Being Funny for Money

One of my favorite things about freelancing is the sheer number of ways people can make a living off of the written word. A friend of mine, Bill Linden, is a gag writer and writes some of the jokes you see in the comics each week.

The Shoe Comic Strip

Ever since we met I’ve been curious about being a professional gag writer, so I asked Bill to answer a few questions. Being funny for money isn’t easy, but Bill is making it work by leveraging his connections and writing tons of gags. Bill shared his insight and a handful of the gags he has written. Enjoy!

Q: How long have you been writing gags and how did you get started as a gag writer? 

A: In the mid 1980’s my wife worked with Pulitzer Prize winning editorial
cartoonist Jeff MacNelly’s third wife, Scottie. The four of us would often go out
together and have fun. Jeff had started the comic strip “Shoe” in 1977. As a lark I wrote some and he bought two. I was paid $25 each. He gave me the original,
which now hangs proudly in our “Elvis/Beatles/Pop Culture” “Guest Suite.” Jeff & Scotty went their separate ways, as did our foursome. I was having brunch with Scottie in late 1999 and she mentioned Jeff was really sick and why don’t I send him some gags. I did and he liked what I sent in. Unfortunately he passed away way too young in the middle of 2000. The strip was continued on by Susie MacNelly (Jeff’s fourth wife), Chris Cassatt (producer) and Gary Brookins (he draws it). They decided to keep me on as one of the gag writers. I send 85 gags to them a week, here is is example of what my gags look like that I send:

B17–Scene: Sky & Cosmo at home watching TV…
Panel 1: Sky: “Uncle Cosmo?”
Cosmo: “Yes?”
Panel 2: Sky: “What reality shows did you have as a kid?”
Cosmo: “The 10 O’Clock news.”

We have a six-week lead time which is why most comic strips aren’t that topical. If I write a gag about something that happens today, it most likely won’t be
relevant six weeks from today (exception to the rule: insert wacky Republican
hijinx gag here…).

Q: How did/do you connect with the cartoons you write for?

A: When Johnny Hart passed away (creator of B.C. & “Wizard Of Id”) in 2007 the Hart family asked my “Shoe” people if I’d like to write for them also, my “Shoe” people asked me if I would like to and I said sure if they didn’t mind. They didn’t mind. I usually try to send the Hart family 50 gags a week (25 B.C. & 25 “Wizard of Id”).
Q: What is the process for pitching? 

A: It is a hard business to break into. As you read I only got into by
knowing the people involved then being recommended by them to others. I have
tried contacting other cartoonists (because I have a backlog of ten years of
unsold gags) through their syndicates, through snail mail or email, and the results
have been very disappointing. Either they don’t want to deal with the hassle of
buying freelance gags or they prefer writing them themselves. OR they don’t
want to pay or pay very little. The going rate today is around $75-$100 a gag if
they buy it. Although one strip that I won’t mention (or I would ever write for
again) paid me $20 not that long ago!

Q: I am sure it is a lot harder than people think to be funny for money. What are some tips you can offer for people who are looking to get into comedy writing? 

A: DON’T!!! But if you must… Get a THICK SKIN!!! Gag writing is NOT for the faint-hearted folk who take rejection personally. Out of the 85 gags I send in a week, I’m lucky if I average THREE sold (that’s 82 unsold that go in the files!)

Q: Why don’t you have a blog?

A: What’s a blog?

Q: You are a great entertainer on Facebook. How do people find you on FB? 

A: People can find me on Facebook under “Bill Linden.” There’s lots of Bill Lindens but I’m the only one with a profile picture of me standing between Marilyn Monroe’s legs looking up her skirt. But hurry. There’s a 5,000 friend limit and I already have 873!

About Bill: Bill’s occupations in previous lives include bitter and disillusioned graphic designer/art director for the Chicago Sun-Times, bitter and disillusioned 
Hollywood screenwriter, and a bitter and disillusioned gag writer for comic strips. When not writing gags, photographing Chicago or being bitter and disillusioned, Bill finds his charity work with the elderly quite rewarding. Once a week he takes his dear, feeble, white-haired mother, Josephine, to Denny’s® for a “Moons Over My Hammy”®. Once every six weeks, he even buys.” Bill lives by the mottos, “If you can’t beat ’em, mock ’em!” and “That what does not kill me makes me bitter and disillusioned.”

IMG: Bill Linden's 999 Bees in my BonnetAbout Bill’s book: Bill’s many adventures have taught him a lot—about what drives him nuts! He’s excited to share, for your reading pleasure, 999 Bees in My Bonnet: A Collection of Irritating Irritants. Whether it’s the double-crossing staff at Traitor Joe’s, reptile dysfunction, “Northern” fried chicken, or seven-year jock itch, Bill’s got a gripe to crack you up. There may be bees in his bonnet, but boy, are they makin’ honey! It is available on SmashWords or Amazon.

Let’s Read: Time of My Life

Welcome to our virtual book club! Grab a cup of coffee and settle in. Here in our virtual world, you can put your feet up on the coffee table (or your desk, if you’re reading at work) and make yourself comfortable. No one will even know if you’ve combed your hair! I had originally planned to open up the book club on Oct. 9, but decided to post a little early in case anyone wants a head start.

Our pick this month was Time of My Life: A Novel by Allison Winn Scotch. Leave your ideas, questions and thoughts on the book in the comments section. As an added bonus, Scotch is going to be stopping by and joining in our conversation!
About the book: In the novel, Scotch tackles the ‘what if’ questions that face the main character, Jillian Westfield, who finds herself asking about her old boyfriend and her career. Jillian seems to have it all (even the perfect organized closets straight out of Real Simple that I have come to accept I will never achieve). A massage releases her blocked chi and sends Jillian back in time seven years, allowing her to chart a new course, if she so desires.
So, let’s get talking! I pulled some questions from the reading group guide available on Random House’s Web site to help get the conversation started. You can answer these questions or leave your own thoughts in the comment section.
All of the women in this story struggle to find balance between their various roles in life. Do any of them manage this better than the others? How so? Can that perfect balance be achieved?
When Jillian goes back in time, she realizes that her memory of events may not be as clear as she thought. What does Jillian gain by looking clearly at the reality of events? Do you think you’ve ever skewed the past, for better or worse, to help you deal with the present?
Jillian has the chance to go back in time and see what would have happened if she had taken her life in another direction. How would your life be different if you had taken a different route? Do you ever wonder “What if?” and think about what might have been?
And, here is my question for you: What were your favorite lines of the book?
Comment away! Scotch is a New York Times best-selling author, a freelancer and a mom, so she’ll pop in when she has a chance.

Author Q&A with Tim Wendel

Today I’m pleased to present a Q&A with Tim Wendel, who is the author of seven books, including RED RAIN: A NOVEL and HIGH HEAT, which will be published this spring by Da Capo Press. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, USA Weekend, National Geographic Traveler, Washingtonian and Esquire.

Tim teaches fiction and nonfiction at Johns Hopkins University and was nice enough to share some of his expertise with us here.

Q.  You have written novels, narrative nonfiction and news articles. How do the skills you’ve learned for one genre compliment the others?

A.  Joseph Conrad was once asked his definition of quality writing. His reply was, “If I can make you see.” In other words, can I write the piece with enough details and urgency so the reader can picture a scene similar to what I’ve witnessed or brought together in my mind? In essence, are we sharing the same dream?

Once you consider writing in that way, a good story becomes a good story, regardless if it’s technically fiction or nonfiction. Quality interviewing can result in great sensory details that then can be fully utilized by employing techniques that until a few decades ago were the domain of fiction writers.

When potential readers have so many other ways to spend their time (watching reality TV, serving the Internet, etc.), it’s up to the writer to make a story – fiction or nonfiction – as full and as vibrant as it can be.

Q. Are there any dangers of cross pollination?

A.  Sure, looked what happened to James Frey and others. The fields of memoir and even essay can often be a slippery slope. That’s why it’s so important to fact-check your story along the way. Sometimes there just isn’t enough there to call it nonfiction – no matter how much research you’ve done. That’s what happened to me with my first novel, CASTRO’S CURVEBALL (Ballantine/University of Nebraska). On my first trip to Cuba, people there told me how much Fidel Castro loved baseball, how he’d once been a baseball pitcher, how he had perhaps tried out for several U.S. major-league teams. When the research didn’t go as far at that, I turned the book into a novel. That said the descriptions of Havana at night, the infatuation Cubans have for our so-called national pastime, what the lush countryside is like remained rooted in fact. Those come directly from the interviews and observations I did during my three trips to the island.

Q.  What techniques can nonfiction writers learn from fiction writers and vice versa?

A.  So much of quality writing comes down to scene-setting. In a way, this dovetails back to Conrad. I tell my nonfiction students to read novels and watch film. That can help with everything from dialogue to voice. I tell my fiction students to get out and talk with people, see if you can then mimic their speech patterns or how they act. All of that is necessary if you want to write effective scenes because that can translate into those times when you’re reading and everything around you seems to stand still. You miss your Metro stop or you stay up past your bedtime because you’re so wrapped in the story. That’s when you’re a part of what John Gardner called the “vivid continuous dream.” All of the above and then some is needed to pull it off.

Q.  Do you have any books you recommend writers read and, if so, which techniques should we be watching for as we read?

People should read what gets their juices going. Life is too short to do anything different. We should all have writers that we’d walk over broken glass to get a hold of their next work. Richard Ford once said many of us get into this field because we read something that’s so good, so memorable, that we have to give it a try. So, we do and perhaps we get hooked.

If that’s the case, find the connections between writers. Who do they read, even hang out with? Thomas McGuane, for example, is good friends with Jim Harrison. They’ve influenced each other. Richard Ford keeps an eye on what Robert Stone is doing. So, if you enjoyed a McGuane or Harrison work, allow that progression to lead you to a Ford or Stone.

Q.  As a reader, I often get caught up in the story and often forget to pay attention to the techniques a writer is using. You are currently teaching two classes–nonfiction techniques and a nonfiction workshop—at Johns Hopkins University. What advice do you give your students on recognizing techniques as they’re reading?

Whether I’m teaching a fiction or nonfiction class, I tell my students to pay attention to the moments when a piece they’re reading really takes off. Certainly you race ahead to finish it. It’s a good story and you can’t help it. But then go back and try to dissect the best passages. Can you determine, at least in part, what the writer was doing? When I read something that blows me away, I become the curious kid who takes apart the washing machine. Maybe I cannot put it all back together again, but I have a better understanding of what went down.

Also, be open about what you read. For example, in the novel class I teach at Johns Hopkins (the powers that be allow me to teach fiction and nonfiction) I often assign Cormac McCarthy’s CITIES OF THE PLAIN. Invariably, some will roll their eyes at this news. At first blush, they consider the assignment a macho novel filled with violence. And it is. But it’s also a compelling love story with characters that are more alive than some people you see every day. In many ways, McCarthy’s novel is Romeo and Juliet set along the mysterious borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. Several students have told me later that they never would have read that book if it wasn’t assigned.

And, finally, seek out people you can learn from. I’ve been lucky during my career to work or study under Alice McDermott, David Granger, Nicholas Delbanco, Alan Cheuse and Oakley Hall. Each one taught me something valuable about writing. But a small part of that was me going out of my way to be in their path.


To read more about Tim or read his stories, go to

I Heard You Paint Houses


Years ago my dad told me I needed to read “I Heard You Paint Houses”: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa. “It’s a book about the mafia and Jimmy Hoffa,” he said. I normally listen to the fatherly advice my dad gives me, but I tucked this little bit of information away and didn’t pick the book up until last week.

Like usual, my dad was right. Author and former prosecutor Charles Brandt digs deep into the Hoffa mystery and compiles a great story based on years of research and interviews with Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who confesses to killing Hoffa.

To paint a house is to kill a man—the paint is the blood that splatters the walls and the floors, according to the book. Sheeran painted houses for Hoffa and the mafia. He was also a WWII veteran, a Teamsters official and a ballroom dance instructor. Brandt does a great job of explaining what made Sheeran the person he eventually becomes. After learning more about him, Sheeran actually comes off as likable.

Sheeran unknowingly begins associating with mafia boss Russell Bufalino who helps Sheeran one day when his truck is broken down. The relationship continues to grow until Sheeran is eventually doing “favors” for the mafia. Sheeran eventually gets a job with the Teamsters.

Brandt explains who the major players in the mafia were and how they all interacted with Hoffa. I’ve never known much about the Hoffa disappearance, but the roles everyone played were clear. I learned a lot about the Kennedy’s and their interaction with the mafia, too.

The book, which was published in 2004, is currently being turned into a movie that will star Robert DeNiro as Sheeran. Martin Scorsese will direct the film and Oscar winner Steve Zaillian is writing the screenplay. It should be out sometime in 2011. I definitely recommend the book, but let me warn you, you might find yourself repeating some mafia sayings for a day or two.

You can read a 2004 New York Times review of the book here:

I was able to speak with Brandt about the researching and writing of the book. Tune in tomorrow for a Q&A with the best-selling author.