Do you think I’m sexy?
Well? Do you? This is not some rhetorical Rod Stewart question. I’m totally serious.
Do you think I’m sexy?
Perhaps not. So let’s move on to the next question.
Do you think I’m funny?
See where I’m going with this? The truth is, “funny” is a lot like “sexy.” Both are in the eye of the beholder. This is depressing news for those of us who attempt to write fiction with a comedic twist, because it means that despite our skill and effort, the reader gets to make the call (Yet another part of this business beyond the author’s control…). Of course, there are things we can do to increase our chances of hitting a reader’s funny bone, and I’ll mention a few of them, but humor writing is never a sure thing.
Here's what I mean: meet Woman A and Woman B. Both want as much “sexy” in their lives as possible. Woman A thinks nothing’s hotter than when her lover laves her earlobe – she can’t get enough of that oral-aural action!
The exact same move sends Woman B racing to the bathroom for Q-Tips and isopropyl alcohol.
That's humor writing.
In addition to being an author, I’m a writing coach. Clients often ask me to help them understand the nuances of writing humor, but before I share what I’ve learned over my long career, I tell them this true story.
My second novel – Take A Chance on Me – was released in 2003. The romantic comedy/suspense was about a pitiful, hairless dog who witnesses a murder and the cop and animal behaviorist who must solve the case. Since this was before Goodreads became the go-to outlet for snarky, soul-crushing reader commentary, I got a lot of emails from people who’d purchased my book.
One day, a reader wrote, "I laughed so hard I tinkled myself. You're the funniest author I've ever read." Later that day, another reader had this to say about the very same novel: "I feel embarrassed for you. There's nothing that makes me cringe more than a joke that misses the mark. I know some people think you're funny. I'm not one of them."
And that, right there, is why humor writing ain’t for sissies. We authors can study the art form and hone our skills, but what makes one reader laugh until she wets herself is simply cringe-inducing for another. Same book. Same day. Opposite reactions – and it’s all out of our control.
If you’d like to incorporate comedy in your women's fiction, I recommend you writing for yourself – write what makes you laugh. Read the your WIP and circle anything YOU find funny. Even better, if you find yourself chortling while you’re writing, you’ve got something. Mark it. Later, go back and analyze why, exactly, you find it funny. It could be because the writing veered off in a surprising direction. It could be because you used exaggeration, or a joltingly unexpected descriptive phrase. Or maybe you wrote a line of inner dialogue that perfectly encapsulated a character’s eccentricities.
This might be obvious, but keep in mind that women’s fiction readers tend to enjoy gentle humor -- such as the self-deprecating inner dialogue of the main character – instead of stinging Don Rickles stuff. All forms of humor share a common structure, however. For a great roundup of humor principles, see the decidedly NSFW http://theweek.com/articles/449236/how-funny-6-essential-ingredients-humor.)
In my experience, a funny novels do two things:
- Provide a mix of physical comedy (action), humorous dialogue, and funny character-specific POV narrative;
- Elicit a wide range of reactions, such as a quick chuckle, the wry smile, the silent “okay-now-that's-funny" nod, and, if you’re lucky, one put-down-the-book and howl moment.
Remember, if you can laugh at your own writing, then your work has the potential to be funny to someone else – not everyone else, mind you, but someone out there will enjoy it. So take heart. Listen to beta-reader feedback, but stay true to your own compass. And rewrite and rewrite until you’ve made that humorous bit as shiny and perfect as possible.
Thanks for taking the time to read my little blog post. I know some of you may not find me funny. That’s okay.
Because I’m sexy, right?
What do you think, WITS readers? Do you have any tips to add to Susan's? What author do YOU think is funny?
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Susan Donovan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-seven novels and novellas published by St. Martin’s Press, Penguin USA/Berkeley Books, HQN, Amazon, and Hachette. She’s a former newspaper reporter with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. Susan provides one-on-one author coaching via phone, Skype, or FaceTime. She and New York Times bestselling author Darynda Jones are coaches-in-residence at the Adobe Cottage Writer’s Retreat in Placitas, New Mexico, a private space for peace, beauty, and word count.