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Patrick F. McManus

Writing Tip — Lesson #1 from The Deer on a Bicycle

teaching-311348_1280I could write for three months on what I have learned from The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick F. McManus. Instead, I will just discuss a couple things I have found the most interesting.

“Why do you give your characters and places such odd names?”

Mr. McManus explains that naming his characters Retch or Rancid or the Troll immediately tells the reader something about those characters. He adds, “Because of the brevity required for short humor, one must continually look for way to save words. Comically descriptive names for characters and places are one of mine.”

Descriptive nicknames can work in longer fiction, too. In the mystery A Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard, FBI agent Serena Jones catches two men peddling stolen art. Since she doesn’t know their names, she calls them “Baldy” and “Sidekick”.  The main character in Marissa Shrock’s The First Principle, a dystopian Christian fiction YA novel, overhears a conversation between two women who are strangers to her. Based on their appearances, she calls them “Puffy” and “Pudgy”.

In both examples, the main characters nickname minor ones because they don’t know their names. The nicknames tell readers something about those minor characters and it’s more concise for the author to write “Baldy” rather than “the bald man” or Puffy rather than “the woman with the puffy face.”

735600I have a special affection for nicknames because I use them for family members. In my novel, I have character who nicknames almost everyone. He calls his nephew who is a drummer “Sticks” and another nephew who wears a cowboy hat “Cowboy”.

Nicknames not only tell you something about the character with the name, but also about the person who invented it. If a teen calls his math teacher “the Fuhrer”, that reveals qualities about the teacher and the teen.

I think having a character hand out nicknames and giving them to major characters make all your characters seem more real. Many of us have nicknames, sometimes tied to our family relationships, hobbies, jobs, or physical characteristics, and those nicknames highlight different aspects of our life.  They can do the same for your characters.

Keep nicknames in mind for humor, brevity, description, or character development.

 

 

Writing Tip — The Deer on a Bicycle

735600As I’ve written here before, I am a huge fan of Patrick F. McManus. His stories, first published in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, are some of the funniest I’ve ever read. He also wrote a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully and a book about writing humorous stories, The Deer on a Bicycle.

Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, this book is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat, What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques. I find this the most helpful section of the book.

At the very end is a list of humorists Mr. McManus likes. Most of them are classic writers of American humor like Mark Twain and Erma Bomback. Several of them I haven’t read and I am looking forward to sampling their works.

Next time, I’ll write about what I’ve learned from reading The Deer on a Bicycle.

Writing Tip

crocus-1753790_1280Writing in Time-March

Since I wrote about how you could use February to inspire a setting for your writing, I thought I would write about each month as it comes up.  But I have a problem.

I hate March.  As Patrick F. McManus writes, “God created March in case eternity should prove to brief.”

It’s a month with a split personality.  Caught between winter and spring, it’s both and neither.  There are no decent holidays or events for me in March.  I’m not Irish, or live in Ireland, so St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t mean anything more to me that cute crafts from my kids.  I’m not interested in basketball, so March Madness is boring.  Lent is always partially in March.  It can be a time of growth or depression, the religious observance underlining March’s contrary dual nature. Whoever came up with the lion-lamb imagery for March hit it dead on.

Easter in March would help, but it’s in April this year.  And a March Easter runs the risk of being snowy where I live.  Snow on Easter puts me more in the mood for caroling and wrapping gifts than hunting Easter eggs and celebrating renewal and redemption.  March does have the spring equinox.  If the darkness of winter depresses you, then the equinox signals the return of longer daylight.

So, what can a writer do with March?

I admit I hate March so much I have never set a story in it.  But writing this blog has given me a few ideas.  I could create a character torn between opposites — within his or her own personality, between two jobs or two friends, anything where the character must make a choice between two opposing things.  If I wrote fantasy, I could use the spring equinox as some kind of magical day when two opposing forces clash with equal strength.  Or I could write a storyline about a character’s miserable misadventures during a miserable month.

Do you like March?  Le me know why and how you would use it in your writing.

 

Writing Tip

img_6543Humor in the Great Outdoors

I enjoy humor writing, but my absolute favorite author is Patrick F. McManus. I only discovered him a few years ago and I am so glad I did.  I have enjoyed his stories and essays over and over again.

Mr. McManus wrote most of his articles for Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.  Then these were collected into books, which was how I found them.  Beyond being able to tell the difference between a rod and a rifle, I know nothing about fishing and hunting, but that hasn’t kept me from laughing myself breathless when I read Mr. McManus’s stories.  His tales about the woes of outdoor pursuits are general enough for anyone to understand.  I also like his stories about growing up in rural Idaho in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s because coming from a small hometown myself, I understand rural humor.  His stories also remind me of the tales my dad tells of growing up in West Virginia.

I have so many favorite Patrick McManus stories that it is hard to choose which ones to discuss. But since I have been talking about figurative language, I will highlight the stories where Mr. McManus anthropomorphizes animals.  I think these are some of his most hilarious tales.

Mr. McManus has written many stories about a stray dog that moved in with his family when he was a boy. He describes Strange as having the opposite characteristics of those listed in the Boys Scout motto.  In “Strange Meets Matilda Jean” from Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!, he writes:

“If I threw a stick and told him ‘Fetch,’ he would give me this insolent stare, which said, “Fetch it yourself, dumbo.  You threw it.”  Then he would flip a cigarette butt at me, blow out a stream of smoke, and slouch back into his doghouse.  (Well, no, of course, he didn’t really smoke cigarettes, but that was the essence of his attitude, as though he had watched too many movies about hard-boiled detectives.)”

In other stories, crows deliberately warn wildlife that he is out hunting, hummingbirds img_6546become menacing if their feeders are left empty, and in “My First Deer, and Welcome to It” from They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They? “the deer danced and clowned and cut up all around me, smirking the whole while” as he loads his rifle.

Patrick McManus has even written a guide to humor writing, The Deer on the Bicycle: Excursions Into the Writing of Humor.  He has also written a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.  I didn’t like these stories as well, even though I am a big mystery fan.  But it’s been awhile since I read one, so I will try again.  To learn more about Patrick McManus and his books, click here.

By the way, very few of his short stories have any kind of bad language in them.  I have read many of them to kids, who sometimes stop breathing from laughing so hard.

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