Silly Little Misunderstandings

I have a sweatshirt that says in golden letters, 911 NYPD FDNY GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.  I throw it on when I’m rushing out to the store and never think about what it says until somebody comments on it. I usually just say thank you when someone tells me they like it. But on one occasion while in a SUBWAY I said, “Thank you. It was my father’s. He was a police officer.”

I meant it was my father’s before I stole it out of his closet. That my father was a police officer before he retired six years ago. Not that it was my father’s. The commenter thought I meant my father had passed away and proceeded to tear up and profusely thank me for his courage. Oh, boy! How was I supposed to get myself out of that one? I didn’t. Instead of babbling an explanation I just nodded, rushed out of the store, and called my father immediately to tell him the story.

His response, “Give me back my damn sweatshirt.”

I went to the University of Hartford. (Go Hawks!) When I tell people where I went to college they somehow hear Harvard instead of Hartford. All my UHA alums can attest to this. And when we are faced with this we are torn between correcting the person or continuing to listen to them as they ooo and ah and tell us how smart we are. I’ll admit it there are times I don’t bother to correct them.

When I got accepted my dear grandmother heard Harvard instead of Hartford and then proceeded to call my entire family to share the news. This prompted an excited phone call from my uncle who got everything twisted and congratulated me on getting into Yale. “The President went there, you know.”

Those were misunderstandings. Everybody has them once in a while. In writing it is easy to misunderstand things. A reader might often misunderstand the motivation of a character or not get the joke in a scene. It happened to me recently.

I wrote this…

Ellis shook her head sadly. “I ate fifteen boxes of cookies last time I robbed a Girl Scout. And then I gained three pounds. And then I got arrested and they forced me to do all that community service and let me tell you, my big ass does not look good in neon orange.”

I thought it was obvious that my heroine was being snarky, that she was joking. One person said that as a den mother she didn’t think it was funny that an adult would steal from a girl scout and it made my character unsympathetic. Another person failed to see that my character was joking and told me they felt sorry for her.

Clearly they had misunderstood my attempt at humor. As I read the comments I thought, well, I won’t say what I thought but it became clear to me that we all don’t see things the same way. That what’s funny to me can be offensive to others. As writers it’s our job to make things as clear to readers as possible but in some cases you have to weigh a good joke against possibly offending somebody and live with the thought that your work might be misunderstood.

Let’s hear it! Have you ever had a funny misunderstanding? Have you ever had someone misunderstand something you have written? How did it make you feel? Have a favorite book that is based around a misunderstanding? Mine is Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise. Any and all comments are welcome.

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29 thoughts on “Silly Little Misunderstandings”

  1. Too funny Jaimie! It is one of the reasons we need critique partners and editors. My editor just came back and told me that a scene in On Thin Ice made the hero sound condescending to my heroine. Not my intention and I don’t see it, but will I change it? Yup! Perception and intention are two totally different things and often in direct opposition.

    I already love your Dad!

  2. Jamie, you know I love Ellie and I totally understand and enjoy your sense of humor. Sadly, not everyone gets it. And as the Author Goddess, you will need to decide if you want to change it or state the obvious – she’s joking!

    Here is what Dean Wesley Smith has to say. Maybe it will help:
    “It takes a lot of writing and feedback to understand how certain words, certain ways of putting words on a page, certain patterns in the black code marks effect readers. A top writer knows how to code these black marks on a page so that a retired woman in Florida reads the EXACT same story as a dock worker in Chicago or a teenager in LA. If the writer did his job correctly, they all read the same story and have the same reaction to the story.”

      1. Me too! Some people just don’t “get it”. I guess humor isn’t funny if it has to be explained. Personally, I like what you wrote and I laughed out loud when I read it.

  3. I am a hawk and now I ALWAYS say University of Hartford. The Harvard thing happens alllll the time. Also, I feel like an idiot because I am one of 5 girls and for some reason I always say I have 5 sisters…which of course, I have 4. Then I feel like an idiot when people ask, omg you have 5 sisters. “no, I know I said 5 but I mean I have 4 sisters”

  4. Loved the blog, Jamie! I love misunderstandings in books, too, but perceptual rather than fact-baded misundertandings. The plots can be solved by a sentence…. “No, actually, I’m not gay”…those tend to irritate me. I loved Bet Me! What a great prize!

  5. My name is Jennifer Moncuse and (sounds like mon-Q-s) and whenever I say my name to strangers, they always say, “You last name is Monkeys?” And a pen name was born…

  6. Hi Jamie, I enjoyed your post, thanks. Words are always worth playing with, but when they go awry it can be frustrating. Has anyone written the good book called “Twisted Words?” Especially in the English language b/c we have too many similarities that look and sound the same, but are not. Like my hubby’s name Claus, how would you pronounce it? Claus or Claus? Well, just so you know, I am Mrs. Claus at Christmas time, so you better be good!

  7. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I think of something funny to write, but I know from past experiences that my so called humor falls flat on the page. I then remind myself I don’t write romantic comedy for a reason.

  8. Jamie, is this from a published book? Because I totally want to read it! That is hilarious!

    Actually, The Big Misunderstanding is one of my pet peeves in romance. I don’t usually like books that revolve around this theme.

    1. Hey Penny!!! So glad you stopped by. Unfortunately, it is not published yet. But I am going to think BIG FAT POSITIVE thoughts and say that it will be someday in the not so distanct future. Check back in with us for updates.

      1. Good luck! I love books with humor like that. WHEN you get it published (note the power of positive thinking!), let me know so I can review it. It sounds right up my alley!

  9. Hi Jamie,
    The most pronounced difference I have found was when I moved to California. Here, in CT, we have an east coast sarcastic humor, which I found they do not share in California. They actually did not understand it and it came across as rude (go figure). So, yes, I have had my humor misunderstood. I do not write romantic comedy, or at least have not undertaken that yet, but will keep these things in mind should I choose to venture down that path. Good post.

    1. I thought maybe sarcasm wouldn’t go over well in the midwest but I didn’t think it would be that way in California. No wonder people think East Coasters are rude.

      1. My son has lived in California for seven years and says that everyone there still thinks he’s rude and obnoxious because of his sarcastic wit. He’s actually, milk snarfing hilarious, but they just don’t get it. Then again, he has been known to be rude and obnoxious on occasion. Not that I love him any less:-)

  10. Funny post, Jamie & it’s especially near & dear to my heart because my life is a series of misinterpretations. More so with people of me, hello, it’s called sarcasm! Hopefully, one day, I’ll remember that not everybody “gets” what I personally regard as funny and this will translate itself into my writing through better clarification. Like you, though, I don’t think everything should be so literal. 15 boxes of Girl Scout cookies… I can remember thinking that! (Especially with Samoas and Tagalongs)

    1. Thank you! I’m very sarcastic and tend to have little patience for people who don’t get that. Who really robs a girl scout anyway?

  11. Jamie, I would love to meet your family! You can’t buy that kind of inspiration for your novels. And I can’t wait to meet your hero and read the rest of this story! I LOVE your voice and your humor. As to this passage, when I read it on Mia Marlowe’s Red Pencil Thursday, I was not quite sure that Ellis was joking. Pretty sure, yes. But it was just ambiguous enough that I wanted some clarification. Unless a reader is a James Joyce scholar studying Ulysses, she doesn’t want to have to work too hard to figure out what’s going on in a scene.

    I’m going to agree with Casey here and suggest that adding a few lines so that we know it’s a joke would be helpful, and it would also be an opportunity for the reader to get to know Ellis (and Agatha) a bit better. How about adding something like this: Mrs. Toomey stared at her, horrified. Ellis felt that maybe, possibly she’d gone too far. “That was a joke,” she said, even though she knew Agatha never “got” jokes. (Then we hear the deep male chuckle …) Something like this would give the reader (1) a glimpse of the type of humor we can expect throughout the novel; (2) another reason to dislike the humorless, annoyingly-healthy Agatha; and (3) another reason to like Ellis — now we know she has a heart/conscience, and is snarky but basically a nice person. And since this happens in the first couple of pages of the book, it’s especially important that we like Ellis. (Not trying to rewrite your novel here! Just giving you an example of what would make this work better for me, as a reader)

    Also, if Ellis’s snarkiness is going to get her in trouble later in the story (like Becky Brandon nee Bloomwood and her shopping), this is the perfect opportunity to foreshadow it here. I love snarky dialogue, but over-the-top, constant, untempered snarkiness should be reserved for a sidekick, manhating sister, etc., not for a romance heroine, in my opinion. That’s why it’s important to make sure that her basic kindness and good-heartedness shine through.

    1. Thanks for the advice.I seem to always get advice that is exactly the opposite of what someone else has said. 🙂 Another person trusted person told me to cut all that telling stuff out. If you read past the first 500 words you’ll see clearly that Ellis is joking without me announcing it. My critquer pointed out that I was showing and telling and she was right. Ellis is a sassy lady but she only lets her snark out at the appropriate moments. I find her quite loveable and so does my hero.

      1. Aha! Well, you see I was only going on 500 words, not what comes next 🙂 (tapping foot impatiently so I can read more!) I will gladly take it all back! I wasn’t trying to imply I didn’t like Ellis. I actually like her quite a bit already; I can totally relate to the somewhat desperate needing of a black and white cookie. And her name doesn’t bother me. It’s clear to me she’s a woman. (One of my heroines has a guy’s name too — Georgie).

      2. I hope we aren’t having a silly little misunderstanding! I didn’t think you didn’t like my heroine.

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