Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I Took My Writing to the Next Level

It’s a lousy title, isn’t it? It sounds as if –

1. I won a special award for Next Level Writing.
2. I am a superior writer. No one’s interesting hearing about “Next Levels” from anyone he isn’t looking up at.
3. Writing is set up like a skyscraper, with successively higher levels to which writers aspire by hard-earned promotion, or maybe just getting on a different elevator. Why should I expect my levels to correspond to yours? Maybe I’m trying to go higher, but you’re going deeper. Or broader. Or thicker.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding, I’m going to attempt to do exactly what my title promises; I’ll tell you how I took my writing to the Next Level, and I’ll do it with a minimum of humor and wise-cracking. Humor and wise-cracking, you see, is what I normally do; it’s what I’m good at; it’s what I like doing. Almost any other topic would elicit from me a flow of glib silliness: agents, publishers, bookstores, readers, writers, you name it. But when it comes to the topic of humor writing itself, I get serious.

As a beginning writer I believed, and still believe, that no other form of writing short of poetry calls for closer attention to craft, a better ear for rhythm and sound, or greater sensitivity for timing and nuance than humor. Maybe your prose drips with pathos, tension, and dread, but try – just try – writing a scene to make a reader laugh. And after you’ve torn out your remaining hair and worn your fingers to bloody nubs retyping the same thin sentences, compare your result to Thurber’s “Woman in a Trap,” about a husband wreaking havoc in the kitchen or Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters which opens with the most hilarious series of telegrams ever composed.

In writing workshops, beginning at Georgia College, and then at Kennesaw State University, and ultimately at Georgia State University, I was always acknowledged among my colleagues, and I say this without false pride, as the funny one. Typical comments from teachers and fellow students tended to fall into the category of, “This is hilarious” or “I laughed my ass off.” I valued those comments; I still do. I left others to write their tales about death and heartbreak and the mysterious pain of living. I wrote humor.

Over time, I found myself in the company of writers just as serious about their craft as I was about mine. And the praise began to dim. I was still acknowledged as the funny one, but that no longer seemed enough. A comment like, “Funny, funny stuff” would invariably be followed with a “but.” What came after the “but” was a complaint that my story lacked “weight” or “heft,” that I should do more than write for the sake of being funny, that readers wanted to actually care about my characters and not just see them get into funny scrapes.

Reading these comments after workshops, I began to anticipate the “but” and resent and resist it. How dare they complain my stories were “too light” just because they didn’t do anything but get laughs? Getting laughs is High Art. I’d worked years to get laughs. Saying my stories need more “weight” was like asking me to blow a cast-iron soap bubble.

My head is harder than most, and it took a lot of pounding from teachers and fellow students before I began to accept what they said.
My first attempts at giving stories a serious side were hideous. Serious didn’t come naturally. I hadn’t practiced Serious. I didn’t do Serious. It was like walking on someone else’s legs. I stumbled a lot back then, and I still do, but these days I stumble more intriguingly. A high-grade stumbler, me. A stumbler with style.

I still call myself a humorist and consider humor the most engaging challenge of writing, but I now see the richness that seriousness can add to a work. Characters do indeed have to face death and heartbreak and, yes, the mysterious pain of living. And incredibly enough, that “weight” makes my beloved funny parts even funnier.

So that’s the story of how I took my writing to the Next Level, and how you can, too. It doesn’t matter if you consider me superior, or whether getting to your Next Level involves climbing a mountain, getting on a submarine, or using a compass. All you have to do, is do what doesn’t come naturally. Do what you haven’t practiced. Do what you don’t do.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette. You can visit him at


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You know, seriousness is a little scarier to write than humor...don't you think? And maybe more revealing. Right now I'm sticking with Southern humor, but I'll keep the serious stuff in mind.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Karin Gillespie said...

I totally identified with this. I resisted going forward in my writing for a long time as well almost using humor as a crutch. Now for me, storytelling and characterization rule the day and the humor (which always seems to happen no matter what I do) is a bonus.