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.

SEVEN TIPS TO MAKE THAT NEW YEAR’S WORD WORK FOR YOU

As a writer, the idea of designating one word for the New Year, in lieu of resolutions, appeals to me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a bit lackadaisical when it comes to actually making those resolutions (not to mention keeping). 

Writers are wordsmiths and so it seems all the more appropriate. But wait. How does a writer select just one word for a whole year when there are myriad beautiful words floating around out there for the picking? Here are seven suggestions:

1) PRAY: After Christmas, I began tumbling words in my brain. I wasn’t sure how I would spot “my word”.  I wanted something with a ring to it. Maybe something catchy. Pretty, musical, a poetic word, I hoped. New Year’s Day arrived and I still didn’t have my word. Every time I gave it some consideration the word “return” popped into my mind. What kind of “word for the year” is that?  

As the end of January approached, I despaired of finding my word. And then I did what I always do when I feel hopeless: I prayed. I read my Bible. Of course, the answer I received was my word was there all of the time. And the lesson well learned? Don’t wait until you are discouraged to RETURN to our heavenly Father. 

2) USE IT: Once you know your word, use it. At least once a day. Include it in your prayer time and if by the end of the day you find you have not used your word try to think of as many ways it fits into a sentence. A favorite of mine is to write a short story, one paragraph long, using my word as many times as I can. How refreshing to give yourself permission to break the rules! 

3) SHARE: Don’t be afraid to tell people what your word is. You don’t really have to know how your word applies to you. Part of the fun is finding out why the word is “your word”. You will find your friends are curious about your progress and provide motivation to continually strive to decipher the meaning of the word in your life. 

4) REFLECT: At the end of each month, think about how the word worked in your life. Or didn’t. Ask yourself questions. Does it have a different meaning for you than it did at the beginning of the month? Did it make a difference in your life? In what way? Does it make you view your world, your writing, your family and friends in a new way? In a positive way? Great! If not, why not? What can you do to change that? 

5) REVISE: Begin each month afresh. Be flexible in your interpretation of your word and what it should mean in your life. That is the power of a word. It will not always mean the same thing to different people. And it won’t always mean the same thing to you. 

6) BE OPEN: This is so much more than being flexible. Embrace the possibilities. It’s amazing how much one little word can mean to you when you open your arms wide and let it flow over you. Sing it, shout it, whisper your word. Think musically, think poetically, draw your story out. Express your word in a way that really moves you. 

7) RETURN: This is your chance to shrug off those resolutions that frequently cause so much regret by the end of January and live your word. Then RETURN often with prayers of thankfulness and give the glory to God.  

I can’t wait to see how my word RETURN directs my life next month! Returning to my roots come to mind. Hmmm, I write historical romance, so maybe. And I really look forward to finding the meaning of RETURN this December. I can’t wait!

What is your word for 2012?

Rebecca DeMarino is a retired United Airlines Service Director and worked as an Office Manager at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency from March, 2008 until September, 2010. She currently works part-time as a Carnival Cruise Line representative from her home office. She recently signed with literary agent Barbara Scott with WordServe Literary.

Speed Bumps On The Road To Publication

I was driving through the resort grounds in Jamaica, navigating the unfamiliar territory with difficulty in the darkness, when I saw the sign: “Sleeping Policeman.” I was wondering what a police barracks was doing on the grounds of the hotel when I was sent airborne, straining at the seatbelt while my back teeth clattered together. In the clarity that followed, I realized that I’d just seen the Jamaican equivalent of a “Speed Bump” sign.

Just as there are speed bumps on the roads we travel, there are speed bumps on our road to writing. Let me warn you about a few I’ve encountered, because—as I learned the hard way—when we know about the speed bumps they don’t bother us as much.

1) Constructive criticism is necessary. When we write, we know that ultimately someone is going to read what we produce. That’s what it’s all about. But if the only person who reads our work before we submit it to an agent or editor is our spouse or parent or Aunt Sally, we can’t expect any beneficial feedback.

The beginning writer doesn’t generally produce a Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel. But informed and constructive criticism allows us to correct our errors—and hopefully refrain from repeating them—so that everything we write afterwards is better than what went before. Find someone who is knowledgeable, ask them to read and critique your work, and be prepared to experience both pain and growth as a writer.

2) Rejections can convey a message. For a writer, rejections are a way of life. We might as well get used to it. But sometimes, in addition to the usual boilerplate language of “Not right for us at this time” or “Doesn’t fit into our plans”—both of which could be true—an agent or editor may make a comment. When that happens, pay attention.

Admittedly, there are times when the comments aren’t exactly helpful, as when an editor returned one of Tony Hillerman’s stories with a note to the effect of, “This might be better if you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Of course, Hillerman went on to be an award-winning, multi-published novelist with his books about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But sometimes there’s a ray of hope in the comment, such as “I’d be interested in reading this again if you (fill in the blanks)” or “This shows great promise. I’d like to see your next one.” That’s when you take a deep breath and plunge on. The speed bump has slowed you, but it hasn’t brought you to a stop—just redirected you.

3) Hurrying can cause problems. Admittedly, I was in a hurry when I first made the acquaintance of the “Sleeping Policeman” in Jamaica. I’d have been better served by driving more slowly in the first place. That lesson can carry over into writing. Don’t be in a hurry.

You’ve just typed the last line of your first novel. Now how quickly can you send it off the every agent on your list? Hold on. I did something like that with my first novel, submitting it to the editor who’d encouraged me at a conference, and now I’m embarrassed to read it. It was a good first effort, but by no means was it a publishable book. The best advice I can give you is to let the manuscript cool—for a week, a month, or more. Then read through it like an editor, not a writer. Can you remove excess words (or, as Mark Twain put it, kill the adverbs) and passive voice passages? Are your characters well-drawn? Does the plot move smoothly and logically? Then, when you are sure it’s your best work, send it off.

What next? Why, start on the next book. Speed bumps are meant to slow you down, not stop you and make you turn back. Good luck.