He sat down to write something for the day. He rolled a fresh sheet of typing paper into the typewriter. Then he sat back to look at it. It was a totally horrifying stretch of cold, blank nothingness. There was nothing there. It left him feeling completely and hopelessly alone.
How do you connect with that person who is going to pick up and read the final copy of this thing once it is finished? His brain hurt thinking about it.
He knew that he needed to get started. And he wanted to start with something colorful.
So, he typed a word; RED.
“Well, that’s a start, at least…” he said, talking foolishly to the inanimate typewriter. “But what do I really mean by saying RED?”
Well, of course, red means emotional things, anger, love, shed blood, tomato sauce on Chicago-style pizza…
…But how do you make an actual idea out of that? It needs to be stretched some and pulled a lot. Bent out of shape, maybe even smashed by a hammer.
The typewriter became concerned and alarmed at the mention of the hammer.
But the writer was only thinking about the hammer. And the typewriter didn’t read minds. Heck, it wasn’t even electric yet. It was a typewriter that the writer’s grandmother bought in the 1940s. And writer loved it because it reminded him of her. And it reminded him of her letting him type his very first story on it when he was six years old. He wrote a story about a skeleton chasing a dog. And when the skeleton caught up to the dog, the dog ate him. Because he was bones. It was a short story. Very short. Less than a page. Because grandma only had one page of typing paper left on her desk.
And the story wasn’t red. So, why was he even thinking about it now?
Well, it was read. By his grandmother. And she laughed.
And he hadn’t thought about it until right now. But it was the moment he knew he wanted to be a writer some day.
And, so… Right now… This very moment… He realized… The real story is ready to begin,
I write novels that I think of as being basically humorous. But I have had readers ask of me after reading them, “What the hell makes you think these stories are funny?”
And besides the fact that they are invoking the name of the Norse goddess of the underworld, they do have a point.
My stories have unsavory things in them. I have stories where the plot is driven by the conflicts caused by physical and emotional child abuse, a pornographer who becomes a murderer when denied the opportunity to make kiddie porn, a father abandoning his wife and daughter through suicide, fools causing others to freeze to death in a blizzard, murderous robot hit-men, space pirates that kill a quarter of the population of a high-population planet, and lizard people from outer space that eat human flesh and each other. (Of course, one could argue the last few things are dark humor created by gross exaggeration and random bizarre details.)
But not everything in a comedy is a laugh line. I would argue that a perfect example of a comic novel with dark things in it is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That novel begins with a slave running away from a kind mistress because he is to be sold away from his family., and a boy who narrowly escapes death by the rages of his drunken father and runs away to protect not only himself, but the kind widow who took him in after the events of the previous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
In the course of the novel Huck sees his young friend, Buck Grangerford, killed during a pointless family feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. He comes upon the body lying in a creek, and no laughter is generated by the scene.
Further, two snaky old con men, the King and the Duke, try to steal away everything from three girls, newly orphaned, by posing as two uncles come to take them back home to England. Huck is forced to aid them as his friend Jim is held hostage and threatened with a return to slavery. There is plenty to laugh at, but not until Huck manages to do the right thing and commit the King and the Duke to their well-earned tar and feathers.
Comedies, I would argue, have to have conflict, and some of the best comedies have terrible things in them that the characters you learn to love and laugh with have to overcome. It is in overcoming hard things with love and laughter that a comedy is made different than a tragedy. The comedy does not depend on the laugh lines. In fact, some of the hardest-hitting tragedies have laughter scattered throughout.
I am not trying to educate you. I am merely offering excuses for why I call my stories humor when they often horrify and upset readers. (How dare he write about naked people!!!) But if you learned something, I won’t be terribly disappointed.
There is considerable evidence that I am not a totally normal human being, or as Danny Murphy used to say “A normal human bean”. Danny is, by the way, a character in several of my novels, including Snow Babies and When the Captain Came Calling. He did the complete Circle Streak (running around the entire high school campus buck naked in a huge and chilly circle) more than once. And he was based entirely on one of my high school classmates and friends. That bird-walk about streaking is an example of the kind of quirks I am guilty of when I am being totally not-normal. I am now entirely off topic and must pull it back to defend myself by saying, “Nobody else is a totally normal human bean either!”
Among my many quirks and oddities is my love of baseball and slavish dedication to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball club. My favorite World Series memories are from 1934, 22 years before I was born. Dizzy Dean was a 30-game winner pitching for the Cardinals. Joe “Ducky” Medwick was their star hitter, and in the 6th inning he hit a triple and slid hard into the third baseman with his cleats up (a trick learned from former Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb) and the Tiger fans lost their cool in a big way (they were behind 9-0 at the time in the deciding 7th game). They began throwing things at Joe as he tried to play left field. He nearly missed an easy fly ball because somebody threw an orange and almost hit his glove. It is the only time in baseball history that a baseball commissioner had to eject a player from a World Series game for his own protection. (Needless to say, I love to hate the Tigers.)
I also love all the other ten times the Cardinals have won the Series, and I am proud of the eight times they nearly won besides.
Another of my odd quirks is a love of nudity in spite of my skin condition that prevents me from comfortably being a nudist. I first encountered nudism in a clothing-optional apartment complex where my girlfriend’s sister lived in Austin. I went from being shocked almost to apoplexy, to my girlfriend’s overwhelming amusement, to rejecting a chance to try nudism in the late 80’s, to actually spending a day at a Texas nudist park in 2017, and really enjoying the experience. My children are mortified.
And this quirk affects my fiction. I have some characters in a few of my stories based specifically on nudists I have known. I also wrote an entire novel, A Field Guide to Fauns, about a boy learning to live with his father and step-mother in a residential nudist park. Additionally, I have irrationally tried to use the word “penis” in every novel I have written. I only failed to do so when some editors insisted on its removal. So, I believe I may be 12 for 16 on that score.
But this particular quirk, no matter how totally embarrassing my children find it, is not a sexual perversion. I don’t write porn. And, as a survival matter after being sexually assaulted as a child, my nudity fixation has helped me to accept that I am not evil and unworthy when I am naked. My attacker had me convinced otherwise for more than twenty years.
I am also an aficionado of science fiction, classical music, and a faith that tells me rabbits make better people than people do.
My books are divided, for the most part, into Cantos instead of Chapters. This is because of my love for Classical Music and my dedication to the weird notion that novels should be more like epic poetry. Not necessarily written in verse, though if I ever get to write Music in the Forest, that one is written as poetry.
But paragraphs need to be written as purely poetically as perfect white pearls are poetically pearly.
But as poetry, my tendency towards comedy rather than drama or tragedy, leads me to write purple paisley prose (like all this p-word nonsense) which makes my paragraphs more Scherzo than Nocturne, Sonata, or Symphony.
While researching alien invasions for the novel Catch a Falling Star, the story of when aliens from deep space tried to invade Iowa, I came across internet information that ignited another quirky passion of mine, studying conspiracy theories. And it isn’t all just a plot to embarrass my children in front of people we know in real life. Although that is a definite side benefit. But conspiracies are an excellent source material for making humor. Comedy gold. Knowing who people like Alex Jones, David Icke, and Jesse Ventura are, gives me not only easily ridiculed personalities to make fun of, but also windows into thinking habits that may or may not turn up some real anomalies in the world of science and so-called historical fact. For instance, I can credibly argue that there is more to the Roswell Crash story than the government is willing to tell us about, and Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill JFK by himself, if at all.
And besides, my boyhood friend Robert was part of my small-town gang when we fought off the alien invasion in the 60’s, and he told me on Facebook that he remembered when that happened. Good old Bobby. He really likes beer and alcohol.
And I could go on like this for an entire book’s worth of silly jabber. But this post has to end for today. This blog, after all, isn’t the only quirky and crazy thing I have to attend to.
Like any Indie writer who has had enough of paying publishers to publish my work, any tiny bit of success is immediately seized upon and cherished, and immediately all goes into my head to swell the ego and make me strut like a rooster in the barnyard who doesn’t realize the next step for him is either the stew-pot or the oven.
I have read enough Indie books to realize that a vast majority of them are written by strutting roosters that, once their head is removed, still won’t realize that they are not the greatest writer since Hemingway and Faulkner. (They can’t compare themselves to Donald Barthelme, or James Thurber, or J.D. Salinger because most of them have never heard of those writers, let alone read anything like City Life, My Life and Hard Times, or Franny andZooey.) I confess… At least I know I am no Hemingway or Faulkner. But I continue to protect my delusion that I am a good writer of young adult novels.
But this week I got more sugar pills for the ego in the form of reviews and evidence that people are actually reading my books.
My teacher story, Magical Miss Morgan got read at least twice on Amazon Prime, one of those yielding another 4-star review. And A Field Guide to Fauns got its first review, a 5-star review, that can be seen here;http://tvhost.co.uk/april-and-may-reading
That review is written by a fellow author whose novels also contain nudist characters like the Field Guide does.
So, a little bit of success like that makes the old heart keep pumping with hope. But I am still a long way from any kind of financial proof or critical acclaim sort of proof that I am a successful writer. Any notions of success are still all in my head. And that’s where they really ought to be. After all, it is only my belief that my writing is worth doing that will cause any more of it to happen. And more of it should happen. Otherwise my head might explode. And wouldn’t that be a terrible mess?
My experience of the works of Kurt Vonnegut is limited to the reading of three books; Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. But it was enough to make me love him and use him as a shaper of my soul.
I deeply apologize for the fact that even though he only wrote 14 books and a bunch of short stories, I have not read everything I could get my hands on by Kurt. Three novels and one short story (Harrison Bergeron) is not really enough to compare to the many, many things that I have read by Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Louis L’Amour, and Michael Crichton. I can’t begin to count how many books of each of those four I have read and reread. But it is enough that I read those three novels and have a lifelong regret of never buying and reading Slapstick when I had the chance. Vonnegut writes black humor. The ideas are painful, and burn away flesh from your personal body of being. And at the same time, you cannot help but laugh at the pure, clean, horrifying truths his ridiculous stories reveal.
If, in the course of telling a story, you can put the sublime, the ridiculous, and the horrendous side by side, and make the reader see how they actually fit together, then you can write like Vonnegut.
Let me give you three quick and dirty book reports of the Vonnegut I have read in the order I have read them;
I read Cat’s Cradle in college. I was young and idealistic at the time, foolishly convinced I could be a great writer and cartoonist who could use my work to change mankind for the better.
In the book, Dr. Felix Hoenikker (a fictionalized co-creator of the atomic bomb) is obsessively re-stacking cannonballs in the town square in pursuit of a new way to align water molecules that will yield ice that does not melt at room temperature. Much as he did with the A-bomb, Hoenikker invents a world-ending science-thing without any thought for the possible consequences. The narrator of the novel is trying to write a humanizing biography of the scientist, and comes to observe the inevitable destruction of the whole world when the oceans freeze into Ice-9, the un-meltable ice crystal. Before the world ends, the narrator spends time on the fictional Carribean island of San Lorenzo where he learns the fictional religion known as Bokononism, and learns to make love to a beautiful woman by pressing bare feet together sole to sole. It is a nihilistic picture of what humans are really like more savagely bleak than any portrayal Monte Python’s Flying Circus ever did on TV.
Needless to say, my ideals were eventually shattered and my faith in the world shaken.
I read Breakfast of Champions after I had been teaching long enough to buy my own house, be newly married, and a father to one son. It was probably the worst time of life to be reading a book so cynical, yet true.
In this story, the author Kilgore Trout, much published but mostly unknown, is headed to Midland City to deliver a keynote address at an arts festival. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy business man who owns a lot of Midland City real-estate. Trout gives Hoover a book (supposedly a message from the creator of the universe) to read that suggests that all people (except for the reader of the book… meaning Hoover) are machines with no free will. Hoover takes the message to heart and tries to set the machines free by breaking them, beating up his son, his lover, and nine other people before being taken into custody.
The book contains devastating themes of suicide, free will, and social and economic cruelty. It makes you sincerely reflect on your own cog-in-the-machine reality.
Slaughterhouse Five is a book I bought and read when I missed my chance to buy Slapstick and needed something to take home from HalfPrice Books to make me feel better about what I missed. (Of the five books I had intended to buy that day, none were still on the shelves in spite of the fact that they had been there the week before.) It was fortuitous. This proved to be the best novel I had ever read by Vonnegut.
Like most of his work, the story of Billy Pilgrim is a fractured mosaic of small story pieces not presented in chronological order. It details Billy’s safe, ordinary marriage to a wife who gives him two children, but it is ironically cluttered with death, accidents, being stalked by an assassin, and being kidnapped by aliens. It also details his experiences in World War II where he is captured by the Germans, held prisoner in Dresden, kept in an underground slaughterhouse, and ironically survives the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Further, it details his time as a zoo exhibit on the alien planet of Tralfamadore.
It explores the themes of depression, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and anti-war sentiment. Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing, so real-life experiences fill the book with gravitas that it might not otherwise possess. Whether the author was ever kidnapped by aliens or not, I cannot say.
But Kurt Vonnegut’s desire to be a writer and portray himself as a writer in the character of Kilgore Trout, and even as himself in his work, has an awful lot to do with my desire to be a writer myself. Dark, pithy wisdom is his thing. But that wisdom, having been wrung from the darkness is all the more brightly lit because of that wringing. It is hard to read, but not hard to love.
Once again I am running a free book promotion. Fools and Their Toys is a comedy YA novel about an autistic man who learns to communicate only through a Zebra sock puppet that he uses in his ventriloquist’s act. But even though there are a lot of comedy moments about this fool, his favorite toy, and his child-friends, it is also a murder mystery as the Teddy Bear Killer continues to prey upon young boys. There are some extremely un-funny things in this tale, a story narrated by the zebra sock puppet through his unique point of view. There are numerous emotional responses I am trying to get beyond mere laughter. Sadness, grief, fear, horror, revulsion, doubt, and bewilderment are all supposed to be represented here. And this story does not unfold in sequential time order, Murray the ventriloquist’s mind does not work like that.
And that is what leads to today’s basic topic; What does it mean to claim you are a humor writer?
I have also just completed A Field Guide to Fauns. This is a novel about nudists, so there are a lot of naked people in it. The main character, who is the narrator, is a fifteen-year-old boy who is trying to recover from both a suicide attempt and the loss of the home he grew up in. He comes to live with his father and his stepmother, along with two twin stepsisters in their permanent home within the confines of a nudist park. It is a strange balance of humor, psychological horror, and melancholy.
So, I guess to understand the writing of humorous fiction the way I understand it, you have to accept the notion, “Humorous fiction is not always funny… at least, not on every single page.”
You can find precedent for that in the works of great humorist fiction writers. As funny, quirky, and essentially British as Charles Dickens is, you have to admit, there are pretty dark things happening in some of his greatest books. Oliver Twist has the childish adventures of the Artful Dodger side by side with the murderer Bill Sykes. David Copperfield contains the antics of Wilkins Micawber and the simple Mr. Dick contrasted to the evil of Murdstone, David’s stepfather, and the slimy machinations of Uriah Heep. Even his greatest masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, has its clowns like Jerry Cruncher, the grave robber, and Miss Pross. the governess/pugilist, and its villains like the Marquis de Evremondes, the heartless aristocrat, and Madame DeFarge, the even more heartless revolutionary.
The illustration above was the last bit of revision and editing added to A Field Guide to Fauns. It is now ready to be self-published. My writing time today, after posting this, will be devoted to publishing this book. So, soon you will be able to see what I mean about humor having its dark side.
On the face of it, a lot of what I am writing stories about is nonsense. Snow Babies is about a town coming together to survive a blizzard populated by naked children made of ice who select people to freeze to death and possibly become snow babies themselves in the afterlife. Fools and their Toys is a story told by a ventriloquist’s dummy in the form of a zebra sock puppet. Clowns from the world of dreams (specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands) come to a small Iowa town to teach children how to share their dreams and face death and grieving in the novel Sing Sad Songs. You get the idea. I am a surrealist story-teller who uses the melting-clocks method of presenting my ideas about love and life and laughter.
And I have this weird thing about nakedness too. I mean, some of my characters are practicing, unabashed nudists. While others, though not comfortable with social nudity, find themselves facing significant life events naked and completely vulnerable. Of course, some of this stems from myself being the victim of a sexual assault at the age of ten. Themes about overcoming fears about sex and being taken advantage of are prominent in my fiction. Much in the same way that Roald Dahl often wrote about defying the authority of those in charge who mishandle their authority. or Charles Dickens often wrote about the soul-crushing nature of child poverty and the effects it has on the development of people and their character. These writers, like me, share obsessions based on their own childhood experiences. And they do it for the same reasons I do it.
But the kind of story a piece of fiction is, isn’t itself what makes the story valuable to both reader and writer. It isn’t the weirdness or the colorful insanity of a piece of surrealist literature that is the worthwhile point of it all. It isn’t even the teachable moments bound up in every theme or literary device that gives the story its meaning. No, it is the act of creating the story that takes the very real events in life and weaves them into a vehicle of understanding, peace of mind, and epiphany about everything that makes it valuable to the life of the writer. And, depending on how it is received by the reader, it can offer the very same things to many of them.
From my mind to your mind… my words to your heart… therein lies the real value of a story.
I have looked deeply and longingly at my own writing time and again trying to determine what is good and what is poorly done and what is the best that I have written. How does one examine what is good? What are the standards that you must meet?
I had a writing teacher who was teaching a class in fiction writing and said to us, “You write fiction to create that special bittersweet something, that je ne sais quoi, that you need in order to come to terms with reality. Everything necessary to say something that satisfies a nameless desire.” I wish I remembered his name so I could credit him with having said that wise thing. Or, at any rate, I wish I could remember the name of the wise guy that he was quoting.
So, basically I am trying to capture in prose something that I have no idea what it is, but both you and I will know it if we see it. Easy-peasy, right?
Good fiction that I have read and liked makes me feel something. If it is truly literary quality, like the novels of Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, and Mark Twain, it will make me both laugh and cry. Funny things balanced by things that hurt to know and make you weep for characters that you have come to love. If it is a downer kind of novel, as some very good bits of science fiction and horror fiction are, it will make you laugh a little, cry a little, and think a lot; think with dread, or despair, or even impossible hope. Steven King, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury are good examples of this.
I am grappling with how you do that. I am not fool enough to think I am some sort of literary great. I am a school teacher writing stories for school children, stories I wanted to hear when I was a kid. Stories of good versus evil, good people coming together in the face of chaos. Heroes, villains, and clowns being heroic, villainous, or foolish. And themes that both warm and chill your little blue heart.
. So, what can I do besides keep on writing and keep on trying and keep on begging people, fools, and children to try reading my writing because they will like it, even if it is the least best thing I have written?
The question came up on Twitter. “What things aren’t safe to write about in a Young Adult novel?”
I have personally never questioned myself about that before. The writer asking for input was writing something science-fiction-y about a telepath using telepathy to torture someone. He was apparently worried that a younger audience would be traumatized by that.
Really? Anyone who can ask that has never spent much time talking to young readers.
I base my answer on over thirty years of trying to get kids to read things of literary quality. My very first year of teaching a male student stood up when the literature books were passed out and announced, “I don’t do literature!”
“Really, Ernie? You are going to lay that challenge before me?”
We slogged through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that year, using and reusing 20 paperback copies of the novel purchased with my own money. Ernie maybe didn’t like it. But he did literature.
And I went on a thirty-four year quest to find out what literature kids really would do and what literature kids really neededto do.
Here’s a tiny bit of wisdom from Mickey’s small brain and comparatively large experience; Kids are not traumatized by literature in any form. Kids are traumatized by life. They need literature to cope with trauma.
Kids want to read about things that they fear. A book like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has some graphic violence in it and a war against faceless aliens, but it does an excellent job of teaching how to empathize as well as fight against bullies, and it helps them grapple with the notion that the enemy is never clearly the thing that you thought it was to begin with.
Kids want to read the truth about subjects like love and sex. They are not looking for pornography in YA novels. They get that elsewhere and know a lot more about it than I do. They want to think about what is right and how you deal with things like teen pregnancy, abortion, matters of consent vs. rape and molestation. Judy Blume started being objectively honest with kids about topics like puberty and sex back in the 60’s with books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Iggie’s House.
If you are writing for young adults, middle grade and high school kids, even kids 5th Grade and below who are high-level readers, it is more important to worry about writing well and writing honestly than it is to worry about whether they can handle the topics and trauma that you wish to present. Write from the heart and write well.
I can honestly say I know these things I have said are true about young readers from having read to them, read with them, and even taught them to read. As an author, my opinion is worth diddly-squoot since I have hardly sold any books, and no kids I know have read them (except for two of my nieces, both of whom are pretty weird and nerdy just like me.)