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Posts Tagged ‘The Life and Opinions of Amy Finiwitz

Laura Toffler-Corrie, author of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz , graciously agreed to both allow me to interview her and to write a guest blog. Last week I posted our interview. What follows is her guest blog on the how-to’s of writing humor.

As a person who writes humorous books, I‘m often asked these basic questions: How do you do it? Is it hard? What’s the formula? Is there a formula? And how can I do it? My answers are typically straightforward: I don’t exactly know. Sometimes. Don‘t have one. Probably not a good one. You can try.

The End.

Just kidding!

But seriously folks, comedy is a funny business, mostly because everyone loves to laugh. Now, of course, some people are funnier than others; some are stand up comedian funny, and some just think they are, but everyone cracks a few funny jokes now and then. So then can almost everyone write funny? The answer is a decisive maybe yes, maybe no. It‘s often an elusive ability. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. But before you get too annoyed by my opinion, I will say this about that: if you want to write humor, you should certainly try and, if you follow my humble guidelines, you have a better shot of pulling it off (in my humble opinion).

Did I mention that I mean this in the most humble way possible?

Anyway, here goes:

Read Work From Funny Authors:

And not just current, living authors either. Dead authors can be very amusing too, oft reminding us that people have been cracking each other up for centuries. Plus, with dead authors, there’s virtually no chance of being subjected to pesky, inferior sequels. Writers such as Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, (yes he’s written books too) Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Joe Orton are a good place to start. In kidslit, some humorous books I like are Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones, The Princess Diaries, Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, Eighth Grade Super Zero, and Emma Lazarus Fell from a Tree. Of course there are many more.

And don’t be a funny snob (meaning, a snob about what’s funny). See classic, funny movies (which, presumably, started as scripts) by the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Plus, see silly movies like Sixteen Candles and Zombie land. Of course, there are dozens more of these too.

Listen to the Way People Really Talk:

People rarely ever say what they mean in a straightforward way. As a matter of fact, the thing that makes soap opera writing seem melodramatic is that the conversations are too on the nose. Real people talk in riddles, metaphors, innuendos and often at cross purposes. There’s lots of room for funny in that.

Don’t be ‘Jokey’:

Ironically, most jokes are not funny in humor writing. With all due respect to the writers of Disney type comedy shows, that kind of forced, trying too hard to be funny humor mostly doesn’t work (even with charming, cute teen stars selling it). You can be sure that jokey humor will certainly not work in a book (especially minus the teen stars interpreting the words).

Put Characters at Odds with Each Other and their Environment:

Set up a situation that organically has the potential to be funny. For example, In AMY FINAWITZ, there’s a scene where the boy Amy crushes on comes over for a study date. Then her father answers the door in his bathroom. Then her brother arrives with a gaggle of obnoxious musical theater friends. Then Amy’s elderly neighbor and her very religious nephew come calling for her. Now, if I couldn’t make that scene funny, than I’m an idiot.

Recognize the Absurdities in People:

We all want stuff, but mostly there are obstacles to what we want. I don’t mean world peace, although that would be nice, I mean the little things we sweat over and how we handle them. Start recognizing the silly absurdities and contradictions in people. Even someone wanting a long line to move faster can be funny. Pay attention to the details.


Play Nice:

Making fun of people is rarely funny, at least to me. Certainly this kind of humor will not float in kidslit. True humor comes from understanding people and having compassion for them. That’s what makes good humor universal. It should come from the heart.

There are no wizards, demi-gods, vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies, or any other supernatural entities in The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz by Laura Toffler-Corrie. Instead there are two middle-school girls who like email, a former librarian senior citizen, a conservative Jewish boy, a nerdish jock, and several normal characters with normal abilities, normal faults, and normal lives. Yet this is an exceptional book.

For starters, here’s the cast of characters. Besides Amy and Callie, two middle-schooler girls who exchange email after Callie moves to Kansas and leaves Amy to fend for herself in New York City, there’s the token jock who can be rather insensitive but can also be super nice and even nerdy about history. You’d never guess from their portrayal in the majority of our popular movies and books that popular kids could be complex human beings, but in this book they mostly are. There’s also Miss Sophia. Surely you have noticed how quickly in children’s book adults are turned into dysfuctional parents, killed off in accidents or crimes, or worse–don’t even exist? Thereby, they are successfully relegated to the lowly ranks of minor characters who rarely have any impact on the main characters. Not so here. Miss Sophia becomes a member of Amy’s “dream team” for her historical journal assignment an Amy learns about life as much or more from her as she did does from any of her peers.

Another exceptional quality of the book is its humor. I laughed pretty much every chapter. Some of the humor lies in small scenes. For example, Amy refers to a guest doctor on a talk show. He shares this wise insight: It’s often the unstable, unemotionally needy child, aka pain in the butt, who needs all the attention. Amy smartly writes: “Very insightful, those doctor guests, don’t you think?” Some of the humor lies in larger scenes. For example, when Amy’s teacher calls on her to share her favorite morality tale, Amy makes one up based on a PBS documentary she saw about dingoes attacking an emu. She says the moral is God saw the emu but let it die because God doesn’t consider emus are that important. (Amy later gains more positive perspectives on God.) Her teacher asks her to meet later, causing Amy to vent to her friend Callie about teachers who care too much for their students: “Isn’t there some support group out there for people who can’t stop teaching, like Teacher’s Anonymous?”

The book also accomplishes the amazing feat of integrating religion without being preachy or antagonistic. To my recollection, the last book to even come close to such a balance with religion was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret? In both books the main characters are Jewish. (Actually, Margaret is only half Jewish and therein lies her dilemma.) Furthermore, in this book, one of the main male characters in this book is conservative Jewish–and proud of it while also being a sweet and sincere and likeable guy. Through him, we learn about Jewish celebrations and beliefs.

The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz isn’t perfect. While most of the email exchange reads like that of two chatty middle-schoolers, once in awhile some phrases come closer to resembling that of two chatty women with adultish-like phrases: “braver girl than me,” “didn’t have the heart to tell her,” “sigh, more good times,” or “panic wells up in my breast”. The rest of my quibbles with the book can be summarized like this: The author doesn’t confirm until two-thirds into the book that Amy is in eighth grade; I find it a little unbelievable that Callie’s parents would take a one-year trip to Europe and move her to Kansas in their absence; The author doesn’t reveal until two-thirds into the book that Callie is now living with her aunt and uncle; I question whether the author has ever been to Kansas (or the Heartland as she frequently calls it), because much of her descriptions of it involve stereotypes. Last, as the book progresses, Amy begins to more frequently use words like “damn” and “hell”.

Otherwise, despite its total lack of the supernatural so prevalent today in teen books, The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz is just about perfect. Besides all the reasons mentioned earlier, it also succeeds because it gently leads us to wonderful truths about life. I will be sharing this book with my sister, whois in middle school. It will also find a permanent home on my shelves. This is one of my favorite reads of the year!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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