Category Archives: Creativity

Me Write Funny One Day, Part 1: So Long and Thanks For All the Frogs

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Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.  –E.B. White

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 So . . . let’s kill some frogs, shall we?

In my last post I explored the phenomenon of the reluctant reader, concluding that both graphic novel formats and humor can be key to ditching the X Box in favor of a book.  Not every writer can whip out a graphic novel, but most of us can make our writing funnier.  In the next two posts, I’ll talk about what makes writing funny, how to get more (but not too much) funny into your writing, and how to identify books for middle grade readers that don’t equate funny with the words “fart” and “butt.”   (Am I right, weary parent?)

 It’s All About That Layering  

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile.  By that I mean that, while Meghan Trainor may be all about that bass, true humorous fiction is all about that layering. Some jokes take a full chapter to develop, some take several chapters, and some even take the whole book.  In this post we’ll focus on the simplest layer, the thin veneer, if you will, of humor: the famous (and infamous) one-liner.

Did you hear the one about the one-liner?  (. . . it felt all a-groan)

One-liners are quick, one-dimensional jokes most anyone can write now and then.  Part of the reason they are so easy to write is that there are a myriad of forms to choose from. Here are some common categories along with examples from my novels Kibble Talk and Dog Goner (from my ongoing Kibble Talk series).

 1. EXAGGERATION.        Zach is so thin and bony he could hoola hoop with a Cheerio.

 I do a lot of exaggerating in my novels and it can be a blast to write—I just let my mind spiral out in ever more ridiculous circles until I hit the right image.  But two caveats.

First, it is easy to be overly cruel.  If you are writing for children, a little wincing on the part of your readers is okay as long as it’s only a tiny little wince and it’s accompanied by a chuckle.  If you’re writing for adults, you can go for the gut punch, but again, there must be a correspondingly impactful laugh.

Second, if you are writing in first person dialogue, make sure your language conforms to the way your character (in terms of age, education, etc.) would speak and think about the world.  In the example above, a nine year old is describing her best friend’s super skinny older brother. Your average nine year old is familiar with both hoola hooping and Cheerios cereal. On the other hand, your average nine-year-old would not be so familiar (one hopes) with someone being so skinny he could fit into the barrel of a 9-gage shotgun.

Here’s a few more examples of exaggeration from my writing:

  • His face was kind of pointy, with eyes so small it looked like they might disappear the next time he blinked.
  • That lady could talk the ears off a field of corn.
  • Dinky prancing is worse than a hip-hopping hippo.

2. SURPRISE:        “I am a humble man and I will shout that from the mountaintops,” Mr. Higginbotham said.

Here the reader anticipates that the last half of the sentence will reinforce the message given in the first half, but instead, it entirely contradicts it. This type of one-liner is perfect for delineating a ridiculous character—one who, like Mr. Higginbotham, is oblivious to his own contradictions.  It is funny to your audience because they do see the contradiction.

3. Set up a funny visual. (Here Tawny is describing her dog to us for the very first time.  The actual one-liner is the last sentence, but you need the lead-up for it to make sense.)

Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown.  I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae! 

 I like this visual in particular because it explains a great deal more than just Dinky’s size and coloring.  Without her coming out and telling us, it provides an immediate sense of Tawny’s feelings for her dog.  Using those same exact colors, she could have compared him to a military tank in desert camouflage.  Instead, he is every child’s dream—an enormous sweet treat.

4. PHRASE TWIST:  Jenny has a way with words, and by that I mean that when she is using words, people get out of her way.

I use this style of one-liner the least in my fiction because a) the jokes tend to be formulaic and can come off as wooden, and b) your audience must be familiar with the original phrase and I can’t be as sure of that with children.  But if cleverly done, they are very memorable because the reader already knows the original line.

5. BODY HUMOR:

This isn’t so much a category as a caveat. In all of these one-liner formats, body humor is always an option.  Both kids and adults (you know who you are!) DO think butts and farts are funny. But if you want your books to be enjoyed by all ages, as I do, you will want to limit them. The Kibble Talk series is certainly not immune to body part and body effluence jokes. After all, these are talking dog books, and dogs aren’t exactly shy about their bodies.  But I use them sparingly, and to even things out, I add in plenty of one-liners that only adult readers are likely to get, such as a math teacher talking about the finer points of isosceles triangles, how table manners are genetically determined, and even references to The Fonz and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Rotten Tomato Blaster is No Laughing Matter

The challenge when it comes to one-liners is not in the writing, but in deciding where, when, and how much to use them. The well-placed one liner in an otherwise serious book (mystery, crime, romance, etc.) will endear your readers to you, especially when it arrives like a lifeline just after an emotionally fraught moment. But what do you do when your whole genre is humor?  One thing you don’t do is rely so heavily on one-liners that they are essentially the only layer of humor in the book.

Sadly, I see this most often in children’s humorous fiction. Wanting to please her audience, the writer thinks to herself: “Children, and especially boys, like jokes, so all I need to do is write a lot of them and they will love my books.”  Sigh.

frog not amused

When that happens, the book becomes a series of throwaway lines and personal slams drowning in a soup of endless whining and negativity, very much like this sentence. The first few quips may be entertaining, but after a short while of having to react to them over and over again, the reader feels as if he or she is in a batting cage at the receiving end of a pitching machine well stocked with rotten tomatoes. Splat! Splat! Make it stop!  Splat!

Of course, the real problem is that with so much of the page (and so much of the writer’s mental energy) devoted to the next one-liner, there’s little room left for character development and storyline.

By all means use one-liners, but make them an occasional treat, not the main course. For true humorous fiction—satisfying humorous fiction—the funny must go wider and deeper.

The House That Funny Built

Stay tuned for my next Emblazoners post, Me Write Funny One Day Part 2, where I will share my methods for doing just that. I’ll be pulling examples from two of my favorite series (Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as well as more from my Kibble Talk series, so it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to rush out and read all those tomorrow, now, would it?  Just sayin. And if you can find a young person to read them with, all the better—cause just like hugs, funny is best when shared.

No frogs were harmed

How do YOU funny?
If you’re a writer, how much emphasis do you put on humor? Where do you usually use it?  If you’re a parent, how much does humor seem to matter to your young reader(s)?

kibble talkBio pic white backgroundDog Goner

 

 

 

 

 

Crowd Sourced Writing and Fan Fiction

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I recently began frequenting a crowd-sourced writing website called Skrawl.com. And I have to say I’m having a lot of fun.  Skrawl is set up for you to start a new story or to add to someone else’s story. Stories can be original fiction, non-fiction discussions, or fan fiction.

What makes it so much fun is that Skrawl has a competitive edge to it. When you add to someone’s story everyone in the community gets a chance to vote for your “bit” against anyone else who posted a “bit” for the same storyline. Points are awarded each time you post or vote and you can earn even more points if your “bit” wins.

There’s a social aspect to it too, you can comment on the stories like you would on sites like Facebook.

It’s a great way for me to play with ideas and see where other people take them.

One of my favorite stories posted by Greg Fishbone is a story called Trek Elementary. Trek Elementary is an alternate universe where Kirk, Spock and the gang are children and have created their own group called the Enterprise gang. They sometimes have run-ins with another gang on the block who call themselves the Klingons.

The story started with the kids trying to find a way to get candy from the candy store. Simple enough, but the next writer added the Klingons, then Jimmy Kirk got into trouble, etc. etc.  As you can imagine stories can go anywhere and they often do!

If  you have moment and want to read some short stories, or better yet, if you’d like to play along, join some of us over at Skrawl.com.  I currently have a few fan-fictions running, Divergent, Maleficent and Percy Jackson. Oh, and I just started a new adventure for Big Hero 6! Search for me, Ansha Kotyk, using the magnifying glass icon, I’d love to see you, and read your stories!!

AnshaKotyk Ansha Kotyk writes adventure stories for boys and girls. Check out Gangsterland, the story of Jonathan, who falls into a magical comic book and has to draw his way out.

Reverse Engineering for Book Marketing…

Remember that kid who decided to take apart a toy just to see how it worked? And then, surprise…that same kid couldn’t figure out how to put it back together again. We authors can sure learn something from that one kid. We can learn how to use reverse engineering to figure out why readers buy our books. Think about it. Kids take something (computer, radio controlled car, Barbie dolls) apart to see how it works, get to the guts of what makes that thing go, run, fly, burp. So why shouldn’t authors be able to take apart the sale that lured readers to buy the book in the first place?

The first question you should ask yourself is: Why did you purchase insert name of book? Was it because it was your friend’s book? Perhaps a suggestion? Or a book you learned about through a review? Was it an emotional purchase? Or was the book part of Oprah’s book club? I want you to chase down the sale and figure out what made you buy that certain book. Got it? Good.

Now once you do this kind of ‘reverse engineering’ you can build a profile for the sale. You get to see how a sale is built. You get to know how the book market works. That’s when you can develop a marketing strategy for your own books. Get it? Great.

A lot of times you’ll find the answer is word of mouth via the social media, or a friend suggested the book (or wrote it), or they passed by a bookstore window and the cover caught their eye. Even Oprah has the golden touch. Dig deep, and find the reason for that sale. Then, apply this newfound knowledge, and develop your own book marketing strategy. Doing my own reverse engineering, I’ve found the following six points may help boost your book sales:

If it doesn’t work, fix it. Let’s face it—some sales strategies work better than others. The trick is to reassess what you’ve been doing. If you’re not producing the sales you’d like to see for a certain book, then chances are you need to correct and fine-tune your methods. For some authors this may mean retooling their blurb or tagline or change the cover. For others, it could be giving their website or blog a fresh new look.

Listen and learn. A number of things factor into book sales. One of the most important is your target audience—who you are writing for. Ask yourself, how are you fulfilling your readers’ needs? What do you need to do to continually hook their attention? For starters, you have to be willing to walk that extra mile by getting to know and understand your readers. You do this through social networks (Facebook, Twitter), workshops, book signings, school and library visits, book clubs, and online communities such as Goodreads.

Show enthusiasm. Enthusiasm builds bridges. Panic tears them down. One thing an author has going for them is their unique voice. You use it in your books, so use it to sell them. Readers know when an author resonates with them. Be invested enough in yourself, as an author, to give your readers a fantastic story they’ll never want to end. Then write another one.

Sell yourself, on yourself. The power of positive thinking works wonders. Motivation builders such as podcasts, CDs or self-help books can help reinforce the super salesperson in you. Be specific with your goals and rewards, such as if you send out ten review requests in a day, book a pedicure or lunch with a friend. Write notes reminding yourself that you are a ‘Bestselling author’ and ‘You can do it’, then leave them around your desk. After all, seeing is believing.

Create a sales plan to suit each book. Every book you write is one of a kind. Sales tactics for one book may not work for the second book. That’s when you get creative and take chances. Giveaways are always a fan favorite. Experiment with each book until you get a sales formula that works for you. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes help, so if you can afford it, hire a publicist or a marketing consultant. The bigger the investment, the bigger the payoff.

You give, you receive. “What goes around comes around”. This is a hard adage for a lot of authors to relate to, but it is nevertheless a vitally important point. And it’s a no-brainer. I tend to share a lot of useful information that could help my author peeps with their sales or marketing strategies. This comes naturally to me. Pass along opportunity when you can. It’s a wise investment—one that any author will never regret making.

Sharon Ledwith is the author of the middle-grade/YA time travel series, THE LAST Sharon Ledwith HeadshotTIMEKEEPERS, and is represented by Walden House (Books & Stuff) for her teen psychic series, MYSTERIOUS TALES FROM FAIRY FALLS. When not writing, researching, or revising, she enjoys reading, exercise, and anything arcane. Sharon lives a serene, yet busy life in a tourist region of Ontario, Canada, with her hubby, one spoiled yellow Labrador and a moody calico cat.

Learn more about Sharon Ledwith on her WEBSITE and BLOG. Look up her AMAZON AUTHOR page for a list of current books. Stay connected on FACEBOOK, TWITTER, GOOGLE+, TUMBLR, and GOODREADS. Check out THE LAST TIMEKEEPERS TIME TRAVEL SERIES Facebook page.

The Personal Nature of Language

I spent three and a half years in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

In those three and a half years, I learned many things about the world and about myself. The last thing I learned was I didn’t want to be in college anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things — always have. I had just grown tired of doing it in that particular environment. I had been working toward a degree in English Literature, largely because, at the end of my sophomore year, my counselor informed me I had to choose a major in order to continue. English Lit was the degree I was closest to fulfilling from the mishmash of classes I had taken to that point. Yes, that was truly the determining factor, because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I was interested in everything. Why the University thought it necessary for me to choose one area of study didn’t make sense, yet I had to play by their rules, even though I (or more accurately, my mom) was paying for me to be there. I had courses in biology, physics, three semesters of calculus, psychology, history, religion, and philosophy under my belt. I also took creative writing, Medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian literature, as well as courses in linguistics, two semesters of French and one of Russian. I even spent three semesters in the drama department as extra-curricular — Charlie Brown with wispy red hair? Yes, it was a thing.

Suffice to say, language and how we communicate has forever fascinated me. I also had a year and a half of Spanish in high school and was tutored in Japanese for several weeks as part of a job I had subsequent to leaving college. The variety of the spoken and written word around the world is astonishing. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ wildly — sometimes to the point of confusion and miscommunication. And don’t get me started on the British Isles, South Africa, India, and Australia, all of which purportedly speak a language dubbed “English”.

Dictionaries give us a basis of understanding, but even they morph and change as language evolves. New words are added each year and the definitions of old words are adjusted in some cases if their meaning or usage has changed over time. Words and definitions can vary between brands of dictionaries. But, why all the confusion? Why isn’t something like the way we communicate more structured and immutable?

Because language is personal.

ScarletDressYes, many aspects are fundamental. If I describe a woman walking down the street as wearing a red dress, we all will conjure a picture in our minds. That picture would be different for all of us, but we should all be able to agree on the basics: woman, walking, red dress. But what if I said the dress was scarlet in color? It’s still red, but the word “scarlet” will evoke different images — different emotions — within each person, based on our experiences. A young reader might be encountering the word for the first time and have to ask about its meaning or look it up. A fan of the movie Gone With the Wind might first conjure an image of the glamorous Miss O’Hara upon seeing the word. Someone who recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may react negatively toward the word given its use and meaning in that story. Same word, different reactions. What if I used “crimson” instead? Again, more disparate meanings and feelings toward the word — and, by association, the woman wearing the dress — because of the individual experiences we each bring when we read or otherwise communicate.

As a senior in high school, I took AP English and one of our assignments was to read The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoyed the story and during one of our discussions about the symbolism and allegories within the work, my teacher mentioned an interview with Hemingway where he claimed he simply “wrote a story about a man and a fish.” In other instances, he, of course, talked about the deeper meanings within the story, but the quote got me to thinking. We all bring our own frames of reference, biases, and experiences when we read a work and can’t be certain how an author truly intended the reader to feel as they progress through a book. In fact, while doing some research for this post, I ran across an article where some scholars feel Hemingway had been so heavy-handed with the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, he might have been poking fun at the critical literary community. That shines an entirely new light onto the story.

Which brings me to the reason why I never finished that English degree.

As I took higher level literature classes, I noticed a pattern. Analysis of the assigned pieces drilled deeper and deeper, investigating why the author chose a particular phrase, or even a particular word, at a certain point in the work. I even remember a lecture on what happened during a dash — yes, a dash, just like these — within a story. At that point, I realized my professors had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Language is too personal to make absolute statements about intent and meaning. We can, more often than not, agree on basic premises when we communicate with one another, otherwise the world would be like the biblical Tower of Babel. But, for me, or anyone else, to say with certainty all an author meant by using a certain word at a particular point in a three hundred page novel just doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking Picasso why he placed a particular brush stroke where he did and why he chose that particular color. Maybe he had a specific reason, or maybe his brush slipped and he thought it looked good. Seeing deeper meanings in a piece depends as much on the viewer, or the reader, as on the artist.

Sometimes, the dress is just red.

TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction series, beginning with Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

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Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream

Have you ever visualized a goal? If so, you are not alone.

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Dreamstime – All rights reserved.

In 1912, Native American Jim Thorpe and the others who qualified to compete for the USA in the summer Olympics headed to Stockholm on a long voyage across the Atlantic. While the others trained on ship’s deck, Jim regularly kicked back in a lounge chair, relaxing with his eyes closed.

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          A writer named Francis Albertani asked, “What are you doing, Jim? Thinking of your Uncle Sitting Bull?”
          “No,” Jim said. “I’m practicing the broad jump. I’ve just jumped 23 feet, eight inches. I think I can win it.”

Jim Thorpe actively practiced creative visualization.

          What is creative visualization? It’s like daydreaming. It’s using our minds to help us achieve our real dreams. The power of the mind can aid people to achieve their goals, to become successful, be healed of illness, manage pain, grow spiritually, or accomplish anything they wish, simply by envisioning the desired result in their mind.
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           According to Rich Avery of Life Compass Blog, “It’s not just about seeing it clearly, but hearing, smelling, and tasting it too.” He explains, “When you continuously focus on an idea or image in your mind, you program every cell in your body and mind to work toward achieving that idea or image. Once you impress it into the subconscious part of you, it eventually becomes ‘fixed’ and you automatically attract and move towards that which you desire.”
          So you want to become a successful writer? Visualize yourself finishing a book, finishing several books, and then winning awards.
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           Author and Writing Coach Jennifer Blanchard says, “I want to be a writer. So I imagine 1,000 people waiting outside a bookstore for me or that I’m signing a contract to make my book (NY Times bestseller! Nobel Prize winner!) into a movie… But visualization is more than just imagining the end product. It can help you get unstuck if you’re currently mired down in a work in progress or it can help you jump-start a new story.”
          She explains how visualizing a scene from your character’s point of view and imagining them applying the five senses to their world will help you write your story. Check out Jennifer’s blog on visualization here.
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          A guest post by Nathan Kash on the WriteToDone blog agrees how important visualization is to successful writing. “Visualization can be the single most important silver bullet in a fictional writer’s arsenal. Your goal would be to engage the reader’s five senses, which means you have to be highly descriptive. Make them see what you want them to see, hear what you want them to hear and feel what you want them to feel etc.”
          Also, check out a good post on visualizing hooks on the WriteToDone blog here.
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          Psychology Today magazine actively promotes the power of visualization. In this article, Angie LeVan says, “Mental practice can get you closer to where you want to be in life, and it can prepare you for success! For instance, Natan Sharansky, a computer specialist who spent nine years in prison in the USSR after being accused of spying for US has a lot of experience with mental practices. While in solitary confinement, he played himself in mental chess, saying: ‘I might as well use the opportunity to become the world champion!’ Remarkably, in 1996, Sharansky beat world champion chess player Garry Kasparov!”
          Research shows that for any skill, mental practice is nearly as effective as true practice. Check out the link to the study here.
          Successful people from all walks of life attain their goals through creative visualization and so can writers. It can help us get ideas, get started on a project, overcome writer’s block, finish a book, and successfully promote it. We can all achieve our dreams if we just dare to visualize it.
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          Jim Thorpe’s lounge chair visualization worked. He did win in the 1912 Olympics, taking the gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon.
          Creative Visualization can help you become the person you’re meant to be, so set your goals and dream of attaining those goals, over and over and over . . . until it’s they’re no longer dreams, but become reality.
          So time to start visualizing….
          What are your dreams and goals? Have you ever practiced creative visualization?