I’ve just started working on my next book or, at least, what I hope will eventually become my next book. Why the uncertainty? It’s because I’m experimenting with form. It’s not so much that I’m breaking new ground as that it’s new for me.
With my fiction I consider myself primarily an entertainer, with humorous twists on various genre tropes, particularly in science fiction but occasionally dabbling with its cousins, horror and fantasy. There are often serious issues involved, and if one of my stories makes you think that’s not by accident. However, first and foremost, I’m trying to amuse. As I’ve told people who say to me that one of my books made them laugh out loud, “Then I did my job.”
That doesn’t mean it’s simple. The great humorist Robert Benchley did short pieces for the New Yorker called “casuals,” but that was because they were light, amusing reads. He had to work hard to make it look easy. A well-crafted comic story requires the same sorts of skills as more serious literature, from creating full-bodied characters and devising an engaging narrative, to finding the right word and polishing the text so that it dazzles.
It also requires that it actually be funny. I consider myself fortunate in that I seem to be hardwired to make connections and observations that others find amusing. That’s not bragging. Others have different talents that enable them to quarterback a football team, play a dramatic role, or have deep philosophical insights. One of life’s tasks is discovering one’s own innate abilities and find a way to use them. I’m fortunate that being an amusing writer is deemed a positive thing as opposed to, say, being an amusing attorney.
One of my early jobs was negotiating shopping mall leases for a chain of pet stores. I’d send out multi-page letters with points in the lease that needed to be negotiated. One of them was a clause where we promised to “keep the premises free and clear of all insects, rodents, and vermin.” I would insist that come out. When the landlord’s lawyer asked why, I’d answer, “Because that’s describing our inventory.” I thought this was pretty funny. Only some of opposing counsel reacted the same way. It’s one of the reasons I ended up following a different career path.
With the new project I’m trying a narrative structure that’s somewhat different. It’s not original to me. There are classic books that use a similar format. In the weeks and months to come I’ll see if I can make it work. If it does, I’ll be pleased that I was able to rise to the challenge. Yet when I see you, I won’t ask if you were impressed with the way I put it together. I’ll ask if it made you laugh.
And if you say yes, I’ll have done my job.