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Marissa Lingen

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Revising Humor [Nov. 11th, 2014|10:49 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: harvey_rrit
2014-11-12 04:45 am (UTC)
The only way to make humor work is to play it absolutely straight.


This is a tale from the Age Of Legends.

Long, long ago, when the tribe was very hungry, Big Hunter said, "I will go catch an elephant."

Even Big Hunter couldn't carry an elephant alone.
He brought Little Hunter with him.

Big Hunter and Little Hunter went a long way from the village,
and when they found signs of an elephant they followed them.

When they camped the first night,
they were careless about putting away their food.
Later on a monkey,
wandering by,
began looking through it.
The hunters woke, saw the monkey, and with great cries drove him away,
beating him with sticks,
and throwing rocks after him.

The monkey nursed bruises and a grudge,
and followed the hunters the next day.

Big Hunter and Little Hunter tracked the elephant all day.

When they camped the second night, the monkey came creeping into the camp when they were asleep,
and urinated on their spears.
Then he climbed the tree where they had hung their food and helped himself.

The hunters were furious when they found food missing.
They were even more upset when they found the elephant and threw their spears at it.
The urine had soaked in and dried, and the spears were warped and didn't fly straight.
The elephant was only wounded, and fled.
They figured out what was wrong when they recovered the spears, which fell out after a ways.

The third night they took turns standing watch over their food.
When Big Hunter woke Little Hunter for his turn, he discovered that while he had been watching the food,
the monkey had crept up next to the sleeping Little Hunter and defecated on Big Hunter's bedroll.

The next day, both tired and irritable, Big Hunter and Little Hunter followed the trail of the wounded elephant.
It was crazed with pain and was headed out toward the desert.
They were very hot and miserable and thirsty, and short of water.

The fourth night they put their bedrolls on either side of the food, and one slept while the other watched.
The monkey took this opportunity to creep up to where they had put their waterskins,
drank all the water it could hold,
and urinated on the waterskins.

The next day,
even shorter of water,
and much shorter of temper,
Big Hunter and Little Hunter tracked the elephant further into the desert.
There was a waterhole out there that it knew.

The fifth night both hunters stayed up, holding their knives and glaring wrathfully about.
The monkey looked over this situation,
decided that he'd had enough revenge,
and left.
The hunters knew nothing of this, and stayed on guard all night,
not looking away even when they heard terrible noises in the middle distance.

Big Hunter and Little Hunter followed the elephant's trail from the next dawn,
and got to the waterhole at midday.
Unbeknownst to them,
the terrible noise during the night had been the elephant dying in the waterhole;
he had had fever from his wounds,
and lay in the water for a while to cool himself,
then grew too weak to get up,
and drowned.
He had fouled the water when he died,
and his carcass had been lying wet in the sun all day,
and was spoiled.

Little Hunter looked at all the meat
that was no good to eat
and all the water
that was no good to drink,
and said,
"I hate that fucking monkey."
(Reply) (Thread)
From: diatryma
2014-11-12 09:11 pm (UTC)
Every once in a while you really make me want to watch Bull Durham.
(Reply) (Thread)