Interview Transcripts

Karen O'Connor: Writing Humor 12/14/06


Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Welcome, Karen!

Karen O’Connor

Thanks. It's great to be here.

Mary Rosenblum

Karen O'Connor is an award-winning author of over 50 books, including her best-selling humor books for senior adults: Help, Lord! I'm Having a Senior Moment (Regal Books) and Gettin' Old Ain't For Wimps (Harvest House). Do visit her website for more information on her books and her writing life: http://www.karenoconnor.com/ .

 

So, Karen, let's start at the beginning. You've written a LOT of books.

 

When and how did you get started and was it humor right off the bat?

Karen O’Connor

I have written a lot. I started my career when my last child went to Kindergarten.

 

I started with articles for children's and religious magazines

 

and then moved into books--but again, mostly for children

 

since I was rearing children myself. I didn't start writing humor until a couple of years ago

 

although people often tell me I have a good sense of humor.

sailor

What is the key thing to making something funny? Is it a twist that delivers something unexpected or a new way of looking at something?

Karen O’Connor

It can be a number of things--a twist on an old idea, a new way of looking at something familiar,

 

a quirky view of life, a funny way of expressing one's self.

Mary Rosenblum

You know, Karen, I have been looking forward to our conversation

 

because it has always seemed to me that people either write humor or they

 

don't write humor. Can you LEARN to write it?

Karen O’Connor

I believe you can learn it but it really takes practice too--to get the right timing, the play on words, the timing. It's a combination of things. I am always trying something new.

 

Would you like an example?

Mary Rosenblum

I'd love an example.

Karen O’Connor

With repeated practice. For example, my first real plunge into this kind of writing

 

started a few years ago when I met an editor at a writers' conference.

 

She asked to see some book ideas because she wanted to work with me. We hit it off really well.

 

She suggested I consider writing for seniors since I am one.

 

So I then pitched an idea.

 

Here it is.

 

I said, "

 

I'm having a few senior moments in my life--forgetting things, misplacing items

 

and I think there must be a lot of others in the same boat.

 

So I threw out a title off the top of my head. "Help, Lord! I'm Having a Senior Moment.

 

And she said, "I love it." Send me an outline next week and I'll take it to the committee.

 

That rattled me. I didn't even know what I'd do with the title

 

but I went home, thought about it and decided I'd write a book of 'notes to God on growing older --

 

a kind of diary-like book with short entries, letters to God telling him all the funny and embarrassing things that were happening

 

to me and to others. I wrote several entries, sent them off with a summary of the rest of the book

 

and the company bought it immediately. To date it has sold nearly 200,000 copies so apparently

 

I was right. Other people are relating to what I'm saying.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, that's tremendous success. Clearly others ARE relating to you! A lot of others. J

Karen O’Connor

After that book I wrote another called Gettin' Old Ain't For Wimps

 

and that has sold over 100,000 copies too.

 

And I've written sequels to both of those and just finished a third Wimps book titled, "Walkin' With God Ain't For Wimps.'

Mary Rosenblum

Was the 'Senior Moment' book your first attempt at a humorous book?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. I believe I've had elements of humor in my writing, but I never focused on it for an entire book, but I enjoyed it so much

 

that I wanted to keep on with it and I've had wonderful results and feedback from my readers

 

so I guess I have a knack for this kind of writing. Now I'm attempting to write a humorous romance --

 

my first foray into adult fiction. We'll see where I go with that.

tory

Are they all similar, like the diary/letter to God format?

 

And all based on your everyday experiences--with a funny twist?

Karen O’Connor

They have different approaches--one the letters, the other short stories

 

and yes they are based on personal experiences in my life as well as in the lives of others.

 

When I start such a book I send out a huge e-mailing to friends and colleagues asking for what I call

 

story seeds--little incident that have happened in their lives that might lend themselves to a humorous

 

story for my book. They give me a short paragraph or even a sentence or two and I take it from there, fictionalizing it and giving it a humorous twist.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, I see. So even though these books are based on real life events, they're actually fiction?

Karen O’Connor

Primarily fiction, yes, because I have to CREATE a story. What I receive from others is never finished writing nor is it written well enough to make it into a book.

xana

A lot of things that happen as one ages aren't funny. Did you address any of those issues?

Karen O’Connor

Good question. Yes, I do address some of the challenging things too

 

but even those can be viewed with a smile sometimes or can bring hope and laughter to people

 

who are going through a rough time. For example

 

a lot of older people lose a loved one and there's nothing funny about that.

 

And yet we can share a smile or a bit of laughter over something sweet that may have happened between them. Here's an example:

 

One of my friends lost her husband even though she had spent years trying to get him to eat healthy foods,

 

jog, take care of himself so they could enjoy

 

a happy and long marriage together. He wanted to cooperate but he just couldn't and was known

 

to eat double fudge chocolate cake when she wasn't looking. So when he died, I was able to write a bit of humor about Sid being in heaven having all the goodies

 

he'd always wanted and even saying, "If I had known I could have all this, I'd have died sooner." This was not to hurt anyone but to show a sweet side

 

of things that many of us face. We had a similar experience at a recent memorial service

 

when my husband and a friend sang a song that the deceased had often sang with the two of them.

 

As he lay in the casket, my husband and his friend sang the song and referred to their friend lying there in a touching way. Here's to Ned. It wouldn’t be the same sound without him.

 

I could now write a sweet little story about that which will bring a smile to someone without being disrespectful. I hope I'm getting across what I mean to say here.

Mary Rosenblum

And isn't that what humor does? It allows us to step back from a situation that is normally charged with sadness and allow us to gain a bit of distance from it, even smile over it? It gives us a break from those darker emotions.

 

Humor isn't meant to be disrespectful, is it?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. That's exactly my point. Humor, when written gently and respectfully, can actually help a person heal or at least look at things with new eyes and get through some tough times.

 

Never disrespectful. That's a cardinal rule among really good humor writers.

Mary Rosenblum

I've been at funerals where after the genuine tears at the graveside, family is still able chuckle over the departed's foibles.

 

Everyone felt better.

Karen O’Connor

Amen! I totally agree. And we can look at the challenges of life in light-hearted ways too. Example. . .

 

My husband sent his wallet through the washing machine because he forgot to take it out of his pants pocket.

 

This might not be a big deal for some, but for Mr. Perfectionist, it was awful. The money, the leather, the cards, the photos were all dripping wet.  

 

But I saw the humor in it and created a little story for my book on senior moments where I talk about his perfectionist traits

 

and then say that behind my back what is he doing?  Laundering our money! That play on words made the story work.

Mary Rosenblum

That's cute. J

lydneis

What do you think is the most important thing(s) to focus on when you're first starting to write humor?

Karen O’Connor

I would say focus on learning to write well. Learn the CRAFT. There are many good classes, courses, and books available to help with this.

 

Also get in a critique group so you can test your humor writing on others. For example, even though I've been writing for over 30 years as a professional

 

I was new to romance writing so I took an online course in writing the romantic comedy and I also bought the book

 

Writing The Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit. These two things have helped me understand what to do with my own fiction writing.

Mary Rosenblum

One thing I notice when you talk about your humor. You seem to include yourself in them -- you're chuckling over your own '

 

senior moments

 

or your own family issues. Is that part of writing effective humor?

 

Getting readers to laugh WITH you?

Karen O’Connor

Absolutely. I have done all the silly stuff most people do and I am able to laugh at myself. This makes my writing more appealing to others because they see my humanity.

Mary Rosenblum

And thus...maybe they can laugh at their own problems? You've given them permission in a way?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. The person who loses her glasses or who pours chocolate sauce instead of barbecue sauce on her chicken is able to see those actions in a new and lighter way.

Mary Rosenblum

What are some things to avoid when you're trying to write humor? What do you see as 'no no's?

Karen O’Connor

Avoid ridicule--making fun of people in a way that diminishes them, name calling, revealing private issues that people are sensitive to, that sort of thing. . .

 

It's vital to keep humor on a high plane--involving respect, understanding, and integrity.

Mary Rosenblum

In other words, no grinding personal axes...making that ex-spouse out to be a raving idiot?

Karen O’Connor

Yes to all of the above. I also get permission from people to use their ideas or 'seeds' in a creative way so no one will feel violated or offended.

info

Another words, don't say or write anything that you would be liable for, right?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. Never put yourself in a position of being charged with stealing or hurting someone.

humormuse

Karen, what are some challenges in writing humor?

Karen O’Connor

It's easy to be corny or to write in clichés or to rely on internet humor --

 

that sort of thing. Stuff people have already heard a million times. It's difficult to be fresh and funny, but you can do it.

 

I work at it in every book I write and so far it seems to be working.

joker

Any thoughts about turning a book into a screenplay?

Mary Rosenblum

Have you ever considered it?

Karen O’Connor

I'm not familiar with screenplay writing, although I do study DVDs and movies for the plot patterns, etc.

 

My kind of books would never be right for the theater or TV because they are made up of a series of humorous

 

anecdotes, but certainly a humorous book could be written as a play or script and is often done.

humormuse

How about Comedy Central TV?

Mary Rosenblum

And IS the comedy on Comedy Central different from your type of humor?

Karen O’Connor

I love watching it. That's not my type of writing, but I admire people who can do it. Stand-up comedy routines are also a kind of humor that some people can write easily. Martha Bolton, a friends of mine,

 

is great at this. She wrote for Bob Hope and others and also writes funny books.

 

I'd also like to mention another kind of humor --

 

writing light humor--the kind that brings a chuckle or a smile of recognition, not necessarily the loud guffaws that we associate with stand-up comedy.

Mary Rosenblum

Isn't that more what you write, Karen?

Karen O’Connor

Yes it is. I tend to weave humor with inspiration because I love to give my readers something to smile about AND ponder in a way that will bless their lives or given them a sense of hope.

katnj

Does your publisher specialize in humor books?

Karen O’Connor

My two publishers for the books mentioned above are Harvest House and Regal Books. Both do a variety of books,

 

humor among them, but not exclusively. I have other books with both companies, as well as the ones I mentioned.

 

For example, I wrote a book about women and their addictions regarding money for Harvest House. That's a more serious book

 

and it is one that has been given some attention lately. In fact, tomorrow I will be taping a segment for Geraldo at Large on this very to topic, a departure from the humor.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool, Karen.

 

Is it your experience that humor is well regarded in most genres?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. Most editors will tell you that they never get enough humor. People love to laugh. And there is not enough opportunity to do so in this life that brings with it so many challenges and much suffering.

 

My goal is to deliver hope and help with a good dose of humor!

Mary Rosenblum

And when does the Geraldo segment air, Karen? We all want to know! J

Karen O’Connor

I was told it would be next Thursday, Dec. 21. Check local listings for time and station. That's all I know so far.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool! I'll mention it in next week's newsletter if that's okay with you.

Karen O’Connor

Sure. Thanks for the plug.

lydneis

Do you think it's more important to start with a premise, or just write and put it together as you find ideas that fit? (as far as trying to get published)

Karen O’Connor

In my experience it's essential to have direction in your writing, or you're likely to lose interest.

 

When I thought about what I'd do with Senior Moments and the Wimps books, I knew I needed a structure on which to build the humor. Publishers also want to see some kind of format

 

or outline so they can see whether or not it's going to work for them.

Mary Rosenblum

And Karen, don't you find that even humor has a dramatic arc and a coherent structure, as with any fiction story?

Karen O’Connor

Yes, absolutely. Even the shortest pieces in my books build up to something and then I deliver the punch line. For example

 

in the story I wrote about the woman putting chocolate sauce on the chicken (and that's all she sent me was that one line)

 

I had to think of how I was going to finish. Here's what I did. I built a cute story about having neighbors for dinner, etc. and how everything was in order

 

and then came the truth when a guest said the chicken was unusual--but delicious--with its chocolaty flavor.

 

At that point the hostess was mortified that she had reached for the wrong bottle in the fridge. I end with her smiling and quipping to the guests,

 

“If you think the chicken was delicious wait till you taste my ice cream sundaes topped with barbecue sauce.”

Mary Rosenblum

I chuckled. J  That is funny.

 

So you did build to that nice 'one liner' climax.

Karen O’Connor

Yes, and it's important to have enough of a build-up to make it work

 

because if the story is too short, it falls flat and if too long the reader is bored. Timing is everything. And of course, writing

 

it as a little story is essential, including dialogue among the characters, etc. Otherwise it turns into a stale report.

Mary Rosenblum

Show, don't tell, in other words?

Karen O’Connor

Yes again. This old adage never goes out of style.

Mary Rosenblum

Can you point readers to any good books on writing humor?

Karen O’Connor

I thought about this before I came into the chat room. Here's what I suggest. Go to amazon.com and type in books on writing humor in the search box

 

and then browse the long list that will come up. You're sure to find a couple that appeal to you depending on the kind of humor you wish to write.

 

I have purchased the one by Billy Mernit because it focuses on writing romantic comedy but that wouldn't be right for everyone.

Mary Rosenblum

What simply adding humor to another type of writing -- self help, personal essay, something nonfictional like that? Does humor work pretty much everywhere?

Karen O’Connor

Yes, absolutely. I also enjoy doing this. I tend to see humor in almost everything so I build in bits of it

 

here and there in most of my writing and at the very least I find ways to write in a light-hearted way. For example

 

in a book published this year on aging I wrote a fairy tale--a first for me--poking fun at being "

 

NICE, something that many older people get sucked into, at the expense of themselves.

 

I really enjoyed writing this. It rolled right out of my head because I think it's an area I've struggled with and want to discard. I'm talking here

 

about the kind of NICE that drips with sugar and is basically a cover-up for being authentic. The fairy tale approach was a good way to make my point

 

without preaching or teaching or telling.

Mary Rosenblum

So tell me, is there any type of writing you can think of where humor would not be appropriate?

 

Short of writing for the science journals! :-)

Karen O’Connor

I'm thinking of my book on women and money addictions, for example. Though I didn't write a heavy

 

book, it didn't seem to be the place for 'funnies.' However, I do approach even more difficult subjects with a great deal of hope

 

and my writing takes on a light but understanding tone that seems to help people see such a difficulty

 

with more sanity and serenity than they might otherwise.

Mary Rosenblum

Would you say that humor is an extension of a strong 'personal voice'?

Karen O’Connor

Absolutely! That seems to be my favorite word tonight.

 

I don't think I could have written humor successfully years ago because I was still finding my voice as a person and as a writer. I now feel

 

more confident of who I am, more relaxed about life, more carefree. Things don't upset me so easily at this stage of life. I take a longer view and that helps me write in a humorous way.

Mary Rosenblum

It occurs to me that one of the things that may make it hard for a lot of novice writers to write humor is that they're trying SO hard

 

that it's difficult to step back and laugh at anything!

Karen O’Connor

Amen to that. Probably one of the most common mistakes I see among student and new writers is what I call 'overwriting' --

 

going for the big tear or the big laugh and unfortunately the words land with a thud.

Mary Rosenblum

Yeah, overwriting. Can you talk about that a bit, Karen? It's certainly something I see a lot in novice manuscripts.

Karen O’Connor

Overwriting is saying in 500 words what could be said in about 50!

 

That’s a bit of an exaggeration but it does seem like that. Hard to come up with an example on the spot, but if you find that it doesn't ring true, then you are probably overdoing it.

katnj

Extreme humor?

Mary Rosenblum

Do you see that a lot, Karen? Trying tooooo hard for the laugh?

Karen O’Connor

Katnj: Not sure what you mean by that? Can you amplify? And yes, Mary, trying so hard that people are clearing their throats from embarrassment.

Mary Rosenblum

Want to elaborate, Kat?

katnj

I meant that today, so many people are into Extreme living. Perhaps they've become numb or blind to subtle, gentle humor.

Karen O’Connor

Two movies that come to mind where the humor seems over the top but still works are: What About Bob? and Elf. I love this kind of slapstick and still makes a point and thoroughly entertains.

 

Thanks, katnj. I see your point. Yes, we have a tendency in our culture to be into "extreme everything”

Karen O’Connor

and I agree that we could use some quiet time to think about the gentle, sweet side of life and find that little things that bring a smile or a nod of recognition.

dim writer

My humor for some reason comes across sarcastic. Help

Karen O’Connor

Good thing to look at. It might be due to your attitude about people or situations around you. Sarcasm can work sometimes in limited doses

 

but in general it is one of the taboos, according to what I've read. On the other hand, there can be a sarcastic character

 

in fiction and then it really works. I have one of those in my humorous romance. He's the hero's best friend and he's full of

 

sarcastic advice about how to win the heroine.

speckledorf

Do you find humor is used often to teach, whether lessons to children or more serious subjects?

Karen O’Connor

Yes. That is one of my purposes in all of my writing. I use humor as a teaching tool even though I don't set out to TEACH in the more serious way we think of it. I like to present a story or an idea

 

and then let the reader draw his or her own connection or 'lesson.'

 

For example

Karen O’Connor

I recently wrote a story based on a personal experience with my husband.  Mr. Perfectionist, remember?

Mary Rosenblum

The wallet in the washer. J

Karen O’Connor

He helped me pack for a speaking engagement, all the while trying to TEACH me how to put things together in an organized way so I wouldn't be

 

upset when I arrived. I'd have everything in order. So I did exactly what he told me to do.

 

and it worked perfectly, but when we arrived in our room

 

he looked perplexed.

 

And then he asked very quietly, "Have you seen my hanging bag?" "Yes," I said.

 

"On the bed at home." I assumed he'd packed it. After all he had all the answers. Well, you've got the picture. He wrote the same outfit for three days while I had

 

a fresh set of clothes for each day. The lesson? Don't be so quick to counsel others when you could use a little counsel yourself.

 

Thus a cute 'lesson' buried in a funny story.

joker

I think the most insulting attack on our sensibilities is political correctness. Does it, in any way influence what you write, or don't write?

Karen O’Connor

I think we've gone over the top with PC in our culture. I don't consciously think about it, but at the same time

 

I try to be sensitive to issues that COULD be hurtful or insulting.

Mary Rosenblum

Here, here, to 'over the top' with PCness.

Karen O’Connor

By the way, my husband says I couldn't write without him since he provides so much material. J

Mary Rosenblum

LOL!

 

So Karen, tell us what we can read of yours?

 

What's on the shelf right now?

Karen O’Connor

Best way to find out is to visit www.karenoconnor.com . On the home page you will see the covers of my latest books dance across the page

 

with captions and descriptions of each and links to amazon.com and other places to buy the books. I don't sell from the web site but if you find something

 

you want to order directly from me in order to have it autographed to someone, contact me by e-mail and we'll work it out.

 

karen@karenoconnor.com

Mary Rosenblum

That’s very kind of you, Karen.  And they do indeed dance – your books. It's a very nice website.

 

Karen, any last words for out aspiring writers?

Karen O’Connor

Thank you ALL for sitting in, asking questions and being interested. I encourage you to keep writing and to keep learning the craft. It's a fabulous way to live one's life.

Karen O’Connor

I hope you will persevere in whatever writing you want to pursue.

joker

Thanks Karen

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you SO much for coming, Karen!

 

I love humor, I have no clue how to actually do it so this was VERY instructive.

Karen O’Connor

My pleasure.

didahl

Great forum Karen and Mary, thanks!

Mary Rosenblum

It was great, Karen. Thanks again!

 

Thank you all for coming.

 

You can try a little lightness in your next LR assignment or the next piece you write and see how it works for you!

 

Humor is gold in the publishing world. Not enough people do it.

 

You all have a good night, and I'll join you all Friday for our casual chat get together.

 

Good night!

 

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