Thursday, December 25, 2014

X-Mas in Writing

It's been looking a lot like X-Mas outside. I love the Holiday Season. Even though work seems to triple during this time, there is a special spirit out there. People are friendlier and more willing to give.
You can use this spirit for your writing. Holidays and special are a great source to support conflict and tension.


  • X-Mas: You could use the spirit and holiday feelings to create conflict in the protagonist. He might have just returned from a war zone and the spirit seemed unreal or a relative might have stage four cancer and the protagonist questions the meaning of live. 
  • New Years Eve: Use the spirit of new beginning with all the new years solutions to create a turning point I the protagonist's life. He might feel the need for change, but he is neglecting it until a plot twist on New Years Eve lets him embrace the change.
  • Pentecost: If you want to know how to use pentecost just read Pentecost from Joanna Penn. It is a brilliant example using the spirit and meaning of a  Holiday in a story.
  • 4th of July: Same here - I love how the movie Independence day uses this date to create tension. On July 1st you know there are still three days to go. But there is more to it - using the 4th of July implies the bigger cause. This is not a simple fight. It is all or nothing. It is about everything we believe in.  

Special Days

  • Birthday or Anniversaries: Birthdays and Anniversaries are a ticking clock. Every year we are shown our own mortality and that the number of years are finite. That is why we celebrate - it is less of an accomplishment, more an achievement.
  • Weddings: Despite the option to divorce, weddings have a notion being final. This creates tension - in the bridal pair as well as in the bridal party. Sisters/brothers could be jealous or here could be a rival amongst them. There are tons of fils out there covering this - My Best Friend's Wedding, Made of Honor or The Wedding Planer just to name some of them. You want novels as example? Here you go: Great Expectations where the marriage of Estella increases the tension by seemingly moving them out of reach for the protagonist.

Other Religion's holidays or special days
Even holidays of other religions might help to create tension in a novel, be it on Diwali, during Ramadan or Hadj or on Yom Kippur. However, there are two things you need to remember when doing so. First, treat the holiday with respect the way you want to have things treated that matter to you. Second, understand the holiday, its customs and meanings and especially they way people feel and celebrate it. If you are not sure, ask for help.

Other special days/historic days
There is an almost countless number of special or historic days or times you can use, discovery of America, Russian Revolution, assassination of JFK, Tchernobyl-incident etc.
The broader known the better, but you can also use less known events. On December 22, 1974 the Comoros voted for their independency from France. This is hardly general knowledge, but we all understand the notion of independence and freedom and therefore it creates tension.

You could also use general events, like the Superbowl or the inauguration of a president. It doesn't have to have a direct connection with the event, but the event itself creates a collective feeling. We have all memories accompanied with one of these days.

But why is it that these examples work? Because all these dates and events are important in some way.  They matter and whenever something matters there is a high chance/risk for conflict.

Merry X-Mas and Happy Holidays
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Diversity in Writing

Last week Chuck Wendig published a blog post which is like mirror or like a punch in your face, depending how used you are to be candid with yourself. The blog post was about racism, sexism and other -isms - not the obvious ones, not the ones we recognize in others or the ones that is brought to us in the news. It was about a latent racism or sexism in ourselves and its different reasons.

The blog post stands for its own, but I only want to add another angle - racism and sexism are the other side of the coin of something that was essential in the development of human beings; the ability to create shortcuts and compartmentalize experience. This doesn't make it better, but it helps us to overcome our own -isms.

The blog post ends with the suggestion to add more diversity into the writing industry, into publishing and into our books. I don't know about the industry and not much more about publishing, but I know my bookshelf and my writing.

My Bookshelf
I have a nice variety of books on the shelf - from European, Asian, North American and Latin American authors, male and female writers and... wait... honestly, I couldn't really tell the race of the author, simply because in most of the cases I don't know.

So what should I do about this? Look out for more books from specific authors, based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion? Quite the contrary - I thinks we should be agnostic about that at all. I love to read a good book; a good story told well. Coming from that angle I don't care about the author's background. I really don't and I think that is good.

My Writing
How many different races or how many religions do I have to include in a story to be diverse? How should the distribution of gender be? I truly think this is the wrong approach. There should not be any quotas that need to be fulfilled.

The question lies in the story itself. Your characters serve a purpose and if a protagonist needs to be male or female because of the role or the century the story plays, you can't write him as female. Well, you can try it, but the story still has to work. Maybe it does, maybe the story even gets better.

Same with race - it follows the purpose of the character and his or her environment. Why would I need to introduce a latin american character other than his roots play an important role in order to explain his behavior. On the other side, why should the main protagonist be caucasian? What is the purpose of it?

If In Doubt, Leave it Out
In the story I am currently writing I don't define neither race nor religion. Same with sexual orientation, where I don't put them into a relationship, I don't define it.

Because it doesn't serve a purpose in the story.

Ok, you could try to derive it from their origin or their name. Niklas Soderstrom from Sweden is probably caucasian and christian. Probably, but neither of it does matter. To pay his dues to the story he needs to be cynical and have a certain portion of fatalism and willingness to leave the system. I could replace him with Antonio Juarez from Argentina who had to flee the junta or Tony O'Hara from the Chicago suburbs. The only thing that matters is his purpose in the story.

Don't look for defining a race, a religion or anything else. If you are in doubt, leave it out.

Avoid Stereotypes
Stereotypes are the little brother of racism (or the little sister). I wrote a lot how gender, race, religion etc. should serve a purpose. This is dangerous, because you might be tempted by stereotypes you don't even recognize as such. And your unconscious stereotypes might be racist or sexist to others. Chuck describes this perfectly in his blog post and I have to admit I'm not immune to it. But what's the solution to this? Well, diversify your environment.

Diversify your environment
It all starts with ourselves. We tend to stay with our kind. It's human nature. We tend to group with similar people if not forced into a diverse environment. Don't deny it, but be aware of it. If you are not sure how a certain character which is not your gender, race, religion etc. comes across, you should seek for critics from people, which belong to it. I am sure, if you ask nicely, they will be happy to help.

In this sense, happy diversifying.
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Every Word Counts

"..So avoid using the word 'very' because it's lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don't use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys - to woo women - and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won't do in your essays." These words spoken by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet Society are an eye opener.

Don't be lazy. Every word written and every word omitted counts.

Blue Car
"It has been a wonderful first date.

  • While we spoke outside her door, a blue car passed"
  • While we spoke outside her door, a blue Mercedes with out of state plate passed"
  • While we spoke outside her door, a blue Ferrari passed"
  • While we spoke outside her door, a navy Ford passed. The kid in the backseat had this glance of astonishment in its eyes only kids can have when they see something new - and myself in that particular moment."

Do you see the difference in these sentences? In the first two examples the focus is on the car. It must pertain to the development of the plot. Maybe a blue car passed two days earlier when the protagonist witnessed a robbery. If it doesn't move the plot forward, leave it out. Imagine you have been on a first date - do you care about a car that passes while you still stand in the front of her door? Not really, right?

Except... the sentence tells us something about the protagonist. Have you ever seen a blue Ferrari? I haven't, and personally I couldn't care less, but there are men that would get all excited about it. It tells us something about his personality. If it is not what you wanted to tell the reader about the protagonist, leave it out.

Now, the last sentence tells us something about the guy too. I bet you too have these moments in your memory where you can tell each and every detail; how the sunlight was, the smell of snow in the air before it falls of the smell of rain after it has stopped. You know the number of the house on the other side of the street and the color of the car that passed in that moment. It is burned into your soul and most of the time it has something to do with a girl (or a guy).

If a word or sentence is not important for the plot, the story or the protagonist, LEAVE IT OUT.

Beware of Fashion
We are all children of our generation, but the older we get, the more we realize that many things that are IN right now aren't tomorrow. I grew up in the eighties with the A-Team, Knight Rider and music tapes. If your plot on a hero that saves a tape using a pencil you might need to explain it to millennium readers. Nowadays it's all about Facebook, Twitter & co, but who remembers IRC? Explaining past technology might be obvious, but even when using nowadays favorite technology - be aware, it can be forgotten tomorrow.

Try to stay away of using things that are fashion driven - you might end up with disconnected future readers.

The Perfect Word
In my blue-car-example I used the word speak, which seems to be a neutral word in that context. Now try to replace this word with 

  • discuss
  • argue
  • chatted
  • flirt
  • debate
  • teasing each other

See how it gives the story another direction.

You want to have another example? Look at the following sentence: 

  • "When I saw her the first time, she was reading a book."

  • "When I saw her the first time, she sat in the park on green bench beneath an oak tree reading a book."

Choosing the right word is crucial in order to paint the right picture into the reader's mind.

Increase vs Reduce
"Every word counts" goes in both directions - it can increase the number of words or reduce it. Word count decreases when you try to bring an emotion across and you can nail it with one word instead of describing it. On the other side of the spectrum you increase the word count in order draw a picture. If the car in the first example is just a car, the picture remains one-dimensional. In order to gain depth you need to say what kind of car and you might want to add some more description if it suits the purpose.

Eventually every word counts in order to nail it.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Different Faces of Discipline

It's NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo means discipline. If you don't sit down every day and write, you will end up with a huge pile of words to be written in the last days of the month. You might also be tempted to give yourself a free day. Don't do it unless you are one day ahead. It will haunt you for the rest of the month.

But NaNoWriMo is only one month. What about discipline during the rest of the year. Don't get me wrong; I don't talk about discipline in "real" live, like paying bills, cleaning the house etc. This is about discipline in writing and there are various aspects of it. I have to know it, because I am very much driven by creativity. Discipline is something I had to learn the hard way, therefore I see myself competent enough to be able to 'lecture' about the topic.

Discipline is outing itself in various aspects of writing and it is different for every writer.

Daily Writing
Everybody has his or her own daily routine, but however it is, writing should be a part of it. It doesn't matter if it is as little as 250 or more than 2,000 words. It takes a discipline to write consistently every day, especially when the day is already packed. I dare to say there is more discipline required when you have day job than as a professional writer. You need to make it a habit, otherwise it might be too tempting to say, "Tomorrow I will write double the amount of words, I promise." Currently, I do my writing on the commute, next to a 12 to 14 working hour day.

I already wrote about my writing habits in a earlier blog post, however, you need to find your own way. You might be a early morning writer or feel more comfortable doing it late at night. It is is all up to you, but you need discipline to sit down every day and write.

The Right Word vs Shutting the Inner Editor Away
You encounter another angle of discipline during writing - two actually, depending which side you are coming from. How long do you look for the right word until you move on with your writing; one minute, ten minutes or half an hour? I am very quick in writing down a short note about what I wanted to say and move on with my writing. Others might be tempted to spend a lot more time at this point. If you are like me, you are probably fine. Except that your future self might curse you for that. If you are the later one of the two you should train yourself to let go for the moment.  This doesn't mean you can spend some time to search for a suitable word, but you should stop at some point and keep on writing.

Here's my favorite. While you were on the bright side above during writing, when you didn't insist on finding the perfect word, you will suffer during editing. Here it is all about the right word, the right scene, the right character. It might be because of where I'm coming from, but in my opinion, discipline in editing is the most crucial one.

Imagine, you've done hours and hours of rewriting and editing. You almost spent more time for editing as for writing and at that point your discipline has to kick-in to go to the end of the road and have a perfect book. Even more when you are an indie and can't rely on an editor/publisher.

Marketing and Sales
There is a reason why marketing is a profession on its own. It means constant work and a high level of creativity to reach the customer - especially when you don't have a budget, only your work and time.
As well as you have to write every day, you have to market you and your books every day - planning as well as executing. 

Know You Yourself
Everybody needs discipline, but everybody needs discipline for something different. Discipline comes into play when you don't like doing something or when you have to set different priorities.

As an introvert, you need discipline to go out and market your book. When you are super creative, you might need discipline while editing. When writing aside a day job you need discipline to write every day. 

Last week I had a 70 hour workweek and was forced to decide between writing every day or finish this blog. I decided to write every day my 250 words, that is why this blog comes out with one week delay. And there's another angle to discipline. Discipline does not mean to kill yourself - it doesn't mean to do everything. Discipline means to overcome our weaknesses. Outside all discipline, you can only accomplish as much as is feasible in a day. It doesn't get longer than 24 hours. Knowing when to stop is also a kind of discipline.

Happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Get the Tears

Have you ever heard "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". It is part of a quote from Robert Frost. The sentence is followed by "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

The quote goes in two directions - Robert Frost later elaborated, that he also referred to the hard work a writer has to put into his work; tears, like in "blood, sweat and tears".

However, in this blog post I want to go into the more common interpretation, that without the feelings in the writer, there wouldn't be feelings in the reader. As a writer, you need to be able to feel what you write, love, fear, anger. But how can you write about extreme emotions? So, you are not allowed to write about them. Well, there are multiple ways to understand emotions.

 Mending a Broken Heart by Nicolas Raymond
Mending a Broken Heart by Nicolas Raymond (photo from Flickr) 

Most of us experience a variety of emotions throughout childhood, adolescence and later in live, being loved and cherished, falling in love, anger etc. When writing about these emotions, it should not be too difficult to recall them. I am usually so into my story, that the emotions come automatically. If not, you can try to concentrate on certain events or moments in life where you remember these emotions to be very strong. That might help.

I know that sounds so easy now, but usually it is. However, there might be situations which are more difficult, for example when you grieve for someone, when you just had a fight with loved ones or simply when you are anyways stressed out and just got another deadline on your calendar. The only way to get through that is to sit down and write. Either you try to write the scene, knowing you might have to rewrite it (actually, you might even like the undertone of how you wrote it). Or, you write something different and come back later to this scene. It all depends on what works better for you.

Having said all that, there are emotions that are more difficult to recall, such as guilt, shame, envy, schadenfreude, angst etc. They are difficult to recall because we usually try to hide them from ourselves. Myself, I remember some of them and I don't like to recall them. On the other side I know that my writing becomes so much stronger when I do so... no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

If you are not sure how an emotion feels that you want to write about, it actually doesn't matter if you did not have this emotion yet in the magnitude you would like to write about it or you simply haven't been able to recall it. In that case, you can try to use surrogate techniques such as observation or empathy.

Observation and Empathy
Watching people live, on video or in movies can be a good surrogate to see emotions. Observing their reaction and trying to feel them, can help your writing. 

Examples? Here you go: 

  • Watch the Lovabull proposal on Youtube. The cheerleader is surprised at the beginning and she knows something is on, but she maintains a professional manner. She knows she is on stage. The moment when she realized what it is, she laughs and then she is overwhelmed for ten seconds until she regains control. Try to catch that moment and feel what she might feel. 
  • In The Patriot, watch the scene when Mel Gibson as Benjamin Marin loses his faith after his second son Gabriel died. Don't listen to what he says, just watch him. He can barely breath.
  • Another movie example is Falling Down with Michael Douglas. Can you follow him the moment, when it clicks? He gets out of the car and tries to escape, but he's not there yet. He tries to see his children and gets rejected, but he's still not there yet. Very slowly he pushes the limits further until there is no way back.
  • There are also examples in real live. Have you ever watched a couple fight in a restaurant - this mixture of suppression of anger together with sudden small outbursts. Can you feel how the chest is always under pressure, when they talk. In private they would probably fight with a rapier or a broadsword, but in public they fight with a needle. 

Don't get me wrong here - I don't want you to copy these feelings, but to understand them in order to be able to produce characters that express them. You need to understand the underlying emotion and realize what it can cause when it gets extrapolated and the controlling mechanisms are taken away.

Your writer in a foreign land

The Ideal Length of Books - Then, Now and Tomorrow

Last week I confessed that my first drafts are too short. With 30'000 words, they are a kind of bare bones drafts or extended plots. However, is 30'000 really too short? How long should a novel be? Well, it depends...

The Traditional View
If you google "book word count" you get tons of links. Scrolling through them, the answer to the question for the ideal novel length isn't an easy one.

Based on Wikipedia a novel is between 60 and 80'000 words, while thrillers might get up to 100'000 words. For NaNoWriMo it is more than 50'000 words and for the Nebula award over 40'000 words. A blog post from Writer's Digest from 2012 differentiates between clients and different genres. Middle grade is around 30'000, Young Adult around 40'000 and an adult novel around 80'000 words. On the upper end, the spectrum reaches 115'000 words for Sci-Fi and Fantansy.

But why all these rules? A blog post from Harvey Chapman on novel writing help gives a hint: Publishing Industry standards.  It seems that these numbers are a sweet spot for print books:
  • "Thin novels might be cheaper to produce, but book buyers won't feel that they are receiving their money's worth - a 150-page book does not sell for half the price of a 300-page book.
  • Thick novels will be more expensive to print, meaning more units will have to be sold to reach the same amount of profit - 600-page novels are not twice the price of those of 300 pages."

I get it - it's an industry standard that has evolved out of year long experience. Still, it has changed over time adopting new technologies as well as the overall market demand. Based on a blog post from Charlie Stross on his diary. SF book length evolved from somewhere around 50'000 in the 1930ies due to the weekly magazine style via 70'000 words in the 1960ies to the current size of 115'000 words. The blog post suggests, that the inflation between the 1970ies and the 1980ies triggered also a demand in thicker books (i.E. customers would accept higher prices much more if they also see that they get more).
You get a similar result looking at the average word count of famous novels:
  • The Crying of Lot 49: 46,573 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five: 47,192 words
  • Lord of the Flies: 62,481 words
  • Brave New World: 64,531 words
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 70,570 words
  • Lolita: 112,473 words
  • Madame Bovary: 117,963 words
  • Moby-Dick: 209,117 words
  • East of Eden: 226,741 words

The average word count on Amazon is about 64'000 words. Given a bell shape curve, Animal Farm with 29,966 words and War and Peace with 544'406 words seem to be the tail end.
The Indie View
Again, technology triggers a change. E-books and new distribution channels enabled the indie revolution. A writer can publish a book with 30'000 words via KDP - no industry standards, no restrictions.

Even the main argument from the publishing industry with readers expecting a certain numbers of pages to justify a certain price is not relevant anymore. With an e-book price of maximal $2.99 and a book without visible size the number of words is secondary as selling point. And even if we translate this back into the printed world, with print-on-demand, the cost to have smaller books is affordable to a writer.

However, there is the craft-vs-the-money trap again. Writers might tend to write shorter novels in order to be able to produce more books and hence, sell more books. Nothing wrong with that, but less words should mean less characters and subplots, not flat characters or lousy subplots. A shorter story needs to be less complex. Exceptions apply, however, I would go with this as a general rule.

The Outlook
So far, we looked at the impact of production and cost on the lenght of books, but we haven't factored in the demand side of the equation. What do reader want and how is the reading behaviour changing the landscape.
I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball, will say I don't have empiric data to underline an analysis. However, I do have an opinion based on observation.
I think, there will two different kind of reading behaviour, one that is time spent on reading for the purpose of reading and the other one is reading as a gap filler. I love to dive into a good strory and read for hours and I don't care if I have a physical book of 500 pages. It's the rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee reading. On the other side I have a commute of 45 minutes twice every day and I see a lot of my fellow commuters reading with their e-readers or smartphones. Now think of yourself, if you  have 45 minutes time, how far do you get. Additionally, if you have only 45 minutes you will be much less patient to read through non-action scenes as if you are deep in the story on a  rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee. You will scan these pages until you get to the next action scene.
You see, it's a different reading and I predict, that there will be a growing market for shorter novels, maybe even serials, and longer books will adapt in a way to be digestable in 45 minutes.

At least in the next decade - for everything beyond I would definitely need a crystal ball.

Happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Discovery Writer Reloaded

I am still rewriting my story and simultaneously translating it from German to English. Remember? I am glad I decided to do this. 

When I started I assumed that I would be able to improve the story, but I couldn't imagine how much I have to fix. Not plot-wise, but with regards to storytelling. I had far too much telling in it and not remotely enough showing. Additionally, some characters needed development in order to keep up with their assignment.

However, I realized there is another angle to it, that I wasn't aware before. I already knew that I am an inbetweener, something between plotter and discovery writer, and that I develop the plot during the breaks in the middle of the story. Going back through stories I wrote so far, I noticed that my first drafts always tend to be very short. I mean really short. 

I write my first drafts in a kind bare bones approach. Of course, there are side tracks and various characters, but outside the main characters and the central plot they are flat and colorless. It's the bare minimum to tell the story. 

You could also call it an extensive plot.

Please don't misunderstand me, there's nothing wrong with this approach. It simply means more work during the rewriting phase. It's a little like painting - first you do a sketch with a pencil and afterwards you color it. An then again it also means further backload the work. 

How it works out? See for your self, how the first lines evolved: 

"He had heard about the death sentence years ago on one of these old pirate radio stations. He knew this would be his last day. The night had already fallen and there was only a small sickle of purple left on the horizon. He had noticed the lights a while ago. Like fireflies they were crawling down the hill on the other side of the lake.

"Here they come. You are late guys, years late. Even for Argentinian benchmarks, you are late." 

His chuckle turned into a cough."

Not yet there, but a whole better than the first draft.

Happy rewriting
Your writer in a foreign land

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Third Hat: Marketing and Sales

As a writer you need two hats. One is for writing, where you should limit your thoughts on such profane things like grammar or the perfect word. Everything you write is good the way it is. The other one is for editing. With that one on, nothing is good enough. It has a built-in adverb-adar. At least that's what I thought so far.

Well, there is a third one which is for marketing and sales. Wait a minute, I hear you say. That's my publisher's and the bookstore's job. You are right and if you feel, you are in good hands and you'd rather focus on writing, you can stop reading now and go writing. However, even if you are with a traditional publisher, marketing and sales will become an increasingly important part of a writer's life. A writer will become more and more an entrepreneur, with all upsides and downsides. So, let's get started with some basics and then climb up the tree to the fruits. 

Marketing vs Sales
In a nutshell, Marketing is the planning side of how to sell your books, sales is the moves and measures to increase the number of sold books. With other words, marketing is strategic, sales is tactical. 

There are several concepts in marketing, from the 4P-model, that evolved into the 7P-model, via AIDA (Attraction-Interest-Desire-Action) to the design school model that largely bases on the SWOT analysis, and you can be sure that this is not the end of the story. Technological and social change continuously impact the different models, but ultimately they still circle around the same fundamentals. 
Following, I'll use the 4-P model (marketing plan) to make my point.

The core of the product is given, will say not depending on marketing. You hear it from all sides - write what you love. Don't write for the market. Next to all the creativity arguments there is a strong marketing argument; due to the identification and production lag your book will hit the market with thousands of others that tried the same. 

However, there are things around product you have to decide and which have an impact on the other P's and vice-versa. Print and e-books have different needs for place and different price tags. The book cover is probably the same for the front, but the spine and the back give you an additional option for print books. 

I can only scratch some dimensions here; there are a lot of decisions to be made, including font and title and I haven't even started with the audiobook angle.

Which are your distribution channels? Amazon/KDP, Kobo or you own webpage? You could also select print on demand and try to get into some local bookstores. Ultimately it all boils down to how easy it will be for a potential customer to buy as soon as he decided to - the link between desire and action in the AIDA-formula.

I already talked about price points and price elasticity in my last blog post and in April I re-blogged a post by David Gaughran about e-book pricing. However, outside the direct impact of pricing on sales, there is a psychological component to it.

A book is a typical experience good. Despite sneak peeks, book covers and reviews, a reader knows its value only after he read it. As a consequence he attributes value through various indicators, including price. In general, an e-book for 2.99 is perceived to provide a higher value than a book for 0.99. 

Last but least, giving away an e-book for free might provide you with an increased e-mail list, but you also have to be aware that free stuff might also transmit the underlying message of no value. One way to get around this could be to label the e-book 1.99 and offer it for free if signing up for a newsletter, but we are already getting into sales here.

Promotion is all about information, i.e. how do my potential customers know about my product. For books, this is the most crucial part of the marketing mix, because it has a direct link to the number of sales. The more people notice your book (attraction), the more will request more information, the more will have the desire to buy it.

In this sense, notice does not only mean see, but also be open for it or expect it. When you are not open for a message, you perceive it as spam (products offered via Facebook, unwanted e-mail offers or buy my book-tweets). On the other side they are open when they expect a message, e.g. in a newsletter or information about the progress of your new book on facebook or twitter. 

In a second step, they should have valuable information available at hand. At best, there is a seamless handover between noticing, information and the ability to purchase and receive the product as fast as possible.

Last but not least, don't forget to track the success of your promotions. Only that way you can improve the success and with the possibility of the digital media it isn't even difficult. A simple way would be to use specific links that allows the tracking of each campaign.


Sales campaigns are temporary adjustments to the marketing mix in order to increase sales. Usually it includes a promotion combined with a price reduction or a value add. You could for example offer your book for a special week with a discount or offer two book at the price of one. In addition, you have to tell the world in one or the other way (newsletter, fellow blogger/podcaster). BookBub is a typical sales campaign. 

Product as well as place might change too, but not necessarily. Offering a signed copy is a change to the product and a sales campaign during a book signing is a change to place.

You have almost limitless options and combinations - some work better, some don't. I'm following The Creative Penn podcast and the Sell more Books podcast and I'm always astonished about their tips and ideas.

Portfolio Management
As soon as you have a second book out, you can start thinking about portfolio management. Again, there is no right or wrong. However, different combinations have different advantages. Spreading your stories over different online channels might reduce the cluster risk, but it also dilutes sales. Offering some stories on KDP and others on Kindle unlimited gives you different type of income streams, you can even think of grandfathering stories on Kindle unlimited or writing a Kindle unlimited series. Again, sky is the limit.

But why do you tell me all this?
Often, when I read blog posts or listen to podcasts, the terms and ideas are mixed up. Promotion is called marketing and then the article is about sales activities, or in another example the place and product are completely ignored and it is all about getting your name out.

Marketing is much more; a strategic way of thinking in order to generate optimal revenues and sales campaigns are tactical ways to boost sales in a given timeframe.

The moment all i's are dotted and all t's are crosed, the details of the market introduction should be defined and the promotion should already have started. However, it should be a well thought-out decision rather than just the way the author always did it. And after it is published, the author has to change the hat and stay on top of it - keep the ball rolling. Then it's time for thought-out sales campaigns.

Happy selling or should I say happy marketing
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Craft vs. The Money

Recently I read and heard a lot about money in writing, business and all the discussions around it. Last week I read a blog post from Michael Hyatt about "Why you should do it for the Money (and Stop Feeling Guilty About It)" which he had re-published on Facebook, and I remembered an earlier one from K.M Weiland about "3 Reasons You Shouldn't Be Writing for Money" and guess what; both are right in their own way. 

I don't know when this discussion started to take off, maybe with the increasing indie movement. Although I'm pretty sure it was already cooking before that. The following blog posts addresses writers that want to make money in one or the other way. If you write for fun, please go on - write and publish for free. There is nothing wrong with that, but this blog post isn't for you then.

The Seeming Conflict
At the first glance, this strikes me as a simple conflict of targets. Either you focus on the craft (e.g. more research, longer writing cycles, more reviews and edits equals less books produced) or you focus on making money (e.g. more books produced in the same time equals more money). This conflict of target is similar to one most companies face: Quality vs. earnings.

But is this really a conflict? I can already tell you, no it's not; neither in business nor in writing. In business you can reduce you quality to a certain point in order to increase quarterly profits, but usually you damage long term profits much more. In writing it is the same, but before we get there let's look at the industry.

The Industry and the Changes
Let me get this very clear at the beginning: Writing is a Business. The moment a writer wants to earn a single cent from his books it is a business. Even when he simply wants to get break even and have a payout for his investments. It is a business. Hence, lets look at the value chain. 

The Traditional Model
In a very simplified view, the writer is responsible for writing the story and does rewrites and edits to some degree on his own, to some degree requested by the publisher. At a certain point the product is handed over to a publisher, who improves the work together with the writer in order to make it publishable (i.E. sellable). The publisher also takes care about the physical production as a book or e-book as well as the marketing and sells the product together with a bunch of other products to the book stores who act as distributors (including Amazon). At the very end, the distributors sell the books to the consumer. 

In addition to the real cost the publisher also takes some risk with regards to the unknown trends in the market. Nobody can predict, which book will be picked up by the marked generating enough profit for the whole value chain. The distributors only take limited risks as they don't really invest in a certain book. The writing also takes only a limited risk as he usually received an advance. The publisher on the other side pays an advance and invests into the product as well as marketing and sales. He copes with this risk by spreading the efforts over a high variety of books.  This approach is similar to Private Equity firms investing in different start-up companies, hoping the next Twitter or Facebook is among them.

In this model the author gets about 9% of the book price (after 1% goes to the Agent). Lets assume the book is priced for $20. In order to have a monthly net pay of $2,000 for his work, physical book sales must be at 1,111 per month. With e-book prices it is worse, as e-book prices are usually lower around $6.99 to $9.99. As an example, at $7.99 book sales would have to be at 2,781 books per month. In reality this would probably be a hybrid calculation - with a 20% share of e-books, the number of monthly book sales would have to be 1,263.

The Indie Model
In the same simplified view, the indie model cuts out the publisher and goes directly to the distributors. All cost related to the additional review, marketing and sales, but also non physical cost like networks, risk taking and know-how, have to be taken over by the writer. 
In order to keep it simple, let's do the above calculation for e-books sold via Amazon KDP with a book price of $1.99. In order to have the same $2,000 per month with a royalty rate of 70%, an author has to sell 1,436 books. But with this amount none of the fixed cost is covered. Most of the additional work will stay with the author, especially the cost for the additional reviews and edits, but also the efforts for networking, marketing and last but not least the risk. 

For the sake of the calculation let's assume a non specified writer needs 6 months to produce a book. For review, editing and book cover cost end up to be between $3,600 and $5,000 I've taken the lower end examples out of a blog post from Miral Sattar "The Real Cost of Self Publishing a Book". With these additional monthly cost of $600 to $800, the number of books sold increases to 1,866 and 2,010 respectively.

Impact on the Writer
Don't misunderstand me, I am not arguing in favor or against one or the other model. Additionally, there are other aspects to be considered, such as the rights to your book etc. However, every writer has to answer the question which model he selects for himself. Each of the models has advantages or disadvantages. 

From a monetary view point, the traditional model means less work and risk, but also less upside potential and the indie model means more work, more risk and more upside potential. Now here's the clue. Basically, the author has four options to increase income:

Increase Sales of One Book
The author can try to increase the sales of one particular book by increasing marketing cost and efforts. However, sell more of one book means usually sell to new customers. This is always more difficult than selling new products to existing readers, given that they enjoyed the previous books with their quality. Additionally, marketing studies show that there is a limitation in efficiency and effectiveness with marketing activities.

Increase the Book Production
Increasing the production of books is probably the easiest way to make more money. One one side every new book has a tickle-down effect on new books and on the other side new books with new covers and new stories mean attracting different readers.

Ask for a Higher Price per Book
Simple, isn't it? Well it's not, because there is something like price elasticity. In simple terms; the lower the price the more you sell. The degree of how much more depends on the product. Gas usually has a steep price elasticity as past price increases have shown. For e-books there is probably not enough data yet to plot a reliable curve, but looking at the feedback of various indie authors prices between $0.99 to $2.99 seem to result in reasonable books sales whereas higher price points significantly reduce number of sold books. Hence, there are limitations for higher prices as they are counterproductive and result in less revenues.

Reduce Production Cost
You can reduce the production cost to almost zero; no editing, do your own cover designs and do the formatting and digital conversion yourself. You even don't need an ISBN. 

Out of above options, there are two low-hanging fruits: 

  • Produce more books (i.e. less effort for plotting, reviewing, editing, proofreading)
  • Reduce external cost for editing, proofreading, formatting
There is a built-in incentive to reduce the quality of the product, if there wouldn't be...

The Importance of the Craft
And that is where the craft comes into play. The will, the poise and the integrity towards what it means to write a good book. The craft needs to be the holy grail, basic motivation to write. Because if it isn't, the money will not follow. Readers might buy one book from you, but if the craft isn't the foundation of it all, they probably won't buy another one. It's the same as in companies with the quality. You might buy it ones, but the second time you will switch to a better product if you weren't satisfied. 

The craft is the soil, to grow the tree of money. But there is more to it, even a tree needs water, nourishment, some cut downs and a lot of care. More about this in next week's blog post.

Happy crafting
Your writer in a foreign land

Monday, September 22, 2014

Humor in Writing (4 of 4) - How to Apply it in your Writing

Now it's time to get some real work done. We had some theory, we looked at some excellent examples of humor in writing and now it's time to look at your writing.

In the first blog post I mentioned that everybody's humor is different and your humor should come out of yourself. Therefore, this last episode of my humor series I focus on guidance and rules as well as pointing out potential pitfalls.

Use of Humor in Characters
The easiest character is the cynical one, because he can be cynical all the time. Did I say can? To be quite honest, he must be cynical. This is nothing he can choose, it is part of the personality and a sign of a deeper scar. You would not expect a cynical character to suddenly be hopeful or simply nice.

However, for every rule there are exceptions. They suit very well for character arks. Being cynical at the beginning, the character's scar is revealed over time and after they experienced new hope or love the wound starts to heal.

Introducing a cynical character leaves a question in the reader. He wants to know the why, the history behind the characters cynicism. If you don't provide it, the character will appear flat.

Sarcastic characters are more ambivalent. Sarcasm usually acts as a outlet for them, for example for fear or pressure. In order to need an outlet, the sarcastic character needs to be committed to something or someone, otherwise they would not need an outlet and simply walk away. As sarcasm is only a facet of this character, it is not the main focus in a character ark.

However, a sarcastic character can very well turn cynical when e looses his faith. It is even possible that a character with a sarcastic note has a cynical moment at a plot point,  when he looses faith and later looses his cynicism again when he picks up his path again.

Irony fits very well with mentors. Usually they show the right kind of distance in order to make the irony work. It can also work with other character types, but they need to have a certain distance or grace. An ironic character can turn sarcastic when he looses distance, but I haven't seen an ironic character turning cynical yet as he would need to loose distance and faith at the same time. It is not impossible, but I think it is very hard to write it in a way a reader doesn't get thrown out of the story.

Cynical, Sarcastic or Ironic Narrator
To let the narrator bring the humor into a story is another powerful option. When talking about a humorous narrator we first have to keep it apart from placing funny comments every here and there in the story. Humorous narrators are that way throughout the whole story - they should not act out of character.

For cynical, sarcastic or ironic characters, basically the same rules apply as for characters - cynical narrators need a scar, sarcastic commitment and ironic distance.

However, when using the narrator POV multiplies the options and pitfalls. Let's take the cynical character as an example. In first person, the author can has to reveal the scar as part of the story. A cynical romance with a happy end in first person doesn't work. It leaves the reader without explanation, kind of "What's wrong with this person? He got everything at the end. Why is he not happy?" 
In third person, the scar is the story, but the connection of the narrator and the story has to be revealed.

Looking at the same romance with a happy end, the cynical tone of the narrator implies that the happiness of the couple is his scar. A reader would probably assume because he wanted to be with the woman. Still, I wouldn't let the opportunity pass to interlace some background story reveal the rival in love as narrator at the end.

A sarcastic narrator in first person gives an interesting tone. It implies that the narrator has to cope with something, e.g. his own fear or tension, and gives the author the opportunity for a later plot point. On the other side it requires to reveal the reason for the sarcasm to a certain extent. Why? Well, a sarcastic narrator will be already sarcastic at the beginning, when the story hasn't taken off yet. This per se creates a tension as well as a promise and this promise to the reader has to be fulfilled. A thriller with a sarcastic narrator in first person creates the promise that the author will throw something at the narrator that will be far out of his capabilities and comfort zone, but gives him also the opportunity to grow.

An ironic narrator immediately creates distance, in first person to the narrators own live and in third person to the story as a whole. I try to stay away from ironic narrators, as they take away tension from a story. For example a thriller with an ironic narrator tells us actually that whatever happens in the story isn't as bad as it sounds, at least when looking from a distance. Same with a love story - if you have an ironic narrator, the love wasn't as absolute or existential as it was felt during the story. Ironic narrators take reduce tension and that is definitively not something you want as an author.

Humor used for Pacing
The variety of options where and how to use humor for pacing are almost infinite. In most cases, humor relieves tension, but in rarer cases it can increase tension. 

Usually, after an action scene or a scene with high tension, a joke works as outlet in order to give the reader time to breath before starting to increase tension again. However, using this technique the writer has to be careful not to release all tension otherwise he is risking to lose momentum. If done incorrectly, these are the moments a reader puts the book away to go to bed. But how do it correctly? Humor after a high-tension scene should include foreshadowing. With this simple technique the tension is kept up. In the movie "Die Hard" (the original) there was this scene, where one of the terrorists was really angry and Holly Genaro McClane says to one of her colleagues "Only John can drive somebody that crazy." Funny line, but it implies that there is coming more.

On the other side, humor increases tension, when it is obvious to the reader, that the scene is not over yet. When the resolution was too easy readers usually get suspicious and a joke at this particular moment increases the tension. Even though it's actually funny, you don't dare to laugh because you expect the hammer to come down any moment. This split between expectation and relieve creates tension.

With regards to the how, the following options are most commonly used:

You should introduce them early and give the an additional role outside of being funny. Also, give them a character ark - something to grow. By doing that, you are not bound to use the sidekick solely when you need their humor for pacing.

When you make funny comments as the narrator, the reason for it should be visible to the reader. Also a narrator has to act within character.

Main Character
The biggest pitfall for using the main character for pacing is the same as for the narrator - he can not act out of character. Keep this in mind. 

The easiest and probably mostly used way is situational humor. The variety has no boundaries, you can use slapstick, ironic or cynical situations. 

Humorous Story 
Writing a humorous story is the showcase. It's fairly easy to use humor for pacing. It's much more difficult to write humor in a character or in the narrator, but to be funny and witty through a whole story on a consistent level is very difficult. 

If you decide to engage in a humorous story there are some guidelines that make live easier. First, you need a topic or a theme. Additionally, if you have a message, it easier that just trying to be funny. Then I highly suggest to plot the story rather than discovery write it. And last but not least you need to decide the tone - is it cynical, sarcastic or ironic and when decided you have to stick to it.

Humor in writing is an art itself. Incorrectly or sloppy applied it is an axe, but correctly applied is a scalpel.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Humor in Writing (3 of 4) - Learn from the Masters

In the last two blog posts we went through a bit of theory on humor in writing. Let's look at some good examples, before we talk about how to apply humor in your writing. 

1. Humorous story

1.1. Don Camillo
After WWII, Giovanni Guareschi created a series of short stories combined in several books with Don Camillo, a priest sent to a small Italian town in the Po valley, as main character. The stories largely paint the rural live of the area and they mainly live on the rivalry between Don Camillo and the communist mayor of the town, Peppone. They had gained a mutual trust for each other as they had fought the fascists together during the war, but find themselves on opposite side of politics after the war. The stories are ironic, sarcastic, sometimes affectionate, sometimes biting, but the connecting facet is humor.

For example the part, where Peppone wins the lottery, but as communist mayor he can't admit that he had played. So he uses an anagram of his name to cash it, but Don Camillo finds it out and forces him to split the lottery win with him - half of it for the communist community center and half of it for the catholic play school.

Another beautiful example reveals the rivalry-friendship when Don Camillo has to leave town in order to serve in another parish. Peppone threatens everybody so nobody would appear at the train station to say goodbye to Don Camillo. However, Don Camillo's supporters would wait at the next train station and at the train station afterwards, his adversary Peppone and the communist party would wait to say goodbye.

The whole series is a declaration of love to his home country reflecting its struggles to grow together after the war.

1.2. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adam's five novels already have reached cult status. Although it plays in the vast space of the universe and even in distant times, for example when they have dinner in the restaurant at the end of the universe, it holds up a mirror to ourselves nowadays.

It already starts in the introduction, when it describes that most people on earth were unhappy an they tried to solve it by moving around small green papers. The author is using a metaphor to show us, money does not make you happy. I don't want to enter the philosophical discussion, whether this is true or not, but the humor he is using gets the point across.

In an other part, he shows us three spaceships that have been sent away from a distant planet with the useless third of the population on board, consisting of tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitisers and the like. The joke strikes, when one of these ships is landing on prehistoric earth implying that all problems we have on earth are caused by tired TV producers, insurance salesmen etc. but this one is a double dip, as the people on said planet are extinct afterwards by a decease caused by an unsanitized phone, implying that society needs a "useless" third. In this case, the technique used is a farce.

Last but not least my favorite one;  the build-up of a gigantic computer to find the answer to "life, the universe and everything". 7 1/2 million years later, the computer finally got an answer "42", which might have been the perfectly correct answer, but absolutely useless. The author makes the point clear, how important it is to have the question right in order to receive a valuable answer.

1.3. Animal Farm
The whole story is a satire, set up as a kind of a long fable, and uses a variety of methods, especially metaphors and farce. By using humor, George Orwell tried (and achieves) to reveal the route the Russian revolution took as a warning sign to beware of false promises.

Every animal reflects a different role or person, Old Major is a mix between Karl Marx an Lenin, Napoleon is Stalin, boxer is the working majority of the people and the puppies are the security police.
One of the centerpieces are the commandments for animals on the farm after the humans have been banned, including "All animals are equal". The original commandments were more and more bent by add-ons, but the most important one  is the change to "All animals are equal, but some are more equal."

1.4. The Innocent Abroad
Mark Twain's book is another wonderful example of this category. Sometimes with a pinch of irony, sometimes with a tablespoon of sarcasm, he reports the journey of a ship of American pilgrims that want to visit the Holy Land. He uses humor in order to lighten up a basically boring travel report - with success.

I especially love the moment when he realizes that the kingdoms he was always imagining himself as large were actually quite small and the distances Jesus travelled were not that far at all. Obviously if you think about it, but to be honest I found myself in the same spot, when I was at bible class as a kid.

2. Humor Used for Pacing

2.1. A Short Stay in Hell
A Short Stay in Hell starts with a hilarious scene at entry desk of hell, which seems more to be like a first day on he job in a large corporation. Hell continues to be a fairly nice place, except for some violent extremists that built up their little kingdom. The horror comes slowly to the reader when he starts realizing how long he will have to stay there and what eternity actually means. 

In this story, humor serves as pacing instrument. With the funny start, the author keeps the reader in a light mood, so the horror hits him even harder at the end. 

2.2. La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful)
In know, this is a film, but when I thought about the how humor is used in "A Short Stay in Hell" I realized, that I've seen this before. La Vita E Bella (Life is Beautiful) is a tragic story about a family that got into a concentration camp in  the Third Reich. The father tries to hide the tragic reality from his son, by telling him it was all a game and making fun out of everything. Despite the tragic story you are actually laughing a lot watching it. But there is this one scene, that pulls you down, when the protagonist turns around the corner and stands in front of this mountain of dead bodies.

After the end of the movie and mainly while discussing it with friends I realized that this scene would not have been as powerful without the funny scenes before.

2.3. Funny Side-Kicks as Pacing Instrument
A lot of stories have funny side kicks in order to be able take tension out when necessary. They can be full of jokes and a little sarcastic like the Weasley twins or innocent like Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck. However, there are also bad examples of silly unnecessary side-kicks like Jar Jar Binks. The list of these side kicks can probably extended to infinity. Every Disney movie needs a funny sidekick, some we love some we hate.

3. Humor in Characters

3.1. The Cynical Character
The cynical character is maybe the most one seen in stories. It seems to be easier to write as he can be blunt and straight forward. But he is usually also the most interesting one, because behind cynicism there is a backstory - more than behind a sarcastic or ironic character. To get cynical somewhere something broke within a character, a dream, a heart, a hope.

3.1.1. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
He hides the pain of loss behind a cheeky cynicism. The whole book is filled with sentences like the following.

"Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."

"Who wants flowers when you'r dead."

3.1.2. Rick in Casablanca
Rick hides his broken heart behind dry cynicism. 

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine..."

"I'm a drunkard." (When asked for his nationality).

3.1.3. Nick in The Great Gatsby
Nick's cynicism is more difficult to catch because it doesn't come up when he speaks, but through the narrator's voice. His cynicism sources out of the disappointment of the class he dreamed or hoped to be part of. The best example for the following:

"I couldn't forgive or like him (Tom), but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They are careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

3.2. The Sarcastic Character
The sarcastic character is much more difficult to draw then the cynical. You have find the fine line between biting humor and a positive view on the world. As with cynical characters, there are much more books with a sarcastic narrator than a purely sarcastic character. As a narrator you can add much more comments than a character can speak. Imagine how many sarcastic dialogs you would need in order to shape a character and how difficult it would be to let them say anything else that is not sarcastic.

A very good example for a sarcastic character is Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. He also shows a very crucial difference between the cynical and the sarcastic character; while the sarcastic character doesn't have to be sarcastic all the time, the cynical character is cynical to the bone. Ron Weasley uses sarcasm to cope with fear, for example when they were trapped in devil's snare and Hermione tells them to relax otherwise they will only get killed faster, he replies, "Kill us faster? oh, now I can relax!" Or his all famous sentence, "Why spiders? Why couldn't it be follow the butterflies?"

3.3. The Ironic Character
The ironic character needs a certain distance from the subject in order to look at it with mildness. Usually age gives a good distance. Good examples of ironic characters are,

3.3.1. Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter
He is a very good example of an ironic character. Here are some quotes:

"What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally the whole school knows."

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

"Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."

However, even an ironic character can turn sarcastic, when he loses the distance. Dumbledore realizes that he has to sacrifice Harry and it hurts him. He buries it inside him, but when Snape questions him, it breaks out as sarcasm. "But this is touching, Severus... have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"

3.3.2. Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
His irony is more difficult to get, but he always talks with a scent of a smile on his lips, which let every of his quotes appear ironic. However, some examples:

"If you spent as much time practicing your saber techniques as you did your wit, you'd rival Master Yoda as a swordsman."

"Why do I get the feeling, you're going to be the death of me."

3.3.3. Andy Dufresne in Stephen Kings' short story Rite Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Before he escapes, Andy writes in the bible he got from Warden Norton,"Dear Warden, You were right. Salvation lies within." and leaves behind for the warden.

Andy's distance is not based on age, but on the knowledge of his innocence.

3.4 Character development
In the same short story, Stephen King shows us an interesting character development from a cynical to a ironic character. Red turns from being a cynical character in the beginning to a be ironic in the end, infused by Andy's hope.

He went from comments like "I hope he dies of intestinal cancer in a part of the world where morphine is as of yet undiscovered." to "I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged..." at the end of the book.

The author even names the spell at the very end, "I hope."

4 Other Uses of Humor
Besides the mentioned instances there are many other reasons or ways to use humor in a story, be it to underline foreshadowing, as a cliffhanger or as simple as an easter egg.

In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez introduces a simple sentence at the end of a chapter, "...that was, when he [the dictator] sold the sea." This obviously farce-like sentence is used a cliffhanger to keep the reader in the story.

Easter Eggs are hidden jokes or insider jokes in stories. If you look for examples,  J.K. Rowlings is a master in placing easter eggs. Just enter easter eggs and Harry Potter in Google search and you will find tons of examples.

Well, so much from the masters. Next week, I'll talk about how to use humor in your story and the pitfalls to avoid. 

Until then, happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Humor in Writing (2 of 4) - Theory

Message to my past self: How can you expect my to write about a such broad and complex topic, such as humor. There people out there studying this and I am just a writer.

Answer from my pas self: Told ya.

Well, let me try it.

"No, do. Or do not. There is no try" (Yoda out of the background)

1. Definition
In my past blog post I outlined the importance of humor, but what is humor? Unfortunately, there is not a recipe for humor and definitions available aren't helpful either. 

Rod A. Martin came up with the following definition: “From a psychological perspective, the humor process can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioral expression of laughter.” (Martin, 2007, page 5) - nice, but not really helpful.

I probably don't have an abstract definition readily available, but I think that the following three elements must be present:

A) Violation
In order to make the joke work, there must be a violation involved. It has to be out of the norm, either slightly (for example word plays usually fall under this category) or quite far (e.g. morbid or dark humor). Just remember, the further you go, the fewer people will laugh about it. Not everybody has the same taste. 

B) Surprise
It must be told in a way that people were not able to foresee it. Laughter is a spontaneous reaction.

C) Uncovering
In order to work, a joke has to tell us something true, which is latent in nature or at least not obvious. Some years ago, jokes about blond haired women were en vogue. They did not reveal that hair color indicates intelligence of a person, but rather the preconception that blondes have in society. In general it comes down to the German saying: "The joke is the hole out of which the truth is blowing."

2. Methods
There are different methods how to apply a joke. Below, I tried to explain the most important ones:

By using farce you exaggerate a situation in a way, that it almost becomes impossible, a kind of deliberate absurdity. Good examples are probably the movies "The Hangover" or the novel "Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy".  I would also count  "The Many Farfetched Adventures of Baron Munchhausen" into that category.

Using a hyperbole means to exaggerate, for example: "This guy is a giant. He can clean the windows in the second floor without ladder." Somehow the hyperbole is the little brother of the farce. While the farce is more en exaggeration of a whole story, the hyperbole is used to make a point in one sentence.

A Metaphor is an analogy similar to a simile, but stronger. By using a a completely different object as comparison a special, mostly hidden, aspect of the main object is pointed out. 

Need an example? "Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor." (Truman Capote). Or the opening line from William Gibson's novel Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel." 

An extended version of the metaphor is the parable, which extends the comparison to a small story. My favorite one is the Ring Parable out of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise".

Compared to the farce, the metaphor is a more subtle instrument which usually leads rather to a smile than to a laughter.

I love puns, although I have to admit that in a conversation I still don't get most puns. For somebody with another mother tongue, they are difficult to catch. Puns are word plays by which a word with two meanings or similar sounding words are switched. Let me show you some examples: 

  • "When two egoists meet, it's an I for an I."
  • "Everyday is a gift, that's why they call it a present."
  • "I used to be  a transplant surgeon, but my heart just wasn't in it."
  • "The best way to communicate with a fish is drop them a line."
  • "What's up? Answer: I am up - and running" (referring to the IT SLA term "up and running" for servers or systems).

Some puns use the actual different meaning of a word, other use different words that sound similar. It can also use multiple words that sound similar together:

  • "Why can a man never starve in the great desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there." (Richard Whately). 
  • "Infinity is not in finity"

We are even given puns in literature, for example by Shakespeare:

  • "tomorrow ... you shall find me a grave man." - when Mercutio was stabbed.
  • "being heavy, I will bear the light." - sad Romeo, as he asked for a torch.

3. Excursus: Irony, Sarcasm, Cynicism
These terms are often used to describe certain types of humor, they are rather describing intensity than methods. What makes them so powerful is the fact that they reveal something about the mindset of the person. 

Here is my view on what they mean:

  • Irony is used to point out things that go wrong with the hope to make it better. In its nature it is caring and benign. It let's you smile.
  • Sarcasm is a more aggressive, using sometimes even mockery and derision. Still, the ideology and world-view is positive. It is a shout for help to make the world a better place.
  • Cynicism is as aggressive as sarcasm, but it unmasks a negative view on the world. A cynical person sees the discrepancies in the world, but has no hope they can be resolved. More than any other way of humor, cynicism is a coping technique.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land