Ten (Plus) Tips on Humor Writing

file0001122505692I’ve had the pleasure of incorporating humor into several of my books, most notably Grace for the Race: Meditations for Busy Moms and Let the Crow’s Feet and Laugh Lines Come. Funny enough, humor is not easy to write. It was a learning process–one I’m still undergoing.

Humor writers James Watkins and Rhonda Rhea are two of the most genuinely hilarious authors I know. When I asked them for tips, they didn’t disappoint. (They’re also incredibly generous and insightful…and they didn’t even pay me to say that!) So, without further ado, I present their helpful comedic insights.

James’ Watkins’ top ten tips for ending up on welfare having a successful comedy career:

10. Eat cold pizza for breakfast. Wash it down with large quantities of Diet Coke. After three cans, I can type 470 words of side-splitting humor per minute but unfortuwythdly nonr ofit maks anv senze aftcher tke thirddddddd . . .

9. Travel. Some of my best columns have come from three weeks in India (“The Land Without Toilet Paper”) and being stuck in traffic in downtown Chicago, in August with a stick shift with no air-conditioning and two kids in the backseat waging a fight to the death.

8. Get married, have kids. Dave Barry provides positive proof that marriage and raising children is a source for hundreds of columns, thousands of dollars, and even a Pulitzer Prize. However, use discretion! He’s also on his third or fourth marriage and is buying baby diapers with his AARP discount card.

7. Read, read, read. Essential reads include Dave Barry, Erma Bombeck and, of course, my very funny friend, Rhonda Rhea! And every morning NewsMax.com provides transcripts of late night comics.

6. Pass a kidney stone. I keep reminding students at writers conferences, “Nothing terrible happens to authors. [It’s all] just terrific anecdotes.” The old adage is so true: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

5. Tackle a home-improvement project. This is always good for at least two or three columns and one visit to the ER.

4. Look at life from just a few degrees off normal. Successful humorists look at life through their twisted point of view. It doesn’t have to 360 degrees from normal, because that would put you right back at normal. Just a few degrees keeps it plausible yet humorous.

3. Don’t be afraid of people thinking you’re crazy. St. Francis, who is viewed as, well, saintly, said, “I am God’s clown. People look at me and laugh.” Humor is a brutal business, so if you’re thin-skinned, take up a less stressful occupation such as bomb technician, rodeo clown or drug runner.

2. Hang out with people who are even crazier than you. I enjoyed having lunch with a fellow columnist while working as a humor columnist at a local paper. Most of our brainstorms were not “fit for print,” such as low-tech terrorist “Amish bin Laden” who drives around Lancaster county with a buggy armed with kerosene-filled milk cans! However, my friend never ceased to get my brain cells firing on all neurons.

1. Read my book, Writing with Banana Peels. It’s required reading for a humor class I teach at Taylor University and contains principles, practices and pratfalls of writing humor. (And always, whenever you have the chance, shamelessly self-promote your work.)

file000111849428Rhonda says:

I’m going to have to agree with Jim—especially the part where he says to read my stuff. Brilliant. Instead of cold pizza and Diet Coke, however, I don’t know how any writing is ever fueled without coffee. I walk into Starbucks and almost always find my muse sitting in a hip leather chair in the corner. I can get at least three chapters from a couple of shots of espresso. They’re all one sentence with no punctuation, but still.

Exploiting every experience for its comedic value—family, friends, travel, projects—is also great counsel. They say nothing bad ever happens to writers; it’s all just material. Read Jim’s book. More great things to exploit there. Or plagiarize. Whichever.

I suggest keeping a running “funny file,” as well. Anytime something makes you laugh or you come up with something hilariously brilliant, take a little note. Then when you’re ready to start an article or chapter you can peruse your file for a kick-start.

It doesn’t hurt to test-drive a few lines as Facebook statuses, either. See what people like and then…milk those things for all they’re worth. Getting a handle on comedic timing in print is no easy task. Your friends can help you polish. They can also make fun of you, mercilessly. And that’s usually helpful too.

I’m proud to say I taught Jim Watkins everything he knows about being funny. And about the funny sound of the letter “C.” If my children let me name any of my grandchildren, I’m naming one Carl–after Jim.

Don’t Sabotage Your Writing/Speaking Career

WordServe Water Cooler is pleased to host this excellent article by James N. Watkins.

Welcome, James!

I’ve been editing professionally since 1972. (Of course, I started when I was five!) I’ve seen just about everything: Cover letters that said, “God dictated this article to me. I don’t even know what it means.” Submissions from aliens: the extraterrestrial kind. Envelopes spray-painted gold, which I assume was intended to make them stand out from all the plain old white envelopes. Hand-written submissions on lined paper. And now in the age of word-processing with 400 fonts, submissions that look like ransom notes.

So, here are some ways to avoid sabotaging your writing/speaking career—in no particular order.

1. UNPROFESSIONAL EMAIL ADDRESS

If you’re going to be a professional writer/speaker, you need a professional-sounding email address. Two of the worst I’ve seen: snugglebunny77@yahoo.com and—I’m not making this up—wordwhore@hotmail.com. Even yahoo.com, gmail.com, and hotmail.com strike this grumpy old editor as a bit unprofessional. Get a domain name and a host that will allow you to use that as your email address. For example, jim @ jameswatkins.com actually goes to my yahoo account, but it’s masked so all you see is the domain name.

2. UNPROFESSIONAL FACEBOOK AND TWITTER POSTS

You’ll probably want a Facebook account for only your family and close friends and then one separate for your professional presence.

Your followers don’t want to know what you’re fixing for dinner unless you’re writing gourmet cook books. And unless your brand is “Cat Whisperer,” I don’t want to see pictures of your adorable kitties. (And having more than five cats qualifies you as “crazy cat lady.”) Make sure every post provides value to your readers and fits with your “brand” (See point 5).

3. NO WEB PRESENCE, UNPROFESSIONAL WEB PRESENCE

When your book proposal comes before the pub board, the first thing the editors and marketing minions do—who are surgically attached to their laptops and smart phones—is go to google.com and type in your name. If you don’t show up, you don’t exist! And if you don’t exist, you don’t get a contract. It is absolutely necessary that you have a Web site, blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts online.

But having no presence may be better than having an unprofessional presence! With WordPress.com and Blogger.com anyone can have a free blog (Web log). The bad news is many of templates offered don’t appear to this grumpy old editor as professional: animated .gifs, cutesy art work, kitties, etc. etc.

Your Web presence is a determining factor in whether a publisher will give your proposal further consideration or a conference director will consider you as a speaker. Spend—no INVEST—in professional help in creating a professional-looking site. And make sure you have a professional edit the copy.

4. UNPROFESSIONAL BUSINESS CARDS

Just because you’re a Christian writer doesn’t mean your business cards and Web site must have a cross, dove, empty tomb or—if you’re Charismatic—tongues of fire. Remember the KISS principle. Keep it simple, saints!

And including “Professional Writer” makes me suspect. Would you go to a “Professional Brain Surgeon”?! I don’t think so! (What is he or she trying to prove?)

5. NOT BEING “BRANDED”

Ouch! That sounds painful, but “branding” is a buzz word in the business and publishing world.

Basically, branding is what readers and audiences expect when they see your name on a book cover or on a conference brochure. You can’t be all things to all people, so do some soul-searching and discover your unique role in the writing/speaking arena.

My brand—for articles, books, Web site, speaking engagements, convenience store grand openings—is “Hope and Humor.” (www.hopeandhumor.org). So whether I’m writing, speaking or blogging, people expect hope and humor. (So writing bloody murder mysteries would totally massacre—pun intended—my brand.)

What does your audience (or “tribe”) expect? Be specific and then deliver on your brand.

6. “FREE” PUBLISHING THAT COSTS YOU

Services, like www.lulu.com and www.createspace.com, offer free e-book and print-on-demand publishing services. (Everyone loves free!) You simply upload your Word document and post your homemade cover and you can have your book as an e-book on amazon in a few hours and your paperback or hardcover book on your doorstep within the week. And you only pay for the actual wholesale price of the books. What a deal. It is a deal IF and ONLY IF . . .

. . . you have it professionally edited (and not by your English teacher cousin). If your online or in-print presence is filled with errors, it can ruin your writing career.

. . . you have your cover professionally designed (and not by your sister-in-law who happens to own Adobe Illustrator—unless she’s working with it professionally.) An amateurish cover, again, can ruin your writing career—or at least book sales.

Please. Please. Please, take this warning to heart. I see so many “self-published” books that just scream AMATEUR! That free service can cost you your reputation.

And if you’re investing your hard-earned money in one of the hundreds of self-publishers out there, please read these additional warnings. (There are hundreds of self-publishers who are amateurs at best and scam artists at worst.)

7. HAVING A “REPUTATION”

Christian publishing is a relative small club. Editors meet regularly at conferences and professional meetings, and we talk about writers and speakers. Believe me, we know who the people are who committing professional suicide by being unprofessional, “high maintenance,” telling off editors who don’t appreciate their brilliant talent, missing deadlines and burning “bridges.” And speakers with “prima donna” complexes by demanding special treatment also can sink under the weight of their bad reputations.

There are many more such as playing the God card: “God told me to write this.” But seven sounds like a biblical number. And by being aware of these, you’ll protect your good name as a writer/speaker.

To find out more about James, please visit the links. (c) 2012 James Watkins (www.jameswatkins.com) for American Christian Writers (www.acwriters.com).