Tag Archives: ritu rao

Letting the comedy speak for itself

It’s not easy, to go by the many writers who can’t get it right, but it’s one of the most important talents in storytelling. Unless a book is a comedy book, one does not need to make an effort to be funny, nor to announce that something is supposed to be funny. The greater skill lies in letting the humor speak for itself. If the situation is comical, be assured the reader will appreciate the opportunity to make that observation herself.

I thought of this while having a cigar on my back patio, listening to children frolic in the pool at the neighbor’s to the southwest. Children having fun, without trashing your place or deafening you, is a situation I find most uplifting. As I did so, I read this passage from Tim Severin’s Tracking Marco Polo. Our travelers are in Afghanistan in 1964, having ridden from Venice:

“…Another point we had to tackle was that we still had no idea how the Marco Polo Route Project was going to get back to England. The University Year began in three weeks, and between us we mustered £40 and one very exhausted motorcycle.

“This unhappy machine was in a state of near-collapse. All the lights had long ago since been shattered; the front brake functioned only very feebly, while the rear brake did not work at all; the gear lever had been snapped off; both wheels, as well as the handlebars, were badly out of alignment, and the shock-absorbers were partially disintegrated. The once proud BSA had been thrashed into a foul mass of dust, dents, and miscellaneous pieces of grass rope holding it together. In order to change gear, the agile driver was forced to bend over and rummage around by his right foot for the sheered-off stub of the gear lever. To slow down, the passenger had to assist by dragging his feet in the dust, and at any speed the cracked steering arms exuded a fine spray of oil. The only consolation was that with the machine in such a decrepit condition there was no likelihood of it being stolen, for Stan was the only person who had the strength, experience and foolhardiness to coax the wreck into motion.”

See what Severin did? The bike is funny. All he had to do was describe the details, then cap it with the observation about its immunity to theft. One pictures the rider and passengers doing and enduring, and one likely laughs.

Here is another example, more recent, from The Energy Shift by Dr. Ritu Rao. Ritu has written one of the smartest and most accessible self-help books I have yet to read. As I edited it, I was ruthless in eradicating many situations where she tried to be funny, and told her rather bluntly that when she tried, it did not work. When she let the comedy of the situation speak for herself, it succeeded in fine form, as shown in this passage:

“Kevin came as a guest of another friend, didn’t know anything about me or my book, but stood first in line to get a copy and a picture. We eventually became friends.

“A couple of weeks later, while I was having a really crappy day, I received a message from Kevin. He said he was trying to eat better, and because of something he’d read in my book, he was able to skip eating donuts at work. He was super excited about it. He said he walked right by them, and called it a win.

“Some people in this world are saving lives in the jungle or making prosthetic limbs for the physically disabled. I helped someone skip a donut.

“As trivial as that was, his message made me smile.”

You see what she did there, I trust. In the process of illustrating a point, she presents the relative smallness of her achievement. Rather than belabor it further, she continues to describe the value of small, helpful decisions that make us feel good. This leads to getting her point across with comedy as a welcome side effect. This is what we get when we let the funny be itself.

Both of these are non-fiction examples, but the guidance applies to fiction as well. If you have set up an inherently funny person, scene, or situation, all you have to do is keep storytelling. The reader will find the humor. Too much belaboring reminds one of sitcoms that use laugh tracks, in my opinion a sure sign that the producers feel that the humor will not speak for itself. If it was that funny, they wouldn’t need to tell us to laugh.

You don’t need to tell the reader to laugh. Trust her to make that decision, and get on with your tale or exposition or whatever.

New Release: The Energy Shift, by Ritu Rao

This self-help book is now available for sale, e-book and paperback formats. I was substantive editor.

Ritu came to me as a referral from client and friend Shawn Inmon, of Feels Like the First Time and Rock ‘n Roll Heaven fame. During our initial discussions, she mentioned that she’d already published one book. With a previously published author, my job changes. If the first book succeeded, then part of my job is not to screw up a good thing; we must preserve the aspects that made the author a success. Whether I agree with the earlier work’s editorial decisions is beside the point. No one hires me to reduce a book’s success.

Well, Ritu seemed blissfully unaware that she’d kicked large-scale ass with her first release, at least by comparison to most new releases. It had twenty-three reviews, most of them persuasive and articulate, exactly the kind that help sell a book. I read all of them, and they said great things along the lines of: At first I imagined it was going to be another fluffy self-help book full of the same stuff, but it was practical, realistic, smart, and has helped me a lot. Those are the kind of reviews authors crave. People read those reviews and buy the book.

I could tell Ritu would be coachable because she could already write. I can almost count on a thing, in my line of work: those who need my help most are most likely to refuse it. The worse the writer, the more appalling s/he will find the sample edit. “I liked my own version better, sorry” and “I need to find an editor who believes in my work” are the standard kiss-offs, and I’m okay with them. I only want to work with clients who want to work with me to improve their books. If the potential client is so bad s/he doesn’t realize how bad s/he is, and is unwilling to learn that, then I truly am not the right match. Ritu wasn’t one of those who needed to go back to remedial writing class. I could see areas for improvement, but her style was articulate, friendly, and unpretentious. We agreed to work together, and I got cracking.

Authing, as I call it, is the meeting point between storytelling (or whatever is at hand; exposition, guidance, memoirism) and writing. The first is the message; the second is how well one conveys it. I already knew that Ritu’s message made a good impression on readers, so I would focus on refining its delivery. In the ideal scenario, readers would like this book a little better, but most would not be able to say exactly why. That was the sweet spot.

I’m like the umpire. When you can’t tell I was there, and everything went well, I just smile and know I was on my game.

As I was editing, Ritu was in the process of selling her dental practice. Just as I finished, she went on a silent meditation retreat, so that delayed her digging into the edited ms. She came back with good questions, showing every sign that some of my feedback sank in. I like it when clients ask for my reasoning behind a change, because that’s a chance to teach. The end result, I think, you will like very much. Ritu is exactly as her writing style suggests: friendly, unpretentious, practical. I know that her approach to things works well, because I have used variants of it in my own life. Anyone expecting the typical cryptic, mystic self-help book tone is in for refreshment, because Ritu’s viewpoint reflects firm grounding in real experience. This book could help you get off the dime and improve your life.