Revising Humor

One of the things I find hardest in the revision process, that I don’t remember seeing people talk about much, is revising the funny parts. It’s not the ones that aren’t working that trouble me–those are easy enough with good feedback. I have the lovely kind of critique group that will say, “And that line about [blah] was just awful, it just didn’t work,” if I really missed with something that was attempting to be funny. (I even trust them to say, “What was that about [thing]? I didn’t get that part,” if the attempt at humor is so bad as to be not clearly an attempt at humor, but happily for me they haven’t had to do that yet.)

No, for me the problem is more the opposite: revising other things around something that is working as a piece of humor. Mostly I try not to have JOKES in my work. I often say things like, “I don’t like humorous fantasy because I like things that are funny,” and this is snide and horrible of me but also sort of true: with the exception of Terry Pratchett, most of the authors whose work got labeled humorous fantasy when I was imprinting on sub-genres as a teenager were just not funny. They were jokey and horrible, always jogging your elbow to make sure that you got it (GET IT GET IT DO YOU GET IT?), but not actually funny. Whereas there were plenty of people who weren’t labeled humorous fantasy but could make me have to put the bookmark in the book so I didn’t lose my place while laughing.

But the thing about that kind of integrated amusing bit, as opposed to JOKES, is that if you’re revising a manuscript, you have to look at it all the time along with everything else. If you’re changing a detail–like whether some key event is mentioned by the characters as happening over takeout pizza instead of home-cooked stew, or whether they say they’re expecting someone to arrive at 8 instead of 7, or whether you had two days in a row being Saturday and have to fix the timeline–it’s the sort of detail that you have to read carefully to make sure you get all the references to. It can be important in characterization or in making the details of an action plot flow exactly right; it’s the kind of thing that’s worth getting right. And yet it means detailed, close reading of the whole section in which it appears–funny parts included.

Now. Think about the funny stories you have about your own life. Think about the times you’ve told them. Imagine that you’ve told them four, five, six times in a row–to utter silence. No response. Not a groan, not an eyeroll. Nothing. Wouldn’t you consider not telling that funny story any more? Wouldn’t you at least change how you tell it? This, for me, is the biggest hazard of revision of something humorous: the risk of over-revision. There’s no way to make the same lines feel fresh and funny to me each time, and without the direct feedback, I start to feel like they need changing just because…well, just because.

I’ve contemplated reading manuscripts to an audience every so often, just to see the reactions and remind myself that the funny bits are funny, the startling bits are startling, and not over-revise the silly thing, but while that has its benefits, I think it also has its drawbacks. Chief among them is that most people experiencing a particular manuscript will experience it in its written form. So “this works when I’m reading it with the right intonations” will only get me so far; I still have to believe that it works as a piece of written work. So I think I just have to re-watch Bull Durham every so often (it’s full of great advice! you just have to translate from baseball and/or sex to writing) and not trip over my own feet too much when revising humor. Even when I’m getting the details surrounding the funny parts right. Because “you have to get all new funny sections every time you have to change a detail” is just not a feasible option.

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