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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Humor in Writing (1 of 4) - Overview

First a message to my future self: I was aware of what I started here and I know that you will have a hard time to write the following posts about humor. So stop whining and get them to paper.

Writing humor is definitively easier as writing about how to write humor, and then again probably not. While I might laugh about my own jokes, others might not and especially in writing the direct feedback link is missing. A writer doesn't know if his jokes are appreciated. Beta readers, editors etc. might give hints for the biggest no-go's, but they are an already biased population.

However, humor is such an important instrument of a writer, that I want to give a little more insight in when and how to use it in your writing, spread over different blog posts:

  1. Overview
  2. Theory (components, methods)
  3. Learn from the best (dissection of good examples)
  4. Where and how to apply humor in your own writing

As you might already have notices we are in the middle of the overview, but before going further, let me define humor. Depending the source, there are different definition of humor out there, but all have the same common element: amusement and laughter.

As a summary (and for the purpose of this blog post) I can say that humor is something that makes us laugh.

But why do we want our readers to laugh? Humor and laughter are as important for human beings as love and company. We are social beings and humor is a way to connect with people in a positive manner. People who have the ability to be funny receive positive attention and admiration and quite often can smoothen awkward situations. 

However, there is more to it. Laughing has a crucial psychological component. It helps people to cope with stress, misery and sometimes even with pain, acting as an outlet.

In all this definition lies the power of humor for a writer. You can 

  • write a humorous story which only purpose is to make people laugh
  • use a humorous story to transport a deeper message or to critique an existing situation.
  • use a certain humor style to define a character's voice
  • use humor for pacing - similar to the humor's outlet role in psychology
  • use humor to spice up your writing in general

In that sense, happy laughing
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Carve Out Time For Writing

This week I failed my own standards. I wasn't writing my 250 words every day. I know, I know... I should have. But there is a reason for that - work. "Work, that is no reason, that is an excuse. We all have to work. You have to force yourself if you want to be a professional writer." I can already hear the arguments, discussions and opinions. 

Seriously? After three days in a row with 16 hours at work, I just fell asleep while writing. No kidding - by body took its toll. 

Here is the clue - apart of taking yourself seriously as a writer, you also have to take care of yourself. You have only a certain amount of time and it is completely up to you to decide how you want to spend it. I agree that cutting off gaming, surfing and sometimes even reading is a good idea. However, I would stay away from cutting time off sleeping, eating and a decent amount of exercise. Also, try to find a sustainable balance between writing and your social life, be it time with your family or with friends. Last but not least there is work and sometimes the amount of time you have to spend for it is not in your hands.

Having said that, even with a demanding work like mine, there is room to carve out writing time.

I have twice a day 44 minutes of train ride which I can use for writing. Sometimes I use one of the train rides for reading or listening to writing podcasts and the other one for writing or I use both for writing. On a normal day (i.E. when I don't fall asleep) I make about 300 words during one train ride.

Lunch time
Not every day, but at least twice a week I find the time to go to a park or a coffee shop and write some pages.

Even with family, there is always time on the weekend to write - sometimes more, sometimes less. As I am more a morning person, I try to get up early in order to have more time during the day. My blog for example is something I usually outline on the subway ride (10x 5min) and write it down on the weekend. Having said that you probably want to communicate your writing time actively if you have family. Don't leave them without knowing what are your plans so you can have your time and they know when they will have you back.

For vacation, basically the same rules apply as for weekends except that you might carve out more time in order to do more intensive work, such as rewriting or editing.

A little side note on tools. If you have a rather scattered writing schedule like me, one of the main criteria for a writing tool is seamless synchronization. In my earlier writing days I used very brick-and-mortar approach - I e-mailed my story back an forth using the e-mail account as tool. Key to this approach is a meticulous versioning. 

Today, there are several tools which have built-in synchronization functionality. I use a tool called the Storyist, which allows me to have my story up-to-date on all my devices (Notebook, iPad and iPhone) on one click.

Happy carving
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Paint a Picture

Reading is like 5D-cinema - with the difference, that the reader does the biggest part of the work. The only thing he needs is a small impulse - a picture drawn in his head.

This is, where the wheat separates from the chaff. It is part of the craft to paint a picture into the head of a reader, but it is an art to paint it in a way that it becomes alive and accompanies the reader through the book and even after he read it.

I am currently reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, where he describes this scene when they travel up the river.

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances."

Can you see it too, the dark and daunting rain forest, the turbid river? Can you also see the rotten boat, the silent crew staring with empty at the green wall of slow passing trees and the underlying despair? I can. But how did he do it? 

First, let me take a step back. What do these sentences have in common:
"He entered the room."
"She walked down the alley."

In both instances, the places are blank. We only know that it is a room and not a hall or a closet something else and maybe we know out of the story if this is in a castle or a space station. But other than that, the room is blank. The same with the alley, it is not an avenue or a trail. The rest of the picture is blank. This is too much of a white page for most of the readers to fill with his imagination, just as it is too much for many people to imagine a sculpture in a block of marble. 

Don't get me wrong, this might be intentional. You might not want to interrupt the action or you might want to put more emphasize on the character's thoughts or a conversation he/she is having. Similar to the first lines in Ender's Game - without being given any details about the room, the conversation receives much more weight. However, in most cases you need to fill the blank space in order to create a living picture. But don't overdo it - too much description drags the readers attention away from the plot and works against the most powerful weapon of a book: The reader's imagination. You only need to give the reader a jump start and he will fill the room with his imagination. But how?

Let's take a little example. If you enter a living room, you immediately get a sense of the room which tells you something about the person that lives there. Is it a family with or without kids, a single, do they have pets? Is it an artsy or book lover? Are they young or elderly? Sometimes it is one item or a smell and sometimes it is the pictures in its completeness of all items. In any case you only need to give the reader one or two characteristic pieces and the reader does the rest, but the piece have to nail it.

Back to our examples:
"He entered the room. His eyes needed some time to adjust to the dim light. After a moment he was able to see the miserable furniture. The stuffy air made the room appear even smaller than it were."

"She walked down the alley beneath the infinite number of clotheslines hung from balcony to balcony providing a nice shade from the hot sun. The smells out of the open doors reminded her of her grandmother's pasta arrabiata and made her hungry."

See how the picture came to live? I just added a little something and your mind did the rest. The same is true for Joseph Conrad scene above. The key sentence for me is "There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine", this part gives me the depressing feeling. Now, imagine this picture as a starting point for a series of scenes - as a reader you will see the every following scene in the shade of this picture.

Happy painting
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Get The German Out

I'm back again! Working on a new story - at least in English. I've decided to go for option 5 - rewrite a story I've written in German. It was my first story and somehow I think, rewriting it will also improve the story - mainly based on the assumption that I should have gotten better in the meantime with all the practice.

The story is about August, a good hearted family father, who stumbles through a near future world where big data is abused by big corporate to sort out unprofitable customers. But its more than that, government is involved too, until a small incident tips the first domino stone over and August has to decide on which side he stands.

Well, so much for the elevator pitch, but before working on that one, I need to get the German out of the story.

Let me give you an example of the first lines translated word by word: 

"He knew this was his last day. The night had broken and on the horizon only a small sickle of afterglow testified of the past day. He could see the lights already since a while, they came to get him, soon they would be here. From his cabin he was able to see far. Right in front he could see Lago Argentino, that is he could see it, but know there was only a big black spot. On the right, the white of the Perito Moreno glacier was glaring."

Do you see, what I mean? The comma rules are different, so I will have to rewrite the sentences. Additionally, terms like "the night had broken" or "afterglow testified of the past day" might sound perfectly right in German, but for an English version I need to find more suitable expressions. Also, there are other expressions, that just don't work.

Doing that for a whole story is a piece of work. But it's also fun and by the end I'm pretty sure the other story has rested enough.

Happy rewriting
Your writer in a foreign land