Key Points: [implied, but still worthwhile: Stop and reflect on what you have learned about writing from time to time.] Knowing what form you are working in lets you fulfill more of the promises of that form and write better. Knowing your genre or goals lets you stay focused. "Sitting down and analyzing what you do reflexively is how you improve." When you are starting, just keep flapping. Then when you start to understand how you can fly, that's the time to back up and analyze it.
[Brandon] Howard pitched this podcast to me saying, "Hey, let's talk about the most important thing that each of us has learned about our writing in the last year." We're going to go one by one and talk. If we run a little over, we'll split it into two podcasts. But we're going to start with Howard. Howard, what's the most important thing you've learned about writing in the last year?
[Howard] I am writing satire.
[Brandon] Satire. Let's talk about... I can break that down into two parts. You realized that you were doing something that you didn't realize that you were doing. Is that correct?
[Howard] I discovered that I was working within a form. Up until that time, I didn't know that I was working within a form. Understanding that I was helped me fulfill more of the promises of that form and write better.
[Brandon] What did you learn specifically about satire? What's the difference between what you were doing before... I mean, you've always been doing humor. You've always been funny. How did this help you? What did you learn?
[Howard] What it really came down to for me was that there are some things that I have to make fun of and there are other things that I don't have to make fun of. I can make fun of them, I can have a laugh at them, but I don't have to, because they are not inherently satirical. Which means that I can make fun of HMOs and boy bands. That was the first three weeks of the comic. I can make fun of bad government, I can make fun of good government, I can make fun of military protocols, I can make fun of engineering, I can make fun of being a knowledge worker when your manager doesn't understand knowledge work. These are all things that I can satirize. I don't have to write slapstick or make fun of science-fiction tropes in order for the strip to be funny.
[Brandon] What would you define those as, then?
[Howard] A science-fiction trope is... I've done a couple of jokes like this. Anytime in a science-fiction show where somebody says, "Actually, I'm your father" we laugh, because that was Star Wars.
[Brandon] That's a pop-culture reference, rather than a satire. Is that how you're defining it?
[Howard] That's how I'm defining it.
[Brandon] I want to pin down exactly what this is...
[Howard] Satire versus lampooning. Satire is what Terry Pratchett writes. When Terry Pratchett does Going Postal or what was... he did one recently about printing money and I can't remember the name of the book...
[Brandon] Making Money.
[Howard] Making Money. Those were both satire. One was social satire about Postal Service and the other was about currency.
[Brandon] The difference being something like Spaceballs you would say is lampooning?
[Howard] Spaceballs is lampooning. All of the funny movie or scary movie or epic movie -- those are all lampooning.
[Brandon] A different type of humor as we are defining it here. I think that that is very astute because actually you mentioned Pratchett. I think he made the same realization, because if you read Color of Magic and some of the early ones, it looks very much like he is lampooning.
[Howard] Color of Magic is lampooning fantasy tropes. Going Postal is high satire. It is satire, I think, in the best form it's been written in the 20th or 21st century.
[Brandon] How did you make this change? How did you decide... first, how did you notice? What clued you in on this?
[Howard] People kept comparing my stuff to Terry Pratchett and I thought, "Well, I'm not writing like Terry Pratchett writes. This is completely different." Then as we were doing some of these podcasts, it clicked for me and I realized I am telling a story and the end of the story is not a punchline. If the end of the story is a punchline, then you're lampooning something or you're writing a comedy. If the end of the story is dramatic and wonderful, and yet each of these installments is pointing up something that we are laughing at, then that feels more like satire.
[Brandon] Dan, you've written some humor...
[Dan] I have.
[Brandon] How would you define yours?
[Dan] I don't know.
[Brandon] Are you satire, are you lampooning? You just kind of write stuff and then chuckle at yourself?
[Dan] I write what makes me laugh. I have not written enough humor to have analyzed my style of humor as closely as Howard has. But were I to put a label on it, it would be situational humor. Humor that is funny because we know the character and seeing them in this situation or seeing them doing this thing is funny.
[Howard] And I throw a lot of situational humor, there's a lot in there.
[Brandon] You've got a lot of different types. But you have defined your genre. Just like when I'm writing epic fantasies, does not mean I can't have a laugh now and then. But if the laugh in my books undermines what I am trying to do with this story, then that's when I say I keep focused and I toss out this particular laugh. That happened to me in Warbreaker. Warbreaker, my editor and I went around several times about scenes that I thought were hilarious and he just didn't like it all. It's a very wry, sarcastic character. What it finally came down to is he was pointing out, in his opinion, I was undermining the reality of the world of Warbreaker in order to get a funny joke.
[Howard] You were breaking the fourth wall to tell a joke.
[Brandon] I wasn't breaking the fourth wall, but I was weakening it. It wasn't like the characters were addressing the reader, but the characters themselves had to make connections that those characters he felt would not make.
[Howard] Those characters would not have...
[Brandon] That's different than breaking the fourth wall. When I understood that, I was able to change a very few number of things which made him laugh quite a bit. So understanding that you are writing satire can keep you going in the right direction even when you are throwing out jokes here and there.
[Howard] That's it. I do, from time to time, break the fourth wall. I do, from time to time, make pop-culture references and sendups and things like that. But the understanding that this is satire, not National Lampoon...
[Dan] One of the funny books that I have written is the one that we had on our CD last season, A Night of Blacker Darkness.
[Brandon] Oh, buy the CD, you can read the whole book.
[Dan] Go buy the CD and you can read it. We talked last week about how my endings used to suck. I rewrote the ending to that book about seven times and they were all horrible. It was not until I sat down and analyzed it and said, "Holy cow, I'm writing farce and I didn't realize it." That allowed me to structure the ending properly and it works now.
[Brandon] When I asked you what type of humor you were, you stumbled for a few seconds. It's a farce, it really is.
[Howard] Yes, that book is a farce. But the humor that we found in I Am Not a Serial Killer was a dark, situational sort of humor. That's why he stammered.
[Dan] Because I wasn't sure which book I was talking about, but now I do.
[Brandon] Howard, just for a little bit longer. You seemed to imply that you think satire to be a sort of higher art -- do you really think this -- than for instance lampooning, or is it just what you want to do?
[Howard] Oh, boy. Lampooning is valuable and it makes us laugh. I think fundamentally my mission is to make people laugh. I want people to be happy and to be laughing. Satire, I think, has a larger social value because it allows us to look at things under a new light, under the humorist's microscope, and find the absurdities. Perhaps wreak some sort of helpful social change. I doubt anybody is going to get helpful social change out of Schlock Mercenary, but satire as an art practiced in its highest form of accomplishes exactly that. Terry Pratchett is writing high satire. I'm not. I'm writing a comic strip, for crying out loud. There's a world of difference in the value between those two. Is it a better art form than lampooning things? Not necessarily. Things can be done better in any sort of form. There is sitcoms that are much, much funnier than satire, and are, I guess, better written.
[Dan] Value statements like that only work when you know what you mean by what's better. Is funnier better or is social change better?
[Howard] That's what I was trying to say.
[Dan] Different goals have different meanings.
[Howard] Should we break for a commercial?
[Dan] I believe we should.
[Howard] That will give me a minute to collect my thoughts.
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by bringing things to you from Writing Excuses. It's true. You too can advertise here at writingexcuses.com. Just follow that link over there in the...uh... left-hand? Right-hand sidebar? Right-hand sidebar. Left-hand sidebar. Follow that link on the sidebar...
[Dan] One of those sidebars has a link.
[Howard] One of those sidebars as a link and you can sponsor Writing Excuses. And we will do a much better job of reading your ad than we did reading this one.
[Brandon] All right. We're back. I'm going to try and pin Howard down a little bit more and force him to go into more detail.
[Howard] I'm glad I've had time to think.
[Brandon] I asked you what made you come to this realization. I don't know that I got a satisfactory answer for me. How did you realize this? How did you come to understand the difference in your writing, in your goals?
[Howard] It was not... I don't need to tell you what it wasn't, I need to tell you what it was. Honestly, it was recording these podcasts with you bozos. Because I end up being forced to think analytically about something I do reflexively. Sitting down and analyzing what you do reflexively is how you improve. It's the principle of focused practice versus just work. I was just working. I was grinding away, doing what I always do.
Thinking about this in the context of trying to podcast about being a good writer forced me to start analyzing what I was writing. I started looking at punchlines and thinking, "Well, what kind of a punchline is this?" Then I started looking at the structures. Now understand, this didn't change what I had been doing, it forced me to look at what I'd been doing and see what was working.
When I sit down and write a week of scripts, and that week focuses on a given theme. Sometimes that theme is situational, but situations run dry real fast. You can get one or two punchlines out of them and then whoop, we're done. When I really milk something for a week, it's because I've set up a satirical sort of environment where I can look at something... I can look at it in a couple of different angles, at a couple of different angles or from a couple of different angles, and I can explore them and tell jokes on all of them.
When I made that discovery, the structuring of my stories got easier, because I was able to take the big building blocks -- Act I, Act II, Act III -- the medium-sized building blocks of character discovers this, character discovers that, and then there's the giant building blocks of the individual characters who are larger of course then even individual books because of the form I'm working within. I was able to take those building blocks and refine it all the way down to saying, "Okay, and for this week, the gaps between those blocks are going to be filled in with commentary on socialized medicine or commentary on military discipline..."
[Brandon] Taking this and kind of pointing it at our general listener -- this is a theme we've talked about before, the idea of understanding what you're doing and understanding your own goals is very important. It's not something you can really pick out when you're first writing. The first time you sit down to write, you have to try different things and work on it.
[Howard] It's like Dan said when he was botching the ending. I assume that's what the vampire bunnies' book? Yeah, and when he sat down and realized, "Oh, I'm writing a farce."
[Brandon] I'm doing this... understanding what you're doing...
[Howard] "Oh, my writing is a farce!"
[Brandon] Understanding what you're trying to do. Analyzing this way can actually break things at first. I've heard from people that getting too analytical about their writing early on can actually make it harder...
[Howard] Oh, absolutely.
[Dan] And it scares people, too. Especially with humor. There's a lot of people listening to this right now who are saying if you overanalyze humor, then it's not funny anymore. Those people have never been professionally funny. There are few artists that agonize over their work more than standup comedians. They are [garbled] intense people.
[Howard] When I write jokes... I've gotten past this point, but when I write jokes, when I write the strips, I sit them down in front of Sandra and she reads them. She visualizes pictures, I don't have any pictures on this yet. She reads the scripts and she lets me know if they're funny and they're moving the story forward. When I start drawing them, sometimes I look at them and I think this just isn't funny. Five or six years ago, I would take them to her and say, "Honey, I think all the funny leaked out." She would look at it and say, "No, no. It's still funny. You've just been staring at it too long." I've gotten past that point. We used to talk about the classic bumblebee metaphor. If you try and analyze the bumblebee's flight with the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee can't fly, so bumblebees should not study aerodynamics. They should just keep flapping. That was Sandra's and my little catchphrase. "I don't know how I'm doing this, honey" and she would say, "Keep flapping." Well, bumblebees fly because their wings rotate and there are fluid dynamics turbulence laws that we can use to describe their flight. Now that I understand that about my own writing, I can analyze it and flap...
[Brandon] And you can get better.
[Howard] I can get better. I can flap more efficiently.
[Brandon] I think that there is a plateau you can hit when you don't understand what you are doing. To get past that plateau, you will have to study and analyze and break down what am I doing well, what am I trying to accomplish. That's hard. Like I said, it can run you into problems at first.
[Howard] Sometimes you need to go to an expert who understands this better than you do, who can look at it and say, "Oh. Oh, Ioh, oh, oh, oh. It's this thing right here." It's me sitting down with Dan and with Bob who know the three act format and reader promises better than I do because they've been writing novels while I've been drawing funny pictures, and having them say, "Oh, here's a list of the things that you need to do" and I did them and it was a much better, much stronger book.
[Brandon] This is mostly, I think, advice for our experienced, yet still working to get published, or maybe are published and still working on the craft listeners, but if you're just starting off, remember, just start writing. There is a point where you're going to have to do this.
[Howard] If you're just starting off, I would listen...
[Brandon] Keep flapping.
[Howard] I would listen to this podcast, keep flapping, and know that at some point you are going to understand how it is that the bumblebee flies, and then you'll be able to fly more efficiently.
[Brandon] We managed to get through one of us in a podcast, but that's not unexpected. Howard, it's been your podcast. Give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Have an artist who is analyzing his form and discovers the refinements of his form that he needs in order to make it perfect and in so doing, unlocks magic.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses.