How a writing workshop led to comedy editing gold

Halloween Writing Workshop

I went to a writing workshop on Halloween. It was my birthday so I decided it would be a fun way to pass the day. It was a flash fiction workshop at the University of Leicester, held in the David Wilson Library.
Our hosts were Simon Dixon, the Special Collections librarian and Selina Lock, a Research Librarian and writer. I’d met Selina at various writing events, so I was looking forward to seeing what Halloween themed fun she had found for us in the Special Collections as inspiration for the workshop.
A group of eight of us were briefed on the rules for Special Collections. We left our bags and coats outside, and were allowed only laptops, phones, pencils and paper inside. We were shown how to handle the manuscripts and books to make sure that we didn’t damage them. This was made easier by having special book cushions to support the spines of the books, and “book snakes” which are flexible weights to hold the pages open.
The books that were out had all been chosen to tie in to the Halloween theme.

Books and Manuscripts for Inspiration

There was The People’s Periodical and Family Library from 1846 which featured the first appearance of Sweeney Todd in the story The String of Pearls.

Sweeney Todd's first appearance
There was The Every Day Book, a nineteenth century almanac describing customs and rituals for each day of the year. A great many of these seem to involve maidens’ attempts to foretell who their husbands will be.

The Every Day Book
I briefly looked at The Ingoldsby Legends, a book of ghost stories, with some lovely illustrations.

The Ingoldsby Legends
The Book of Martyrs was a bloodthirsty and terrifying work with many lurid woodcut images. Its purpose was to remind sixteenth century Church of England congregations of past tortures inflicted by the Catholics, in case they might be tempted to convert.

Woodcut from the Book of Martyrs
Simon told us that it was a book commonly kept in churches, alongside the Bible. This one (a second copy) was kept firmly locked away in case of theft.

Book of Martyrs fastened securely against theft
But far and away my favourite thing was a manuscript from the Sue Townsend archive. This is still subject to copyright, so I have no photographs. Hand written on A4 paper, it was the manuscript that would become The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole.
There are lots of techniques for writing comedy. Since Iain and I have been writing together, we’ve amassed quite a bit of knowledge on these. Some are techniques that we’ve stumbled upon instinctively, some have been instilled in us by our editor, Keith Lindsay and some of them we’ve learned from observing the work of experts. Sue Townsend was an expert, and it’s clear that she applied some of these techniques herself during a revision of her own work.
I only studied a short extract, as I didn’t want to hog the manuscript, but examples leapt off the page.

Comedy editing as practised by Sue Townsend

Here are three examples of Sue Townsend’s self editing that I made a note of:

  1. Immediacy of action. This applies to drama as well as comedy. A line about children who “kept running up to me” was changed to “ran up to me”. This is much stronger, and easier for the reader to visualise.
  2. Specifics. It’s a fact that specifics are funnier. Gorgonzola is funnier than cheese. If you have a word that contains the letter “k” then even better! At the Halloween party that Adrian Mole attends, he tells us that “The warlocks and me danced in the pumpkin light to Duran Duran records.” The phrase “in the pumpkin light” is inserted as an edit, and is a delicious, specific image. It even contains a letter “k”.
  3. Stretch things as far as they will go. Adrian Mole complains that the dog has ripped up his old Beanos. The words “priceless collection” have been inserted into the sentence, to increase the size of the dog’s transgression.

Flash Fiction

After looking through the collection, we spent some time discussing flash fiction. Selina shared some six word stories, and then some longer pieces, to show what might be possible. We had a short while to compose something inspired by the things we’d seen. There was even enough time to hear some of the stories, which were as varied and colourful as the subject matter we’d seen.
I very much want to go back to examine some more of Sue Townsend’s manuscripts. The Special Collection can be accessed by non-students, and I am so grateful to Selina and Simon for opening my eyes to this astonishing resource.

Acknowledgement

I’d like to thank the Estate of Sue Townsend and the University of Leicester for allowing me to use the information above.
If anyone would like to reference the Adrian Mole manuscript that I mention above, it is University of Leicester Library, Sue Townsend collection, ST/1/2/1, Incomplete holograph manuscript of ‘The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole’.

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