Not All Writing Advice Is Generalizable

And one of the biggest examples of why this is true is humor.

Ever since someone said to my face that women aren’t and never will be funny (blatant lies!), I’ve been mildly obsessed with studying humor—especially humorous storytelling—because dammit, I will be a funny woman out of spite if nothing else. And after reading rather a lot of funny books and writing advice, I’m forced to conclude that most of the advice about writing humor can’t be generalized to all writers.

Yes, there are some basics that will be useful for most people, such as learning about different types of humor and how to implement them in writing and comedy. For example, making readers laugh out loud often requires a combination of different humor techniques (e.g. see the Discworld books).

However, at the end of the day, humor is very much a YMMV thing and anyone who says they can single-handedly teach you to be a master of comedy is probably very over-confident or only trying to train you to know how to do their exact humor style, which may not even be what your target audience enjoys.

Case in point: John McNally’s writing advice book, Vivid and Continuous, has an entire chapter devoted to the art of writing humor. The first part of his chapter is okay, as it discusses different theories of humor with a personal anecdote for examples. But then, McNally ends the chapter with his “Sure-Fire Formula For Becoming Funnier in Thirty Days!” And he proclaims that if you don’t laugh at all while following his formula, you simply aren’t a funny person.

Hmmm, yeah. How about no???

My dear fellow writers, if you look up his formula and try to follow it and don’t laugh at all, it’s not because you aren’t funny, but because his advice just doesn’t apply to you. Not only is his list very Straight White Baby Boomer American-centric, but also he disses any sort of humor that relates to popular media and as Millennials and Gen Z folks will attest, humor based on popular media (i.e. memes), can still be extremely funny and audience-friendly. Lord of the Rings jokes and memes made back when my parents were reading the books (i.e. “Frodo Lives”) still exist in the humorous posts and fanfics posted to social media or fiction posted to WordPress. And even if pop culture humor is temporary, then so what? It was enjoyable in the moment, and that’s really what matters in the end.

Anyway, this is just a friendly reminder to take writing advice with a grain of salt, especially writing advice on humor. And if you’re already making people laugh at your jokes, you’re doing just fine, even if you fall outside of someone’s fancy writing formula. 🙂


Shared Post: Story Hospital on Developing Your Writing Voice

Voice is a skill to be developed, like any other writing skill. Give yourself permission to stretch it and challenge it and expand it and enhance it.

via #82: Getting Bored of Your Own Writing Voice — Story Hospital

(Hi all, I’ve been swamped with work for the past week or so and it’s not letting up any time soon, unfortunately. In lieu of one of my own posts, I’d like to share a Story Hospital post that I really enjoyed reading and that taught me a few things. Hope all of you have a great week! – Cinnia)

Five Overused Things in Romance Novels

(Written partly because I finally had the opportunity to read a good romantic story last week and was pleasantly surprised when none of these common things cropped up)

  1. Describing a male love interest as an “Adonis” or “Greek God”
    I mean, first of all, this is a lazy way to avoid describing how someone looks. I get that description isn’t easy for every writer to do, but this one thing is incredibly overused and relatively easy to cut out of the writing during the editing process. Unless the person is literally a Greek God, and even if they are, maybe try to find a photo or drawn reference for the character’s features and use that when describing them.
  2. Lest the previous point give the wrong impression, this does NOT mean waxing poetic about a character’s hair, eyes, and the outfit they’re wearing (down to their shoelaces) for several paragraphs.
    I mean many of us are probably guilty of staring at a crush for too long, but infodumping details on a reader is going to bore them to tears and they’re much more likely to skim the material than remember it.
    When introducing a character, try to space out the descriptive details a bit and work them into other parts of the story rather than when the reader first meets them. Look up one of the many writing guides on describing characters to see more detailed ideas on how to do this.
    Also, please, please, please don’t keep repeating someone’s eye/hair/skin color several times unless it’s 100% relevant to the plot. I promise, the reader got it the first or second time.
  3. Snooping on the love interest while they’re bathing/swimming/etc. and ogling their body in full detail
    For a while, I hoped this creepy trope had died out by the mid-2000s, but then I saw it in works published in 2015 onwards (happening to both male and female characters) so, no, it has yet to be killed with fire. Blech.
    First of all, I don’t care if a character is super attracted to their love interest: Creeping on them during a private moment kills the romantic vibe because it violates consent between the characters. How is the reader supposed to trust that consent won’t be violated in other ways?
    In other words, if the love interest doesn’t consent to voyeuristic observation, don’t include it in the story to show attraction because it quite frankly isn’t.
  4. Once they do get close to becoming or have become a couple, protectiveness =/= possessiveness.
    I kinda feel like there must be some confusion on the part of some writers between the two characteristics, but they are NOT the same. Also, the latter one is a big red flag of toxic relationships, not healthy ones.
    Some protective characteristics: supports partner through crises, helps them if they are at risk of harm, knows when to express concern and offer help but (most importantly) knows when to back off and let their partner do things without their involvement.
    Some possessive characteristics: knowing (and following) their partner’s every move, threatening to harm their partner or another person if the other person even makes prolonged flirtatious eye contact with their partner, and refusing to back off when their partner wants to handle a problem on their own.
  5. Treating romance as a magical band-aid for other personal problems
    Okay, here’s a typical romantic plot I’ve seen: Girl meets Boy. Boy has mental health problems. Girl and Boy fall in love. Boy’s mental health problems magically disappear from the story.
    Admittedly, I picked the more sexist version of this trope a la “my love can fix him” but it’s unfortunately common. I think mostly why it crops up so much is because a) some writers might wish it really was that easy to fix mental illnesses and b) a failure to consider characters’ lives outside of their relationships.
    Point being: Love is not a magic fix. If someone is dealing with serious problems at the beginning of a story, then they need to continue to deal with it after they have a partner, just like in real life, healthy relationships. Otherwise, the problem in the story just feels like a gimmick thrown in there to add angst, which does a disservice to readers who want to read about characters who struggle with similar problems.

(Crosspost from my other writing blog)

Image credit: Alejandro Avila

On Original Fantasy Worlds

Or, Questions to Ask When Worldbuilding

As a reader, reviewer, and a writer of fantasy, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that writers tend to get hung up on the worldbuilding, especially for high fantasy. It’s also curious that there appears to be a running assumption that writers must base their high fantasy culture(s) on Earth-based cultures, even if they do take a leaf from Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien now and again.

I mean, they’re certainly welcome to do so. IMHO, drawing on inspiration from real places and people is not so different from fanfiction writers who create transformative works from an original source as well. Both have the bonus of including lots of curated wiki articles and books and experts to create a base for the writer’s worldbuilding to grow from.

On the other hand, what if writers don’t want to do that and want to create everything from scratch? Well, that’s certainly a more difficult route to follow when writing high fantasy, but not impossible. However, it will require a lot more work and careful thinking on the writer’s part when worldbuilding and editing because they must create the earth and grow the seeds of the stories all by themselves.

Additionally, this style of worldbuilding does not mean writers can avoid research or engaging careful critiquers or sensitivity readers when they are preparing to publish their novels. The style may have changed, but basic building blocks of all writers remain the same.

Here are a few questions to get fantasy writers thinking:

  • What are the basic needs of the characters? 
    • Do they need water and oxygen, like so many usual fantasy characters?
    • Or do they survive in some other way?
    • e.g. imagine a species that could survive living near a submarine volcano or on an ice planet
  • What languages are spoken?
    • How does their structure influence other aspects of the world, such as the lingua franca, character’s names, colloquial expressions, and history?
    • e.g. agglutinative (Korean, Quechua, Turkish) vs fusional languages (Spanish, Pashto, Russian) or something completely different
    • Note how all of these examples are very different as well, which might help with creating languages that aren’t essentially word-for-word codes of English or some other European language
  • What plants and animals (including insects) might be available as resources for food, clothing, etc.? 
    • It’s not high fantasy, but consider how the planets of Star Wars are so different with respect to this. Lots of unique species and fashion styles are what makes them so memorable.
  • How would the world’s politics work?
    • Do they even conceptualize politics the same way we do? 
    • Another way of asking this: Who leads? Who has power? How does context and conflict influence that?
  • When creating an entirely new species, also think about how relationships and communities might work.
    • Is the species solitary or community-based?
    • Do they welcome outsiders and ideas from outsiders or do they stay isolated and focus on preserving their culture(s)?
    • Are they nomadic or fixed? Maybe something in between?
    • What things and ideas do they value?
    • Do people stay together to raise their offspring (e.g. like marriage)?
    • Do they even have offspring?

Anyway, just some things to prod the brain to think differently for a little bit.

As always, good luck with your worldbuilding and writing!

(Crossposted from my other writing-focused blog)

Image credit: Pexels