I want to make you laugh. I really do. Every day. Forever. But while I’m doing this, I also want you to take me (or at least my writing) seriously. Very seriously.
I realise it’s quite the request, but, as an author who incorporates humour into her work, it’s a favour I must ask. After finishing my big, long fiction piece, I’ve been in contact with editors and potential agents and every time I’ve written an email to anyone in the publishing industry, I’ve thought to myself, “Am I coming across as professional? Am I coming across as a serious writer? Do I need to reign it in?… tone it back?… water it down, maybe?”
When I send off my stuff, I want to be myself and for the person on the other end to see how who I am links in with what I’ve written. I want to show some of my personality with the hope that they’ll see how passionate I am about my writing, and how personal the themes are. In essence, what I’m trying to do is use a bit of humour to convey how much of a serious writer I am. I’m not sure if this train of thought is going to stay on the tracks, but it’s what I’m going with at the moment.
All of these little insecurities that niggle away at me while I draft an email have led me to this question …
Where is the sweet spot, where one comes across as genuine, but remains professional?
I’ve never tried to slip anything too outrageous into an email. I just like to give the bone-dry “thank you for your time” format a light spritz of humility. For example, when I was given a quote for a copy-edit of my manuscript (a decent, but fair sum), I said to the head of the agency (who was already a little bit familiar with how I express myself) that I had certainly spent money on worse things. That was me trying to show my personality. What I didn’t do was reel off a lifelong list of irresponsible monetary expenditure—because that would have been unprofessional …
I really hope I’ve got the mix right. For other writers out there, who love making others laugh and want to show a bit of their personality whenever they’re communicating, I’d say definitely be friendly and … you know … be alive (provided you are those things). Being professional doesn’t mean you strip yourself back to something stone-cold; it means you say please and thank you and you respect timelines, deadlines and the fact that an agent/editor/publisher’s universe doesn’t revolve around you (always a rude shock). In general, you avoid being a smart-arse, peanut, dickhead, basket-case and arsehole. And you avoid being a creep (don’t use winky faces). Publishing is a very slow industry. Literary agents, editors and publishers are somewhat limited in Australia. They all have a backlog and you must simply wait your turn. So, if you’re a writer waiting to hear back from editors, agents or publishers, I would recommend you do something far more constructive than analyse your personality through old emails. You should write new stuff. I’ve done a bit of that, too. While I play the waiting game, I’ve sent some poetry to Australian journals. I’ve had a few rounds of feedback that have read along the lines of “although funny, it’s not for us.” That sort of feedback is so bittersweet. The reader found it funny-exactly my intention-but at the same time, it just wasn’t serious enough for them. I’m currently searching for an Aussie publishing home for my shorter pieces (as well as the Big Kahuna). In terms of poetry or quips, I found a very promising mag called “Funny Ha Ha.” I jumped on their Facebook and Twitter, only to see that their last post was May 2017. After that, gone without a trace. Clearly, something terrible happened. Something awful like running out of money, perhaps. Now I realise that my writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (I don’t even drink tea. I can’t even adhere to a basic idiom, so who am I to be dirty on editors that don’t like my stuff?), but if humorous platforms are struggling to maintain longevity and more traditional journals are turning away pieces with humorous undertones, does that mean there’s a bit of snobbery when it comes to writing that brings about a few LOLs? I dunno. I certainly don’t think I’m qualified enough to make such a bold statement, even if the answer is yes. But sometimes, I can’t help but feel as though there are a few misconceptions that surround funny writing. And when I say funny writing, I’m not just talking about a novel lightly dusted with a few ha has. I’m talking about humour being like another language that runs through the dialogue and the narrative. I’m talking about the harder stuff.
And three things that I want to clear up are ….
- Humour doesn’t have to cheapen the story.
In my novel, I write about death and grief. I wouldn’t say I use humour to lighten the mood, instead, I use it to soften the blow and to give some reassurance that everything is going to be okay. I also want to write a story that strangers can feel really close to, and I think humour is perfect for forging a strong connection between a reader and a story.
- Humour isn’t a single-use consumable.
It’s easy to view humour in the same light as happiness. Fleeting. I think we think humour has much shorter shelf-life than sadness and I don’t think that’s fair. Humour can go the distance. The first time you read a funny passage, you might laugh purely because of the words in front of you. In the future, you might read that passage again and laugh because it reminds you of how much it made your mum laugh when you first read it to her. Humour can be flexible. It can be rediscovered and it can find adopt new meanings.
- Humour doesn’t have to make other people feel shit about themselves.
I was going to say that humour doesn’t have to be at the expense of others, or yourself, but it kind of does, doesn’t it? However, having said that, the payoff can greatly exceed the price you pay (often, the price you pay is simply letting go of a teeny bit of pretentiousness). Humour doesn’t have to be spiteful, it doesn’t have to be malicious and it doesn’t have to carry some underlying unpleasant message. In fact, humour can be continuously present, but not all that obvious. No need for page after page of super satirical, blow-your-head-off Monty Python stuff.
I am also fully aware that humour and political correctness don’t exactly go hand in hand. I’m not keeping a firm grip on the pinky of Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs/Sir/Madam/Mx Political Correctness Holiness myself. But I want to stress, that, in my novel, I certainly don’t aim to offend or isolate anyone. It’s just a book about adults and the things that adults do. On second thoughts, there is a little bit of colourful language. That awful, anatomical word that starts with “p” also rears its head a few times. So if you can’t handle the word “penis,” don’t read my book. By all means, still purchase it. Just don’t read it.
Anyway, during my writing journey, I’ve asked myself even more questions (so much self-reflection, my goodness). Like …
Is my writing just not meaningful enough? Do I really belong in the writing world, or should I give this doodling thing a red-hot go?
Actually, I don’t even have to write to get that inadequate feeling. I still feel that way every time I walk into a bookstore. My favourite bookstore has books so high that even I struggle to reach them (I’m 6 ft 1”) and there’s a café out the back, so it’s always a bit hot. I sweat and I feel extremely uncomfortable whenever I walk in. It’s all just so overwhelming. Before entry, I always know what I want, but I also do that terrible thing and start browsing through books. And I’m not looking for a decent read. I’m looking for validation. I never find it, either. I, somehow, always pick up a rather serious book with “better” writing than my own and either side of me there are perfectly normal people that I’m certain are “better” and more serious readers than myself. I really must stop that stupid shit. Regardless of that nonsense, sometimes, I do truly feel as though I don’t belong in the writing world. BUT … at the same time, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. And that’s why I’m staying. And I’ll only move to take a step towards my publishing home.
Let’s make a deal. Promise me you’ll take me seriously, and I promise to never lose my sense of humour? Virtual handshake. Done. Dusted. Excellent.
Also, many thanks to Vintage Wallpapers.com for providing prints that I’m sure an interior designer’s nightmares are made of (and for having the balls to run a business on selling 70s wallpaper).