Friday, June 19, 2009


John Philipp will be sharing a five part series of articles on writing humor.

John tends to teach by example, as you will see.

However he does touch on several good points: how to find humor, developing a concept, and how to stretch the facts.

I have to admit that I don't invent most of my column topics. I'm lazy; I use the newspaper. A recent front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle stated, "Consumers cruising the aisles of supermarkets this week will find a new green tea beverage with an astounding claim: Drink it and burn calories. Coca-Cola and Nestlé say consuming three cans a day of their new product, Enviga, will burn 60 to 100 calories." With provocative journalism like this, why bother to invent anything myself?

OK. Armed with the concept that the more you drink the skinnier you get, let your imagination out of its cage, point it at the idea in question and let it run rampant, which is a journalistic term meaning, "Damn the facts! Full Speed ahead!"

All you need to write a humor column is a newspaper, a brain that works slightly better than a sloth's and a couple of tried and trite techniques.

One trick to turn the funny screws on anything is to stretch it to its ultimate limit. So, let's extrapolate — which is different than exfoliate, only in that skin is not involved. In this case, if you can burn 100 calories for every three cans of Enviga you drink, what would happen if you drank more? According to nutritionists (never mind which ones), it takes 3600 calories to make a pound; so drinking 108 cans will burn off another ugly pound of you. Or, in the case of a 180-pound man, drinking 19,440 cans will make him disappear. Those are the boundaries of your column about consumers doing what they do best: consuming. In this case, somewhere between 3 and 19,440 cans of Enviga.

Now, apply your imagination to that scenario. Yes, that very same skill your third-grade teacher told you not to use when doing fractions. Imagine how much 19,440 cans of caffeine-laden soda will speed up our 180-pound man. Maybe the Enviga scenario is a man's ultimate defense against the onslaughts of his wife's PMS. It provides him with everything he needs: the ability to duck quickly and then disappear.

This theory has a few practical downsides, but fortunately for you — the budding columnist humor isn't about downsides. Or practicality.

Another technique you can use is the "side-shuffle." Start with Enviga and imagine how that might be extended to other products. If a soft drink will burn calories, what if I apply that technology to other food groups like fruits, vegetables, nuts, pizza or beer? Why a whole testosterone-infused room of Super Bowl watchers eating Enviga-laced pizza washed down with Envigabeer would disappear before the opening kickoff. The ultimate weapon for football widows.

A question people ask me is, "How do you find time to conduct the extensive background research required for a newspaper column?" Those people are confusing humorism with journalism. A professional humorist might occasionally check a fact on the Internet (especially if the topic has anything to do with pornography), while professional journalists have been known to spend all day and night in a bar to wheedle the true story out of another professional journalist. Each lists the other as a confidential source on their expense account.

I do use Google to check the spelling of proper names. You type the name the way you think it's spelled, like "Gerring," and Google will spit back, "Do you mean Goering?" which, of course, is the proper spelling. This use of the Internet assumes a) I don't already have a funny misspelling of the name and b) that I care.

A final note: Nothing gives a newspaper column the ring of authenticity like an interview with an acknowledged expert. I use an Acme All-Purpose Right-hand Puppet, add a few funny voices I do and type whatever I say with my left hand. Then I Google-up a funny name.

My final advice: write at home. Once I have in mind the pieces of a column, I mull them over while I pace through the rooms of my house. Pacing helps my thinking process and allows me to deduct 87 percent of my house for tax purposes. That and my Chronicle subscription.


John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Am Not A Natural Writer

It is my pleasure to introduce to you, award winning humorist, John Philipp. John writes for several California newspapers and aside from those columns, he also has a thought provoking series called Thought~Bytes.

I asked him if he’d be willing to share some humor writing tips with us Over Coffee. Humor is something used in many genres and takes quite a bit of skill to pull off effectively.

John has graciously agreed to share a series of articles on writing humor. So for the next month, starting Friday, June 19th I will be featuring his articles here on Over Coffee.

John shares some thoughts on writing humor:

I am not a natural writer. I am a natural talker or so I thought until I transcribed a conversation I'd had with someone.

OK, I'm not a natural talker or a natural writer. (I am a natural eater and, while important to waist management, which has little relevance here.) I do consider myself a natural humorist. Taking that as strength, my choices were: do standup or write a humor column. I chose to learn how to write.

I wrote a few columns on topics I thought were funny and discovered I had some faults and was missing some skills. For example, I was not grounded in grammar. I felt one should write a sentence the way it sounds best. Turns out this is not true for a large percentage of readers, especially those in the newspaper business. If I wanted to write my own way I should have opted to do standup, but then there's the queasy stomach thing.

There are two relatively easy fixes to poor grammar — and neither of them is to study a grammar book. Sitting down, reading, and practicing the proper timing and placement of commas in sentences is, I am convinced, one of the top ten punishments in the Lower Kingdom.

I got better at grammar by lurking and reading writing critique websites where people edit and correct each other's writing. That experience also made me a more observant reader, grammarwise.

The second solution to better grammar is a semi-magical person called a copywriter. It is their job to correct your grammar, double check facts, correct proper name spelling and steward the use of capitals. Everything published needs a copy editor, if only because every publisher has a set of standards they follow (such as the AP Stylebook) and I guarantee you that you could spend your whole life studying and still never know when you should use a numeric character versus write out the word.

Spelling was another fault, one that surprised me. Either I've been leading a myopic life or spelling of some common words has changed since I was in grammar school (irony noted). Perhaps changing the spelling of words occurs at the same time when the government takes or gives us hours on the clock. Fortunately, there's an easy, electronic fix for bad spelling.

I found plenty of other faults that with practice and a damn good checklist I have pruned down to an acceptable level of occurrence.

The topic of missing skills was harder to overcome...

June 19th: How to Write a Humor Column.
June 26th:
Writing Humor—Random Association Part I
July 3rd:
Writing Humor—The Art of Exaggeration Part II
July 10th:
Writing Humor—Part III
July 17th: How To sprinkle Your Articles (Writing) With Humor


John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at
His wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes

Monday, June 15, 2009

Learning to Embrace Whimsy

Many aspiring authors look for the magic formula to get published. Writers work hard to perfect their craft, keep an eye on the market as to what is selling, and analyze books they read with the view to selling their manuscripts. Then there are the workshops they attend, the writing groups joined and a lot of ‘sit your butt in the chair’ time writing. Instead of collecting the paychecks they envisioned, they have a folder full of rejections. Why?

Multi-published author, Libby Malin, is my guest today. Libby shares her journey from prepublication to published author. She discusses the importance of accepting the publishing business for what it is, not what we
want it to be.

Early in my writing career, in those prepublication days before The Call, I decided to approach commercial novel writing…. logically. By that time, I’d collected a file full of rejections for a couple manuscripts that I had been confident were absolute surefire sales. And yet they didn’t sell. What was wrong? I knew I was a decent writer (maybe not an exceptional one, but surely as good as published novelists on the market). And I believed with every fiber of my being that the novels I’d lovingly crafted were good yarns with believable characters.

Filled with frustration, I decided to approach the problem with scientific precision. After purchasing a few romantic comedies, I sat down with book, pen, and marble notebook, determined to outline them in my quest for the right formula. Although I was interested in writing across several genres, a couple of my rom coms (as they’re called in the biz) had been rejected recently, and by gum I was going to figure out why. Surely taking an analytical approach to publishing would do the trick.

I don’t remember the title of the novel I applied this process to. It was a Harlequin book, by a multi-published author, if I recall correctly. All I remember clearly was writing the chapter numbers on lined pages of the notebook, followed by some bullet points on what happened in each chapter, major plot points, comedic moments, character developments, etc.

And at the end of this exercise, I had….a notebook full of scribbles. I hadn’t learned a thing about what made that novel publishable and mine not so much. If anything, I was even more confused. My manuscripts seemed to me to contain each element I had meticulously outlined, and were every bit as engaging as the one I just read.

After my outlining experiment, the publishing business seemed even more capricious to me, even more arbitrary. I’m a reasonably intelligent woman, and if there was a pattern here, a formula for success, it wasn’t obvious to me.

But of course there is no formula for publishing success. Sure, some books are “formulaic,” stealing the patriarchal church-conspiracy notes from The Davinci Code or the secondary-historical-figure template of The Other Boleyn Girl. But… for every Davinci Code knock-off that sold to an editor, there were probably dozens of comparable quality that didn’t make the cut.

As I said, there is no formula. There is only personal taste.

Sometimes that taste gets filtered through imprint and marketing demands (such as a fiat from the marketing department to buy Davinci Code-like books), but ultimately, an editor buys a book because she (wait for it) loves it. And whether she loves it has everything to do with who she is, whether she’s into punk or classical, likes American Idol or The Tudors, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, or identifies more with Ginger or Mary Ann.

Once an author has achieved a certain level of quality, whether that author’s manuscript gets chosen for publication often has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s talent or even, sometimes, market pressure. It has to do with what the editor is feeling…about life, as well as about the manuscript you’re submitting at the moment she picks it up to read it.

The moral of the story: if you’re serious about being published, you have to accept this whimsical process, and keep trying, hoping to make that right connection with an editor.

A multi-published author I know recently did an interview with a romance-oriented magazine. In talking about publishing success, she said it really came down to three things – talent, perseverance, and being in the right place at the right time.

I’m convinced my manuscripts in those early days were falling into that third category. Or rather, not falling into it. I was not in the right place at the right time, not hitting the right editor, not hitting her at the right moment.

The business is capricious. That’s all there is to it. You can write the Best Novel of All Time and still not find an editor willing to sign a contract with you. You can write a novel that barely makes it over the threshold of acceptability (and I’ve read a few of these, even tossing one into the trash can after finishing it) and find an editor who will pay you to get it into print.

This was a hard lesson for me to absorb. When I started writing fiction, I figured it was just a matter of time, that once I’d perfected my craft and learned the ropes, I’d be appropriately rewarded. And once I got in—got published, that is—I’d be on my way to huge success.

I did get in eventually, with a YA mystery published by a small press that then went on to be an Edgar nominee, followed by four more YAs and two humorous women’s fiction books.

I started in this business with dreams of financial independence as a bestselling novelist, thinking that all I had to do once I’d reached a certain writing level was have an editor ooh and aah over my effort.

Now, I’ve arrived at quite a different place--- I understand just how much success depends on luck coupled with persistence, no matter how talented you might be. Nonetheless, I feel very happy just to be able to write, doubly happy when a publisher wants to buy what I write, and always hopeful that the “next book” will be the Big One.


Although writing was always her first love, Libby earned both bachelor's and master's degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and also attended the summer American School of Music in Fontainebleau, France. After graduating from Peabody, she worked as a Spanish gypsy, a Russian courtier, a Middle-Eastern slave, a Japanese Geisha, a Chinese peasant, and a French courtesan – that is, she sang as a union chorister in both Baltimore and Washington Operas, where she regularly had the thrill of walking through the stage doors of the Kennedy Center Opera House before being costumed and wigged for performance. She also sang with small opera and choral companies in the region.She eventually turned to writing full-time, finding work in a public relations office and then as a freelancer for various trade organizations and small newspapers.For many years, she and her family lived in Vermont, where she worked as an education reform advocate, contributed occasional commentaries to Vermont Public Radio and was a member of the Vermont Commission on Women.A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. She is married and has three children.
Libby Malin’s latest book, Fire Me, is a romantic comedy released by Sourcebooks. It tells the tale of Anne Wyatt who goes into work one day ready to hand in her resignation, only to change course when she learns her boss will lay off an employee by the end of the day. Determined to win the pink slip and the severance package that goes with it, Anne engages in wild antics and crazy stunts all designed to catch her boss’ negative vibes. By the end of the day, she’s learned a lot about life and love and the choices she’s made in both. Fire Me has been described as “hilarious,” “inspired,” and “the perfect beach bag” book by reviewers.

Fire Me is Libby’s sixth published novel. Her debut women's fiction book, Loves Me, Loves Me Not (2005), was hailed as a "whimsical look at the vagaries of dating..." by Publishers Weekly, called “charming” by the Washington Post, and dubbed a "clever debut (offering) quite a few surprises..." by Booklist.

Writing as Libby Sternberg, she is the author of four YA mysteries, the first of which was an Edgar finalist and a Young Adult Top 40 Fiction Pick by the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Her YAs have been called “taut, vivid and stirring” (Library Journal), “simply a delight to read” (Romantic Times Book Club), “lively and captivating” (VOYA) and “an entertaining original” (Romance Reviews Today).

You can visit with Libby at her website: