In my ‘other job’, as a script consultant and scriptwriter, I have been lucky enough to be involved in some great shows, including musicals, animated films, TV shows and live-action films. It’s great to see project come to completion and know that you have helped it along the way on that difficult journey.
It’s really exciting then to see that one of the feature films I have been involved with, ‘Chasing Robert Barker’ is now available on VOD channels such as itunes. This was a real labour of love for the team who all deserve congratulations for their hard work and shows what can be achieved on even a very modest budget when talent and enthusiasm are involved. I am particularly delighted for the principle writers, Maria and Daniel (who also directed brilliantly) for having the vision and determination to see their project through to completion.
I love writing novels and my own scripts of course, but I also love helping people with their projects too and sometimes I do also love that feeling of being part of a dedicated team.
Happy Hogswatch – the problem with Fantasy Holidays.
Fantasy holidays, by which I don’t mean a month in the Seychelles, but a holiday set in a fantasyland, can be quite trick. Actually I had a month in the Seychelles once and it was a lovely place, but I could never get over the fact that they had ‘Bus Stop’s written on the road. Not randomly, at actual bus stops, but it made the Seychelles just slightly like a tropical Croydon.
Holidays in fantasylands then, as I realised recently, are difficult to set up. Except for Hogswatch of course. Hogswatch, and the scary Santa that is the Hogfather, are fantastically realised by Sir Terry because they are actually what the story is about (mostly). If, as a writer, you just want to slip a holiday into your story – along the way as it were – then it’s harder. The reason is that holidays are events with long histories that are steeped in a society or culture’s history. Christmas didn’t happen overnight after all, and neither did Hanukkah or Diwali.
As a writer you need to embed your holidays in your world’s culture. You are generally OK handling a ‘mid-summer’ or even a ‘mid-winter’ festival, but New Years can be tricky. I’m, still rather in favour with a new year starting on the first day of spring myself. Such seasonal events are relatively straightforward although they can appear a bit ‘weak’ and unimaginative. Other events need careful thinking about because they might bring up the dreaded subject of religion and religion in your fantasy books is something you may not want to get into.
In Narnia, famously, it was always winter but never Christmas. But as the Witch’s hold is weakened along comes Father Christmas, but shouldn’t he actually be Father Aslanmas?
You might not want to go there. Just think how ‘Game of Thrones’ would have suffered with a tagline of ‘Christmas is Coming.’ Not the same is it?
Elves, you just have to love them, don’t you? I mean, with their natural in-born nobility, un-specified magical powers, tall blond looks, high cheekbones and pointy ears, what’s not to like? No wonder that the most unfairly maligned of youth cults, the peace-loving hippies, was so taken by them. Unless, of course, your elves happen to be small enslaved domestic helpers with no dress sense and a habit of talking about themselves in the third person: “Blobby wear sack now”. Or perhaps you’re still hooked on the idea that Santa Claus keeps legions of relatively magic-free green and red clad elves to help assemble Smartphones and games machines in the frozen wastes somewhere north of the place they filmed ‘The Killing’.
Then again, if you ever had the misfortune to share 89 minutes (feels like longer) with TV’s Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty you might think ‘Elves’ (1989) are all about a neo-Nazi plot to create half-human/half-elf hybrids that were Hitler’s original idea for a master race. An idea inexplicably left out of most histories of World War II. Not forgetting the Dark Elves who gave Marvel’s Thor such a bad time in ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (2013) with their leader Malekith the Accursed who managed to look almost nothing like the actor Christopher Eccleston. Elves with high technology, there’s a new thing (or is it?).
It doesn’t really matter though, because they’re all elves now (OK, with the exception of the half-human master race) and elves have always been the trickiest of supernatural creatures to pin down. Even the Christmas elves are welcome to the fold and they seem to have their origins in illustrations that appeared in the American “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, a successful monthly magazine published in Philadelphia in the 1860s. Although the diminutive, gift-giving, white bearded ‘tomte’ from Sweden seem to fit that Xmas elf bill pretty closely too, giving rise to the possibility that Santa himself may be an elf.
The Old English ælf also had a ‘difficult’ relationship with people and any interaction could be to the person’s advantage –gifts yes please!-or severe disadvantage (where’s me cow). Partly depending on whether you were mixing it with the light elves or dark elves of course (very little good news with the dark elves actually). The dark elves weren’t a Marvel invention, but part of the Norse elf origin story. Called the Dökkálfar they tended towards a subterranean life style while the light elves, the Ljósálfar, lived in a rather nice place called Álfheimr (Old Norse ‘Elf Home’). The light elves took out the first patent on the blond, high cheekbone routine, being ‘fairer than the sun to look at’. This idea carried over into Scottish myths and the ‘Seelie’ and ‘Unseelie’ courts. The ‘Seelie’ court could do you a power of good, although annoying them, say by spilling slops into their houses, could also lead to the appropriate chastisement. The Unseelie court, which also included sluagh, redcaps, baobhan sith, shellycoats and nucklelavee amongst their number, just had it in for people.
Here though we reach contentious ground: when is an elf an elf and when is an elf a fairy? In England the light elves tended to be very similar to the fairies of Shakespearean fame – Titania’s hangers on. These would often be called elves as when Titania mentions ‘my small elves coats’. In Scotland elves were more likely to be human sized and lived in Elfame and that has certainly influenced one strong fantasy strand we know about.
In Scandinavia, life became more complicated when elves became mixed up with the huldre folk. These were originally more like forest spirits, usually female and associated with agriculture and women’s crafts. Although rather helpful, they’d take care of charcoal burner fires for example, they were also liable to kill your cattle and steal your children. And although the huldre women were very beautiful they did have cow’s tails (best not to mention it though, they got touchy).
In Iceland their elves, Huldufólk, have never gone away. Very much a part of life in fact and earlier this year plans to build a new road ran into trouble when campaigners warned that the road works would disturb elves living nearby. Construction work had to be halted, of course, while a solution was found.
So it seems that, love them or hate them, elves are not going to go away especially in our popular culture. They may pop up in different guises and sizes but the need for some ‘magical’ other to share our lives with seems very strong. Elves are here to stay – much to the annoyance of many dwarfs that I could mention.
– No, no, I don’t know. You said it. How do I know?
Goodfellas written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese
So, how do you know if you are funny?
Write a joke and tell it down the pub and people will laugh (or not). Stand in front of an audience and tell it and you’ll know pretty quickly if it, and you, were any good. Write a joke for the radio and you might get feedback in days, for television it’ll probably be months.
Write a funny book and hopefully you’ll get some indication of how well you have done before the decade is out.
And that’s setting out to be deliberately funny, what if you are writing a book, say a fantasy, and want to include humour in it? How do you measure success then? Why not make it even harder, and make it a detective fantasy comedy, for example?
Is this simply doomed to be an exercise in multiple stool missing?
I’ve lectured on comedy (somebody has to – maybe?) and author Elwin White’s line, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process” always springs to mind. But then again I’ve also taught dissection and found humour there as well. In fact one of my best jokes ever involved the human connective tissue component fibrillin and how it… well, you had to be there, believe me.
I could be cynical and say that most things sell better nowadays when they have some comedy in them. Not ‘erotic romance’ obviously – start laughing at that and everything falls down (see what he did there?). I could possibly add that comedy is pretty cool at the moment and comedy nerds, even comedy nerds playing in the fantasy sand pit, are no longer first in the stocks being pummelled with the rotten fruit. I could even take a deep breath and explain that maybe it’s interesting to throw some light on the tropes we all love, and play around with them in a manner that could almost be called ‘intertextual’ – but I probably won’t.
So is it even possible to explain anything about the comedy writing process?
Well, when I did the aforementioned lecturing I used to occasionally do my party trick and give the students a newspaper, let them pick any page and story, and I’d write a comedy sketch about it for them. Nobody ever argued about my capability, I could produce a bona-fide comedy sketch on any subject. Of course, I got the occasional, ‘it’s not that funny, is it?’ This might well have been true, but it was always a sketch, with a set up, a pay off and jokes along the way. That bit can be taught.
For the next stage, as I went on to explain, raising it up to the level of the great comedy sketches … well remember Malcolm Gladwell calculated that it only takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. That’s about a year, working 24 hours day of course. Either that or be Tommy Cooper, born with genuine funny bones … and still undoubtedly put in the thousands of hours as well.
The first question to ask yourself about writing genre comedy is this, actually it’s the second question after ‘can my bank account afford for me to do this?’ and this second question is this: ‘what sort of funny’ are we writing here?
Let us make a distinction. A proper comedy, I would argue, really shouldn’t be obliged to do anything else other than make you laugh. That is the object of a comedy, be it a film, TV show or a book. Such pure comedy is rare. In film we’re more likely to be talking about a romantic comedy, or a teen comedy, or an Adam Sandler comedy. Such qualifications really move the pointer on the funny scale from ‘comedy’ to ‘humour’, nothing wrong with that of course, it just means that the writer has other intentions for their work as well. They probably want to move your emotions, relate to your peer group or just twitch your lips a bit. Which brings us to satire. Satire does not actually have to be funny. It can actually be quite cruel, as its intention is to prick pomposity and bring down governments. That’s its job. Fortunately funny is usually not off the table as well.
In many cases the author is exploring another subject alongside getting a chuckle and doing it – hopefully – by injecting humour as well. And this is the case with genre comedy, it should be firmly rooted in the genre and thus be aware of genre conventions. If you want to write straight comedy then do that, it’s both easier and harder at the same time; very much like the electron wave/particle duality.
Now: my top ten rules for writing genre comedy in novel form.
(1) You have to know, and love, your genre.
I love and read fantasy and science fiction books. I love and read detective books. Nothing is going to spoil my enjoyment of them. Discovering a new author and a new world is a thing of wonder. Remember that love.
(2) Never ever laugh at your reader.
You are not writing to have fun at their expense. They are the same as you are; they’re better even, as they don’t feel the need to show off like you obviously do. It’s a sharing thing, laughing at ourselves and not really meaning it (as was said about me once, far too perceptively).
(3) Do not neglect your story.
You owe it to your reader to give them a story as well as laughs. It’s having fun with the genre, but detective fiction requires a crime and somebody to sort it all out.
(4) Real characters are the funniest.
If you invent a character simply for a single gag then it’ll probably show – so at least make it a good one! Readers will still prefer to find fully rounded people making idiots of themselves, even if they have pointy ears, a chronic UV fear or are dead.
(5) If you’re not laughing, then how can you expect your readers to?
I laugh at my own jokes. One of the best feelings in the world is when a line comes to you as you are writing, so you experience the pay off as it appears on the page; fully formed and gorgeous. It is not a sign of excessive self-abusive.
(6) Jokes are not evil.
It does not always have to be about amazing insights and clever juxtapositions of events and characters. A good joke or a clever line helps as well, mind you they are probably a lot harder to come up with. Jokes are hard, new jokes even harder still.
(7) When in doubt go back to your sources.
There is so much great stuff out there, read it and become soaked in it. Absorb it through your pores if possible. Then construct something that works on its own terms and integrate all your influences.
(8) Find your hero.
Your audience want to empathise with your main character, sympathise with them, or even antipathise (maybe not be a real word, should be) with them. Make your hero somebody they want to spend time with, but they do not have to be a protagonist. By that I mean they do not have to be changed by events (much). Leave that for the films.
(9) Stay true to your intentions.
Do not slip into parody or pastiche, unless that’s your real intention – in which case you could actually be stepping out of your intended genre. They are rather different beasts, equally pertinent in their own way, but can be rather ephemeral and best explored within the pages of the marvellous Mad Magazine or even in sketch comedy. Is ‘Bored of the Rings’ an actual fantasy novel?
(10) Have some fun.
Fun is good. Fun is infectious. Your reader will be able to tell if you are having fun writing and it will encourage them to have some as well.
You also have to bear in mind that we are living in a world where many literary types still look down on much ‘genre fiction’. Bless their shrivelled souls and callused imaginations. There are sadly also some genre enthusiasts who worry about the purity of their favourite form and worry about comedy creeping in. If you have they urge to write genre comedy, ignore them all, and the rest of us will be having a titter, chuckle, giggle and guffaw along with you.
I will leave you with the words of the fabulous actor Bill Nighy, a face for genre comedy if they ever made one:
“I don’t do plays without jokes anymore. I’ve retired from those plays. I think it’s bad manners to invite people to sit in the dark for two and a half-hours and not tell them a joke.”
And remember it only takes 10,000 hours – so get cracking!
WOW! Can it really be 3 years today since the self published version of A DEAD ELF came out? Then Harper Voyager come along just weeks later, pick it up for publication and it becomes a #1 Epic Fantasy Bestseller!
Yes it’s true!
Here’s the original cover – designed by a wonderfully talented friend – which is as fantastic as the totally different cover designed by Alexandra Allden! How lucky I am to have two great covers!