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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.”

At the intersection of funny and feminism

A question that often underlies discussions of humor written by women is the question of feminism. It’s not exactly the politics of eyebrow plucking but more like the politics of making jokes about it.

Take this example from yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, the opening lines of a review of CHICKtionary by 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty member Anna Lefler:

“Anna Lefler’s ‘Chicktionary’ is a wry celebration of modern femininity. Or an attempt to set feminism back a decade,” reporter Heidi Stevens writes. “It depends on your definition of feminism. Or maybe it depends on your definition of chick. Or is it your definition of funny?”

Erma herself was a lively and enthusiastic participant in these debates and the target of critics who didn’t appreciate the domestic brand of humor she was writing. “I had a member of the women’s liberation movement write to me and say, ‘Lady, you are the problem,’” she once said.

Others came to her defense. Patricia Leigh Brown said, “She made it okay to live in a ranch house with the requisite station wagon and golden retriever, because she could lovingly satirize the cliché.”

Erma could defend herself pretty well, too, of course. After hearing Betty Friedan speak, she said, “These women threw a war for themselves and didn’t invite any of us. That was very wrong of them.”

Those three quotes are all part of a summary of Erma’s life and career on the “New York Times Best Seller List” site, which goes on to describe Erma’s work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and her “firmly feminist” household: “Erma was the main breadwinner. Bill Bombeck eventually retired from his job as a school administrator in order to manage his wife’s career; at her peak she made from $500,000 to $1 million a year.”

In the case of the Tribune story about Lefler’s book (which, all kidding aside, is hilarious), maybe the feminism question is just a quick, easy angle for a busy reporter, but the trope comes up so often it’s hard to dismiss so easily. Is the book a “threat to feminism,” as the reporter asks at one point? That’s a term CHICKtionary doesn’t define.

Alternatives and attics

Kyran Pittman, a 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty member, talks about making the jump from blogging to holding a copy of her book for the first time:

It’s a strange and interesting time to make a debut as an author in traditional media. It felt almost anachronistic to hold the hardcover of Planting Dandelions for the first time.

I grew up in a culture rooted in oral storytelling, and I cut my teeth as a writer through blogging, so I’m not especially sentimental about the passing of the age of print.

But I felt a pang for future authors who are unlikely to experience their work as a tactile object, as a made thing. I thought, my God, this could turn up in a yard sale or someone’s attic a hundred years from now. It was an extraordinary moment, and it’s not one I could talk anyone out of seeking, though there are so many alternatives open to writers today.

Kyran Pittman

Kyran Pittman is the author of  Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life, which will be published in paperback in 2012.

‘Forget Bridezillas’

Jeff Zaslow, the father of three girls (and a 2012 Bombeck Workshop keynote speakers), has a new book out on the heels of one now on the bestseller list.

“Forget Bridezillas. A best-selling journalist visits a small-town wedding shop to uncover the poignant dreams of real women on the verge of commitment,” writes O. Magazine, which includes the book among its list of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now.”

The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters “mines the diamonds, the stories, hidden beneath the surface,” says Publisher’s Weekly, found in a small-town bridal shop to explore the hopes and dreams mothers and fathers have for their daughters.

Here’s a link to the lovely trailer:

The Magic Room

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

2012 Bombeck Writing Competition opens Jan. 3

The Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, established in 1997 and sponsored by the workshop and the Washington-Centerville Public Library, pays tribute to Erma Bombeck, one of the greatest humorists of the 20th Century. The contest, held every two years, opens for online entries ($15 entry fee) Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, and closes at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. Entries should be 450 words or fewer and cannot be published more than once in the calendar year 2011 (blog posts are allowed).

A $500 cash prize and complimentary registration to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop will be awarded to four winners: humor category (Dayton-area entry and a global entry) and the human interest category (Dayton-area entry and a global entry). The panel of judges includes authors, syndicated columnists and other experienced writers. Some entries will receive feedback, and winners will be announced in mid-March. For complete contest details, visit

The Library’s Celebration event will feature syndicated humor columnist and author of Rebel Without a Minivan 
Tracy Beckerman.Tracy has been a columnist for eight years with the weekly Independent Press newspaper in New Jersey. Her column, “Lost in Suburbia,” is carried by more than 450 newspapers, 250 websites and reaches an audience of nearly 10 million readers in 25 states. The library’s event will be Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m.

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