I’m pleased to welcome back to Chandler’s Ford Today two of the funniest writers I know – Fran Hill and Ruth Leigh.
Fran’s second book, Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?, ought to get some kind of award for most amusing title. The book (which is a memoir of life in the classroom) is both funny and moving.
Ruth has created a fabulous character in Isabella M Smugge (to rhyme with Bruge) in her debut novel, The Diary of Isabella M Smugge. Think Hyacinth Bucket deciding to write her own diary a la Adrian Mole. Great combination of ideas there. And Isabella’s exploits, while often laugh out loud funny, are also moving.
Now I am on record as saying I think poetry is the most difficult form of writing there is because there are so many forms and rules you could follow. I stand by that but the next most difficult kind of writing to do well is the humorous kind. Why?
Firstly humour is subjective.
Secondly styles of humour change over the years. What was funny only a decade ago might not be now.
Thirdly humour does not always come across well in text. When you listen to a stand-up comic, you can literally hear the nuances, the cues that tell you the punchline is about to come and so on.
But done well and humorous books are a truly joyous thing. (The world would be a much poorer place without the works of P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, and Terry Pratchett just to name three. What is interesting in all classic humorous books is the characters don’t find the situations they’re in at all funny and that’s important).
But now over to Ruth and Fran for their take on writing humour. Part 2 of this fabulous joint interview follows next week.
1. Did you set out to write humorous material or did you find it naturally emerging from your storylines and characters?
Fran: Even if I set out to write serious material, dark humour weasels its way through. Perhaps I wear funny-tinted spectacles the way some have rose-tinted. I see the funny in the tragic and vice versa. ‘That’s hilarious!’ I’ve said to many a GCSE class, ‘the way Lady Macbeth has to go back and smear the daggers in blood because Macbeth forgot! So funny!’ Likewise, I’ve written material I would swear blind is serious and worthy and others tell me they loved the humour. Inevitably, then, humour finds its way into storylines and characters just as it found its way into my psyche.
Ruth: I can’t say I did, but then I didn’t set out to write fiction either. Isabella sprang from a couple of blogs I wrote which were spotted by a literary agent who thought she would make a good novel. There had to be a redemptive arc, she couldn’t be one-dimensional, and as soon as I started writing, I found myself making jokes. “Aha!” I thought to myself, “This is going to have to be funny.” Once I got going, it just flowed naturally.
2. Which humorous (or otherwise!) authors inspired you? What would you say was the funniest thing you’ve read?
Fran: You’ve already mentioned P.G.Wodehouse and, as a role model for those trying to write humour, he can’t be ignored. His strength is in the images and comparisons he uses but he is also a master of exaggeration and anti-climax, two other valuable tools for any humorist.
Other funny authors who’ve inspired are Dorothy Parker, Jane Austen, David Sedaris, J D Salinger, Gerald Durrell … ah, too many to list, but what links these is a wonderful sense of irony and often satire as a bonus. Wodehouse does make me laugh out loud so I think some of his stories are the funniest, especially his character descriptions and observations.
Ruth: There have been so many. I’d have to say P.G.Wodehouse is one. I read him first in my early teens and immediately loved the rhythm, the cadence and the dialogue all of which was carefully constructed for the biggest possible laugh.
You wouldn’t call her a humorous author, but Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” contains lines which are embedded in my mind and still make me laugh out loud. I love Jane Austen, James Thurber, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Marian Keyes, EF Benson and John Mortimer, amongst others.
Two books immediately spring to mind for funniest things I’ve read. The teatime scene in Comrade Bingo makes me rock with laughter. The juxtaposition between two kinds of life is written so perfectly. The fact that Bingo’s latest love interest has been christened Charlotte Corday Rowbotham is a good enough joke to float my boat.
Blending the name of a French revolutionary who stabbed a man in his bath with a good old fashioned English surname is a stroke of genius. ‘Old Rowbotham had lowered his cup and was eyeing us sternly. He tapped Jeeves on the shoulder. ‘No servility, my lad; no servility!’ ‘I beg your pardon, sir?’ ‘Don’t call me sir. Call me Comrade. Do you know what you are, my lad? You’re an obsolete relic of an exploded feudal system.’ ‘Very good, sir.’ That’s a masterclass in comic writing. The other scene is from EF Benson’s Miss Mapp and is entitled The Male Impersonator. Every time I read it, I’m helpless with laughter and I know it’s influenced the way I write Isabella.
Allison: And for Wodehouse fans, a treat for you here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LObPaCloY8E
3. Million dollar question: how easy (or otherwise!) do you find coming out with a “killer” line that you know will make your readers laugh? Or is it a case of reading your work back later and realising hey this bit is funny? Have readers surprised you with what they found funny in your works?
Fran: I’m the same as many writers. Some days the funny lines come easily and land on the page without much thought. Other days, it’s like persuading a toddler to eat pickled cabbage. Much of it, though, is about crafting and editing. I know a sentence or idea has potential to be funny but it needs rearranging or strengthening or snip-snip-snipping to squeeze the best funny out of it.
Ruth: Sometimes it just comes out. Other times not. I’ve just finished writing the second Isabella book and often I’d find myself writing a line then going back to it to make it funnier. For example, Isabella is struggling without her au pair and can’t seem to get that across to her children.
It ended up like this: “Mornings are hell, a flurry of half-eaten breakfast, missing shoes, last-minute homework and pathetic arguments over nothing. It drives me crazy. I need space and tranquillity if I am to continue being one of the UK’s most respected and revered lifestyle bloggers. The children don’t seem to understand this however many times I shout it at them #generationgap”.
The annotations in italics were added in afterwards to make it funnier and to show the absurdity of the situation. It’s inflating and exaggerating the situation to make it more chucklesome, and of course setting poor Isabella up for a fall.
As for readers surprising me with what they’ve found funny, I have to say not usually. Everyone liked the fight at Messy Church and lots of the little asides and hashtags seem to have gone down well. I wrote it very deliberately to be funny, with certain people in mind, and if those people found it funny (which they did), I was pretty sure that nearly everyone else would too.
4. How much planning do you do before you write your books? Can you “plan” the funny bits?
Fran: That’s an interesting thought. Most of my planning is to do with events and the order in which they’ll appear. Some of that will produce humour – for instance, juxtaposing two scenes in a way that results in irony. But as for funny lines and sentences, I can’t plan for those. I have to trust that they’ll be available when I need them, like old friends. Or cream for insect bites. Or that tiny key for the suitcase.
Ruth: Honestly, not much! I had a few ideas on plot lines before I started writing Isabella, but not many. They developed as I went along. Funny scenes would drop into my head every so often. I had a very clear picture of the fight between Liane Bloomfield and Isabella at Messy Church and I knew it had to be written like an epic scene but be about something ridiculous (sausage rolls).
I like that juxtaposition of the majestic and the mundane. To me, that’s funny. Thinking about the novel as I wrote it, I believed that much of the humour would come from the fish out of water premise, and so it did. A woman who is genuinely shocked by the absence of grape scissors at a low-key buffet is ripe for lots of funny bits.
5. A lot of humorous writing does come from dropping your characters right in it which is great fun. Do you ever feel guilty (even a little bit) about putting your people through it? What would you say makes for a good character to use for humorous purposes?
Fran: I’ve never felt guilty about it before but I do now you’ve mentioned it! (Allison: Oops!)
As for what makes a character funny, I think that’s often when the mess they’re dropped in is of their own making but they are unaware, or when the more they try to extract themselves, the deeper they fall into it. Something else that makes a character funny is when they are doing the opposite of what is expected. For instance, a doctor who is terrified of needles, a teacher who can’t control the class, or a beauty technician with a face like a gargoyle.
Ruth: No, not in the least! Lots of my readers locally have asked me that and I quite enjoy heaping trials and tribulations upon them! I think that might be because much of my writing career has been about interviewing amazing, inspirational, truly good people and it’s quite a refreshing change to write about people with obvious huge flaws and put them through the mill.
As for what makes for a good character to use for humorous purposes, I would say omeone who has no self-awareness is always a good starting point. Pomposity and snobbery are the comic writer’s best friend. Deflating that entitled attitude can often be quite funny.
6. What makes a funny story work for you?
Fran: Take some funny characters, especially if they don’t know they’re funny. Stir into a well-structured plot, alongside a pinch of tension. Mix with a setting that complements. Whisk into the mixture a theme or message that has something deeper to say about life. Bake in a hot laptop for as long as it takes and serve it funny with a sprig of mint.
Ruth: It’s got to be clever and work on lots of different levels. Comrade Bingo is the perfect example of a wonderfully crafted funny story. It’s got belly laughs, sly humour, real wit and depends on three well-known characters (Jeeves, Bertie and Bingo) and their reactions to the members of Red Dawn.
7. I always ask writers to name their three top tips but can you share with us your three top tips for writing humour?
1. Read, watch and listen to a million humour writers. Keep a notebook and write down how they made you laugh.
2. Practise being funny by joke-writing. There are many internet sites and books on how to write jokes. They’re a great way to learn the basic techniques such as exaggeration, anti-climax, word-play etc.
3. Don’t be precious about your writing – show other people and ask them if they find it funny. If they don’t, cry a little, and then ask them what went wrong. Listen to them.
1. Think about who’s going to read your writing. Pitch it at the right level.
2. If it makes you laugh, you’re far more likely to write it in the right way. If humour feels forced or is shoehorned in, it won’t work.
3. Be inspired! Read humour, watch it and let it soak into your writer’s brain. Sitcoms such as Modern Family, Frasier, Fawlty Towers, Black Books and Arrested Development are ones I come back to again and again as the jokes and timing are spot-on. We all need something to aspire to.
8. One-liners or situations – which works best for a humorous novel?
Fran: I think both. One-liners in a novel are always part of a wider context, usually a humorous situation or a serious situation that is made humorous.
9. How much of your humorous writing comes out from the flaws in your characters?
Fran: I’d say 99% of it. In my first book Being Miss, the humour comes from a fictional newbie teacher bumbling her way through a school day and only surviving it by the skin of her teeth. My memoir is about me and my own flaws and that provided enough material for 60,000 words. I have enough flaws for 600,000 so there may be sequels.
The novel I’m currently writing is about flawed families. But aren’t most novels, humorous or otherwise, about flawed people? I certainly don’t want to read novels about perfect ones unless they’re taught a very big lesson and have their lives horribly ruined in the meantime.
Ruth: I think probably most of it to be honest. Mummy, Mimi Stanhope, Liane Bloomfield, Isabella herself – they all have many flaws and it’s quite easy to make them funny and to put them in humorous situations.
10. One lovely thing about humorous writing is it can convey a serious message in a more palatable form. What do you hope your books will achieve in that direction?
Fran: My humorous writing explores some important and serious themes: families, growing up, the effects of childhood trauma, the power of friendship and kindness, the sweetness of forgiveness. That’s what I love about comedy. Even Tim Vine’s one-liners often have much to say about the human condition. That’s why we laugh: we recognise ourselves. Unfortunately.
Ruth: As I was writing the first Isabella, I quickly realised that I would be able to get some quite serious points across by using humour. Lots of reviewers mentioned the contrast between laughing one minute and crying the next, which made me happy.
The underlying story in Isabella is that of a sad little girl who just wants to be loved. That’s not a great blurb so humour helps the reader to form a good relationship with my monstrous creation and get to like her a bit (I hope). I’ve been amazed and delighted by the people who told me that they were touched by the storylines and moved by them. I ‘turned’ some resolute non-readers along the way, a joyous achievement.
Many thanks, Fran and Ruth, for sharing some fascinating insights into writing humour. Part 2 follows next week where the ladies discuss with me how they achieve the objective of ensuring their humour arises naturally from their characters. They also discuss marketing humour and the joys (and otherwise) of editing humour amongst other topics. To find out more about their wonderfully funny writing, please do check out the links below.
LINKS FOR FRAN HILL
LINKS FOR RUTH LEIGH
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