Author of the Month
Tim Bete 
[July 2005]
Chosen by author, columnist, and reviewer Carolyn Howard-Johnson, MyShelf.Com

Diapers, Coffee Stains and Toilet Water:
The Recipe for Funny Writing

      I met Tim Bete when he said he loved my book, THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON'T above all others. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. So now, when he says "I remember having a desk once. I think it was gray with brown trim," I think he may be exaggerating. He claims that among the coffee stained papers, "There's a keyboard in there somewhere."

      Wanting to give you MyShelf readers some background on this author I asked him about writers' block. He told me, "I have four postage stamps on my desk. I found the stamps in a 1950s-era desk I used to own. There was a red, seven-cent airmail stamp; a blue, five-cent stamp with a picture of George Washington; a purple, four-center with Abe Lincoln’s face and a stamp with Old Glory, worth six cents. I kept the stamps on my desk because I intended to write about them when I ran out of other ideas. I don’t know what the story would have been about. Perhaps Lincoln would say to Washington, “Have you looked in the mirror lately? Your hair is blue.” Washington would think that was very funny, coming from a man with purple hair and beard."

     So you, as readers of this interview now know what I am up against, here. So here goes. You are in for a ride!


Interview

CHJ: I have wanted to ask you. Are those really your own children's bare bottoms on the cover of your new book of humor, IN THE BEGINNING...THERE WERE NO DIAPERS?

TIM: They’re not my kids. My publisher hired a stunt dad and two stunt bottoms for the photo shoot. When I showed the cover to my seven-year-old boy, he turned around, dropped his pants, mooned me and said, “Look dad, I’m a book cover!” So you can see, I didn’t write the book. It was more like taking dictation from my kids.

 

CHJ: I first came to know you through your newsletter. Would you care to tell MyShelf.com readers something about it, why you do it?

TIM: When I first started writing my humor column I posted it on my Website. People kept asking me to tell them when I posted a new column, so I started an e-mail newsletter. Today I have more than 4,500 subscribers from around the world. My column also appears weekly in several newspapers and CatholicExchange.com. It's been in the Christian Science Monitor and more than a dozen parenting magazines, too.

 

CHJ: Why do you think humor is such an important part of your life, of your writing?

TIM: You need to write what you know. There's always been a lot of humor in my life -- especially as my wife and I have had kids. It was natural for me to write about them.

 

CHJ: You are the director of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. Tell our readers something about it. Is it associated with the University of Dayton and how?

TIM: Erma Bombeck graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949 and credited the University with giving her a jump-start on her career. Erma started college at another university where she was told by a professor that she would never be a writer. Erma transferred to the University of Dayton where she met Brother Tom Price, an English professor. Price told Erma, "You can write!" Those words encouraged Erma and sustained her for a long time. Today we continue that tradition of supporting writers through the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. The goal of our workshop (www.HumorWriters.org) is to encourage writers -- especially humor writers -- and help them succeed.

 

CHJ: You know that since my first books were published I have turned my past career as a publicist to an interest in helping authors promote their books effectively. How do you find your association with the University of Dayton and the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop has helped you with your own writing career and promotion?

TIM: In addition to being the workshop director, I'm also UD's national marketing manager. I work with some of the best PR people in the business. They've taught me a lot about pitching the media and getting publicity.

Every writer needs a "promotion platform" to help get media coverage. Being involved with the workshop has allowed me to be quoted as an expert in publishing and "all-things-Erma." Our Web site (www.HumorWriters.org) was recently picked as one of the top 101 Web sites for writers by Writer's Digest magazine. I've been quoted in USA Today, the Chicago Sun Times and many other media outlets. You can read the most recent ones at http://www.timbete.com/newsclips.html

 

CHJ: So how have you found it useful for promoting your book?

TIM: The writers' workshop e-newsletter is designed to help writers. Because I'm often asked about my success publishing a column and book, I write about those things. That helps promote my book but it's not the goal of the newsletter. The thing I like best is hearing from writers who read something in our newsletter and got a job or other success from it. That happens quite a bit.

 

CHJ: DIAPERS is a selection of humorous essays. Did this book sort of grow? Or did you plan each essay to fit an overall plan? While we're on the subject, what are your work habits, especially with kids in the house.

TIM: It's an unusual story. An editor from a publishing house contacted me because she had read material on my Web site. She asked if I'd be interested in publishing a compilation of columns with them. I didn’t want to publish a compilation because there's no marketing hook. With a compilation of columns, the first question a reporter asks is "Who are you?" The focus is on you, the columnist. If you're not famous that's a bad thing. If, however, the book has a catchy title, such as In The Beginning...There Were No Diapers, the first question a reporter asks is, 'What is the book about?" That allows me to pitch the book instead of pitching myself.

The book is based on my column but I wrote about 50 percent new material and rewrote the old material to make chapters. I came up with the theme of "minor miracles in the life of a parent" to tie it all together. I wrote the book in about two months because that's when my publisher needed the manuscript. Then my publisher was bought by another company. My book sat for a year but I've very happy it worked out that way. My editors and publicist at Ave Maria Press have been wonderful!

Regarding my work habits, I write during lunch and after the kids go to bed. We have four children from six months to nine years. There's no time to write while they’re awake.

 

CHJ: I understand that humor is something that agents and publishers avidly seek. What is your take on this?

TIM: I've found the opposite to be true. Humor is a tough sell if it's the main focus of the book. On the other hand, humor is a great added element to any book. Few agents specialize in humor. You need to find a niche. Mine is Christian parenting. I write about Christian parenting but in a humorous way. There are lots of agents and publishers interested in Christian parenting but far fewer interested in humor.

 

CHJ: You won an award and you won it early enough for it to be featured on the cover of your book when it was first released. As a promoter/author I was in awe of this coup. How did you manage this?

TIM: I knew I'd have to do a lot of the publicity for my book. I have a great publicist but she's responsible for working on a lot of different books at the same time. I just have one on which to focus. I lined up about 125 book reviewers before my book was published. You can read all the publicity at http://www.timbete.com/newsclips.html

One of things I did was look for award programs. Winning an award can help a new book stand out. So I had my publisher send a copy of the manuscript to the Parent to Parent Adding Wisdom Awards. My book won an award. It's been great publicity.

 

CHJ: What is the first rule for writing something funny? Do you have to be born with a special bone or something?

TIM: I’ve heard a lot of debate on this topic. Mel Helitzer, who taught comedy writing at Ohio University for many years and spoke at the first Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, says the ability to write humor can be taught.

One time Mel was talking with Woody Allen. Woody didn’t believe that humor writing could be taught. Mel’s response was, “You mean you don’t know how to teach it.” That’s an interesting observation. Just because you don’t know how to teach something, doesn’t mean it can’t be taught.

I have my own theory. I think humor writing can be taught to a certain degree. There are tricks of the trade – such as how to set up jokes – but the most successful humor writers have a little "faulty plumbing." Here’s my faulty plumbing theory of humor writing. Like most great ideas, it came to me in the bathroom.

We had just finished building our house. I had to use the bathroom and sat down on the toilet. Immediately, I felt a warm sensation, similar to being in a sauna. I jumped up and noticed steam rising from the toilet bowl. The plumber had reversed the hot and cold water pipes, so we had hot water in our toilet. The hot water was going where it wasn't supposed to go. It was in the wrong place.

Humor writers' brains are like toilets -- not that I had to tell you that. But not ordinary toilets -- they are toilets in which ideas go to the wrong place. Ideas are put together that aren't supposed to go together. Humor writers have faulty plumbing -- they have hot water in their toilets. And unlike the toilet in our house, humor writers' minds cannot be fixed. It's a permanent condition.

Let me give you an example. One day my daughter was playing with her Big Bird doll. She was feeding the doll a piece of plastic chicken. What comes to mind for most people? “Isn’t she cute feeding Big Bird?"

This is what comes to my mind: If the movie “Silence of the Lambs” was performed by Sesame Street characters, Big Bird would play Hannibal Lecter – get it, Big Bird is eating chicken! That’s a sick, twisted thought. It’s faulty plumbing. I have hot water in the toilet.

 

CHJ: I have a webfriend who subscribes to your newsletter, too. Her name is Georgia Richardson and she calls herself Queen JawJaw. Even her e-mails are funny. I assume she has learned much from you. Do you even dream humor?

TIM: I used to remember my dreams but haven’t in a long time. It's probably because I'm up with my kids so often in the night.

 

CHJ: Will you leave us with something funny?

TIM: Children are like martinis. You shouldn’t drive when you’re under the influence of either. I remember taking my driver’s license test when I was 16. I was nervous but passed without a problem, which meant I was certified to handle a vehicle in a controlled environment – without children. Twenty years later, I was introduced to a new type of driving – one in which you attempt to concentrate on the traffic while your seat is being kicked by a three-year-old, who’s singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm at the top of her lungs and pelting you with Cheerios. They never mentioned that in the driver education class. I’ve petitioned the Federal government to require that all children have a warning label sewn to their shirts. It will read, “Do not operate heavy machinery if this child is in the seat behind you.”

 

CHJ: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our world-wide audience that I've forgotten to ask?

TIM: Buy my book so my kids can go to college. Otherwise they may live with me until they're 30.

 

CHJ: If you were a standup comedian, which political issue would you take on?

TIM: I avoid politics in my humor. You're bound to offend someone and I don’t want to do that. Besides, my house is not a democracy.

Thank you for sharing, Tim. Good luck with DIAPERS and your next book, and your next. May you always have enough diapers in your life to keep you thinking in new, wonderful and funny ways.


Email

Booklist -Amazon.com-

Tim Bete is Director of the Erma Bombeck Workshop at the University of Dayton -- www.HumorWriters.org

Author of:
In The Beginning...There Were No Diapers

Contributor to:
Amazing Grace for the Catholic Soul
Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul
From the Heart: Stories of Love and Friendship
Misadventures of Moms and Disasters of Dads
Become a Published Writer

2005's Honorary List

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