Friday, October 22, 2010

Make 'Em Laugh!

 Last weekend, I gave a workshop on integrating humor into your writing at the Southern Breeze/SCBWI fall conference.

I opened my talk by reading funny lines from bestselling books. “Can you identify where they came from?” I asked. The lines that stumped the most people included:

“I have been dropped like a hot Pop-Tart on a cold kitchen floor."

“Student divided by confusion equals algebra."

            Nobody guessed that these amusing observations came from one of the darkest and most painful YA books in recent history:  SPEAK, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

             My point was, that even in the most serious books, humor both relieves tension and makes you feel closer to the character. I suggested they start “listening” for the humor in everything they read, including the darkest books.

             I also pointed out that humor doesn’t necessarily require a funny line—it could be a funny premise.  We brainstormed premises that lent themselves to humor in either main characters or sidekicks, such as:

(Example)“Mom doesn’t understand daughter…finds herself stuck in daughter’s body.”

“A teen obsessed with getting her first kiss...(gets braces for the first time?
Has her jaw wired shut?).

“A kid who is afraid of heights…(has a pilot for a parent? 
Has a girlfriend who likes to hang-glide?)"

As with most things, you have to be prepared to “throw out” the first several ideas since those are usually the most obvious ones. You really want to dig deeper to surprise your reader.

I also talked about all the different ways you could play with words to create humor, including using sound-alike words, idioms, and puns. Word play may seem “old and tired” to us, but they’re often new and fresh to younger readers.

“And remember,” I told the group. “Even as people groan at your puns, watch their faces. Despite themselves, they are smiling. They can’t help it!”

The workshop went by quickly, so I didn’t get a chance to read from one of my favorite books—David Lubar’s young mid-grade novel, PUN-ISHED, about a boisterous boy in a library who is put under a spell that forces him to talk in puns, driving everyone around him crazy. I dare anyone to get through this book without smiling and chuckling—or even whistling at Lubar’s impressive mastery of language.

Finally, I reminded everybody that humor can be risky—not everyone will “like it” or “get it.” I found, for example, that some “old guard” reviewers are occasionally discomfited by my approach in CLEOPATRA RULES! and ALEXANDER THE GREAT ROCKS THE WORLD—primarily because they’re not used to seeing  “funny or fun” writing combined with “classical history” (a reminder that an unexpected pairing can—in and of itself—be amusing).

Nevertheless, feedback from teachers and kids has been overwhelmingly positive.  So, it’s been well worth the risk since it is connecting well with my intended audience.  Plus, I just found out CLEOPATRA RULES! is going into its second printing—yay!

I’m hoping to do this workshop at other SCBWI conferences, so feel free to pass on this post to RAs in your region.

And, in honor of Lubar’s last pun in PUNISHED—tell them that my workshop is perfect for those of us who have never groan up!

Would you like a copy of the handout listing the types of word plays
we discussed in my workshop? Leave a comment WITH YOUR EMAIL
ADDRESS (sorry to yell, but I'm feeling bad about the folks that have
made the requests that I can't fulfill!) or better yet, email me at
and I’ll send it out to you as an attachment!


Karen Strong said...

Congrats on getting the 2nd printing for the book!

Oooh, I would love to get a copy of your handout. I hate that I missed it!

Jo S. Kittinger said...

Thanks for the recap Vicky! I hated that I wasn't able to get in on your workshop, so this was a treat for me! I heard lots of great comments about your workshop :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, Karen! I've sent the attachment, so let me know if you don't get it.

Jo, I'm so glad to hear positive feedback from participants. Please think of me if other RAs ever ask for possible workshop leaders! ;-)

Sheila Renfro said...

Thanks so much. There were so many good workshops I hated to miss yours. I would love a copy! Also would you be interested in coing a schmooze in Florence, AL in the future?

Unknown said...

Good stuff here, Vicky. Thanks for posting it! It's so hard to pin down and talk about humor. I was sorry to miss WIK--would love your handout.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Nancy--please leave me an email address (you can send it to me personally) and I will get you the handout. Thanks! Vicky

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

A second printing already!? Woot! Woot!! :)

Evelyn said...

Sounds like a fun presentation, Vicky. Yes, I'd love a copy of your handout. And congrats on the second printing!!


Cathy C. Hall said...

I hated to miss your session, too, but I heard it was a hoot and a half!

Which didn't surprise me in the least. Come to think of it, that second printing thing doesn't surprise me, either. Yay for you!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Nancy and Evelyn--email me (my email is under my picture at the top of the blog) so that I can send you a copy of the handout! I don't have your email addresses. Thanks for your patience!

Doraine said...

Since I couldn't split myself into two pieces that day, I'll definitely settle for the notes.

Unknown said...

Great points Vicky!

You wont hear much of it in my writing at 3PP but I think laughter is one of the key ingredients of life. I'm quite fortunate in that my Australian and Cypriot heritage is predisposed to looking things in a laid back an humorous manner.

That being said, I can imagine it would be a bit trickier to make youngsters laugh - you really need to spend time with them and know their language - which seems to be ever-changing.

Congrats on the 2nd print!!

Sarah Campbell said...

Way to go on the second printing, Vicky!!
I've posted a link to your wrap-up on my blog.
I'd love to have the handout.

Gretchen Griffith said...

Fourth graders are into humor, for sure. Some days school can be a riot. I'd love a copy, too. Thanks.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for your kind comments, ya'll! If anyone knows Nancy or Evelyn, please have them email me (my email is at the top of my blog) so that I can send them their handouts!

Grace E. Howell said...

Sounds like a great presentation on something I really need.

I'd love to see your handout.

Grace E. Howell

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Grace, please send me your email address so I can get the handout to you! Thanks! (That goes for you too, Nancy and Evelyn!).

Bearded Lady said...

oh I wish I could have heard your talk. You should submit a proposal for the New England SCBWI. They are closed for submissions for next year's conference but don't miss the following year. It is a huge conference and they do a great job getting quality speakers.