Writing Tips From the “Funnies”

Writing advice is free all around us but there’s no place more fun to get it than the Comics. What a challenge comic strip writers have: tell a story, make it funny and often times also impactful, all in three to five frames. There’s a lot to learn but not just tight story structure.

Take the message in a recent cartoon called “Zits”by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman about sixteen year old teenager Jeremy. His mom asks how his day was and he says, “It started. It ended.” Mom of course wants more and asks for the missing ‘middle’. He tells that part is in ‘on a need’ to know basis.

It’s easy to know where a new novel is going to start, and even we Pansters usually have some general idea of how it will end, but the middle is the stuff that makes or breaks it.

Between “it began” and “it ended” what would Jeremy’s mom really want to know? How he walked to school, opened his locker got out his history book, math book and a beat up pad of paper and then dropped his one and only pen, chased it down the hall, and barely made it to home room where he had to listen to ten minutes of announcements including that chocolate milk will no longer be served in the cafeteria? Would she care to know that Mr Perkins wore a striped shirt again and Joe McGinnis called him a clown to his face and got detention or that the he got spearmint gum stuck on the bottom of his sneaker? No she would not.

The description of his day could be told with literary prowess, amazing accuracy, the best writing ever and still be duller than a tax form. What mom might have wanted to know was that he asked Suzy out and now has a girlfriend. Or that an enormous crack appeared in the gym floor and some kids fell into it. Anything but the well, defined mundane happenings of the day.

Point being, make sure the middle of your story is not bulked up with a lot of great scenes that no one cares about.

There’s another gem hidden in this cartoon. The idea of dispensing information little by little on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mom might need to know there would be no gym for a few months or the school would be shut down for repairs, but she doesn’t need to know about Suzy until it’s prom time and he has to rent a tucks (or a limo).

This is a hard one. I often find myself getting caught in the trap of laying down a framework to build my story on. A critique partner recently hinted at this, pointing out how I had a lot of background information but that she likes to give out only a little explanation and then let the questions and gaps lead the reader to find out more.

It’s good advice. I put that into practice with the newest round of revisions. It’s amazing what a story can do without once you start chopping!

To tie it all up, two simple pieces of writing advice – make sure what’s in the middle is what ‘mom’ would really want to know and don’t give her all the news at once.

Write on and write well!

Lost and Found

I owe it all to Rose and her curiosity.

September 2019 summer vacation at the Jersey Shore. Twelve hours of drive, drive, drive spurred on by visions of lazy days reading a Hugh Howey novel, starting a puzzle and of course, always, working on my latest writing project. My I-pad waited like a faithful friend tucked into a travel bag that usually held a laptop.  

When we arrived, we breathed in the salty ocean air, stretched our legs, and piled the contents of the car onto a cart. As usual my husband constructed a perfect tower of luggage, grocery bags, extra pillows, and what must have been fifty assorted loose items.  The last thing to go on top was the I-pad bag. Too late I saw the bag slip to the ground and the I-Pad slide out. To my great relief no harm was done. Neither one of us noticed the red and black flash drive skitter to freedom. I would never miss it since I didn’t intend to bring it and had no PC to install it on.

Days later, mission accomplished, I relaxed with my paperback book open, cold lemonade in my Contigo cup and a bag of barbecue chips strategically hidden from seagulls, though there was one standing on one leg looking straight at me. My phone rang. It was the hotel front desk. A guest had called to say she found something that might be mine, but she was checked out. Could I call her?

I wondered if it was a scam.

When Rose answered and we started to talk, we may have well been classmates at school. My husband looked on with a bewildered face. I just smiled at him as Rose explained that she had pulled in next to our car and found a red flash drive. She apologized for taking it with her thinking it belonged to her friend that had been in the parking space last. Later she opened the drive.

“Are you an author?” she asked.

“Aspiring,” I said.

“Well I spent the past few hours reading your story, I couldn’t put it down. I need to know what happens to Darrell.”

I laughed. I wasn’t even sure she had the latest draft for the story that I had abandoned two years ago.

She shared with me what she liked about it. How it reminded her of the show “The Walking Dead”, and did I model the protagonist after one of the actors on the show? I did not. She gave me some pointers, parts of the story that weren’t working and then promised to return the drive.

It was the single most igniting interaction with a stranger I’ve ever had. I immediately started working on the novel again. Rose volunteered to be a reader and wanted to know how the story would end. So began the quest to stop abandoning characters to digital dungeons, and do what it takes to bring them to life not only in my mind but in as many others that would let them in.

If you know a writer, the greatest gift you can give is to read their drafts and give words of affirmation sprinkled with suggestions. I am in debt to Rose. I need to repay her with a free copy of the published book. Would you join me as I keep my promise to Rose?

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