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Advice for writers

Step into those platform shoes

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.

Social media

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 or An Army of Ermas.

The power of Erma

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.

2. Connect

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.

Daydream believer

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.

When your friends are your material

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

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.

How to write for the young adult market

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

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.

An authentic life

Some people know they want to be writers from the day they are born. Jim Higley isn’t one of them. Here’s the story of his successful but unlikely writing career:

I’m an accidental writer. Making a career out of the manipulation of 26 little letters was never on my radar screen.

But I’ve always been a passionate storyteller. A card-carrying member of the Heartstring Club. One of many Pied Piper-types who enjoy taking people on journeys of self discovery. Finding their own memories and emotions.

I never met a goose bump I didn’t like.

A few years ago, life tossed me a couple of back-to-back curveballs. Part One was titled, “Surprise! Here’s Cancer!” That was immediately followed by another life-changing sequel, “Surprise! You’re a Single Dad Raising Three Kids Alone!”

While those story lines brought a fair amount of pain, they also gave me the resolve to live a more authentic life. Fear of failure no longer was a roadblock to my dreams.

And I decided to become a professional storyteller. Whatever that meant.

That decision came one morning as I lay in bed after spending the night with a sick child who had projectile vomited his way through the wee hours of the night. And, as tired and grossed out as I was, what I found myself reflecting on was how much I loved this boy. And how crazy — and fulfilling — this parent gig really was.

So began my blog. And I wrote my first story about finding meaning in life’s nooks and crannies.

Somehow that turned into a weekly column on parenting in the Chicago Tribune for their suburban paper, TribLocal. That leveraged into other writing opportunities for the Good Men Project, Man of the House, LiveStrong and others. I was pinching myself. More importantly, I was finding fulfillment as a person. Enriched.

Very few stories received compensation. But I worked my way through the maze of it all believing there was bigger value in what I was doing and with the people I was meeting. Soon I was named the first “Dad” correspondent for NBC Universal’s iVillage. Then I was given a weekly radio show to host. And there was a book — Bobblehead Dad — which was really a collection of letters and lessons I wrote for my children durng my cancer journey. No one wanted to publish it when I first wrote it. Not a soul. But somewhere, somehow, through this crazy trip it found believers and people who made it happen.

And it all started with a puking son. And a belief.

In the power of storytelling.

—Jim Higley

Jim Higley, a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty, is a full-time stay-at-home father, writer and the inaugural winner of Man of the House’s inaugural “World’s Greatest Dad Challenge.”

Keeping the muse amused

Sherry Antonetti, who writes “Chocolate for Your Brain,” sends some writing tips — “to be broken, amended, ignored or destroyed as necessary.”

10.) Keeing a notepad with you. Thoughts that are funny are more fleeting than a tweet. Edits are for later. Recall isn’t editing. It’s guessing and knowing while you’re in the ballpark, what you thought earlier was brilliant, pithy and much better than the scrap of leftover mental wit you’ve concocted now. Wish I’d written down what I thought last night.

9.) Humor is about relationship, or the lack of it. The amount of mercy you dollop in indicates whether it is scathing satire or simply a warm grin or somewhere within the standard deviation of all things humorous. Decide which flavor each piece is, dark chocolate with sea salt, creamy milk with nuts and all things inbetween. Stay consistent within each work.

8.) Never use the same word twice to describe a singular thing unless repetition is part of the setup. It leads to more descriptive and humorous phrases. For example: Congress … political opportunistic hacks … blood- and soul-sucking government bureaucrats … elected leeches with jobs …

7.) Progression and misdirection. Up or down, things should ultimately either go where you’re not expecting or build the tension in getting to where everyone expects but by a route not easily discerned. Comedy must build and then deflate, or take us beyond what is the perceived basic level. The rule of three is known, but to really work the concept, try pushing to five. The fifth has to finish it, but it allows for a roller coaster experience, with a climb up a hill, a crest, a dip and then a big ending.

6.) Read aloud. We add words in our heads when we read to make what we write make sense. Reading aloud is the fastest way to tighten a piece.

5.) Write some fresh daily. Edit yesterday’s. Reread, tweak and submit on the third day.

4.) Invert clichés. It’s a quick way to create a fresh turn of phrase.

3.) Relax and allow yourself to enjoy playing in the deeper part of your imagination pool. As serious as the business of writing is, humor requires a degree of humility and willingness to endure the Sisyphean struggle that is life with a grin.

2.) If you can’t spot the relationship between your setup and your punch line, it isn’t funny. If it requires mental gymnastics, emotional origami and superior working knowledge in an obscure field to get it, it still needs work.

1.) Humor is like a Snicker’s bar. It’s sweet. It has some nuttiness. It fills and it contains a core of truth, which the laughter makes enduring. Because no one ever wants to eat a pure dose of nougat.

Sherry Antonetti

Eat-sleep-write (not necessarily in that order)

Writers write, Angela Weight reminds us:

To gain success as a writer, whether as a hobby or author of the next smashing bestseller, it’s vital to develop a strong habit of writing something everyday. Every. Single. Day. A habit like brushing your teeth (or breathing … if you don’t have teeth).

Even when the laundry’s piled to the ceiling, you have the sniffles, your boss is being an immature jerk, you have jury duty, PTA and whining kids, still make time to write at least a couple of paragraphs … about anything.

What you write each day doesn’t have to be for publication. It’s simply about developing the habit, the practice of stringing words together, defining your personal style and of summoning that creative spark.

For example, yesterday was hectic enough to leave me cross-eyed. After eight hours at my job, making dinner and wrangling kids to bed I didn’t feel like working on magazine articles or even updating my blog. However, I wrote a couple of paragraphs about how funny my boss looks when he gets angry. I described in detail the vein that pops out of his forehead, the magenta shade that his ears turn and how his pupils retract down to the size of BB’s. It was an entertaining bit of descriptive writing that charged my batteries enough to want to work on the paying assignments.

In order to write well, you have to be willing to write. Period. No excuses! As dozens of writer friends have said, sit your butt in the chair and start writing. You’ll feel like writing after you get started.

—Angela Weight

To read more of Angela Weight’s habitual writings, visit

Reflections of Erma