Monday, November 07, 2005

Fish gotta swim, writers gotta write

Over the years, I've met a lot of people who make a lot of erroneous assumptions about writing. Like assuming that if you write in one style or genre, you can't write in another. Or that if you have only have one type of writing experience, there's no way you can ever write about another. For example, if you write about horses, you'll never be able to write about race cars.

I remember I once met a guy who ran an advertising agency. He told me there was a big difference between newspaper writers and magazine writers and copywriters. "The styles are completely different," he said. "There are specialists for each one, but they just can't make the crossover." In other words, a magazine writer couldn't be a copywriter or a newspaper writer.

However, the guy admitted from the beginning that he wasn't a writer. ("I'm just a businessman who owns an ad agency," he said.) He only knew what he did because his magazine specialist told him she couldn't write marketing copy. Therefore, according to his logic, other writers can't cross over either.

Normally I would have thought this was an aberration, but I've seen it many times: Naysayers who don't understand the writing process or the idea that if you can write well, you can write about anything. There are thousands of people who have crossed genres and even forms very successfully. Humor columnist Dave Barry wrote a novel, presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan is now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and playwright Samuel Beckett was a radio theater writer of no small talent.

But if these Naysayers had their way, Barry never would have left newspaper reporting to start his column, Noonan would have stayed at CBS Radio, and Beckett would probably still be writing ad jingles and outdoor billboards (or whatever it is he did before radio).

And while I'm not as successful as these people, I've proven the Naysayers wrong on more than one occasion.

My very first article was published by my college newspaper in the spring of 1989. I became a weekly columnist four months later.

After I became a humor columnist, I tried my hand at a 30-minute radio play, and took second place in a scriptwriting contest.

I wanted to become a speechwriter, so I joined Toastmasters, and eight months later, became a speechwriter for a US Congressional candidate in 2004. I turned that experience into two paid articles in Toastmasters magazine.

I had never written a stage play until this past summer, and didn't know a thing about what a stage play entailed. But I gave it a whack anyway. That play, "Cabin Fever U." (originally titled "Into the Woods") netted me the Best Comedy in the 2005 Frank and Katrina Basile Emerging Playwright Awards. In other words, I'm now the funniest playwright in the state of Indiana. Not too shabby for a guy who previously couldn't tell you where Stage Left was in three tries.

Obviously, if I had listened to the ad agency owner, I never should have strayed from column writing, because -- according to him -- column writing is different from radio theater is different from speechwriting is different from stage plays. (And never mind the 11 years of corporate copywriting I've done.)

To be a successful writer in any field, you just have to be good. It doesn't matter what your focus is, if you can write well, you can about nearly anything. It may take some practice to get the style down, but a good technical writer could become a good novelist. A good business writer could become a good newspaper writer. And on and on.

There are thousands of writers who prove this every day. I know newspaper columnists who become PR flaks. I know corporate copywriters who write poetry. And I know dozens of magazine freelancers who will publish an article in an industrial trade journal one week and a parenting article the next.

It's not hard. If you know how to tell a good story that people want to read, you can write about anything. A bad writer with lots of experience in a single area can be more boring and ineffective than a good writer with some experience in a lot of areas.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Apparently I'm NOT a dramaturg!

A few months ago, I posted a message announcing a new stage in my writing career as a dramaturg. It seems I misunderstood the invitation to the Indiana Theatre Works conference, and assumed I was a dramaturg because I wrote a play.

This misunderstanding was grounded in the fact that I'm a complete idiot when it comes to the theatre (pronounched "thea-tah"). But thanks to fellow radio theater playwright Henry Howard, the record has been set straight.

I am NOT a dramaturg. I am a playwright.

I'm still not clear on what a dramaturg is, although after reading the definition at http://www.dramaturgy.net/dramaturgy/What.html, I'm almost convinced it's thea-tah talk for "the person in charge." It almost seems like a movie producer, but I could be wrong.

I am NOT a dramaturg. I am an idiot about the theatre.

That's why I had to rename my play too. Apparently "Into the Woods" was taken by this Stephen Sondheim fellow, whoever HE is! So I'm hoping the new title, "Cabin Fever U." has not been taken. I know there's a lifelong learning academy called Cabin Fever University, but as far as I can tell, not a play.

I sent out a couple copies of the script yesterday to Ball State University (my alma mater) and Northern Illinois University (one of the members of their play reading committee called me in the capacity of my day job and we got to talking and I *happened* to mention that I was a playwright. . .).

So with any luck, "Cabin Fever U." will be produced within the coming year. I hope. In the meantime, I'll be learning more and more about the theatre, so I don't commit any new faux pas, as well as writing my new play. I'm going to call it Arsenic and Old Lace. I'm sure it will be a hit.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The dangers of random photography

So I'm sitting in the lobby of the Airport Sheraton Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, mostly minding my own business, when I was accosted by a plain-clothes police officer. It seems he was irritated at me about something to do with my camera.

I should back up for a minute.

I was meeting some friends to go to a Frankfurt Galaxy game (that's the NFL Europe -- hey, when in a foreign country, why not do something American?). I had just purchased a new pen from the Faber-Castell store in downtown Frankfurt, and was writing a column about the experience (click the link/arrow at the top of this entry to go to the column). I had spent all week trying to speak conversational German, and the purchase of the pen was the crowning point of the entire week, so I was feeling rather proud of myself. I was taking some pictures to include with the column, and was trying out the digital zoom on my digital camera to see what the range was.

As I was taking the pictures, three guys walk in. One is wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a leather jacket -- some sort of Euro-street sophisticate, I guess. The other two guys are videotaping and audio recording him. They sit down about 70 feet away, and I just sit and watch them. The guy calls someone on his cell phone, and the other two guys record the entire conversation.

I started to wonder if the guy was actually a TV actor, and they're filming a scene for some German soap opera or cop show. So I zoom in with my digital camera and snap a picture of the guy. Well, Phone Guy saw me do it, so he hangs up the phone, says something to the Video Guys, and swaggers over to me. I'm thinking, "Dude, I don't know anything about German TV, so I don't want an autograph."

I was trying to remember the German word for autograph (my German is VERY rusty and limited) when he whipped out a wallet with an official looking ID in it. He said something in German, but all I caught was "Blah blah Photograph blah blah Polizei."

Apparently, I had just taken a picture of an undercover cop on assignment. Very dangerous to him and to me.

I looked at him blankly and said, "I'm sorry, I don't speak German."

"Blah blah blah Deutsch?"

"I'm an American, I don't speak German."

It was as if I had just used the Force and told him I wasn't the 'droid he was looking for. He just looked confused and walked away. If he had pressed me on the issue, I would have shown him the picture and then deleted it from the camera in front of him. But he didn't. He just assumed I was harmless (I am), and that I wouldn't do anything with the photo (I won't). But at that moment, I was probably one smart-ass phrase away from my own very special episode of "Law and Order: Smart-Ass Tourist" (Gesetz und Auftrag: Smart-Ass Touristisch).

So who says Americans are dumb for only knowing one language? I can carry on a basic conversation in German, which helped me realize I was in trouble. If I had been fluent in German though, I would have spent the rest of the day trying to convince the Police (Polizei) that I wasn't a lookout for the German Crime Syndicate (Deutsches Verbrechen-Syndikat).

Ausgezeichnet! (Excellent!)

Monday, September 12, 2005

I've always been partial to the theat-ah

Well, it's official. I'm now a professional playwright for radio AND STAGE! That's "the theat-ah" for those of us "in the biz." I just won a cash prize and a 12" granite obelisk for Best Comedy in the first ever Frank Basile Emerging Playwright Awards at the Indiana Theatre Works conference (organized by the Indiana Theatre Association) this past weekend. Believe it or not, I actually wanted that award more than I wanted Best Overall Play and the $1000 award.

I was just overwhelmed by the entire weekend. I met some amazing actors and playwrights, including Rita Kahn, who has had plays produced all over the world (I mean, if you had to name one of the hugest playwrights from Indiana, she's IT!) As I talked with the six other playwrights, I kept thinking "What the hell am I doing here? These are all bigshot playwrights. I'm just some radio hack who had to ask his wife about how to write stage directions." I mean, everyone else there knew all about different plays and famous playwrights, and knew that it was spelled t-h-e-a-t-R-E. I thought Samuel Beckett was the guy in the coonskin cap who fought at the Alamo.

There were even actors there to workshop the play (that's when they do a few rehearsals and read/act directly from the scripts). The actors rehearsed all weekend with a director there to . . . well, direct, and I got to watch. My director, George Maslankowski, was amazing, and really pulled great performances from the actors. George and I clicked on everything (he even recognized its origins as a radio play, which is where it started), and we were both thinking the same thing on several different issues. And as I listened to "my" actors during rehearsal, I kept thinking to myself: "Jeez, this play is SO much better than the one I wrote."

I even acted in another play, an absurdist comedy called "The Ditch," by Michael Smith of Muncie. Michael's two characters, Jocko and Balthazar were well-known to several of the ITA members, as they have either starred in or directed some of Michael's short plays with J & B. Of course, after that experience, I remember why I became a writer and not an actor -- I suck as an actor. As everyone referred to Michael as the "anti-Beckett," and spoke about his work with some of the other lofty names in theat-ah. I thought for sure I was cooked, because Michael's 10 minute short was hilarous, despite my work in it.

So when they called my name for the Best Comedy Award, I could barely see to make my way down to the front from my seat, because my eyes were suddenly misty. The blood rushed to my head, and I kept thinking "wow, I really AM funny." I clutched the award in my hand and talked with people for 30 minutes afterward. It never got heavy, my arm never got tired, and I didn't set it down for anything.

So now I'm going to revise the play a bit and send it off to one of the theatre professors at my alma mater, Ball State University, to see if they would put it on as a student production. I mean, it's only fair, considering all 8 characters were inspired by faculty members there.

I'm still on a major high from the weekend, and I think I'm going to start writing more scripts now. My wife keeps bugging me to try television, which doesn't seem nearly as hard as it did a week ago. Maybe I will. Hey, now that I'm the funniest playwright in Indiana, I have a 1 in 50 shot at getting something on TV, right?

Monday, September 05, 2005

It's in my raccoon wounds!!!

As a humor writer, I'm constantly looking for new material for a column EVERYWHERE. Any funny situation, story, or even just a phrase becomes fair game. I once created an entire column based on two words I heard, and created a 30 minute radio play just so I could create a joke around the line "Dee Butler did it."

However, last week, I was hard pressed to come up with something in spite of having the grossest day of my 8 years of fatherhood. I was holding my 2-year-old son because he was whining that "I growed up in my tummy." I had no idea what he was talking about, so I held him and patted his back.

Big mistake.

This caused him to burp, and then half a second later, to throw up his entire dinner and the 8 ounces of juice he had just drunk 20 minutes earlier. This wasn't just a little spit up. This was a stomach's-entire-contents-hey-when-did-I-have-corn? blowout.

My first thought was the line from the Family Guy episode where the Griffin family enters the Witness Protection Program and goes south: "Oh God. It's everywhere. It's in my raccoon wounds!"

I spent 30 minutes cleaning up my son, me, the carpet, and the desk chair I had been sitting in. I was in the foulest, most grossed out mood I've been in for years. My son, on the other hand, says very happily, "Daddy, I all better now."

Good, son. It is, after all, all about you.

But I can't do a column about it. It would be too embarrassing for my son, and I try to keep some of the more personal aspects of my life out of my column.

So I blogged about it instead!

Luckily, I'm about 4 weeks ahead on my columns, so I'm not lacking for a topic. At least not yet. Maybe I'll feel differently about it when I'm stuck for a topic 2 hours before my deadline. . .

Thursday, August 04, 2005

How I do what I do

I was talking to someone about being a humor writer a few days ago, when they asked how long I have been doing this.

"Over 10 years."

"Wow! How do you come up with something new every week?"

I'm asked this question quite a bit, and I have a standard answer -- "current events," or "I steal from Dave Barry" -- but then I realized I had not thought about this in a l-o-o-o-ong time. I've published over 530 columns, and I only repeat old colums about six times a year because of sickness or vacation. Even then, I have to edit and tweak those things, so it's not like I have a free week.

So basically, I have no clue how I do it. I just come up with an idea -- hopefully more than 4 hours before my deadline -- and start sketching out some notes on a handy piece of paper. But I invariably forget to write them out, or I lose the notes, and then I'll be sitting in front of my computer at 9:30 on a Thursday nigh, trying desperately to reconstruct my half-baked idea from three days earlier.

I finally got smart and started carrying around a little black Moleskine (yes, with the E on the end) notebook with me -- the same kind Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Matisse all used. It's sitting on my desk right now, never far from hand. I write down all my column and book ideas, jokes, and concepts in it. I also take a day or two each week and write at least 2/3 of my column in it. From there, it's short work to bang out a new column each Thursday night. Surprisingly, by taking 30 minutes on a Tuesday over lunch, I save myself 2 hours on Thursday night. I would be lost without this thing, which is why I wrote my address in the front with a note offering a reward if it's lost.

If you're a writer, or you aspire to be one, get yourself a little Moleskine (you can find them at the large chain bookstores). Even if you're a lapsed poet who I keep bugging about getting back into writing (you know who you are!), use it to write down any ideas that pop into your head. Eventually the words will come and you'll find you can barely keep up with the steady stream of ideas flowing from your pen. This practice has made my column writing much, much easier, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who will listen.

Now if I can only figure out why I do it every week.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Two-time loser

Grrrr! Stupid National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

I submitted three of my best columns from 2004 for the NSNC Column Contest in the "Humor, for newspapers with circulation less than 100,000" category, and not only did I not win anything, I didn't even get an honorable mention?

What's going on?! I've honed my craft, tightened up my writing, and done everything I can to get better. And trust me, my stuff has been waaaay improved over what I did eight or nine years ago. Just this past year alone, I've seen huge improvements over what I wrote just last year. So how these short-sighted, narrow-minded -- wait a minute. That was the 2004 contest. I can't submit my 2005 columns until next year.

Never mind. At least my wife still thinks I'm funny.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Validation! I crave validation!

Writing is a psychologically dangerous profession. We writers tend to be insecure anyway, which is why we choose such an isolated activity. But we open ourselves up to criticism and rejection whenever we let other people read our stuff. We send it out to be evaluated, judged, and deemed “suitable for publication” by people who believe they’re qualified to do so. These people are called editors.

We writers have more. . . colorful names for them.

The problem comes because writers take rejection personally. It’s not just that our work wasn’t good enough or right for that publication. It’s that there’s something wrong with us as people. Our souls are stained. We’ve got some fundamental flaw in our psyches that the editors recognize but we don’t. And while we never admit it, this is what we believe deep down in the dark places we never talk about, but end up making it onto paper. Or our blogs.

“Don’t take it personally,” other writers tell us "Just resubmit it somewhere else." Writers like Stephen King and his multi-million dollar empire. I'll stop taking it personally, Stephen, as soon as you funnel your next book advance my way. Until then, I’ll crumple up my rejection letters, gnash my teeth, and have my revenge fantasies against these nay-sayers of my life’s work.

I remember two editors in particular. One was an editor of a publication who decided he didn’t want to be bothered with dealing with the dirty rabble of writers who dared to distract him from putting out a magazine. So he had a rejection stamp made, and he stamped it on everyone’s submission and sent it back. Because he stamped “Does not meet our needs” on my humor submission.

My fellow humor writers said I should get my own stamp that says “Doesn’t know shit” and stamp it on his rejection and send it back to him. I didn’t, but I did take some satisfaction when his magazine folded. Apparently his magazine didn't meet his readers' needs.

Another one was a guy who had his own website. He listed all the humor writers on the web. I had been writing for two years, had my own website for about six months, and was very excited to find that I made his list. A month later, I discovered I wasn’t on it anymore. I emailed him and asked why. “You’re not funny,” he responded.

Jerk. I mean, it’s one thing to say “I don’t like it.” It’s another thing to speak in the realm of universal truths and say “YOU are NOT funny.” A devastating blow to someone who calls himself a humor writer. But I never even considered quitting. I just focused on my column, worked at it, and made it better.

I got funnier and funnier, and have been doing this for over 10 years now. My column appears every week, both in print and online, and is read by over 10,000 people. Meanwhile, this guy’s website -- a list of funny people, mind you. Not his own work, just a list of other people -- went under less than a year later. Now who’s funny? The guy who creates it and is still published 10 years later? Or the guy who just stood on the sidelines and watched other people do it?

Those who can write, do. Those who can’t, edit. Those who can’t edit make stupid lists about people they wish they could be.

Not that I’m bitter. I just have an overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude about people who didn’t believe in me.

I’ve been thinking about these two editors a lot as I’ve been working on my first book. It’s a collection of Guy columns, and I’m very optimistic about it. I’m nervous about sending it out, well, because I’m a writer, and we’re very insecure about that sort of thing. But I’m maintaining a positive mental attitude about its publication.

And I’ll meet these two guys again. It will be at the launch party of my book, or at one of my book signings around the country. They’ll introduce themselves, and say “Hey, do you remember me? I’m the guy who. . .” and they’ll remind me of their story, and how they didn’t believe in me, but wow look at how far you’ve come I’m glad you’re so successful.

I’ll thank them and give them a copy of my book to show there’s no hard feelings. They’ll get a picture taken with me and say they’re looking forward to reading my book.

And then I’ll hand them my ticket and a couple bucks and they’ll retrieve my car from valet parking for me.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The dangers of blogging

It's hard being a humor writer. We find humor in everyday situations, whether it's work, school, or home. The problem is that most situations are only funny to us and the people around us, so they don't make good topics. The other danger is that a situation could be hilarious but you'd end up offending an awful lot of people. Maybe even your bosses.

That's why there are sooooo many warnings to bloggers not to write about work or your industry. It happened to Nadine Haobsh, fellow blogger here on blogspot.com. She publishes Jolie in NYC, an insider's look at the beauty industry. She used to be anonymous, but was outed somehow, and was not only fired from her job, but had another job offer taken away.

Definitely a raw deal! Of course, she now has a book deal out, so I can only hope she makes more money than she would have at both jobs.

Jolie/Nadine's situation definitely served to educate me: don't blog about your work, I told myself. Then I realized I didn't have a blog, which made it a moot point. So I created this blog so I could specifically not write about work. So thank you Jolie, and good luck. As a Guy with a capital G, I don't do beauty stuff. However, I'm a sucker for a story like yours, so I'll buy the book when it comes out.

Coincidentally, I have found myself tempted to violate my own rule of not writing about work. I had an extremely funny situation happen to me a few weeks ago, and it became the topic of a column. I showed it to a few people, and they all said the same thing.

"It's freaking hilarious. You can't publish it."

So here I am with my own now-solved dilemma. I have a great story that I can't -- and won't -- tell (so don't ask). I like my job too much to even risk such a thing. And while I'm inspired by Jolie in NYC, I somehow don't think people will be clamoring for a book written by a Midwest small business marketing director-slash-weeekly humor columnist. So the column has been pitched -- my first spiked story after 525 consecutive columns, I'm proud to say -- and I'm working on a new one.

Oh well. Maybe I'll publish it when I'm fabulously wealthy.

Monday, July 25, 2005

New website coming

I've always enjoyed writing, and thought I was pretty good at web design, but I'm starting to hate the latter because it's keeping me away from the former. I've been trying to come up with a new web layout, and hope to launch Laughing Stalk 3.0 in the next few days. New photos, new look, same funny stuff. . . I hope.

The problem is that if a writer wants to become published, he or she needs to become a marketer. Most writers bemoan this fact and whine about how they're artists, not businesspeople. And this is true for many of the ones I've met. No business sense, no idea of how to market themselves, and no idea that their work has only begun once their article is written.

Basically, the rule of writing (or any artistic endeavor) is this: you're not just a writer anymore; you're a businessperson. You have a brand to build: it's [insert name here]. You need to market, sell, and promote yourself if you ever want to be seen as a writer. You have to learn how to write solid cover letters, get a good looking website, and figure out how to get mroe and more people to read your stuff.

Look, I know it's drudgery, and your art should rise above the mundanities of everyday nonsense like money and trickery. But how many literary savants are out there that we've never heard of? I'd guess plenty. I do sales and marketing for a day job, and even I don't enjoy doing it for my writintg. But it has to be done.

So if anyone wants any pointers on how and where to do it, let me know. I'll come across with a few free ideas for you (actually a lot, because I like to hear myself talk!). Just email me at the blog link provided here. And check out my website sometime after July 27th to see Laughing Stalk 3.0.

Friday, July 22, 2005

My first post

Wow, my first blog post! I'm sure every new blogger has one of these. Don't worry. I'll delete it as soon as I discover it's a lame thing every blogger does.

I created this blog because of all the frustrations I've had as a humor writer. We're the bastard children of all writers, apparently. People think that if we make people laugh, we're clowns and therefore, not serious writers. But I can say this: more people remember writers like Dave Barry and Bruce Cameron than they do David Brooks or David Broder. They don't stand around the water cooler and say, "Hey, do you remember that column Broder did on Clinton's foreign policy on China? Man, I furrowed my brow over that one!"

They
DO however, say, "Hey, did you ever read Bruce Cameron's '8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter? Man, I laughed my ass off!"

So this is going to be a glimpse in the life of a humor writer. I hope you enjoy it.