Tag Archives: humor

Woof vs. Meow: The Battle of the Book

In the world of real things, cats win—at least by the numbers. According to the Humane Society, the US has 86 million purrfect domestic kitties but only 78 million tail waggin‘ doggies. But in the world of fictional characters (books, cartoons, movies, etc.) the situation isn’t just reversed, it’s tipped over onto its adorable, swivel-eared head. Sure, you can find examples of beloved dog and cat characters aplenty, but keep trying to name them, and you’ll run out of cat characters long before you run out of the Fido’s of fictiondom, the Cujo’s of crime, or the Lassie’s of late night.

unnamed-2On Wikipedia’s pages about fictional animal characters, the cat and dog lists are broken down into literature, comics, film, and television. The cat list offers twenty-six, including such dew-clawed notables as Garfield, the Cheshire Cat, the Cat in the Hat, Puss in Boots, Sylvester the Cat, Tom & Jerry, The Aristocats, and the cats in Stuart Little and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. They are huggable, cantankerous, acrobatic, crafty, conceited and aloof, reflecting all of the complicated feelings we have about our feline companions.

 

unnamed-1But hold onto your leashes, folks, because the dog list has two hundred and eight-five, including such well-bred personalities as Snowy from Tintin, 101 Dalmations, Bolt, Old Yeller, Snoopy, Marmaduke, Toto, the Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Scooby Doo, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Martha from Martha Speaks, Hank the Cowdog, Underdog, Einstein, Timbuktu, and on and on and on and (Down, boy!) on!  They are loyal, courageous, and food obsessed, mirroring the simpler feelings we have toward dogs.

 

But if there are so many cat lovers on this planet (and as evidence I present to you: The Internet, which is actually made of cats), why aren’t cats at least equally reflected in our most beloved forms of entertainment?  I suspect there are two main reasons:

  1. WTFPortability. Dogs love cars and walks and travel. They are at their happiest when they are on an adventure with their humans. Cats not so much. If you are featuring a cat in your book or movie, for the most part it will need to take place inside a house or within a relatively small geographical area. That’s limiting for a storyteller.
  1. Expressiveness. While cats experience emotions just as intensely as dogs, they don’t express them as clearly. A cat’s emotional signs are subtle – an ear twitch, lowered eyelids, a tail snap, sitting down with their backside guilty-dogtoward you, or planting themselves in the center of whatever is currently occupying your attention (instead of them!).  Meanwhile, dogs broadcast their feelings on hi-def with every furry inch of their being—eyes, mouth, feet, tails, head tilts, sounds—they have a visual language of emotion so expressive that we humans are known to adopt their communication methods in order to better express our own mood states. Dogs are SO expressive it feels as if they are talking to us, a fact that probably explains the plethora of talking dog characters in books and movies.

Talking dogs is something I’m a bit of an expert on because, wKT front cover 2014 with gold awardhile I am technically (full disclosure) a cat person, my award winning humorous fiction series, Kibble Talk, features a talking dog. Readers also get to hear what a cat has to say, but the main focus is on Dinky, an enormous and cantankerous Great Dane.  That earned the book a 1-star review from an avid cat-lover, but on the bright side, fans tell me they will never be able to look at their dog quite the same way again.  That’s music to my swively ears.

Where do you fall on the cat–dog continuum?  Got any fave cats or dogs of literature that I’ve missed?

 

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

frog-mascot-dies

 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

 

 

 

 

 

Targeting The Reluctant Reader

Dear Children’s Author,

Please write for the kid who would rather trim her toenails for the third time than open a book.  Please write books that are better than video games and snow days and pizza. Please write books that make you feel as good as when your brother admits that you will always be better than him at video games and snow days and pizza.

reluctant reader

A daunting request, but think about it: if you can hook reluctant readers, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the avid ones will be gaga over them. It’s kind of like broccoli.  Find a recipe to please the most finicky eater, and you’ve found your family’s new go-to dish.

I HATE reading

A reluctant reader is anyone who does not show a natural interest in reading.   This definition is very broad, encompassing children with learning disabilities and visual or psychomotor issues. But even when medical and development issues are absent, a child may still treat reading like a chore, and I would know.  Though we read equal numbers of books together, I have one child who did and one who did not experience an early love of reading. For the latter, just about any other activity brought her more pleasure, including staring at a television screen that I had turned off over an hour previously.

A Picture Leads to a Thousand Words

With my reluctant reader, the key to getting her into reading, the gateway drug, so to speak, of literature, was Graphic Novels.  The books she initially chose were glorified picture books – goofy, simple drawings with fewer than 20 words to a page – and even then I wasn’t entirely sure she was reading any of the words.  I did not care.  She was holding a book in her hands willingly. She was taking them to bed at night and then propping them up against the cereal box in the morning.  She was letting me know when it was time to go back to the library.  She even wanted to read parts to me. And whether or not I found them entertaining, I pretended to be enthralled.

Josie graphic novel faves

Slowly, over several years, she increased both her reading speed and her word to page ratio.  By the time she was paging backwards through manga graphic novels as thick as bricks, she was devouring them the way I polish off a bag of potato chips – I mean carrot sticks.  Today she is starting the third in the Fablehaven series.

After looking into the subject, I suspect the drawings in the graphic novels solved a problem many Reading Specialists identify among reluctant readers: connecting text to meaning.  Simply put, some children experience reading as an exercise in tracking words on a page, aka DRUDGERY. The drawings helped her to make the connection between the words and the story because, while she might get the general gist of the story just by looking at the pictures, bothering to read even a smattering of words made the pictures more alive.  The more she read, the more alive it became. Ta daaa!  Reading!

For many children this process happens during the traditional picture book years, but my child needed an extension.  She needed a way to be “held back” to picture book and early reader level without feeling punished or embarrassed by plots like “the puppy played in the mud and needed a bath.”  And though I’ve never personally been a fan of Graphic Novels, for giving my daughter this second chance, I have undying respect and gratitude toward the genre.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Home From The Library

But wait, you say: I don’t write Graphic Novels!  That’s okay, because pictures aren’t the only prerequisite to keeping my daughter reading.  As I peruse her library check-out history, there is an obvious second theme: humor.  Without something to tickle her funny bone, it doesn’t matter how thrilling a story is, my daughter will likely find it dull.

So as I write my Kibble Talk series, I work carefully on the humor. I’ll save a discussion of HOW to write funny for my next Emblazoner’s post, but it all pays off when you get reviews and comments like these from teachers and parents:

I think teachers might use this book with reluctant readers.”

And even better:

My daughter has some dyslexia and dislikes reading, but she has read Kibble Talk at least a dozen times.”

And best of all:

I bought this book for my 12 year old granddaughter who hasn’t read a book, other than what she had to at school, since she got her ipad at Christmas. All she ever wants to do is play games. But when she started reading Kibble Talk, she didn’t put it down until she finished it. Please keep writing, Cynthia, our kids need you.”

And THAT is the sort of review that keeps an author sitting at her keyboard even when her toenails could really use a third trimming.

Cynthia Port is the author of the ongoing Kibble Talk series, written for middle graders and the perpetually young at heart.Bio pic white background

KT CS cover 2014DG CS cover 2014 flat RBG

Writing Prompt – Ugly Foot Finds Its Doppleganger

“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.”
~ Albert Einstein

Inspiration! It can happen anywhere!

Ideas are born in the strangest places, ignited by bizarre objects or strange people. Or a random photo from my daughter’s honeymoon pics.

Here’s the scoop: Lily was excited to get a window seat on the plane for their honeymoon trip. Then the passenger behind her rested his/her ugly, bandaged foot on Lily’s armrest. She couldn’t stomach the sight of it. Her hubby gave in and traded seats. (After all, a happy wife is a happy life, right?)

BBH McChiller, Lynn Kelley, Kathryn Sant
Almost anything can be used as a writing prompt. Even a photo of an ugly foot!

If you were in an English class and were given an impromptu assignment to write a story based on the photo on the left, what would you write?

Nonfiction? How to politely elbow that foot off your armrest? The importance of cleansing wounds? *yawn*

Sci-fi/Paranormal? Ugly Foot Finds Its Doppelganger in an Alternate Dimension?

Horror? Remember the movie The Crawling Hand? It scared the heck out of me when I was a kid! How about writing a sequel called The Prowling Foot?

Humor? Is there anything that could possibly be funny about that foot?

 

 

Hmm…what would Erma Bombeck have written?Erma Bombeck could write about anything and make it humorous.

 

 

 

dsc00456

 

 

Romance? Good grief! I’m not going there.

Mystery? One with lots of subplots and dead bodies with missing toes? That might be horror, too. *Shudders* Definitely not a story I could write!

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it,
and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
~ Sylvia Plath

You know what that photo of an injured foot inspired me to write? A crazy blog post!

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”
~ Henry Ward Beecher

Could you stomach sitting next to that ugly foot?
Do you find ideas in weird places? What inspires you to be creative?

Lynn Kelley Author, Curse of the Double Digits, BBH McChiller, Monster Moon mysteries

Lynn Kelley worked as a court reporter for 25 years while she and her husband, George, raised their four little rascals, but nowadays she’s a goofball in the highest degree who’s susceptible to laughing jags. She tries to control herself out in public, but it’s not easy. She’ll jump at any excuse to wear funky get-ups. For instance, making wacky YouTube videos, entertaining her grandkids, or hanging out at a costume party.

Her first chapter book, Curse of the Double Digits, debuted in October 2012. Under the pseudonym BBH McChiller she and co-author Kathryn Sant write the fun, spooky Monster Moon mystery series for ages 8 to 12. Curse at Zala Manor is the first book in the series, and Secret of Haunted Bog is the second title. Book 3, Legend of Monster Island, will be out shortly.

Website | Lynn Kelley Author Facebook |BBH McChiller Facebook | Who is BBH McChiller? | YouTube Channel

Make ’em Laugh!

photo credit: Roger Rabbit fan club
photo credit: Roger Rabbit fan club

Roger Rabbit, while hiding from the evil Judge, assures Eddie Valentine that the guys in the diner won’t turn him in because he’d made them laugh. That laugh, he said, created a special bond that won their loyalty. And the crazy thing is–he was right!  Because the humor had helped them through their hard times when they were out of work and out of luck.

What makes tweens laugh?

Slapstick. This is especially good when it’s comic violence or clumsiness on the part of the “bad guy”. Paint cans or bowling balls falling on heads. People slipping on ice, skateboards, or anything else that will toss them in the air and on their bottoms. Tweens are starting to get the idea that violence is a bad thing (probably because they’re being exposed to it more often), but they still hearken back to childhood cartoons and want that “bounce back to life” ability of beloved characters. The slapstick is a carry over.
Silly names. Alliteration is always a plus. Tippy Tinkletrousers and the like. Boffo the Brave or Lois the Lunch Lady. Character names that are fun to read encourage them to read aloud. Funny names also make situations less threatening, so they can ease into more grown-up themes without having to be too…grown-up about it.
Bodily…Stuff. **sigh** No getting around it. They still think burps, farts and boogers are hilarious. At least the boys do. If such things can be used as weapons against an antagonist–even better! Sounds can’t always be transmitted through print, but the more creatively the author tries to convey that BRA-A-A-APTHFT!!! the more likely the tween reader is to try saying it aloud. Laughter follows. It just does.

photo credit: The Sandlot fan club
photo credit: The Sandlot fan club

Clever insults. This is where teens actually show some class. Rather than lashing together a row of swear words, they prefer the more creative taunts a la The Sandlot (“Buffalo Butt Breath”, “You bob for apples in the toilet, and you like it!” and the ultimate zinger, “You play ball like a girl!“). Tweens are discovering pecking orders, yet they’re still mostly vulnerable. If they can win a battle of the wits at this age…well, that has sticking power. Kids will be loyal to the one who made them laugh at the bully by calling him a “bootless toad-spotted bladder”.
Over-the-Top “Sexy”. I don’t mean actual sexy. Far from it. I mean things like ridiculously voluptuous chickens in a computer animated show, or a hip-swinging, lip-sticked slug monster. Tweens are just becoming aware of sexuality, but it’s still a little bizarre to them, so laughing at it–mocking it, even–makes it easier to handle.

 

Turns our Roger Rabbit was on to something.  Laughter helps people get through tough times, and being a tween can be tough.  A whole new world of emotions and relationships and challenges surround them, and some of them are overwhelming.  Being able to laugh about them just helps!