Writers' Newsletter

Issue #207
June 2020

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Want to Strike a Funny Bone?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Thursday June 4, 2020

My editing client’s (erotic romantic) writing made me genuinely LOL—laugh out loud— which naturally caused me to muse on humor in fiction. The world is going to hell in a handbasket (they lowered workers in handbaskets to set off dynamite while building the railways). But let’s not go all gloomy Gus over our trials and tribulations. Laugh, clown, laugh. Did I mix any metaphors?

Yet actually, thinking about this, I realize we do need to incorporate the deeper emotional moments in our fiction to contrast with spots where we insert funny moments. The dark drama that brings us close to tears or past that threshold can stimulate the laughter which comes soon after. The humor is unexpected and thus generally better able to elicit the response to something funny.

Where does the humor come from, though? It can come from the situation itself—some of the “jokes” in my client’s story were tricks played on the habitual criminal trying to do bad and being thwarted—while in other spots the comedy derived directly from the romantic heroine’s self-deprecating thoughts. She believed her love affair was never intended to end well and saw herself as a kind of a luckless buffoon. Well, she wasn’t, though, all considered—she was the protagonist!

So, at the core of the funny book is really some depth, or the humor becomes grating, and the novel will be judged as superficial. In the novel I was editing, for instance, we see that the main female character actually has a self-image problem. Her romance can end well, readers believe—and we hope so, and yet we appreciate her humor and her lack of self-confidence. More importantly, too, the hero likes those goofball personality traits.

But keep in mind. this young woman, the heroine, doesn’t completely cover over her sincerity or dreams for happiness—she just uses the kidding around as a coping mechanism. She cares so much, that she has protected herself all her life and wards off disappointment, the fear of being crushed, by the sarcasm in her own mind. Yet her real feelings do come through forcefully.

So, humor will often be rooted in the protagonists’ tendencies to make light of themselves and of their situations—“of course, I would wear the wrong thing to the party—that’s my way.” Still, the characters actually feel a strong emotion of humiliation or fear they won’t be respected or liked, and we readers can plainly see the underlying feeling.

We might call this type of humor black humor, in fact. And in our own lives, we will find ourselves joking about our negative experiences at times in just this way. Laughing at our destinies may be a half-step above tears. We can honor this human tendency in our heroines and heroes by showing that same type of response in them.

Humans crave to feel emotions, and that’s why readers pick up our books. They want to identify with the personalities—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A laugh will relieve the stress of ordinary life, but it will also come close to the truth of our very real frailties. And a major portion of the payoff in enjoying a novel is becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Sometimes this means they will be above us with skills in life that we only wish we had; sometimes, they will be very much the way we readers are—people who stumble around in dealing with the events we ourselves may have to confront.

If we want to present humor of the realistic sort, then we might want to torment our characters, in whatever genre, to elicit the humor as they shake with anxiety, lose their cool and mouth off, crumble in embarrassment, and so on. All such emotions and reactions will fit into romance, mystery, science fiction, teen lit, general fiction, or what have you.

Issues for laughter often come about from conflict of some sort, which is the basic food of any type of fiction. I teach all genres, and conflict is pretty much at the heart of the novels people are writing—or should be writing. This is true whether the novel is set in Nazi Germany—even set in a concentration camp—or a thriller focused on the stalking of a homicidal maniac. Humor doesn’t have to be pervasive in a novel, but an occasional joke never hurt a reader, and in an a truly dramatic scene the irony of being funny can even bring tears—doing its job of drilling down into our realities.

While finding a balance between humor and depth can be delicate, we should keep in mind that letting the funny in is a good thing, not an element that doesn’t belong.

Our characters can undergo some genuinely horrible events but peppering in the humor for a protagonist may only make that person much more human. We’re going to worry all the more about a character who can kid around in the middle of a cyclone. 

And speaking of balance, you don’t want to suddenly surprise readers a quarter of the way through the novel with something you think worthy of a giggle. No. If you pop in a chuckle at the start, you send a message to your audience that this book will offer a pratfall or two, some comic relief.

And yes, my client’s story begins with a few amusing signals of what’s to come. His heroine who has overslept is off to work in a jumbled outfit but stops to have a conversation with a pigeon. Just then she spots the man of her (erotic) dreams disembarking from the ferry. If only someone like that could be for her. But of course that could never happen. Her life, after all, isn’t a romance novel. (But it is.)

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is the author of the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, available now from JP&A Dyson.

"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."

G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.


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Some of this month's news for writers from around the web.

BBC local radio to boost new comedy writing

BBC local radio to boost new comedy writing

2020 – Tuesday June 16, 2020

The BBC is showcasing new comedy writing across its network of local radio stations this weekend. 

Sketches, stand-up, comedy songs and more will be included in a series of Upload Festival programmes running on 39 stations across the UK.

There will also be a live video stream on the BBC website, which will also be available on iPlayer.

And as part of the event, the BBC is running free online workshops on writing both sketches and comedy in general.

[Read the full article]

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Independent Publishing in a Post-Covid World

Independent Publishing in a Post-Covid World – Sunday June 14, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has already had a big impact on independent publishing. Some changes—working at home, employee furloughs, curbside shopping—were thrust upon the industry suddenly. And though they weren’t part of a concerted effort to change old and inefficient business practices, they may indeed have that effect. Here are several new realities that are likely to survive the disease itself and lead to evolutionary leaps in book publishing.

[Read the full article]

National Writing Day launches 24-word challenge

National Writing Day launches 24-word challenge – Sunday June 14, 2020

First Story, the charity behind National Writing Day, has launched a 24-word story challenge to mark the annual nationwide celebration of the pleasure and power of writing and words. This year it will take place on 24th June. Together with its National Writing Day partners, a coalition of leading literacy organisations and publishers and a host of the nation’s much loved children’s authors including Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell, Malorie Blackman and Frank Cottrell Boyce, First Story is challenging everyone – especially young people – to come together to share their experiences.

With a nation in lockdown, and the extreme experiences of the past few months keenly felt, the power of words to give voice to our stories is timely. Many pupils and students are still home-learning; and schools are closed to most of their cohorts.

National Writing Day is leading the charge with a simple writing call to action: a challenge to everyone to write just 24 words, in 7 minutes, starting with the prompt ‘One day…’ and to share their work on social media using the hashtag #247challenge. The challenge involves everyone, and participants can enjoy writing together and take a moment to express themselves.

[Read the full article]

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A selection of the new listings added to this month.

New Literary Agent Listing: Simon Targett

New Literary Agent Listing: Simon Targett – Friday June 19, 2020

Interested in a wide range of nonfiction, including business and leadership, history, journalism, current affairs, biography, sport, music, popular science, nature, travel, genealogy. Will also consider historical fiction. The common factor is an emphasis on big ideas, great stories, and fine writing.

[See the full listing]

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New Literary Agent Listing: Megan Burkhart

New Literary Agent Listing: Megan Burkhart – Thursday June 11, 2020

Looks for YA fantasy and children’s picture books, especially those with a strong narrative voice. Closed to picture book submissions as at June 2020.

[See the full listing]

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New Literary Agent Listing: Natalie Jerome

New Literary Agent Listing: Natalie Jerome – Wednesday June 3, 2020

Has a specific interest in commercial nonfiction across areas of health and wellness, food, current events, culture, music and entertainment as well as looking for vibrant new authors in children’s fiction.

[See the full listing]

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Some of this month's articles for writers from around the web.

Effective Writing Advice That Is 100 Years Old

Effective Writing Advice That Is 100 Years Old – Friday June 19, 2020

Regardless of your job, writing is an important communication skill that when fostered, improves over time. If you want to become a writer or improve your craft, I would highly recommend studying the techniques of a few of the American masters. While these men mostly wrote fictional books, they were strongly based on real events. Hemingway was also a correspondent over the years for many newspapers and magazines; his coverage of current events is worth a study as well. Below are some of the useful tips I took from a few of my favorite authors, and one editor who knew them all.

[Read the full article]

A deliciously cautionary tale about writing groups

A deliciously cautionary tale about writing groups – Tuesday June 16, 2020

Ask any writer how it’s going during quarantine, and they will respond, “Not much different than my regular life.” That’s how creativity works for writers. You hole yourself up in your house, plant your butt in your chair, stare at the computer screen, get up, pace the floors aimlessly trying to figure out the next scene, check the fridge for snacks, walk the dog 18 times a day waiting for ideas to come.

Or, if the writing is going well, you sit at your desk clattering away at the keyboard, telling your dog, “In a minute Mommy can take you for a walk. In a minute. Be a good dog.” When the writing is going well, a blessed day is when no delivery person rings the doorbell, no meetings have to be showered and dressed for, and no friend is suggesting you meet for happy hour because they have to tell you about their day. Not all writers love quarantine, but almost all self-quarantine to get the work done.

Writing is work and requires a time commitment and showing up – all the things that any job requires, even meetings. Meetings with agents and editors and psychotherapists. But even before publication, there are writing group meetings.

[Read the full article]

Writing Insights: How Many Pages Should You Write in a Day? – Monday June 1, 2020

Some writers are worried that they aren’t turning out as many pages as they should, or that they may be writing too fast.

So, let’s look at a reasonable daily output for a typical author. This is how I have answered similar questions on 

Let’s do some simple math.

[Read the full article]

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