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A Planet Terry Classic from over a Decade Ago: The Ten Commandments for Humor Writers, The Gospel According to Humor Magazine Editors

15 Dec

 

 

Note:  This never before published piece is about a dozen years old. The advice still holds true but the contact information is outdated and some  of the publications have bitten  the dust since then. Most of the participants  have also moved on to new challenges. Thanks to all the editors who particpated.

 Writing academic fare for over twenty years, I realized, after a closer examination of my more profound creations, that I was in fact a humor writer. Over  the past fourteen years I’ve submitted short humor pieces to hundreds of magazines, garnering about fifty publications.  Humor markets often tend to be hidden or specialized. Although  typically Writer’s Digest lists onlya few  entries in its humor category, most  other publications are looking for amusing pieces with just the right  slant.  For example after being rejected by my usual humor targets, I    sold a piece (Shirtless In Seattle) to a police trade magazine on why criminals don’t wear shirts.  Also numerous niche humor magazines aim at specific professions or special interest groups.  

 

Many of the smaller humor publications, have the life span of a fruit fly and when I requested writer guidelines from 60 of them, more than two-thirds failed to respond or indicated they were now out of business.

             Except for established comedians and well-known columnists whose work is actively solicited, most humor writers must submit their work on speculation. With the query process largely irrelevant, this leaves you at the mercy of an ever-growing slush pile. 

            Few things could be more subjective than editing a humor magazine.  Even a much-rejected piece may eventually find a friendly home, if your postage only holds out. After a few months of constant rejections, I devised a scheme to get the inside the humor editorial mind and sent out questionnaires to a sample of humor editors, including many who routinely rejected my work.  I encouraged their responses by shamelessly flattering them and making vague promises of the international fame that accompanies being featured in a writer’s magazine.

            The five humor editors who eventually responded were Larry Logan, editor of  the late great magazine Satire;  Fran London, editor of the Journal of Nursing Jocularity;  Douglas Carroll, editor of  idiot wind;  Robert Darden, editor of  The Door;   Glenn C. Ellenbogen, editor of the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity.    Their  many profound insights can be condensed into ten basic commandments that you can use to improve your acceptance average.

 

            Commandment One: Write Laugh out loud humor.

The editors agreed that the main reason for rejecting a piece is that it simply wasn’t funny enough. They are looking for   “laugh out loud works” Making an article funny enough may  mean adding more gags, but more often  it involves  polishing  the existing jokes and metaphors. Just adding jokes often destroys the unity or clutters up the structure. Try to get at least five alternative punchlines for each gag.

Commandment Two: Read back issues and guidelines and then write specifically for that particular magazine.

            Robert Darden says he is  particularly put off  by “People haven’t read the magazine or writer’s guidelines. Of if they have they don’t think the rules apply to their  piece!” his advice is to “…read a year’s worth of the publication before you submit a piece. Get the writer’s guidelines. Then see if you can visualize  your piece in our table of contents.” Get a feel for both the style and as well as the content. A piece  that is too sophisticated for a small regional publication may still be too parochial for a national market.

Commandment Three: Try out  your material on an audience. 

            Logan advises, “Humor pieces should be tested before submitting…  if there appear to be no symptoms of  jocularity (laughter, smiles, chuckles, groans, etc.), there is an outside chance that the work is not in the genre of the funny.” Some humor writer’s are very relucant to test their works, but such testing almost always leads to a much better product even if you don’t act on every suggestion.  Yes it’s agonizing, but necessary.

Commandment Four: Parodies that evoke common experiences are winners .

For his psychology satire publication, Glenn  Ellenbogen says “ …we look for pieces that closely parallel REAL scientific articles in style and quasi-scientific jargon. He advises potential writers to “… read REAL … journals and make fun of them.” The closer the satire comes to echoing recognizable forms the better.  Go for that shock of recognition.

Commandment Six:  Don’t be  too angry  offensive, or hostile.

London says the  Journal of Nursing Jocularity is “least interested in angry or malevolent humor.” I recently got a rejected  piece about teenage drivers back on which the editor had scribbled “Too sarcastic for us.” Hostility can quickly sour the best humor piece. Cynical is fine, bitter is not.

Commandment Seven: When writing on prosaic topics,  you must have a unique angle.

Doug Carroll says  he’s  “least interested in seeing slice of life stories that are so unfunny I’m bored to tears before the end of the first page…”. Arthur Koesler, the late English science writer defined creativity as the “Biosociative Act”—that is a process  in which two diverse planes of thought intersect. The more diverse the plan of though the more creative and often the funnier it is. Two example: “Pigs” and “Space” are the two plans of thought that lead to the hilarious “Pigs in Space” skit on the Muppet television show. Yesterday I heard someone mention the phrase “A Toad on the Stove”—  that has possibilities. 

Commandment Eight: Learn from the best.  In addition to classic humorists like  Twain, Thurber, and Perlman humor editors especially  like Woody Allen,  Dave Barry,  and P.J. O’Rourke’s. Read and study their work.

Commandment Nine: Strike quickly, make the  piece flow, and then stop.  Editors don’t like slow moving  pieces. Be funny fast. Logan says he  won’t finish reading  “Works that are sooooo arty, that after two or three pages you are still trying to figure out what the subject might be (most of these come from the academic community).” Check out any of P.J. O’Rourke’s opening paragraphs  to see how to get off a running start.

Commandment Ten: Format does counts.  Check for typos and never fax stuff unless specifically asked to do so. Among Ellenbogen’s nightmares are ”A manuscript submitted via fax,  poorly typed with typos all over the place”. Go for the halo effect and at least appear professional. Successful humor writers are not wacko who submit crayon ravings scrawled on paper backs— they are pros.

Bonus Commandment: Don’t pay too much attention to what editors or anyone else says.

Logan says,  “When it comes to humor, it’s really in the mind of the chuckler.”

Darden says,  Be funny. Be short. Be timely. Don’t be afraid to fail. Comedy takes chances. Finally Ellenbogen warns,  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… humor is a very subjective thing.”  No joke!

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                                                            The Editors

            Larry Logan, Editor of  SATIRE: The Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Satire

 E-mail: satire@intrepid.net, Website: http://www.intrepid.net/~fanfare/satire.htm)

P.O. Box 340, Hancock, MD 21750-0340

            When asked about his background Logan, said,  “Those of us in witness protection programs must be vague in this area. I’m a post W.W.II baby-boomer who bought into the Ozzie & Harriet American dream, through no fault of my own.  Got a couple of college degrees, just barely avoided being drafted for Vietnam, and jumped into the rat-race because that was what was expected.. .. the authorities who operate [the witness relocation program] understand the best way to assure obscurity is to become an author/publisher of a small press quarterly. They assigned me to do SATIRE, and I am doing the best I can to provide a home for the unwanted humor works of the world… satires/parodies/black humors/etc.  It’s really like running an orphanage.

            Douglas Carroll is the editor of idiot wind: a small wildcat humor publication with strong Internet presence. Carroll publishes this quarterly in the herring capital of the east coast. E-mail: idiotwind@radix.net. Website: Website: http://www.radix.net/~idiotwind,  310 Poplar Alley, Apt. A, Occoquan, VA  22125.

 

            Carroll says,  “I grew up on National Lampoon magazine during the eighties, discovering the older mag of the seventies several years later. The old issues inspired me to produce a magazine that would make people smile and the later mags inspired me to do better than the unfunny swill of that era.”

            Fran London, R. N, M.S. is the editor of the popular specialty humor magazine the Journal of  Nursing Jocularity (JNJ). E-mail 73314.3032@compuserve.com, Website: http://www.jocularity.com  JNJ Publishing, Inc. P.O. Box 40416, Mesa AZ 85274

She writes,  “I am an editor. [but]  more of humor writer than a humorist.”

            Robert Darden is the editor of The Door, another specialty  magazine that focuses on humor related to religion. The magazine takes its name from the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses launching the Protestant reformation.  The Door’s  guidelines have 11 theses that you are instructed to memorize and then eat the evidence.

            Darden claims to be the author of  25 books and  editor of the world’s oldest,  largest, and only religious humor and satire magazine.

             Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ph.D. is the editor of  The Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (JPP). a twice-per-year publication devoted to showcasing spoofs of psychology, psychiatry, mental health, and  human behavior. The Wall Street Journal called the JPP “a social scientist’s answer to Mad magazine. Circulation is approximately 4,000. Unfortunately, JPP rarely pays writers, using the   “scientific journal” (or “chintzy”) model of publication. e-mail: info@psychhumor.com Website:  http://psychhumor.com Wry-Bred Press, Inc. 10 Waterside plaza, Suite 20-B New York, NY 10010

            Dr. Ellenbogen’s biography  indicates that he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Hofstra. Before getting his doctorate,  he earned  two Master’s degrees but was        “psychologically unable to cope with having MAMA after his name.”

 

Accent on Indiana

6 Dec

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Like most Midwesterners, I always thought that only  other people had funny accents.  I imagined that I  sounded   like  Walter Cronkite. Growing up near St. Louis,  it took a long time before I realized that I pronounced “fork” as “fark” and that our first president was not George “Warshington”. Someone  once  said that all those “r’s”  they drop in Boston (where they say “paak yaa  caa ”  instead of  “park your  car” ) migrated  southwest  and are alive and well in Southern Illinois. 

According to Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois professor of  linguistics, our speech is the most important thing that people judge us on,  aside from physical appearance.  Accents are those noticeable  differences in speech sounds,  rhythm, stress, and emphasis.   Dialect refers to  broader variations   including things such as vocabulary,  syntax, and grammar. Both are related to  where we come from, our primary social group, native language, and social-economic status.  

A study in the  Journal of Employment Counseling  found that speakers with accents or dialects were routinely given  lower employability ratings by a panel of human resource  professionals.

Experts  disagree about just how many dialects there are in theUnited States. Typical estimates range  from 3 to over 24,  depending on what you consider to be a “language community”. Language communities  are   groups that share a common dialect and some radical scholars contend that there may be  thousands of  dialects  inAmerica.

On dialect maps,  Southern Indiana usually  falls in the  South Midlandregion. Dominated by Appalachia,  common speaking  conventions include   pronouncing  “th” as “f’  ( It’s my birfday”),   leaving out the word  “are”,   and placing  an  “a”  in front of words ending in “ing” and dropping the “g” (“I’m a-goin to town”). This  region has also  retained  a large number of words from the Elizabethan English  spoken at the time  of Shakespeare,  such as “reckon”,  “sorry”  (meaning inferior) , “trash”, “well” (meaning healthy),  and “guess” (meaning suppose).

According to Matt Campbell at East Central Oklahoma University,  about 59%  of Hoosiers routinely use the word “pop” as the generic name for a  soft drink, but there are some significant regional differences. Northern Indiana uses “pop” almost exclusively,    but in  Indianapolis and  Southern Indianathe more southern term,  “coke”, is often used. When I worked in Mississippi  I frequently  heard people refer  to Seven Up®  as “white coke”.

I noticed that  St. Louis and Eastern Wisconsin, where my wife Diane grew up,    both use the word, “soda”—  maybe that’s why we are compatible. But don’t ever ask Diane  where she is from,  unless you are prepared  to hear her formal presentation,  which includes the use of her hand as a visual aid to understanding the geography  of Wisconsin. The  base  of the thumb is Green Bay,  the thumb itself is  “DoorCounty” and she is from a knuckle.   When we visit the knuckle,  Diane’s accent changes abruptly and I have trouble following it when she and her brother start talking. I can discriminate  Wisconsinfrom   Minnesotabut I am still fooled by a U.P. Michiganaccent.        

At PBS’s Do you Speak American website(http://www.pbs.org/speak/), linguistics professor  Dennis R. Preston  (who once taught  at  IUS)  reports that Americans believe  that some regions speak better English than others. He found that while some areas favor  their own speech and others  don’t, there is wide consensus that New York City and  the South are on the bottom of the barrel.

When we lived inFloridathere  was a jumble of accents because of all the transplants, although we always found the native southern accent charming. When our middle son was in kindergarten,  we moved and he unfortunately  was assigned  to a teacher fromNew Yorkat his new school. Her voice must have sounded harsh and demanding in comparison to the dulcet tones of his previous sweet southern teacher.  Her speech somehow communicated an urgency that put him under tremendous pressure. Before we were able to rescue him,  he pathetically kept bringing home stacks of pictures to color.  He felt like he had to work all night, just  to  keep up in the rat race that was his kindergarten class.

Professor Preston had Southern Indiana residents rate  all the states for  both  speech correctness and pleasantness. Southern Indiana residents ranked the state  of Indiana on top for  pleasantness  and ranked New York, Arkansas, and New Mexicoas the least pleasant.  However, for speech correctness,   curiously Southern  Indiana residents rankedWashingtonState  on top, with a score of  8 out of 10. I have no idea how they even talk out there.  Indiana was in the middle  with  6 out of 10,  and the southern states (except for Florida) were  rated  lowest with scores of 2  out of 10.

Southerners  don’t do very well on international  comparisons either.  A paper  presented  the International Communication Association  described a study  in which   Northeastern American  college students rated speakers from England, India, Jamaica, Russia, and the southern United States. They were rated  for attractiveness, friendliness, and intelligence. The posh-accented British speaker  ranked  highest in  all three categories. The American Southerner ranked lowest in both intelligence and attractiveness.  Despite some evidence that Southern speech patterns are spreading nationally, there still seems to be considerable prejudice.

Some career counselors even recommend that people  with “maximally perceived” accents or dialects, undergo accent  and dialect modification therapy in order to be more  competitive in the job market.  While it’s  very important to be able  to communicate effectively, this homogenization of our language  somehow just seems wrong. We need the color and spice of diversity.  Maybe we should be teaching tolerance instead of pronunciation.

  Well I reckon that’s all. H’it’s time to be a’goin for a coke, I guess.  And when youse go to bed tonight don’t be a’ forgetin to pull up the kivvers to keep warm.

Based on a News Tribune column.

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