Gumbee Fantasy Writers ‘do’ Humour, wit and character conversation: Number 5 M T McGuire

Reading back through the  posts in this series, I notice Will Macmillan Jones said, “MTM has been a proper comedienne, and is probably much better qualified than I am to write a piece on being funny.”

Oh bollocks.

Right then. I suppose I’d get my finger out from up my arse and do mine.

First of all, I should probably qualify the description, ‘proper comedienne’. If having a ‘spot’ somewhere is ‘proper’ I was. If getting paid in actual money, as opposed to beer , food or… well…  peanuts, is ‘proper’ then I’m very much not. I don’t think I ever saw any cold hard cash for my efforts.  Then again, I was only doing it because I thought I had more chance of being a writer, or at least getting published, if I got famous for being funny first. And yes, I really, truly believed I had more chance of making it in big in stand up than I did of persuading a literary agent to take me on. Even then. In the 1990s.

Actually, I still do. And that’s not a dig at agents, it’s pragmatism about my ability to self sell. Which is negligible. You see, to get ‘noticed’ by the establishment, an author has to be able to write a good query letter. I can write a half decent novel but I’ve always been useless at applying for jobs. That’s why I self published in the end, because I know my limitations and the time had come to be pragmatic about them and try a different path.

So, massive tangent finished, where was I? Ah yes. Humour.

It’s really difficult to do this. I have no idea what people find funny about my books, or me, and I have long since given up on trying to find out. All I’ve really learned is that when they laugh, I should smile and pretend it was deliberate. What I mean is, picking a funny bit out of one of my books has been really difficult because, I’ll let you into a secret, I don’t really know where they are. Yes, I could be the archetypical tortured clown but luckily I have a sense of humour.

As for types of funny, well, I suppose I tend to indulge in a few stalwarts. I’ve listed them, below, with illustrative excerpts. The thing that jumps out at me, when I read them, is that they’re really not very funny on their own, which is a bit embarrassing. Though it does eloquently demonstrate my firmly held belief that humour, the humour I write, at any rate, is accumulative. The minute I start snipping out bits and pasting them on their own they die somehow.

Funny words.
The sheer joy of using words that sound funny together never palls, even if no-one else notices, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me. It won’t get an out-and-out laugh, but I firmly believe it helps build comic tension and make whatever lame joke it is that follows seem much funnier. It’s a particular joy inventing invective when the characters are arguing with one another.

Tick over comedy.
What I mean by this is stuff that isn’t that funny on it’s own but keeps things light by going on in the background, once again, the sole purpose is to make the comic denouement, when we get there, seem a bit less lame.

Slapstick.
There’s an element of slapstick, or at least comedy capers, in my stuff; people slipping on banana skins and falling down, stuff like that (although nobody has actually slipped on a banana skin anywhere in my writing so far).

Making the characters funny.
I have to confess that most of the characters I write are much funnier than I am. Sometimes they do things which are amusingly ditzy, sometimes they can be quite witty, especially, Ruth and The Pan of Hamgee, although, in his own style, Big Merv is quite sharp.

The icebreaker moment.
Lastly, there’s what I call the icebreaker moment, when something happens in a serious bit that relieves the tension and makes… well… it makes me laugh. I like those a lot because they let me make the tense bits so much nastier.

So, I’ve posted two excerpts, the first is a brief demonstration of what I mean by an icebreaker moment, quite a light one from the first book in the K’Barthan Trilogy. The Mervinettes, the gang of bank robbers The Pan of Hamgee drives for, have just agreed to try and rob the world’s most impregnable bank. Things are tense, because although they’re going to be paid a lot of money, they are being blackmailed into it by a contact The Pan introduced to them.

“Alright, we’ll do it,” said Big Merv sullenly, “we’ll rob your bank for four million Grongolian.” He swung round and glared at The Pan: “And as for you,” he strode over to him, shouting, “you stupid, snivelling—” Without warning, he punched him in the face. The Pan saw the fist approaching his nose but didn’t have time to duck before it hit home. The impact tumbled him backwards over a chair and the pain erupted like a firework. He hit the floor, sprawled on his back and clamped his hand over his face, rolling onto all fours. Big Merv stepped smartly round the chair and pulled him to his feet. “That’s for getting us into this!”

The Pan had had enough.

“Now who’s the stupid one?” he said nasally as he clamped his handkerchief to his bleeding nose, “Thumping the assets you’re supposed to be protecting.”

Big Merv let go of him.

“I’m sorry, mate. I was out of order, but I couldn’t bring myself to punch that old relic,” he said, glaring at the old man. It hadn’t been a hard punch; The Pan’s nose was already beginning to stop bleeding, and although it was bruised and swollen it didn’t feel broken.

This second excerpt covers pretty much everything else. It’s from The Wrong Stuff, K’Barthan Trilogy: Part 2. The Pan of Hamgee is suffering a certain amount of narcotic inconvenience after having been in Grongolian custody. He rescues Ruth, who he had become besotted with from afar, but when he tries to explain himself, all he can say, is ‘I’m a little teapot’. We see this from Ruth’s point of view and join a few hundred feet above the London skyline, in The Pan’s snurd, just as the drugs are beginning to wear off.

“There might be a police helicopter if it’s not busy somewhere else,” she said. “Otherwise, I expect we’re set, we don’t have too many flying cars here in Britain.”

“It’s not a little teapot,” he began. “Ruth,” he said excitedly, “I’m… not a little it’s teapot… wearing off… I’m a…”

“Are you all there?” she asked.

“Little… nearly… teapot…”

“Hmm.”

“It’s not a little… car… teapot,” he said, “I’m a… it’s a little… snurd… teapot.” His eyes rolled in exasperation.

“Are you on drugs?” she asked.

He turned in his seat, put one finger on his nose and pointed at her with the other hand, charades style.

“Yes!” he said, turning his attention back to the business of driving with a great deal of relief.

“And you want me to know that?”

“I’m a little… not… teapot… self administered.”

“Somebody else drugged you?”

“Mmm hmm.” A nod.

They were flying over the City now and below them, Ruth could see a large office block with a helipad on top. She pointed downwards.

“OK. I think it’s time you landed this thing so we can have a chat. You have a great deal of explaining to do.”

He managed to say, ‘mmm’ without any mention of teapots and landed the Lotus smoothly on the helipad. For a moment there was no sound but the ticking of the engine as it cooled and the muffled roar of the traffic rising up from the street below. Then he got out of the car and leapt over the bonnet, except she felt the car dip and, if it hadn’t been an inanimate object, she would have sworn that he’d failed to leap high enough and had only cleared the bonnet in one piece because the car had ducked. He opened her door with a flourish and she undid her seatbelt and climbed out.

He put out his hand and without thinking properly about what she was doing, she took it and let him lead her over to the edge of the helipad. It was raised a few feet above the roof of the building and below it a couple of yards of concrete ran to the edge of the roof proper, where there was a safety fence. It was there to stop the unwary from falling off, Ruth supposed, but it wouldn’t be enough to stop somebody who really wanted to from throwing her off – this man, for example. That said, she was pretty sure his intentions were friendly and that she wasn’t in any danger. He seemed too pleased to see her for that, he could hardly stop smiling. He sat down with his legs dangling over the edge of the helipad and she followed suit making sure she kept a few feet’s distance between them. He appeared utterly at ease with her which made her relax a little despite stern warnings from the sensible part of her brain about the dangers of running off in space cars with strange men.

He raised an eyebrow and waved a hand at the view in front of them.

“I’m a… nice city you… little tea… have here… pot.”

“Thank you,” she said, “nice Zorro hat. Your wheels aren’t bad either.”

He chuckled and took a breath as if to speak but inclined his head in a sort of bow instead. Well, there are only so many ways you can tell somebody you are a little teapot, after all, Ruth thought and he’d probably run out of them. He took his hat off and ruffled his hair with one hand. It stood up. Naturally spiky. No sign of gel. Cool. No, not cool at all, get a grip Ruth. The two of them sat in silence for a moment while she tried to work out what to say and what was going to happen next. She felt disconnected from reality, as if her life was a film and she was sitting in the audience watching, a dangerous sensation because it was stopping her from taking it seriously. He cracked first.

“I’m a little… Arnold when is this… teapot… stuff going to… I’m a little… wear off… teapot?” He stopped. “I’m a… I should… little teapot… explain why I’m a… here little teapot.” He grimaced and shook his head.

“It would help,” said Ruth, “but I can see it’s going to be difficult.”

He was exasperated and angry with himself, too, by the looks of it.

“OK, I have lots of questions, so why don’t I ask the ones which only require ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers?”
A relieved sigh, “I’m a little… alright.”

“Good, and when I’ve asked my questions, you will be driving me home, won’t you?”

“I’m a… I will take you… little teapot… wherever you want to go.” Another smile. She looked into his eyes. They were dark blue, so dark they looked almost black, the way normally only brown eyed people’s can. He maintained eye contact for just that little bit too long before blushing and looking down at his hands. Hmm. Ruth wasn’t super-confident about her looks, but in this case the signs were obvious. He fancied her. Oh well, it could be worse. He wasn’t a giant and he hadn’t shot at her and she had to hand it to him, as smiles went, his was pretty engaging. And he had a kind face – those blue, blue eyes had the type of crow’s feet round them which suggested he smiled a lot. Perhaps it was time to try and discover what he wanted?

“You know, my life has become very weird of late,” she said, “Those guys, the no-no ones,” she waved her hands backwards and forwards the way he had done and he nodded, “They’ve been following me for months now.”

“I know,” he said.

“I don’t think you do, not unless you’ve been following me as well. Have you?” she asked him sternly.

He cleared his throat and couldn’t meet her eyes any more. Result! She’d got him bang to rights.

“You have, haven’t you? You’re another scary stalker! You’re just better at it than them!”

“No. I was… I’m a little… Arnold’s Y fronts!” Deep breath. “Sorry. I have to explain and this stupid… teapot… Truth Serum is making it difficult.”

“I’m sorry. When you say, ‘Truth Serum’ that makes me think Secret Police.”

“Then you’re a little… right … teapot.”

“So. I’m guessing that means you’re in trouble where you’re from, does it?”

He nodded. She eyed him quizzically.

“With the police or someone else?”

“The… teapot… police.”

“And I suppose they’re not very nice because nice policemen don’t tend to use things called Truth Serum.”
Another nod.

“And I’d guess they gave you that black eye.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Are you a revolutionary?”

“No, that would make me an idiot.” Oh, a whole sentence in one! Sarky, too. She was impressed.

“OK then, are you some kind of criminal where you’re from?”

He shrugged and spread his hands when he nodded this time.

“Well, you’re obviously a really crap one. I’m not scared of you at all.”

“I’m a… little… teapot… getaway man,” He looked affronted, “I’m… not… a little… meant to be… teapot… scary. I’m meant to be… a little teapot… scared. Otherwise I’m a little… I won’t be any… teapot… good at running away… I’m a little… will I?”

Ruth giggled, the teapot thing clearly got worse when she wound him up. She shouldn’t be sitting here talking to him like this but amazingly, trapped as she was on the top of a London skyscraper, with no way off and no hope of help, she felt utterly unafraid.

“Is that how getaway men dress?” His outfit was intriguing; elastic sided boots, dark blue canvas jeans, loose paisley silk shirt, tucked in at the waist and unbuttoned at the top. He was wearing a greeny-blue velvet jacket and over the top, a thick dark cloak and the hat. How to sum that up? Mostly back-of-Revolver, a dash of front-of-Help, a modicum of pirate and a sprinkling of Zorro. An odd look, but one that was all his own and one Ruth liked.

“No, I’m a little… that’s how I dress.”

“I see. It’s not a bad look and you’re correct, it’s not scary. So, are you telling me that, right now, you’re meant to be frightened?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“And are you?”

A nod and a disarming smile.

“I’m the one with no clue what’s going on, I thought that was supposed to make me the frightened one.” He shrugged. “Are you scared of me?”

He laughed, put one hand out and wiggled it in a way that was clearly sign language for maybe.

“I don’t think you are.”

More smiling, he raised one eyebrow.

“Quite obviously, no.” Another shrug. “But you are a getaway man?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“That’s a criminal.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Then why do I trust you?”

He laughed.

“You are evidently a little—” a deep breath, “a rubbish judge of character… teapot.”

“Not usually,” she gave him her best don’t-mess-with-me stare. There was that smile again. A small part of Ruth wanted to go out of its way to make him smile as much as possible. That was not good. Time for a reality check. He had swept her off her feet, literally – if not figuratively – and driven her through the best bits of London in the soft dusk light, in a flying car, with the top down. There was more than a bit of glamour appeal to this experience and Ruth suspected that the fact the Lotus was the car of her dreams might be clouding her judgement about the man inside it.

“Right then. I know you are probably here illegally, that you have a way cool set of wheels which flies and that you have a very amusing speech impediment.” He chuckled and she was unaccountably pleased to have made him laugh. “Anything else you’d care to tell me?”

He took another deep breath.

“I’m,” Ruth watched with interest as he waited for the urge to declare himself teapot-shaped to subside. “…not from around here,” he finally said.

“Yes. I guessed that. OK, let’s start somewhere simple. What’s your name?”

“I’m The Pan of Hamgee,” he inclined his head to imply a bow, “and I am at your service.”

“I see.” Ruth frowned. The ‘I am at your service’ bit was quite charming, in an old-world way, “What’s your first name?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You mean that’s it?”

He nodded.

“That’s not a name, it’s a title. What do people call you? ‘The?’”

“No. Usually it’s ‘Oi you! Stop! Teapot! Thief!’” Another long pause, “‘Pan of Hamgee’ translates slightly differently, so I suppose in your language, you’d call me ‘The Hamgeean’.”

He was looking shifty again. She knew it! He was lying.

“That sounds like a wrestling hold and it still doesn’t give you a first name. I’m not an ‘oi you’ kind of girl. I can’t say ‘Hi, Hamgeean, how are you?’ It doesn’t go. I’m Ruth Cochrane – don’t you dare laugh at my surname or make one reference to Eddie – so when you want to get my attention calling me ‘Cochrane’ is plain weird. I’m fine with ‘Ruth’ and it follows that, barring cultural differences, there must be something I’d use to talk to you; which you are not fine with, presumably.” She waited but he wasn’t biting. She sighed. “OK, Mister Pan of Hamgee, we’ll have it your way, for now and keep it formal but don’t think you’ve got away with not telling me. I know you’re lying and that means you do have a normal name. Let’s try something else. Why are you here?”

“I’m a… the big guys with the… little… Arnold in the skies! …teapot… guns are not your friends. I came here to find you before they did.”

“Well done, and thank you – I don’t think the people who run the Festival Hall will be very keen on you, though. In fact, I expect you’ll be had up by the police as soon as they see your car – I should imagine somebody took your number plate.”

He smiled, raised an eyebrow, put one finger up in a wait-a-moment gesture and stood up. She watched as he walked coolly over to the Lotus, leaned in and pressed a button on the dash. There was a gentle electronic whining sound in stereo from the front and back of the car and the number plates revolved. He strolled back and sat down again, closer to her this time, with the air of a man who knows he has done something fairly impressive.

“You just revolved your number plate.”

How annoying was that! She was trying to play it cool, trying very hard not to appear overawed, and to her irritation, it wasn’t working.

“Are you sure you’re not a spy? You have a spy’s car.”

He laughed and, again, she was glad; such a bad sign.

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