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Month: April, 2015

Your Best Will Always Change

Probably the most frustrating aspect of writing is following up on an easy story. Chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you soon will. That story where the research was a pleasure, your characters eloquent and obliging, and the first draft needed little improvement. You never know when these ‘gifts’ are going to occur, or how to summon them into being, so you just enjoy it and keep writing.

Only your next story isn’t a gift. You have to drag it onto the page. Characters that were warm and three-dimensional are now cut out of a cornflake packet. You’re so baffled and bored by the research that you end up spending four hours on a single paragraph’s detail. And the most unpleasant part? You need to keep going. If you stop in the midst of all this, even for a moment, then the truth will catch up to you – you’ve lost it. Whatever divine intervention or lucky accident that enables you to write is no more. Logically you know this isn’t true. Every writer has bad days, days where all you have are bad words; the good ones stuck between your teeth like popcorn kernels. Usually you just work through that, but when it follows something that showed you how good you can be? That’s another level of pain.

My biggest fear is that I only have so much. There are a finite amount of good scenes, exciting moments, and funny remarks stored in my knowledge box. It’s the kind of fear that leads to bad habits like squirreling away a piece of great dialogue, saving it for your next piece because this one has already had its quota. The truth is that writers do draw from a well, and finding out what replenishes your well is vital to future scribblings. Sometimes we have an uninterrupted connection to that well, for who knows what reason, and it’s easy to drain it dry. Trying to deny that, trying to portion out your best writing, is like trying to hold back a river with your hands. If your work was of a consistent, unwavering quality, then you’d be one of many writers in the neighbourhood. What often stops people from writing isn’t that they lack talent, but that they’ve sampled how monotonous it can be to create something coherent with that talent.

Is there an amount of self-delusion here? You bet. A less cynical person might call it faith. Personally, I try to remind myself that some bad writing is a good sign. It means you’re still paying attention. Self-publishing has a bad rap because too many of those writers think they’re pretty great. We all get those ‘Yeah baby!’ moments now and then, of course, but that’s usually just before ‘Oh God, what have I wrought?’ That kind of mind-set may not feel best to the writer, but it leads to better product for their reader.

What Simpsons Censorship Taught Me About Comedy Writing

 

One of my favourite Simpsons moments is from the episode “Bart the Fink”, where Krusty the Clown’s tax evasion is discovered. They call his Banker, a fat man in a panama suit, who gives a rich chuckle before answering ‘I’m sorry, I can’t disclose any information about that customer’s secret, illegal account.’ He then puts the phone down with a smile. Except that wasn’t the whole scene. I saw it a few years later and realised they’d censored the original, only censorship had actually improved the joke. In the non-censored version, the Banker then says ‘Oh crap, I shouldn’t have told them it’s a secret’, ‘Oh crap, I certainly shouldn’t have told them it was illegal’, before sagging back in his seat and saying ‘Ugh, it’s too hot today.’ This turned something smart and succinct into a joke that tried to explain itself, and in so doing killed off a good deal of the humour.

This dilemma certainly isn’t limited to comedy writing. Adverbs are known as the beginner’s curse because they betray a lack of confidence, a need to spell it all out which can lead to horrifying clunkiness like ‘The impact twisted his arm painfully.’ When you have a funny moment, or a dramatic/exciting one, it’s easy to start dragging your feet because you want to squeeze out all that potential. Comedy writing is quite new to me with my Pumblesmythe series, but I felt the aforementioned temptation right away. Often, though, it’s best to let that moment play out and move on. Doing anything else is a sign of fear: fear you won’t come up with anything as good, fear that once you leave this glorious oasis then it’ll be back to the plod plod prose.

Are there exceptions? Of course, and those fit very well with the advice that ‘Once you know what the rules are, you can break them.’ Take the South Park “Imaginationland” episodes – in particular the mayor’s “Imagination” song. Literally him just singing ‘Imagination!’ repeatedly. Well-judged because it’s a little funny at first, becomes annoying, then breaks through and is funny again. South Park in general has a reputation for never shirking the chance to follow any joke or idea right down to the knuckle. That kind of comedy writing takes courage as well as experience, because it’s not always going to pay off. Running jokes are another: frequent enough to qualify, but not so fast and familiar that the reader gets sick of them.

It’s easy to dismiss the comedy writer’s worry of ‘Is this funny?’ as a trifling one next to ‘Is this exciting/frightening/upsetting?’ but the anxiety and self-doubt is just as real. For me, seeing that uncensored episode was a huge relief, as there was a time when I thought the Simpsons’ writers could do no wrong. These days I look to the creator of “Community”, Dan Harmon, for my fears and doubts. How the hell is that man so funny?