Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Judith Tabler: March (A)musings

Today's post is by workshop leader Judith Tabler. She's leading "Writing for the Middle Grade Reader" beginning on March 24. Learn more about this workshop.

I am not a winter person. As the days shorten in December, my head fills with images of steaming cups of coffee or, even better, hot chocolate next to the computer key board as splendid prose flows across my computer screen. The reality is somewhat different. My winter words often seem forced and brittle. My characters become flat and predictable. Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he used weather and seasons to mirror moods.

Now that we are entering spring, I pull up my discarded manuscript and begin the processes of reimagining and revising. One way for me to reenter a story with a blast of spring air is through humor. I start thinking about places where I might insert some amusing action or word play. I am not thinking of a “slip on the banana peel” moment, but something intrinsic to the plot or to the development of character. Humor can be used to round out a character in even the most serious story. Ellen Herbert, a fellow Writer’s Center workshop leader, introduced me to a quote by E. B. White: “Humor plays close to the big hot fire, which is truth, and the reader feels the heat.”

Let your readers “feel the heat” and meet your characters through humor. Many writers create a chart or list of what their characters like (foods, colors, clothing), what expressions they use, what they carry around in their pockets. During my revision process, I try to figure out an additional trait: what would make each of my characters laugh. The character’s sense of humor can reveal much about him or her.

Does my character respond to meiosis (understatement) or to hyperbole? What about the reversal of expectation, plot twist, irony, satire, or sarcasm? I am currently working on a story set in Tudor England and one of my minor characters is learning how to read. I use his interest in wordplay so I can show (not tell) my reader how his reading skills are progressing by his growing delight in moving a few letters to create puns and silly words.

Writing humor is not easy, and I need daily practice. Each spring morning, I sit down and read comics and jokes online or go through a box I have filled with past favorites. Doing this opens my mind to funny phrases and drawings. Right now I am working on some word play for my young Tudor character, who has a dog. Any suggestions for something funny with “Ruff, Ruff,” rough, and the ruff worn around the neck?

Judith Tabler writes both fiction and nonfiction for young people and adults. She leads workshops for adults writing for the middle grade reader and, starting this summer, a new workshop on writing about pets. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches writing and literature at a local university.

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