Written for Nancy Kress, Nebula Awards collection, 2002.
WRITING SF HUMOR: A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Condensed from Writers Booty magazine.
You can make up to ten dollars a day, writing and selling SF humor from your own home. Sound too good to be true? Read on! A partial phone survey (almost half—47.76%—don’t have phones) of SFWA’s humor writers shows the top five earning considerably more (how does $18.39 a day sound to you?) while the average ($3.99) still holds a comfortable lead over the related but low-paying genres of Erotica, Travel and Alien Gossip.
SF is unique among America’s genres in that it is almost one-fourth humor: 23.45 percent, to be precise. This is considerably less than Romantic Sports which is almost thirty (29.23) percent humor, but well above both Romance (18.24) and Sports (15.32).
Humor itself, the flagship as it were, is only 71.76% humor, and that average is articifially inflated by recent successes. Correcting for Sedaris and Rackoff, Humor comes in at under sixty percent (59.54).
Much of this is due to the composition of the entering writers. SF and Fantasy together induct an average of eight new scribblers a year (8.42), of whom two (on the average) are funny. Let’s look at a typical year—2001. One hundred and eighteen writers went pro that year, an above-average eleven of whom were picked up by SFWA, which handles the draft for the related fields of SF, Fantasy and Horror. Of those eleven, eight were a little funny, and three were too weird for words.
By way of comparison, Mainstream gained forty-one new pros, of whom six were a little funny, and two were not funny at all.
The high incidence of humor in SF is due at least in part to the outfits. Many (1,254) SF writers dress funny, often intentionally. And in some cases (348) haircuts often add to their hilarity.
It’s not all personnel, however. The impressive display of humor in modern SF is due in large part to tradition. From the high comedy of Frankenstein to the rollicking chase scenes of Dune (who can forget those goofy worms?), humor has played an important role in classic SF. Indeed of the 1,786,873 dialogue interchanges in the field since 1954, fully 987,543 have had a comedic subtext, and this is discounting the narrative drollery (more troublesome to quantify) that is a staple of the field.
As might be expected, however, tradition plays only a supporting role in this most innovative of the subliterary genres. Many of the laughs in SF (43.78% of the total) have to do with the material itself. SF is quite correctly considered a literature of ideas, and Ideas are funny, at least some of them; and even the ones that aren’t funny are funnier than Emotions or Reflections, which make up the bulk (76.87%) of Mainstream, Romance, Financial Guidance and Road Tests, which account for 74.87% of America’s printed matter.
It must be noted that within the linked fields of Fantasy and SF, the playing field is far from level. Robots and rocket ships are almost always funny (68.98 of the time), but monsters? Not! Elves are not funny at all (perhaps because they try so hard). Unicorns lost their effectiveness along with their horn(s), removed by EPA edict in 1996, after the Haethorpe Girls’ School tragedy which claimed so many (three) promising young futures. And castles are funny only to those who have lived in them for five or more consecutive days.
Of course, a career in SF doesn’t automatically bring laughs, except from the immediate family. Publishing a book filled with SF props is only a beginning: if a robot farts in the forest and no one laughs, was it funny? Not very! The SF humorist needs an agent, who will tone, polish and market the laughs. Luckily, SF agents are a special breed, known to laugh at as well as with their clients. The best of them (32.65 percent) actively seek sarcastic rejections, and the worst (87.87%, allowing for overlap) like to receive small dead animals in the mail.
For quick sales, these agents need look no further than the top tier of the magazines. They don’t waste their time on the little fish like Locus and Interzone, who rarely print humor (1.456 laughs per page, not counting ads) or on the All-humor mags like The New Yorker, Playboy and Analog, which are written in-house by lunatics; but the semi-pro ‘zines like Asimov’s, F&SF and SciFiction are edited by enthusiasts who are so eager for fun that they have been known (1,987 documented public incidents) to laugh at their own jokes.
It’s an agent’s job to make sure a manuscript is double spaced (a space after each line for laughs) and has a funny title. Who can forget Green Mars, Red Mars or Blue Mars? Editors will rarely say out loud what makes them laugh, but it’s the same thing that makes us all laugh: Mars.
The top SF and Fantasy writers understand that the best way to clinch a sale is to call an editor at home, after midnight, for a little light banter. Between midnight and two am is best. Remember to keep it light: the last thing an editor wants is a midnight collect call from a wannabe who runs out of funny stories after only twenty minutes on the phone!
Last but not least, three names are funnier than two. Bobbie Ann Mason and Madison Smartt Bell reliably bring smiles. But you needn’t be “mainstream” to cash in. Just ask Philip Kay Dick or Ursula Kayla Guin.
(Thanks for your interest in my work. If you enjoyed this little piece, please give a dollar to a homeless person.)