Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Damning You With Praise

When you're a kid, if your parents were any good, they'd ooh and aah over the construction paper artwork you brought home, and put it on the refrigerator.

As you get older, the praise tapers off. Not only from your parents, but from the world in general. Grades take the place of gold stars on your homework, and the few things that you get praised for require harder and harder work.

Finally, as an adult, praise comes in the form of money. A better job, a raise, a promotion. "Atta boys" are reduced to softball games. Criticism is the primary motivator for self-improvement. Which is fine, because you can't get better unless you know what you're doing wrong.

Writers, and most artists, tend to have gotten stuck in the childhood phase of needing approval.

Art, by definition, requires an audience. So writers are forced to seek approval. Friends and family. A writing group. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Critics. Fans. Peers.

And if the artist gets lucky, approval arrives in the form of praise, money, or both.

So does criticism. The publishing world isn't a big refrigerator, and many people aren't interested in giving you gold stars. There will be fan letters and awards nominations, but there will also be bad reviews and people who dislike your work.

It doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out that a career that requires the continuous approval of others isn't the best way to mental health. Which is why many creative types tend to be a little on the wacko side.

If you're a writer, can you ever feel good about yourself and your work? Can you take pride in a book that never got published? Can you see the worth of a novel that got critically panned?

Or do the fans, the awards, and the money make you somehow better than the rest of the world? Does the fact that you have half a million books in print and a six figure contract function the same way as your picture on the fridge?

Both are slippery slopes, and neither leads anywhere worthwhile. The more people you allow to have power over your feelings, the less in control of your feelings you are.

Here are some rules I follow to stay even-keeled.


  • Celebrate success. Whether it is signing a book deal or finishing a short story, you're allowed to feel good about yourself and your accomplishments.

    Beware-Feelings of entitlement.

  • Let Praise Wash Over You. It's great to have fans, but don't believe your own hype. Having lots of strangers love you doesn't make you a better person.

    Beware-Getting a big head.

  • Listen to Criticism. But don't take it personally. Ever. Good critcism is meant to help you improve, not hurt you.

    Beware-Those who have agendas. They're easy to spot. They are either insulting you, or praising you while asking for money. Remember that money flows toward the writer.

  • Have Smart Goals. Smart goals are ones you can control. Everything else isn't a goal---it's a wish. Wishes don't lead to happiness.

    Beware-Setting unattainable goals.

  • Use Your Support Group. We all need an "atta boy" once and a while. Get this from people you're close to, people you care about. No one else matters.

    Beware-Relying on anyone too much.

  • Allow yourself to be disappointed. Then get over it. Allowing failure to consume you will ruin your career. Take a day or two to feel crummy, then move on.

    Beware-Licking wounds instead of working.

  • Leave Your Name Alone. Checking Amazon ranking, Googling yourself, checkign newsgroups and blogs for mention of you, searching for reviews---this is all external validation by stangers and meaningless.

    Beware-Self-obsession.

  • Don't Compare Yourself to Others. Everyone has a different journey, and there is no competition. Coveting the advances, awards, print runs, and movie deals of your peers isn't going to do you or them any good.

    Beware-The green-eyed monster.

  • Remember Who You Are. Once you become a public figure, many people will say many things about you. None of them will know you as well as you know yourself. Praise and criticism are external, but true pride comes from within.

Strive to be the kind of person that you admire.

Thanks to Jude, Chidder, Jeri, and J. Carson Black for their suggestions in adding to this blog entry.

Humor Me

I've been told that death is easy, but comedy... that's hard.

Actually, it's not as hard as you might think.

Laughter is simply our brain reacting to discord and fear.

Discord is something unexpected, inappropriate, unusual, or exaggerated.

A fat guy on a little bicycle is funny, because our minds see the absurd dichotomy of a large man and a small vehicle.

Fear is the distance and disconnect associated with bad events that we don't want to happen to us.

A fat guy on little bicycle, peddling very fast because he's on fire, is funny because we can picture ourselves being on fire and it's not a pleasant image.

Conversely, the fat guy in the Burn Ward, getting his dead skin brushed off by a heartless nurse, is not a funny image. Unless the fat guy is also a clown. Clowns are funny.

Just about every joke you've ever heard is based on these principles. Knock knock jokes go for the unexpected. Puns are all about substituting meanings. When Moe hits Curly with shovel, we're secretly glad we're not Curly. Or Moe. Or anyone in that gene pool.

Whenever there is some kind of tragedy, jokes spring up as a way for people to deal with it. When horrible things happen, humor is used to lighten the situation and to increase the distance between the affected and the observer.

The trick to writing humor is observation. What is a normal situation, and how could that become absurd?

The trick to writing humor in fiction is to use these absurd observations to add to the suspense of the scene, and to forward the story.

Here's a scene that I cut out of DIRTY MARTINI. I think it's amusing, but it took away from the action rather than added to the action. This was right after several police offers have been horribly killed. Jacqueline Daniels, the hero, is at the crime scene with Police Superintendent O'Loughlin (a woman), Rick (an FBI Agent) and Harry McGlade, who needs a favor from Jack.

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I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, but even though I didn’t agree with our new Superintendent, I was starting to like her.

But damn, she needed some fashion tips. Hadn’t this woman ever heard of shoulder pads? Her blazer made her look like the humpback witch from Snow White.

"Hey, you. The chunky one in the suit. You look like you’re in charge."

The Super eyed McGlade as he strutted over. He waved a piece of paper at her.

"This is how much the city of Chicago owes me for that space suit."

"Six people have died," O’Loughlin said evenly.

"You don’t owe me for them. Just the suit."

When she didn’t take Harry’s receipt, he stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

"Now about this liquor license," he said to me. "The mayor of this toddling town has refused to let me open a bar because of some silly misunderstanding that happened between me and one of his ugly nieces. I hit it to get on the family’s good side, but she was a real cave troll. I needed two Viagra and still had to prop a Hustler on her back." McGlade grimaced. "She had a beard, Jack. It was like kissing my grandfather, except with tongue. So I don’t call her the next morning, mostly because my face is chapped raw, and she goes crying to Uncle Big Shot and now I’m persona non grata."

Rick asked me, "Who is this guy?"

"That’s Harry. He’s a kindergarten teacher, works with special needs kids."

"He’s annoying me," the Super said. "He needs to go away."

McGlade grinned at O’Loughlin in a way I’m sure he thought was endearing.

"You look like you haven’t been laid in the last decade. Put in a good word for me with the mayor, and I’ll step up to the plate." He squinted at her chin. "Got a razor at your place?"

The Super called over two patrolmen, and had McGlade arrested. He offered up some prime examples of current urban colloquialisms as they carted him off.

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Now let's analyze the jokes in this scene.

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I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, but even though I didn’t agree with our new Superintendent, I was starting to like her.

But damn, she needed some fashion tips. Hadn’t this woman ever heard of shoulder pads? Her blazer made her look like the humpback witch from Snow White. Humorous image, comparing a bad blazer to a cartoon witch.

"Hey, you. The chunky one in the suit. You look like you’re in charge." Absurdity--you don't speak to authority figures like this.

The Super eyed McGlade as he strutted over. He waved a piece of paper at her.

"This is how much the city of Chicago owes me for that space suit."

"Six people have died," O’Loughlin said evenly.

"You don’t owe me for them. Just the suit." Fear--making light of a tragic situation by downplaying it.

When she didn’t take Harry’s receipt, he stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

"Now about this liquor license," he said to me. "The mayor of this toddling town has refused to let me open a bar because of some silly misunderstanding that happened between me and one of his ugly nieces. I hit it to get on the family’s good side, but she was a real cave troll. I needed two Viagra and still had to prop a Hustler on her back." Inappropriate, rude, absurd image.

McGlade grimaced. "She had a beard, Jack. It was like kissing my grandfather, except with tongue. Absurd image. So I don’t call her the next morning, mostly because my face is chapped raw, and she goes crying to Uncle Big Shot and now I’m persona non grata." Hyperbole--exaggeration for comedic effect.

Rick asked me, "Who is this guy?"

"That’s Harry. He’s a kindergarten teacher, works with special needs kids." Discord--Harry is obviously a selfish pig, not a Kindergarten teacher.

"He’s annoying me," the Super said. "He needs to go away."

McGlade grinned at O’Loughlin in a way I’m sure he thought was endearing.

"You look like you haven’t been laid in the last decade. Put in a good word for me with the mayor, and I’ll step up to the plate." He squinted at her chin. "Got a razor at your place?" Absurdity--he won't get his way by acting like this, but is too dumb to realize it.

The Super called over two patrolmen, and had McGlade arrested. He offered up some prime examples of current urban colloquialisms as they carted him off.

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I didn't mind cutting this scene, because it didn't add to the story much. The bit of story I had to convey was that McGlade needed Jack to help him with the mayor. Everything else was extraneous. So the scene was axed.

It's okay to go off on small tangents, but in this case it was taking away from the scene rather than adding to it.

Now here's a scene in WHISKEY SOUR that made the final cut. Jack is overburdened with work, trying to catch a serial killer, and she's forced to deal with the FBI. I wanted to parody the almost preternatural detecting power FBI agents often have in books, so I made my Special Agents, Dailey and Coursey, so by-the-book they were absurd.

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"For example," Coursey took over, "our suspect is a male Caucasian, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine. He's right-handed, and owns a station wagon or truck. He's blue collar, probably a factory worker, possibly in the textiles industry. He is an alcoholic, and prone to violent rages. He frequents western bars and enjoys line dancing."

"Line dancing," I said.

"He also wears women's underwear," Dailey added. "Possibly his mother's."

I felt a headache coming on.

"As a juvenile he set fires and committed relations with animals."

"With animals," I said.

"There's a high probability he's been arrested before. Possibly for assault or rape, probably on elderly women."

"But he's impotent now."

"He may also be gay."

I lifted my coffee cup to my lips and found it was empty. I lowered it again.

"He hears voices."

"Or maybe just one voice."

"It could be the voice of his mother, telling him to kill."

"Maybe she just wants her underwear back," I offered.

"He may be disfigured or disabled. He might have severe acne scars, or scoliosis."

"That's a curvature of the spine," Dailey added.

"Is that a hunch?" I asked.

"Just an educated guess."

I thought about explaining the joke to them, but it would be wasted.

"He may have been dropped on his head as a child," Coursey said.

He probably wasn't the only one.

"Gentlemen," I wasn't sure where to begin, but I gave it a try. "Call me a skeptic, but I don't see how any of this is going to help us catch him."

"First of all, you should start staking out western bars."

"And local textile factories that have hired someone with a criminal record within the last six months."

"I could stake out the zoo, too," I said. "He may be sneaking in at night and committing relations with animals."

"I doubt it," Coursey furrowed his brow. "The profile says he's impotent now."

I rubbed my eyes. When I finished, the two of them were still here.

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This scene was kept in, even though it is a slight diversion from the plot, because it adds conflict to the story. Jack is forced to work with these guys, and they are hindering her from doing her job. Unlike the humor in the first scene, where I was being funny just to be funny, the humor in this scene has a point and adds to the suspense and tension of the story.

Here's one more scene, from RUSTY NAIL. Harry McGlade has been kidnapped, along with Jack's friend Phineas Troutt. Phin wakes up tied to a chair, with Harry tied up behind him.

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A sound, a low rumble, comes from behind him. Phin can’t turn far enough to see. It comes again, louder.

Snoring.

"Hey! Wake up!"

"I’m awake. I’m awake."

More snoring.

"Goddamnit, McGlade, wake up!"

"Huh? What’s happening?"

"We were drugged at your wedding."

"I got drunk at my wedding? There’s a shocker."

"Drugged, McGlade. We were drugged."

"Is that you, Jim?"

"It’s Phin. Wake up and tell me what you see."

A long pause. Phin wonders if the moron fell asleep again.

"I’m in a chair, tied up. Looks like some kind of factory or warehouse. There’s a cargo docking bay off to my right, but the door is closed."

"What else?"

"We gotta get out of here, Phin. If I don’t get this tuxedo returned by tonight, they’re charging me for another full day."

"Concentrate, Harry. What else is around you?"

"There’s some kind of office in the corner. Door closed, no lights. On my left... holy shit!"

"What is it?"

"This has got to be some kind of bad dream."

McGlade yells in pain.

"Harry? You okay?"

"I bit my tongue to see if I’m dreaming. I don’t think I am. Or maybe I bit my tongue in my sleep..."

"You’re not asleep, Harry. Tell me what you see."

"I think my tongue’s bleeding."

"Harry!"

"Okay. I see a long steel table. Got a bunch of equipment on it. And some stuff, new in boxes."

Phin doesn’t like the sound of that.

"What kind of stuff?"

"A blow torch. A power drill. A set of vice-grip pliers. And a chainsaw."

This has gone from bad to worse.

"Maybe they’re building a birdhouse," McGlade says.

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Again, the humor adds to the suspense of the scene. McGlade's attitude isn't the attitude of someone who is about to be tortured to death, and that is funny. But their situation isn't funny, and that's why the humor works. Something horrible is going to happen.

And later, something horrible does happen. And again I use humor, or rather my characters use humor, in order to deal with the horror.

Is humor needed in books? Does it make them better? Should you include humor in your work?

My answer is a resounding maybe.

Real life is humorous. People laugh all the time. Studies have shown that laughter, and smiling, are ridiculously healthy activities. Comedy has been around for thousands of years, and for good reason: People enjoy it.

Laughter brings people together, and laughter can make your reader enjoy your writing more. People like to be around those who make them laugh, and your characters are no exception.

Humor can make your hero more relatable, empathetic, likeable, charismatic, sympathetic, important, and identifiable.

Humor also can set a tone, capture a mood, make the reader more of a participant in the story, and become something you're known for, like Dave Barry, Janet Evanovich, and Carl Hiaasen.

Whether humor is right for your story depends on the story you're telling. Steven Speilberg knew this, and wisley cut the pie-fight scene from Schindler's List. But I believe that most stories can be enhanced by humor, even if humor isn't the main goal.

James Rollins is known for his over-the-top technothrillers. My favorite James Rollins book, ICE HUNT, features a brash loudmouth commando named Kowalski, who has some incredibly funny lines and scenes. His new one, BLACK ORDER, also has several laugh aloud moments, and this adds to the book rather than hurts the tension, because you become more attached to the characters and more fearful for their lives. Plus, it's fun to laugh.

Barry Eisler's first novel, RAIN FALL, wasn't without it's wry moments. But in recent titles, most notably KILLING RAIN and THE LAST ASSASSIN, Rain's friend Dox supplies a great deal of humor, much of it riotous. Besides being funny, Dox helps the reader to better empathize with Rain by showing a softer side of him.

Two of my favorite new writers, Jeff Shelby and Harry Hunsicker, walk the line invented by Robert B. Parker and use liberal amounts of humor mixed in with the tension and violence. Because of this, their characters are more instantly likeable than the darker, brooding heroes that populate noir and hardboiled ficiton.

One of my favorite writers, David Ellis, has an incredibly dry sense of humor in person, but this has been mostly absent from his legal thrillers. His most recent, EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, features a first-person narrative and several very funny lines and observations. Because of this, I identified more closely with his hero, and became more afraid for him than I had in any of the previous novels.

I believe that humor for humor's sake doesn't work. But if used to add to the story, to enhance a scene, and to develop characters, humor is something that is greatly appreciated by readers, and it can make a book even better.

So how do you know if you're funny or not?

Humor is subjective. Very subjective. Some people like the droll wit of Oscar Wilde. Some people wet their pants watching Rob Schneider get kicked in the groin (who are these people and how can we stop them?) It's entirely possible that something you think is funny will fall flat. This will happen. Even the best comedians have jokes that bomb.

There are three steps to figuring out if your joke is funny or not.

1. Do you find it funny? Chances are, you won't laugh at your own jokes (I rarely if ever do.) But I use the above criteria to recognize where jokes fit into the narrative, and can make a guess if it works or not.

2. After writing a joke, I test it by giving it to readers. My wife. Mom. Writing friends. Close friends. Agent. Editor. None are afraid to tell me, "That's not funny." They'll also tell me where they laughed. Or I'll watch them read and ask them.

3. If the readers are laughing, or if they aren't, figure out why. It's very much a process of evolution. Sometimes the idea behind a joke works, but the timing is off. Or the wording is off.

The more you learn, the better you get. My test is: If one person laughs, and one doesn't, it stays. If no one laughs, it goes.