Political Satire: Comedic Writing (Part Two)

Note: Today’s regularly scheduled MicroFiction piece has been bumped to Wednesday in order to give everyone a little more time to think about Political Satire in time for the competition on Friday.

Political Satire tops the list of genres NYC Midnight writers are scared of getting.  I think a lot of that fear comes from the fact that people don’t understand it as a genre.  So before we get into what it is, let’s start by debunking a common myth:

Political Satire is not a bunch of jokes about politicians.

Quips about Donald Trump’s hair or David Cameron being replaced by a cat need not apply, not matter how clever your joke is.  So what is it?

Satire is a genre of writing that criticizes and attacks vice, folly and abuse, particularly of ruling parties or those in power. It is marked by anger and a desire to change or destroy that which it attacks. It has a definite target and often uses humor to make a specific point. It does not simply “make fun” of a subject but seeks to inspire change.  – TV Tropes

Here are examples that have elements of the genre, but not quite there:

  • The Jungle & Uncle Tom’s Cabin – these seek to inspire change, but they don’t use humor to illustrate their points.
  • Animal Farm – that’s an allegory.  Political Satire often uses allegorical elements, but a straight allegory is not the same thing as satire if it doesn’t have the humor.

Jokes about political candidates might be funny, but political satire doesn’t have to be overtly about politics to make a political point.

The plot of a political satire piece usually has nothing to do with the subject or message you’re trying to get across.  For example, both “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift and “Baby Cakes” by Neil Gaiman are, on the surface level, stories about eating babies.  But the point they’re trying to make is very different.

Swift’s piece is about British policies regarding the Irish and the cruelty and indifference towards the plight of the impoverished.  Gaiman’s piece (originally a short story but linked as a comic) will make anyone consider converting to vegetarianism.

Some points on this:

  • You don’t necessarily have to agree with the points in your political satire piece.  Gaiman has said, “For the record I wear a leather jacket and eat meat, but am quite good with babies.”
  • Hyperbole is your friend.  Obviously neither Swift nor Gaiman was actually advocating eating babies.  But if you’re really good, your satire might get mistaken for the real thing.
  • Political satire is timely.  Remember: it’s meant to inspire change.  So while you could write a piece similar to Swift’s regarding politics of a bygone era, it doesn’t really fit the spirit of the genre because the issue is already over.
  • Some issues are pretty timeless.  For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is about women going on a sex-strike to protest a war.  It’s been adapted several times, most recently in the film Chi-Raq by Spike Lee.

 

Since we’re talking about Flash Fiction in particular, let’s look to the following examples of sketch comedy for ideas.  These are quick skits and would easily translate into a complete story that will fit in under 1,000 words and will give you a more modern take on what Political Satire is.

  • “What if Bears Killed One in Five People?” is a political satire of the issue of rape on college campuses.
  • Amy Schumer parodies a commercial to satirize the regulations limiting accessible birth control (and one other issue, if you watch through to the very end.)
  • Key & Peele use a skit about the zombie apocalypse to make a point about racism.

I hope you recognize these skits and the comics who produced them – hopefully Political Satire will be a little less scary when you realize you’ve already been exposed to it.  I suggest you check out more of their sketches, as well as South Park and The Colbert Report for other examples.

So, with that in mind, how do you write a Political Satire piece for the Flash Fiction Challenge?  Well, my advice is to pick an issue to write about.  What do you care about?  What’s in the news today?  Read through your Facebook feed and current events news pages to get ideas.  Embrace your inner snarkiness and start joking about it about!

 

Have any examples of your own or questions to share with the class?  Leave them in the comments below!

 

Make ’em Laugh: Comedic Writing (Part One)

Last week I left off with a few subcategories from the NYC Flash Fiction contest that deserve an in-depth look.  Today we’re going to be discussing the comedic genres, particularly these three:

  • Comedy
  • Political Satire
  • Romantic Comedy

So, what’s the difference between these?  Way back when we only had two dramas (Comedy and Drama) a Comedy meant it had a happy ending, usually a wedding, while Drama ended with a tragic death of some kind.  These days we use Comedy to mean that which makes you laugh.  The differences between the comedic genres come from how it makes you laugh and why.

Comedy

In a broad sense, comedy covers all the sub-genres but in general, let’s talk about Classic comedies, aka comedies that are not making fun of something in particular but are their own self-contained stories.  Early examples include Commedia dell’Arte with stock characters and improvised situations, and Shakespeare’s comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.

Some common tropes of comedic genres:

  • Mistaken/Hidden Identities
    • Twins
    • Long lost relatives
    • Disguises
  • Trickery of some kind
  • Stock Characters (i.e. the Lovers, the Servants, the cuckolded buffoon, the greedy miser, the doddering professor.  Since you’re meant to laugh, flat caricatures do well here even though they can be hallmarks of bad writing in other genres.)
  • Gender bending (A classic trope from Shakespeare to Bug Bunny.  Beware of distasteful humor regarding transfolk here, the same way you’d do well to avoid racial/ethnic humor in your stock characters.*)
  • Differing personalities having to work together  (Buddy Cop movies)
  • Mad cap adventures
    • Babies
    • Animals
    • Cross-country races for fabulous sums of money

For a more complete list, and/or if you’re out of ideas and forced to write something comedic, start clicking through this page until inspiration hits you.  (Be forewarned, lots of TV Tropes links are coming, set yourself a timer so you don’t fall down the rabbit hole.)

*Before anyone starts arguing about political correctness and its place in modern comedy, I want to first say that you can of course write whatever you want.  But if you’re a novice comic I would advise you to avoid polarizing tropes.  If you’re trying to make a point about race it takes a lot of skill, and even then people may not get the joke. And if you’re not, it’s just lazy writing to rely on outdated tropes.

Romantic Comedies

I’m not going to go into too much depth on this because it essentially has a combination of the above tropes, with the added emphasis on one or more couples and a focus on their romantic relationship.  In dated works it meant the couples got married at the end, in modern takes it means the couples either “get together” or maybe even rekindle a fading romance.  Unlike the other Romance genre, this one should have a happy ending, regardless of how unrealistic it may be. Indulge in a little wish fulfillment.

For flash fiction you should probably stick to the relationship itself, but it should be noted that Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, one of the earliest examples of the RomCom, has its dramatic moments, so don’t feel limited if you want to include some heavier plot elements.  It’ll flesh out the story and add depth to your characters.


Sitcoms are good modern examples of short-form stories, but if you’re looking for novels most of the greats tend to parody certain genres (Terry Pratchett: Fantasy, Douglas Adams: SciFi, Christopher Moore: everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to Vampires.)

This is as good a place as any to talk about the difference between Parody and Satire.

Parody

Parody is the practice of copying the mannerisms, style or appearance of a work or its author’s voice to make a point about that work (or sometimes unrelated other works)…it is often good-natured or affectionate. It only attacks the style and content of a fictional work and not real-life events. -TV Tropes

Remember when we talked about what fell under Fair Use?  That’s parody: “Something you’ve seen before in a different form.”  You’re making fun of someone else’s concept or intellectual property or a genre or whatever.  You’re joking about a concept that you yourself did not invent.  (Side note: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sounds like it ought to be a parody, but it’s actually played straight and gets away with it because the Jane Austen work is in the Public Domain, same as the Wizard of Oz and Wicked.)

While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is original content, it’s a parody of the SciFi genre in much the same way Galaxy Quest is a Star Trek specific parody.  What do I mean by that?

The protagonist, Arthur Dent, rejects his call to adventure and spends most of the novels as a reluctant hero.  He and the main love interest never really get together.  The climax of the novel, leading up to Arthur being the chosen one for having the ultimate answer question to Life the Universe and Everything is never actually resolved.

A parody can be funny without having any real jokes in it.  For example, the episode Pillows vs. Blankets on Community is funny precisely because it’s played straight – a pillow fight documented in such a way that it parodies the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.  It’s the absurd situation that makes the comedy, and it’s not quite as funny if you don’t get what they’re parodying.

As for Satire… I’ll be honest, this post is much longer than I expected it to be, and I don’t want to rush that one, so we’ll have to get into it on Friday instead.  But before we go, I want to leave you with this:

General Pointers

Everything I’ve listed above are plot-related comedic tropes.  You should note that when it comes to comedic writing there are other ways to tell a joke that have nothing to do with the plot.  They include but are not limited to:

  • Timing
  • Sarcasm
  • Hyperbole
  • The Unexpected

The last one is my favorite.  There’s just something about the unexpected that makes me laugh, and I love that good comedic writing will work jokes into the description as well as the dialogue and situations. Like the quote below:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t. – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Comedy is an art, and I can’t really go into what’s funny or why.  I can’t teach you how to tell a joke; it would take far too long and I’m out of time as it is.  But check out the following resources to unlock your inner comic:

Got any tips and tricks for comedic writing?  Authors/novels you love?  Share them below!

NYC Midnight Genres: A Primer

For those of us who regularly participate in the NYC Midnight contests there’s a certain dread that comes from the last few weeks leading up to the contest, particularly regarding the genre prompts.

I personally love the different genres – there’s the possibility of getting something you’re familiar with, but it’s just as likely you’ll get something you’ve never written before, and that you’ll discover that it was your secret calling.  I pulled Mystery twice – the first time the 1,000 word limit almost killed me.  The second time around I had 2,500 words and that first experience under my belt, so it went much smoother and I ended up really enjoying it.

…And then there’s that third option: something everyone hates and is equally terrible at (*cough*Political Satire*cough.*)  But then again, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.  So, because I don’t know what your personal preferences are, here’s a quick primer on the possible genres and how to break them down.

(I’ll go into detail on some of the tougher ones over the next couple weeks.)

Note: I know everyone here isn’t necessarily going to be participating in these contests, so even though these genres are specific to NYC, what I have still goes for genre-related publications.


NYC has the following genres:

  • Action/Adventure
  • Comedy
  • Crime Caper
  • Drama
  • Fairy Tale
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost Story
  • Historical Fiction
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Political Satire
  • Romance
  • Romantic Comedy
  • SciFi
  • Spy
  • Suspense
  • Thriller
They also have “Open Genre” but that basically means write whatever you want, and you’ll basically only see it for the final round, if you make it that far.  So let’s break the given genres down into a couple subcategories, shall we?
Plot-driven genres

I’ve grouped the following together because their plot drives the genre.

  • Crime-related stories
    • Crime Caper: usually have criminals as the main characters in a “how they committed the crime of the century” kind of story.  Think Ocean’s 11, or The Italian Job.
    • Mystery: usually involves solving a crime, often involving murder, missing persons or stolen items, etc.  Think of this as a Crime Caper after the fact.
    • Spy: More action than either of the above genres, Spy stories can involve international crime syndicates, large scale espionage and can be from the point of view of someone thwarting crime (James Bond) or someone committing crime (Jason Bourne, or the Mission Impossible team).
  • Pacing-related stories
    • Action/Adventure: This is pretty generic for fast-paced, explosion-filled fun.  Die Hard, Indiana Jones, you get the idea.
    • Suspense: I had to look up the NYC definitions for the difference between Suspense and Thriller.  In general, suspense is slower paced, with a dramatic flair as the tension builds.
    • Thriller: Thriller seems to be fast-paced, with action scenes and plot twists.  I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% clear on the difference, but luckily some genre bending tends to be the norm with these contests.
  • Love Stories
    • Romance: Romantic elements can be present in any of the categories, but with a Romance story, the relationships are the central focus.  Most people I’ve asked agree that a Romance may not have a happy ending, but that dating and/or love and relationships need to be central to the piece.  I’ll put Love Actually in the category – not all the tales end happily but they’re all about love in some form or fashion.
Self-Explanatory Genres
  • Drama
  • Historical Fiction

Drama is the way to go for all you literary types.  Historical fiction is exactly like it sounds: set against a historical backdrop.  I’m not really going to go into either of these two.  They’re pretty standard, really.


That’s enough info to digest for now.  In the upcoming weeks I’ll be talking more about the following sub-categories:
Comedic Style/Tone

This is anything that counts as humorous.  There are some differences here, and we’ll go into that in detail.

  • Comedy
  • Political Satire
  • Romantic Comedy
Speculative Fiction genres
Speculative Fiction encapsulates anything with a “speculative” element, i.e. something that doesn’t exist in the real world.  So monsters, magic, spaceships that travel across the universe, all that belongs here.
  • Fairy Tale
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost Story
  • Horror
  • SciFi

Got any questions about what we’ve already covered?  Dying to know more about something I may have glossed over?  Ask me in the comments!  And for everything else (including the dreaded Political Satire), stay tuned!

Publisher’s Spotlight: Deadline Round-Up

Have you been keeping track of all the publishing deadlines coming up this summer?  No?  Well, let’s see if I can make that a touch easier for you.  Below is a list of all the Publishers featured on our Publisher’s Spotlight with links to the original posts AND the deadlines for their current calls.

Also, here’s a link to all publishers with rolling submissions, meaning they do not have a deadline (but they might close for the holidays; check individual pages for details.)

Freeze Frame Fiction is currently CLOSED for submissions.

As always, don’t forget to check out their individual sites as it will have all updated info.

Happy Submitting!

NYC Midnight: Flash Fiction Challenge

This is going to read less like a Publisher’s Spotlight and more like a personal story, because it is.  If you only care about the contest, skip to the  quick and dirty.  The rest of you, feel free to join me in a little reminiscing.


The end of July will mark the one-year anniversary of me getting my writing life back on track.  I was in a bit of a writing funk.  Diving in here and there but never really devoting the time and energy to my writing that I ought to.  It had been a year and a half since my short story, Needs More Salt, was published and I didn’t have drive to keep it up.

Then in July I saw an ad on Facebook for a contest: NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge.  The entry fee was steep – if you know me at all you know I hate paying entry fees at all, so $50 made me cringe.  But skeptical as I was, I did a little digging and here what I found out:

  • NYC Midnight runs four contests a year on a rotating basis, one of which is the Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC).  (The others are screenplay-related or for Short Stories.)
  • The entry fee for the FFC gets you:
    • two rounds of competition with two unique sets of prompts
      • an additional two rounds should you place high enough in your groups
    • official feedback from the judges
    • unofficial feedback from the forums should you choose to participate
    • access to prizes, given out to the top 10 writers of the final round competition

So, why did I join?

I hadn’t written finished anything in a awhile.

Lord, what would I become without a deadline?  Don’t answer that.  For perspective, I had the idea for a superhero story sitting around in my computer since early 2014.  I only wrote/finished it on May 6th because of a certain Heroes vs. Villains contest deadline.  (It was well received; thank you for asking.)

I liked the odds.

Because they split the contestants into different groups, you’re only really competing against 30 – 40 writers.  That said, some of the finest writers I’ve had the pleasure to meet were in my group.  That hurt my chances a bit, but on the plus side, we made friends with each other on the forum and I was invited into a writer’s group who have kept me active over the last year, even when the contest wasn’t in session.  So, win-win.

Also, you only have to beat out half of the group (roughly) to get points for this contest.  With two rounds built into your entry fee you have two chances to score high enough to move on.  Your points for both rounds are tallied together, so even if you get 8th place in round one (8 points) and 5th place in round two (11 points) you’re still going to do better than someone who took 1st (15 points) in round one and 14th for the second (2 points), even if you didn’t get in the top 3 for either round.

It was an even (more or less) playing field.

George R.R. Martin would not win this contest.  If you want to win you have to come up with good ideas – fast – and polish it as best as you can within the time limit.  Prompts like “Action-Adventure, a Dumbbell, and an Underwater Cave” will throw anyone for a loop.  You could get a genre that you’re not familiar with, but chances are, there are other writers in the group who are just as lost as you are.

I got to read the competition.

Here’s the thing: when you’ve collected as many rejections as I have you start wondering whether you’re really any good.  Did I come really close to getting published or am I at the bottom of the pack?  I did my first round of the FFC without any beta readers at all – no help, no outsiders allowed.  I did that partially to test myself.  How well can I write when left to my own devices?  It turns out I’m pretty good at being creative under pressure.  The judges didn’t think so, but that’s another matter.

The judge’s opinions are subjective, but at least in this contest you get to read what the competition wrote (assuming they submitted it on the forum, which is locked to outsiders, so it counts as a workshop, not a first publication.)  Some are going to be better than yours, and that’s great!  Learn from them!  Be awed and take notes!  And also, some are not.  Be kind.  Give advice to help someone improve.  That’s what you’d want for your piece, right?  Advice, not mockery?  And yes, enjoy the ego boost it gives you when you find a piece that isn’t quite as awesome as yours.  You worked hard.  Celebrate.

Oh, and one more note before moving on… Just because you thought someone else’s story was awful, doesn’t mean you get to trash it if they scored higher than you.  Not cool.  To be 100% on the level, the judging for this contest is erratic.  I got 0 points on both of my stories.  That sucked.  Hard.  You put on a brave face, you bitch to your friends, you send a note to the contest runners if you think the judges (legitimately) screwed up.  But do not trash the other contestants.

I couldn’t can’t afford a writer’s workshop.

Listen, writing conferences are expensive, take up valuable time, and rarely exist within driving distance to me.  96 hours of balls-to-the-wall writing without having to leave my apartment?  Literally hundreds of stories to read through on the forums to critique (and compare myself to?)  Yes, please.


And that’s my biggest take-away from this experience.  For me it’s not about the contest (because again, the judging isn’t always the best) but about the writer’s workshop portion.  If you really want to get your money’s worth, invest in the forums.  There’s a camaraderie with participating with thousands of other entrants and seeing what you all managed to crank out.  And really, $50 for a writer’s workshop is the cheapest I’ve ever heard of, and I don’t even have to take time off work to join it.

For the record, I also participated in the Short Story Challenge and made it all the way through to the final round, something I’m extremely proud of despite my last story not placing in the finals.  There were many talented writers, so being among the top 40 was no small matter.  I say this because the judging is erratic, not necessarily bad.  And that’s frustrated a lot of participants to the point that I can’t blame them for not joining.

But then again, what other contest is this transparent?  In any other contest you get to read your entry and maybe a handful of the finalists that get published at the end.  You’re tossed into a group with a thousand other participants all writing to the same prompt hoping that you’ll rise to the top.  That’s a lot of pressure and a lot harder than out-writing 15 other people who got the same crazy prompts 48 hours ago.  And you just have to trust that the judges are ranking you fairly, you don’t get feedback, you don’t get ranked, you don’t know.

Am I going to participate this year?  I’ve thought about not.  Partially because I’ve had the experience, I’ve met my people, I don’t technically need to pay to play anymore, I’ve got the motivation and support I need already.  And Lord it is expensive.

But I can honestly say that my writing has improved and I know it will continue to improve by participating.  I know I need a deadline to get things done, and I know it forces me to test my skills by making me write for genres I’d never considered.  I hate writing Mysteries, but I wrote one I’m really proud of that’s currently under consideration at a publication.  That’s a story I never would have thought of, much less written, and it’s close to being a new credit on my resume.  How cool is that?

And more than anything, I really don’t think I can wait another year after this for it to come around again.  Even though I placed higher in the Short Story Challenge, it was a much more stressful experience.  I need the rush of 48 hours, which is just enough time to get an idea and get it out the door before I overthink things.

So yeah, sign me up!


All right, all right, I promised you some quick and dirty details, so here we go:

  • In their own words: “The Flash Fiction Challenge is an international creative writing competition, now in its 8th year, that challenges participants to create original short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments. “
  • Genres they accept: Depends on your prompt.  “When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).
  • Word count limit: 1,000
  • Time limit: Prompts are e-mailed at midnight on Friday-into-Saturday.  Submissions are due by midnight on Sunday evening.
  • Entry Fee: The entry fee is US$45 by the Early Entry Deadline of June 16th and US$55 until the Final Entry Deadline of July 21st.  Click here to register.
    • You also can get $5 off the entry fee just by tweeting.  Click here to make a post to your Facebook or Twitter account to receive a promotional code for $5 off.
  • Prize: The top 10 entrants after four rounds of participation get cash prizes.
  • Schedule: 
Early Entry Deadline: June 16, 2016
Final Entry Deadline: July 21, 2016
Challenge #1: July 22-24, 2016
Challenge #2: September 16-18, 2016
Challenge #3:* November 4-6, 2016
Challenge #4:* December 9-11, 2016

*Note: you must place high enough to participate in Challenge #3 & #4.

For more Information:

How the Contest Works

The FFC 2015 Winning Entry

FAQ

Who to Contact if I have trouble registering/technical issues

My handle on the Forums, if you want to be friends.  You can also check out my stories for FFC 2016 if you’re a registered member.  (I share all my stories in the forums but I have removed the links to stories written for previous contests.)

Still not sure?  Check out the entry on Jen’s Pen Den that convinced me to join a year ago or ask me questions below in the comments.