Advice for writers
Writing for laughs is seriously hard work, but the payoffs are priceless.
If you can make someone laugh with your words (because you intended to, not because your writing is so God-awful they can’t help but spurt coffee out their noses), you’ve done a great thing. You’ve brightened someone’s day, and improved their health, unlike those miserable wretches who make their living by writing traffic citations or delivering subpoenas.
Why not try your hand at the humor game? You’ll have fun, and if you don’t have fun, at least you’ll have more appreciation for those who do make you laugh. Here are my 12 tips to make your readers laugh out loud.
1. If you want to write funny, read funny! Channel your inner comic writer by savoring the greats. My favorites include British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Bertie Wooster series) and master essayist S.J. Perelman, who also wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers. Their inventiveness with the English language is as astonishing as it is hilarious. Erma Bombeck could make even losing keys and a broken answering machine funny; Steve Martin is a favorite for his imaginative genius. I mean, could you have thought of writing a column called “Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods”? It’s in his collection, “Pure Drivel,” and it’s enough to make me mad with jealousy. I also love Christopher Buckley, whose politically satiric novels include “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”
2. Keep it clean. Today, lots of comedians and humorists have confused explicitness with sophistication. Relying on bodily functions or an overemphasis on sex is usually more crass and junior-high than smartly funny. And also, what’s with the profanities? Hammering an audience with four-letter words isn’t funny; it’s deadening. Clever humor aims higher than waist-level.
3. Grab ‘em at the beginning. People have very short attention spans. Reel them in at the first sentence so you don’t lose them to their Facebook page, and keep your story moving.
4. Make your humor relatable. People love it when they feel you are writing about their lives, and gently self-deprecating humor is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. For example, “I discovered that I had a textbook case of ‘Congenital Fraidy Cat Syndrome.’ I knew it: my expanding medical knowledge was slowly killing me.” Or, “I had my fat tested today. It came back positive.” (Both lines by yours truly.)
5. Show your strength. Self-deprecating humor isn’t loser humor. Write with the kind of punch that reveals your fortitude to survive life’s worst agonies, including being on hold with your health insurance provider.
6. Be sharp, but not mean. Good humor has a point of view, but shouldn’t be downright nasty.
7. Don’t shy from “evergreen” topics. Misunderstood spouses, unreasonable bosses, know-it-all teens and why bad contractors happen to good people have been funny since lions roamed the Colosium, but a fresh angle is essential.
8. Find your distinctive voice. Use great writers for inspiration, but don’t be an imitator.
9. Know your audience. Don’t poke fun at lifestyles of the rich and famous in a piece you’re writing for Town & Country magazine, or gun rights for a piece in NRA Monthly. Study your target markets, then see if your world view and humor make you a good match for them.
10. Write what you know. Your writing will be more natural, convincing and funnier this way.
11. Be colorful and specific. Writing that you have 87 pair of shoes is funnier than saying you have a closetful. Talking about your need for “Jumpy Java” in the morning is funnier than talking about your need for caffeine. The more specific you can be, while throwing in a bit of exaggeration, ups the humor ante.
12. Get me rewrite! Outstanding writing may look effortless, but it’s not. Four or five rewrites are not unusual before your work really shines. Let a piece rest for at least 24 hours before looking at it again. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find to improve after you’ve both marinated in it for a day.
— Judy Green
Judy Gruen’s latest book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping (CreateSpace 2012). The book is being made into a musical by TroupeAmerica and will premier in January 2016. Judy also writes the Mirth & Meaning blog on judygruen.com.
Spring has sprung, which means many people will be packing up to go camping in the coming weeks. I will not be one of them, as I do not camp.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors and worship the sun and nature. And while I’m not high-maintenance, I don’t find appeal in sleeping on the ground in a tent pretending I’m homeless.
But despite the tent aversion, I do have a bit of camping experience.
When I was younger, we had a trailer up north that we spent a good deal of time at in the summer. It was a decent-sized rig with a shower, small kitchen, deck, etc., but it was still a trailer.
I fished, shot my bow and arrow (not at anything living, at least not on purpose), tore around on the 4-wheeler and hit the lake with the inflatable alligator before coming back to nighttime campfires, Cribbage games and attempts to attract bats by throwing random crap up in the air by the park lights.
I was young, and other than the fact that I rolled out of the top bunk of triple bunk beds — a bed rail was quickly installed — I had no real complaints. Now that I’m older and (questionably) wiser, I would have many complaints, which is why I don’t even attempt to pretend to want to camp.
Why someone would want to leave indoor plumbing and decent food and increase the likelihood of contracting mosquito malaria, dirt-covered food and being attacked by a baby deer in the woods is beyond me?*
*Of course, to each their own (disclaimer so campers don’t get pissed, although if they’re camping, they shouldn’t have access to Wi-Fi.)
But for those who enjoy camping and would like to recreate this experience at home, I have a few suggestions:
• Hang your clothes over a wood fire to get that signature smell, the one that will hopefully cover up the other signature smell of musty dampness.
• While you’re over the fire, singe your eyelashes and grab a hot poker to recreate the experience of starting the fire and attempting to roast anything with a metal stick.
• Scald the skin on the roof of your mouth in an attempt to eat whatever it is you were trying to roast that didn’t fall into the flame.
• Hover — a lot — and get used to swatting bugs with one hand while wiping with the other. This takes skill, which is why you will most likely find yourself pissing on your own leg (hey, you wanted to go camping.)
• Pour sand directly into the bottom of your bathing suit and any exposed crack or opening in your body. If a lake is nearby, also include seaweed.
• If you feel like getting fancy, spray yourself with a water bottle to recreate the (lack of) water pressure trailer showers provide. Forget about washing your hair (this is actually a positive in my book).
• Plant families of the loudest bugs on the planet in your backyard directly next to your window. If available, add in the mating calls of mystery creatures you’re sure are rabid and hunting you down.
• Roll your meals in damp dirt.
• Roll your clothes in damp dirt.
• Roll yourself in damp dirt.
So for those of you starting your camping season soon, may the force be with you. I plan on working in the yard a bit, reading and enjoying the luxury of warm showers, good food I didn’t have to catch and a few good baseball games.
I love not camping.
— Abby Heugel
Abby Heugel is a professional writer and editor of trade publications for employment, but a neurotic humor writer the rest of the time for enjoyment. She runs mental marathons in yoga pants and blogs her brilliant insights. She makes you feel normal. She’s the author of Abby Has Issues and Abby Still Has Issues.
They say that standing in front of people and speaking is the #1 fear people have. Guess what the #2 fear is? The fear of DYING. And…I’m sure high up on that list is the fear of dying WHILE in front of people.
If you think that making a living as a professional speaker means that fear goes away — guess again. As Erma Bombeck once said, “You need the courage to submit your story and find out how good or bad you are. And if you think it gets any easier for professional writers, you’re wrong.”
I always have anxiety when I have to perform, and that anxiety STARTS when I write new material. My creation process is a true MESS — trying to make sense of the tsunami of ideas in my head and the misspelled phrases I’ve written on unopened junk mail, as well as the sometimes drunk rantings on my iPhone recorder. It’s a TRUE mess. Seeing that mess fills me with frustration and anxiety because of the looming gig on my calendar that demands it not be such a mess.
But what COMFORTS me is to realize that ALL of our SUCCESSES start out as MESSES. And the people who succeed have the willingness to navigate their way through the mess to find the great material that’s hidden within.
There’s nothing as unfunny and un-fun as writing a speech or writing comedy. Remember how on Seinfeld, Jerry and George would brainstorm ideas for their “show about nothing” — and everything came easily and made us laugh?
In the REAL WORLD, writers are often frustrated, anxious, doubtful and frequently find themselves staying up past midnight staring at a laptop and guzzling pitchers of coffee, DESPERATELY hoping something will come to them other than the AWFUL first, second and third drafts they’ve been staring at for hours.
So many people WANT to write a book, do standup, or be paid as a speaker, but give up too quickly because they’re weighed down by the feeling that every idea has to be perfectly formed in their head BEFORE they start writing it.
In my workshops, everyone learns that material doesn’t come out of you fully formed like a newborn colt that can just leap to its feet and gallop. New material comes out RAW and UNFORMED, and most of the time just lays there like a baby bird, until with rewrite after rewrite, you finally feed it enough that it can fly.
So… don’t paralyze yourself with the need to be PERFECT. The only need is to start. And whether you’re writing your story, a standup act or a speech, it doesn’t matter how you start; just START — and COMMIT and NURTURE and PARENT that idea, until it gradually takes on a life of its own.
— Judy Carter
Judy Carter, a keynote speaker at the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, is the acclaimed bestselling author of The Comedy Bible, which Oprah Winfrey touted on her show and the Washington Post described as a “number one comedy essential.” Ms. Carter began her career doing standup comedy and now teaches people to use humor in public speaking. Her books have helped people worldwide discover their creativity and launch money-making careers. She has appeared on more than 100 TV shows, and has shared the stage with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Deepak Chopra, Andrea Mitchell and Bill Clinton, to name a few. Her new book, The Message of You, teaches readers how to use life stories to inspire others and advance their careers. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Inspiration hits. The light bulb goes on. You’ve got a passion, and you pursue it. You see a need, and you fill it. There’s a question, and you answer it. You have a purpose, and you fulfill it.
These are all great reasons to begin writing a book. And most writers, when struck by a good idea and the desire to write, simply begin writing. However, an even better reason exists to take a bit of time before you beginning writing to evaluate your idea — at least if you want your book to be successful.
Evaluate? I can hear you groaning. No one wants to evaluate anything, especially that book idea you are so psyched about.
If you simply want to write the book of your heart and you don’t care how many copies you sell, great. Go for it. If you want to write a successful book, meaning one that sells to lots of readers or to a traditional publisher and to lots of readers, however, it behooves you to take the time to consider if your idea is a good one by industry standards.
To do this, I suggest you discover nine things about your book idea. Once you have this information, you’ll know if your book has a chance of success.
1. What Your Book Will be About and Why Would Someone Would Want to Read (Buy) It: You’d be amazed at how many writers cannot tell you in 50 words or less, or in 30 seconds or less, what their book is about. They also may not be able to list the benefits their book will provide to readers. Before beginning to write your book, hone your topic and its angle. Figure out why someone would want to read your book rather than someone else’s book on the same topic. Write a pitch or elevator speech, a short statement that describes the essence of your book, and follow it with some bulleted points — the added value readers will take away from its pages. Think of this exercise like writing back cover copy. What might you say or write about your book that would make someone carry it to the register?
2. Who Wants to Read Your Book: Make sure you know your average reader — that one person you are writing for — as well as the size of your book’s market. Who wants to read your book, and where do you find them? How many of these people exist in the world? Are there enough of them to justify writing your book? This market research tells you if anyone is out there to read (buy) your book and helps you know for whom who you are writing.
3. Whether Your Book Will be Unique and Necessary: Make sure the book you plan on adding to the mix is not only unique compared to the other books in your niche or category but also necessary before you add one more title to the staggering number of books in print. Take a good hard look at what other authors have already written and published. Is what you want to write different — different enough to make someone purchase your book rather than an established title or a book by an established author? And is there a need for another book on the subject? If no books have been written on the subject, why? Is there a need for even one book on the topic?
4. If You Have Enough Content to Fill a Book: Sometimes writers think they have enough material for a book when really they only have enough for an article, a couple of articles, an essay, or a short story. Or they think they know what content they are going to include in the book, but when they finish the first draft, they discover they produced a manuscript that is scattered, rambling, misses the point, or leaves out essential information. Avoid these problems by mapping out your content first. Actually do a mind mapping exercise, which entails brainstorming while creating a large diagram of all your possible content and then organizing all these ideas into a table of contents or an outline. If you write fiction, try using a timeline. When you are done with this process you’ll know if you have enough content to fill a book, and you’ll know what content you plan to include in the pages of that book.
5. How You Would Describe Your Book’s Content: Bring your book to life with a short synopsis for each chapter. This accomplishes two things. First, when you couple this chapter-by-chapter synopsis with your table of contents, your pitch and list of benefits, you will have the best writing guide possible. Second, when you have finished the synopsis of all your chapters, and you have completed the previous four steps, you will suddenly have a clear picture of your book and feel ready to write your book. Why? Because it will seem real to you. If you can see it and it seems real, if your idea stood up to all the prior steps, it’s likely a viable book.
6. How You Will Ensure You and Your Book Succeed: Whether you self-publish or land a traditional publishing deal, you will need to promote your book. And promotion does not begin after the book lands in your hands as a finished product. It begins the moment that light bulb goes off in your head. Spend some time considering all the options you have to build awareness for yourself and your book as you begin the writing process as well as after you launch the book.
7. Why You Are the Best Person to Write This Book: Novelists just need a good idea and the ability to bring it to life with good writing. Most nonfiction books are written by experts. Decide if you are the expert on your topic, how you will become the expert, or if you might need to bring in other experts (maybe a co-author, contributors or experts to interview). Also, does writing this book fulfill a sense of mission for you? If so, you might want to consider how to get that message across in the book and in your promotional efforts. Plus, in this step, no matter your genre, it’s important to ask yourself if you have what’s called an “author’s platform.” Do you have a fan base or a large, loyal following of people who know you in relationship to the topic about which you plan to write? If not, you need to consider how you will begin building that built-in readership for your book.
8. If This is the Only Book You Will Write on This Topic: The more books you write, the more books you sell. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend a moment brainstorming other “spin-off” books on your topic, also known as sequels or series. This is especially important if you want to create a business around your book or attract a traditional publisher. As an expert author, if you have more books, you can create more products and services to sell to readers. And publishers like to take on multiple-book authors.
9. How You Want to Publish Your Book: If you decided your book is marketable and has a chance of succeeding, you can begin writing your book — with one caveat. You need to know what publishing route you plan to take. If you plan on self-publishing, you can go ahead and write the whole book. If you plan on approaching traditional publishers, you only need to write 25-30 pages, or about two chapters, but you also need to write a book proposal, which includes all the information you just compiled. You then will submit the proposal to agents and publishers.
Armed with this information, and assuming you discovered your idea is a viable one, you’re ready to take action on your inspiration. Turn your idea into a successful book.
— Nina Amir
Nina Amir, author of How to Blog a Book and The Author Training Manual, transforms writers into inspired, successful authors, authorpreneurs and blogpreneurs. Known as the “Inspiration to Creation Coach,” she moves her clients from ideas to finished books as well as to careers as authors by helping them combine their passion and purpose so they create products that positively and meaningfully impact the world. A sought-after author, book, blog-to-book and results coach, Nina has helped clients sell 300,000+ copies of their books, land deals with major publishing houses and create thriving businesses around their books. She writes four blogs, has self-published 12 books and is the founder of National Nonfiction Writing Month, aka the Write Nonfiction in November Challenge. She’s part of the 2014 EBWW faculty.
Tim Bete, former director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, had participants in stitches at the 2012 workshop as he imparted wisdom through playful humor.
His amusing workshop presentation, “How I Converted 7,000 Hours of Work into $10 Hard Cash and Then Turned a Single Stupid Idea Into $37,000,” is now available on YouTube.
“Every time Tim opened his mouth, I not only laughed myself silly, but grabbed a nugget of knowledge as it showered across us all. The man is a gift,” one participant said.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a ballerina or a princess. Deep down, though, I knew what I really wanted to be.
I wanted to be a mom.
I was one of those kids who read everything I could get my hands on. At some point I must have finished all of my Nancy Drew books, and I started reading my mom’s Erma Bombeck books. I remember one of Erma’s stories. She wrote about two kinds of moms in the world: the kind who washes a measuring cup out with soap after she’d only used it to measure water, and the kind who doesn’t.
This was my takeaway: Erma was funny, and I wanted to be the kind of mom who washes the measuring cup out with soap.
As hard as I tried, I probably only had fleeting moments of being that kind of mom. Even if I managed to wash my measuring cup out with soap, I was the kind of mom who had a job. I was the mom who got divorced. I was a single mom. I was the mom who didn’t have to wash her measuring cups because it was easier to just go out to eat.
Then I got married to the Pastor and I was the kind of mom with a step in front of it, raising preacher’s kids alongside my own.
While Erma never had to worry about being a pastor’s wife or a step-mom, we had one thing in common — living with people who gave us plenty of writing material. I didn’t just want to be a mom anymore; I wanted to be a writer.
A couple of years ago I went through the worst kind of writer’s block a humor writer could have.
I was sad.
I know why I got stuck. I had spent two years trying to get pregnant, having a baby that died, trying some more, failing and letting go. Nothing had worked out the way I thought it would; nothing was funny. I had all the time in the world to wash measuring cups out with soap, but no baby.
I had this need with my writing to make everything funny. There wasn’t anything funny about miscarriage or infertility. Was there? Granted, I was 40. I was living with three teenagers. I was not that many years away from having an empty nest. Wanting another baby? I must have had some kind of mental condition. There had to be something funny about all of it.
About the only thing I could come up with was that my body and baby did not get along because my baby didn’t like Mexican food and we just couldn’t come to an agreement. Or the baby was just as ungrateful as our other kids (I carried that baby all over Europe and then he just took off after the vacation).
I had the hardest time writing, but I kept reading. Once again I found myself out of books and at Goodwill searching for more. That’s when I stumbled across a collection of just about every single one of Erma’s books.
I read Erma’s A Marriage Made in Heaven…or Too Tired for an Affair. I realized Erma didn’t just write about the funny stuff. Erma wrote about everything, good and bad. This book? It was exactly what I needed.
I learned something about Erma I never knew. Erma had struggled with infertility. Erma had been 40 and pregnant, too. I started the chapter about Erma’s pregnancy at age 40 with renewed hope. Erma was a huge success! Maybe this was a good omen. Here I was struggling to write and struggling to get pregnant. Maybe Erma had all the answers.
Turns out, Erma and I had something else in common. Erma’s baby died, too.
Erma wrote about it.
Erma wrote about not wanting to deal with the inevitable. Wanting to wait just a little bit longer. Not wanting to let go. Maybe it would turn out ok. About having to give a child back.
And you know what? It wasn’t funny.
But it was ok.
My whole life I had admired Erma for her successes. But now I also admired Erma for her failures.
Sure, there was the successful Erma Bombeck. But there was another Erma I could and should relate to. The Erma who had her share of failures.
Erma had survived, and she went on to write about it. I knew I could, too, whether it was funny or not. The material is still out there, whether you can see it or not. Whether you can process it or not. But you never will if you don’t write it. You have to write. You have to make your way through it, and at some point you will be on the other side and things will be funny again.
Eventually I was ok. Eventually I picked up keyboard again. Eventually I got unstuck.
And I no longer care if the measuring cups get washed out with soap. I have more important things to do, and to write about.
Robyn Riley writes a humorous blog about being married to a pastor.
Once upon a time, all it took to write a book and make it a success was a good story and a lot of luck. Today, most manuscripts end up in the slush pile, unless the author is a criminal or a celebrity. The only exception — if the plot contains vampires. Let’s face it, books are changing and so are readers.
Since my book Mishegas of Motherhood. Raising Children To Leave The Nest…As Long As They Come Home For Dinner came out last year, it seems that I’ve spent as much time learning how to monetize my blog as I have writing chapters for the next volume.
By the way, since when did “hashtag” become a word?
For moms out there who believe that they have a book in them, here’s some general advice on how to turn your passion for words into a profitable business:
• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan on the back of your grocery shopping list.
• Position yourself as an expert in the field, such as “Specialist in disguising leftover chicken to look like something new for dinner.”
• Establish your brand, you know, “Coupon Mommy.”
• Identify your platform, and I’m not talking high-heeled shoes.
• Expand your reach, and I’m not talking Pilates.
• Increase traffic to your web site/blog by promising free cookies for whoever “likes” you.
• Engage in regular conversation and build relationships with readers via social media, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest and YouTube so that you have no time to clean the house, run errands, feed the dog, make dinner, take out the trash or make love to your husband.
• Convert your print book into an ebook with multiple formats. In other words, hire your teenager to use his video game skills to explain modern technology to you.
• Create speaking events and workshops, and pretend that you don’t have stage fright.
• Guest post to promote your own blog, and basically be your own pimp.
• Produce podcasts, web shows, videos. Just make sure your hair looks brushed and there are no poppy seeds stuck in your teeth when you’re in front of the camera.
• Learn the pros and cons of self-publishing, then get a REAL job to pay for it!
• Exercise everyday, and eat chocolate. Self explanatory.
• Obtain an alternative source of income or win the lottery.
• Don’t give up. It will make you appear weak in front of your kids.
For moms especially, it’s important to try to set a good example for your kids by teaching them that hard work pays off, even if it’s not monetary (at first). Sure, rejection letters can hurt, but constructive criticism from experts isn’t nearly as painful as the constant ridicule you get from your own children who complain, “This dinner sucks!”
Look at rejection as positive reinforcement to keep moving forward. It’s better than being ignored. Consider this:
• Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before J.K. Rowling went from poverty to one of the richest people in the world, selling more than 400 million copies.
• Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected 16 times and has now sold more than 30 million copies and has inspired numerous novels and films.
• Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times and was actually thrown away before his wife uncrumbled it from the trash and convinced him to try again.
• Kathyrn Stockett, author of The Help, survived a whopping 60 rejections and has now spent more than 100 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.
— Ellie S. Grossman
Ellie S. Grossman is the author of Mishegas of Motherhood. Raising Children To Leave The Nest…As Long As They Come Home For Dinner, which is a combination of domestic satire and Jewish wisdom that applies to all modern families.