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Laugh and the World Laughs with You (Unless You’re not Funny)

At least he gets it.

I've been thinking about humor in novels. Or more specifically, humorous novels. By which I mean, a novel that attempts to make humor its central driving animus. There's a number out there; I've tried a few. And I've only ever found one that worked: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It's ludicrous, and very British, and was unlike anything else at the time it was published in 1979 (perhaps because it was based on a series of radio episodes). The novel's plot is tissue thin. The world gets blown up, but Arthur Dent (a kind of everyman/fish-out-of-water) and his friend, Ford Prefect (an alien in disguise) are saved when Prefect "hitches a ride" on a passing space ship. A merry band of misfits come together, gallivant about the galaxy, and in between philosophical musings, and ridiculous asides, the story kind-of-sort-of bumps around through time and space. The only thing that holds the book together, besides its binding, is that it's really, really funny (if you like British humor). Again, there's basically no plot, no rising and falling action, no resolution to any conflict. The characters are wooden props, with no interior lives, and not one of them have anything remotely approaching an arc. They're just vessels for absurdity.

And yet it works. Because, again, it's a very funny book.

A lot of writers have tried to replicate this approach, and I haven't found one who's pulled it off. I think I know why.

I try to infuse a little humor into some of my works (Yonder & Far once had a reviewer who said he wasn't sure if I meant my writing to be funny, but he found some of the scenes absolutely hilarious—which I'll take as high praise). Misunderstandings, misdirections, a little absurdity, they can help break tension and an otherwise slow part of a story keep pace with the rest. But I couldn't pull off a whole book around gags and one-liners. Very few authors can.

Why? In my view, it's a challenge inherent in the medium. A stand-up comedian only has to entertain you for about an hour. A comedic movie, a little over an hour and a half. And in the span of that time, some jokes might hit the audience as gut-bustingly hilarious, some might fall a little flat, a few might bomb. But it's okay, the audience is indulgent because their time investment is small—and, perhaps more importantly, it's understood that, by and large, each "bit" is meant to stand on its own. A comedian can transition set-ups quickly, change the scenery, so to speak, in a matter of seconds to turn to the next piece of funniness. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for comedy movies. We'll indulge a loose-hanging plot line if the gags are good enough. Take Caddy Shack for example. The "plot" can be summed up as follows: a gauche condo developer shows up at a country club, rubs the blue-bloods the wrong way, and settles matters with a golf game; some characters come along for the ride (albeit for different reasons); hilarity ensues. Sure, there's a story in there, but that's not why the movie remains in syndication decades after its release. It's Bill Murray trying to kill a gopher. It's Rodney Dangerfield's bevy of one-liners. It's Ted Knight's pompous laugh. It's classic Chevy Chase being classic Chevy Chase. The comic strands are more than capable of holding together the movie.

You don't have that luxury as an author. To hold an entire novel together with humor, you have to pack humor into all 70,000-odd words. You have to keep the reader entertained for days, not just a couple of hours. If comedy is the only strand, it's going to have to be made of steel, which means the jokes have to be really funny. Not just enough to make the reader smile or giggle; the laughs have to keep the reader coming back day in and day out for days. And none of them can land flat.

That doesn't mean a book should eschew humor. If you're an author and that's your "voice," speak in your voice. But I do think writers need to approach humor in stories the way a chef approaches seasoning. Sprinkle in the right amount and you can make a good dish extra special. But if you try to make a meal around cumin, or pepper, or, God forbid, thyme, most people are going to politely decline and move on to something else.


- Matt

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New Short Story in a New Anthology!

Courtroom drama meets comedy in this themed anthology just released from Raconteur Press. Ten stories in all (including an historical fantasy by yours truly). They all have Andrew Spurgle in them, and they're all awesome. 


Available in print and ebook on Amazon.


Your Honor, I Can Explain


Get your copy today; and if you like it, help us out with a five-star review.


- Matt

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New Anthology Coming Out this Friday…

Not your typical court proceedings...

Something of a first for me, I was thrilled to have a short story accepted into a themed anthology. The title says it all. Available this Friday on Amazon, Raconteur Press has put together nine short stories (including an historical fantasy by yours truly) around the theme of a court proceeding and a total buffoon named Andrew Spurgle. 


This should be a hoot. Hope you enjoy the anthology as much as I enjoyed writing my small contribution to it.

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Review: The Enlightenment by Ritchie Robertson

Five Stars

The Enlightenment has been written on, and thought about, and talked over, and lauded (and, lately, pilloried) since, well, since it began. So why another book about this subject, and why one that's over nine hundred pages long?


Because Ritchie Robertson's magnum opus stands apart. This book is like a grand mountain range. Sweeping, vast, intricate, in places difficult--it requires stamina to fully explore it. But its work well worth doing. From the simple thesis that the Enlightenment was, in truth, a collection of disparate Enlightenments spanning several lands and times, Robertson is a patient and incredibly erudite guide who leads the reader through one of the most profound points of human history. This is a timely study--and much needed in these times.


Highly recommended.


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Review: The Haunted Mansion

If you like the ride, you'll like the movie

I'll confess that, by and large, I don't much care for the Disney World amusement park. Never have. Too hot, too crowded, too expensive, and the rides and attractions never did much for me ... with one major exception. The Haunted Mansion. I could spend all day on that ride. With the pre-ride creepy show where the lights suddenly go out, and the scary organ music as you ride along a conveyor through a cobwebbed mansion, and the green, ghostly apparitions popping up everywhere you turn. I love it. Sure, the effects are a little dated now, but that's what makes it awesome. It's hokum and horror, blended to perfection.


Well, I'm pleased to say that Disney's new Haunted Mansion movie hits that vibe with pitch perfection. The underlying plot line is utterly ridiculous. Ben, a skeptical astrophysicist is down-and-out, leading ghost tours in New Orleans. But when a priest (we're never told if he's Catholic or Episcopalian), Father Kent, barges into Ben's home, Ben is thrust into a circle of people who find themselves haunted--perpetually--by a house chocked full of ghosts. The house's owner is a recently relocated single mother doctor, Gabbie, who, along with her nine-year-old son, Travis, are trying desperately to figure out what it is these ghosts want (other than to constantly scare them). For it seems that anyone who crosses the threshold of their mansion is doomed to be haunted, at all times, no matter where they flee to.


The circle of threshold-crossing, ghost-plagued people expands as the movie goes on to include Harriet the psychic and a completely preposterous Danny DeVito playing a professor of local history. As the story unfolds, we learn of the house's past, a secret, supernatural plot, and a whole heap of character backstory, all of which sort of, kind of coheres into an articulable plot. There's just enough of a story to justify a movie. And the actors play their roles just seriously enough to make that story work without losing sight of the fact that this is a fun movie.


It's fun from start to finish.  


The scares are plentiful and carefully crafted to hit the precise level of creepy corniness that makes the Haunted Mansion ride such a delight. Go into the movie with the same level of expectation you'd have going into the ride and you won't be disappointed.


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Quote of the Day

"To survive, you must tell stories."

― Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

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Clubs and Communities

So dorky it was cool...

When I was about 12, I shelled out around five bucks to join a club. It was the only club I'd ever staked my own cash on. And it was so worth it.


I'm referring to the now-defunct Otherworlds Club of the now-long-since-shuttered Walden Books. Walden Books was a chain bookstore that had its heyday back in the 80's when shopping malls were still in their halcyon commercial glory. The bookstores were small, no more than 3 or 4 aisles, and usually located near one of the big corner anchors. It was pretty standard fare for what you'd see in a big box bookstore--everything broken down by genre, register near the front, signage for new releases and best sellers--only on a much smaller scale. Which, in hindsight, meant its days were surely going to be numbered. 


One of the things that made Walden Books special was that it devoted a larger-than-average proportion of its space to fantasy and sci-fi books and role playing games. They really leaned into the genre; and dorky kids, such as yours truly, rewarded them by being devoted customers. What really set Walden Books apart, though, was how they went out of their way to make us feel like a community. For about five dollars (I can't remember the exact number, but it was enough, in 1980's dollars to hurt just a little bit for a kid living on a pittance of an allowance and lawn mowing money), you could become a member of Walden Books' Otherworlds Club. This got you a sweet membership card (example above) and a 10-15% discount on any fantasy, science fiction, or role playing game you bought from the store. It also got you a monthly (?) subscription to their "Xignals" newsletters, Walden Books answer to Dragon Magazine. The letter was green-tint, black, and white, as I recall, and would include recent book reviews, short story contests, announcements, and the like. I remember actually reading through them. But what I remember most was how cool it was to be a part of a group that shared the same interests as me.


Back then, in the dark ages before the internet, finding communities of common quirky interests was a lot harder than it is today. Which perhaps made it feel all the more special. 


Did Walden Books make money off of selling these memberships? Who knows? (Though I suspect between the discounts they were giving, and the production and postage of the newsletters, and the administrative costs of tracking memberships, probably not). What it did, however, was create a sense of community. And that's pretty cool.


I've been thinking about the notion of community in reading and writing lately. I've been trying to get a little more active in writing groups, both with the Authors Guild and one of my publishers--while I've also by trying to engage more with readers. What I've been struck with is that, as much as writing is mostly a lonely endeavor and reading a completely solitary one, writers and readers do enjoy the times when they can come together as a community. Whether it's talking about the latest book, or which writer in a genre is better, or if the movie or the book version of a story is superior, or just spending some time together in friendship and fellowship, readers and writers can, and should, hang out together from time to time. That can be in a small group, or in a convention, or online--whatever the form, it can be a really enriching experience.  


So if you're a writer, aspiring writer, reader, or gamer, make sure you're reaching out to others who share those interests. They're out there. And you don't even have to get a membership card to find them (although those can be cool, too).


Thanks for stopping by the blog.


- Matt

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Quote of the Day

"Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories."

― Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

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Authors Guild Social Event (July 19)

July 19 at Book + Bottle

A "last call" reminder. If you're in the Tampa Bay area, please join the Authors Guild Tampa Bay Chapter on Wednesday, July 19, for an evening of wine and socializing. Nonmember writers who may be interested in joining the Guild are more than welcome. This is a social get-to-know-you event with very little business; so it should be a lot of fun. 


Date & Time: July 19, 2023, 5:30 - 7:00 p.m.


Location: BOOK + BOTTLE, 17 Sixth Street North, St. Petersburg, FL 33701




Hope to see you there! 


- Matt

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