Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bringing the Funny by author Rachel Hawkins

Wow. Can you believe we have the amazing Rachel Hawkins here? She's the author of HEX HALL, one of the best YA novels I've read this year. Yes, I might be a little biased. Whatever. She's frawesome! She's here to tell us how to bring the funny to our writing.

Bringing the Funny

I never set out to write funny books. When I first sat down and started on the book that became HEX HALL, I was convinced I was writing a dark mystery full of DEATH and BLOOD SACRIFICE and all sorts of other things that were IN NO WAY COMICAL.  Yes, my book would be like if Anne Rice and Flannery O’Conner had a baby (You know. Through science.) I would pose for moody author photos, wearing lots of eyeliner, and maybe some black velvet. Okay, so I hadn’t owned anything black velvet since an unfortunate flirtation with the Goth look in 9th grade, but whatever. The point is, I would write spoooooky books full of Angst and Danger.

Then I sat down to write. In my opening scene, I had a girl, Sophie Mercer, arriving at a creepy boarding school with her mom. It’s August, and the school is located on an island off the coast of Georgia, so the humidity is pretty intense. As they get out of the car, Sophie’s mom asks her what she thinks about the place. Sophie’s reply? “Awesome. I always wondered what it would be like to live in someone’s mouth.”

I stared at that line.

I deleted it.

I wrote it again.

I looked at it some more.

“Okay,” I thought . “So my Super Dark Book O’Death starts with a joke. Big deal. It’s kind of a smart-ass joke, so that’s acceptable. It’s not like The Funny is taking over or anything.”

So I kept writing, finally getting to the end of Chapter 1, where a werewolf attacks Sophie. “Yes!” I thought, fingers flying over the keys. “Werewolf attack! Nothing funny about that!” But as the werewolf charged Sophie, preparing to rip her throat out, did my intrepid heroine scream a four-letter word, or an awesome disemboweling spell? Nope. Sophie opened her mouth, and out came: “BAD DOG!”

This time, I didn’t even bother with the delete button. I closed the whole document and walked away from the computer. For the next few months, I tinkered with HEX HALL, the voice in my head going, “No one wants funny in their paranormal. It’s like the opposite of peanut butter and chocolate. How many funny books featuring the BRUTAL MURDERS OF TEENAGERS have you read, moron?”

But here’s the thing: When I was writing a dark, serious, angsty paranormal, I wasn’t having that much fun. When I was writing about Sophie doing pratfalls, or making an inadvertent dirty joke to her crush, I was grinning at the keyboard. So I gave in. I wrote a Funny Book (that yes, just happened to feature the brutal murders of teenagers.)

Luckily for me, it turned out that people did want funny in their paranormal, and I learned a very important lesson about why it’s so important to be true to your own voice. Of course, it meant I had to return that black velvet ball gown to the store, but that’s neither here nor there.

So if you’re thinking about Bringing The Funny, the best advice I have is: DO IT. I wasted too much time being scared of The Funny!

As for more specific advice:

1)      If ALL your test readers think a joke isn’t funny, it probably isn’t. If it’s just one or two, though, keep it in. The Funny is HIGHLY subjective, after all!

2)      Make sure The Funny is in keeping with the rest of the book. For example, HEX HALL originally had jokey, faux-fairy tale chapter titles, like, “Wherein Our Heroine Cries Like a Dork, Uncovers a Mystery, and Makes Lifelong Enemies.” Now, I thought this was HILARIOUS, but it didn’t take me long to realize that those chapter titles really, really clashed with the tone of the book.

3)      Have fun with all kinds of humor. I love a good witticism as much as the next gal, but then, a well-timed physical gag makes me crack up, too. Remember there are lots of types of funny, both big and small. Use all of ‘em!

Rachel Hawkins is a 30-year-old former teacher who left teaching to take a chance and get serious about finishing that book she’d always wanted to write. Her first book, HEX HALL, was the result of that leap of faith. She’s a graduate of Auburn University in Alabama and lives with her husband and four-year-old son. The second book in the HEX HALL series, DEMONGLASS, comes out March 1, 2011. Rachel is currently hard at work on the final book in the HEX HALL trilogy.


Anonymous said...

Use the Funny. Not hard to imagine the flickering image of a robed Jedi waving their hand through the air.

Thank you for the insight to simply let the book write itself when it wants to, comedy and all! Another example of getting out of the way of the story.

Hehehe... live in someone's mouth.

Leigh said...

I'm so glad you decided to leave the funny, because it's one of the reasons why I love HH so very much. In fact, it helped me realize that people relate to humor, and gave me license to use it in my unfinished MS. My working title? "Now With Hot Germans!" Yeah, well, I think it's funny. ;)

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Hee hee. Great article! Thanks for sharing the funny. I love that your character was accidentally funny. My hubz is quick to point out when I'm trying too hard (and failing). The best humor comes out naturally, like yours. I now have a great itch to read Hex Hall!

justJoan said...

I'm a bad person who hasn't read the HEX HALL series, but after the couple of lines posted here, I'm adding it to my TBR list.

Thanks so much for posting this here. I'm among the Forbidden Ones and appreciate people sharing WriteOnCon on their blogs so I can still enjoy. =)

Unknown said...

Hex Hall has been one of my favorite novels of 2010 and I love that she decided to go with it, take a chance and go against what she originally intended. Sometimes as writers we don't know what's best, that's why listening to our characters is so important!

Great post and I love Rachel Hawkins! Double frawesome for you Elana!

Heather said...

Sophie is one of my favorite characters! I'm finding myself accidentally adding some funny into my WIP, when at first it was Very Gloomy. But now I kind of love that my main character has some sass, even while she's uncovering terrible plots to destroy humanity. It's nice to think that people can still make jokes while they're running for their lives. I know I made jokes, even when things were bad (I believe that's what they call a defense mechanism?)

Jenny Coon Peterson said...

Great post! I love when writers can mix humor with serious stuff - it creates a nice break from all the YA angsty-ness. Especially when it's done really well like with Hex Hall. Thanks again for the post, Rachel!

Crystal said...

I'm so glad you decided to bring The Funny and doing what seems to come naturally to you when you wrote Hex Hall. When I first heard you talk about Hex Hall in person, there was no doubt in my mind that it was your brainchild.

Tom M Franklin said...

and here i was, thinking i'd never want to read anything filled with Death and Blood and Angst and Danger.

Suddenly, BOOM, there HH lands on my Must Read list.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

How fun! Now I must read Hex Hall!!!

Anonymous said...

I love funny in my urban fantasy. Balance the dark with the light. It's fun.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Awesome advice! I love funny in most things. So bring the funny. woohoo!
Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

Theresa Milstein said...

This resonated with me because I used to attempt to keep my dark books dark as well. But funny lines are a nice break from all the angst. Harry Potter books are a mix. And Percy Jackson's thoughts are often pretty funny.

How did I miss reading Hex Hall? I'm putting it on my list.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I loved Hex Hall. I'm glad you decided to keep the funny lines in. I'm not a very funny person, but if I think of any funny lines, I'll take your advice. Can't wait to read your next book.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tips!

Patricia A. Timms-McGehee said...

I love reading funny, but am scared to write it. My mom and sister keep telling me to write funny because that's how I talk to people, but I keep thinking how hard it must be to write funny. This was a great article. Thanks! Maybe I will give it a try.

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