Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing With Humor: Erin Cabatingan

As posted previously, I hosted Erin Cabatingan, author of A is for Musk Ox in my former home for a workshop on writing with humor. Now that I'm finally settling into our new home, I'm cobbling her wisdom in a post. I apologize that I haven't been around to read the great posts you all are putting out there as well.

Back to my notes from Erin's presentation:

What is humor? Author Rick Walton says, "Humor is surprise without threat of promise." So what does that mean? You have to surprise the reader without making them feel threatened.  (For Rick's essay on humor, see here.)

Humor is hard to teach someone. Read lots of humorous books until it becomes part of you. You can use humor for a laugh-out-loud experience or just a smile, or even to make a serious topic more light-hearted. 

Where can you find humor? Observe children and add it into book, but be careful when using true to life examples of children--don’t make fun of them. You can use real examples and make them safe by making sure the child reader feels superior to the character in the book. They can laugh at the way they used to be. (Example: Kel Gilligan's Daredevil Stunt Show, by Michael Buckley). 

Watch kids for funny things and adults. Watch animals—they do funny things too. (Example: Doggone Dogs, by Karen Beaumont) . 

Humor can use wordplay where you take a word and switch out a syllable like Chimpansneeze, by Aaron Zenz or Zombelina, by Kristyn Crow. (Note: Erin said Kristyn looked up zombie jokes to find the puns for her book.)

Humor can be found in conflict. Have characters believe different things or want different things. In Erin's books, A is for Musk Ox and Musk Ox Counts, Musk Ox and Zebra are at odds on everything, which creates the humor that drives the plot and fleshes out the characters. 

Humor can share inside jokes but you have to set it up for the reader or use established knowledge in order to make it work. (Example: The Three Silly Billies, by Margie Palatini.)

Humor can can come from an established pattern that the writer breaks unexpectedly. (Example: Yes Day, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal)

Humor can bend language. The way you say things can be funny. (Example: Moo Who?, by  Margie Palatini.) Use the sounds of words, onomatopoeia, to add in humor, or play with expressions and accents. (Example: The Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake.)

Pair two mundane things that go together and make it funny. (Example: Never Take a Shark to the Dentist, by Judi Barrett.)

Let the illustrator add humor to the manuscript by giving them ridiculous or fun situations to illustrate. Try to think visually. Think of your text as illustrations and try to visualize how the illustrator might see it. Make a dummy. Let the illustrations tell all or part of joke. Have the text and illustrations disagree. (Example: A Vampire is Coming to Dinner, by Pamela Jane.)

Warning: When you do add humor be conscious of what different ages find funny, you don’t want it to go over the child’s head. (Link to age-appropriate humor suggestions:

As you can see, it was an excellent workshop. I haven't included all my notes, but these should get you started. And in the immortally funny but sage words of Dave Barry: 
"Most people have a sense of humor that's good...Some people don't. I feel sorry for those people. The humor impaired. I got a lot of letters from them, so I know they're out there. Specifically, there are a couple things [to write humor] I think you need to do. You need to have a real strong sense of pacing. Too many attempts at humor fail because A, either it takes forever to get to what's supposed to be funny and just wanders around before it gets there, doesn't seem to be any purpose. Or once it gets there, it says it over and over and over, it doesn't get out of there, you know, quickly. So, I think it's a lot like stand-up comedy, in a sense, you don't let the reader see it coming, you hit the reader with it, and then you get out of there and go to something else the reader doesn't see coming. And that's probably the most fundamentally important thing. The other thing is, it's work to write humor...if you're gonna write humor you have to take it just as seriously as if you were gonna write about anything else. You have to really work hard to get it to work."

Have a great week.