Last month I ran a mini workshop on the theme of Comedy Writing in Fiction. (I mentioned it here.) Linda recently sent me a review of the event and she’s kindly let me post it on this blog.
In the words of Rabbie Burns in To a Louse:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
Too see oursels as ithers see us!
Crimes, chases, and a whole lorra laughs
February’s guest at Writers’ Café was Derek Thompson (not to be confused with local MP Derek Thomas, especially as they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum!). “Our Derek”, as we should perhaps refer to him henceforth, is the author of a number of novels available online and in paperback – notably the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series, which has reached book four with Shadow State and sounds serious enough. But unlike some other authors who do the grittier end of the thriller spectrum, Our Derek keeps the really graphic violence at arm’s distance, taking things only as far as he feels the reader needs to go. He also includes regular bouts of comradely banter between his characters, some wry comment at their expense, and – occasionally – downright comic situations. Well, what will those hardened men on the fringes of the official police do, when the stolen car they’ve been tracking turns out to have a baby in the back?
As a freelancer, Derek has had a full and interesting writing career – although he also has a part-time “day job”. Apart from novels, his work has included what he said was “the rudest greetings card ever”* (and although he later said he sometimes used inappropriate material to “test the water”, the joke was definitely judged unfit for the ears of Writers’ Café). He describes himself as an “emerging writer”, although at least one member of his audience is already a fan and has read every one of his books. His final drafts go out to “beta-test” with a panel of fellow-writers, before being submitted to his publisher, Joffe Books, and are subsequently available on Amazon. Some American readers have struggled with the British slang and the (by no means excessive) emotional content, but Derek likes his characters to be more than mere ciphers. “I argue with my characters”, he said, “and if I’m lucky, they argue back”. Apart from his personal Facebook account, he has a professional page, a blog, and an account with Twitter – which he feels scores well for instant communication, though less well for actual engagement.
By way of instruction, Derek pointed out that “there’s more to comedy than a few laughs”, and provided us with an excellent summary of techniques for writing comedy, which include setting up misunderstandings and confounding expectations. Then of course there is juxtaposition, exaggeration – and the rule (or pattern) of three. Comedy, he said, is a “dance between content and context, and between language and ideas” which can either reinforce or challenge orthodoxies – authority and stereotyping alike. He described one purpose of comedy as “getting your point across diagonally”. Derek cited the opening of Iain Banks’ Crow Road (It was the day my grandmother exploded.) as a perfect comic moment which needs no explanation, acts as a hook and sets the tone of what will follow.
And then, of course, it was time to rummage in pockets and bags for our own pens. The challenge was to take an event within the shared experience such as a wedding or an interview, and weave comedy into it by using some of the techniques that had been discussed. Members happily read their work, which ranged from treatments to finished prose, from a summary of the nightmare reception to a cross-purposes conversation. Some of these may re-emerge sooner or later at a Café open session, where (as some of our regular turns are aware) a bit of comedy always goes down a treat.
Derek’s writing secrets? (Well, we always ask.) Writers, he told us, need a “shard of ice at their heart” and a willingness to cannibalise their own experience. Derek will be putting this into practice in his current novel, Stars and Stripes, and some Penzance scratchcard buyers may soon be reading a scene that feels oddly familiar. He has also appropriated nuggets of film and classic literature, and starts by “walking round a novel to find the way in”, describing this voyage of discovery as the technique of a “poor man’s medium”. Yes, he does favour a set routine and sets time aside on a daily basis, writing a set number of words “though not necessarily in the right order”. He recommends trains for the sense of constraint and the rhythmic background they provide (are the speedier sections of his plots composed the other side of Exeter?), and – like most writers – warns us away from writing on any internet-enabled device in the early stages. And he freely admitted that wearing a favourite hat – no, literally – is just the thing for providing the right cranial stimulus.
Incidentally, if you are in Cornwall 5th – 8th of July, the Penzance Literary Festival is well worth a visit. They have a packed and diverse programme of events. http://www.pzlitfest.co.uk
* All I will say is that it involves glass houses…