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Tell Me – Howard Tayler

(Crossposted from Jennifer Brozek)

I adore Howard. I've been meeting up with him at conventions for years. Recently, we got together at a small convention and actually got time to talk to each other. He told me about this calendar and I thought it was the perfect thing to have as a guest blog post. ~JLB

Nothing But Pith

I’ve been writing comedy for the last dozen years or so. I have a great big bag of tricks for refining dialog, shaping narrative, and (because my principle medium is comics) creating the accompanying illustrations so that the reader is encouraged to laugh.

In the course of doing this, I occasionally write a “true” punchline, a pithy bit of wordsmithing that is not only funny but is memorable, perhaps because it sums up some aspect or another of the human condition in a way that allows it to snuggle up nicely against the parts of your brain that want that sort of thing.

Within the ongoing “Schlock Mercenary” project (www.schlockmercenary.com) I found a particular plot device especially handy in this regard: an in-world book called “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries.”

The idea for in-world reference is not a new one. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced us to the Ferengi “Rules of Acquisition.” Every so often Quark or some other prosthetically-foreheaded alien merchant would say something truly horrible about proper greed, and drive it home with a number.

The challenge for the writer lies in writing an actual aphorism. It’s nothing but pith. It might originally appear in a TV episode or a comic strip, but eventually it’s going to have to stand alone, with all the framing bits gone. Contextless, naked, it still needs to work. If it doesn’t work then it isn’t what you said it was. It isn’t a maxim, a rule, a commandment, or a verse of scripture.

As of this moment I’ve written exactly half of the seventy maxims. Eighteen months ago I’d written about ten fewer than that. People began asking me to actually publish the “Seventy Maxims” book, and I decided to go about it piece-meal. I put out a calendar featuring the first twelve. For that calendar I needed to write two new ones. I cannibalized a punch line, and came up with “Close air-support and friendly fire should be easier to tell apart.” Then I mused upon food, and came up with “If the food is good enough, the grunts will stop complaining about the incoming fire.”

Not bad. Some of my friends in the military tell me they’re actually words to live by.

Well, the calendar sold quite well, paying the bills for a few months, so I decided to do it again for 2013. But this year I found myself seven maxims short of the dozen I needed. In retrospect, I only needed to write ninety-five words to fill those seven slots. Ninety-five! Some people can type that many words in a minute.

Well, it took me from January until late October. Granted, I wasn’t thinking about it full-time, but that’s still ten months to write ninety-five words.

Would you like to see them? Here are all ninety-five, complete with their accompanying maxim numbers (those aren’t included in the word-count.)

  • Maxim 17: The longer everything goes according to plan, the bigger the impending disaster

  • Maxim 18: If the officers are leading from in front, watch for an attack from the rear

  • Maxim 19: The world is richer when you turn enemies into friends, but that's not the same as you being richer 

  • Maxim 20: If you're not willing to shell your own position, you're not willing to win

  • Maxim 22: If you can see the whites of their eyes, somebody's done something wrong.

  • Maxim 23: The company mess and friendly fire should be easier to tell apart.

  • Maxim 24: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a big gun

So, how did I do it?

One method I use for crafting these is subversion. It’s a common enough trick for writing humor to begin with, and it lends itself spectacularly well to this task. Find something already pithy, and break it in such a way that it means something new, but remains pithy. Easy, right?

Maxim 24 is a great example. We’re all familiar with the original quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s already been subverted by Barry Gehm, who said “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced,” so the precedent for further ruin has been set.

My subversion in Maxim 24, “indistinguishable from a big gun,” plays on the fact that most technology can be weaponized, or indeed grew out of a need for weapons. It was perfect for the project. And because the reader, familiar with the original, gets surprised by the new ending, it stands a good chance of garnering a laugh and being remembered.

Another method is “going back to the well,” or the “running gag.” This wouldn’t seem to work well for stand-alone aphorisms, but if a particular bit of wordplay worked once, it might work again. I noticed that “friendly fire” kept cropping up in the comic, and so I looked at Maxim 5 (close air-support and friendly fire should be easier to tell apart) and asked myself what besides “close air-support” might be dangerous to the troops.

Bad chow, obviously. Or maybe an angry cook. Regardless, I did a simple word-swap on my own earlier maxim, and came up with #23 above, comparing friendly fire to the company mess. And yes, I fully intend to return to that particular well again. In fact, at this point people probably expect it. Possible options for the future comparison to friendly fire include “new equipment,” “the lowest bidder,” and “HALO (High Altitude, Low Open) paratroopers” (although that last one’s a bit wordy. Hilarious, but wordy.)

Sometimes, though, it’s whole cloth. Forget subversion or running gags, both of which leverage an existing structure. Maxim 20, the one about shelling your own position, grew out of a line of dialog from one of the characters. I wrote something very close to that (“if you really want to win, try shelling yourself”) but it didn’t scan quite right. So I tweaked it a bit, and then realized it sounded like an aphorism. It sounded like the character was quoting somebody.

That moment when you discover you’ve written dialog like that? That’s gold, right there. I recognized it immediately, and re-framed the text so that the character in question was citing Maxim 20, instead of just rattling off something he’d heard.

Maxims 13 through 24 are done, and I’ve illustrated them for the 2013 calendar (available for pre-order here.) Next year I only need to come up with three maxims in order to fill the 25 through 36 slot. But the 2015 calendar takes me into uncharted waters. I have exactly three maxims in that space right now – numbers 37, 38, and 39, which means that at some point between now and October of 2014, I need to write nine new maxims, which is probably around 125 words.

But thinking about it in terms of word-count is not going to get me there. Between now and then I need to be filling my head with things to subvert, fresh gags to return to, and I need to write thousands of words of good dialog in the hope of striking gold a few times. Because unfortunately, the trick to writing a few really good words is the same trick for just about everything else we writers want to accomplish. Write a lot of probably crappy words first.