Humor is the political dissident in the gulag of traditional publishing. Publishers, not to mention publications, don't appreciate humor. And if they do, they like the kind of humor that isn't funny. You know what I'm talking about -- those shit cartoons in the New Yorker that just ache for an approving chorus of "How droll!"
Humorism (akin to racism and sexism) is actually pretty ubiquitous in the creative world. Funny movies don't win Oscars, do they? When a "comedy" wins an Oscar, it's a movie like M*A*S*H*. Which sucks. It's never for a movie like Airplane!
Musical acts with a sense of humor end up as sideshows. Does anyone out there realize how gifted Weird Al actually is? Or Spike Jones? Or Kinky Friedman?
We cherish humor in our friends and lovers. We use humor to salve the wounds of daily life. Yet most writers shy away from funny. Now, some people just aren't funny, and that's fine. But I'm often stunned how many people I know who are funny in real life, only to be dry as chardonnay when they write.
Fuck that shit. Be funny. If it's part of your personality to be funny or clever or snarky, embrace it. One of the greatest compliments paid me about my writing came from my friend Rob Guthrie, Denver-based author of a really kickin' thriller, Black Beast. Rob read my short fiction collection Short Stack and dropped me a line to say that he actually laughed out loud -- from his belly -- over my description of a guy failing to be a hero during a liquor store robbery.
I'm not funny to everybody, of course. Some people don't like snide. But I'm from New Jersey. And I'm Irish/Italian. And I was raised Catholic. A sardonic sense of humor comes with the Welcome Home package when you're born. If you don't have a sense of humor when you come from a background like mine, you end up smuggling animal porn then finding yourself surprised to be on Cops.
Humor is strength. The Establishment turns its nose up at humor is because of humor's raw and limitless power. Humor levels governments. Humor heals tragedy. Humor is courage. Once asked why he made such light of Adolph Hitler, Mel Brooks said it was because humor robs him of his dignity. And that from a man who lost half his family to the Nazis.
Humor is a superpower, folks. Embrace it. The Establishment can suck it.
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Every writer has influences. But when you ask writers who their main influences are, they tend to stick with a field of other writers.
I have those too -- Tom Junod, Tim O'Brien, Shirley Jackson, Brian Hodge, Lee Child, Ann Hull, Dean Koontz, Tom Langewiesche. All of them influence my mechanics, my language, my writing style, and my approach to subject.
But let's broaden the reach here. Let's talk about some influences who are not manuscript writers. And before I forget to ask, please tell me some of your non-writer influences. I'd love to know who has helped make you who you are as a writer.
David Bowie (Daring): David Bentley, a biographer who actually received his doctorate in David Bowie (seriously), once write that it was almost impossible to be indifferent toward Bowie. Between 1970 and 1980, I agree. Bowie's penchant for pushing buttons, inventing trends, and taking chances made him as much idol as target. He consistently did one thing you simply don't see often enough -- he cultivated fans, then changed his game. And you either came with him or you didn't. How he influences my writing: Bowie made no apologies for his work. And he didn't explain it. I don't either. How you react to it is entirely up to you.
Tony Schwartz (Saying without Saying) Tony Schwartz made his mark in radio advertising by reworking saturated ad slogans so that the listener would have to finish the thought. In short, Schwartz engaged listeners in a way no one had thought of before. And his guiding principle is one of my favorite sayings: People are born without earlids. Think about it ... How he influences my writing: Tony Schwartz was a master of messages that seemed to be overt, but really weren't. His campaigns for Coca-Cola had people racing for a frosty bottle, yet they never once used the word "Coke." Sometimes the most powerful statement is one the writer never ...
Albert Einstein (Tenacity): If I were half as smart as Einstein, I'd still be twice as smart as I am now. But I draw a lot of inspiration from something Einstein said: I'm not so smart, I just stick with problems longer. I disagree with the first half of that, Dr. Einstein, but I'm deeply influenced in my writing life by the second. How he influences my writing: Albert Einstein believed that there was an answer to everything. We just might not be ready to see it. But we will. Just get to work and stay working and it'll come around.
Winston Churchill (Succinctness): Churchill said very little in his public speeches. But when he opened his mouth things like "Never, never, never give up" came out. How he influences my writing: Brevity.
Louis (Joyous Abandon): If you've seen my book trailer for Character Development, you've seen my cat, Louis. He's the white-and-gray tabby. Louis at play is a joy. Whatever he does, he throws himself completely into, and fuck the consequences. It's life lived at the jugular, and it's intoxicating. How he influences my writing: By reminding me what to do with the consequences.
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I have a friend (let's call her Flicka) who is in her late twenties and single. Which means that everyone she knows has found a mate and is talking about houses and kids. Flicka, meanwhile, has managed a few relationships that didn't pan out for her.
I refer to this moment in life as "The Dagobah Syndrome." When Luke Skywalker senses evil shenanigans a-happening in the Force, he dumps his Jedi training mid-course to go help. Yoda, dismayed, warns Luke that this moment in his training is the most dangerous because he has knows just enough to be powerful, but not enough to control it. But, Luke being in his late twenties, leaves Dagobah and heads off to get his best friend out of the frozen foods aisle elsewhere across the galaxy, to some really bad early results.
Flicka, likewise, is old enough to know the concept of sharing her life with someone, but not wise enough to control her emotions. She often says things like "Maybe it's time I just settle down with somebody." But she doesn't know who that somebody is.
Moreover, she doesn't know who she is. Flicka spends a lot of time trying to figure out the right guy for her, but when I asked her if she knew who she was yet, she froze. My advice was: Don't just find a guy and settle down with a house and kids. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you should be doing something just because it seems like everyone around you is doing something. You have to know who you are before you can really make a successful run at a life with someone else.
I find this same issue in a lot of writers. They don't have their own voices yet, so they try to mimic someone they like. Which means that they know how to write well enough to string together cohesive sentences, but not enough to control it over the course of a book. Flashes of their own personalities mix with paragraphs lifted straight from the Faulkner playbook, generally to some really bad early results.
Finding your own voice as a writer is an easy job that we all (myself included) make a lot harder than it has to be. I don't know why or how, but we all tend to ignore the big, neon, flashing "us" we've been carrying around since birth and spend years trying to imitate other people. It's a noble idea, but it's tantamount to a natural-born runner ignoring his skills in order to work on his ballroom dancing (which he's horrible at).
Build your strengths. You know what you like and what you don't. I'll even refer you to an earlier blog of mine in which I discuss my reasons for killing a novel I'd been working on. The story just wasn't me, and I feel a lot better having dumped it.
Finding your own voice starts with listening to yourself. A good indicator of who you really are is how you behave and what you say when you're around the person you're most comfortable being around. That person you look to and say "You know what I really think about all this?" is your guidepost. Listen to what you say, how you act, and what you feel around this person, who will not judge you. It might be your best friend, your husband, your golden retriever. Or it might be yourself -- you know, the you that comes out when you're driving alone and you pretend you're performing all the songs on the radio in front of a sellout crowd.
Without knowing your own voice, you will be in the same boat as Luke Skywalker after he leaves Dagobah -- you'll think you'll know what you're doing, but you'll end up losing your arm in a really bitchin' sword fight with your father.
Don't forget to check out my book trailer for Character Development from the Inside Out on my homepage.
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Vanilla gets a bad rap. If you're boring, the first thing people call you is vanilla. The Urban Dictionary, in fact, has this definion: Unexciting, normal, conventional, boring.
Hey. Urban Dictionary – your mom.
I love vanilla. Vanilla is the reason desserts taste good. Vanilla is the reason some brands of chocolate are better than others. Vanilla is a major economic powerhouse. Vanilla is pivotal to the cultures and economies of Central America, where the world's best vanilla beans (much like the the world's best cacao and coffee) are grown.
Vanilla, however, is a victim of its own popularity. Everybody's OK with vanilla ice cream, so we treat it as unexciting. Normal. Conventional. Boring. Pistachio ice cream, on the other hand, is out there. Relatively few people like it. But those who do go absolutely ape shit over it.
This is the conclusion of Sally Hogshead, author, speaker, and president of Fascinate Inc., in her unfortunately titled (but nevertheless indispensable and wonderful) blog entry “5 ways to quit being boring vanilla, and start being pistachio.”
Sally makes a lot of wonderful points about a lot of things, and her argument for being pistachio is exactly the same as the meaning of my own buzz phrase, Write for the Jugular: Not everyone is going to like you. Especially if you do things like insult Urban Dictionary's mom. You're an indie, an outsider. Stop trying to take on the mighty vanilla and embrace your inner pistachio.
I promise you, this all makes a lot more sense if you read Sally Hogshead's blog entry. So please read it. But read it with a grain of salt. Respect the rebel charm of pistachio, but get your head out from where the sun ain't shining about vanilla. Vanilla is a delicate, vibrant flavor that takes just the right conditions and a lot of work to bring to its fullest. You you will be a lot more successful if you put vanilla-level work into your own projects.
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Writers love the Seven Deadly Sins. And why not? They're all the fun things we want to indulge ourselves in. I mean, who wouldn't love to have a great meal followed by rich, angry sex in a hall of mirrors with people we envy, and then take it really easy afterwards?
The Sins make good fodder for communicators because they're an easily recognized checklist. So writers adapt them for all kinds of things -- the Seven Deadly Sins of Business . . . the Seven Deadly Sins of Baseball . . .
Even I succumbed to peer pressure in my book and wrote about the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing.
But so few writers (and people in general, really) pay much attention to the Seven Cardinal Virtues. Did you even know they existed? I'm a Catholic school survivor and I never heard of the Virtues until I was thirty-something.
But who cares. Here:
Passion: Back in my film school days I was given a printout of the five stages of movie development. The first was "wild enthusiasm." The second was "utter despair." The point was to remind us that filmmaking takes all of your soul and all of your energy, so you need to go in with overwhelming love for what you're doing. That way, by the end, you at least still kind of like what you did.
Writing works like this too. It's a lot of work to be a writer, and even more work to be an author. Writing has a very Darwinian dynamic. If you don't have passion for your work, you won't finish it.
Daring: Fear is for losers, wimps, and posers. Fear is bullshit. Daring, on the other hand, is an essential virtue for writers. Try new things. Invent new characters. Say things no one has ever said. Be bold. Be unapologetic. Take chances and don't look back.
Entrepreneurship: I mentioned that there's a difference between authors and writers. Authors write like it's their job. Because it is. Get to work and stay working. Put a plan into action to get your story done and stick to it. Remember -- goals are dreams with deadlines.
Ego: The great violinist Isaac Stern once said that you need enough ego to know you belong on that stage. Amen. Don't be a flaming ass about it, but embrace enough of your ego to know that your words are worth other people's investments in time, emotion, and money. Know you belong on that page.
Humility: You need enough ego to know you belong, but you need enough humility to know that you're just a writer. You're just one of the many out there with a book. Know you have something worth saying, but get over yourself about what you've written.
Half-full Glasses: The world loves to huck poo at people who dare. Get a raincoat and accept this fact. But there are also scores of people willing to help you, selflessly. Embrace people who believe in you, who support you and who encourage you. And pay it back in kind.
Curiosity: Open your eyes and look around. Find new experiences. Leave your comfort zone and ask questions about the new zone you enter. Life is a banquet if you want it to be, so buy a ticket and ask about the food. Read books on subjects you don't know anything about. See movies you don't understand. Experience new and interesting things, just to see how they play out.