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.

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.

Name Game

Here is something I’ve talked a tiny bit about in social media, and want to address with a few more words here: character names.

I read so many manuscripts where the names seem like throwaways.  It seems like many writers subscribe to the “first thought best thought” school, using the first name that pops into their head. More often than not, it comes across as unconsidered. It’s Sally or Billy or Bobby or Timmy or Jane. I have nothing at all against these names, and in fact, sometimes they are the perfect choice. (Author Peter McCleery chose Bob for Bob and Joss Get Lost for the internal rhyme, and for a joke I won’t tell you about that works really well in the book. Due out 2017.) But if your character is named Billy because it’s the first thing you thought of, you can do better.

Would you name your child the first name that occurred to you? I super duper hope not. There are so many marvelous names in the world, and parents (and pet owners) spend forever coming up with just the right one. A name can reflect so much about the character and story and add a layer of meaning, even. Sometimes it’s a symbol. Sometimes it’s a metaphor. Sometimes it’s ironic. The best ones are a couple of things.

For instance: My favorite dog-friend is a miniature Schnauzer whose name is Titan. That’s funny because he’s little. But it’s also meaningful, because his owner was obsessed with Days of Our Lives, and Titan Industries is the biggest corporation in Salem. Two reasons for one name!

Fantasy writers have a double struggle, because what are the chances that your Space Ninja from an alternate plane will be named Dave? But now you have to make up a name that sounds real. I have read many unpronounceable names, and when I do, I want to throw things. Woerud or Permnk or Xch. Take a page from Suzanne Collins. Katniss is a real plant. It’s edible. Gale is a strong wind. Peeta is a kind of bread (with a minor spelling difference). These names reflect nature and the world they live in, but allow us to step right into a place we know isn’t exactly ours. (I kind of wish Peeta was named Marble Rye, though.)

Speaking of Gale, it’s Dorothy’s last name in the Wizard of Oz. Get it? Dorothy Strong Wind? That’s not an accident.

Turning off the main road for a second: Can we just not with alliterative animal names? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My name is not Heather Human, so why are all squirrels sur-named Squirrel? Why can’t a squirrel be named Roy Feliciano? I’ll give the exception award to Betty Bunny because Betty Bunny is the only one in her family who has Bunny in her name, and her siblings are named Henry and Kate and Bill. In fact, there are lots of exceptions to this complaint, but in general, try harder.

I’m not saying that every character in your book needs to have a weighty, thoughtful name, but how can it hurt? Moreover, when I read manuscripts with throwaway names, I wonder how long the writer considered it, which then leads me to wonder how long they considered other things in the story. Your characters are at least as important as your guinea pig, so spend some quality time picking.

Here are a few I’d love to see: ChiChi, Fenella, Huxley, Kizzy, Zowie, D’Artagnan, Eustace, Remi, Miggy, Jansen, Dan (JK on that last one.)

 

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?

Rhyme Time

Oh, the poor rhyming picture book. Love them or hate them, they are a much discussed topic among picture book folk. Some label them outdated, or old fashioned, and some believe they are the only true picture book style. I like to camp somewhere in the middle.

A good rhyming picture book is marvelous, and a bad rhyme is like a new pop-star sans autotune. But how do we tell the difference? I’ll give you some examples.

Dr. Seuss is the most often imitated rhymer, and for good reason. His stories are bouncy and weird and fun to read out loud. The rhyme propels the reader forward building momentum like a bobsled race. You can’t stop mid-line, or even mid-story without feeling like you might cause an 80-word pileup behind. But, as a former colleague once noted, “Dr. Seuss ruined rhyming picture books forever.”

I agree. Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss, and you, I am sorry to say, are not. When I read submissions that follow his particular rhyme scheme, I’m not impressed. First of all, I think the author isn’t totally innovative. Second, his texts are long by today’s standards. Have you read the Cat in the Hat lately? It’s 1621 words, and 61 pages, which is about twice as long (in word count and page count) as today’s picture books. It’s also 59 years old this year, so.

My point is that it takes a LOT of words to keep to that rhythm and make it tell a story.

But borrowing an innovator’s style isn’t the worst offense. I also see a lot of submissions which keep to a rhyme scheme, but force the words into an odd, unnatural structure. For instance (made up by me):

The temperature was ten below

But off to school Babs did go

This is a case of rhyme before language, and rhyme before story. In the first line, temperature gives a nice rhythm, but no one actually refers to that word when talking about the subject. Natural English is more likely to use “it” because we don’t talk about anything else being ten below. It’s implied we’re talking about degrees. The second line is completely backward. Babs went off to school is more natural. She did go in this context is nothing anyone would ever say, so please don’t put it, or anything that doesn’t sound the way people speak, in your rhyming text. EVER. (In a better text, this would simply say “It was freezing, but Babs went to school anyway,” saving you three precious words to use later.)

So what makes good rhyme then? Ah, the million dollar question. I have been thinking about this a lot. We live in an age of innovation in music, and why shouldn’t that carry over into our texts as well? Why write a plodding ABAB phrase when you can get jiggy? Seems like the whole world has been listening to Hamilton (whose creator won a MacArthur Genius Grant, just sayin’) because it’s thrilling. It’s fresh and cool and mind-blowing. Why shouldn’t picture books do that too? Hip hop isn’t the niche it once was, and authors can find inspiration in how it’s put together. Go back and read your beat poetry collections from college. Or read new poetry for inspiration.

Here are some examples of recent rhyming texts which are doing it right:

I Stink! (the whole series) by Kate McMullan and Jim McMullan

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld

Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi and Brendan Wenzel

Counting Crows by Kathi Appelt and Rob Dunlavy

Skippyjon Jones (the whole series) by Judy Schachner

Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

These texts tell a story using rhyme in some way, but come at it with syncopation and a jazzy sensibility. Or they use really modern language in fun, off-kilter ways. Because of that, they feel new and interesting and original. Do all rhyming texts need to be that way? Not really. For example, a bedtime book probably needs to be more regular and soothing.

Many editors say they won’t even consider rhyming books. If you’re just getting your feet wet in picture books, I generally advise staying away from rhyme. Picture books are the hardest thing in the world to write, so why give yourself the added challenge of rhyme? But if you’re up to it, dig in. Don’t rhyme because you think you have to. Do it because you want to write a powerful, tantalizing rhyme that will make an agent or editor dance. Be the exception to the rule.

Okay!

Everywhere in the world I’ve ever been, I hear people using OK. I first realized it when I was traveling, using my limited language skills in some language or another and I’d try my hand at haggling and be answered with “OK.”  I’ve asked taxi drivers where they’re from and whether they say OK there and so far it has been unanimously yes. OK is just a nonsense word, though. It doesn’t actually mean anything, does it? Where did it come from?

Turns out, no one really knows. There are several theories, a few of which you can read, if you’re interested, on Wikipedia. My favorite is the “Boston abbreviation fad” because what a dumb fad to have such a lasting impression on the world’s languages. And if this theory is correct, we should be celebrating 175 years of saying OK, although it’s more likely that OK has its roots in African languages, which makes it even older.

The thing is, I can’t imagine what language, especially English, would sound like with out OK. It’s a bit of nonsense that caught on because we needed it, perhaps. What did people say before those wacky Bostonians got in there? No one was really saying “all correct” were they?

Hey Stan, how about Netflix and chill tonight?

All correct.

Hmm, maybe. OK, or ok, or okay even, means so many things. But how did it permeate our language so fully? And why did it? And why, like bee’s knees or groovy did it not fade from favor after a decade or two?

There are so many meanings for these humble letters. OK means yes.

Will you go to prom with me?
OK.

OK means mediocre.

How was the new Gloria Swanson movie?
It was ok. Not her best.

It means fine or alright.

How are you feeling?
I’m ok.

Or

Is Chinese ok?

Sure.

Recently, it has started to mean “Whatever you say.”

I’m going to Paris to bungee jump off the Eiffel tower for spring break.

Oookaaaayyyyy….

There are a million variations on these two letters, many of which are used by teenagers and other flighty language types.

Okie dokie/doke

Okely dokely, as per Ned Flanders

k

kk

And my personal favorite, mmk.

Has any other word sprung to life so successfully? The next time you write or say OK, take into consideration its very strange position in the world’s languages. And I’ll be here collecting research notes for a rich, full volume on this topic that absolutely no one will want to read.

 

 

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.