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25 June 2020

Kirsty Eyre’s top tips for writing comedy: ‘You want people to laugh, not cringe’

Theo Paphitis, Kirsty Eyre, Jilly Cooper, Helen Lederer and Laura StevenTheo Paphitis, Kirsty Eyre, Jilly Cooper, Helen Lederer and Laura Steven (photography by Steve Burton, Smartpicsuk)
by Kirsty Eyre From Our Students, Writing Tips

Kirsty Eyre took our London-based three-month Writing Your Novel course in 2017.  Cow Girl – the novel she worked on with us that went on to be awarded the inaugural Comedy Women in Print Unpublished Prize in 2019 – is out now.

Kirsty shares some of her top tips for writing comedy and talks about her journey from first draft to publication…

Comedy writing is a funny old thing. What makes one person laugh might leave someone else thinking ‘meh.’ And then there’s the tricky dilemma of whether you label your writing as ‘comedy’ or whether you leave the reader to make up their own mind. When I finished the CBC three-month novel-writing course in 2017, I remember being warned of the pitfalls of categorising Cow Girl as ‘comedy’ in query letters but felt it impossible not to use ‘rom-com’ as genre shorthand.

Cow Girl is a queer romantic comedy. I like to pitch it as a modern Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Cold Comfort Farm. Billie, a thirty-something scientist is forced to give up her London life to run her dad’s dairy farm when he falls ill. Battling misogyny, homophobia and the turbulence of romance (things have only just taken off with her girlfriend), Billie has to jump many a hurdle before finally winning over the local farming community who affectionately dub her the ‘Cow Girl.’

I’m hoping this will be just the tonic for lockdown. Everyone needs a bit of hope and humour at times like this.

So, how do you set out to be funny on the page?

Comedy writing is a craft in its own right; something I’m eternally grateful to Helen Lederer for recognising and having the drive and commitment to set up Comedy Women in Print, which shines a light on funny female fiction. 

Fundamentally, it’s all about tone. Whether you’re writing observational comedy, satire, romantic comedy, tragicomedy, it’s all about the craft of weaving in humour even if your protagonist(s) are not particularly hilarious. Yes, it’s about timing and making the humour land, but it’s also about inviting the reader to read irony between the lines. Cultural clashes, language barriers, misunderstandings, unreliable narrators are all devices that can help along the way. 

You don’t want to be too heavy handed though. You want people to laugh, not cringe.

Top tips for getting started on comedy writing

My top tip is to write a page in the voice that comes naturally to you. Then, write another page in a voice with a totally different sense of humour. Play with what the text doesn’t say as well as what it does, allowing the reader to make their own judgement – remember the old adage, ‘show don’t tell.’ I’m currently trying to write my second novel which is about three sisters and needs three different points of view so I’m playing around with different ways of making each sister’s account humorous without them all being ‘funny people.’

The balance of light and shade is another consideration. People want to read stories rather than gag after gag, so you need to make sure you don’t compromise plot for punchline. You don’t want every single paragraph to be laugh out loud hilarious – not only is that unsustainable, it’s also tiresome. We still want our protagonists flawed, vulnerable and interesting.

The journey to Comedy Women in Print 

I got lost on the way to last year’s inaugural Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) awards night. Thanks to the monopoly board, I’d associated Mayfair with dark blue and jumped on the Piccadilly line (dark blue on the tube map) and ended up in the arse end of nowhere. A quick freshen up in Pret a Manger (half a croissant and a bit of lipstick), and I was ready to watch someone win a publishing deal. Little did I know it would be me…

I make it all sound dead easy, but it wasn’t. It took me a painstaking four years to get Cow Girl into its published format. I’d originally written it in diary format but was advised to move away from that style given that not many people keep a written journal these days. If I’m honest, the next couple of drafts had the hangover of a diary and the middle of the story involved a complete rewrite. I freaked out many a time throughout the process, wondering if I’d ever be able to get all the elements right – the plot, the character development, the romance arc, and all the while make it funny. 

The Comedy Women in Print awards evening where I was snapped pulling a not-very-dignified victory pose feels like a very long time ago, especially with everything going on now. I won’t pretend I’m not nervous about launching a book right now – particularly as my paperback proofs got stuck at the Harper Collins office pre-lockdown and didn’t get sent out, the audio recording hasn’t gone ahead as the studio has shut and high street book stores are obviously closed. My fellow CBC alumni friends have been enormously supportive and helpful with promotion suggestions. I got very lucky with the people on my course. They’re amazing people as well as writers.

Despite the mayhem, I’m hopeful that Cow Girl will be the perfect ‘uplit’ feel-good read for a summer in lockdown. You can reach me on Twitter @KirstyJaneEyre.

Get your hands on a copy of Cow Girl.

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