If you’ve seen the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest (and if you haven’t be sure to get a copy), you’ve read a lot of great (and hilarious) advice from literary legend Dave Barry. But there’s only so much we could fit into print (which was super painful, because the entire interview was amazing). Thankfully, we’re able to share more of it with you here in this online exclusive.
How do you react to and deal with criticism from people who don’t get your humor? Do you dwell on it, ignore it, laugh at it, take it to heart, and do you deal with it differently now than you did earlier in your career?
Barry: I definitely deal with it differently now than I did years ago. I’ve come to realize that you’re going to get criticized no matter what. Somebody will always hate what you write, especially if you write humor for a fairly broad audience. Somebody will always find it not funny and declare you’re not funny anymore. And sometimes people are just crazy. It’s not that I don’t care at all, it’s just now I realize that it happens to people a lot funnier than I am and there’s just not much you can do about it. The thing I have learned, especially in the Internet age, probably the easiest thing in the world is to declare that something is not funny. I mean it’s not actually humor to say something is not funny, but it is viewed by a lot of people—and by that I mean mainly snarky young Internet men—as a kind of humor in and of itself is putting down other people’s efforts at humor. And I don’t care that much anymore about that because I know how easy that is to do. I am much more likely to care about someone trying to be funny and give them some credit for whatever he or she did that was remotely funny than I am to be mused by somebody declaring this isn’t funny, that isn’t funny, this sucks. If you want to write humor, you’re going to have to get used to that.
Do you outline? Do you not?
As far as outlining is concerned, I don’t outline humor. I might right down a word or two to remind myself of a punch line I thought of, but the actual structure of a piece I really don’t. I don’t think it would really help me because for me the process is joke, joke, joke, joke. (laughs). I can’t just write, “I’m going to have a joke here,” and then move on. You have to think of the actual joke before you move on. When I’m writing fiction, a novel, then I will outline. And the older I get and the more fiction I write, the more I outline, the more I think about plot before I dive in and plunge too far. I’ve made the mistake of saying, “Ah, I’m just going to get going, I’ll figure it out” and that just doesn’t work for me. I guess there are writers who probably are capable of doing it, but to me I really need to know where I’m going with fiction to write it in a way that at least I’m happy with. And I really think that a lot of fiction books end badly because terrific writers said, “I’ll just figure it out” and plunge in, but have created so many problems that they are kind of impossible to solve. I mean, I’m talking really good writers do this and you can tell when they got to the end they either had to do something preposterous or they just don’t really resolve things. So for fiction I spend a lot more time outlining and for humor I really don’t do much of it.
What’s the most important piece of advice you received from an editor or an agent early in your career?
Barry: I never got any advice (laughs). No, that’s not true. David Boldt, the editor for the Philadelphia Enquirer Sunday magazine, and I wrote a piece about natural child birth, which ultimately was going to become the sort of pivotal essay in my life because it was the one where when the Philadelphia Enquirer ran it every other paper in the country picked it up, including the Miami Herald, that’s when I started getting a lot of freelance work and why the Herald hired me. I had written one version of it and sent it in, and I had kind of restrained myself in making it kind of a conventional column, I don’t think it was very long, and he sent it back to me and all he said was, “Make it longer and funnier.” So I stated from the very beginning and made it a 3,000-4,000-word essay instead of a 500-word column. And that became very successful. He loved it and a lot of people loved it and it was just a good time for it to come out because all the baby boomers were having babies just then. So I would say longer and funnier, particularly the funnier part, was the advice. And I’ve got to say, it’s good advice to most humor writers—not so much the longer, but the funnier. Because over the years I’ve had a lot of humor submitted to me, and I don’t critique humor or edit humor or serve in that type of role (most writers don’t), there’s so many people better qualified to do that, but the one thing that I did notice when I used to see a lot of submissions was that it often wasn’t that funny. And that’s the scary thing about writing humor is that it’s the only kind of writing that promises a result. If you tell the reader it’s funny, then the audience is like an audience at a stand-up comedy club and they expect you to be funny, and if you’re not, they notice. Whereas if you read a regular op-ed about Israel or the family or medicine, you’re not starting with the assumption that you’re supposed to laugh.
I once asked my wife if I could make it as a stand-up comedian and she said, Well, you’re not funny out loud.
Barry: (laughs). Yeah, they’re different skills.
Amen to that! After the success you’ve had, do you ever still run into any rejection and, if so, do you handle it the same way you did years ago or do you handle it a little different?
Barry: I don’t get it much anymore. I guess the negative thing that happens to me is that I’m old now. They said there was a generation I was too young for and now some will say there’s probably 10 generations I’m too old for. They’ll say, isn’t he dead or retired or whatever? Or it just becomes fashionable to say “Oh he’s not funny anymore,” which, I don’t know, maybe to them I’m not. I’m more likely to hear that now than I am to hear that I’m unacceptably risqué or that. I guess the other side of that is now I feel like I have more experience with publishing humor than pretty much any editor I’m going to be dealing with so sometimes I’ll get a little bit nuts if I write something that I know is good a certain way, and some editor because of some restriction he or she has and wants to change it that I know is going to make it less funny that’ll piss me off and then I’m inclined to go, “Well, hey I’ve been doing this a long time, maybe you should … ” That doesn’t happen that often, I’ve got to say, but I’m more likely to say that now than I would have been a long time ago. Because dammit, I’m infallible! (laughs)
That’s very gratifying to me as that’s exactly as I write. I tell my wife, I can’t stop until I get this word right. Singular words matter.
Barry: They really do. In humor more than any other kind of writing, I believe.
When you’re writing and you do cut a few things, say you like a joke but it doesn’t fit in that specific piece that you’re working on, do you keep those leftover scraps or do you just pitch them?
Barry: Hmm. I can’t really think of a situation where that would come up, because if I cut it out because it wasn’t funny I’m not going to save it. And I’m rarely in a situation where I’m cutting. I’m more likely in a situation where I’m like, I didn’t write enough words yet. (laughs). It’s very slow for me to create humor. It takes me a long time to write a humor piece. It takes days.
Do you have a favorite topic that you’ve written about over time or that you like to write about more than others?
Barry: Well lately aging. (Laughs) I write a lot more about that than I ever used to. I’ve always found relationships, men and women, the fact that they are so radically different, and it manifests itself in so many different ways, and yet somehow we still try to live together and be friends. I find that endlessly valuable as a source of material for humor. Generally dogs are always funny in my opinion. And the federal government—just a relentlessly productive source of humor.
It’s like they go out of their way to do it for you.
Barry: I tell people view the federal government as a source of entertainment. It’s a lot easier.
Are you a stickler for hitting deadlines because of your work for the Miami Herald or are you a believer that great work can’t be tied down to deadlines, so you have to work way in advance to make sure you get things in at certain times?
Barry: More the latter. I think I’ve learned over the years, because you’d have to be stupid not to, that when a book publisher gives you a deadline they’re just kidding for the most part. I don’t know what they do with it, it’s like you send them your book and they just hold it in their hands for like six months and I don’t know why (laughs), and you realize you probably had more time. With magazines and newspapers no, I get it in on time or ahead of time because that was my job for so many years and I still think of myself as a newspaper guy and you live by deadlines in the newspaper world, so, they don’t really give you any excuses. At the paper they never say, “Well, we just won’t have Tuesday’s paper come out, we’ll just bring Tuesday’s paper out on Wednesday, so go ahead, take all the time you need.” (Laughs) They come out with that paper regardless.
Did you feel like co-authoring Peter and the Star Catchers was a risk?
Barry: Oh now, I knew that neither one of us knew what we were doing here! (laughs).
In your new book you poke fun at Fifty Shades of Grey. Have you ever thought of writing an erotic humor novel?
Barry: (Laughs) No, the one thing I’m terrified of trying to write about is sex. I mean my God, my wife might read it or my daughter might read it or my son might read it, so no, I’ve never really written about eroticism at all. Although I certainly enjoy making fun of Fifty Shades of Grey—said the guy who just said putting down other people was bad, though she wasn’t trying to be funny.
Out of all of your books, do you have a favorite one? Which one was the most fun to write? Or is that the same one?
Barry: I can’t say I have a favorite, but one book that I’m really fond of that didn’t get that much attention but I always really liked it was this really short Christmas book that I wrote maybe 10 years ago called The Shephard, the Angel and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. I always really liked that. It did OK, I guess, but I’m very fond of that book.
I noticed that in your bibliography there and somehow even I missed that one when it came out.
Barry: (Laughs) No body read that one! I think I’m the only person who read it. It’s like a Christmas story told from a kid’s point of view. It’s not really a pure-humor book. It’s fiction, but I really liked that book.
I figure maybe you were sitting around wondering when you’d win your second.
Barry: (Laughs) No, I’m happy with the one. I won it before I even realized that I should have thought about winning it. It was over, I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Do you still rock out with the Rock Bottom Remainders and do you guys ever talk about writing or share writing advice?
Barry: We kind of disbanded, though we got together briefly this November to support a book we wrote. We’re all still friends and I’m sure we’ll play again. To answer the second part, we don’t really talk about writing. That is one of the reasons everybody loves being in the band. I mean, we’ll sometimes say, Hey, what are you working on, but as far as technique and when do you write and how do you get your ideas and that sort of thing people ask writers about, we never talk about that kind of thing that I know of. If they do, they don’t talk about it to me. (Laughs)
With Peter and the Star Catchers you kind of stepped out of your safe zone. Is there another genre that you’d like to try but you haven’t so far? Why or why not?
Barry: Free verse poetry. (Laughs). No, no, I’m kidding. With humor you have so many options with topics and length, I mean I can write humor essays in books now and they can be as long as I want them to be. In the new book I wrote a whole thing about Israel that went on for a long time, so no, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any genre.
Do you like using social media? What’s your take on it for writers?
Barry: I like social media—I mean, it’s kind of like saying, “Do you like the Internet?” I think Twitter is kind of fun, it’s not deep and it never will be, but it’s a great way to communicate one-liners and to sort of see what people are laughing about. It’s a terrific source of misinformation (laughs). Never have so many people been able to misinform so many other people and God knows that’s a useful thing. I think if you use Twitter and social media as your main source of information you are an idiot, but I think most people who use it know better, so I kind of enjoy it. I love the resource of the Internet. I use it all the time. Anything I’m writing—for example, if I’m writing a scene about Washington D.C. and I want to know where this monument is, I can find it right away, I can get a picture of the monument, it just makes your life so much easier, especially if you’re writing fiction. You can check stuff so much quicker, and I think that’s all great for writers.
What advice do you have for writers specifically looking to get into humor writing?
Barry: They should get into TV—and I’m not kidding. What I did, you couldn’t do now. Not because it was me, but because the newspaper industry when I came along in the mid-70s was rich and powerful and growing and hungry for material and open to new people. None of that is true in the newspaper industry today. Print in general is pretty rugged. The good thing is that you can gain a foothold on the Internet because everybody has access to it, even things like Twitter—I mean, you can get a reputation for being funny pretty quickly on Twitter, on a blog, that kind of thing. Parlay that into something else, but that something else to me is more likely now to be writing jokes for a TV show. And there are terrific TV shows now. This is a golden age for TV humor, I think. There’s an actual market there. Of course, I have no idea how you’d break in, (laughs) but there must be a way. They have all these shows and they need jokes and somebody is writing them.