“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Go With the Flow

mythsandpropagandaSomething that I can say without any doubt is that as writers we have all had moments where the words just stopped. It’s not that I don’t have a story to tell (okay, sometimes it is), but that I just don’t know how to tell that story in any way that seems even remotely satisfactory. The words that should be coming out with easy aplomb simply stop, and if I can get them out at all, it is only with an effort that makes smashing rocks look like easy work. Of course, this kind of writers block is frustrating, especially when you have deadlines, or even worse, a story that you really want to tell, but can’t. So, one of the things that a writer has to master is the art of going with the flow. We all know that muses are fickle beings, and much as (sometimes) we’d all like to chain up our muse in the closet so that he’ll/she’ll be within easy reach for a quick smack whenever necessary, life just doesn’t work that way. Even if it did doing something like that would probably be considered kidnapping.

So, when inspiration strikes go with it, even if that inspiration takes you to weird places. This past week I sat down to write what was supposed to be the start of a story. What I got was the introduction to a fictional research paper, written by a fictional author, in a fictional world. Nonetheless, it’s been an interesting project (I’m about half-way through), and thoroughly enjoyable. So far I think that it’s also quite good. Needless to say this isn’t what I’d planned to write. Really, I was pretty surprised at what it turned into, especially when I put in the first footnote. However, as I said above, when inspiration strikes you have to go with the flow.

Pushing limits is also something that is important for artists of any kind. This doesn’t mean that limits shouldn’t be respected (some of them are there for very good reasons), but never be afraid to try something new. This has certainly been new for me, but I have to say that it flows well into my own style. I’m used to academic writing, and I’m fairly good at it. Applying that to fictional purposes simply hadn’t occurred to me before. I have no doubt that others have done this before (in fact I’m fairly sure that both Terry Prachett and Douglas Adams had something similar), but it certainly isn’t common, and we all like to be unique… right?

Regardless, I’ve said before and I’ll continue to say: write what you write. Don’t try to be your favorite author because you never will be. No matter how much you try you will never be J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Clive Cussler, or Stephen King. No matter how much I want to I will never be H.P. Lovecraft, Glen Cook, or Steven Erikson. It won’t happen because it shouldn’t happen. Trust me, one Steven Erikson is enough for the world. As writers we all have our own unique voices and we need to find those voices instead of trying to copy the voices of others. Focus on developing the way you write and if that means trying something new then go for it. Maybe you’ll invent a new genre.

Finding Your Voice for the Story

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Whenever I write a long story, when I finish, I have to return to the beginning and rewrite the first section or to. This is true of most of the writers I know and there is a very simple reason: the voice of the story changes. I’ve written before (a long time ago) about finding your voice as an author, and Freedomchic, Selanya, and Paul have all written about issues touching on the issue of voice. However, if you aren’t familiar with the idea of ‘voice’, the concept is fairly simple. You’re voice as an author is your particular style, the panache or joie de vivre that you as an author bring to the story that makes it come to live. This is very different from the type or style of writing that you do (i.e. academic, journalistic, fiction, etc), or the genre in which you write (i.e. mystery, fantasy, thriller, etc). Your voice is what makes your writing stand out from all the other people writing essentially the same thing. Are you snarky, cynical, happy-go-lucky, humorous, surreal, dark, etc. What combination of the above do you bring to the table?

Just like you have a voice as an author, each story will also have a voice all its own. For instance, you might be writing a story that is whimsical, terrifying, tragic, or exciting. Each character in your story will also have his or her own voice. Consider Les Miserable: Jaen Valjaen, Fantine, and Javert all have very different voices that add different elements to the story. These voices intermingle to create the overwhelming mixture of hope, strength, obsession, and tragedy that make Les Miserable a classic as a novel, an opera, and a movie, and through it all the voice of Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Miserable) shines through with unmistakable clarity.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

In fact, one of the reasons that Frank Herbert’s Dune is a masterpiece (arguably the best science fiction novel ever written) is that he interweaves not only the external voices, but also the internal voices of a great many powerful characters into a novel that not only makes sense, but conquers the imagination. With so many voices speaking at once the reader should be overwhelmed (as is the case with the vast majority of third person omniscient novels, and with the original Dune movies), but Herbert makes each voice so unique that they are not easily confused.

So, when you start writing a story, the first task is to find the individual voices of each character, and discern how those voices intermingle to create an overall voice for your story. It often takes a chapter or two to do this, and that’s alright. This isn’t something that you need to worry about. It does mean some rewriting when you finish the story to ensure that the first sections actually blend well with the rest of the story, but it isn’t really too much work, and if you can get the voice right early, then you have even less to worry about. So, get out there, get writing, and have fun!

Writing Using Plot Knots

Today we have another post from the eminent Paul Davis. So, sit back and enjoy his work.

This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!
This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!

You’ve all heard this before: there are as many ways to write as there are people writing. Very rarely will you find the gem that tells you the exact best way you write. However, the more you read about what works for others, the more you come to understand what does work well for you. I came up with this way of writing when I mixed and matched writing styles with and without structure. I found it focused me enough to move forward while not restraining the story.

A quick lesson, though. When I first started writing I was a control freak. Everything was planned out, the story was cemented with only minor details able to change. For me, this angered my characters, caused the world to eventually become untrue to itself, and left me quitting the writing process halfway through. Then I tried with no structure at all, and there was nothing good which came of that. There are people working well in both camps, but I would bet most of us are an in between.

The way I have preferred to write is what I like to call a knot approach. Your story is a rope capable of moving as it wishes, swaying and kinking in the most unimaginable areas. Let’s be honest, some days our characters hate us, eventually our plot line doesn’t make sense, at times our setting rebels. The rope can flex with these moments, allowing for change. However, one still has to know where the rope is going to have some idea how to get there.

I plan out three knots. The knots are moments I know will happen, points of the rope that are fairly unmoving. Each knot has a plan, a plot point which changes the story, characters, and/or setting. Everything which happens to the rope on the way can move freely, as long as it eventually prepares for that one plot point.

My first knot is the inciting action. There is a background which must lead up to it, which I generally plan out. The background must move events and characters towards that inciting action and prepare them for it. Sometimes preparation means they have a certain flaw, and other times it means they have the magical gem needed to open the portal to bad places.

celtic_knotThe second knot is the game changer. There are always several game changers, but this one must happen or nothing else matters. It’s discovering the weakness in a castle, overcoming a fear of snakes, or learning a great spell which might be able to take down the evil wizard. It should challenge the character and reveal either growth or a lack there of. Everything leading up to it is preparing the character for the knot.

Finally, there is the climax. The final knot is the true test of if the protagonist learned anything, overcame any flaws, and became a better character for it. Everything between the second and third knot leads up to this final struggle. It is setting the stage for a great or tragic moment. The antagonist could suddenly show new vigor. A friend of the protagonist could die. Maybe the super weapon was lost or stolen and it needs to be recovered. Just throw in some spice to really shoot off the climax.

As I said when starting this, every writer has a style. The knots might not work out for you, or maybe they’re the piece of advice you’ve been waiting for all your writing days. I find it gives me enough structure while still allowing unstructured side stories. I’ve also had my knots change drastically. I had one knot where I was able to get all the characters needed together, but then they just decided to do what they wanted. People slated to die survived, while my survivors were shot down. Why? Because when the rope reached the knot, with the position of the characters and the way events had been playing it, it made more sense.

In short, play around with it. Give the knots a chance. Come up with three knots for a story, as short or long as you want, and try out a new method. I find it good practice to find new methods and practice them in my own works to see what I like or don’t like. I hope this helped and happy writing.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, spring is here and March is just about over! I hope all of you are ready for rain! If you know what I mean by that… well… I’d guess that your probably not under 25. Anyway, I hope everyone is having a great year so far, and that the new variety in challenge posts is helpful! So, this week’s scene challenge is one that you’ve done before, but only once… or at least only once here. If you don’t remember the rules, here you go:  I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Finding your own voice is very important in writing, and it’s often one of the hardest things to do. Instead of trying to write like your favorite authors, figure out how you write!

Scene Challenge of the Week

Let’s see… It’s Wednesday again, right? That means it’s time for another scene challenge… which means that I have to come up with a cue and some rules… man, keeping this blog running can be a lot of work sometimes (that was a joke, if you didn’t catch it… although not untrue). Okay, if you don’t know the rules, here you go: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Pick a favorite scene out of a novel that you like. Your challenge today is to rewrite this scene in your own style and voice. Obviously the essential nature of the scene and the character’s should stay the same, but the presentation of the scene should reflect your style of writing, rather than that of the original author. This can be challenging because we often tend to model our writing after authors that we like, instead of finding a voice of our own. After about a decade of writing this is something that I still struggle with sometimes, so this kind of exercise can make for excellent practice.

Different Kinds of Writing

Journalistic writing focuses on the now. It is about informing the reader of what is happening.
Journalistic writing focuses on the now. It is about informing the reader of what is happening.

Recently I had a conversation with one of my students which ended with that student telling me that he/she shouldn’t be graded down for writing in a non-academic way because academic writing just wasn’t her style of writing. I’m sure that a lot of professors have had similar conversations over the years, and all been similarly annoyed with the confusion between writing styles (see voice), and writing styles (see type). For instance,  one might write in a very witty, sarcastic, nonchalant style (voice) and apply this to many styles (type) of writing. However, one cannot substitute a journalistic or personal style (type) of writing for an academic style (type) of write and expect to get away with it.

Academic writing focuses on the problem. It is about convincing the reader of a particular position through the use of logic and evidence.
Academic writing focuses on the problem. It is about convincing the reader of a particular position through the use of logic and evidence.

For instance, in journalistic writing the first person is not used, but quotes are heavily used, but they are generally attributed, not cited or referenced. The point of a piece is to distribute information. In personal writing the first person is often primarily used, and quotes/sources are generally not used. The point of a piece is to express feeling, opinion, desire, or to update on the minutia of life. In fictional writing the first person may or may not be used (depended on perspective), and while sources are heavily used (seriously, if you think you can write fiction without doing research, think again), they are not quoted, cited, referenced, or generally recognized in any way. The purpose of a piece is to tell a story, make a point, and entertain. In academic writing the third person is universally used, and sources are heavily used, cited, and referenced, but only rarely quoted. The point of a piece is to convince the reader of a particular position through the presentation of logic and evidence. These are all very different kinds of writing, but the witty, sarcastic, nonchalant style (voice) can be effectively used in all of them.

There are as many different styles (voices) of writing as there are people that write, and no style (voice) is necessarily right or wrong. However, there are only a certain number of styles (types) of writing (e.g. academic, journalistic, personal, fictional, inspirational, etc) of writing, and each one has certain expectations of form that must be met for it to be considered good. For instance, if a fictional piece is boring, then it is not good, remember one of the purposes of fictional writing is to entertain. An academic piece, on the other hand, can be exceptionally boring, and still be a good piece, because the purpose is not to entertain, but to support through logic and evidence. When you sit down to write something, take a moment to consider the style (type) of writing that you are planning to use. If you’re writing for a newspaper, then don’t write like you were writing a letter. If you’re writing a letter, then don’t write like you were writing an academic paper. However, you also must be aware of the styles (voices) that you are capable of writing in effectively. If you can’t pull off a witty, sarcastic style, then don’t try. Find the voice or voices that are yours (some people can write in more than one voice), and master it. Use it effectively, and don’t be afraid to adapt it to the various styles (types) of writing that you do. Remember that differences in form don’t have to render you mute, they just require a little adjustment.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – 😉 I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours.  One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write.  It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you.  You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it.  This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others.  The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing.  Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author.  Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive.  Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write.  If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail.  If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail.  This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong.  Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style.  J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose.  Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain.  David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc.  The key is that it is yours.  Remember that you can’t write like anyone else.  For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me.  Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do.  This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors.  They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing.  Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad.  Don’t let them change the way you write.  It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it.  Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.

Write What You… Part Two: Write What You Are

You have a voice on the page as well as in you're mouth.

So, last time I talked about writing what you know.  This is important because, if you write what you don’t know, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know your stuff.  However, writing what you know is only the first part of the equation.  I live in Lynchburg, Va, so I’m very comfortable writing a story set in Lynchburg.  However, if that story isn’t mine, if it isn’t a part of me, then its not going to be very good. Remember that writing fiction is very different from journalism, or writing a biography.  When you are writing about real events then you are telling someone else’s story (not to deride these forms of writing, they are important and have their own difficulties to contend with).  However, when you are writing fiction you are telling a story that comes from within yourself.  You need to find your own voice.

By ‘voice’ I mean not only the words you use, but the way your write.  Grammar and syntax are a part of ‘voice’, but they are not the entirety of it.  Every author will evoke a certain feeling through their writing – some are whimsical, others sardonic; some are childish, other serious.  Your voice can encompass and be affected by everything from the words you use, to the way you approach writing in general, to the reason you write in the first place.  Someone who writes for fun is going to have a very different voice than someone who writes to bring across a specific message.  Someone who disciplines him/herself to write a thousand words a day is going to have a different voice than someone who writes only when they feel like writing.  Your voice is a part of who you are, and that is something that you need to find, and don’t want to lose.

Writing, like speaking, is all about communicating your ideas...sometimes as loudly as possible.

Finding your voice is not easy to do, especially if you are a big reader (as most writers are).  You have a hundred different voices floating around in your head, and when you see something you like it’s very easy to say “Ooh! I should do that!” This is a trap that you need to avoid.  If what you are currently writing feels and sounds surprisingly like what you are currently reading, then you’re probably not writing with your own voice.  You’re probably trying to write with someone else’s voice.  This is a problem because that person’s voice is not your own, and you can’t successfully emulate it.  When you try to write with someone else’s voice then what you write will usually feel like a copy…often a bad copy.

However, it is also important not to mistake similarities in style or subject for a copied voice.  H.P. Lovecraft is an excellent example.  Lovecraft’s writing spawned an entire sub-genre of horror fiction.  His work was so good that other authors wanted to emulate aspects of his style, intent, and world.  Some of these authors do very well* – they take Lovecraft’s world and ideas, but bring their own unique voice to the table.  Others try to emulate Lovecraft’s voice, and sometimes they get close, but no-one can perfectly emulate the voice of another author.  We’re all too different.

That being said, your voice is a part of who you are.  The reason that it is easy to lose is that most of us don’t realize how much of ourselves goes into our writing.  Last month I wrote a post about how much I am like my first novel.  This is a revelation that we all need to have at some point.  I have one friend, a man in his mid-thirties, who is very comfortable writing teenage girls.  I can’t do that.  Personally I am much more comfortable writing old men.  This is an example of one difference in voice.  Some questions to help you find your voice:

What do you want to write?

What are you comfortable writing?

Find your voice, take care of your voice, and grow your voice. Its important.

What is easy for you to write?

What feels natural to you?

As you first start out you want to stick to writing things that fit easily in your voice.  Things that flow naturally, that feel right, and that come out easily.  As you mature as a writer you can begin to broaden this, learn to apply your voice to types of writing, characters, or situations that don’t feel all that natural.  This is a necessary step in your growth as an author (otherwise you will just write the same novel over and over with different names).  However, you have to find your voice before you can begin to grow it.

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*Donald Tyson does an excellent job of fleshing out portions of Lovecraft’s world and works, and he is only one example.