Monday 27 May 2013

DON'T try to be funny. An Interview with Jackie Marchant, writer of funny. Apparently.

By Candy Gourlay

It seems a long, long time ago now, in a galaxy far, far away that I first heard of Dougal Trump. I 'd just been friended on MySpace by an unpublished writer called Jackie Marchant, who was active on the British SCBWI list serve. On her MySpace was a very funny blurb about the manuscript she was shopping around, about a boy named Dougal writing his last will and testament.

That was a while ago (I wonder if my Myspace account is still alive?). When The Diary of a Wimpy Kid became big news, I felt a tiny ripple of recognition. It reminded me of something I read a while back ... OMG, Dougal Trump! I got to know Jackie over the years and we've been unpublished comrades-in-arms forever - except Jackie was agented from the start. And now ... well, Dougal is FINALLY alive and well, on the shelves of bookstores everywhere, annoying his big sister. 

Candy Congratulations, Jackie! TWO BOOKS! You wait years for one to be published and then ... but didn't you  start out thinking of yourself as an adult writer?

Jackie I did start writing for adults and had some success (of the unpublished variety, things like having agents ask for a full Ms, competition wins and stuff), then found children's writing by accident, through a competition. It's the best thing that ever happened to me and opened up the whole wonderful world of children's writing.

I definitely didn't aspire to be a writer of children's humour - in fact I think my early sights were set on the Booker Prize . . .

Candy So, Jackie - you call yourself a writer of funny ...

Jackie I never called myself a writer of funny.

Candy  I seem to remember seeing that on your website once.

Jackie Ah yes ... I think I wrote 'apparently' on the website as well. It was an editor who first told me my writing was funny, so now I am obliged to tell people I write humour. But I'd much rather just say I write a character-led series for middle grade.

Dougal came to me by accident, after my son asked me a question about writing a will. I stood in the mess of his room and wondered what he'd put in a will. I wrote (or thought) 'This is the last will and testament of . . . To my mother I leave all the mess in my bedroom, so she can put it into black bin liners and throw it out of the window - I know that has always been her greatest wish.'

Then this character just grew and I called him Dougal Trump. My son will always call himself 'the inspiration' but Dougal is very much his own character. As I said, I had no idea it was funny, so I was not working on any other funny ideas at the time (I was actually trying to write that Booker winner)

At the book launch at Waterstones, Oxford Street, Jackie reads out a note from Dougal which he wrote on the back of a homework sheet.

The fact that people find it funny is lovely, but quite scary. I honestly don't know if what I've written is funny until after I give to someone to read. If they laugh, I heave a sigh of relief!

Candy There seems to be a lot more room for comedy on the younger end of the scale. Why is that?

Jackie Children love to laugh is the simple answer to that. But I think it is a shame there is less humour for older readers. Maybe that's the question we should be asking.

I'd also say the Roald Dahl Funny Prize has done a lot for humorous fiction and I take my hat off to Michael Rosen for that.

Children's authors (plus one lord mayor and one Boris) have a giggle over Dougal. (from top, left to right) Chris Priestley, Katy Dale, Sarwat Chadda, Jon Mayhew, Joe Friedman, Helen Peters, Jasmine Richards, Fiona Dunbar, Candy Gourlay, Tim Collins, Lord Mayor of Ocklesford, Steve Cole, Steve Hartley, Philip Ardagh, Janet Foxley, Malorie Blackman and London Mayor Boris Johnson 

Candy There is definitely a demand for it. But the genre (if it can be called a genre) seems to be dominated by series fiction.

Jackie Perhaps it's because kids love the characters and want to read more. But I can honestly say that wrote my first Dougal Trump book as a one off. Then I had an idea for another. I'm sure that's often what happens. You've now got me trying to think of a one-off funny book!

Candy Ha ha! And character ...  character is key, isn't it with series? How do you design a character that can run and run ... although it sounds like you didn't plan for it to run and run!

Jackie You're right about not planning Dougal - he's just there. In fact he's on Facebook and Twitter as well as having his own website. People think it's odd that I think he's real - but he is! I don't think I could write him otherwise.

Candy I've seen your other, older work in a critique group - which is definitely not funny. In fact quite bloody. How do you go from writing about spiders and naughtiness to high blown, space mad, mind exploding fantasy?

Jackie My YA fantasy writing is completely different. I thought it might be humorous, but it didn't come out that way, and I believe with going with the flow. The fact is, I love living in my fantasy world, although writing it is very hard! But some people have found parts of it (namely my bad-ass alien) amusing, and that's fine.

How do I switch from one to the other? Well, I'm Dougal when I'm writing Dougal and I'm a sword wielding heroine when I'm writing her, or a girl with a dilema whizzing around in space. We can write different characters when working on the same book, so why not different books?

Or maybe I'm just a multi-tasker (I've done the washing, made tea, organised my launch and worked on my new WIP while doing this interview!)

Candy We writers are always looking for what sort of published writer we are ... what sort of writer did you initially think/aspire yourself to be and why?

Jackie I can only say that I'm a published writer of funny middle grade fiction. I'd love to say I'm a published writer of YA fantasy as well, but that hasn't happened yet, so I just say I also write YA fantasy. I don't think it's that unusual for children's writers to write different genres.

Candy I've been in a critique group with you and one of your outstanding qualities as a writer is your world building ... your worlds seem to come out fully formed! Did the same thing happen with Dougal or did you have to work at it a little bit?

Jackie Oh. I've never really thought of Dougal's world as one that had to be built. He lives in an ordinary town in an ordinary street, goes to an ordinary school, plays football on the usual playing fields. So, there really was no world to build there. Fantasy is different, because you are talking about a completely different world, but I think I'd need a whole new interview to go into that! (Maybe if I ever get one published . . . ) Oh, and please don't ask me how I build my worlds, I don't know!

Candy Interesting how you think it's not the same thing - I can totally see how evolving a small boy's funny world would be the same as evolving world of fleet swordfighting, head chopping characters. Now, if you could put your craft hat on, can you give us a checklist - HOW does one write funny?

Jackie Okay. My first tip is ...

DON'T!! Don't try to be funny

There is nothing worse than someone trying to be funny. Humour often comes from situations that aren't funny, like slipping on a banana skin - it's not funny for the person doing the slipping. DON'T flag your humour.  NEVER tell your reader that this is funny, don't have your characters rolling about laughing, it's your readers who should be doing that.

PG Wodehouse is brilliant, because all his characters take themselves so seriously. Not one of them would think of themselves as funny, yet the way he writes them keeps you laughing.

TV's Wooster and Jeeves

Give your character a VOICE. 

The bearded Mr. Ardagh
Don't fight it. If it doesn't come out funny, then don't force it. But if it does, just go with the flow and enjoy the ride. Love being your character. Being your character is one of the best things about writing - you can be whoever you want!

A good example of voice is anything by Philip Ardagh. His humour just leaps off the page. He is an expert at making any situation funny, through the way he writes it.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler is a perfect example of great use of the authorial viewpoint and definitely humour in there too.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
It's not what you write that makes humour - it's how you write it!

Be your character

You have to literally jump inside your character's skin. You have to BE that character, see though his/her eyes, smell what he smells, feel what he feels etc etc. Don't just look through their eyes, see they way they do, hear the way they hear, be them. Wherever you are, imagine what it would be like to be your character. Imagine them at the dinner table - and don't worry if your family wonder who you are talking to, they get used to it!

In children's books, Socks are not Enough by Mike Lowery, is about a boy who finds himself in the horrendous situation of having nudist parents who have decided that from now on, they will go around the house stark naked.

Can you imagine the traumatic effect this would have on a 14 year old boy? Not at all funny for him, but absolutely hilarious for the reader. And it was quite rightly shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize.

Things have to go wrong to be funny

I heard Hugh Dennis say that on The One Show.

Give it a twist

Humour is also about the unexpected, about giving things a twist. Tim Collins' Diary of a Wimpy Vampire is a great example of that. We all expect vampires to be scary, powerful and sexy - so Tim invents one who is spotty, awkward about girls and lacking confidence. And being a vampire just makes it all worse. And very hilarious to the reader.

Candy Hilarious! There's quite a glut of poo, bum stuff in the market as well though. How do you sort the snot from the truly funny?

Jackie Again, I'd say it's not what you write, but how you write it. Kids do have a certain sense of toilet humour, but just putting poo in a book for the sake of it doesn't work for me. It has to be there for a reason. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andreae and Sarah McIntyre is a great example of disgusting humour that really works because it is all totally relevant to the story.

Candy Yes, it's proof that disgusting can be adorable. Can you see yourself writing more books like Dougal? Or do you have to wait for another character to leap, unplanned onto your drawing (er writing) board?

Jackie I did write another book, but my agent thought the voice was too like Dougal, so I've decided to stick with Dougal for the time being. I've also written a couple of others, which I may well go back to. But I think Dougal should run his course first.

Candy How do you know when a character has run his course?

Jackie I'll let you know when it happens! I guess it's when you don't feel like writing them any more, but that hasn't happened yet.

Candy Well that was great ... thanks so much.

Jackie Can I go and get the washing out now?

Candy You may go.


  1. Great interview, full of fascinating and useful insights about writing humour. Thanks very much, both of you: this post is one I'll definitely read again and again.

    1. Thank you! Interviewing on Facebook is the bee's knees. When I interviewed Elizabeth Wein for Words and Pictures we were both making dinner for our children while tapping away questions and answers.

  2. Lovely interview, lots of interesting thoughts on humour and how it works, and how not to do it. And very impressed with the multi-tasking whist being interviewed!

  3. Great interview! I can't wait to get my copy of Dougal Trump:Where's my Tarantula!

    1. Could I swap one for a copy of The Crystal Mirror?

  4. Great interview, great character, great book! And thank goodness for Jackie and her agent's persistence! Very much looking forward to reading "Where's my Tarantula" and possibly sending Dougal a real one...

    1. Yes please! I'd love another tarantula!

  5. I love this interview and I love the thought of Jackie occasionally being Dougal.

    Jackie, good luck with the YA fantasy stuff - I have heard you talk of it before though not been lucky enough to read any of it.

  6. Excellent points and comments! Writing funny is my dream--thanks for the tips!

  7. Great interview, Candy and Jackie! And we didn't overlap too much with my Guardian thingummy jiggummy whatsit. See! Lots of ways to be funny completely by accident x

    1. My writing humour was most definitely by accident!

  8. Celia J Anderson28 May 2013 at 15:49

    A fabulous interview and some much appreciated tips from an expert. Thank you both - off to spend some money on Amazon now, my class will thank you too on Monday.

    1. An expert? That's the first time I've been called that - thank you!


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom