Friday, July 17, 2009

How To Sprinkle Your Articles With Humor

-John Philipp

"There are very few good judges of humor, and they don't agree." Josh Billings

I've posted several articles on writing humor. One thing most everyone will agree with is that writing humor is hard work. You have to spend a lot of time looking for just the right word or phrase or device to put the sizzle in you writing.

Even then, how do you know others will think what you wrote is funny? Maybe your twisted, little mind is the only one laughing. Professional comedians try out their material over and over again, honing every nuance and inflection. The average writer definitely does not have the time or access to do that.

If you're writing an article that is meant to be humorous, these obstacles come with the territory. But, what if you'd like to add a little humor to a regular fiction or nonfiction piece, and you don't have the time, or the inclination, or your comedy muse is on an extended vacation?

My suggestion is Quote the Experts.

You can add humor to any article with a few well-placed quotes from people who get paid to be funny. A few sources:

  • "The Comedy Thesaurus - 3,241 Quips, Quotes and Smartass Remarks" by Judy Brown organizes these funny lines by category. "

  • Milton Berle's Private Joke File" book does the same, claiming to index over 10,000 items. I didn't count them myself, but I'm sure Uncle Miltie wouldn't exaggerate.

  • The Internet is a bottomless pit of guffaws. To mention just a few: Jokes 2 has some funny lists sorted by category and Mike Durett's Guide to Humor has a list of humor categories.

What I do when I need a funny quote is I type in the key words of the topic plus "humor" and hit the Google button. That usually gets me what I want. For example, I recently Googled for a quote about American politics and came up with a line by Ronald Reagan, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

I'll mention three places this can work for you. The first is at the beginning of your piece (as I did in this article) and starts you off on a good note.

A second place is in the middle, particularly using a quote about a key word in your topic such as, "Now I want to talk about computer programming, which, as Ron Heuse once said, "is a lot like sex. One mistake and you could have to support it the rest of your life."

The third place to use humorous quotes is (bet you guessed this) at the end. It can be a good way to summarize your message and leave the reader remembering your piece with a smile. And, so saying, I leave you with James Thurber's line, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility."

By the way, when you're trolling the Internet for humor, I'd like to point out that Anonymous was a pen name I used to use. I don't need that anymore, so I'd appreciate it, if you use one of my quips, you use my real name.


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 Prank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes

I thought I'd share one of John's Thought~Bytes with you. You can find them on at the link provided above. John publishes them every Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

W Is For Writing And Structure

My guest today is author Lane Robins, also known as Lyn Benedict (Sins & Shadows). I like her writing style and from what I've read of her, I love the details she is able to weave into her stories so smoothly.

Her topic today is on how to keep control of a story, both in character arcs and plot lines. Especially with deadlines looming. I've seen all sorts of visuals and story building devices to keep everything straight. Her visual is an intriguing concept.

Writing is the best job ever. It gives you the opportunity to create worlds, characters, plots. You get to play with magic, religion, history. Best of all, you get to play with the office supplies.

Call me irrevocably warped by long afternoons in my father's office, but I adore office supplies. As a writer, I get to use them whenever I want. However I want.

Every writer has their own process to creating a novel; mine involves a rainbow of sticky-notes and posterboard.

For me, novel genesis goes something like this:

I clear off the table, or at least half of it. I lay out a piece of foam core, posterboard, sheet of cardboard. I take the cats off of it. Repeatedly. Then I draw a giant W with a black permanent marker.

Most novels have reader expectations built into their frames—genre novels have perhaps more than most. In romance, someone will live happily ever after. In mystery, people will commit crimes and get caught. In fantasy, people will discover how magic can reshape the world. But all of these require twists and turns within the plot, points where the characters react and move in a different direction. The giant W makes me start with those major scenes that drive the plot forward.

So I've got a W, I've got the barest ideas of a plot, I've got a character waiting for conflict, and by god, I've got sticky-notes in scads of colors and shapes.

I start with the first point of the W: the inciting incident, where the story begins. In Kings & Assassins, that's the death of the king. It gets two notes stuck to it, one reads something pithy along the lines of Kill King Aris. The second note, a separate color, represents the main character's emotional track. I find it extraordinarily helpful to attach the character's emotional reaction to each event; it keeps me from forgetting that the characters need to feel. It's always a temptation for me to just move the characters around like little pawns, but that not only makes for an ultimately unsatisfying read, but bores me stiff while I'm writing the novel.

The second point is the first complication that spins out from that inciting incident. It always makes things worse/harder/more unpleasant for the main character. Again, it gets two post-its at a minimum. (The more complicated the story, or the more crowded the character list, the more post-its accumulate until some storyboards look like mosaics. Pretty, but a little daunting.)

The third point, the half-way point of the book is usually a new twist, a new complication, something out of left field for the character who thought they were getting a handle on the first set of problems. Also known as the "things get worse" point. Very often my brain provides a silly little dum-dum-DUM! at this moment as I stick the note on.

The fourth point: oh the fourth point is dreaded. It's the spot in the story that's always blankest to me when I'm brainstorming. I know it's the spot reserved for the character's dark night of the soul, the moment where they have doubts, feel fears, where their plans have failed, where life is bleak and bitter and probably looking like it's going to be cut brutally short. Sadly, I rarely know this point in advance—I guess my brain just likes to leave some mystery in the plot. It usually gets a place holder sticky with a few question marked ideas written on it. It may, however, have a very elaborate emotional arc lined out. After all, I know what my character dreads and fears, and I want him to feel it right there.

After that, it's a steady climb upward, the uphill battle leading to the climactic fifth point of the W, where my long-suffering character can finally triumph, though often at a steep price.

All writers are sadists. I personally blame the writing advice books which tell you to never make things easy for your protagonist, and to kill your darlings. The second advice is really about favorite scenes that don't add much, lines that are out of place, or anything that we put in that we love, but doesn't fit the rest of the story. Thing is, we're writers. We home in on "kill" and the characters suffer for it.

This is a picture of a bare bones W with the beginnings of a post-it note party that I’m putting together so I can write a narrative outline for an upcoming novel. You'll see that there are more than five points represented. The joy of the W is that it allows me to start filling in events along the lines to move my character from point to point in a driven way.

You can faintly see the black sharpie lines of the W beneath the post-its, as well as a scattering of brain food of choice (Peanut m & ms), my beloved and increasingly battered Mac, and a few post-it notes that haven't quite migrated up to the board but belong there. Eventually.

This is a single POV character arc. For multiple POVs, but only one main character—like Kings & Assassins, like Maledicte—the sticky-notes get more numerous, but the W stays static. Occasionally, an antagonist will get enough back story going that I might start a line down the side charting their past, their present, their desired future.

I've got another posterboard going for a more complicated book, a fantasy romance with two main characters whose plots will weave in and out of each others', and for that, I've put up a double W that overlaps. It's definitely ugly and crowded and makes no sense at all to the casual viewer. But to me? It's a road map to another world built out of ordinary office supplies.

Lane Robins was born in Miami, Florida, the daughter of two scientists, and grew up as the first human member of their menagerie. When it came time for a career, it was a hard choice between veterinarian and writer. It turned out to be far more fun to write about blood than to work with it. She has three books out currently, Maledicte, Kings & Assassins, and, writing as Lyn Benedict, Sins & Shadows. She currently lives in Kansas, with an ever-fluctuating number of dogs and cats. You can reach her at Lane can also be found on Facebook.

Other books by the author:

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Writer’s (Evolving) Schedule

It’s always a special treat for me to feature authors I also love to read. Carly Phillips is one such writer and my guest today. I’ve been reading Carly’s books long before she began writing single titles. One day, I had nothing to read so popped over to my sister’s house to raid her book stash (we tend to do this with each other’s books) and picked up two books she said were good. They were Perfect Partners and Brazen.

I liked the way the author made me laugh and her characters. That hasn’t changed over the years. I recently finished Lucky Charm. Loved Gabby—my kind of woman—and Derek. I’m now reading Lucky Streak and can I just say…Mike…yum.

Carly’s topic today is something writers can relate to, scheduling writing time, dealing with distractions of every day life, as well as the way we deal with changes.

I'm often asked what’s the best part about being a writer? Easy answer. Making my own schedule. What’s the worst part? Also making my own schedule. As a stay at home mom with two girls (now 17 and 13), I’ve learned to be adaptable. I started to write when my first daughter was just one. I needed to learn to write when she napped or occupied herself (hah!). Luckily, I’ve always been a person who needed background noise to write. In High School, later college and law school, radio or TV would keep me company. In fact, silence is too noisy for me! Over the years, I kept up quite the writing pace – at times – 4 Harlequin Temptations a year. I must have written through many distractions!

When I started writing single title romances, starting with The Bachelor, the length and different complexity brought me to two books a year. Although this was still the word count equivalent to the four Temptations. But I definitely started to slow down. Hit more blocks. I used to think that when the newness of the career wore off, sometimes it became more like work than love. But then I’d realize no matter how hard the stories were to write, I still loved what I do. But I found myself in a new pattern – writing less in the beginning of a deadline, scrambling more towards the end. I realize now this isn’t so much a function of laziness or wasting time (OK well there is SOME of that) but beginnings are more difficult for me than middles and endings.

In the beginning, I’m establishing character, motivation, conflict and story. I often find myself going back and weaving in something big that should have been there all along. For awhile this was frustrating. I thought it was because I didn’t preplan enough. But as the Plotmonkey Group evolved (we go away as a group 2 times a year to plot), I WAS getting the preplotting work and still struggling through beginnings. So I now accept, this is my process. The beginning is slow and requires reworking and revising a lot; and the middle and ends go much faster.

With this new process, I needed a new schedule. I could no longer rely on “writing when I can.” It’s funny. I thought when my kids got older, I’d write more. Instead I found myself writing less. That’s when I realized something had to change. And it did.

USA Today Bestselling Author Janelle Denison is my critique partner and friend. We talk for hours every day. She lives in Oregon, I live in NY. We both have girls the same age. And we both hit the same scheduling issues at the same time. We decided to try something: We “meet” online (via AIM) at 9 AM EST; 6 PM PST (yes this requires more dedication on her end as she has to wake up very early!) – we say hi on AIM (Instant Messenger). Janelle sets the alarm for 30 minutes, and we write straight through. When the time is up, she IM’s and asks if I’m up for 30 more. We do this for an hour – an hour and a half. I no longer book 9 AM doctor or hair appointments. I try to ignore (thanks to Caller ID) calls that can wait. When possible, nothing else happens until I’m finished at 10:30/11:00 AM. Yes, occasionally life gets in the way. Pages don’t happen. But I always pick up and start over the next day at 9 AM.

We’ve been at this since March. When I started I was on page 80 and now I’m on 250. I will meet my deadline, yes with a rush towards the end, but my goal for the next book is to start with this scheduling and write daily. If I keep it up, I may turn in a book early (as opposed to just on time) for the first time in years. And I may end up relaxed throughout the process.

One can always hope!

The point in sharing this is to tell you that life isn’t static. It’s chaos and change. The days when I used to plan an entire day to write, one of the kids would get sick. When I had only a spare hour, I’d crank out pages. Over time, not only did I need to adapt but also I needed more routine. For now, I have that. I’m sure over time, this schedule will need to morph into something different, as my life’s needs change. But having seen the value in daily writing – it comes faster; easier; more consistent flow – I want to continue.

So if you’re not writing the way you’d like, take a look at your life and your schedule. See where you can make changes and PROTECT THE WORK (rumor has it this phrase comes from Nora – not surprising – and I thank her for it!). If you don’t mark your work time as sacred, no one else will!
A few extra things about Carly:

How did you get started as a writer?

Sometimes I wonder myself! I never planned on becoming a writer, let alone a romance writer. I was a lawyer who loved law school but hated practicing law. Not a great combination let me tell you! My parents always said I could be a perpetual student and they are probably right. But I loved reading romance when my first daughter was small. I began to notice that many of the hardcover authors got their start at Harlequin or Silhouette. Eventually I got an idea that wouldn't go away—I wanted to write for them too! Seven years and ten completed manuscripts later, I sold my first book, Brazen, to Harlequin Temptation.

Where do you work?

I have an office right off my bedroom. A separate room from my room that isn't on top of the kids and yet is right in the center of things. I'm always around when they need me and they come in here to do homework. I recently bought a recliner, an idea given to me by Vicki Lewis Thompson, who suggested I use it as my place to write with my Alphasmart on my lap. Unfortunately I use it to nap, instead. I’ve also learned that if I write too often on the laptop, I end up with back pain, arm pain, and in physical therapy.

Favorite way to waste a day ...
Shopping, soap opera watching in the afternoon with the dogs at my side, hanging with my girls and my mom!

Biggest vice ... Buying makeup and handbags—it's embarrassing the amount I own!

Want to learn more about Carly, fun facts, her books, and pictures? Stop by and vistit her wonderful website:

Carly Phillips started her writing career with the Harlequin Temptation line in 1999 with Brazen and she's never strayed far from home! Carly has since published more than 15 books and hit the New York Times bestseller list with her famous "Reading with Ripa" pick, the first romance ever chosen for a nationally televised book club, The Bachelor, and its sequel, The Playboy.
Carly lives in Purchase, New York, with her husband, two daughters and frisky soft-coated Wheaten terrier, who acts like their third child. When she's not spending time with her family, Carly is busy writing, promoting and playing online! To learn more about this quickly rising star of romance,