(This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register Aug. 22. Reprinted by permission.)
All the clichés come to mind. The runner crosses the finish line, a ribbon billows from either side of her chest. A mountain climber smiles for a picture at the summit. A painter, who after applying his last stroke, steps back to see the completed artwork.
My finish line is close; my mountain peak is in view. For me it’s holding my book in my hands. For two years I have been working on self-publishing My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood, a collection of essays originating from my “Mom’s Voice” columns in the Orange County Register.
The process has been exhilarating, scary and filled with obstacles. When I first started on this journey, I set up a meeting with the owner of the paper I used to write for. I prepared a little PowerPoint presentation to show him, sharing my goal, asking if he would like to be involved.
“Who told you this was good?” he asked. Following up with, “How do you know it will sell?” I didn’t want to be rude and point out that the contents of the book were already appearing in his paper each week, but I did make a gentle allusion, to which he replied, “Just because it’s good as a column, doesn’t mean it’s good as a book.”
And then his final zinger, “How would you feel if you only sold one copy?” My response was from the heart, “I would feel great because this is a passion project for me, a personal goal.” (Did he just miss the PowerPoint?) “Just to hold the book in my hands will make me very happy,” I explained.
The meeting concluded. His words of wisdom: find someone who is “real” to tell me if my work is good or not, figure out if I have something that will sell, and before that, don’t assume anyone will help me.
I walked out of his office with a “thank you” and a smile. I got in my car, pulled onto the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach and cried all the way back to Costa Mesa. My tears were not because I believed anything he told me, but because I wasn’t prepared for the shadow of doubt he attempted to cast over my dream. I cried simply because he hurt my feelings
I knew I wouldn’t take any of his advice. I believed in my goal and would proceed.
And proceed is exactly what I did. One thing I did right the following two years was surround myself with a group of the most wonderful, positive and talented people I knew. I built a team. At the center of the team were my loyal readers who support me each week.
I remember the day my friend Marrie, a brilliant writer, sat with me. My work was spread all over my dining room table as she began to help me find a shape to the book, looking for the thread that connected the pieces, ditching ones that didn’t belong. From there we went through multiple rounds of edits. She helped me to sharpen my work and improve my craft in unexpected ways.
My friend Shannon, a phenomenal photographer, came over one day with her camera equipment and helped make my visions of the cover photo materialize. My brother-in-law Kevin, a gifted graphic artist, took the photo and worked with me to finish the cover. I learned how to get my work copyrighted, how to get an ISBN number and barcode for the back. Frank was the guy who took my Word documents, waved a magic wand and designed the inside of the book, always giving me the final say. One never thinks that the decision of where to put page numbers will be a tough one, but it is.
I chose my paper for the pages the way someone chooses a wedding dress; I knew I wanted off-white and a certain weight – not flimsy.
Next week, the machines will be running, the words closest to my heart will be spit onto the papers that will be cut and bound. I will hold the book in my hands. The shadow of doubt forever gone.
Stay tuned for information about my book release party this fall.
— Jill Fales
Jill Fales writes the weekly “Mom’s Voice” column for The Orange County Register. My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood, published through Greyden Press, is her first book.
(The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop gave Janet Frongillo confidence and inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from her newly published book, Mommy Mixology: A Cocktail for Every Calamity. The humorous book highlights the calamities moms face from pregnancy all the way up until their “baby” goes to kindergarten. Each recipe has a funny name like “Cosmopotty” and “Emergentini” — and comes with a fun essay.)
“No” is never just a simple word as far as a toddler’s concerned, especially when someone else is around, like a grandmother or a friend. You tell the little scamps no and they seem to dig their heels in even deeper. It’s as though they smell fear….
“We have company? Da da da! SHOWTIME!”
“Please stop trying to swing from the chandelier.”
“Please stop dancing on the table.”
“Please don’t call every man you see inside Home Depot ‘Daddy’!”
Nononononono. And when a toddler tells you no, they are ad-a-mant. But when you tell them no, they think it’s a relative term, subject to debate and incessant questions.
“No, you may not play in traffic.”
“Because you could get hit by a car.”
“Because people drive too fast.”
“Because they’re in too much of a hurry.”
“Because they’re STUPID!”
“You said STUP-ID! You said STUP-ID!”
“No, no I didn’t.”
“YES, you did!”
I win, I win, I win — I got him to say yes!
Makes 1 serving
8 to 10 fresh mint leaves
4 lime wedges or 4 ounces (1/2 cup) fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons white superfine sugar
1 ½ ounces white rum
4 ounces (1/2 cup) chilled club soda
Lime wheel, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, muddle together the mint leaves, limed wedges or juice, sugar and rum. Add a cup of ice, pour in the club soda and shake. Strain into a tall Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime wheel.
— Janet Frongillo
Janet Frongillo, writer, blogger, humorist, lives in New Hampshire with her husband, three sons and assorted dust bunnies. When she’s not blowing the budget at Target or dreaming up cocktails on the sidelines at tee ball practice, she can be found blogging here.
“When you travel, things go wrong.” That’s been my number one travel motto for years. It might not sound like uplifting advice, but embracing this reality helps you roll with and recover from the mini-disasters inevitable on every
journey. For humor writers, there’s an added bonus. When things go wrong, we get stories!
Years ago, when I decided to pursue professional humor writing, I took a methodical, geeky approach to studying comedic structure. I read books. I took classes. In one workshop, taught by Seattle-based humor consultant Bill Stainton, Bill offered this simple definition: “Comedy happens when something goes wrong.” When he shared his explanation, it so closely echoed my own travel philosophy. I realized then that travel writing and humor writing are two genres that fit together perfectly — like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but with fewer calories.
Travel is full of confusions, incongruities and conflict. Whether it’s lost luggage, cultural misunderstandings or a herd of wildebeest stampeding through your hotel room, your most frustrating moments on the road often make for your most hilarious travel tales later.
Keeping a travel journal as you go is critical in order to capture the details. Don’t try to create your best writing in your travel diaries. You don’t have enough time during an exciting vacation. Instead, splash as many thoughts onto your pages as quickly as possible. Those scribbled notes will jar your memories when you’re back at home, crafting more polished travel tales. In addition to a journal, always carry a pocket-sized notebook. Jot quick thoughts — story ideas, funny musings, names of characters or locations that might appear in your stories and so on.
When it’s time to polish your tales, dive right in. Many aspiring travel writers make the mistake of front-loading their stories with extraneous information. You must hook your readers in the first 30 to 40 words. If not, they’ll quit reading. Get right into the action. You can always backtrack and fill in details later.
Here’s an example of a mediocre lead:
It all began one morning when I stepped out of the shower. The next thing I knew, I saw a snake in my bed.
Here’s a better lead:
The snake poked his head out from under my pillow as if the bed belonged to him. I froze, dripping and naked, wishing I had more than a towel to defend myself.
Don’t be shy about embellishing. Stretch things with colorful examples. “I can’t swim very well” might be needed information in a story about falling off a boat, but “I swim with the prowess or a Golden Retriever” is a funnier way to say it. In one story, in which I wrote about trying to put on a tie, my rough draft said, “I hate tying ties.” Not funny. I changed it to, “It took me six attempts before I had my tie on.” Still not funny. In my final draft, I wrote, “After 37 attempts, I managed to origami myself into a tie.” Better. Coming up with lines like this takes time. It’s a trial-and-error process. Sit with your non-funny sentences and brainstorm creative ways to write them.
Keep your writing tight. Don’t say in 900 words what you can say in 600. Concise writing makes your stories easier to read. The humor punches through more strongly. Here are some examples of flabby versus tight writing:
Flabby: The building was surrounded by a tall fence that was made out of iron.
Tight: A tall iron fence surrounded the building.
Flabby: The shark went swimming through the water at breakneck speed.
Tight: The shark plowed through the water.
At times, you’ll choose longer phrasing to add character or a more comedic voice. That’s fine, but make every word count. Comb through, sentence by sentence, and see if there are phrases you can shorten or words you can eliminate.
When writing about unfamiliar cultures, be careful how you frame the things that go wrong. Ripping into a place you are unfamiliar with can make you sound like a culturally insensitive jerk. If you turn things around, however, and make your own confusion the source of the problem, your humble (or overblown) self-deprecation will get readers on your side.
When we travel to new places, confusion is natural — and wonderful if we accept it as part of the thrill that comes with being foreign. So when you venture to new places, expect and embrace that confusion. Even if things seem horrible in the moment, know you’ll have a great story later. My worst travel experience ever involved a hospital stay in Turkey. An evil salad did terrible things to my insides, to the extent I was barely conscious and afraid for my life. Reliving the experience years later when I wrote my travel humor book, Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad, was painful. I wondered how I could find humor in those moments. But after a lot of work, it ended up being one of my favorite chapters.
As a travel humorist, I’ve come to see things going wrong as things going right. The crazy and chaotic moments in my journeys are the fodder I need to write my best travel humor tales. So when things go haywire on your own trips, don’t get frustrated. Get writing! Jot it in your journal. Then when time allows, polish those rough-draft journal entries into crazy adventures that will make your readers cackle.
– Dave Fox
Dave Fox is author of Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad and Globejotting: How to Write Extraordinary Travel Journals (and still have time to enjoy your trip!), both Amazon bestsellers. He was part of the faculty at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Sign up for online versions of his fun and popular travel and humor writing classes.
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.
I used to write a humor column for my high school newspaper. While my fellow newspaper staffers were off interviewing people and writing in-depth articles about teenage drinking or student council elections, I was writing about Slurpee flavors at the local 7-11. It was not Pulitzer-winning material, but I was hooked.
Twenty years later, I still like to write non-Pulitzer-winning, silly stuff, but these days, I post it on my cancer blog.
What’s silly about cancer? Well, nothing. I was diagnosed with it in 2005, and for a while it seemed that nothing would ever seem the least bit silly ever again. A few weeks after my diagnosis, while I was hanging around a computer lounge at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., anxiously waiting for a doctor’s appointment, I got an e-mail from a college friend who has had two heart transplants. He told me that I needed to find humor wherever I possibly could; it would save me.
I knew he was right. I started up my blog: The Adventures of Cancer Girl. I try the best I can to tell my story. And I try to be funny.
I have a rare, incurable blood cancer called multiple myeloma. It was found during a routine blood test at my annual physical. I never had any symptoms. This disease mostly strikes people in their 70s. When I was diagnosed, I was 30 years old and had just given birth to my daughter. Apparently, my body doesn’t know I’m not a senior citizen. Attention, body: Just because I like show tunes and laugh out loud at reruns of The Golden Girls does not mean that I am old.
Uncool, yes. Old, no.
The myeloma has been fairly easy to deal with, as far as cancer goes. I take a daily pill, which has greatly reduced the level of cancer in my body. I’m not in remission, but my disease is stable. I’m lucky in that way.
Even though I’m dealing with “cancer lite,” it can still be a little overwhelming to try to cope with the concept of an incurable, life-threatening illness. When I write on my blog, I feel better.
Although I document all of the ups and downs of my doctor visits and drugs and blood tests, most of my entries have nothing to do with cancer. I write about life as a mom raising a 7-year-old daughter. I recount the time my husband went out in public in his Star Trek uniform. I post far too many photos of Jon Bon Jovi without a shirt on, and I reveal that I’m still a fan of the New Kids on the Block.
You can’t make fun of me, I always remind everyone. I have cancer.
And while the blog helps me cope, I also hope it helps other myeloma patients who find me through the Internet. I want to show that cancer doesn’t always change who you are; cancer doesn’t automatically mean you are sick and dying, and it doesn’t somehow make you amazingly heroic and brave, either. You can have cancer and still live a somewhat normal, boring mom life filled with carpooling and laundry and cupcakes and trips to the zoo and a million games of Hi-Ho Cherry-O. And it can still be fun.
So I have cancer, but I’m still here: living, hoping, writing and even laughing, just a little bit.
Karen Crowley, of Kansas City, is a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom to the World’s Cutest Kid. Her blog is a chronicle of her adventures in mommyhood, cancer survival and everything in between.
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.