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August 4th, 2012:

Humor Is Hard

Humor is hard. Way hard. Especially when you attempt to write 25,000 words of it at a rate of 1,000 words a day. As I mentioned recently, I have a significant press interested in my novel-in-progress, Ten Gentle Opportunities. I’m trying to have all 80,000 words of it not only written but polished by September 15th. As of this afternoon, I’m at 57,100. I’m on track. (Barely.)

But man, this is hard.

Now, I have a knack for humor. I was famous for opening with a humorous anecdote while doing the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ back in the ’90s. (I learned that from Isaac Asimov, glory unmeasurable be upon him.) Does anybody remember the Pizza Pride Girl? I got more fan mail on that one column than on some of my books, and for a couple of months afterward I’d get regular emails asking what the Pizza Pride Girl was wearing that day. I did standup for most of an hour at my 40th grade school reunion in 2006, to the extent that some of the girls who had ignored me in 1966 came up to me and said things like, “Jeff, I didn’t know you were funny.” (One added, “I don’t mean funny-looking. Not that you were ever funny-looking. Really, you weren’t.” Sorry. I was.)

I’ve written a number of well-regarded humorous SF shorts, including “Stormy Versus the Tornadoes” and “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs.” (Both are in my collection, Souls in Silicon .) In 1978 I wrote a (still unpublished) lighthearted 27,000-word action/adventure hard SF novella in the style of Keith Laumer’s Retief stories, which took me close to a year; in fact, by the time I submitted it to Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine, the magazine had folded. Most of my longer SF items (including Drumlin Circus and The Cunning Blood ) contain a certain amount of comic relief. But never in my entire writing life have I tried to be funny for 80,000 words in a row.

The editor who wants to see the novel suggested at a recent writers’ conference that humorous SF is uncommon because Douglas Adams set the bar so high. If true, that’s unfortunate. I’m not trying to be Douglas Adams, just as I wasn’t trying to be Isaac Asimov at DDJ. I’m not going for some kind of world record. Genius does not invalidate competence. I just want to tell a good story that makes people laugh.

The problem lies in sustaining the mood. The premise is already loopy, in the way that the Harold Shea stories were loopy. Going in I had a lot of ideas that ran from whimsical to downright silly. One of my AIs discovers that she has an FPS-style Core Wars video game built into her kernel (complete with a cannon that shoots machine instructions) and uses it to fight back when she’s attacked by malware, right down to a Lara Croft-style skin. On another of my AIs’ bookshelves is a book called Sixty-Four Shades of Gray. Then, of course, are my already-famous dancing zombies. I’m attempting every type of humor I’ve ever heard of, with the single exception of puns. Will it work? I don’t know yet. Sooner or later (by this fall, with any luck) I will.

In the meantime, a sample from today’s output:

…If the gomog failed to return, he would not be leaving this universe soon, or perhaps ever. What Stypek thought about that changed from hour to hour. He had spent some wistful moments on the edge of sleep remembering the pleasures of Ttrynngbrokklynnygyggug: finding castoff spells in garbage heaps, eating stewed squykk, sleeping in drain pipes, studying ancient books until his eyes burned, dodging zombies, running away from angry magicians…

Yes, he supposed that there could be worse fates than being stranded in a universe like this. Here he had been given fine clothes and the best food he had ever eaten. Carolyn’s meals were sublime, especially those containing meat from an animal called a spam, which his own world was not fortunate enough to offer. She had gifted him with sacks of delicacies that any nobleman in Ttrynngbrokklynnygyggug would kill for: Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles, Ruffles, and sweets baked by elves.

Even the protective charms were delicious. Carolyn had offered him a sack of edible talismans called gummies that would ward off bears. They did seem effective; after three days he had yet to see a bear. A small jar of similar talismans were either made from flint stones or deflected them away. (He would learn when he finally worked out the secret of opening the jar.) No matter. With the protective spells he had carried with him mapped to inexplicable or useless things, Stypek would gladly arm himself against local hazards however he could.