Why Humor is Scarier Than Horror

My foray into writing, I think, started like many speculative writers.  I immediately dropped myself into epic fantasy, the grandiose stories I had grown up reading and the ones that had held my attention the longest.  I tried writing books with five points of view, worlds that spanned thousands of miles and dozens of different cultures speaking different languages.  There’s a requirement for all new fantasy writers to include made up words in italics in all of their books, and most of them should have at least one apostrophe in it.

Needless to say, it didn’t really work.  First, I was just starting out as a serious, mindful writer – by which I mean someone who is writing and analyzing their craft to get better, not just writing words.  So there’s a certain element of throwaway prose that every writer has to go through.  I’ve heard it said that a writer needs to write a million words before they write anything worth reading (I’m well past that word count, by the way, though it remains to be seen about the second part of that adage).  So the writing was, by default, derivative, over-complicated, and flat.

In 2012, I wrote two novels that, I thought, actually had some real promise.  Both epic fantasy, both massive worlds, both multiple POVs.  Together they totaled 500,000 words.  The first one was a breeze to write; I loved every moment of composing that book.  The second one, the longer of the two, felt like pulling teeth.  Every word was wrenched painfully from my fingers.  I practically sweat as I kept going back to my book-bible to reference places and people and magic systems and gods.  It didn’t feel natural to me at all.  Was it good?  I have no idea.  Nobody has ever read it.  I’m not sure anybody ever will.

I mention that book because it had such a huge effect on what I wrote next.  I was so drained from writing something dark, serious, and epic, that all I wanted to do was sit down and write something completely off-the-wall crazy.  An idea came to me during a conversation with a friend, and 30 days later I had knocked out a 90,000 word novel called DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM.  It was probably the most cathartic piece of literature I have ever written.  It was like a fart I had been holding in for three years.  And it was, actually, pretty good.  Good enough for JABBerwocky literary agency to grab hold of it as soon as I sent it to them.

I now have detailed notes for at least 3 other books in the same world as DEATH BEAR and I’m in the middle of the first draft of another – yet untitled – humor book, though this one is military sci-fi.  I am firmly entrenched in writing humor in a speculative fiction setting.  Talk about a niche, right?  I mention that to people and all they can ask me is whether or not I’ve read such-and-such Terry Pratchett book (I haven’t.  I haven’t read any, actually, except GOOD OMENS, which doesn’t count) because he’s the only one that’s done that successfully.  And that’s the first part that, to me, makes writing humor a scary thing.  I immediately feel pigeonholed in a half dozen ways.  It puts a certain stigma on my personality – I should be funny, entertaining.  I probably don’t have deep thoughts about anything because I’m too busy writing a banana peel slipping scene (there actually is one in DEATH BEAR).  If I ever do turn back to a more mainstream fantasy setting, who is going to take my writing seriously?  Who is going to take me seriously?  Sometimes I feel like I’ve started the journey toward making myself into a monkey, and all anyone will ever want me to do is clap my cymbals.

Before you even ask, no, I don’t even have cymbals.  Asshole.

Anyway that’s one part that, to me, makes writing humor scary.  The second is a little more profound.  I’m absolutely terrified of people reading my work.  I mean, yeah, obviously people have already read my stuff, but they’re friends, professional acquaintances, etc.  I’m scared of strangers reading my work.

Here’s why:  Not being funny is worse than not telling a good story (though I promise I try to do both).  If you try to tell a moving story and nobody is moved, well, okay.  That sucks.  But have you ever told a joke at a party and had the room go silent?  Worse, if you have the self-awareness to know when a joke wasn’t received well, you want to retreat into a corner.  I feel like people don’t hate a guy who doesn’t tell a good story.  But people definitely hate guys who try to be funny and aren’t.  It’s like failing at a joke is failing at life.  It makes you feel stupid and awkward and like you’ll never fit in, etc, etc.   As weird as it may sound, a joke is sometimes a really dramatic form of someone putting their reputation on the line, someone saying “evaluate this.”  The laughter is validation.  It’s a grade on your report card.

Yeah, yeah.  It shouldn’t be about validation.  But humor is different in that respect, too.  It doesn’t have the same fallback as non-humor writing – when people say to you “it doesn’t matter if nobody reads it.  You should write because you love it.”  Well, yeah, that’s definitely true, but how many idiots do you see telling jokes to themselves because they love it?  Nobody.  Humor is interactive by definition, and not quite in the same way as general storytelling.

To conclude what has been a little frightening journey into my own head, I’ll say that it’s a little late to turn back for me now.  I’ve got two novels making the rounds at publishing houses already, and both are humor, so I’m not about to call my agency and scream in a panic “I AM TOO FRAGILE TO WRITE HUMOR NOVELS.”  For one thing, I hope that’s not true.  I hope that I’m made of sterner stuff and that when people don’t laugh at my books I can turn up my nose and say “Well I play clarinet pretty good and I got an amazing lady to promise to be with me forever in front of lots of people.  So I’m not a bad person, even if you don’t laugh at my great jokes.”  And for another thing, I’m going to keep writing shit that I think is funny because I just can’t help it.  It’s something I have to do.

Unless one person reads it and then tells me I’m not funny and I’m actually an asshole.  Then I guess I’ll go back to writing bara’karana’kka doh navvarran.  

AND ALL OF MY BOOKS WILL START IN TAVERNS.

4 Comments

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  1. Well, there was Robert Lynn Aspirin and some of Piers Anthony’s stuff back in the 80s, but maybe it’s safe to say Pratchett’s the only one who’s written fantasy humor that has really stood the test of time. I think there’s a potential niche waiting to be filled. I’m pretty sure I’d pick up a book called Death Bear and the Snuggle of Doom.

  2. Is there anywhere else to nab that book, because yeah, the title alone makes me want to check it out. By the way, I have Gobble Snarf playing while I write this. Thoroughly entertaining. I can’t help but smile to myself and bob back and forth.

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