First: CONGRATULATIONS to all you NaNoWriMo’s! Double kudos to those who met your goal. But whether you made it or not, the effort is a big deal. A lot of back patting is called for.
And I bet you're relieved it’s over--and maybe feeling a little let-down, too . But, hey, there’s still all that revising to do. In recent posts I’ve gotten questions about revision, and I’ve referred people to my post on the topic from 11/18/09. If you have questions that I didn’t cover there, please ask.
Second: A reminder about my signings in Connecticut on Saturday, details on the website. If you’re in the area, I hope you come.
Third: With the glow of poetry school still hanging over me, I want to say something about how poetry affects my prose. Chiefly, it makes me more aware of the sound of my words as I write. For example, in the last sentence I happened to write the alliterative makes me more. (Alliteration: identical initial consonant sounds or double consonant sounds, like stay still. Write well isn’t alliterative, even though both words start with w’s, and cautious king is, even though one word starts with a c and the other with a k. It's the sound that counts.) In the example, makes me more, I didn’t alliterate intentionally; it just came out that way, but I could have changed the wording to increased my awareness. Same meaning but not as appealing to me (in a very minor way).
Same thing with assonance, similar vowel sounds, like keep and sweet. Also words that happen to rhyme. I notice them more nowadays. Sometimes I add in alliteration or assonance, and sometimes I take it out. In prose, I often find it annoying when I accidentally rhyme, so I revise and remove.
Here’s a prompt: Pick a paragraph of your current story, any long paragraph, not dialogue. Underline the alliterations, the assonances, the rhymes. See if you can create more of each by changing words. Do you like the result better or less well? There’s no right or wrong answer. You decide. The advantage is just more consciousness as you write.
I also recommend reading poetry, because poetry is wonderful, and you can learn a lot about language from it. I get a daily poetry fix from Writers Almanac, http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/. As a subscriber, a poem arrives in my email every morning, along with a short narrative of major historical events of the day. I click listen and read the poem along with Garrison Keillor’s resonant voice.
Now for today’s topic. On July 25, 2010, Rose wrote... How does a writer decide whether to make a story mainly funny or mainly serious? I've been writing a story that I saw as humorous, but it's been getting very serious already, and I'm not sure if this is a bad thing. If so, can someone help? My tastes naturally tend towards the dramatic, though, so it's probably just that. . .
Often the decision is made for the writer, who is either a writer of humor or of serious fiction. One or the other usually comes naturally, no decision involved.
Not that it’s necessarily so cut and dried as that. Serious drama can have funny moments, hysterical ones, even, and funny stories can turn temporarily dark or be uniformly dark and funny. Serious writers can pull off comedy occasionally, and humorists can write tragedy once in a while. But I think most writers know which camp they find themselves in.
I generally prefer funny. I’d rather read funny and write funny, and I think humor isn’t taken, er, seriously enough as literature. It’s just as hard, maybe harder, to write good light as to write good heavy. I frequently look for a bit of levity to add to my stories. Doing so just makes me happy.
Some of my books are more serious than others. Ever is the most somber book I’ve written, but even it has funny moments. And after I finished it I had to escape to something lighter. A Tale of Two Castles is lighthearted. The sequel I'm working on now is more serious, so I may cycle back and forth.
Of course subject matter helps determine whether or not a story is serious. I challenge the funniest person on earth to write a comedy about the abuse of dogs. If this is your subject, you probably have to be serious.
But even dire topics can be spoofed. Think of disaster movies. And, while dog abuse may be off limits, pet abuse probably isn’t. For example, you might write about a character who keeps pet cockroaches and isn't nice to them. The reader wouldn’t know which side to sympathize with.
There are also topics that most lend themselves to comedy. One of my students once wrote a story about toe jam. Tragedy and toe jam do not mix, or do not mix easily.
And there are many topics that can go either way. Romance, friendship, coming of age all leap to mind.
Whichever you’ve chosen, you can nudge it temporarily in one direction or the other. Imagine even a hospital scene. Your main character’s mother has something terminal. A clueless doctor comes in and says all the wrong things, maybe putting a weird spin on a conversation that was just taking place. The dying continues, but the characters have laughed and the reader has smiled. Or you can make the scene funny by going overboard with the sadness, intense lugubriousness, so over the top that the characters notice and the tragedy lifts for a moment.
Comedy can tip into drama too. Suppose Essie has given her best friend Riva a joke gift of hand puppets. They’re in Riva’s bedroom, acting out the behavior of a tyrannical teacher, having a fine time, being clever and funny until Riva has the teacher puppet say something hurtful to Essie that Riva has wanted to say. The remark goes back to an old incident that’s been festering. In a single line of dialogue the story's mood shifts. It may shift back just as quickly in a page or two, but for the moment the reader has stopped laughing.
Even when stories stay funny they can have serious meaning. Think of Mark Twain, one of my favorites. His Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for instance, is wonderfully humorous and touching at the same time. Think of Jane Austen, one of the funniest writers ever, in my opinion, who was writing not only about finding love, but also about finding a life. Think of your own examples.
Here’s a prompt: Write about a camping trip. Can be a family trip, a scout troupe, a gathering of elves, whatever. In as many pages as you need, take it from humor to drama, back to humor, back to drama. End on whichever you like. Do the same for a bank robbery. Now do it - aaa! - for an airplane crash. Don’t worry about being ridiculous. Go for it!
Have fun and save what you write!