Hey, That’s Funny!

Funny is such a great tool when writing for kids. And the format of picture books is a natural fit for short form comedy.

BUT (you knew that was coming)…

Many funny picture book manuscripts come across more like a sketch in a comedy show. That is to say, they have a beginning, middle, climax, and (in the place of a satisfying resolution reflecting some sort of growth) they have a punchline.

I love a solid punchline. When they land just right, they can elicit snorts and guffaws and chortles and who doesn’t love that? It’s why we all hope for a Kate McKinnon cold open on SNL, and why we still go to see our friends’ improv shows.

BUT

Picture books are much more than a series of jokes. Without an emotional undercurrent, they lack that connectability that makes kids say, “gurl, I feel you”…a punchline is funny once or twice (or, ok, 35 times if you’re 4), but even the most unexpected punchline doesn’t have that emotional heft to keep readers coming back again and again.

It’s true that in most cases we like that emotional growth to be pretty invisible, but it should still be there. Even in the funniest books, readers and characters should come away a little bit different than they were at page one. Comedy in 32 art-filled pages can subvert expectations, use word play or page turns, or just be wicked-wacky. It’s easy to think of picture books as long form jokes, but I think of them more as an episode of a sitcom. (Thinking of setups and characters in Act III who go, “Oh, crap. Maybe we were wrong about that thing we thought in Act I.”)

Here are some that get it right. Give yourself a treat.

Bob and Joss Get Lost

I YAM a Donkey

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great

Z is for Moose

My Teacher is a Monster

Boss Baby

I’m My Own Dog

The Thing About Yetis

Want more about writing funny picture books? Tune in to my KidLit College webinar (posting soon!) on April 8th. I’ll be talking with Mary-Kate Gaudet of Little, Brown, and she, my friends, is hilarious.

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Beyond the Great Whatever

A while back, I talked about slang and how a little goes a long way. But I’d like to dig a little deeper into one of my personal pet peeves: the use/overuse of whatever.

Whatever is crucial to the teenage language, is it not? It ends sentences. “It’s this old show or whatever”.

It IS a sentence.

“Danica, do you hear me?”

“Whatever.”

And that’s how kids sound. I understand that. But it’s not the only way kids sound. And even the ones who sound like that sometimes don’t sound like that all the time. The thing I find so upsetting about it is that whatever is the end of the line. It’s the period. It’s the conversation ender. And in writing and reading, it’s hard to bounce back from.

I think as adults, that’s how we hear it. A kid whatevers us and the conversation is over. You’d have to pull pretty hard to pry that conversation back open. But that isn’t always how kids talk to each other. And as YA and middle grade writers, it’s our job to give kids a window, not a mirror, to paraphrase something I’ve heard often (and believe completely). And so we have to imagine what comes after the whatever when we’re not present. What does whatever stand for? Write that instead. It will make your characters endlessly more interesting.

Here’s an example.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this thing my dad likes about some old election or whatever.”

Sounds like something a sullen teenager would say. Or even a kind of charming teenager. But that conversation has been shut down. There’s nothing to pick up, no thread to follow. As a writer, you could leave it there, OR you could dig deeper and find out more about your characters.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this old song parody from the Bush-Kerry election when my dad was working as a staffer in the Senate. He sings it all the time. ‘This land is my land, this land is your land. I’m a Texas tiger, you’re a liberal wiener.’ It’s those same guys that made that stupid dancing elf video your aunt sent us all at Christmas. I think This Land was their first video. It’s pretty funny actually.”

This conversation is open. There are lots of places to go, and your characters have interests and we know what they think is funny. It might sound like whatever in real life, but most of you are writing fiction, so your characters can be as open and non-sullen as you want. And interesting characters and open conversations are more likely to make it out of my inbox than even the most realistic mirroring of teen-talk. Or whatever.

PS That video still exists and I still think it’s funny.

Too Many Cooks!

I’m doing a webinar in a couple of weeks about how to be a great critique partner (hey, it’s my blog, so I can self-promote all I want), and as I prepare, I keep coming back to a side point.

Having friends/your writing group/beta readers/classmates read your work is invaluable. Getting outside opinions can help get through those rough patches, or fix that plot hole, or round out flat characters. But having too many readers, or having readers too early, can make a potentially rich stew into yesterday’s oatmeal. The problem is not having the work critiqued, it’s having the work over-critiqued. Too many cooks spoil the manuscript.

I sometimes get queries accompanied by a litany of other editors and agents who’ve offered up their opinions on the work, and those I read with trepidation. You know how in art class when you’re learning to mix colors, and you add in one too many and it all turns to an indescribable shade of poo? That happens with editorial opinions, too. Too many dull the edges instead of sharpening. (Mix metaphors! I don’t care!)

Something I’ve noticed of late is that many manuscripts (and books) seem to fit the same mold. Nothing really stands out loud and proud. I can’t say for sure why this is happening, but it seems to be a symptom of writers trying to incorporate too many opinions too soon. If a manuscript is critiqued after only one draft, how does the writer have the time to find that bold, weird, singular voice and style before the group steers them to a safer place? How can a story take a bizarre, unexpected turn if the hive-mind wants a predictable path?

Consider this both a warning and an encouraging hug. Write the story. Write the whole story. Let it consume you, and then rewrite it and feel brave in your weird ideas. Don’t listen to your inner critic, and by all means, finish it before you share it with your outer critics. But like, truly finish it. Don’t start asking for opinions before it’s done. And for the love of cayenne pepper, be bold about your work. Stand proudly in it instead of meekly offering it up.

You don’t start a stew and invite your friends over to season it in the middle. You serve it to them when you think it’s perfect. And if they have opinions, you take some and you leave some and maybe it comes out better next time. As that old earhanger says, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

What Are You Thinking?

Rhetorical questions are something I run across much too often and are yet another place I want to yell, “Show, don’t tell!” They pull readers where you want them to go, rather than subtly pointing the way. Trust readers to follow your breadcrumbs. And let them be surprised.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  “And then I’d had the freaky dream about that  purple cat again. Did it have something to do with Tony? Could it have been a message from him? Could he be trying to communicate from another world? And how had he escaped that evil bouncy-house anyway?”

Chances are, your readers are already wondering these things. So reiterating them in questions is making a beautiful allusion and then explaining it. Like if poetry came with a translation.

If we’d been shown that Tony had somehow escaped the evil bouncy house, and then the MC had this dream that seemed out of place, and that’s all we knew, well, I think that’s much more interesting than the author handing over all the pieces, saying “you should think about these things.”

You’re giving hints. And unless readers (beta, critiquers, etc.) have asked for hints, they most likely don’t want them. Or need them. Because readers are smart, and appreciate a little mystery.

A few rhetorical questions are fine. Sometimes it’s key to a moment of interiority. But when they’re overused, it’s taking away that sense of accomplishment that comes along with reading a really great book. If your reader can get to the end and say “I knew it! I was right!” that’s awesome. If they get to the end and are totally blown away by surprises, “I never saw that coming but it makes total sense!” that is even better.

Do you think I got my point across? Are the writers feeling inspired? Do I have something in my teeth?

Slang. On. Fleek.

Oh, that elusive teenager voice. Sometimes it seems impossible to get it right. We don’t often hear them speaking in their natural habitat. Ok, some of you are parents or teachers of teenagers, and will be like, Heather, I hear those bananas conversations every single day. Fair. But I maintain that when teenagers are aware they’re being heard by adults, the voice changes. I remember a thing from an early Linguistics class: As soon as a subject knows they’re voice/style/intonation/vocabulary is being studied, it changes. The things we notice are the things that stick out to us because they aren’t a part of our own speech. Slang, y’all.

Obviously teenagers speak only in slang and to make the voice sound real in a manuscript, it needs to be littered with all the latest phrases, right? I see many writers take the “extrapolation” approach. They troll Urban Dictionary and then double down. (And they may or may not be using slang correctly. I think about rolling my eyes at my own mother for trying to pull off totally tubular back in the day.)

This method can be fun to write, because it shows off how in-touch with contemporary youth culture the author is. But when there’s too much all at once, it’s tough to read. Very tough. It’s the equivalent of meeting a British person, and immediately busting out “Cheerio, guv-nah! Blimey! I say, good show! Fancy a spot of tea, mate? Bloody hell! Move yer bloomin’ arse!” I think we can all agree that this is cartoonish and not at all realistic sounding, and likely offensive to the person being imitated. So why then, do we have teenagers in novels saying “O.M.G. Your eyebrows are on. Fleek. Let’s chillax at my crib or whatever. My mom has some ancient movie about some guy named like Forrest Gump or something? I literally can’t even. Adorkable.” (Translation: “Your eyebrows look good. Let’s watch a movie.”)

If I actually heard a teenager speaking that way, I’d rush her to the hospital. Not only is it annoying to read, it gets in the way of the actual storytelling. My advice is to comb your manuscript and take out all the “like”s and “whatever”s and all the other slang you can spare. Be brutal. Then, when you’re done, go back and sprinkle it in like a seasoning, where it’s needed. Every dish needs salt, but too much will ruin the meal.

I have other things to say about voice and slang, but will save them for future posts.

Leave your comments below or whatever. IDK. As if.