Make ‘Em Laugh..

laurel-and-hardy-cartoon-827250Or at least, don’t make ’em cry or feel depressed, is my cheery message to you today.

Last week I went to see Death of a Salesman at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford. Yes, I know, I’m a big fat show-off but some of you live in exotic climes, some of you live by the sea and lots of you live near SHOPS, so I’m entitled to a little boasty-boastiness, about the fact that I live down the road from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Right.

Anyway, Death of A Salesman is considered by many to be the ‘greatest American play’ and because of that – and also because 2015 is the centenary of the playwright Arthur Miller’s birth – the RSC have chosen to produce it this year. I know all this from watching director Greg Doran’s little video, here.

There are some amazing actors starring in it – Harriet Walter and Anthony Sher and the rather gorgeous Alex Hassell (who is usually Prince Hal/Henry V, so it was nice to see him doing something in jeans) – and even though it was the first night, there was, as far as I could tell, only one small ‘blooper’ when, at the end of the first half, Ms Walter called someone by the wrong name.

But. And it’s a big ‘but’: Death of a Salesman is very depressing. I mean, I’ve seen it before but it really struck me this time, just how unremittingly sad it is. At least, in Shakespeare, there are some funny bits in the tragedies.

So, as much as I admired the acting, the staging, the production and the music, I’m not sure that I’ll be going to see Death of a Salesman again. Life’s grim enough, isn’t it? If you want sad, tragic and pointless, just switch on the news.

Which made me think about writing short stories. If you keep them ‘upbeat’, not only are they more fun to write but you’ve got a better chance of success with them – especially (definitely) if you’re writing for the women’s magazines but even when you’re writing competition entries, too.

I’ve often read judge’s reports in which they moan about the general misery, death and destruction in most of the stories they’ve had to sift through. And Writers Forum magazine, in the details for their monthly short story competition, actually specify what they don’t want (ie: misery): “All types of story are welcome, be it crime, comedy, history, romance, horror, sci-fi.. but THEY MUST BE ENTERTAINING/RIVETING, NOT UNREMITTINGLY BLEAK. Don’t rely on subjects like death, abuse etc to add cheap emotion. Stories must work harder to engage readers.”

Which makes you think, they must get an awful lot of ‘unremittingly bleak’ stories, mustn’t they?

If you’re trying to write for the women’s magazine market, you must offer hope and an uplifting ending, even if the subject of your story is serious.

Teresa Ashby wrote this a while ago (2009!) but I can still remember it and it still resonates with me. Definitely worth a read if you’re wondering why you keep hitting a blank wall with your submissions to People’s Friend.

It’s not easy to be funny when you write. That’s why those who can do it, often do so well. I love reading Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella novels, not because they’re ‘great literature’, or even, at times, terribly original. But they make me laugh. Out loud. And that’s good enough for me.

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19 Responses to Make ‘Em Laugh..

  1. juliathorley says:

    Yes, yes, yes! It’s all very well being literary and worthy, but I’d rather have a good laugh. Thanks for this post and for the link to Teresa’s piece.

  2. Debbie W says:

    Really useful advice from Teresa Ashby that perhaps could be noted not only when submitting to the Friend. One of your stories won EWG’s 2013 annual competition. I remember laughing out loud when I read it. There’s nothing worse than being left feeling depressed after having read a short story.

  3. Sandra says:

    I wish I’d checked my inbox an hour or two ago, Helen. I just today despatched a thoroughly miserable story to Writers Forum. Hey-ho, three quid down the drain then. 😦

    • Well, not necessarily, Sandra! You may well prove me wrong… ! And do let me know, if so! Good luck in the WF competition!

      • Debbie W says:

        Did anyone read the winner of Mslexia short story comp 2014 by Jackie Brewster? It was called the Fox Cub and was quite a terrible story (as in bleak) yet, because it was so sad it won £2,000. It was also quite unforgettable. I still remember it and that’s good going because I regularly read a lot of short stories. So I wouldn’t write your efforts off just yet, Sandra.

      • Sandra says:

        Thanks Helen! I won the Writing Mag Flash comp (in the May issue) with a fairly grim story. What was grimmer still was that they attributed the story to Sandra Cook not Sandra Crook. Duh!

  4. Helen M Smith says:

    Very useful advice, Helen, I am hoping to send a story off to either Writers Forum or one of the women’s magazines. It is a story with a twist and has a bit of tragedy in it but it ends on a hopeful note!

  5. Sherri Turner says:

    While I do agree in general, and especially for the womags, the story that won the latest WF comp was very sad and dark. Very good it was, too. (So don’t worry, Sandra, you never know!)
    The problem is, judges are always saying they want more humour and cheerfulness in stories and then the ones that win are most often the tragic/depressing ones. And so the cycle continues. I have tried sending funny stories and they have never got anywhere – maybe I’m just not very good at it!
    Humour or wit can often seem not quite ‘important’ enough for competitions, though it is essential in real life and much better to dwell on than the darker parts.
    So if the judges want to receive more humorous stories, then they’d better start giving them some of the prizes!

    • Sherri, I agree that sometimes judges might think a funny story is too ‘slight’ to win a competition. Although (*ahem, blows-own-trumpet*) I won the Chudleigh Phoenix short story competition in 2014 and the Erewash Writers competition in 2013, with 2 different, humorous stories. Agree with you about this month’s winner of the WF competition being dark and sad BUT the comments about them not wanting ‘unremittingly bleak’ stories is clearly marked as a ‘New Rule’ – which may have something to do with the new judge, who’s just taken over from Sue Moorcroft and has perhaps specified that she wants to see more upbeat stories. It will be interesting to see what she chooses over the coming months…

      • Sherri Turner says:

        Ah, I hadn’t noticed that as a New Rule, as they haven’t changed the online comp page yet. So we will see – it will be interesting!

      • Yes, sorry Sherri, I should have pointed out in my post that it was a ‘new rule’ (I hadn’t noticed that myself when I first copied out the blurb – it was only when I went back and looked I saw it said ‘new rule’!). As you say, it will be interesting to see if they start picking more ‘cheery’ stories!

  6. Kate Hogan says:

    Great post, Helen. Like many I find the winning stories of many competitions quite bleak, so much so I sometimes have been unable to finish reading them. One winner in Writing Magazine made me feel quite ill. I couldn’t help but wonder why the judges chose such a dark and deeply depressing subject. PS I loved Blood Sisters, your story in WW. It was like watching a film! Good wishes KH

    • Thanks, Kate. I sweated blood (almost) and tears over that story – changed it loads of times, got totally bogged down in the research and..aaagh! It was good to get it finally finished, accepted (after one rejection) and then to see it in print!

  7. Wendy Clarke says:

    When I recently judged a short story competition, I chose the runner up not because of their great literary skills but because, at the end of the day, it made me laugh out loud. I decided the rest could be taught.

  8. Maria Smith says:

    Great advice from Teresa Ashby, for The People’s Friend, but elsewhere like Writers’ Forum and Writing Magazine, I think its very subjective. I don’t find it easy to be funny, but a friend of mine does, and he has had a lot of success with stage plays.
    Thank you for sharing.

  9. philippabowe says:

    It’s a very personal thing. While I cherish humour, jokes, laughter and good cheer in the interactions of daily life, I’m not a big fan of humorous writing. Okay in small doses, probably sums up how I feel about it. And balance is all: clever humour as part of an overall story can work well to balance out the more serious, ‘bleak’ issues.

    • philippabowe says:

      To contradict myself: am currently really enjoying a collection of Dorothy Parker’s short stories (wicked understated humour) and play reviews (laugh-out-loud funny).

  10. charliebritten says:

    Me myself, I hate doom and gloom in stories. If people are coping with a lot of stress in their lives, why do they want it in their reading matter as well? I think I shall send one of my cheerful stories to Writers Forum right away.

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