Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Post: Janni Lee Simner on Writing Your Way

By Janni Lee Simner

Sometimes I wish every bit of writing advice -- every talk, every blog post, every one-on-one conversation -- began with a disclaimer:

This worked for me. It might or might not work for you. Give it a try. If it works, great. If it doesn't, don't worry about it. Move on.


When we begin writing for publication, there's so much we're trying to learn that it's only natural to begin looking for rules. And well-crafted stories do have some things in common, beginning with engaging at least some readers, one way or another.

But someplace beyond the basics of bringing words and characters and plots together, every writer not only tells different stories, but we tell them in different ways.

Some writers outline; others jump in knowing nothing; others do something between or sideways of both these things. Some writers write multiple fast rough drafts; some write one slow, steady, careful one. Snappy dialogue or lush, descriptive prose. Advance research or researching what you need as you go. Writing every day or writing in passionate bursts of activity. Elaborate writing playlists or complete silence. A book every three months, a book a year, a book every five years.

No matter how you write, there's someone out there who writes completely differently. And for many of us, there's a voice inside our heads that, seeing that, begins to worry: Am I the one doing it wrong?

This voice is loudest on the days the writing is going badly, of course. If your messy draft took you five years to revise and you just got yet another rejection in the mail--and if that's the day you come across a blog post by a bestselling writer explaining that if only writers outlined, they'd make fewer mistakes--it's hard not to wonder if they don't have a point.

Ditto if your critique group has just told you that your carefully outlined book lacks voice, and then an award-winning author gives a talk about how to find the heart of their book they had to let go of all planning and just plunge into the story.

Neither of these bits of writing advice are wrong; they're just not universal.

They left out the disclaimer: This worked for me. It might or might not work for you. Give it a try. If it works, great. If it doesn't, don't worry about it. Move on.

It works the other way, too. After struggling to make sense of this whole writing thing, when we find something that really does work for us, it can seem like a revelation, and we want to go out and share our shiny bit of new knowledge, maybe spare others the grief we went through to gain it. We want to say, "Look! I figured out this thing that makes stories better! Everyone should use it!"

Sometimes, in that moment of revelation, it feels like everyone should.

I've been on both sides of this: doubting my instincts and experience when I heard that to become a true professional I really needed to outline more; wondering aloud whether stories that relied too much on outlines would ever go as deep or be as powerful as they could be.

On one level, I knew every writer was different. On another, it took me years to truly understand and believe it.

What I believe now is that we're all on a journey, as writers, to find our own best processes, the things that let us tell our own stories as well as possible. It doesn't matter what worked for someone else--even if that someone else is a bestseller, or an award-winner, or a writer whose work you admire so much you desperately want to write just like them.

You can't write like them. You can only write like yourself. If anything gets in the way of that--don't worry about it. Move on.

So long as you're trying to make your stories better, you're not doing anything wrong.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of Faerie Winter by Janni Lee Simner (Random House, 2011). Read a short story by Janni, set in the same world as Bones of Faerie (Random House, 2009, 2010) and Faerie Winter from Coyote Wild Magazine.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New West Coast-based Red Fox Literary Will Represent Authors and Illustrators for Children's Market

SHELL BEACH, CA - Red Fox Literary, a boutique agency representing children's book authors and illustrators, has officially opened shop and launched its website.

The agency will offer a dazzling array of talents from among its roster of clients, including New York Times and Time magazine Best Book winners and some of the most promising up-and-coming talents working in the field today.

The duo behind Red Fox Literary is veteran agent Karen Grencik and seasoned editor Abigail Samoun.

They hope to reproduce the success of their first agent/editor collaboration from nearly a decade ago, Sarah Wilson and Chad Cameron's George Hogglesberry, Grade School Alien (Tricycle, 2004), which won the highly esteemed SCBWI Golden Kite Award.


Grencik is thrilled about the new agency. "I love everything about agenting: corresponding with clients and editors; watching ideas and books come to life; having that first cup of coffee and opening up my emails to see what surprises are in store for the day."

But what really drives Grencik are her authors. "I love them-they are my reason for getting up in the morning."

Grencik will be representing authors writing for picture book, chapter book, middle grade, and young adult audiences. She's currently looking for stories about real life and real people. "I love stories where character development is front and center. I'm all about the people."

As the other half of the agency, Samoun will initially be focusing on the illustration division. "We have sixteen illustrators signed so far, most of whom I've worked with before as an editor," she says. "They represent a wide range of styles-reflective and digital, figurative and stylized, humorous and whimsical, traditional and contemporary. Some of the illustrators have been in the business thirty years; some of them are just starting out."

In understanding the market, Samoun states, "An author's voice is important in helping carve out an identity in the publishing world, but there's an illustrator equivalent of voice too-each of Red Fox Literary's artists has a distinctive style and point of view. I'm very excited about the talent we're bringing to editors and art directors."

Redfoxliterary.com will have a key role in promoting the agency. Says Samoun, "As an editor, I conducted hundreds of hours of illustration searches. I know what it's like to go from website to website, hour after hour, looking for the perfect match for a story. The websites I liked best presented the illustrators' thumbnails right on the splash page, included lots of samples, and the option of making those samples nice and big. I really didn't like having to squint at the screen, trying to determine whether something was done in colored pencil or watercolor. So when we created the Red Fox Literary portfolio page, our priority was making it as easy as possible for editors and art directors to review our talented illustrators' work. They can even download a PDF of each artist's portfolio to print out and take to meetings."

The site will also include an author page, agency highlights, a blog, a shop selling the work of Red Fox illustrators, and a unique feature Samoun calls "Studio Tours." "Working with an illustrator for the first time was always a bit daunting for me. Who was this person? How did they work? What had they done before? It was always a bit of a gamble. I wanted to find a way to make editors and art directors more comfortable about trying someone new."

Samoun came up with the idea of creating short films of artists in their studios showing their work and discussing their inspirations and past projects. The site's first Studio Tour highlights Princess Posey illustrator Stephanie Roth Sisson. In the five-minute film, Sisson discusses her early influences as a child growing up in Switzerland and shows sketches of a current book in progress.

"It's great because it really gives you a sense of how Stephanie works and what she's like as a person," says Samoun. She eventually hopes to create studio tours for each of the Red Fox Literary artists.

When asked about her ultimate goal for the new agency, Grencik responds, "We want Red Fox Literary to become a respected agency that strives for the highest standards, both in terms of the quality of its clients' work and its professional ethics. We want to provide authors with a fresh diving board from which to spring, and a safe home from which to do their best work."

Cynsational Notes

See also a Cynsations interview with Abigail from her days as an editor at Tricycle Press.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Interview with Morganville Vampires Author Rachel Caine by Karleen from Kids' Ebook Bestsellers. Peek: "I think as the price points shake out for the technology and content, we're going to see more e-books in schools and in the hands of teens as well, but it will take a little more time, especially with educational budgets constantly shrinking."

How Many Pages Should a Picture Book App Have? by Loreen Leedy from e is for book. Peek: "...the number of pages (screens?) ranges from less than 10 to 30 and up. Some nonfiction PB apps may have even more."

Strengths and Your Protagonist by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "When a character's strengths are what stand between him and resolving the conflict, you've got an amazing story on your hands, because the reader will sense the tension...."

How Not to Be Taken Seriously by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "If you’re a self-employed, freelance writer, you’re in business. You’re creative–true. But you’re still in business if you want to make income from your writing. And often it is poor business attitudes that keep others from taking you seriously."

Feedback: Three Attitudes That Help by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "I need to ask questions to clarify the feedback, or the feedback is pointless to me."

Let The Be Light by Jennifer Ziegler from Hunger Mountain. Peek: "...tackling a serious subject in a humorous way doesn’t necessarily 'make light' of it. It can, however, lighten it enough so that you can more easily find your way—so that you don’t feel overwhelmed or hampered."

The Gift of Insecurity from Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent. Peek: "It turns out being a contracted and published author doesn’t automatically fill you with self-confidence and unending affection for your own work. Who knew?"

Are You Ready for the Call? by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker.netBlog. A list of questions to ask a prospective agent. Note: ask what you need to know, but don't forget to be a person. Get a feel for the human being on the other end of the phone, and whether s/he's a fit.

Anna Olswanger is now offering book coaching. She is the former coordinator of the Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference and through her work as a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in New York. Note: In Anna's view, a book coach can work with writers to define their goals. The coach is not their editor or agent. The book coach might talk to them about their agent and editor, and give them advice how to interact with them, but a book coach does not play those roles. If you are interested in working with Anna as your book coach, send her an email at anna.olswanger@verizon.net and describe where you are with your manuscripts or books.

On the Dark Side by Clare B. Dunkle from Hunger Mountain. Peek: "I find that dark writing can be cathartic. It can teach useful habits of mind, too, because if there’s darkness in a book, then there are characters fighting against that darkness, and we can learn to imitate them."

Striking a Gold Mine by Libby Koponen from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: "'It's not about striking a gold mine!' he said. 'It's about laying groundwork.'"

Resources for Young Writers from Donna Gephart from Wild About Words.

Canadian Award Short Lists, compiled by Michael Thorn from ACHOCKABLOG. Features the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, and John Spray Mystery Award. Highlights include Burn by Alma Fullerton (Dancing Cat), under children's literature and A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick).

Educational Publishing with Joanne Mattern: a chat transcript from The Institute of Children's Literature. Peek: "Basically, educational publishing is tied to topics that kids study in school, such as social studies, history, science, math, and language arts, but it can explore any topic. You'll see lots of books about things that aren't specifically studied in school, like biographies of celebrities or books about Navy SEALs or unusual pets, but these are nonfiction topics that kids are interested in."

2011 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards

Learn more about the 2011 winners and honor authors/illustrators.

Save Bookstores

On June 25, go shopping at your local, brick-and-mortar bookstore (or at least, say, Indiebound.com, Powells.com, Bookpeople.com--sites directly affiliated with them).

A bookstore is more than a place to buy books. It's a place to discover them. To connect with fellow book lovers. To bridge generations and build communities and step into the shoes of heroes from here to mythology and beyond.

Times are tough, but go anyway. If you can't buy a book, buy a bookmark or a piece of candy or just tell your local bookseller how much you appreciate her and that you'll be back as soon as you can.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) from A Simple Love of Reading. Deadline: June 22. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

Last Call: Enter to win an author-signed advanced reader copy of Tantalize: Kieren's Story, a graphic novel by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011), plus a magnetic Sanguini's wipe board! Note: Sanguini's is the fictional restaurant that appears in Tantalize and Tantalize: Kieren's Story.

To enter, comment on this post (click link), specify "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: June 17. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

Check out the Luminous Summer Grand Prize Giveaway from Dawn Metcalf. Deadline: midnight June 30.

Cynsational Screening Room

Enter to win Forgiven (2011) and Faithful (2010), both by Janet Fox and published by Speak/Penguin from P.J. Hoover from Roots In Myth. Deadline: June 24.



The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A Ninety Second Newbery Film. Source: Melissa Wyatt.



Uma Krishnaswami on using Darcy Pattison's Shrunken Manuscript Technique.



More Personally

Last week's highlight was

I gave talks on both my children's and my YA writing. This is a Seminole exhibit from "Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection." (The characters Ray and Grampa Halfmoon from Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) are Cherokee-Seminoles.)



Celebrities at my signing included Eugene and Charlotte from KIDS' BRAIN: Books, Reviews, and Information Now! a blog for parents and young readers maintained by the youth services staff at the Plano (TX) Public Library System. You can like them on facebook and follow them on Twitter.

Greg and I stayed at the historic Hotel Aldolphus--well worth a visit, if you ever find yourself in Dallas. My thanks to the Dallas Museum of Art and event volunteers, especially Helen, Risa, and also Tracy from Candlewick Press.

Interview & Blessed Giveaway with Cynthia Leitich Smith from A Simple Love of Reading. Peek: "I find myself identifying with Kieren a lot—we’re both bookish Austinites."

From Greg Leitich Smith:


Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Voice: Alissa Grosso on Popular

My name: Alissa Grosso is the first-time author of Popular (Flux, 2011). From the promotional copy:

For reigning popularity queen Hamilton Best, the very idea of graduation is filled with fear. She's always been the star of Fidelity High's most exclusive clique, idolized for her perfection and her fabulous parties—you know you're "in" when you make Hamilton's guest list.

As high school draws to a close, Hamilton is about to lose everything that makes her who she is.
To make matters worse, the clique is slowly coming apart at the seams. Although the hand-picked members—Olivia, Zelda, Nordica, and Shelly—all have their own agendas, desires, and secrets, they do have one thing in common: they're desperate to break away from Hamilton.

Yet Hamilton has the biggest and most shocking secret of all, one that only her devoted boyfriend Alex knows. If the truth got out, it would completely destroy her fragile world.


And she'll do anything to keep that from happening.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year?

I was that kid that always had her face buried in a book. Actually, I am still that kid, just a bit older. As a kid, I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I recall not liking historical fiction and books with talking rodents as a kid, mostly because these always seemed to be the books we were assigned in school, and if there's one thing I hated, it was being forced to read something rather than being able to choose what I read.

Most of all, I liked to read stories about real people. I don't mean biographies, though I did enjoy these as well. I mean stories about fictional characters who could have been real people.

To me, Anastasia Krupnik, Harriet Welsch (of spying fame) and Turtle Wexler, whose precociousness helped to solve the Mr. Westing's riddle, seemed as real as some of my real-life friends. I tended to read my favorite books again and again, and in several cases emulated some of my favorite characters. So, there was some confusion between fiction and reality in my young mind, and this was probably further compounded by the fact that I spent a lot of my play time writing books of my own in my head.

I had a pretty comfortable childhood. Probably the biggest challenge I faced as a kid was moving and changing schools every few years. So, it certainly wasn't as if I read books to escape from any sort of hardship. I simply did a lot of vicarious living through books because I enjoyed it. As for the re-reading, that was partly because I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to some of my favorite literary friends and partly because I didn't have nearly enough books available to me.

Writing Popular reminded me a lot of my childhood days of reading and re-reading books and making friends with the characters I found in those pages, because I really like the characters who populate this somewhat dark tale of high school popularity.

That's a good thing since I spent a lot of time with those characters in all the years of writing and revising, through editorial letters and now through public readings of my book. Even more so than with reading, when writing I need some characters that I like, some literary friends to help me see a book through from those early chapters to the eventual conclusion.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?

When I first started writing Popular shortly after I graduated high school, nobody owned cell phones and the Internet was still in its infancy. As a result, my first manuscript didn't contain a single mention of either technology and could have easily taken place in the early 1990s.

I actually wrote the second part of Popular much more recently, and so there are a couple of small references to the Internet and cell phones, nothing major and certainly nothing that's crucial to the plot.

I'm not yet sure how teenagers will react to the book. Will the glaring lack of technology references make the book seem quaint and old-fashioned?

I hope not. I hope that they become so immersed in the story they fail to notice the fact that nobody in Fidelity seems to own a cell phone.

My current work in progress, is almost the complete opposite of Popular. It is saturated with technology, and much of the plot is directly intertwined with current technology like social networking and reality television. This worries me a bit, because I know how fast technology changes, and this book could quickly become dated, especially if I don't hurry up and finish it.

With the speed with which technology is changing and the impossibly slow speed of the publishing world, it's pretty much impossible for writers to be completely current. I may end up having to publish my current work in progress as historical fiction in order for it to make any sense at all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Voice: Christina Mandelski on The Sweetest Thing

Christina Mandelski is the first-time author of The Sweetest Thing (Egmont USA, 2011). From the promotional copy:

In the world of Sheridan Wells, life is perfect when she’s decorating a cake. Unfortunately, everything else is a complete mess: her mom ran off years ago, her dad is more interested in his restaurant and the idea of a boyfriend is laughable.

But Sheridan is convinced finding her mom will solve all of her problems – only her dad’s about to get a cooking show in New York, which means her dream of having her family back together will be dashed.

Using just the right amount of romance, family and cute boys, The Sweetest Thing will entice fans with its perfect mixture of girl-friendly ingredients.


Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What, and how did it help you?

I would encourage any aspiring author to attend writing conferences and workshops. I have a degree in Creative Writing, but until I was in my 30s I never met a real-live published author and I had no clue how the publishing industry worked.

That all changed in 2003 when I attended my first writing conference. Because I write for children, my experience revolves mostly around events that are hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Now, I don’t know if it’s necessary for every children’s author to belong to SCBWI, but truthfully, it’s made all the difference in my career.

When I attended this first conference, a total newbie, I took the three-hour trek from my home in central Illinois up to Chicago. It was a day-long picture book event that featured an author named Lisa Wheeler, an illustrator named Janie Bynum and an editor named Michael Stearns, (remember that name; it’ll come up again later). The panel spoke not only about the craft of writing, but also about the business of publishing. This was the first time I’d heard some of this stuff – they were a treasure trove of information -- and I couldn’t write it down fast enough.

Then, at the end of the day, there was a first-page reading. I’d never participated in one, but it sounded like a great idea – you submit the first page of your manuscript and it is read out loud (anonymously, thankfully) to the entire audience. Afterward, the panel comments on what grabbed them (or did not) about the page.

I’ll admit, I was brazenly naïve. I had written a picture book, and not a very good one, about a girl who desperately wants a pony. Of course, at the time I thought it was brilliant, that I would surely be “discovered” that day. And why not? I love writing with a passion, and it had taken me something like a whole day and a half to write this story. Ha!

But when my page was read, the assessment, to put it bluntly, was: Not Good. I was devastated. The panel, who was actually very kind, basically explained that there was no story to my story. Who knew a picture book needed plot and character development?

Well, after that, I knew.

Although that particular part of the experience was a little painful, it was an absolutely crucial step to my growth as a writer. That day I learned not only that picture book writing wasn’t as easy as perhaps I’d thought, but that writing is truly a craft, a skill not to be learned overnight.

I also realized that day that there were a lot of other people (my fellow conference-goers), just like me, who wanted the same thing I did – to someday have a book, or an article, or poem, or drawing, in print. Fortunately, they were so welcoming, encouraging and forthcoming, that their numbers didn’t scare me off. Instead, I was inspired by their stories and became more determined than ever to make this dream happen.

I went home with renewed purpose. I studied picture book writing, checked out piles of them from the library, typed their content out on my computer. And soon I realized, I was no picture book writer. Too few words, not enough space to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I needed more room to spread out. So I started my first novel and never looked back.

I finished that novel and continued attending my regional SCBWI events. The conferences are wonderful opportunities to get your work in front of the eyes of agents, editors and other authors.

By the time I’d written novel number four, I was getting positive feedback, and eventually, in early 2009, that fourth novel caught the eye of an editor-turned-agent named Michael Stearns, (see, I told you it’d come up again).

When he offered representation, it felt like some sort of weird cosmic sign, like I’d taken some right steps along the way and was exactly where I was supposed to be. Then when I spoke to him, I knew he was smart, savvy and really nice. I said "yes."

So yes, I’m a firm believer in attending conferences (if you can’t tell). You never know who you’ll meet, or what you’ll learn that will inspire you or nudge you a step closer to your goal.

Even though I have an agent and a book about to come out, I still attend my regional SCBWI conferences. It’s so good to be amongst writing friends old and new, and let’s face it – there’s still plenty to learn. I recently went to the annual conference in Houston and took pages and pages of notes, and came home inspired and eager to write.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

This is an interesting question. I am at least neck-deep in some heavy-duty publicizing of my book.

I know I’ve learned tons, but I also know it’ll be a few more months before I can really sit back, relax and assess the knowledge I’m walking away with. Right now everything’s a bit of a blur.

I know this, though – I’ve learned quite a lot about my own personality over the last year or so. For example, I’ve always understood that I am the exact opposite of a natural born salesperson. I do take no for an answer.

I’ve always been okay with that, but I knew that was going to have to change when it came to marketing my novel.

Naturally, I want it to do well, I want people to enjoy it, I want it to find its way into the hands of my readers. So I began to prepare myself to come out of my non-sales shell and do whatever I could to make this book a success.

For me, this did not include hiring a publicist. It wasn’t in the budget, and I knew this going in. Along with my publisher (which has been wonderful publicity-wise), it was going to be up to me to spread the word about The Sweetest Thing.

The first and best thing I did was join some groups – first The Elevensies, an online community of authors with books coming out this year. This is a large-ish group, free to join, with lots of opportunity to publicize and also privately ask questions and seek advice.

From The Elevensies I got connected with the Class of 2k11. If you’re not familiar, there’s been a Class of 2k-whatever for the last several years. This is a smaller group, there’s a fee, and there’s a bit more pitching-in required.

Both groups have become important to me. If I want advice on anything from number of bookmarks to order (1,000 is not enough!), to how to balance family duties while finishing up a major revision, to what kind of pens to use when signing my book, I’ll go to these people.

I think, due to our smaller size, I depend more on my fellow Class of 2k11 members to lean on when I’m happy, stressed out, or baffled (or all three things at once, as has happened several times this year).

But despite the necessary support the members of these groups has provided, the One Big Thing I’ve learned is that I can't do everything.

Early on, I decided that I would push myself outside of my comfort zone and not take "no" for an answer quite so easily. So I talk about my book to anyone who will listen, have gotten to know booksellers and librarians, I contact book bloggers out of the blue and try to think outside of the box for ways to promote my book.

But, right now I’m so busy preparing blog interviews, sending out books for giveaways, planning for my launch party, etc., that sometimes I have to draw the line.

I’ve also had to learn to balance my marketing duties with my writing. Writing the next book, let’s face it, is pretty important – and so some days I have to limit myself to maybe one hour on emails and marketing and interviews, and the rest of the day I devote to my work in progress.

It’s tough to find that balance – but I’m figuring it out.

Another thing I’ve discovered about myself during this process is that while I don’t care much for the hard sell, I do love my book. I love talking about it – and I enjoy talking to people about writing and reading in general -- from teachers, to librarians, to fellow writers, to the teens who are my audience.

When it comes to marketing a debut novel, I think that’s half the battle -- to be passionate about what you've written. Yes, do your homework, seek the support of others in your shoes, and don't be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone -- but above all, believe in your book!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest Post: David Lubar on The Seven Stages of Humor (Or, Good Grief, I Hope You Like It!)

By David Lubar

I wrote a blog post in late April discussing how sluggish I'd been about promoting my upcoming book. (I could have mentioned the book's title in the very first sentence of this post, but I didn't. That's how lazy I am.)

The super-awesome Cyn suggested I could pick up the slack by writing something here. Given that her blog has about eight thousand times as many readers as mine (wait -- I think I might be multiplying by zero here), that struck me as a good idea.

She felt I should address humor. Or maybe she said I'd look funny in a dress. Since I'm not sure, I'll go with the former, which doesn't require that I shave my legs.

After several weeks of procrastinating, I started to think about the actual post. Before I could come up with anything productive, William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross had a tryst in my head, giving birth to the idea that the piece should involve seven stages.

I have no idea what those stages might be, but I'll just start listing ideas and stop before I hit eight. Or change the title. Given that I've already bitten (or written) through 40% of my allotted word count, you might end up reading "The Three Somethings of Something" or, perhaps, "One Way to Write Humor."

By the way, I suspect they're actually not "stages." They're more like types or approaches, but I've grown fond of the title and have written myself into too deep a hole to back out now.

So we'll take "stages" to mean platforms, as opposed to steps, thus making all of this slightly less wrong.

Yikes. I'd better introduce some content.

Okay. Humor.

Glancing through the stories in my new book, I can see that I use a variety of approaches to humor.

What's that? You want to know the title? Thank you for asking.

It's Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales (Starscape, 2011).

As for the approaches, perhaps there are somewhere between six and eight things that come to mind.

(Side note to Cyn: I'm beginning to suspect the piece might run a bit long. Maybe you can post it in two parts and bump James Paterson or James Franco. Side note to Cyn's readers: Stop salivating. I don't think Franco is on the schedule.)

1. Overstatement

Comic exaggeration is especially easy to do with a first-person narrator. Consider this passage from "Get Out of Gym for Free": "I figured the gym teacher would be tough, but he looked like he was about to bite off someone's head and spit it onto the floor. Maybe after sucking out the eyeballs."

The key is to go overboard, but not so far over the top that there is no anchor to reality. If I'd written, "... he looked like he was about to hurl atom bombs at each one of us," it wouldn't work for several reasons, the most obvious being that it's hard to picture anyone hurling more than one atom bomb. The first would pretty much do the trick.

2. Understatement

"I'd lost Dad's hand. This was not good."

Those lines come from "At the Wrist."

Many of the things that happen in my stories are so extreme that there is nothing to be gained from pointing out the severity, but there is plenty of comic potential from treating disastrous events in a matter-of-fact manner.

(Note to Cyn: This stage is intentionally brief, in an effort to make it understated.)

3. Parody

It's easy to make fun of existing structures, such as fairy tales, fables, or political parties.

(Bonus stage -- groups of three can be funny when the third item breaks the pattern.)

For me, these parodies often start out as twisted titles, such as "The Princess and the Pea Brain" (from Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies (Starscape, 2010)) or “Rapt Punzel” (from Vampire Weenies).

Those titles pretty much suggested the funny aspect of the stories. In the first example, the prince was so stupid, he mangled the simple act of placing mattresses on a pea. Instead, he tried to place the pea beneath the stacked mattresses and suffocated. In the second, our heroine watches far too much television. As for her eventual fate, it's a real head turner.

Which leads us to...

4. Death, and taboos in general

(Note to Cyn: Did you catch the way I cleverly crammed two things into one, so as not to go over seven?)

Speaking of suffocated princes, I wipe out characters at about the same rate that hand sanitizer wipes out bacteria.

While I cut a swath with my scythe, the manner of death needs to be wonderfully fitting (a lazy kid gets turned into a slug soon after gorging himself on salty pretzels) or amazingly bizarre (a carnival ride turns into a blender).

Death, like all taboo and euphemistically treated subjects, is funny, as long as it isn't personal. I wrote a whole series about a dead kid. It was a hoot.

As for taboos -- anything involving bodily functions, or bodies functioning, has the potential for humor. This is a delicate area for kid's books, of course. But farts are usually safe and pretty much always funny. Even the stunningly toxic ones my cat has recently been sharing with me.

As for more solid (or liquid) issues, you can always get by with a subtle or understated reference.

5. Relief

We laugh at pratfalls because we're relieved that they happen to someone else. We laugh at death because we aren't the victim.

Schadenfreude is not just fun to say -- it's a reality. The relief laugh by itself is generally subdued, since there is that twinge of guilt.

But it can be boosted in various ways, including our next stage.

6. Surprise

I can think of two ways that surprises can generate laughter. There is the delightful shock of the jack-in-the-box. But there is also the joy of figuring out the unseen connection or seeing the unexpected solution. A story can be constructed like a Rube Goldberg device, where an action launches a chain reaction.

Humor arises when the reader figures out the unstated connection. Here's an example from the story, "Cat Got Your Nose?": "Emily liked visiting Miss Reaker. She made wonderful cookies, as long as you didn't mind a bit of cat hair among the chocolate chips, and the occasional little crunchy thing that was better left unidentified."

Given that Mrs. Reaker's house is overrun with cats, it isn't hard to figure out where the crunchy things come from.

(Note to Cyn: Yikes, this is getting really long. You might need to do it in three parts and bump that J. K. Rowling piece.)

Here's a less subtle example. In a work in progress, I have the line: "Even with his face wrapped in black cloth, I had no trouble identifying Jimmy, thanks to a unibrow that could have been mistaken for a climbing rope." The humor is created when the reader sees the connection between the two objects.

Metaphors are a great way to generate that "ah-ha!" sort of reaction in the reader, and a reliable tool in the humorist's arsenal.

7. Repetition

(Note to Cyn: I couldn't think of any examples. Note to Cyn's readers: Really, James Franco is not coming.)

Note from Cyn: Below, see James Franco from The New York Times.



8. (In)consistency, self reference, and meta-statements

I promised seven stages, and by golly, I intend to deliver.

In conclusion, I suspect I overlooked a couple dozen stages. Or types. Or platforms. But I had fun exploring the topic.

Now, if each of you just picks up three or four copies of my new book, I can join Cyn on that bestseller list.

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