Writing funny

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.

(Image credit: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)


How to sell your fiction

…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.

1 Nota bene: I say “golden age,” but the markets themselves might disagree.

Pick What You Value Before You Start

What do you really want to accomplish with your fiction? Figure that out now — here are a few potential options:

  1. Get paid at a professional rate
  2. Get paid anything
  3. Appear in prestigious markets
  4. Get a publishing credit
  5. 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.

2 You’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.

3 But 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.

4 How 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
  • Notes

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.

5 The 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.

6 Can 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.

7 As 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? 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.

8 And if you don’t? Congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!

How to Sell Your Fiction? Submit Your Fiction

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.

9 This advice has been given many times in the past, but it hit home for me with Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

10 No 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.

(Image credit: Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay)