Monday, August 20, 2007

I Know Funny

After I sold my first book and people found out it was humorous, I got a lot of "you should do a workshop on writing humor." Okay, I replied, and you'll be very happy about it because it will last about two minutes then we'll all go for lunch and beer. I'd get this strange look and the inevitable "why." Because here's the workshop, I would reply: "Are you funny? No........then you can't write humor."

Workshop over.

Humor isn't something you can create in your mind like suspense or love or terror. It's organic and has to spring out of the story and the characters or it simply sounds forced and isn't funny. I tend to have this cynical view of the world and a sarcastic way of putting things that other people find funny. That's the way I write. It's improv, really. When I'm writing dialogue, I am playing every character - saying what I would say if I were them and there were no limitations like real life. But the only reason I can do this in writing is because I do it in real life and I have always been that way.

I remember a story my mom told me about a time when I was in elementary school and I'd brought home a report card with my usual straight A's. My mom fused over it, of course, and when my dad got home from work, I showed it to him. He smiled and puffed his chest a bit and said "I think Jana gets her brains from me." To which I immediately replied, "Probably so, mom still has hers." See......already a smart alec and not even in middle school yet.

Let's face it, there are two types of people in this world:

1. The kind that walks away from a situation and slaps themselves on the head a minute later because they just thought of something brilliant they should have said.

2. (Me) The kind that walks away from a situation and slaps themselves on the head because they probably shouldn't have said that.

The hardest thing about writing humor is that there's no where to go get it if you're out. There's no movie you can watch, wine you can drink or music you can put on to get you in the "funny" mode. That's where humor writers have to make an incredible leap of faith. We have to believe that every time we sit down at the computer, that something funny with come out of our minds, even if we have no prior knowledge of a single humorous thing before writing. And the really strange part is - it works.

Back a few years ago, I used to get people who would ask "I need a funny line here - give me a funny line." Uh, no?????? I think now everyone has figured out (by me explaining it a thousand times) that it just doesn't work that way. Or worst case scenario, they think I'm a real bitch and am sitting on all the good lines, saving them for myself. It's not standup, folks. I promise, I don't have a Jerry Seinfield list of one-liners in my wallet just waiting for my next book.

The second hardest thing about humor is that it's subjective. Let's face it, we've all met people with the personality of a rock and other people with a chip on their shoulder the size of the rock. They don't think anything is funny and they never will. I'm a software instructor, and I always go into a class thinking I will try to entertain them and have some fun while we learn. Sometimes, I have a good group and I can. Sometimes, I'm convinced Chris Rock couldn't get a smile out of them and I simply give up and teach dry technology for days on end.

I'm also a big fan of funny T-shirts, mostly because they offend those chip on the shoulder people. I have two current favorites. The first reads "I'll try to be nicer if you try to be smarter." God, I'd pay money to wear that one to some of my classes! The next one reads "Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite." You don't even want to see the glares I get on that one. Of course, I usually wear it to I-Hop on Sunday morning, just to get the full effect, but that's just how I am. Mind you, I was raised and am still Southern Baptist, so this is not an anti-religious thing at all. I just saw it and thought it was darned funny.

So my ultimate point of all this jabbering is to say that as writers you always hear one of the cardinal rules "write what you know." Now this doesn't mean I have to write about accountants or software trainers, although I certainly know those things. I know beer and brownies, too, but that in itself wouldn't carry an entire book - maybe an anthology......hmmmmmm. But I digress. Writing what you know means writing what's a part of you. Your emotions - funny, sad, happy, sexual, frightened........the list goes on and on.

Humor writers write funny because we don't have any other choice. It's what we know.


Christie Craig said...


Great post. I think the funny muscle (not really a bone) is inherited. And I think some people were just born without one. And some of those people should schedule an operation and get one transplanted. I hear it can be a painful surgery, but so is living life without a sense of humor.

Have a great day.


Jana DeLeon said...

Hi Christie - I am soooooo with you on the funny surgery. Think how miserable life would be if you couldn't make fun of it. I feel sorry for those people - well, even though they annoy me. :)

Wendy Roberts said...

Great post, Jana!

My favorite T-shirt is:

National Sarcasm Society
(like we need your support)

Gemma Halliday said...

Ha! Love the shirt, Wendy!


Jana DeLeon said...

LOL Wendy - I have got to have that! Can I order it online anywhere????

Anonymous said...

I want one of those Jesus t-shirts! Where did you find it, Jana?
This is a great post. I think you're right that a writer's humor comes from their view of the world. I don't consider myself a funny person, but I do find the world around me to be a pretty amusing place, which is why I think I write toward the lighter side.

Wendy Roberts said...

Jana, I got mine as a gift. Gee, that person must've found me sarcastic or something... LOL

You can order it online here:

Estella said...

I really like this post!

Kathy Bacus said...

Super post, Jana!!!

One thing I've learned writing humor is that it is so subjective. What's hilarious to one person may be irritating or even puzzling to another. There are also regional differences when it comes to humor. What's laugh out loud funny to someone from the heartland may have someone from a very different region of the country scratching their head. Writing humor is definitely not an easy thing to do.

I also come from a little different place--humor wise. After my first few books came out I ran into this alot from people who 'knew' me: "I didn't know you were so funny." Or "I can't believe you wrote that." When I'm writing as a character, I let that character say and do things I would never get to say or do in real life. Real over-the-top stuff. I suppose that has to do with my days in uniform when I had to muzzle myself to keep from saying something inappropriate or unprofessional on those occasions when I really, really wanted to. As I've gotten older, however, I find that I'm much more inclined to inject humor in my conversations--and usually of a self-deprecating nature. Hey, if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

And the Sarcasm Society shirt? I so gotta get me one of those, Wendy!

Jana DeLeon said...

Hi Holli - I got the T-shirt at an airport and I couldn't remember which one for a million dollars. But I'll see if I can locate on online and send you a link!

Wendy - Thanks for the link! I am off to order as soon as my class is over.

Thanks, Estella!!!

Hi Kathy - OMG, the subjectivity is enormous!!! That's what makes it so hard to determine what's funny and what's not. I think my close friends weren't surprised at all by my books because they've heard my under the breath comments all these years. But people who are only acquainted with me seem surprised. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jana! Love your tee shirt!!!

Jana DeLeon said...

Hi Tori - I'm glad you came over to visit! I love the t-shirt too. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jana!

And congrats, Kathy, on Calamity Jayne Rides Again making the finals of the Aspen Gold contest!

Celebrate large!


Jana DeLeon said...

Thanks, Faye - glad you stopped by!

Unknown said...

Great post, Jana! And I couldn't agree with you more. You either have it or you don't.

Jana DeLeon said...

Hi Cari - I agree, although sometimes I wish I "had" something else. Humor is tough!

Jae Arronson said...

Oh, yes! I agree - great post, Jana! It takes looking at life differently, I think, than most people do - and you're definitely a humorous writer! That's one of the things I love about your writing.

And I'd love to have one of those Jesus tee-shirts too. If you find a link to order, please do post it!

Looking forward to "Unlucky!" Can't wait for October!

Gemma Halliday said...

I've seen the "Jesus Loves You" shirt here:

I need that sarcasm one, though!


Jana DeLeon said...

Hi sassy! Good to see you here! I'm ready for UNLUCKY to release too!

Thanks for the link, Gemma!

Kathy Bacus said...

Thanks, Faye, for the Aspen Gold congrats. I was thrilled when I heard CJ RIDES AGAIN was a finalist. Now all my '06 releases have either won or finaled in contests.

I'm one proud 'mama'...!


Kelly (Lynn) Parra said...

Jana, awesome post!! And I'm excited about Killer Fiction. can't wait to read more!

Jana DeLeon said...

Hi Kelly - glad you made it over!

Jae Arronson said...

Thanks for the link, Gemma. I'm ordering that tee-shirt. Oh yes, I AM! Hilarious!

Anonymous said...

My critique partners had been telling me for years that my attempts at humor were "too subtle" despite my continuing efforts to emulate their hilarious chick-lit style. On the other hand, the school plays that I wrote for children were enthusiastically received (by the child actors, the drama teachers, and the partent audiences) as "you-cracked-me-up" funny. What was the difference? Well, I'm not sure, but I definitely know which side of my funny bone my bread is buttered on. Maybe people who've been told they can't write humor are aiming their guns at the wrong target. My advice is to keep aiming.