Guest Post by Mae Respicio
Recently, my son was excited to dive into his first book report of the year—a “character sketch” on any novel of his choosing. In our household such firsts are cause for celebration, so we took a fun trip to our favorite indie bookstore and perused covers. After several minutes of looking, he finally landed on one that piqued his interest. He held it up for me to read: I AM FARTACUS. We both cracked up. One way my son has always chosen books is by his funny bone, and this one hooked him right from the title.
I Am Fartacus is a smart, hilarious middle grade novel debut by Mark Maciejewski (pronounced Maw-chee-es-key, in case you’re wondering!). The book stars Chub, a short, accidentally bald immigrant sixth grader who spends his time plotting to take down his middle school nemesis. From the attention-grabbing first line it had my son laughing out loud:
“Once, in front of pretty much the whole school, Moby cut a fart so loud it sounded like a phone book being ripped in half.”
Humor in fiction can draw in young readers and can turn reluctant readers into avid ones. But writing funny isn’t the easiest craft element to pull off. There are lots of aspects to consider like tone, pacing, and voice, or for some, even just the challenge of stepping outside of their writer’s comfort zone. So how are successful funny books written? I went straight to the source of this plot-turning MG for some great advice.
Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to do this Q&A—and for giving my son the perfect book to do his character sketch on!
You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be part of a book report!
Where did you get the idea for your debut? Did you start with Chub and build the story around him? Or…?
I did start with a character first. I love anti-heroes, and I had this vision of a little Lex Luthor type kid wreaking havoc at his school. I originally imagined it as more of a comic book villain vs. hero story, only at a middle school level. Once I knew who Chub was, the story sort of revealed itself. I realized after it was done how a much of it is autobiographical, which is why it didn’t come out exactly how I originally envisioned it.
My son and I both had a ton of laugh-out-loud moments while reading your book. Humor seems like one of the trickiest craft elements to do well in fiction, partly I think because humor can be so subjective. How do you figure out what young readers—and readers in general—find funny? Do you have certain tools or techniques for infusing funny into a story? (Quick, give me the magic formula!)
I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the formula, sorry. But I can say that my humor definitely comes from my characters. When I create characters who are alive in my mind, they do all the talking, and I just write it down. It’s my job to create situations that allow the humor to blossom.
As far as knowing what a young reader will find funny? I write what makes me laugh, then occasionally go back and shape it a little to make it age appropriate. FYI: just because one writes for kids does not mean one has a squeaky clean sense of humor.
So does that mean you make yourself crack up as you’re writing?
Did my wife tell you to ask about this? She is a writer too, and she sometimes has a hard time writing in the same room as me because of my outbursts. Nothing is as rewarding for me as that moment when a joke comes together. It’s like solving a little puzzle. Also, I am naturally a loud person so my outbursts tend to be a bit jarring to witnesses. Sorry, family and sometimes people in Starbucks.
For me, writing humor is hard. It takes me a long time to make it all come together the way I want it to, so I cry a lot too.
Your book has its fair share of fart jokes (for which my 10 year old thanks you), but I’d say not in the clichéd sense—Chub is a very relatable protagonist who has a great emotional arc to become the school hero. What advice do you have in writing well-rounded characters?
Thanks for pointing that out about the fart jokes. I think sometimes parents and librarians see the title and get the wrong idea. Although there are fart jokes, this is a book about friendship. Anyone who’s read it knows that the farts are there to serve the story.
As far as relatable characters, I think it’s all about wounds. We all have them, so we can all relate to them. Chub acts like a mastermind, but at the core of who he has become is the fact that his best friend hurt him in second grade. He not only bears the emotional scar, but the bald head as a reminder. I don’t think a character should ever be pure….whatever. That would be soooo boring. A good guy has to have a vulnerability so we worry for them, and a bad guy has to have something good left inside them, or there is very little to hope for and it becomes tough to really engage with them emotionally. Even Darth Vader loved his children after all.
What about kid beta readers? Do you use them during your writing or revision process, especially as a way to gauge the funny parts?
Yes, this is super important. Two of my daughters were my first readers, and they pull no punches when it comes to critiquing my work. I also gave it to friend’s kids and teachers to try it out and all the feedback was very useful. I’m in a weekly critique group, so I could bring each chapter and see how it worked. That feedback is absolutely crucial. One way it helped is that every week there seemed to be one joke I thought was the best, and one I seriously considered cutting. Almost every time, my group would laugh hardest at the one I almost cut, and vice-versa. It would’ve been a very different book without all the feedback.
If you could give only one best tip for the pre-published author, what would that be?
Join SCBWI, and go to conferences! This is where most of the kid lit authors I know got their start. Surround yourself with what you aspire to be.
What’s your favorite funny MG novel?
I think Mark Twain simultaneously invented and mastered the humorous MG. For MG boy sensibility, I don’t think anyone’s ever done better than Tom Sawyer. But my most recent favorite is Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis. 95% hilarious, and 8% poignant (wounds, remember?) I absolutely love it.
Can you tell us what’s up next for you, book-wise?
The sequel: I AM FARTACUS 2: ELECTRIC BOOGERLOO comes out next July. I also have a couple irons in the fire. I just finished the first draft of a (hopefully) new humorous chapter book series involving alien chickens. I’m also working on new MG about the son of a kidnapped Ultra Human who must figure out the secret identity of his dad’s arch-enemy so he can rescue his dad. Fingers crossed!
Congratulations, and thanks for sharing about your writing process with us!
Thank you, Mae. Happy writing!
You can visit Mark Maciejewski online here.
Mae Respicio‘s middle grade novel, THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT, debuts in June 2018 from Random House Kids and Wendy Lamb Books. She lives with her family in the suburban wild of Northern California, not far from the ocean and the redwoods. Visit her online at maerespicio.com.