Many thanks to Fran Hill and Ruth Leigh for supplying author images and book cover photos. Also thanks to Ruth Leigh for sharing pictures of her garden (her character Isabella M Smugge would never let weeds be amongst the flowers! Just as well Isabella hasn’t seen my garden – she’d have a fit).
Other images are from Pixabay or from Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
I am delighted to welcome back to Chandler’s Ford Today Fran Hill and Ruth Leigh to continue their interview about writing humour.
Fran writes memoir. Her first book, Being Miss, was followed up by the wonderfully titled Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?, which is my favourite title for 2020.
Ruth has written a marvellously funny and moving diary in The Diary of Isabella M Smugge and is working on its sequel.
So back to our conversation on writing humour…
11. For humour to work in any kind of story, it has to arise naturally from the character and/or their situation. How do you achieve this? Do you outline?
Fran: I ask myself ‘What if?’ a lot. What if a teacher confiscated a pizza and then got caught eating it? What if a teacher forgot to attend the Lenten Bible study because she was busy eating chocolate? What if a foster family turns out to have just as many problems as the family a foster child came from? I find the ‘What if?’ question can help with causality in a plot. If that happened, then that could happen and that would mean that.
Ruth: I didn’t with Isabella, I have to say. She sprang, fully-formed from my mind, which I don’t think is usual. I took the fish out of water trope and applied that and used some of my own playground experiences and exaggerated them.
A posh, snobby woman turning up at a small Suffolk primary is going to excite comment and make enemies and since the whole thing is written from her point of view, the opportunity to make jokes was clear. The way Isabella speaks, and her internal monologue, versus the real world which most of us live in, is naturally funny I think and a few funny hashtags and shocked realisations (No one wearing make-up! At least four children each!) got the ball rolling.
12. My all time favourite one-liner is the Eric Morecambe one where he’s peering out of the window and all we hear is a siren going past at speed. “He won’t sell much icecream at that speed” is both wonderful and surreal. (Written by the fabuous Eddie Braben but Morecambe’s delivery is faultless). Do you have a favourite all time line? Why this one?
Fran: That’s a brilliant one-liner and we’d expect nothing less from Morecambe. I think the Bible has some great one-liners and it’s probably not the first place you’d go and look. But one favourite is when God says to Job: ‘Where were you when I made the universe?’ Well, quite.
Ruth: That’s hilarious, you’re right! Mine, technically, is a two-liner from Frasier. Frasier has bought a set of Limoges coffee cups featuring the six wives of Henry VIII and is terribly proud of them. Based on his advice, Daphne has met a new man who is a mirror image of jealous Niles. While Frasier entertains his guests, we hear the smash of china. Face contorted with horror, Frasier calls out, ‘Anne Boleyn?’ only for the tragic tones of Niles to float in from the kitchen. ‘Katherine of Aragon!’ I just love that. I’m chuckling as I type. It’s a beautifully constructed line.
Allison: And talking of the classic one-liner above, see this!
13. Marketing is never easy for a writer. Are there any particular difficulties you’ve faced in marketing humorous work? If so, how have you overcome these?
Fran: One difficulty is that people often say, ‘If the review says it’s laugh-out-loud, I never trust it.’ So this may have lost me sales. I think if I get my current WIP published, I might ask reviewers to say that it’s mildly amusing with the occasional titter.
Ruth: Because I’ve spent the last eighteen years as a self-employed person, I’ve had to learn the dark art of self-marketing. Having done loads of networking and picked up some transferable skills along the way, when it came to shifting copies of Isabella, my main problem was there weren’t enough hours in the day. I think I’m quite unusual in that, but I should say that Isabella was my first foray into fiction and I was 54 when I wrote her, so I’ve had donkeys’ years to learn how to do it. That said, the first time I quavered, ‘Err, I’ve written a book, do you want to buy it?’ (or words to that effect) was a bit nerve-racking.
14. How do you think your writing has developed over the last five years? Where would you like it to develop further in the next five years?
Fran: I’ve learned not to be so pedantic about grammar. It’s a strange thing for an English teacher to say but not every sentence has to be grammatically perfect and sometimes humour demands that they’re not. Writing a memoir in a diary-style made me grapple with this and accept its truth. In five years’ time, I’d like to have written another couple of novels and to have a reputation as a funny writer who has something to say. If I can’t manage that, I’d like my job at Asda to be going well.
Ruth: My writing has become tighter, stronger and more focused. It’s had to as I’ve been writing as a freelancer for thirteen years and have had to learn a lot, very quickly, to give my varied clients what they want. As for developing further, I’d like more of the same, I think. I’d love to have a style which people recognise and want more of. You know, like my mates Marian (Keyes) and JK (Rowling).
15. How do you find marketing humorous work over social media? Do some platforms work better for this than others? What have you found works well?
Fran: I use my Facebook business page and Twitter. I’ve been tempted by Instagram but a) am rubbish at taking pictures and b) I use my laptop all the time, not my phone, and to use my phone regularly for Instagram would need bigger buttons on the keypad or thinner fingers. I like Twitter because it’s more about words than pictures although this is changing, so hurrah for GIFs. Thank you, Mr Gif, for inventing them.
Ruth: Fun, actually. Making jokes has always been my way of covering up fear which is pretty handy when you write in a humorous fashion. Quoting funny bits or hashtags from the book (#aupairupcycling #issysmuggesays etc) gets people engaged and then they respond. Do some platforms work better for this than others?
For me, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been the Big Three. As for what works well, Twitter isn’t my natural milieu, but Fran was a complete superstar when I was getting ready to launch Isabella and gave me loads of helpful tips. Frequent pictures on Instagram with hashtags plus story sharing, lots of funny tweets and building up relationships with other writers and potential readers and plenty of content on my Facebook page seems to have done the trick.
16. Now we all have to edit our work several times before it sees the light of day. How did you find that process went for editing humour? Did the humour wear thin at all with repeated reading? I ask as you can get to a stage in editing where YOU really don’t want to see the work again! (That usually means it’s time to send it out there!).
Fran: That’s as true with humour as with any manuscripts, yes. You’ve heard the jokes before! That’s why I often leave gaps in time, focusing on something else while the manuscript festers in a drawer, then revisiting it after a week so that I’m reading it fresh. I also send manuscripts to my Kindle which helps me to read it ‘as a reader’ and somehow this makes a difference and helps me spot things that need changing or improving (such as the whole manuscript).
Ruth: Oh good Lord yes! By the time I was on the final edit, I was heartily sick of Isabella and her diary and just wanted it all to go away. As with all these things, the gap between sending off the final version and holding my precious book in my hands for the first time seemed to ameliorate the pain and once people read it and starting reporting back on what they found funny, I was greatly relieved.
17. How do you develop your characters’ voices? Do they ever realise they are being funny and how do they react to that if so? (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army was unaware he was pompous, for example. Everyone else around him knew he was. He would probably have denied it if challenged over it).
Fran: I think it’s best if they don’t realise they are being funny, if they are. Or that they think they are being funny when they’re not. For my current main character, a 14 year old girl, I wrote the first chapter in 3rd person. But her voice only sprang to life when I rewrote in 1st person and gave her permission to say what she wanted. She’s as sarcastic as heck. I will be sorry to say goodbye to her. Or perhaps she’ll get a sequel.
Ruth: That’s a really good question. It did take quite a lot of work. I knew that Mimi Stanhope, Isabella’s venal agent would be terribly posh and pepper her speech with lots of darlings and sweeties and exaggeration. Her voice came at once. Awful Mummy took a little longer, but the terrible cutting remarks (‘Aren’t you a bit old for that shade of pink, darling?’) got me on the right track. Isabella does start to realise that other people might find her funny, but since she’s also on a journey of painful self-discovery, it’s just one more thing to take on board for her and she doesn’t seem to mind.
18. What would you say were the joys of writing humour? What are the challenges?
Fran: The joys are when someone says, ‘You really cheered me up’ or ‘I laughed out loud’ (even though no one believes them). An even bigger joy was getting messages from people who said they’d given my memoir to friends or relatives in hospital and it had given some light relief from their sufferings. That’s precious. One challenge is to let the humour come naturally and not to force it. It’s tempting to ‘try’ to be funny. It’s best not to but to let your natural humour emerge.
Ruth: If you can sit at your desk writing jokes and giggling to yourself and then get paid for it, I’d say you’ve found the ideal job. I like making people laugh. I really like it. There needs to be more laughter in the world. I don’t know if I could actually write a serious book. The challenge is to pitch it correctly to make it as funny as it can possibly be. Something which relies on an obscure reference, for example, which makes you wet yourself laughing but which will sail over the heads of most of your readers can’t stay in. It’s a waste of words.
19. Do you find writing guides useful and, if so, which have you found most helpful?
Fran: I’ve just discovered a book called Writing Comedy. It’s given me confidence that I’m doing some of it right and has offered more ideas on how to get it righter.
Ruth: Definitely. I’ve found Stephen King’s On Writing, Save the Cat Writes a Novel and How Not to Write a Novel very useful. I also went on a course with Paul Kerensa which taught me a huge amount.
Allison: I have On Writing and How Not to Write a Novel, both are exceptionally good books.
20. Do you prefer writing dialogue over, say, description? Do you find humour comes out more naturally in dialogue? Are there scenes you have wanted to keep in which are hilarious but you know have to come out because they don’t really move the story on? How difficult do you find doing that?
Fran: I do love writing dialogue – I think much of my comedy comes from interaction between characters – but it takes a lot of work to make it naturalistic so that it doesn’t sound like two or three terrible washed-up stand-up comedians trying to outdo each other.
Again, it has to come from the situation, and from people who are funny without realising it. As for cutting ‘going nowhere’ scenes, it’s essential. I give them a fond kiss goodbye and put them in a file for another time. If I don’t cut them, an editor will, and that’s more embarrassing.
Ruth: I think I probably do. As for humour coming out more naturally in dialogue, I’d say definitely. It’s much easier to make jokes and write something funny when people are talking.
Re hilarious scenes, I don’t know about hilarious as such, but I proudly spent half a day creating an entire fictional Sixties pop group and writing lyrics to their songs (the bass player left to go and join the Small Faces, they supported the Stones but the keyboard player had a massive punch-up with Keith Richards over a cheese sandwich) and it was funny and good, but it didn’t drive the story on. So it had to go.
As for cutting something, it’s not difficult for something that doesn’t drive the story on. That’s not because I am some kind of saintly super-being, but because I’ve spent years writing stuff for hire and having it changed and critiqued and pulled to pieces, so I just don’t care any more (in a healthy and well-adjusted way).
LINKS FOR FRAN HILL
LINKS FOR RUTH LEIGH
Many thanks, Fran and Ruth, for your wonderful insights into the world of writing humour over the last two weeks. No form of writing is easy but humour has its specific challenges. For one thing, you do have to accept from the outset I think that not everybody is going to share your definition of what is funny! But a well crafted humorous book is a joy to read and can lift the spirits. So all power to the pens of humorous writers then!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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