On Writing: why writing comedy can be so fascinating

Based on my radio interviews with SoundArt Radio and the wonderful Julie Mullen, here’s a blog post about writing comedy, whatever that might mean. I’ve been told that one genre I write might be termed ‘romantic comedy’, and so I’m always interested to talk about what makes people smile, what is uplifting, what is a laugh out loud moment and what, in fact, is one person’s idea of totally hilarious and not another’s. Comedy is such a diverse and fascinating subject, so here goes….

Recently, I watched a film at home on TV. It was called What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, a romantic comedy in which Mel’s character is suddenly able to hear women’s private thoughts and respond by changing his behaviour, making him a much more attractive prospect. It wasn’t a film for me, although it’s very popular, but I didn’t find it funny at all. While others might have found it hilarious, I thought the main character wasn’t very engaging, but a little arrogant and disrespectful, and therefore I coldn’t invest in his relationships, even though he did become more empathic.

The same is true for other comedy films that have entertained millions: I didn’t enjoy Blazing Saddles, The Man with Two Brains, Porky’s, Bruno, The Forty Year Old Virgin. They are all popular and celebrated comedies, but I couldn’t raise a smile. Everyone’s idea of what is hilarious is not the same.

Then again, films that make me laugh include In Bruges, Withnail and I, Duck Soup, The Birdcage, The Dressmaker. I wouldn’t expect everyone else to find them as funny as I do: humour is a very personal thing. What one person finds warm, amusing or side-splitting, another person might not understand why it is comic.

It follows then that writing comedy for a novel is a very personal thing and not everyone will be similarly tickled by a particular character or a scene. My background in theatre taught me exactly that: Malvolio rushing on stage in yellow stockings or Widow Twankey rushing off stage in a blue wig and curlers will not make everyone smile. Some people won’t ‘get’ it; some may actively dislike it. What some find hilarious, others may find pointless, annoying or even offensive: just think of the Carry on… series as an example. Humour may be all about character, context, timing, language, but it’s also incredibly varied and personal: I recall one time trying to explain to ten mystified seventeen year old boys why Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was considered a comedy and having to redefine what comedy means. Not anyone’s finest moment.

Talking recently to several writers in my writers’ group about comedy recently made for a very interesting discussion. We started to discuss books that made us smile and why. I adore novels by Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Safran Foer: they keep me entertained in very different ways, although with both writers, the humour comes from character, language and context. There seem to be less funny women writers, if you don’t count novels by comediennes and actors.

For me there are several lines I don’t want to cross when writing amusing scenes: I don’t like mocking a character or making them appear foolish; I don’t like humour that is schadenfreude, that enjoys others’ downfalls or problems. Bawdy humour doesn’t always raise a laugh for me and needs to be used sparingly. After that, I’m happy to embrace most techniques to make writing amusing.

Perhaps comic writing starts with tone: humour can be gentle and tentative, raising a smile, or it can be in-your-face situation comedy. Both can work well in the same novel, as variety is quite important. Laughing out loud is great at times when a novel offers mischief or a really comic moment – think Bridget Jones at her most wildly ridiculous – or when Dilly pulls down the instructor’s salopettes (Heading over the Hill), or when Bisto bares all for Barbara at the fête (The Old Girls’ Network).

Not all humour has to be racy. I like poignant, gentle comedy: think of Notting Hill or Cher’s Moonlight. Warm humour doesn’t have to be raucous: when Evie first meets Jean Luc and they banter and share a drink in his vineyard (A Grand Old Time), or when Rose goes on stage to perform with Greta Manchester in Paris, (Five French Hens) it may simply raise a smile. I like humour that comes from language, such as Nanny Basham’s malapropisms (The Age of Misadventure), or from ludicrous farcical situations, such as Barbara’s bedroom strip, (The Old Girls’ Network), or Molly dressing as a fish, (Chasing the Sun).

Humour works best for me when there’s contrast in the rest of the novel – it can be hard work, non-stop laughing. I like to balance comic moments with moments of pathos, wisdom, contemplation or realisation. My novels are generally about older characters’ journeys, about self-discovery, the importance of fun and adventure, the capacity to grow and the opportunity for new chances. It is logical then that there will be amusing moments and moments that aren’t funny at all. It’s a balance I enjoy in novels I read – even in the saddest stories, there can be a moment that makes us smile. 

In The Color Purple, a powerful novel that deals with racism and domestic violence, there is a moment of pure joy when Celie gleefully says of Old Mister, ‘Next time he come I’ll put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass’ (of lemonade). Humour takes many forms and can be hugely cathartic. In this instance, it hints at Celie’s strength, resilience and ability to stand up for herself against misogyny.

For me humour can be effective in many forms and it’s best when it feels natural and relevant to the character or the situation, and when it’s kind. I’ve never liked programmes like You’ve Been Framed, where people’s accidents or misfortunes create comedy. I like to write comic scenes where it’s part of a bigger picture, part of a character’s warmth or their dilemmas, their flaws or their emotional journey. Yes, there may be a bit of slapstick, perhaps the occasional racy moment, but there shouldn’t be anything that will threaten the kindness or positive philosophy that I hope will be the basis of the story. 

Of course, I am learning all the time, reading books, watching films, analysing what seems to work for me and for others, and what doesn’t. I try to expand horizons and discover new ideas. I won’t always get it right and I won’t always please everybody, but that’s in the nature of humour: it has a different appeal to different people.

I’m always warmed by the wonderful comments I have from readers, people who like my novels’ humour and who enjoy being entertained while also immersing themselves in a book about someone who is flawed, humanly vulnerable and who is chasing something important: the chance to start again, to change, to rediscover themselves. 

And if I can write something that is uplifting, feel-good and gently humorous, if I can create characters that entertain but are also, as one reader so kindly put it, ‘like dear friends,’ then that’s what I want to do more than anything.

On Writing: What the editing process is like for a writer?

Based on my radio interview on CakEhole last week with the wonderful Julie Mullen, I decided to write a blog post about editing. We discussed it on her show, as so often writers think it must be an awful process. The belief is: you’ve written it, so it must hurt to change it, right? Not at all. It’s about creating the best novel you can and a careful process and expert help is the best way to achieve it.

I really enjoy editing: I edit my work as soon as I start writing a novel, and during my writing, as I go through every chapter and check, revising and upgrading. I try to improve the novel as I go, and again after I’ve finished. There are even more improvements when an edit for the completed book comes back to me from the publisher. The later editing process can be a light task or sometimes I’m asked to look again at something more specific, like doing a little more work on a character. But editing is a mental exercise I absolutely love.

One of the questions I’m often asked by other writers in writing groups is about how authors react to being asked to edit their work. Some people seem to think that having an editor make suggestions for improvements is somehow a criticism or an invasion of the creative process, that an outsider is interfering with some precious finished piece of art. That’s not at all the case: writing 90,000 words of a novel means that it won’t come out perfect the first or second time of checking through and all writers want to make a story as good as they can for their readers.

Some writers use beta readers; they’ll ask trusted friends, family, or they’ll pay professionals to read their work and give them feedback. The first consideration is that the story, the characters, setting and the themes will work for a reader. Then the written style of the piece will need to be improved: all writers make mistakes. Repetition of words and phrases may occur, or important exposition details may be omitted and will need to be added in for clarity and the best effect. Then there are the sentences that don’t sound right: a better choice of word may make all the difference. That’s before we start on the typing errors and the flying commas.

Working towards deadlines can be stressful, and perhaps sometimes writers fear that their current book won’t be as exciting as their last, or that they’ll never be finished on time. But that’s what our editors are for – to keep us safe from getting things wrong. 

Editors are great people: I work with editors who are really better than great, who mix positivity with honesty so that I’m alerted to how I can make my story the best it can be. After all, the most important thing for any writer is that readers enjoy the finished story and can relate to the characters.

The writer does all of the work to think up an idea, a theme, characters, then shapes and creates the novel. I’ve had edits where I’ve hardly had to change a thing. A clean edit is wonderful as there only remains basic work to do, but a story and a style can always be improved. 

On occasions an editor might say ‘Have you considered…?’ Then there’s always a penny-dropping moment, the total realisation that two heads are better than one, a concern that has already been wriggling in the back of my mind comes to the front and it’s really clear that a small change is the big difference that will make a more satisfying outcome. 

I love the mental challenge of editing: it can be quite emotional though, as a writer has to immerse herself fully in the whole novel and it’s always hard work, reading the same chapters over and over and upgrading until it’s right. But it’s a pleasure, not a chore. More than that, it’s a chance to learn. Writers pick up on their own regular mistakes and therefore will make them less frequently; they pick up on habits and rethink them. And as my mum used to say, practise makes perfect or, in my case, it makes progress. I love the idea that I get to know myself better as a writer through the editing process, and that I can become a bit better at what I love; I can become sharper. 

An edit is to be embraced, not feared. It’s really very enjoyable and therapeutic, like spring cleaning the house but without all the boring cleaning. So, for all writers out there who are anxious about the editing process or think it may be onerous, please don’t worry. It’s our chance to shine brighter, to learn to hone our skills, and to work with gifted and experienced professionals whose one aim is to support our work, to enable the finished article to be even better. I believe editing is a blessing, not a bane, a lesson, not a chore.

Bring it on! It might even be fun.