Advice for writers
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.
Once upon a time writers polished their manuscripts until they shone, pulled on their best fancy clothes and rang the doorbell of the publishing world, hoping to be accepted into the crowds of book-happy partygoers inside. These days, the butler answers the door, looks behind you and asks, “Where are all your guests?”
If you want in on the publishing party, it’s strictly BYOM: Bring Your Own Mob. Agents and editors want to know how many will drink your particular Kool-Aid and buy the book, so the more published clips, blog hits and social media followers, the better.
The Internet is filled with blogs, so you can’t just create a site and wait for someone to show up. You have to put up notices and offer free refreshments, which means get the word out about your blog and keep the content fresh. Your ultimate goal is at least 1,000 visits a day. Don’t let tumbleweeds roll past. Get things started by joining a blogchain where you and other like-minded folks commit to visiting, commenting and promoting each other’s blogs. Also offer to guest post on popular sites and blogs in exchange for a bio and a link to your own site. List your link everywhere, from your email signature line to your kid’s birthday party invitations. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but you get the idea.
There are several social media sites available, but the numbers you need to cultivate are on Facebook and Twitter. Agents and editors pay attention if you have 10,000 fans of your Facebook page or 10,000 followers on Twitter. Interact with folks and participate in chats or one-on-one conversations. You’ll get to know a lot of wonderful people who will then spread the word on how awesome YOU are. Out of the rest, the other two I rely on are BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon. Between BuzzFeed and a fortunate retweet by a large business, one post of mine garnered 20,000 views. StumbleUpon, a review/recommendation site, has also sent thousands of eyes my way.
Group websites and print
If you’re submitting to the major humor markets, don’t overlook smaller venues like group websites and anthologies. I was invited to join the humor site An Army of Ermas two years ago, and it’s been one of the best time investments ever; everyone of us has experienced a moment when thousands of people laughed, snorted or sympathized with our words. Usually these types of sites require you to apply, but once you begin to build your platform, expect a few invitations as well. You can apply to the writer’s room of a major site like Cracked, but you’re more likely to get in with a smaller or new site. Also submit to anthologies; many appreciate humorous submissions even if the main theme isn’t funny. Anthologies are a great way to network with editors and other writers, and they often lead to other opportunities that showcase your diversity as a writer. That’s important because once you strap on those platform shoes, you can show off all your dance moves when you hit the party.
— Beth Bartlett
Beth Bartlett is a freelance writer and humorist who landed an agent last year and is still gathering folks before she barnstorms the ballroom. You can visit her at www.plaidearthworm.com or An Army of Ermas.
Clinical psychologist, author and comic Dr. Nancy Berk left the 2010 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (EBWW) with enthusiasm and strategies. Since then, she’s finished her second book, blogs for The Huffington Post, USA TODAY and national magazines and hosts three podcasts. Here, she shares her secrets about maximizing the 2012 EBWW experience.
The Power of Erma: 5 Steps To Kick Start Your Career
Two and a half days at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is like a semester of strategic planning for writers. Inspired by the talent and spirit of a woman who set the stage for female humorists, this event brings in the experts, including gifted attendees, to give every participant an opportunity to develop and promote their craft. Being in a room with 350 accomplished or aspiring humor writers can panic even the most confident —“Is there room for me?” The answer is “yes” — if you use what you learn. Follow these five steps to kick start your adventure from Erma and beyond.
1. Just Do It
Erma was living proof that great accomplishments can happen when you give it a shot. EBWW provides endless opportunities for writers to test the water and explore all avenues of humor. From publishing strategies to stand-up comedy, there’s something for everyone. Step out of that comfort zone, and you just might be pleasantly surprised.
Seasoned participants know that EBWW is THE place for business cards. Don’t leave home without them. You’ll make some lifelong friends and wonderful acquaintances, but it helps to give them a reminder. Social media experts will stress the importance of virtual connecting. (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) Listen to them and learn these tools. “Friend” and “follow” your new EBWW acquaintances. Most of us are helpful and harmless. Is social media worth it? I’ve gotten paychecks with commas thanks to social media referrals. If done well, social media can be your best (and cheapest!) publicist.
3. Be Genuine
Erma’s humor was rooted in real. She revealed an absolute love of family while being honestly hilarious. Great writing and humor comes when you allow yourself to be genuine. You’ll find your voice and develop your brand in the process.
4. Consider Alternate Routes
Success doesn’t always happen in the direction you’d thought. Keep an open mind about opportunities and analyze carefully before turning anything down. Every opportunity is a possible connection or avenue to showcase your talent.
5. Give Back
Don’t lose sight of the need to be an advocate for others. Help them find opportunities for success. Promote those you respect. Help out when someone needs an extra push. There are great rewards in being supportive. As your circles grow, you’ll learn more than you ever imagined.
—Nancy Berk, Ph.D.
Nancy Berk is a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty. Her second book College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind, is a parent survival guide for the college-bound journey.
We are storytellers. Whether we provide a laugh-out-loud escape, or share an emotional, hard-won lesson, the goal is memorable writing.
Feeling the story is the most powerful way to write. Yet it’s easy to lose touch with emotional resonance, to write from a distance. Perhaps you need a trance dance with your heart.
I’ve been invited back, this time to present, “Hypnotic Recall Fills The Creative Well.” In my workshop I will use guided imagery exercises to mine memories for sensory details and emotions. Self-hypnosis, meditation, guided imagery, and trance are all the same things, and the process is already familiar to you. You daydream, right?
In the creative process you enter that place where scenes flash along in vivid detail and outside reality is suspended temporarily. Then you put fingers to keyboard and share what you “just saw.” That’s self-hypnosis, and a deep reverie can be productive.
In 1990 I was certified in hypnotherapy because of my curiosity about the mind-body connection. I learned to write guided imageries, using words that soothed the senses, to induce an awake but highly relaxed state of mind. The greater the relaxation, the more vivid the recall experience.
Years later as a syndicated columnist and author, I realized its direct connection to writing. The stillness is a realm in which to gather up textures, sounds, mannerisms, words, and emotions to enliven your stories.Often, the meaning of a past experience is made clear.
A writer’s goal is to capture an experience and to bring the reader right into the scene. We endeavor to answer the reader’s question, “Why are you telling me this?” So we navigate our way to the heart of the story. If you feel it, you can convey it.
Years ago, I continually failed in my own efforts to experience meditation. My mind was a gerbil set afire in a bathtub. During hypnotherapy training it felt liberating the first time someone guided me into total relaxation. Now I can return to it any time on my own.
Much later, as a professional writer, I began applying such techniques to my own work. The greatest compliment I’ve ever received was from my friend, the late Jeff Zaslow, who told me, “You write with a lot of heart.”
So why not help others with this unique strategy? When I offered a guided imagery workshop in 2010 for EBWW, it was rewarding to hear how new friends were able to finish challenging chapters, to recall memories rich with meaning, and to even pen for the first time very painful episodes.
Recently, due to persistent requests, I finally produced “Suzette Standring: A Writers’ Meditation CD,” which offers two guided imagery exercises; one for complete relaxation, and the second is specific to creative writing. It’s gratifying to create a new tool for the storytelling process. You can find out more about it on my website, the only place where it is available.
I look forward to seeing old and new friends this year at the EBWW. Be a daydream believer. You owe it to your readers.
—Suzette Martinez Standring
Suzette Martinez Standring is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse News Service, award-winning author of The Art of Column Writing and part of the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop faculty.
I recently praised the witty writing on my friend’s blog and told her that she should consider submitting for print.
“Yeah, but I could never publish the things about my kids that you do about yours.”
Such candor validates her true friend status. And often as a writer, I wonder how many real friends I have left.
On the days I muster shedding my uniform drawstrings for appropriate lunch attire, I sit across from radiant women who bubble bathe and work out and wonder if they would invite me back if they knew …
… that as they lightly laugh, their words crank through a mind that twists their tragedies into plot points, conjugates their conundrums into dialogue that may or may not end up on the cutting room floor.
As writers, our worlds — our people — are our material. Do they know?
Weren’t they there in our workshops when proven scribes assured us to “write what you know?” Aren’t they privy to the fact that to invite us into their lives, they subsequently invite themselves onto our pages?
And if they know, why do they stay? To be exorcists to the alternating narcissism and self-doubt that taunt us upon deadline? To serve as tranquilizers for our relentless angst? Perhaps we are their projects.
As competent adults, it is my friends’ prerogative to remain in my world. But there are four little people with whom I cohabit, and as my progeny, are powerless– having been born into their role of my built-in and best material.
Their every charming antic is recorded on a notecard — their dialogue so fresh, their conflict so natural. And ever so perceptive, they watch me view their best performances, and knowing they can do nothing to prevent it, murmur, “Oh great, she’s going to write about us.”
Autumn McAlpin is the author of Real World 101: A Survival Guide to Life After High School and a columnist for the Orange County Register in southern California.
Novelist Katrina Kittle took a leap. After three very successful novels with some very grown-up themes, she turned her eye to writing her first novel for the young adult market. So what makes writing a novel for young adults different?
The best piece of advice I got on writing for young adults came from the amazing editor Sharyn November at Viking. She’s the one who encouraged me to write for a younger audience in the first place, writing me a letter out of the blue after she read The Kindness of Strangers.
She very kindly told me she loved the boys’ voices, thought I wrote young people well and asked whether I’d ever considered writing a young adult novel. At the time I hadn’t, and I didn’t really understand the difference between writing for adults and for younger people.
Based on her encouragement, though, I set out to do it. Her great advice came when she read a first draft of Reasons to Be Happy.
“I want you to forget your audience,” she told me.
I thought that was nuts, but she explained, “I see you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. I want you to write a Katrina Kittle novel like you always do. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be teenagers. Don’t change anything else.”
That made such sense to me. Young adult literature covers every conceivable topic these days. There is nothing considered taboo. If you water down, sanitize or try to shelter readers from the reality of your topic, they will smell it a mile away. Teen readers are the same as … well, teens in general. There’s nothing they hate more than something they know is inauthentic.
Katrina Kittle, a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty, has been blogging her own daily reasons to be happy since July 1. Today’s reason? Bowling shoes. This editor’s pick? You’ll just have to click here.