my team and I read this April to be as good and funny as possible. So, here it is (from back in 2013):

 

FIVE PRACTICAL TIPS FOR WRITING HUMOR

By Alex Shvartsman

I’ve been thinking about humor writing a lot. Not only do I write (or attempt to write) funny science fiction stories, but I am also in my second year of reading submissions for the Unidentified Funny Objects, the speculative humor anthology series.

The most common reason a story is rejected from UFO isn’t because it’s bad – many are perfectly serviceable or even excellent – but because the writer’s idea of what makes a story humorous rather than merely lighthearted doesn’t match that of this editor.  I’m of the opinion that a story with a funny line or two thrown in is just that – a story with a few funny lines. That doesn’t make it comedy. A true humor story has a whimsical quality to it that, much like Potter Stewart’s description of pornography, is difficult to define but is immediately recognizable as such when you begin to read it.

In my quest to make everyone write funny stories I would enjoy, I have identified five practical strategies to writing humor in a speculative story, which I am now going to share with you. It may not necessarily be good advice, but I’ll make up for that in volume.

1)      Voice Matters

One of the most common ways in which a humor story fails is a writer coming up with a funny or cute premise, and then proceeding to tell it straighter than a straight face being shaved by a straight razor while setting the record.

You can’t rely on the premise for all of your funny. Can’t let your characters be the comedians with humor confined to dialog, either. You have to let the narrative voice do much of the heavy lifting. Consider the opening paragraphs of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

In five measly lines, Adams does such a masterful job of establishing the irrelevance of humanity, H.P. Lovecraft must be turning over in his grave with jealousy. Not only does this opening serve the plot later on (Spoiler: Things don’t turn out so well for the Earth), the writing is amusing, engaging, and humorous, immediately setting up the tone for the rest of the book.

Here’s another example:

“One of the few redeeming facets of instructors, I thought, is that occasionally they can be fooled. It was true when my mother taught me to read, it was true when my father tried to teach me to be a farmer, and it’s true now when I’m learning magik.”

Robert Asprin opens his inaugural volume of the Myth series – Another Fine Myth – with a bit of observational humor, just like Adams. Yet could their humor styles be any more different from each other?

One doesn’t necessarily have to open with an observation. Here’s an example from “Timber!” by Scott Almes – a short story from Unidentified Funny Objects volume 1:

“I realized I was in trouble when my realm-appointed lawyer showed up drunk and asked for spare coins. He made a valiant effort to defend me in the courtroom, but his lack of judicial knowledge, poor grasp of language, and mispronunciation of my name proved futile against the realm’s brilliant case. It didn’t help that the prosecutor was an exceptional medium. He used my incorporeal, perpetually disappointed mother as a character witness.

I was sentenced to death. The executioner immediately wheeled out a guillotine to a short round of applause.”

Almes jumps right into the plot, but his opening is clearly indicative of the sort of wacky you can expect from the rest of the story.

Whatever style or sub-genre of humor you’re shooting for, be sure that your narrative voice is unique, entertaining, and interesting.

2)      Comparison Joke is Your Best Friend

Comedy is hard, but some aspects of it are easier than others. Arguably there is nothing easier than a Comparison Joke. They are effective and reasonably easy to come up with. Comparison joke can be a well-placed and unexpected metaphor, or simply comparing a thing to another thing for comedic effect. Here’s one of my favorite examples, source unknown:

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

This joke is asking a lot of its audience. You must be familiar with both Game of Thrones and Twitter in order to appreciate it. But if you happen to be a part of that target audience, you might find this hilarious. You will nod sagely, recognizing that the Game of Thrones books and/or TV series have an unwieldy cast of characters and something terribly unpleasant is happening to most of them at any given time. You won’t even stop to ponder whether terrible things are actually happening on Twitter. You won’t dissect it, chuckling at the comparison instead, because the joke works.

You can always spice up your description of absolutely anything with a comparison joke. Take care not to over-rely this tactic. Like everything else in life (with possible exceptions of coffee and chocolate), it is best used in moderation.

3)      Steal from Yourself

Many of my writer friends claim that they can’t write funny, yet they are incredibly witty when you talk to them in person or on social media. If you say something that’s an instant hit with your friends, why not write it down and save it for later?

I was chatting with some writers recently, and one of them said that he could use some advice on a certain subject. My immediate response?

“We can do advice. It might not be good, but we make up for it in volume.”

I was not trying to write a story, nor was I pretending to be a humor-writing guru in a blog post, at that time. But the joke went over well, and so I saved it for later use. You may recognize it from the third paragraph of this article.

4)      The Secret to Humor is Surprise

Most humor relies on surprise, one way or another. It can be an unexpected comparison like those discussed above, a humorous observation (if the store is open 24/7, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the doors?), play on words (A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station), or a misleading setup (I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling, like the passengers in his car).

As a rule of thumb, if you can make the readers complete the sentence in their head before they finish reading it, and then pull the carpet from under them, you’ve got a good joke.

To do that, you can subvert a popular saying:

“I’m so hungry, I could ride a horse,” deadpans Chris on an episode of Family Guy.

“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” proclaims a t-shirt popular with many a writer.

5)      Humor is Subjective

No matter how hard you try, you can’t make everyone laugh. Humor is extremely subjective. What’s funny to me may fall flat to you, and vice versa. Fortunately, for fiction writers there is a workaround:

Make sure that your story works regardless of whether the reader finds it funny or not.

Some stories are so reliant on a joke that they utterly fail if the reader doesn’t laugh. These are more often than not very short stories that do nothing but set up a pun or a twist at the end which, the writer hopes, will be funny. This is stunt writing, and should be avoided in most cases.

Write a story with an interesting plot, engaging characters, and great pacing. This way, if the reader finds it to be funny, it’s a huge bonus. But if they don’t, there is still a good chance they will enjoy the story overall.

#SFWAPro

 


UFO6 Guidelines Posted

January 15, 2017

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UFO6 guidelines are posted here.

The biggest  change is that our pay rates have gone up — again. UFO will be paying ten cents per word for this volume and, hopefully, going forward.

We are buying one additional right for the extra dough — the non-exclusive audio rights. I’d like to make this (and future) volumes available in audio book form. Most likely by teaming up with someone to produce the audio (if you are that person/company, feel free to reach out and we’ll talk.)

Submissions will open on April 1st for one month. One submission per writer, unless the story impresses us enough that we explicitly invite you to send another.

Oh, and of course you should read a previous volume in the UFO series to get a better grasp of what kind of story tends to win me over.

#SFWAPro

 


Green Alert: Humanity 2.0 Anthology on Sale

January 10, 2017

Humanity20-400

For the next few days you can pick up this anthology for $2.99 — that’s less than half the regular price! The sale lasts Jan 10 through Jan 13 so don’t wait.

And before I put away my soapbox and exit salesman mode, I’ve got to mention two other books as well. My darkly humorous flash story “Hell is Other People” is available in the recently released Outliers of Speculative Fiction 2016 anthology (which is also free to read on Kindle Unlimited.) Finally, there’s a mass market paperback issue available of Mission: Tomorrow, another hard SF anthology which I’m guessing anyone who likes Humanity 2.0 would also enjoy.  It includes my Canopus Award-nominated story “The Race for Arcadia.” After six years in the field, this is actually the first time my work appears in a mass market paperback format and I’m very pleased by this, because that’s what the books I devoured as a teenager looked like.

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2016 Year In Review

January 3, 2017

“Too busy to blog much.” Not only does that cover this past month, but also the year. It may also be a suitable epitaph for my gravestone. Either that, or “Crushed to Death by His To-Be-Read Book Pile.” But I digress.

The major accomplishment of 2016 was finishing my novel (which I blogged about sufficiently.) It’s off to my agent now, and I eagerly await her feedback. As editor, I completed and published three anthologies this year. Funny Fantasy in the spring followed by Humanity 2.0 and Unidentified Funny Objects 5 in the fall.  FF was all reprints, H20 half reprints and half originals, and UFO5 all originals. All in all, I edited 27 original stories this year. So it was rather gratifying that eight of them made the Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List.

After two full-length books in 2015, I only had a handful of short stories published this year. They were (chronologically):

Whom He May Devour – Nautilus – 01/07/16
One in a Million – On Spec – vol. 101 – 02/01/16
Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long – Diabolical Plots – 07/01/16
Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare – Daily Science Fiction – 07/06/16
Dante’s Unfinished Business – Galaxy’s Edge – 09/01/16
A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love – Nature – 09/15/16
The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague – Daily Science Fiction – 10/03/16
How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the WorldAmazing Stories – 10/16/16
Masquerade Night – In a Cat’s Eye anthology – 10/22/16
Noun of Nouns: A Mini Epic – Upside Down, Apex Publications – 12/13/16

Okay, so maybe ten is more than a handful. I ain’t complaining.

I wrote only nine new short stories in 2016, totaling just under 30,000 words but I also added 37,000 words onto my novel (it was probably more once you account for rewrites and revisions, but that’s the word count I ended up with.) for a total of 67,000 new words, which is better than last year. Of the nine new stories I already sold six, and that’s keeping in mind that the last two of them were completed in late November and late December respectively. I sell what I write, which is perhaps the metric I’m most proud of.

According to my spreadsheet I earned $2170 from my short fiction sales in 2016, a smidgen less than last year. I expect this to decline further in 2017 as I spend more time on novels and editing. My overall writing-related income (accounting for royalties, anthology sales, workshops taught, etc.) continues to grow steadily.
I made a total of 123 submissions in 2016 (compared to 155 last year) which resulted in 20 acceptances (one more than last year). Most of these submissions were for reprints. It takes very little time to fling a reprint at a market that considers those, and as my ‘inventory’ grows, there’s almost always a story or two that are a possible fit for a venue seeking submissions.

There are a handful of outstanding submissions and a few lost/never responded ones, but I did rack up around 100 rejections this year. (The numbers don’t quite match up as some of the acceptances and rejections in 2016 are from submissions filed in 2015.) Rejections are always going to be there, and while I enjoyed a nearly 20% win ratio I would’ve been happy with half that. Never let rejections drag you down: just keep submitting until the right story finds the right editor!

2017 goals:

  • Sell Eridani’s Crown (my first novel).
  • Write and finish my second novel within the 2017 calendar year.
  • Sell at least one new anthology to a major publisher.
  • Publish UFO6 and Funny Horror.
  • Sell or crowdfund my second short story collection, aiming to be published in 2018.

There’s also the matter of completing The Cackle of Cthulhu, the anthology I’ve been working on in late 2016, but it’s literally a few days away from being done, so I’m not including it onto the list of goals.

And now I’m off to work on one or more of those things!

#SFWAPro

 

 


Seven 20th Century Classic SF/F Books You May Not Have Read

December 23, 2016

Over the course of this past week I posted the following recommendations on my Facebook page. These are all books I’m a big fan of, have read and re-read growing up. They played a major role in shaping my perception of genre as well as my own writing style.

The posts generated some interesting discussion and I figured it may be worth collecting them into a blog post, for those who do not read my FB feed. (Which you totally can. My posts are generally set to public and you can subscribe/follow if you wish.)

So, here goes:

Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick

This book covers the history of the human race over the course of several thousand years. It’s episodic: each chapter is self-contained and can be read as a short story. In fact, I was surprised when Mike told me it wasn’t put together out of individually written/sold short stories first but, in fact, written in order over several months.

I love episodic fiction and this is perhaps the finest example of such when it comes to space opera. It also outlines the future history of the setting of many of Mike’s popular novels such as Santiago, the Widowmaker series, the Starship series, etc.

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is my favorite Russian-language novel and Bulgakov is my favorite Russian author. In writing this book he invented Magical Realism decades before Marquez. In his “Heart of a Dog” he scooped Keyes by writing a superior version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Both of these books also have a humorous bend and engage in then-death-defying satire of the Soviet regime.

Inexplicably, Bulgakov was favored by Stalin, which protected him for a time. He died in 1940 and this novel wasn’t published until 1966. A very small print run was produced before the book was promptly banned by the censors and circulated mostly in samizdat until the late 1980s.

Although I can argue that this is one of (if not the) most influential Russian novels of the 20th century, I recommend it because it’s a great book that easily withstands the test of time and still reads fresh today.

 

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

 

In honor of the release of ROGUE ONE, today I’d like to talk up Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars Admiral Thrawn trilogy.

I tend to strongly dislike media tie-in books. I’m of the opinion that they’re rarely any good, even when written by authors who are capable of producing excellent material. The combination of restraints placed by the IP holder, short turnaround times, and often crappy pay encourages writers to channel their inner hack and turn in bland, uninspired work that ranges from Meh to eyebleedingly horrible. There are, of course, exceptions, and Zahn’s Star Wars books are among the very best.

The Thrawn trilogy picks up five years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI and is full of intrigue, adventure, and unabashed space opera that makes Star Wars, well… Star Wars. He also introduces one of the best bad guys in the franchise, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who–in my opinion–is second only to Darth Vader himself. The alien tactician is brilliant enough to climb high in the Empire’s xenophobic hierarchy, and he makes a worthy opponent to Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the gang.

Although older Star Wars books are no longer considered canon as per Disney’s decree, many of Zahn’s ideas took root. It was he who introduced the concept of Coruscant, the Republic’s planet-wide capital city, which was later featured in the movies. And although I haven’t watched the cartoon, I understand Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up in STAR WARS REBELS, so that makes him canon, too.

From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown

 

Much of what I know about writing short fiction in general, and especially flash fiction, I learned from reading Fredric Brown. He isn’t as well-known today as he deserves to be but I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to call him the father of flash fiction. He wrote beautiful, funny, clever little stories that fit onto a page or two but carried more punch than most longer works do.

Although you might not already know his name, chances are you’re familiar with some of his work. Two of his pieces are particularly well-known. The first is “Arena,” a short story that a Star Trek: the Original Series episode of the same name was based on. (The original short story is better, IMO.) The second is “Knock,” which opens with the world’s shortest SF/horror story. I shall post it here in it’s entirety:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Brown goes on to elaborate on the concept in “Knock” but it’s these two lines that have spawned countless imitations and elaborations, and remain firmly embedded in our pop culture.

Although this book is a bit pricey, it’s well-worth it for the complete collection of Brown’s genre stories (he also wrote mysteries, which are collected in a separate volume.) In my opinion, anyone who is serious about writing short fiction must read this book.

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

A beautiful, evocative, complex science fiction novel, this and it’s equally-good sequel The Summer Queen are among my favorite books — genre or otherwise.

Vinge has written several other excellent novels (such as the Psion books) but a serious car accident in the early 2000s derailed her career. She appears to have published a couple of film novelizations since then, and little else, which is a great shame.

 

Labyrinth of Reflections by Sergei Lukyanenko

While I talked about my favorite Russian writer earlier, my favorite *living* Russian writer is Lukyanenko. He has written everything from urban fantasy to space opera to YA, but his very first published novel (I believe it is, anyway) remains my favorite. Labyrinth of Reflections is a cyberpunk novel written in the 90s and while some of the references (like AOL and saving a laughably small amount of data onto a diskette) feel outdated, the book withstands the test of time as well as Neuromancer.

You may already be familiar with Lukyanenko’s work from the NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH films (the books are WAY better than the movies.) He’s deservedly the most popular fantasist in Russia (as well-known there as Stephen King is in the US) and is well-worth reading. I can’t vouch for the quality of the translation below since I read this book in the original, but a cursory examination suggests it’s pretty good.

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

 

Simak is, in my opinion, one of the best SF writers of the 20th century. His work was well-recognized with award nominations and wins but it has been out of print for entirely too long and younger readers are sadly unfamiliar with his books. Fortunately, Open Road Media brought his work back into print recently. Although many of Simak’s books are excellent, I consider WAY STATION and CITY absolute must-reads for every SF fan (and writer!) out there.

#SFWAPro

So what are some of your favorite genre books written in the 20th century? (With a special focus on titles that may not be as well-recognized as Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness or Ringworld)

 


Dreidel of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah Podcast

December 21, 2016

My funny Cthulu Channukah story got the podcast treatment at FarFetchedFables this week. And if you prefer reading to listening, it’s still available here at Every Day Fiction.  This story was originally published in Galaxy’s Edge last year and it seems to have a lot of legs. You will get the chance to read/hear it at least once or twice more in 2017.

This week also marks the reprint of my SF story “Seven Conversations in Locked Rooms” as part of The Prison Compendium anthology edited by Jennifer Word.

prison

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New publication: “Noun of Nouns: A Mini Epic” in Upside Down

December 13, 2016

upsidedown

Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling is an anthology from Apex Publications which launches today. It includes my humor story “Noun of Nouns: A Mini Epic” which makes fun of the epic fantasy genre. (I wrote it while writing an epic fantasy novel, so…)

If you enjoyed “Dreidel of Dread” or “How Earth Narrowly Escaped an Invasion from Space” you will likely dig this story. It’s that kind of humor. So grab your copy, eh?

#SFWAPro