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.

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza, by James Kochalka (and a few other things)

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

You know how I said that Zita the Spacegirl could be enjoyed by all ages? The Glorkian Warrior…is not so much all ages humor. If you think peanut butter-clam pizza is funny, then this will probably be about your speed. It is silly, it is extremely silly, it is sillier than that. It has a Super Backpack who is the voice of reason–the Super Backpack Super-Ego, if you will. It is entirely possible that my seven-year-old goddaughter will be too mature for this book. I feel sure that it has an audience, because this kind of alien goofy banana joke humor always has an audience, but it’s the kind of audience that likes Gonk-goes-bonk jokes.

Ah, but! If you are looking for something for a small relative who has that sort of sense of humor, and you don’t want it to be toilet humor, this is not generally scatalogical. It’s very silly, and it’s sometimes gross, but the places where it’s gross are neither sexual nor scatalogical, so you can go forward with it, confident that the parent will not kill you for teaching the kid new poop jokes.

I read this very short graphic novel in something like ten minutes flat after sending my agent the latest draft of my latest novel and doing the page proofs for my latest Analog story with my latest writing Alec–wait, no, same Alec I’ve always written with. I just got caught up in all the latests. I also read my latest (arrrrgh! but it’s a good latest along with all the other good latests in this paragraph) story in the latest (I CANNOT STOP) issue of On Spec, also collaborative with Alec. This one is “The Young Necromancer’s Guide to Re-Capitation,” and we’re pretty pleased. You can get it from the nice folks at On Spec, I expect.

Anyway, after all those latests, I am feeling a bit like a puppet with cut strings, so a very silly, very short graphic novel was much more what I was up for than the large and heavy biography I was otherwise in the middle of reading. More when I can. Stay warm; that’s my big goal tonight.

Cooking vs. gardening

I’m still working on revisions. I have two kinds of writing process. This kind is cooking. The other kind is gardening.

When I’m cooking, I have one project that I am working on, and I will work on it until it is done, and most of the work (vast majority) I am doing goes towards it. I will still sometimes open a file and write notes or even sometimes complete scenes on another project, so that I don’t lose those ideas (/complete scenes). Sometimes when I’m working on a novel, I write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a novel, the more likely it is that I’ll write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a particular short story, the more likely it is that I’ll write another short story in the middle of it. Or a novel. Things happen. But when I’m cooking, I might do bits of side project–I might finish chopping the rest of the broccoli that I’m not using in this particular stir-fry, so that it’s ready next time I want broccoli–but I’m not going to start cutting things up for stir-fry and suddenly find that I have chopped everything in the kitchen. Cooking is about knowing the task and working steadily towards the end of the task, which is the meal. Yum.

When I’m gardening, I’m not writing any less, but it’s less focused. I will write a thousand words on one idea and a thousand words on another. Sometimes less–sometimes it’ll be 500 words on a project, or 200. For some people this is a really bad sign. It means that you’re completely unfocused, that you will never get stuff done, that you’re just noodling around with things and enjoying the idea of being a writer without ever finishing anything. At this point I think I can stop worrying about that. I have the assurance from long experience that while some stories never reach the point where they get finished, many to most of the stories that I work on this way do. Most of the stuff I work on in “gardening” mode gets to the point where it’s ready to be “cooked”–it reaches a critical mass where I’m ready to just work on it until it’s done. So it’s not actually something I should feel bad about. It’s not pointless, it’s practice. It’s weeding, tending the soil, picking off aphids. Keeping the whole garden growing.

The weird thing about how I’ve been writing lately–other than the fact that it’s been a lot for months now–is that I haven’t been having to tell myself not to stress about what comes next. That’s…totally unlike me. It’s totally unlike me in general, and it’s not like I am going through a period of less stressing/fussing just now in particular. (Hahahaha no. Seriously, um, no. Nearly everyone who has vertigo ends up with at least some degree of anxiety, and I’ll tell you why. Because it is somewhere on the spectrum from stressful to producing of clinical anxiety to not have a reliable sense of the vertical and to fall over and stuff. Seriously, just on a physical level: your body wants a vertical. And to not fall over, and to not throw up, and stuff. Your body has opinions on that stuff. If you haven’t had vertigo problems, your body might not have made them known. But trust me, they’re there.)

So anyway: it’s not like I’ve generally become a more laid-back, chill person. I’m just…feeling like, yep, there will be a thing that I write next, and nope, I don’t have to be absolutely certain whether it’s Wielding the Stars or King of Flowers, King of the Sea or The Winter Wars or something else on the list or something I think up tomorrow in the shower. A few years back I was asking people to remind me that I didn’t have to figure out what book to write next, and apparently that’s become an automatic function for the time being. Which: cool, okay, plenty else to worry about, thanks, brain. The part of me that can’t resist poking things with a stick is kind of going, “But…why are we…?” But never mind, that part! We’re fine. We will write something else next. It’ll be fun. So okay then.

short list…sorta

I have a very short to-do list this week, because nearly everything on my to-do list is large. I’ve handled the birthday present shopping and the letter writing and most of the errands and calls to get things fixed and thises and thats, or else I’ve put them off to next week.

So basically there is a flowchart with two questions on it, each with two outcomes. 1. Do I have a glass of water readily to hand? If not, get one. (This is not about some nonsense someone came up with about an abstract number of glasses of water everybody should supposedly drink every day. This is about the med I personally am on, which turns people into raisins. Seriously, this stuff makes you turn your head around and drink from the shower, because the length of time to wash and condition long hair is too long to go without water really.)

2. Do I feel good enough to work on book revisions? If so, do so. If not, go curl up on the couch with someone else’s book.

Seriously, that’s…pretty much the list. I have a couple of stories to work on also. But I have the revision letter from my insightful agent, and I don’t have a lot else on the list for the week, and (possibly not coincidentally) I’m not up for a lot either, so…it’s sort of a pure feeling, when it comes right down to it. Everything is very straightforward. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. No, that’s something else. Drink the water, pet the dog, revise the book. Yes. That’s the one.

State of the Mris report

So I realized that I had not put this clearly anywhere: the vertigo has been quite bad since Christmas. I had hoped that it would get a bit better when I recovered from my cold, but it has not. I am going to the neurologist soon, and when I do, the likeliest outcome is the same meds I’ve been on before, which are fairly effective but which (among other side effects) make writing somewhat harder. (Still possible! But somewhat harder.)

In the meantime I cannot drive, which complicates alllllll sorts of things around here.

So. Combination of these factors means that I am trying to get a whole book’s worth of revisions done before I go on the meds. Brain is not cooperating–the good kind of not-cooperating, the kind that is generating lots of new material for other projects. Still. Focus required. Revisions required.

And the upshot of that is that you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t see me on social media for the next week and a half, two weeks or so. I will probably be ignoring Facebook and Twitter completely and checking in with lj less frequently (once or twice a day rather than having the window open and refreshing when I feel like it). I will still do my midmonth book post so that I don’t fall behind (yes, I recognize that that only matters in my own mind), and I’ll be checking my email, because, well, email. If you’re someone who has long-duration correspondence with me just for fun, though, rather than topical timely communications, don’t be surprised if my long-duration correspondence pieces don’t arrive very much before the end of the month.

Determination, go.

Writing hacks: what you don’t get for free

Lots of my friends talk about skills that each writer gets “for free”–things they’re naturally good at. Well, what I am not naturally good at is describing setting. For quite some time, everything I wrote at any longish length had among its first critiques “needs more setting,” “describe more setting!,” etc. Well, if every time you make stew, everybody says, “needs more salt,” at some point you really have to think of adding salt to your stew earlier in the process.

(Exception is if you disagree and think salt would make it worse. But just as food is cooked to be eaten, stories are written to be read, so–you at least think about the salt.)

Problem: there is not a shaker labeled “setting descriptors” sitting by my desk. The first thing I tried, a couple of books ago, was to set things in a location that was very vivid for me. This did not work at all–I still heard the same crits and still had to go back and fix setting stuff in revisions. The second thing is how most advice gets ladled out in fiction writing: the “just do it” method. Just–be better at this! (Seriously, this is how writers give advice 90% of the time. “Do this! Make it come out this way! Do not make it come out this other way!” Most common version: “Just put your butt in the chair and write!” Timprov has often commented that if standard writing advice was applied to running, no one would ever have developed Couch-to-5K, they’d just stand over the couch shouting, “Run a marathon! Run a marathon now! Just put your shoes on and run a marathon!”) And that worked…about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not at all.

So with The Spy from Atlantis I tried an actual plan. You will be amazed to hear that this worked better. Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like. (And smell like and those other setting things. But I have noticed that if I put in what things smell like, people gloss over it and still tell me I need more setting, rather than extrapolating all the important stuff from scent like sensible people.)

Bottom line: this worked. Nobody started raving about my lush setting descriptions and how they were the most amazing setting that ever had set. This was not the goal. The goal was to get the setting stuff to the point where it would get other people where they needed to be with the story. I will probably never be a setting-focused writer (sorry, Kev), but actively putting off settingy people is also not my goal. So: putting the thing I’m working on first, before the stuff that’s more natural. That actually worked. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more ingrained that way or whether I always find that I need to sit down and Do Setting Stuff Dammit.

I don’t know if this would work for other areas of weakness, but it’s worth thinking about. More to the point, I like it when other people talk about improving their writing in specific concrete terms, because overcoming the “just–do that thing! do it well!” culture is important. So I thought I’d share it with you.

End of year state of the Mris: the writing version

2013: it was full of stuff. Good stuff, it turns out. Quite a bit of good stuff. Go team.

In the “clear signs of progress” category, I passed my hundredth short story sale mark, which was cool and weird. I cannot really make reflexive Minnesotan noises about how really it’s not so many, because it is: so many. So. Major thing there. Also in the same category, I now have an agent, and she is awesome, and I am pleased and hopeful about what this means for the future.

I sold nine stories this year. I have four stories sold and still yet to come out (one from 2012, the rest from this year). New stories that came out this year included:
“The Radioactive Etiquette Book” in Analog
“Armistice Day” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Milk Run” in Analog (co-written with Alec Austin)
“The Troll (A Tale Told Collectively)” in Daily SF
“On the Weaponization of Flora and Fauna” in BCS
“Ask Citizen Etiquette” in Asimov’s (technically a 2014 publication date)
“The Ministry of Changes” in Tor.com
“Things We Have in the House for No Reason” in Analog
“Unsolved Logical Problems in Time Travel (Spring Semester)” in Nature

There were also some lovely reprints, in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction and Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2013 and anthologies of Clarkesworld and Daily SF sales from previous years.

And the writing. I really hit my stride on new stuff, writing twenty stories, one novel, and serious parts of other novels and stories. All the short stories are revised, and I have a plan for revising the novel. In addition to that, I’m kind of hoping to hit the new project hard once I’ve done the revisions. It’s pretty clear after twice going through it that when I have to be on the vertigo meds, I can still write–I can still write things people like, even–even including myself–but it’s harder. So there’s a balance to find (sorry, had to) between keeping myself safe and getting good work done. Ideally I’ll be able to get enough momentum on the novel to carry me through the last horrible phase before going on the meds and the first horrible phase on them. We’ll see. If not, I will dig my heels in and just make it work. I’ve done it before and can do it again. But gosh, these last six months when I didn’t have to dig my heels in and could just write happily have sure been nice. Hoping to use it as a running start on next year, because this year has been awfully good.

The Spy From Atlantis: draft done, surprise!

Two weeks ago I wrote this post about brain momentum and my hope that I could bleed off some of that momentum into a novel.

That…didn’t entirely happen. I mean, I channeled that momentum into a novel. That much is clear. But…okay, look. I finished the draft of that novel, The Spy from Atlantis today. First draft, all done, there we go, book. That means that in the last month I’ve written five short stories and 2/3 of a book. This…is a personal record. (I still have two days left in that month, and the thought scares me a little.)

Early this year I got completely stuck and bogged down on this book. And I eventually wrote, “MORE BOOK GOES HERE” in the manuscript (in the place where more book went! and I was right, more book did go there!). And then I reminded myself that I was not on deadline, that there was no reason to make myself miserable writing that book right then, that I could just write something else.

So I did.

And then two weeks ago, more or less, I opened the file and wrote a thousand words like it was nothing. And I knew what other words went in it. It was just a matter of letting them out. Elise says Mike called this “finding the spigot.” I can’t explain it, but that spigot got found.

The thing is, I’m not yet sure it’s off. On Friday, when I was assessing what was left, I was pretty sure I was going to finish today. And there is a part of my brain that chimed in, “Oh good! Then we can work on [three other story ideas] on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, before things get really going for Farthing Party.”

PLS SEND HALP.

Seriously, there is stuff to do, and my wrists and back could really use a break. So…maybe an average of less than 4K a day is something to shoot for. Just a thought. The three rules I made, once it became clear that I was going to be writing this book NOW NOW NOW were:
No ruining my hands.
No ruining my health.
No ruining my relationships.

So I have done things like continuing to eat the same reasonable-or-better levels of food, continuing to work out and sleep, continuing to get together with friends and family, etc. They are good rules.

I just. It will be nice if I don’t need quite such a reminder that they are the rules for awhile here.

Still! Book! I am pleased, and I had fun. All the fun that was missing on this book earlier this year was back in abundance. Yay go book. I will revise it when I’m not in Montreal. I will let it marinate for a bit. But in the meantime: book! Yay go book!