Category Archives: Writing

Have a Bony White Christmas!

by Leigh Perry

In honor of the Christmas holidays, Sid and I want to offer this song of what everybody really wants for Christmas: a sleuthing skeleton of your very own!

Though I can’t send everybody a Sid, I can help  with your Christmas shopping. If you’re giving a copy of any of the Family Skeleton mysteries, I’ll be happy to supply a signed bookplate for you. All you have to do send an email with the following info:

  • Proof that you bought the book or books, like a photo of it or of your receipt. (Just be sure to block out any credit card numbers and such.)
  • If you want the book personalized, the name of the person you’re giving the book to. (That can be you–I don’t judge.)
  • Whether or not it’s a Christmas gift. I’ll have special Christmas bookplates, but if you celebrate another holiday or it’s for a birthday or just because, I’ll use something different.

Then send it to leighperry at mindspring dot com

I’ll spring for postage and get it into the US mail ASAP! (If you’ve got a international address, I may have to ask for help with postage. We’ll work it out as that arises.)

Wishing you all the happiest of holiday seasons! And just in case you want to sing along with the video, here are the lyrics:

“I Want A Sleuthing Skeleton For Christmas”
by Leigh Perry

I want a sleuthing skeleton for Christmas
Only a bony guy like Sid will do
Don’t want perfume
No fancy pottery
I want a skeleton to help me solve a mystery

I want a sleuthing skeleton for Christmas
I don’t think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won’t have to use
A dirty chimney flue
Just walk Sid through the front door
Then we’ll go and hunt for clues

I can see me now when there’s a murder
Creeping up the stairs
To discuss the alibis
And the whos, the wheres, the whys
Solving crime within our attic lair

I want a sleuthing skeleton for Christmas
Only a bony guy like Sid will do
No cop or spy
Or private detective
I’d rather work with an osteo perspective
And Sid the Skeleton, he likes me too!

Rocking Guitar Solo

Some say a skelly should scare me off but hey
I see Sid a-smiling each and every single day

Rocking Guitar Solo

He’ll live inside my house
I’ll buy him an armoire
We’ll solve the crime
Joke all the time

It’s cozy—it’s not noir
I can see me now when there’s a murder
Creeping up the stairs
To discuss the alibis
And the whos, the wheres, the whys
Solving crime within our attic lair

I want a sleuthing skeleton for Christmas
Only a bony guy like Sid will do
No cop or spy
Or private detective
I’d rather work with a osteo perspective
And Sid the Skeleton, he likes me too!

Evolution of a Cover

Okay, we aren’t supposed to, but we all do it. We judge books by the cover. So as you might guess, there is a lot of back-and-forth and creative wrangling over every book cover.

Take, for instance, my alter ego Leigh Perry‘s upcoming Family Skeleton mystery The Skeleton Takes a Bow. We went through all kinds of ideas. First was the most obvious.


Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of bow. Sid the Skeleton never wears pink. So we went back to the drawing board.


Very Hunger Games, and goodness knows Sid looks hungry. But this wasn’t quite the bow we were looking for, etiher. Besides, we left out the arrow. Is he going to shoot his ulna or his radius?

Back to the drawing yet again.


This time it looks a little too Titanic, and the bow of a sinking ship wasn’t quite what we were going for.

In fact the bow in the book is the kind an actor makes after a successful performance, say as Yorick in Hamlet.


We finally had the right kind of bow, but unfortunately, Sid’s skull wouldn’t stay on long enough for him to pose.

So what does the cover look like? You’ll have to check out BOLO Books on Feb. 18 to find out and see how you’d judge this book from its cover.

Goodreads Giveaway

My alter ego Leigh Perry has asked me to post that she’s got a giveaway running on Goodreads. If you’re on Goodreads, just follow that link before August 20 and enter to win an ARC (advance reader copy) of  A Skeleton in the Family along with this cuddly skeletal sock monkey:

Skeletal Sock Monkey

The link for the giveaway is HERE.

By the way, I do realize that the giveaway page has and old title and my real name instead of my pen name. I’ve got a note into Goodreads to try and get that fixed.

The Next Next Big Thing

As with last week, I’m blog hopping or perhaps, hopping blogs. I was tagged to share the answers to the following questions about my forthcoming book, and will tag another writer to share news about her new book.

My tagger was my good friend Dana Cameron. We beta read for each other, meaning that we read the other’s works-in-progress to make suggestions. I’ll confess that Dana has kept me from making many bad writing choices. (I’m not having her beta read this post, though–she’s taking it on faith.) One thing I beta read for her was her upcoming novel Seven Kinds of Hell, so I can brag that I was one of the first to read it. Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to catch up very soon, and you’ve got a treat in store for you.

Before I get started, I want to explain something. In her blog hopper, Dana referred to my forthcoming book The Skeleton in the Armoire. That was indeed the title last week. But the publishing world is a dynamic place, and yesterday it morphed into A Skeleton in the Family. With either title, the book will be coming out under my pen name Leigh Perry.

Now for the questions:

Where did the idea for this book come from?

Honestly, I don’t know. All I know is when.

In May of 2004 I sent an email to Dana telling her about this idea I had for an ambulatory skeleton named Sid who would solve his own murder. Dana patiently  gave me background information about skeletal specimens in universities and museums, and I wrote a few passages. About two weeks later, I sent a note to Charlaine Harris, my other beta reader. “I’ve got an idea for a new story or book–don’t know which, yet–and want to see what you think.  It’s probably too silly for works, but since you and Laurell and Dean and Maria have the vampire market by the throat, I thought I’d try something new.  Would you read this snippet and see what you think?” Then I pasted in a piece of what has become A Skeleton in the Family.

Obviously, at some point there must have been a moment when I said, “I think I’ll write a mystery about an ambulatory skeleton,” but I don’t know what led to that moment. Maybe too many daiquiris?

What genre does your book fall under?

Mystery, or to be really specific, cozy woo-woo. In other words, it’s a traditional mystery with paranormal elements. Sid the Skeleton is the paranormal element.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The only way A Skeleton in the Family could make it to the screen would be as animation or using serious CGI. So I’m going to pick Andy Serkis, famous for his portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He’s the only one I can imagine playing Sid.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

Georgia moves back home and has to deal with the family skeleton–an actual skeleton named Sid. He walks and talks and makes bad jokes, and now he wants to solve his own murder. (I know, that’s two sentences. I suppose I could have faked it with really creative punctuation or CGI…)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

A Skeleton in the Family will be published by Berkley Prime Crime, and I’m represented by Joshua Bilmes of the JABberwocky Agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Eight years. Or eight months. It depends on what you count. You see, I wrote bits of the book in summer of 2004, but got pulled away to work on other projects. In February of 2011, I pitched the idea to my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, and included an excerpt an synopsis. But it wasn’t until March of 2012 that I really sat down to write. I finished the first draft in October.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think I’ve got the skeleton mystery market all to myself. In terms of a ridiculous person in a normal world, I think A Skeleton in the Family is more like the Francis the Talking Mule movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and TV sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See the above overly detailed explanation of where the idea came from. Once I got started, I was inspired by stories I heard of adjunct faculty members and how it can be a precarious way to make a living.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Georgia, the protagonist, is a single mother with a teenaged daughter who works as kind of itinerant academic. She’s just started work at a New England college, and in the course of the book visits an anime convention and a carnival, fights with her perfect sister the locksmith, reluctantly adopts a dog, and has a romance. So there’s a lot going on. But the fact is, if the walking, talking skeleton doesn’t grab you, I may as well give up. Ditto if it puts you off.

These are the fascinating people that Dana tagged along with me:

Kat Richardson’s novel Seawitch was #3 on the Locus Hardcover Bestseller list for November! She lives on a boat, which is just nifty.

Christopher Golden is the award-winning, best selling author of (deep breath!) fiction, non-fiction, adult and YA, collaborations, and comics. I don’t think he sleeps.

Elaine Viets has two ongoing series: the Helen Hawthorne “Dead End Job” mysteries, and the Josie Marcus “Mystery Shopper mysteries.”  Elaine and I are both members of the Femmes Fatales (as is Dana), and she’ll be posting her Next Big thing blog there.

And here’s the writer I’m tagging next!

Deborah Meyler and I met online through mutual friends–one of the joys of the internet. The Bookstore, Deborah’s first novel, will be out in August 2013, and sounds like tremendous fun. If you read both The Bookstore and A Skeleton in the Family, you will note that we both use the phrase “enamel chili.” I don’t think we’ll say why that is…

The Next Big Thing

Have you heard about The Next Big Thing blog hop? It’s a chance for authors to let the world know about their newest writing project, whether it’s something already published or coming soon to a bookseller near you or even just in the works. I was invited to participate by the effervesecent short story author Barb Goffman, who blogged as one of the Women of Mystery, and now I’m answering the same batch of questions here.

What is your title of your story?

My most recent short story is “Pirate Dave and the Captain’s Ghost,”, which appears in An Apple for the Creature, the fifth anthology I’ve co-edited with Charlaine Harris. Ace published it in September, just in case back-to-school sales weren’t scary enough for you.

Where did the idea come from for the story?

All my stories tend to be Frankenstein-monster-like in their creation–I sew on a piece from here, and a piece from there, and eventually there are enough pieces for a story. In this case, the initial inspiration was the anthology theme: supernatural creatures and school. You’d think that since Charlaine and I were the ones to come up with the theme, I’d already have a story in mind, but no. Apparently my editor brain is completely separate from my writer brain.

Anyway, I started with schools. Then I remembered my story “Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”, which I wrote for a previous Charlaine-and-me anthology (Death’s Excellent Vacation). I really enjoyed the characters, and since the protagonist Joyce had only recently been turned into a werewolf, I thought she might well attend a seminar about lupine-American life. As for the Captain’s ghost, I was at my daughter Valerie’s drama class, and the teacher said he’d love to be in a story. His name is Bob, and I figured that would be easy enough to fit in. Then he said, “Can it be my nickname: Captain Bob?” That was going to be a pain, so I killed him. Not the real guy, but the character, and he became Captain Bob, the really annoying ghost.

What genre does your story fall under?

Mystery and/or urban fantasy.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Nathan Fillion of Castle and Firefly for Pirate Dave. Not that he looks like Pirate Dave in any way, but (1) he can do anything and (2) I might get to meet Nathan Fillion. Nicholas Brendon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Captain Bob in his younger form–he’d need makeup for the older form. No idea for Joyce, the newbie werewolf. I don’t have any female actors I’m dying to meet, so that limits me.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your story?

It’s hard enough to make friends when you’re a newly turned werewolf, and having a vampiric boyfriend doesn’t help, but it’s being haunted by a cranky ghost that really keeps Joyce from blending into the pack.

Was your story self-published or represented by an agency?

Whether wearing my editor hat or my author hat, I’m published by Penguin and represented by the JABberwocky Agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About three weeks, or a bit more if you count sitting-staring-at-the-wall time.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Favorably or not? I’d love to be compared to Charlaine’s Sookie Stackhouse series, but I’m not holding my breath. I tend to compare it more to the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Deadlines! Seriously, part of the deal of the anthologies is that I contribute a story. So once the school theme was set, I had to be inspired.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Speaking of the whole anthology, and not just my story, we all know how scary school can be. Adding a vampire, demon, or werewolf isn’t that much of a stretch. Even if my story doesn’t sound like your favorite class, check out this honor roll of contributors: Charlaine Harris, Ilona AndrewsAmber BensonRhys BowenMike Carey, Donald Harstad, Steve HockensmithNancy HolderFaith HunterMarjorie M. LiuJonathan Maberry, and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Talk about the cool kid’s table in the cafeteria!

Thanks again to Barb Goffman for inviting to participate in this blog hop. You can read her blog hop post here.

To keep the hop going, here is another author who’ll be blogging next week about his next big thing: Stephen P. Kelner, who is working on a 10th century Viking mystery! (Yes, that last name does sound familiar, doesn’t it?) Steve will be guest blogging right here. 

Readercon Bound

Readercon, one of my favorite science fiction conventions, starts up this Thursday. My husband Steve and I attended the very first Readercon, and I was in awe of the caliber of writers just walking around. As if they were normal people! There were some admin problems–I seem to recall them passing the hat on the last day to help pay some of the bills. But from those humble beginnings, the con has grown into a much-respected science fiction convention. The organizers were even nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2010.

This is the twenty-third year, and while I haven’t attended them all–having babies kind of put the kibosh on my regular attendance–I’ve had a fabulous time whenever I have attended. I’ll never forget the feedback from Readercon workshops moderated by Barry Longyear and at one run by the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop. Meeting Sarah Smith at that second workshop was just about the best thing that happened to me in my early writing career. When I was shopping around my first mystery, Sarah offered to read my manuscript and make comments. Her suggestions were exactly what I needed–thanks to her, I was able to rewrite and sell Down Home Murder, my first novel.

And I’m still in awe of the caliber of writers just walking around.

This year will be my second year actually appearing on panels, and I’ve got some great ones scheduled, including two panels and a kaffeeklatsch with Steve. If you get a chance, come on by. I’ll just warn you that given my renowned co-panelists, I may be awed into silence. (Don’t worry–I’ll have plenty to say in the bar later!)

Just FYI, advance memberships are sold out, so if you haven’t signed up, come early on Friday. They’re probably going to sell out early. However the Thursday night events are FREE!

Thursday, July 12 

8:00 PM  Managing Motivation to Write. Alexander Jablokov, Steve Kelner (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Matthew Kressel, Ben LooryKipling (an SF writer himself) wrote: “There are nine-and-sixty ways/of composing tribal lays/and every single one of them is right!” Science fiction writers should know this better than most, yet most people don’t realize just how different the creative process is for different writers. Join a panel of writers discussing how they keep themselves going, the underlying reasons for why a given tactic works for them, and how it might (or might not) work for others.

9:30 PM  
Reading. Toni L.P. Kelner. Toni L.P. Kelner reads from her story “Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park,” published inDeath’s Excellent Vacation.
Friday, July 13 
11:00 AM  Subversion Through Friendliness. Glenn Grant, Victoria Janssen (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Alison Sinclair, Ruth Sternglantz. In a 2011 review of Vonda N. McIntyre’s classic Dreamsnake, Ursula K. Le Guin quotes Moe Bowstern’s slogan “Subversion Through Friendliness” and adds, “Subversion through terror, shock, pain is easy—instant gratification, as it were. Subversion through friendliness is paradoxical, slow-acting, and durable. And sneaky.” Is subversion through friendliness a viable strategy for writers who desire to challenge norms? What are its defining characteristics? When do readers love it, and when does it backfire?

Saturday, July 14 

2:00 PM  No, Really—Where Do You Get Your Ideas?. Samuel R. Delany, Toni L.P. Kelner, Ellen Klages, James Morrow, Lee Moyer, Resa Nelson (leader). All writers have been asked this question. This panel takes it seriously, exploring the roles of accumulated knowledge, reaction, dissent, inspiration, influence, and skill in creativity.

Sunday, July 15 

10:00 AM  The Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity. Andy Duncan, Joe Haldeman, Steve Kelner (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Matthew Kressel, Jennifer Pelland, Luc Reid. What is creativity, really? How does it work? Many people think of it as somehow magical, but in fact there has been considerable neuropsychological research devoted to the process of creativity, and current evidence makes it clear that it is inherent in the human brain: everyone is creative; the question is how to harness it. There are many myths about creativity that not only are unhelpful but have actively blocked or inhibited writers. Fortunately, many of these myths are entirely explicable and avoidable. Stephen Kelner, a research psychologist who is also a professional writer, will give an overview of the myths and the realities, and discussion will further explore individual participants’ questions or challenges.
11:00 AM  Autographs. Jeffrey A. Carver, Toni L.P. Kelner.
2:00 PM  Kaffeeklatsch. Steve Kelner, Toni L.P. Kelner, John Kessel.

Spitballing for Fun and Profit

A while back, I was invited to contribute an essay and exercise for a book on writing mysteries. I wrote the piece, but ultimately retrieved it from the book’s editor because of a disagreement over terms. So I thought it would be fun to put it here instead.


In his books on screenwriting, William Goldman (author of the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princes Bride, and Misery, among others) refers to spitballing as a way to improve a script. It’s a form of brainstorming where you throw out random ideas and see what sticks. Though I don’t write screenplays, I’ve found that spitballing works just as well for revising novels and short stories.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a mystery story where I already had the plot (a teenager accuses another kid of breaking a school tradition), a setting (a high school), a protagonist (a teacher fresh out of college), and the twist to provide the reveal (I’m not telling you that!). I liked the idea, but every time I sat down to write the story, I got bored. Now, if the writer is bored, it’s a pretty good sign that the reader is going to be even more bored–obviously something was wrong.

So I tried spitballing, which is to say I started changing elements at random. First I tried moving the setting to a college or a big city high school or a futuristic high school. None of those worked with the other elements. Now I really liked the plot, and I needed the twist to go with, so all that left to play with was protagonist. Sure enough, she was the boring part.

I tried making her older, but that destroyed a sub-plot of her feeling intimidated by the school’s principal. Then I made her male, but that didn’t do anything. Finally, I made her a student instead of a teacher, and the plot structure was stronger and the emotional payoff was higher. Moreover, I could hear the character’s voice, which is key for me. From that point on, “Kangaroo Court” was a pleasure to write, and it sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

That’s why I use spitballing.

It’s worked for me time and time again. It can be as simple as changing a gender. A teenaged werewolf was boring when she was a girl conflicted about turning furry every month, but great fun as a boy who loved being the biggest monster on the block (“Keeping Watch Over His Flock” in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe). An earnest young zombie raiser didn’t work for one story, and neither did the old crotchety one, but when I made her less earnest and more snarky, the pieces came together (“In Brightest Day” in Home Improvement: Undead Edition).

Now the examples I’ve given are all dealing with characters, because that tends to be the place where spitballing really works for me, but the technique works just as well with changing other aspects.

The thing to remember about spitballing is to let yourself go wild. Pick the craziest settings you can think of, the quirkiest characters, the most outrageous voices. Not only will you come up with ideas that had never occurred to you before, but in rejecting some of those ideas, you’ll discover which parts of a story are the most important to you.


  1. Pick a story or novel that just isn’t working.
  2. Write down the key elements of the piece: setting, protagonist, time frame, reveal, and so on.
  3. Decide which ones can be changed. (Obviously if you’re writing something in a series or to specific requirements, you won’t have quite as much freedom to play around.)
  4. Pick one of those spitball targets, and go crazy. For a character, try switching the gender, age, race, personality, hobbies, even the name. For a setting, change from historical to present, present to futuristic, city to country, small town to Navy base, college to nursery school, office to fast food restaurant.
  5. Now imagine the ripple of changes that would result from that change.  Would the resulting story be better?  Would it have more pizzazz, stronger suspense, or a more powerful emotional punch?
  6. If the answer is an enthusiastic YES!, go ahead and revise your story.  If not, pick another aspect and start spitballing again.
  7. Repeat until you’ve got a story you’re going to enjoy writing, and that the rest of us are going to enjoy reading.

Taking it Personally

Twice recently, I’ve been accused of taking things too personally online. So I’ve been trying to decide what that means, exactly.

The first time was on a mystery fan listserv I’ve been a member of for years and years. The topic of vampire books came up, and several people jumped in to say how awful vampire stuff was and how they couldn’t wait until the trend went away. I was really surprised by the vitriol. It hurt my feelings, too. My novels have been straight mysteries, but I do write paranormal short stories and edit urban fantasy anthologies. And there are other writers of paranormal mysteries on the list. So I posted that I was really disturbed by those reactions, and that it was the first time I’d felt unwelcome on this list. This was particularly true because I knew some of the posters personally, not just online.

Some of the responses were positive, along the lines of “Don’t let a few bozos worry you,” but a couple of indignant posters said, “We’ve got a right to our opinion!” and “Why are you taking it personally?” Another declared that he’d never read anything I ever wrote because I had dared to discuss my emotions and hurt feelings.

I let it go after that, but I couldn’t help wondering why it was such a bad thing to take comments personally. I know not everybody likes paranormal books, and of course people are entitled to their opinions, but I’ve got an opinion, too. And in my opinion, there’s an important difference between “I don’t like vampire books,” and “Vampire books are crap!” And I think if you make a statement like “Vampire books are crap!”, people who write vampire books are going to be offended.

The second incident was on a general writing group. A woman quoted what she said was an old saying: “Best sellers are evil smellers.” I commented that I found that amazingly offensive, that some of my books had been on bestseller lists and many of my friends were on best sellers. (In fact, the previous day one of my BFF Charlaine Harris had just found out she was going to be #1 on the New York Times list for the third week. And to link back to the other incident, she writes paranormal books.)

The response was again to ask why I was taking it personally, adding, “I was referring to an ‘old saying’ that I’ve heard repeated many times.” First off, I have never heard this old saying.  (I Googled it, and though I found the phrase “best smellers”, that was as close as it got.) Second, plenty of old sayings are really offensive. Stuff like, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen.” And once again, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t take it personally. As I said to her, “If you heard me say women named <her name> have funny looking feet, wouldn’t you take it personally?”

Maybe I am nuts for taking these blanket statements personally, especially online. I just keep hoping for a scenario like this:

Person on list: Short people are stupid.

Me: You may not realize this, but I’m short. Are you saying I’m stupid?

Person on list: No, you’re not stupid. I’m sorry I said that.

Personally, that’s a conversation I’d love to see.

Don’t try anything funny!

There’s an old story about an actor or comedian on his deathbed who is asked how it feels to be dying. He shrugs and says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Certainly the common wisdom among mystery writers is that it’s harder to write funny than to write serious–it was stated several times on the Sisters in Crime list this week. But is it true? Is it harder to write funny?

After consulting with the highest authorities available–my daughters while we drove to school this morning–I’ve reached the following conclusion.


But yes.

Here’s the thing. I personally don’t find it harder to write funny. I automatically gravitate toward a lighter tone or at least a sarcastic voice–I have to rein myself in to write dark-n-gritty. And there’s outside confirmation that my work is humorous: I get on the humor panel at conventions a lot, and at last year’s New England Crime Bake, I was asked to teach a class in using humor in mysteries.

Then again, there’s a bit in Curse of the Kissing Cousins that I thought was so hilarious when a friend told me about it that I stuck it verbatim in the first chapter. If you’ll forgive me quoting my own work, I’ll put it here.

The office’s front door slammed open, and when they heard the raised voices in the lobby, Cooper, Shannon, and Nicole quickly posed themselves as busy worker-bees. Tilda didn’t bother—what was the point of being a freelancer if not to avoid that kind of playacting?

As it turned out, the staff members could have been demonstrating the lambada for all the attention they got. When Jillian and Bryce, respectively editor in chief and managing editor of Entertain Me!, stormed in, the only thing on their minds was continuing their discussion.

“Fuck you!” Jillian said.

“No, fuck you!” Bryce replied.

“No, fuck you!”

“No, fuck you!”

Tilda would have noted the irony of such an argument between two people who were supposedly devoted to publishing clever articles and essays, but she suspected that ironic detachment was no longer in style.

Now I’ve already owned up to thinking this is funny, and I’ve had readers who agreed with me. Then again, I’ve had readers complain about the use of foul language, which is all they took away from this section. (I was recently on a Malice Domestic panel about taboos because of dropping the f-bomb, too, but that’s another post.)

So this points out the tough part about writing humor: it’s really subjective.

Consider the following comedies:

  • The Three Stooges
  • Saturday Night Live
  • The Colbert Report
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
  • “The Importance of Being Earnest”
  • Beavis and Butthead
  • M*A*S*H on TV
  • M*A*S*H the movie
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Peanuts
  • Pearls Before Swine

All have their fans who claim they’re hilarious, but I don’t think very many people would laugh at all of those. Not everybody even loves Everybody Loves Raymond. 

Language isn’t the only barrier. There are age differences in your readers, varying backgrounds, a multitude of cultural references. Even Thurber’s work got lost in translation in the UK, and that’s theoretically the same language!

So while it may or not be easier to write humor, it’s definitely harder to write universal humor.

Now that issue applies to all kinds of humor, but I think writing humorous prose has some other challenges.

  1. Have you ever heard the secret of humor?Pause.Pause.Pause.TIMING!To put that another way, have you ever heard the secret of hu–  TIMING!

    Now that old joke is a whole lot funnier when spoken out loud because of the–say it with me–TIMING! You just can’t dictate timing in a book.  Sure, there’s pacing, which is similar, but it’s just not the same as a pie appearing out of nowhere.

  2. Have you ever heard about Joe, who went to a comedian’s convention expecting to hear lots of great jokes. Except when he went to the bar, all he heard was people yelling numbers. One yelled, “12,” and everybody laughed. “47.” More laughter. “24.” A fellow fell out of his chair laughing. So Joe asked Mo, the comedian sitting next to him for an explanation. Mo said, “We know each other’s material so well, so now we just call out the numbers and we all remember the joke.”  Joe asked, “Can I tell one?” Mo nodded. Then Joe stood up and said, “13!” Silence. Mo just shrugged and said, “Some people just can’t tell a joke.”Likewise, some jokes don’t come through in print–they have to be spoken. Shakespeare’s comedies are way funnier when performed, with appropriate intonations and gestures to go along with the wit. I once read a book of Jeff Foxworthy‘s “You might be a redneck if…” books, and was underwhelmed, but when when I heard him tell those same jokes with a twinkle in his eye, they were a riot. Moreover now I can read the books, picture Jeff delivering them, and enjoy them.
  3. People don’t laugh as much when they’re alone.There’s a reason why we say, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” My husband Steve did standup one summer, and he quickly found that if one person laughed at a joke, other people would likely join in. Steve started bringing along our friend Kim Allman, who has one of the most infectious laughs ever. I don’t know if people were embarrassed to laugh alone or what, but I know that when Kim laughed, everybody laughed. (That tendency explains sitcom laugh tracks, too.)

    Unfortunately, unless you’ve got Kim with you while you’re reading, you’re not going to have that cue that it’s okay to chuckle. And not even enhanced e-books come with laugh tracks. (Though I probably shouldn’t say that too loud–next year’s releases might include that as a feature.) Of course, you can think something is funny without laughing out loud, but I believe there’s a psychological link between actually laughing and perceiving material as funny.

So I come back to the same answer. No, but yes. And to do this right, I’d end this post with a punch line.

Yeah, it’s a pun and a sight gag, and since a lot of people hate puns, and it’s a sight gag, which isn’t appropriate to prose, and the humor is dependent on your knowing about an ad campaign for Hawaiian Punch. That means I’ve just lost a certain percentage of you people reading this blog.

Humor is funny that way.