Back in October of 2021, I recorded a performance of my 2014 flash horror story “Your Hand in Mine, We’ll Be All Right” for Flash Fiction Online — it’s only recently that I remembered that I didn’t actually announce it on my own dang site. As we head into spooky season, though, I thought I’d toss up a link– enjoy!
(Some handy trigger warnings: body horror, self-harm, mutilation, fetal distress, and my questionable acting ability.)
It is sometimes said that you can’t teach someone how to write comedy. I think that’s a bit silly, though — I think it’s more accurate that you can’t teach someone how to write something universally funny, because humor is tied so closely to our hindbrain animal limbic system electrical zoomies that what each of us find funny is deeply personal, tied to our experiences and preferences and whatever the monkey is screaming in the back of our heads.
In other words, you could equally say that you can’t teach someone how to write a universally hot sex scene, or a universally scary horror scene. You can, however, write something you find funny (or hot or scary or all three, go for it, I’m not your boss). And in that case, while you won’t hit everyone’s funny bone, you’ll definitely get somebody — you’re your own proof of concept.
And once you accept that, then– sure, you can be taught how to write comedy. It’s all practice, study, and:
A Few Handy Hacks (for Writing Humor)
1. Having a “straight man” and a “comic”, a’la the traditional double act, actually works. Feel free to switch who’s who as need requires.
2. Having a good rhythm – and strategically breaking that rhythm – is important. Listening to a good stand-up comic’s monologue will demonstrate that, or reading any good comic writer’s work. The rhythm catches the reader, and the break makes them laugh.
3. Having mostly funny stuff and then tossing in a dollop of real-life consequences or angst will make the funny stuff funnier and the real stuff realer.
4. Lead the reader to expect one line of dialogue because of circumstance or internal monologue, and then give them a different (preferably banal or off-topic) one. Bait and switch.
5. I sometimes like to fuck around with punctuation and “um”s and stuff, because I think that’s hilarious, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. “What. Um. Yes. I mean. What?” is guaranteed to make me giggle, is what I’m saying.
6. Heighten humorous reality by being a bit more fun with description and action. Don’t just have your character smile at annoying person’s misfortune – have them on the floor beneath the conference room table, gibbering gleefully and throwing in random unhelpful comments. Give them some adverbs. Later, do a call back and have them remove some errant carpet fuzz.
7. Typically, the word “said” is all you really needed to get by in dialogue, when you need a dialogue tag at all. Comic fiction is one of the places where you can get a bit more frisky if you so wish. (Particularly when paired with bait-and-switch, as in, “Basil leaned over and wrapped his arm comfortingly around Ted’s shoulders. He gave a quick squeeze and, in tones of kindest understanding, murmured, ‘You absolute tit.'”)
8. Never underestimate the power of an amusing and unexpected prop, the funnyman’s version of Chekov’s shotgun. Georgette Heyer accomplished great things with a strategically placed baby duck.
9. There’s something really satisfying about a super long sentence followed by a really short one. Or a very long paragraph followed by a very short one. Or a section of any sort of decent length followed by an absolutely minuscule one that consists of nothing but a joke. Somehow that’s just really funny.
10. List humor. Humans just get a real buzz out of lists that get progressively sillier (or even just lists of quite normal things, but extended beyond what could be considered reasonable. Monty Python did a lot of this.) The internet has unfortunately discovered this as well, but it still works. I could get into why, but, unfortunately, I won’t.
I’m stretching my wings, folks, and taking 20+ years of experience writing, editing, and publishing — not to mention three-odd years’ worth of podcast hosting — to the classroom. This spring I’ll be teaching a practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to writing short fiction at Assabet After Dark, the largest adult continuing education program in metrowest Massachusetts.
From the catalogue:
Writing Short Fiction
Short fiction is an easy medium to attempt, a difficult one to master. We will focus on a practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to writing short fiction in multiple genres. You will discover different narrative techniques, tips for effective dialogue, plotting a short story versus plotting a novel, and how to submit your work and where. You will workshop your story one-on-one with the instructor, with the goal of having a completed, ready-to-submit short story by the end of the course.
It’s six classes, one a week in 2-hour blocks every Tuesday from March 8 to April 12. The only cost is the course fee, which I haggled down to $85 to keep the cost of entry low for those who might otherwise not be able to afford writing classes. Representative demos of my approach to writing (both the art and the commerce thereof) can be found on my blog post about How to Sell Your Fiction, my appearances at conferences, or my co-hosting gig on the No Story Is Sacred podcast.
But! I recognize that not everybody is in or around Massachusetts, or would feel comfortable with in-person teaching right now. (VERY fair.) So here’s the skinny — I’m offering two options to people who want to be part of this, regardless of where you are in the world.
Option 1 – In Person: This is an open class (though spaces are limited — ETA 2/11/22: And is now using a waitlist!). If you’re in Massachusetts and want to make the drive, you can register to attend the “live” course, whether that ends up being in person or over Zoom. Registering for the in-person course gets you access to:
12 hours of dedicated live teaching
One-on-one short-story workshopping and support with me
A course site with resources and copies of the presentations for later review
Access to a dedicated Discord server to talk over assignments, ping me and others for help, and generally build a writing community for those who may not have had one previously
Option 2 – Online-Only: For those who still want to be part of a community and learn along with others in an online setting, I’m creating a special role in this class’s Discord server called “Virtual Student”. You’d be locked out of the in-person class channels, but everything else will be open for you, including:
Workshop-versions of future classes
Crowd-sourced resources, open submission calls, and general support
And that’s it! This is a new direction for me, but one I’m very excited about. So, brass tacks:
‣ Interested in the “Writing Short Fiction” course?Space is limited (ETA 2/11/22: And is now using a waitlist), but click here to register.
‣ Interested in the online-only server access?ETA: 2/25/22:Visit my Gumroad store and for $10 you can get one of the limited invite links to join the server! There’s a max of 10 virtual-student invites available in this registration round — if you miss it, sign up for the Irregular Newsletter to hear when I reopen the server again.
Want to be a Virtual Student on the Writing with Katherine Crighton Discord server? Click here 👉
Let’s see if I can get the fine print here right on the first try and with minimal fuss:
The single $10 fee is to help control server growth and prevent a rolling bill like with Patreon or a drive-by trolling from all but the most dedicated.
If maintenance of the server ever becomes onerous, I’ll either: 1. close registrations; 2. jack up the access fee for future virtual students; or 3. do something really wild, like hire a moderator or something.
Have an idea for classes or talks you’d like to see, or other topics you’d like me to address? Drop me a line and I’ll add it to the list!
…and other sentences that are easier to say than they are to accomplish. But on the other hand: it’s also not hard to sell your fiction, not in this golden age1 of short fiction publishing. At the end of the day, there are a lot of places that can publish your fiction… depending on what kind of market you’re willing to let publish you.
What do you really want to accomplish with your fiction? Figure that out now — here are a few potential options:
Get paid at a professional rate
Get paid anything
Appear in prestigious markets
Get a publishing credit
Have people read my work2
If all you want is to have people read your work? My friend, there are plenty of places to post for free, such as Wattpad and Archive of Our Own. You can even self-publish fairly easily and likewise for free through a variety of distributors like Lulu, Smashwords, or Amazon. If all you want is to reach the masses, the masses are out there waiting for you.
Likewise, if you want just a writing credit, any credit at all, from someone other than yourself– there are markets out there that can’t afford to pay their writers but are hungry for content.3 If it seems scary to approach the big-name mags, or if you’re trying to get into the swing of writing and submitting fiction regularly, these can be good places to send your work. You might even get on the ground floor of an up-and-coming wunderkind, or at the very least a place that promotes you well and is great to work with.
Now, me, I value getting paid at a professional rate, followed by appearing in prestigious markets, followed by getting paid anything. That means that for me, I’m likely to prioritize sending my finished fiction out to the big-name magazines first, though I keep an eye on the smaller zines that don’t pay particularly well (or at all), but which have a strong editorial eye and are well-respected by the field.4 If I can’t make it to one of the big-names, or a well-paying anthology, then I trunk the story for later — but that’s because I know what I value. Figure out what you value, and you’ll have a game plan for the next steps.
2You’ll note that none of those are “become hugely famous” — that’s not a goal that you can predict or easily reach. The others are.
3But beware the markets that can’t afford to pay you but instead require that you pay them, as well as ones that request you sign predatory contracts. Some good reading on this topic: John Scalzi’s post “Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing,” and SFWA’s entire Contracts information page.
4How can you tell if a smaller zine is worth watching? Check where “best of the year” stories are coming from, as well as ones that are nominated for awards. You might find markets that don’t pay but that are clearly worth shooting for.
Get Thee a Spreadsheet
I recognize that this makes me a pencil-pushing square, but– a spreadsheet keeps you sane and keeps you focused on your fiction instead of your submission queue. The more ways you can delegate or automate the business side of creative work? THE BETTER.5
Here’s a dead simple spreadsheet to get you started — first, open up your favorite spreadsheet program or pull out your Grandpa’s accounting ledger, and label the columns of the top row like so:
Title of your story
Name of market
Date you sent it out
Date you heard back
Make the assumption now that you will definitely get rejected from the majority of places you send each story out to. Keep track of the dates, and the peculiarities of each market. Do they say not to contact them until six months have passed? Put a note to yourself in the note column about that, and schedule a reminder with your favorite reminder thingy. Did they reject you, but with a really nice note — or better, with editorial suggestions? Put that in the note section!6
Every bit of information is useful. Or it can be, once you separate the business side of fiction from the creative side. And if nothing else, it creates a kind of diary of your publishing career… and a handy way of making sure you don’t submit the same story to the same market by accident.
5The entirety of this section should come with a huge “this works for me, but not necessarily for you!” warning. Not everyone would benefit from a spreadsheet. But if you’ve never tried a spreadsheet, hey– here’s how to do it. Might be something useful for your toolbox.
6Can also be used for the dark art of rejectomancy. That, however, is a separate blog post.
Cultivate Your Market List
When you think of potential places to send your fiction, you may well have a short list of markets already in your head, and you submit to them first. I know I do– and for me, before I started really knuckling down and using my spreadsheets, I’d go through three or four markets… and then run out, because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to send my story.
So get fancy with your spreadsheet (or whatever your administrative tool of choice), and just write down markets as you come across them. Collect the links to the guidelines or submission portals. If you want to get really inventive, take notes on any special requirements they have– or any kinds of fiction the editor has mentioned they want to see.7 It’ll come in useful when it’s time to find a market to submit to, and you won’t have to clutter up your brain trying to remember all these little tidbits of info.
7As a note: don’t drive yourself bananas to find this additional info. It’s more like… if you happen to follow them on twitter, and they say something, make a note and move on.
…And Your Market Listings
A lot of people know about market listing sites8 like Submission Grinder and Duotrope — places that do the job of keeping track of the available markets for you.
Market listings are amazing. They tell you who’s accepting fiction, who’s closed, what length they want, how much they pay– the works. Some of them even have a tracking system you can use to obviate the need for your own records.
But there is no One True King when it comes to market listings — there isn’t one that’s going to list everywhere you might be able to send your fiction. So if you’re one of those people who wants to spread their net wide, or if you write in a very broad range of genres, get out your trusty spreadsheet and start collecting links to those too. The OG SFF list? Ralan.com. Small press listings? Throw Poet & Writers list and New Pages in there. Want some more romance and erotica options? It looks like my link to the list from The Review Review is broken, so hey, I’ll update that and meanwhile pass you this blog post with 40 romance publishers from Book Fox.
Much like your collection of markets, these listings may be old, out-of-date, or defunct when you come back to them later — but when you’re really hurting for a market to send your story to, there might be something lurking in one of these lists that’s exactly the right fit for you.
As corporate motivational speakers like to say: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And in this case, you get rejected from 100% of the markets you don’t submit to.
Write your story. Edit your story. And then, when it’s done– submit your story. Start working on the next one. When the first one comes back, make a note and then send it out the door again.9 Make yourself a little carousel of story submissions and keep them spinning.
And here, to give you a head start: I’ve put a template version of my personal spreadsheets up for pay-what-you-want10 on Gumroad:
This thing’s got multiple tabs for all sorts of information sorting, with ~humorous examples~ thrown in to demonstrate how to use them, and two tabs containing my real list of markets and market listings. I can’t promise they’re all still up to date, but at least it’ll give you a starting point.
At the end of the day: It’s pretty easy to sell your fiction, if that’s your absolute goal. Be organized, be persistent, and be willing to take rejection like a champ. And, of course: keep writing.
10No really, this is pay-whatever — if you can’t afford a buck, just go ahead and download it. The reward for me is another potential writer out in the world, successfully putting their words in front of my eyeballs.
Holy crackersnacks, I was invited to be a panelist at Worldcon! This year it’s being hosted by Discon III from December 15-19, 2021, in Washington, DC. Paraphrasing their site bio a little, Worldcon is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS); it was first held in 1939 and, with a pause for WWII, has been held continuously since 1946. The Hugo Awards, the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer are all given at this convention, and this is my first time being a panelist at it. I am very excited.
My schedule is below:
Logistics of Off-World Disasters Format: Panel (Virtual)
16 Dec 2021, Thursday 1:00 PM EST
Complex logistics are required to respond to mundane natural disasters. How could we handle a natural disaster occurring on another planet or in space? What additional political and diplomatic complications arise when working on an interplanetary scale?
Katherine Crighton, Malka Older, Sandy Manning, Jennifer Rhorer (mod)
Ask an Editor: Long-Form Writing Format: Panel (Virtual)
16 Dec 2021, Thursday 4:00 PM EST
What makes a good novel? How do you know it’s ready? Where should you send it and how should you respond to comments? This is your chance to ask burning questions to a panel of respected agents and editors.
George Jreije, Katherine Crighton, Navah Wolfe, Patrick LoBrutto, Trevor Quachri, Joshua Bilmes (mod)
The Public Domain We Don’t Have Format: Panel (Onsite and Virtual)
17 Dec 2021, Friday 1:00 PM EST
Entertainment industry lobbyists keep pushing copyright life further and further into the future. If copyright in the U.S. hadn’t been extended in 1976 and again in 1998, many more works would now be in the public domain. Join us to discuss the fun mashups we might have had if copyright extension hadn’t passed. Bring your own soapbox.
Avani Wildani, Katherine Crighton, Tenaya Anue, Jennifer Rhorer (mod)
Publishing Your E-Book Format: Panel (Onsite)
17 Dec 2021, Friday 2:30 PM EST
What is the process for self-publishing your own e-books? Who should you hire to create a high-quality product and make it stand out? Where can you sell it beyond Amazon? Come and learn how to get your e-books published and noticed by the right readers.
Brenda W. Clough, Katherine Crighton, Matthew S. Rotundo, Tao Wong, DH Aire (mod)
Real Estate in Space Format: Panel (Onsite)
18 Dec 2021, Saturday 11:30 AM EST
Space law is a real, existing field of law, but it’s only beginning to touch on the complexity of property rights in space. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies is the international treaty that addresses these issues, but current events suggest that we may soon reach the limits of its provisions. What happens when Elon Musk tries to sell you a condo on Mars?
Katherine Crighton, Penelope Flynn, RWW Greene, Su J Sokol, D. Wes Rist (mod)
Reading: Katherine Crighton and Benjamin Rosenbaum Format: Reading (Onsite)
Happy December, folks. I have a bunch of posts that should (fingers-crossed) be popping up over the next couple of days, but in the meantime: I have one new story this year, but it’s a particular favorite. It’s eligible for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and any other award your heart sees fit to nominate them for. See below for a link, quotes from reviews, and a little spoilerish rundown (first written up on twitter) of why this story is so important to me.
‘Demon Fighter Sucks’ is one of those horror stories that’s a bit funny, a bit sad, and fun to read. Broken into sections like ‘Step 5: Do Some Mugglefucking Magic,’ the story takes readers on the journey of conjuring a fairy while weaving in the main character’s backstory, which of course ends up having a significant impact on the spell and its conclusion. Like any good story.
Young Run is a 16-year-old girl who – as part of her campaign against the fake magic of supernatural TV shows – attempts to summon a fairy for her Fun with Public Domain Magic livestream. Both entertaining and poignant.
This one means a lot to me, folks. And not just because I used the word “mugglefucking” and got paid for it. It’s the last story I sold before my mother died, and the first story to get published after she died. For a lot of reasons (particularly apparent if you read it) this work is important to me, and Apex Magazine did a great job with it. Spoilers ahead…
Join me at Readercon (August 13-15, 2021), gone virtual and running for the low weekend price of $25 this year. It’s a conference on imaginative literature that focuses almost exclusively on the written work, and I’ve loved it for years.
I’m also on a couple of panels this year, and moderating one of them, so you’ve got plenty of opportunities to either see me via Zoom or watch the panels after the fact. The topic I get to talk about are amazing, and I’m delighted by the panelists I get to spend time with.
My schedule is below:
Reading Fantasy Through a Motif Index Lens Format: Panel
14 Aug 2021, Saturday 11:00 AM EST – Main Track 1
Folklorists use motif indexes to catalog and analyze folk tales from around the world. The existence of TV Tropes suggests the need for new motif indexes that fit new forms of literature, but we can also apply folklore motif indexes to 21st-century fantastical fiction. Which motifs have had staying power for hundreds of years, and what other expected or unexpected patterns do we find? What does treating fiction as folklore bring to the reading experience?
Content Tags: Implementation, Accommodation, and Ancillary Art Format: Panel
15 Aug 2021, Saturday 4:00 PM EST – Main Track 2
The increased prevalence of content tags has lead to growing questions around implementation. Useful for accommodation, content tags are also deployed on dynamic platforms such as AO3 to warn, advertise, and joke, becoming extra-diagetic material that is enjoyable on its own terms while providing meaningful context for the work. Still, there is a divide between those who want them and those who find them objectionable. How do content tags enhance and complicate reader experience, and what are emerging best practices that bookstores or publishers could adopt?
I have a new short story out from the excellent Apex Magazine, “DEMON FIGHTER SUCKS“, in Issue 123.
It’s the last story I sold before my mother died, and the first story to get published after she died. For a lot of reasons (particularly apparent if you read it) this work is important to me, and Apex Magazine did a great job with it.
Join me at Boskone (February 12-14, 2021), which’ll be online and running for the low weekend price of $25 this year. It’s the science fiction and fantasy convention I grew up at, with discussions of books, science, art, games, music, and more.
Better yet, I’m on panels this year, and moderating one, so you get that many more opportunities to see me in glorious Zoom-vision. I’m getting to be with some extremely cool people, too, so I’m super excited about this.
No matter how realistic a character is, that doesn’t mean they will be relatable. So, what does it take to write a character who gels with the reader? How do you avoid friends of the protagonist being relegated to token sidekick status? What helps a reader understand and sympathize with protagonists who are far beyond their own lived experience? And how do you write them if they are beyond yours?
Christine Taylor-Butler (M), Paul Tremblay, Katherine Crighton, E. Lily Yu, Carlos Hernandez
Robots in fiction are often androids — bipedal, two arms, head on neck — people-shaped. After all, the term “robot” goes back to 1920 when Karel Čapek introduced it in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, today’s robots have form following function e.g. robotic vacuum cleaners, pharmacy prescription-filling robots, and driverless automobiles. The panelists discuss how the image of the robot has changed and developed, both in fact and in fiction.
Suzanne Palmer, Katherine Crighton (M), S.B. Divya, Charles Stross
Cyborgs, constructed of flesh, bone, steel, and advanced technologies, are full of potential and possibility. Let’s talk about meldings of man and machine in fact and in fiction. Portrayals often focus on cyborgs’ humanity, or on their lack of it. When is which appropriate? What distinguishes cyborgs from augmented humans?
S L Huang, Katherine Crighton, Stephen P. Kelner (M)
It’s getting to be that time, and I don’t think I have anything that’ll be published before the new year (though that Apex story is coming!), so — check out the stories I wrote this year that are eligible for the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and any other award your heart sees fit to nominate them for.