Friday, July 3, 2009

Writing Humor, Part II - The Art of Exaggeration: Steal from the Barry Best

John Philipp

If you want to write comedy, you have to learn to steal. I don't mean plagiarize; I mean steal, a long-standing, revered (or at least tolerated) technique among comedians.

Of course, you don't lift whole sections of a humorist's work and call it your own. Don't even use their punch lines without giving them credit. But you can analyze their writing and steal devices. If you are going to steal, do as Milton Berle did: steal from the very best.

One of the very best is Dave Barry, one of only two humorists to ever win the coveted Pulitzer Prize (the other was Art Buchwald).

What are Dave's secrets? One is that he's a master of using exaggeration to heighten humor. Consider this passage about the plight of the American male when faced with the 4307 dials and settings on the modern washing machine. (See, I'm using exaggeration as well.)

  • "We worry that if we get just one variable wrong, we will find ourselves facing a wrathful spouse, who is holding up a garment that was once a valued brassiere of normal dimensions, but is now suitable only as a sun hat for a small, two-headed squirrel."
What makes exaggeration most effective is when you apply it to a real situation - in this case, the known fact that an improper temperature setting can cause some garments to shrink. Then you pick the funniest garment as an example and shrink it to an exaggerated, absurd level.

Dave once told me that after he writes his column he spends days going over every sentence and every word looking for the funniest option. Squirrel was the winner in this case. He asked, "Which is funnier: hamster or gerbil?" I answered, "Gerbil." Dave said, "No, weasel is even funnier. You have to keep stretching.

"The key is to not hold back, the bigger the exaggeration, the funnier the line. Mr. Barry, some examples if you please:
  • "Eugene is located in western Oregon, approximately 278 billion miles from anything."

  • "I have been a gigantic Rolling Stones fan since approximately the Spanish-American War."

  • "If you were to open up a baby's head - and I am not for a moment suggesting that you should - you would find nothing but an enormous drool gland."

  • "It is a well-documented fact that guys will not ask for directions. This is a biological thing. This is why it takes several million sperm cells ... to locate a female egg, despite the fact that the egg is, relative to them, the size of Wisconsin."

  • "She has enough leftovers to make turkey sandwiches for everybody in Belgium."

  • Re: an explicit lingerie outfit: it was "so sheer you could read an appliance warranty through it in an unlit closet."
And, you can exaggerate in the other direction, as in, "Gravity is a contributing factor in nearly 73 percent of all accidents involving falling objects."

Another way to use exaggeration is though metaphors and analogies. Again, we can look to Mr. Barry for a graduate course in using these devices. Here are some examples that also incorporate exaggeration for a double-whammy:
  • "Our primary living-room sofa looks like a buffalo that has been dead for some time."

  • (The singer) "sounded like a water buffalo giving birth over a public address system."

  • "Aging faster than a day-old bagel in a hot dumpster."

  • A teenaged boy is "basically a walking hormone storm."
And, when you find a good exaggerated metaphor, extend it even further:
  • "Even as I write these words, there is a spider right outside my house that could serve, all by itself, as our NATO forces. This spider has erected a web that covers most of our property and contains wrapped-up food bundles the size of missing neighborhood dogs."
The last point is that when you write comedy you take out all qualifiers. Delete, probably, some people, sometimes and maybe — all those words that weaken the exaggerated position you are taking. These words would be appropriate if you were trying to be realistic. You're not. You're trying to be funny.

(If you want samples to learn from, while Dave stopped writing columns last year, his newspaper, the Miami Herald, reprints his classics every week at Dave Barry Classic Columns )

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, July 1, 2009

Life Changing Moments

Please welcome Suspense author LJ Sellers.

I've always enjoy hot summer read. LJ Sellers has a tasty recipe for a one: toss in some criminal intrigue, add in murder, human drama, shavings of socio-political themes, and then add a cool Detective to solve it all and you have The Sex Club. Nail biting is optional. Or not.

Lj shares with us some thoughts on life changing moments. She touches on writing, day jobs, the need to feel good about yourself while waiting for that 'break' from aspiring author to being published.

Milestones tend to make me reflective. Often they make me want to reassess and regroup. Not this one. Nearly 20 years ago, I sat down and started my first novel. I remember the scene clearly: a Commodore computer set up in the bedroom, a cup of coffee in hand, and a yellow reporter’s tablet with some sketched-out ideas.

Much has happened in my writing career since then, and we’d need a whole pot of coffee to cover it. Two events, though, stand out as game-changers in how I lived my life. The first was an epiphany I had about nine years after starting that first novel. I read an interview with a scriptwriter who’d recently sold his first screenplay for big money. When the interviewer asked if he would do anything differently (given the chance), the writer said, “If I had known it would take ten years to sell a script, I would have found a better day job.”

That hit home with me. At the time I was waiting tables and doing a little freelance writing. There’s not much editorial work in Eugene, Oregon, but still, working as a food server was making me feel bad about myself. Also, I had recently failed to sell a novel, even though my top-notch agent told me we had an offer. (Crushing!)

I realized I had to find a better day job—immediately! I had to resume my career and put my journalism degree and inquisitive mind to work in a productive and satisfying capacity. Hating your job is no way to live. How you spend every day is critical.

So I stopped living for the future—that day when my novels would sell and my life would change. I found a job as a pharmaceutical magazine editor, and I accepted, on some level, that nonfiction writing and editing would be my career and that it would be enough.

It was great move. I instantly felt better about myself. Over time, I developed extensive editing and layout skills that would serve me well for a lifetime in publishing. (I also learned a lot about drugs!) I kept writing fiction in my spare time though. It’s an addictive little hobby.

Seven years later, the magazine moved to New York and I was laid off. While I looked for work, I used the opportunity to finish writing The Sex Club, the novel that would finally launch my career as mystery/suspense author. Still needing the security of a paycheck, I soon found a position with an editorial publisher. It was a wonderful job, but it took every bit of brain power I had. In the two and half years with that company, I didn’t write a single word of new fiction.

In the long run, it was not a happy time in my life.

Then last March, as the economy started to tank, they laid me off. It was nerve racking but also incredibly liberating. I decided to do things a little differently this time. I decided to write first thing every morning, no matter what. (Thus the name of my blog: Write First, Clean Later

I developed a freelance editing business that allowed me to work on my schedule—with the paid work done during afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Mornings were for writing novels.

I love my new life! My bathroom is perpetually messy, dinner is often an unimaginative freezer-to-oven meal, and there’s laundry backed up everywhere. I’m also never sure if the next freelance gig will pay the bills. But since that lifestyle change fifteen months ago, I’ve written two more Detective Jackson novels and I’m working on a third. One of those stories will be published in September, and another book will be released in August next year.

My husband says he’s never seen me so happy. It’s the first time in my life I’ve put my novel writing first. Making a living, raising kids, taking care of an extended family, and keeping the house together were always a priority. Those things are all still important; I just don’t let them get in the way anymore. I also realize how lucky I am to be in this position.

One of the best things about this new life is the social networking. I love blogging and sharing writing and marketing advice with other novelists. I love meeting writers and readers online and getting to know them. I love attending conferences and being a part of the crime novelist community.

The takeaway message is this: Enjoy every day (and every task). And make time to do what you love, whether it’s writing, or skydiving, or quilting. It’s the only way to be truly happy.

Have you had a life changing moment? If so, please share.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out in September (Echelon Press). A standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, will be released in August next year (Echelon Press). When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys cycling, gardening, editing fiction manuscripts, and hanging out with her extended family.
You can find LJ on Facebook, Crimespace, and Twitter.

Lj's Website

You can read an excerpt of:

The Sex Club

Secrets To Die For

To be released September 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009


My guest today is debut author, Lavinia Kent. She’s written a hot new Historical that’s been called “sexy and emotional experience that will sweep you off your feet!” and “an intense romance … it's a steamy story - but also a beautiful one showing the redeeming power of love."

I saw the cover, read the blurb and excerpt, (there is a link at the bottom of the Bio to read the excerpt) and knew it was one I wanted to read. It’s now proudly sitting on my To Be Read pile.

Lavinia touches on something that many writers and authors have noticed when reading as new books. How do you turn off the automatic editing/critiquing witch and just get lost in the book? Is that forever gone now that we’re writers?

I’ve just started reading one of this summer’s buzz books. A friend who said, “it was the book of the year” for her, gave it to me. I must admit it’s pulled me right in, but I still having a hard time really enjoying it.


It’s certainly is a wonderful book, every bit as good as I was told.

It’s even my type of book – a smart and sexy historical.

So what’s the problem?

I can’t stop reading it as a writer. I keep find myself analyzing sentence structure and thinking about plot devices. I am not doing this because the author didn’t do well. I am doing it because I want to understand and learn; to try and figure out what she’s doing and whether it’s something I would want to do. I examine how much description there is, how the dialogue tags work, how she manages to work description of the character’s emotions into the dialogue without losing the pacing. It’s all fascinating, but it definitely keeps me from enjoying the narrative the way I used to. It’s hard to get swept away by passion when examing word choice.

My problem is that I didn’t set out to do this. I just wanted to lie back and enjoy a great book. Instead, I am thinking about characterization and plotting.

I never used to be this way. It used to be that all that mattered was whether or not I enjoyed a book. I didn’t care about the whys. Now, it’s almost impossible for me to read without thinking about these things.

Oh, I can get swept away and not think about it for an hour or so, but then the very fact that I was swept away causes me to go back and think about the text. It’s a vicious circle.

I learn a lot by doing this, but I’d give even more to be able to go back to the complete absorption that I used to experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love reading. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. I am one of those people who could probably spend her whole life sitting on the beach with a cold drink and a book. I don’t get bored. I just get relaxed.

But it’s rarely the same as it used to be. I am always analyzing and thinking. I sometimes think the better the book; the more I try to figure out why. I often have to reread books before I can just sit back and enjoy them.

Does anybody else have this problem? Am I destined to spend my life thinking about why words work instead of just enjoying them?

Does anybody have the number for Critiquing Anonymous?


Lavinia Kent never knew that most people don’t make up stories in their heads to pass the time. She still has a hard time understanding how those who don’t survive the doctor’s waiting room or a grocery store line without another world to escape into.

Growing up in New York state and Wisconsin, Lavinia graduated from Wellesley College and, for reasons that are still not quite clear, also holds an MBA from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University. Lavinia has remained in Washington ever since.

She lives under the gracious (and usually benign) rule of Erzsebet, the cat, along with her husband, three children, one cockatiel, two rats, and Erzsebet’s younger, subordinate tomcat, otherwise known as The Golden Snitch.

As the mother of three, Lavinia finds “leisure time” to be ever-elusive, but when she is not reading romance novels, she watches far too much HBO and reality television. It must also be noted that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Buffy.

Lavinia is a two-term president of the Washington Romance Writers and is proud to be a four-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart nominee.
She is excited (and humbled and thrilled and over the moon) about the publication of her first historical romance,
A Talent for Sin in June 2009 by Avon Romance.

Lavinia hopes that readers will find this
excerpt as tempting as Lady Violet finds Lord Peter on Lavinia's Website.