Where have all the humor writers gone? I lived much of my early and midlife in a wonderful sea of humorists writing for magazines and newspapers. Now they’re all gone. The last two newspaper humorists, as far as I know, were the great Dave Barry and the equally great Erma Bombeck. The only humorist I knew personally was Ed Zern. When I was breaking into magazines with my own humor, Ed was a great promoter of my work with New York editors.
I’m not sure why all the humorists seem to have vanished. I do know that editors hate humor. An editor once wrote and asked me to write for his magazine. “But not humor,” he said, “it’s too dangerous!” So maybe that’s the reason.
Anyway, here are some humorists I’ve enjoyed over the years: Dave Barry, Ed Zern, Corey Ford, Art Buchwald, James Thurber, H. Allen Smith, Dan Jenkins, Richard Armour, Jean Shepherd, Robert Benchley, Erma Bombeck, Russell Baker, Max Shulman, Woody Allen, Jean Kerr, Dorothy Parker, and E. B. White. I believe most of them can be found in your local library, even those that go back into the Twenties and Thirties.
When Ed Zern died, a New York newspaper gave him an obit of half a page. One of his local newspapers gave him a nice obit and then listed my books as Ed’s. I was flattered. To be confused with Ed was a great compliment.
(Here are more suggestions and theories from Pat to a young woman who is writing a book about her illness.)
Try to work in a bit of visual detail where ever you can. This is a theory of mine. A good writer turns on a tiny movie in the reader’s mind. The reader sees what is happening. Just remember to drop in a visual detail from time to time, so that the visual element doesn’t disappear for the reader. This is my own theory, as far as I know. I learned it by watching how an audience responds to my plays. I once heard a woman say after one of the plays, “I can’t understand it. I was just seeing mountains and barns and creeks, and all of a sudden I realized there was only an actor up there on a bare stage.”
Basically I think the writer should keep the reader from ever noticing the writing. If you have an awkward sentence, the reader instantly becomes aware of the writing. The same is true with a repetition of a word or a sentence structure. Worst of all is “fine” writing. One time I wrote the phrase “splashing through shallow pools of sunlight on the trail.” I knew I should strike it out, but I liked it so much I left it in. Months later I ran into an English professor I knew in a hallway at the university where I taught. He said, “Ah, McManus, I just read a story of yours in the barbershop and there was a phrase in it I liked very much—splashing through…” He said, “I didn’t know you did fine writing.” That’s when I knew I should always cut out fine writing. My theory, which may be wrong, is that the writing should flow into the reader’s head without him or her being aware that it is writing.
Point of view is tricky but very important. For example, the four-inch-long bruises on your legs. You obviously can’t see them from your position of lying in the bed. Perhaps your mother says to the nurse, “My God, where did she get those bruises on her legs? They must be four inches long.” The nurse says, “That’s where she was strapped to the operating table.” In other words, some invention must be required in regard to point of view. Even in a factual book, I don’t think that is wrong. It’s worse to have the reader think, “How did she know she had bruises on her legs if she’s lying flat in bed?”
In regard to flashbacks, introduce earlier scenes like, “I’m nine years old and sitting in fifth grade. My friend Mary leans forward over her desk and whispers in my ear…” Keeping track of your age at each point of the book would be important for the reader.
Suppose your book is based in the present time, say when just you meet the love of your life. You start thinking back to various phases of your life. You go back to that scene and treat it in present tense. When you have completed that scene, your love walks into the room and you are back to “now.”
More Thoughts on Writing Humor
Approaching the end of my senior year in college, I suddenly realized that I might soon have to get regular job. I wrote to the editor of Sunset Magazine, a man by the name of Proctor Millquist. In my usual careless fashion in those days, I wrote in the salutation, “Dear Mr. Proctor,” which was like writing, “Dear Mr. Fred.” You might expect that an editor whose name you had reversed might simply ignore your application for a job, or at least write back, “We have no openings for persons who reverse the editor’s name.” Instead, Mr. Millquist wrote me back a nice letter, saying the magazine didn’t have any openings at the present time but that I should contact his Northwest editor in Seattle, Ms. Nancy Davidson, to discuss freelance assignments. I phoned Ms. Davidson. She invited me to Seattle to discuss freelance assignments. From the Pullman campus of Washington State University I rushed to Seattle. You must keep in mind here that I was a 20-year-old kid raised in the mountains of North Idaho and still had copious amounts of forest moss behind the ears. I was amazed that the Northwest editor of Sunset Magazine would take the time out of her busy schedule to discuss anything with someone like me.
I arrived an hour early at the Seattle building containing Sunset’s offices on an upper floor. I don’t think I had ever before ridden in an elevator and this would be a new and frightening experience for me. As I sat in the lobby of the building, waiting for the time of my appointment, the most spectacular lady I had ever seen in my life swept through the lobby. She was tall and graceful, had beautiful silver hair, and wore a cape! I had never before seen anyone like her! I thought, “Oh, I hope that isn’t Nancy Davidson.” But it turned out to be! As I was soon to learn, Nancy Davidson was also extremely gracious. She talked to me for a whole hour. In the course of that meeting, she gave me the best advice I have ever received in regard to writing. She told me how to come up with ideas for articles: “Take the ordinary and reverse it.
As soon as I got home, I tried to think of something ordinary that I could reverse. I intended the article for a winter issue of Sunset. So I asked myself, what do you do in the summer that you could reverse and do in the winter. I thought of several possibilities but finally it occurred to me that one of the things you do in summer is go on picnics. For a winter issue of Sunset, why not a winter picnic! So I wrote an article on winter picnics and Sunset bought it! Sunset has since run several articles on winter picnics but I wrote the first!
Eventually, when I began to write humor, I remembered Ms. Davidson’s advice: “reverse the ordinary.” Field & Stream often published articles on the best hunting dogs in the world. I wrote a humor piece on my dog Strange, the worst hunting dog in the world. It was bought and published. There was a Field & Stream feature titled “The Old Man And The Boy” in which Robert Ruark wrote about a wise old man giving advice to a boy. I reversed this and wrote about an ignorant old man giving advice to a boy, namely Rancid Crabtree and myself. Where the other writers gave advice on how to catch fish and shoot game, I gave advice on how not to catch fish and shoot game. I used the “reverse” on numerous factual articles, too. It was the most valuable writing advice anyone has ever given me, and I pass it on to you free of charge. Dang, I wish there was some way to charge, because that advice is invaluable!
**Everything I Know About Writing
There are many good books on writing at your local library, and you should read all of them or at least those on topics of particular interest to you. Writers' Market used to be an essential book for all freelance writers, and I suspect it is still useful, but it is not the great resource it once was. It will tell you who is buying what, how much, how to prepare manuscripts and submit them, etc. The best book on magazine article writing and writing in general, in my opinion, is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.The way to become a professional writer is to set aside a period of time each day for writing—two hours is about right. And then write seven days a week. In a month, you will have learned more than all the writing classes could ever have taught you.[Organizing with chapter cards. Photograph by Bun.]
Don’t be afraid of imitating writers that you particularly enjoy reading. Your own style will eventually develop through the process of your own writing. Imitation is the best way to learn. Of famous writers, I think Ernest Hemingway is the best one to learn from. The worst Hemingway is probably the best for learning, because it’s easier to see what he’s doing. That doesn’t mean you have to write like Hemingway. Sometimes he even gives advice. I like what he has to say about the “three cushion” pool shot: " I try to do the thing by the three cushion shot rather than by words or direct statement. But maybe we must have the direct statement, too." Let the reader put two or three things together to know something about a character; don't tell them straight out. For example, don't say my friend Jack is precise. Show them Jack filling his gas tank to even gallons or balancing his checkbook to the penny.
Get your stuff published. Local newspapers and local magazines of all kinds are a great place to start. Once you have published your first piece—anywhere—you are on your way. The first published piece will be a major psychological breakthrough for you. After that, you will know that you can do it. Once you have published a few pieces in a local publication, set your sights a little higher. Don’t try to start at the top of the ladder; you will only be discouraged, unless, of course, you happen to be a genius. And the editor you send the piece to is also a genius. You will often become discouraged by responses from editors, or no responses from editors, but if you let that stop you, you weren’t meant for this business. Rejection is a big part of becoming a writer. If you can’t stand rejection, writing is probably the wrong career for you.
A former college student of mine, who went on to a very successful career in writing, told me the other day at lunch that I had once informed a writing workshop not to be afraid of contacting celebrities, if that’s whom you want to write about. So she sent Carol Burnett a letter, and ended up interviewing Ms. Burnett at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. She sold the piece to Working Women magazine.
Analyze the publication to which you want to aim your article or story. Study at least a dozen issues: what kinds of articles have they run in the past, what kinds of ads do they run, what are the special interests of the audience, etc. In order to sell to a publication, you need to understand it almost as well as the editor does—perhaps better. Almost any magazine-article writing book in the library will show you how to do this. The rest depends on your own talent and intelligence.
Humor: The humor piece is one of the most difficult to sell. Editors are afraid of humor. An editor may think your story is hilarious but he’s afraid to trust his own judgment when it comes to humor. An editor wrote to me once and asked me to write for his magazine. “But not humor,” he said. “Humor is too dangerous.” I don’t think it occurs to any kid that he will become a humor writer when he grows up. I certainly had no intention of doing so. I wrote mostly science and travel articles my first ten years of freelancing. One evening I completed a science article and still had an hour left in my writing time. So I wrote a piece of nonsense. In those days, I had a rule, and that was that anything I wrote I would send out to market. The humor piece was rejected twice but then bought by Field & Stream. I was paid $300 for it. I had just written a long factual piece for a major national magazine and was paid $750 for it. But I had worked two months on the factual piece and only one hour on the humor piece. Wait a darn minute, I thought. And that is how I suddenly became a humor writer.
I think the writing business is much tougher to break into now than it was when I started. But making a living as an independent freelance writer is one of the best jobs in the world. I was told by a very successful freelancer a decade or so ago, “Pat, the Internet is the future of freelancing.” I have no experience with that, but he was probably right. I just don’t know anything about it.
Article Idea Salability Test
- Is subject unusual—largest, smallest, cheapest, most expensive, worse, best, oldest, youngest, etc.?
- Is it off-beat—is it a subject the publication ordinarily wouldn’t buy but which can be “slanted” to the editorial requirements?
- Does the article have a point? Does it make some assertion that is supported by the text of the article?
- Does the article engage the self-interest of the reader in this particular audience?
- Is the article about a person or people as opposed to a “thing”?
- Are good original quotes available?
- Are good research sources (authorities to interview) available?
- Are there good anecdotes available?
- Are there one or more appropriate markets available for the article?
- Is it possible to get good illustrations?
- Does the article have humor or drama?
- Does the topic have national interest as opposed to regional or local interest?
- Is it timely?
- Does it have a “key phrase” or editorial concept?
Does it have a catchy title or hook for the lead?
**Since this was originally written, Pat has learned a few more things. Check out our Links page for more enlightenment!
WRITING THOUGHTS: April 2010
The First Deer
People often ask me how I ever became such an awful hunter. The answer is my first deer. I never fully recovered from it. Many years ago I reported on this incident in a column for Field & Stream Magazine. I believe that column was collected in my first book, A Fine & Pleasant Misery. I could tell you for certain but I would have to get up and walk across the room and check the book. Anyway, the report went something like this. Although my memory may be a little shaky, everything about this report is true.
When I was 14 years old, there was nothing I liked better than deer hunting. But I had one problem. I had never been and had no one to take me, because my father had died when I was very young and all the neighbors were afraid to be around me when I was armed. So one fall day I decided to take matters into my own hands. I tied my deer rifle to the handle bars of my bicycle, put a little sack lunch in the basket, got on and started pumping up the mountain in quest of my very first deer.
About half way up the mountain I came across a real hunters’ camp. It was beautiful! Just like one of the illustrations of a hunting camp in an outdoor magazine. There were big white-wall tents, men walking around in their beautiful hunting gear, big four-wheel drive vehicles—oh, it was absolutely wonderful! When the hunters saw me, pumping my bike up the mountain in quest of my very first deer, they thought I was the funniest thing they had ever seen and they started hooting and hollering and teasing me. I said to myself, “You guys just wait! You’ll be surprised when I get a deer before you do!”
Well, just as I crested the top of the mountain a beautiful four-point buck stepped out of the brush and stood there looking at me. I didn’t know what to do—I’d never shot anything before, but finally I managed to snap off a shot. That deer dropped like a rock! I was amazed! It had been such a difficult shot, too. The rifle was still tied to the handlebars!
I rushed over to the deer to look for a bullet hole but couldn’t find any. Then I noticed a big chunk had been taken out of one of its antlers. I had hit it so hard in the antlers that I had killed it! My problem then was how to get the deer home so my grandmother could dress it out for me.
I somehow managed to drag the deer over to my bicycle. (Deer are a whole lot heavier than you might think.) First I tried draping it over the rear-fender carrier but its hind legs dragged on one side and its head and front legs on the other side, so I knew that wouldn’t work. Suddenly I remembered that I often carried friends of mine astraddle of the rear-fender carrier! Yes! I thought. I twisted the deer up and around and finally got it sitting astraddle of the carrier. Then I tied each of its front legs to either side of the handlebars. Finally, I wiggled in between its legs and got on the seat. I now had the deer’s head draped over my right shoulder. I started to pedal—it’s a lot harder to pedal with a deer on a bicycle than you might think.
Just as the front wheel of my bike went over the crest of the mountain and we started down the steep decline, I heard something strange. I had never heard anything like it before—it sounded kind of like--I don’t know exactly what--kind of like --a snort. I turned and looked at the deer. It was blinking its eyes! Right away the deer panicked—its first time on a bicycle—but there was nothing I could do about that now! The bike was picking up speed and bouncing over rocks and around logs and the deer was thrashing around and blowing deer slobber all over my face and it was terrible.
Just then we passed the hunting camp. I could see the hunters were surprised I had got a deer before they did.
We continued on down the mountain and suddenly I realized I had made a serious mistake. I had forgotten to tie down the deer’s hind legs. As it thrashed around it somehow managed to get its hind hooves on the pedals. And then it caught on to pedaling! It started to like it! Now we were really flying down the mountain! If you think a deer can run fast, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a deer of a bicycle! When we reached the bottom, I threw myself off and lay there on the ground as I watched the deer disappear over the horizon with my bike!
Later I heard that it was shot by police--while holding up a liquor store--in Tacoma, Washington--with my rifle!
I think that first deer is the reason I never became a very good hunter.
I realize analyzing a story kills it a good deal deader than the deer who escaped on my bike. There are, however, a few things I would like to point out about the writing of “My First Deer and Welcome to It.” This version of the story, by the way, is taken from talks I’ve given around the country on various book tours.
First of all, you have to be very careful about getting the deer on the bike. You can, in fact, actually carry a dead deer home on a bicycle. (I have received countless pictures of just such undertakings.) At the start of the story, you must suspend the reader’s disbelief by carefully and logically placing the deer on the bike. Obviously, you can’t dress out the deer before hand, because then it is never coming back to life! That is why I suggest Pat doesn’t know how to dress out a deer and is leaving that chore for his grandmother. Each step in the story, up to a certain point, must be such that it is believable. And remain so, until the deer gets its hooves on the pedals!
Pat’s lack of understanding is also an element in the humor. The hunters at the camp see this outrageous spectacle go by with a live deer thrashing about on the boy’s bicycle and he interprets their reaction as surprise he had got a deer before they did.
Observers come in very handy in humor. But you have to insert them early in the story. You can’t have them pop up suddenly when you need them. So the hunting camp is inserted early enough in this story so that the reader forgets about it until you want to use the line, “I could see the hunters were surprised I had got a deer before they did.”
The interesting thing about using observers in humor is that they are unaware of the complex series of believable steps that have created the weird situation observed. In creating your humor piece, you might want to think about starting with the predicament in which you have placed your character. Perhaps he is clinging to a rain pipe on the second story of an apartment house. Or maybe he is crouched in a compartment under a sink in a stranger’s house. Then you build your story up to the point of discovery, logical step by logical step. At some point you drift into the totally impossible—the deer starts to pedal the bike-- and in a sense the reader suddenly discovers he or she has been had.