In an effort to improve my writing, I've been trying to take my own advice by working on more simple stories. I finished my first novel this past spring (and am almost finished editing it), and it's nothing more than a trashy romance story, which is all I asked it to be. It was my practice novel, and despite its total lack of literary merit, I found it very informative to write. It taught me a lot about setting up character and plot, and most of all, it gave me the confidence that I could finish a coherent 50,000 word novel.
I've since begun my new WIP, a light hearted novel that's supposed to be a step-above my practice novel, but by no means my intended masterpiece. It's a comedy, and I've been having a lot of fun writing it.
But as I reread sections, I couldn't help but notice that something wasn't working. Things that sounded funny in my head were anything but when they were set down on paper.
Fortunately, I started reading Nick Hornby's novel, Funny Girl, around the same time, and it helped me diagnose my problem. Basically, you can't write comedic timing, and if that's what your jokes are based on, they're going to fall flat on the page like mine were.
I'm actually a big fan of Nick Hornby's. I rank About a Boy as one of my favorite novels, though I don't know exactly why that is. It's not great literature, but it's entertaining, and it makes me feel more for the characters than most of the stories I read.
At first I enjoyed Funny Girl, which is Hornby's first novel in five years, but after a while it started to get really tedious. I had a hard time distinguishing characters, and the main character, Barbara, the eponymous Funny Girl, especially had this strange way of suddenly speaking up in scenes where I didn't even realize she was present. The whole thing was written in this very detached way, with little insight into the characters heads or even basic descriptions of the setting, but worst of all - almost none of the jokes landed. You can't call a book "Funny Girl" and then have it be unfunny.
But I realized I was making the same mistake as Hornby in my WIP: trying so desperately to write comedic timing. Here's an example from Funny Girl:
"We were asked to come up with a show about marriage," said Dennis.
Let's break this down. The "said Sophie" part is the closest to a physical pause in the dialogue as the author can create, which I suppose is meant to add more tension to the subsequent line, "So why didn't you do that?" I can imagine a gifted comedic actress making this sort of funny, but on the page it kind of reeks of desperation.
And the author knows it doesn't really work, so he has to describe Bill laughing and clutching at his heart. Personally, I think anytime we're reduced to describing physical actions and gestures as writers, it means we're not feeling confident in our ability to communicate to the reader. We're worried they won't "get it," so in response we try and show every physical thing that is happening (the writer's version of micromanagement), and it's just a slog to read. It's certainly not funny.
You might notice this attempt at transcribing comedic timing in your own writing (I see it in mine everywhere). It's apparent wherever you have to indicate a pause with blinks or facial contortions for comedic effect. Or you might mention that someone is being sarcastic, but that doesn't work either. The reader can't hear the sarcasm. They can't hear the pause. You have to be brave and let that stuff go. It does more harm than good.
The truth is, you can't write a book as though it were a movie, as much as we might want to. That's where Funny Girl really messes up. The characters always seem to be speaking up from out of a vacuum. It's almost entirely dialogue, which is probably because Hornby's gotten used to writing screenplays these last few years (he wrote the script for An Education), and has forgotten how to setup a scene that a reader can't physically see.
I actually had to stop reading Funny Girl because I was worried it was going to reinforce the bad comedic timing habit I was clearly writing into my own story. Writers have to read, I think, because we imitate other writers to some extent. Unfortunately, Funny Girl was not a book I wanted to imitate, consciously or unconsciously.
Do you struggle with this? I really have to stop myself from attempting to transcribe the movie that plays in my head when I'm writing. It just doesn't work.
Now please excuse me while I go back and edit out all those damn pauses and blinks from my WIP.