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Friday, August 31, 2007

Review: How to be Funny

In my recent review of Draw Cartoons Today from WCCL, I mentioned the company's brand new course How to be Funny. Well, I've now managed to get my hands on a review copy!

How to be Funny is intended for anyone who would like to develop their sense of humour. The author, Max Matterson, has worked in the world of comedy for the past 20 years. He has been a headlining stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, and taught comedy to writers across the globe. He has also had eleven comedy productions commissioned by the BBC.

How to be Funny is sold as an instant download. The file is a quite substantial 101MB, so you really do need a broadband/DSL connection to download it in this form. If you only have dial-up access, you might want to ask WCCL's helpdesk service if the course is also available on CD-ROM. I couldn't see anything about this on the sales page, but I might have missed it.

One other point to bear in mind is that How to be Funny is password-protected. You will find the password in the email you receive from WCCL when you purchase the course, so don't delete this.

How to be Funny arrives as a compressed Zip file. When you unzip this - perhaps using an application such as WinZip - you will find that it contains three items: a comedy screensaver, including one-liners from the course set against attractive backgrounds (I love this, by the way!); a "comedy confidence" hypnosis session, designed to build your confidence before performing to an audience; and the main How to be Funny manual in PDF format.

The manual is obviously the centrepiece of the course, so let's look at this in detail. It comprises 95 single-spaced pages of advice from Max Matterson in an attractive, readable font. You are free to print out any or all of the pages if you wish, and I was pleased to see a detailed table of contents at the front (though not hyperlinked, unfortunately).

Following a short introduction, the manual is divided into three main sections. Part One, How to be Funny, explains the basic rules of comedy, and shows how you can use them to make up your own jokes. This section also covers comedic timing and delivery, how to memorize jokes, and so on. It includes plenty of practical exercises to help you come up with your own comedy ideas.

Part Two, Enhance Your Humor, goes into much more detail about jokes and humour generally. It discusses the different types of humour, and how to use humour in a range of situations: the workplace, business presentations, with friends, and so on. Dealing with put-downs and heckles is discussed, as is being sensitive to the needs and expectations of different types of audience.

Finally, Part Three is a collection of resources from the Web. Over 50 sites are listed here, under a range of headings including Jokes, How to Use Humor in the Workplace, How to Use Humor in Presentations, and so on. Following on from Part Three, you also get some additional bonus items, including a large collection of favourite jokes and one-liners.

Overall, I was impressed with the manual, which is well written and comprehensive. It provides some real insights into the art of writing and performing comedy, and the many exercises it includes are a great way to flex your comedic muscles.

In my view, the manual will be of most use to people who actually want to perform comedy - from aspiring stand-ups to those who want to use comedy more effectively in business presentations and such like. It would also be great for anyone who wants to improve their comedic skills in social situations.

There is no doubt, also, that the techniques taught in the manual would be highly relevant to comedy writers. That applies especially to people who want to write gags for comedians, or short comedy items for greeting cards, TV sketch shows, cartoons, and so on. The manual isn't aimed primarily at writers, however, and you will need to look elsewhere for advice on the correct format for writing (say) TV comedy, where to submit your work, and so on. Dare I say it, my course Quick Cash Writing includes plenty of advice on this type of thing.

Finally, I should mention that How to be Funny is currently available at a special offer price of just $29.95 (around 14.95 UK pounds or 21.95 euro). For that money, and when you take into account the screensaver and self-hypnosis script also included, I reckon it represents amazing value for any aspiring comedian or comedy writer.

* In light of a number of queries I have received, please note that the course reviewed above has no connection with the (more expensive) How to Be Funny Course by Stanley Lyndon. I have no knowledge of Lyndon's course, so cannot comment on its merits one way or the other.

Comments on this post are closed. Thank you!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Flash Fiction Contest Deadline Approaching!

I just wanted to remind you that the WCCL Flash Fiction Contest closes in two days time, on 31 August 2007 at 12 noon GMT.

The contest is to write a short story in exactly 100 words - no more, no less - which includes the following six words: mirror, subliminal, genius, white, cliff, clepsydra. In addition, you will need to provide a title of up to 15 words (this does not count towards the 100 words for the story).

Entry is free, and the best three stories submitted will win prizes of the popular WriteItNow novel-writing software from Ravenshead Services. This is the full version, which normally sells for $39.62 (US Dollars) or 19.95 UK Pounds. The winning stories will also be published on my blog and forum.

For full details of the contest, and how to enter, please click on this link. The results will be announced by the end of September. I don't think I'm giving away too much by saying that so far we have only received about 40 entries, so if you can come up with a compelling 100-word story that meets all the requirements set out above, you really do have every chance of scooping a prize.

Good luck, and happy flash fiction writing!

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Does Your Office Inspire You?

My colleague Karl Moore made another great post on his blog the other day, so I thought I'd draw your attention to it.

The post title I'm referring to is I Love My Office. In this, Karl says of his own office:

It's the heart of everything I do. It's Communications Central. I have my PC, my glass desk, my orange sofa, my bright-yellow walls, my aquarium, my phones, my books, the minty-lemon essential oil mix constantly floating in the air, my fridge stocked with juice. It's my own little paradise. No wonder I love my work so much!

Karl goes on to suggest eight great ways to enhance your office (or any room you spend time in). I particularly liked number 8: "Add a water feature. According to Feng Shui, a picture of the sea, placed in the northern aspect of your home is said to promote wealth!" I like the sound of that, Karl...


I'm afraid my home office doesn't really match up to Karl's description. It's cluttered and untidy, books and papers are piled everywhere, and I've just noticed that I can write my name in the dust on my bookshelf. I do still enjoy working here, but I'm sure Karl is right and I'd achieve more and get more satisfaction from my office if I just made a little more effort with it. Anyway, Karl's post has inspired me to try to do better in future. Now, where did I put that vacuum cleaner..?

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Friday, August 24, 2007

WhiteSmoke Creative Writing Version for $1!

OK, I do mean just a dollar more than the standard version! But that still makes for a very substantial discount on the normal price for the Creative Writing version of WhiteSmoke (which is definitely the one that any serious writer should have). The discount is available until Sunday 26 August under WhiteSmoke's special 'Back to School' promotion.

To remind you, WhiteSmoke is a program that aims to help its users produce better-written documents. It does this by analyzing the spelling, punctuation and grammar in any document, and then suggesting corrections and possible improvements. If you missed it, you can read my full review of WhiteSmoke's software here (though note that this does not mention some of the new features added recently, such as the built-in dictionary).

For more info, or to order, click on the banner below or in my review, and click on the 'Back to School' banner on the WhiteSmoke website. As mentioned, this special promotion only goes on till Sunday, so don't leave it too long to order if you are interested.

GOOD NEWS! WhiteSmoke have just announced that the 'Back to School' promotion is being extended to Sunday September 2nd.


WhiteSmoke Writing Tool

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Another Site Paying for Articles...

In yesterday's post I wrote about Helium Knowledge, a well-established site which is now offering writers opportunities to produce articles for a fixed fee rather than just a share of advertising revenue.

Well, I've now discovered another website offering a similar opportunity. Matrixmails is unlike Helium in that it is not primarily a writers site. Rather, it offers members the opportunity to earn a sideline income reading advertiser emails, signing up for offers, playing online games, and so on. However, it has just added "get paid to write" to its list of opportunities for members.

They are looking for articles on any subject from the categories listed on the site (currently online gaming and web hosting), and are paying $3 to $30 for each article, minimum 500 words. Unlike Helium Knowledge, they will accept any number of articles on the set topics as long as they meet their quality requirements. Articles have to include at least 2 or 3 keywords from a list provided.

At first, you can only submit one article per category. Once the article has been approved or rejected, you are then allowed to submit another article for the same category. Matrixmails say this limitation may be removed from "preferred writers" who have a minimum of three articles already approved. Once you become a preferred writer, you are allowed to submit up to 10 articles per category at the same time. Matrixmails say they are looking to work with writers who can provide quality articles in the long run.

As with the Helium Knowledge Marketplace, this is a brand new opportunity, and there are definite first-mover advantages for writers who sign up now. As mentioned above, apart from the article writing, you can also make money on Matrixmails from reading advertiser emails, signing up for free trials, and so on, if you wish.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Helium Knowledge Expands Opportunities for Writers

Helium Knowledge is a writing website that's been around for a while - you may even have seen ads for it on this blog or my forum. The site pays writers a portion of the advertising revenue generated by the articles they post on it.

Helium Knowledge is open to any writer, though with payment by advertising revenue share only, you were unlikely to make a fortune on it. Helium Knowledge was discussed recently in this topic on my forum.

Recently Helium Knowledge has become a little more exciting, however. They've just launched Helium Marketplace, where brand-name publishers post details of articles they need freelance writers for. They are paying at least $16 per article, with some paying $50, and others going as high as $170. Articles are normally 500 to 1000 words, though some of those currently requested are as short as 250.

Any Helium Knowledge member is welcome to write these articles. Just click on Marketplace in the left-hand menu of the site, then click on the name of any publisher that interests you from the list that appears. Details of the article/s they currently require will be displayed. If you fancy trying your hand at any of them, click on the article title and a new page will open, including a box in which you can enter your article text.

Obviously, it is likely that several members will try writing the article in question, and the publishers will choose the one they like best. Only that person will receive the guaranteed fee. It's worth noting, however, that even if your article isn't chosen, it will stay on the site as part of your Helium portfolio, earning you an income each time somebody reads it. In addition, some publishers are offering "consolation prizes" for the best articles that don't get selected.

Writing for the Helium Knowledge Marketplace might not be quite as good as getting a definite commission, but if you're just setting out it offers a great way of getting your name known to a world-wide readership. In addition, successful authors may be commissioned to write additional articles by the publishers concerned. I should perhaps add that Helium Knowledge is free to join.

In my view Helium Knowledge, and its new Marketplace in particular, is well worth a look if article writing is something that appeals to you.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Review: Draw Cartoons Today

Draw Cartoons Today, also known as the Lou Darvas Course, is one of the range of courses for writers and artists available from my publishers WCCL. It's the only course in this range that I haven't reviewed on this blog, so I thought it was high time I put this right!

As the name indicates, Draw Cartoons Today is intended for anyone who would like to draw cartoons for fun and profit. The author, Lou Darvas, is a highly successful US cartoonist whose work has appeared in national and international newspapers and magazines. His sports cartoons are currently being exhibited at a number of galleries in the USA.

Draw Cartoons Today is produced in the form of a PDF manual. You can either download it from the sales site or pay a few bucks extra to have the course sent to you on CD-ROM. Be warned, however, that the file is a quite substantial 60MB. It took about 20 minutes to download on my broadband (DSL) connection. The process went smoothly enough, but I wouldn't recommend trying this if you only have dial-up access. In that case I'd strongly suggest paying a bit extra for the CD-ROM!

One other point to bear in mind is that Draw Cartoons Today is password-protected. You will find the password in the email you receive from WCCL when you purchase the course, so don't delete this.

The first thing that struck me about Draw Cartoons Today when I opened the PDF was that most of the text is handwritten! That's not a problem, however, as it's perfectly clear and legible. The course itself is highly visual, and every page is crammed with drawings and illustrations (WCCL claim that there are 1028 hand-drawn illustrations, and I'm quite prepared to believe that).

The course is divided into 12 lessons, each of which you are intended to study in one day. Days 1 to 11 are devoted to teaching you to draw cartoons to a professional standard, while Day 12 (the only part of the course that is typeset) provides advice and information on marketing your work and your skills. The latter, by the way, is bang up to date, with advice on useful websites, creating your own homepage, and so on.

The first 11 lessons in Draw Cartoons Today are highly practical and intended to bring you up to a professional standard as quickly as possible. In the first lesson Lou lists a number of tools you will need (pens, brushes, inks, and so on), and buying these will certainly set you back a few dollars. This isn't cartooning on the cheap - the author wants you to do things the right way from the start, so you must be prepared to invest some money in the tools for the job. Once you've read the lessons, however, and seen the sample cartoons, if you are anything like me you will be fired with enthusiasm to see what you can achieve.

Draw Cartoons Today starts with practice exercises to get you used to working with the pens and brushes, and moves on to drawing the human body - both whole figures and parts of the body such as faces and hands. It goes on to cover sketching animals (apparently there is a big demand for this from pet owners), along with portraying emotion in your cartoon figures and "bringing them to life". The tricky matter of perspective is also covered in some detail.

The course also looks at related skills such as producing caricatures and comic strips. It explains how to create professional comic lettering and voice bubbles, and offers a step-by-step method for producing "gag panel" cartoons - all illustrated with copious examples, of course.

Overall, I was highly impressed with Draw Cartoons Today. If you are interested in cartooning and would like to develop your skills to a publishable standard, you shouldn't go far wrong with this excellent manual. And naturally, as this is WCCL, technical support is available 24/7 from their customer service website at http://www.myhelphub.com/.

Any criticisms then? Only minor ones. A table of contents would have been nice, preferably with hyperlinks so you could go straight to the lesson you require. As it is, you must be prepared for some scrolling, though with Adobe Reader 8 you can click the Pages icon on the far left of the screen and this will enable you to go straight to specific pages via a strip of thumbnail images.

The course is also heavily focused on developing your drawing skills. It doesn't have much to say about how to devise humorous ideas for cartoons, though it does recommend some resources for this. In addition, WCCL have just released a brand new course, How to be Funny, which I hope to review here soon. And - dare I mention it - my course Quick Cash Writing has a whole module devoted to comedy writing.

Finally, I should mention that Draw Cartoons Today is currently available at a special offer price of just $19.95 (around 9.95 UK pounds or 14.95 euro). For that money, if you're at all interested in learning this highly marketable skill, it really is a no-brainer.

Happy cartooning!

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Have You Seen Yuwie?

Yuwie is the latest social networking website, following on from others such as MySpace and Facebook. However, it's unusual in that it shares the revenues it generates with its members, on the basis that the more you use it, the more money you make.

The Yuwie site is rapidly climbing the Alexa ratings (Alexa gives you one opinion about the popularity of a site). It's already made it into Alexa's top 3,000 sites on the Web, despite only just having been launched.

The way Yuwie works is that you join for free and get credited with one page view every time you visit a page on the site (even just to update your profile). They pay you for referral page views too, down 10 levels, so if you introduce just one or two people and they do the same, you can end up getting thousands of page views every day. Each month they announce their payout per thousand page views, and you get paid accordingly.

It's early days with Yuwie, and too early yet to say how successful it will prove. But if you're interested in earning a pain-free sideline income and the other benefits of joining a social networking site (e.g. your own free blog), Yuwie is well worth a look. And it won't cost you one red cent either!

Incidentally, if you're interested in earning a sideline income, check out also my recent posts about The Marketing Pond and AGLOCO (both also free of charge).

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Feed Your Imagination!

Just wanted to direct your attention to a great post made by my colleague Karl Moore on his blog yesterday.

The title is Today, Feed Your Imagination. As Karl says, "When you're inspired, and are free to let your imagination soar, you are capable of great achievements." And he goes on to offer ten random ideas to fuel your imagination and set your creative mind free. My favourite idea is probably number seven:

Get lost -- literally! Take any random train journey and see where you end up.

...Although I'd love to know what sort of ticket you should buy before embarking on this strategy ;-)

Karl's post is aimed at anyone, but I think it's particularly relevant for writers. If you're feeling in a rut, or even suffering from writer's block, why not try out one of the ideas in Karl's article? It could provide just the tonic your imagination needs to start firing on all cylinders again!

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Question Marks in Mid-Sentence

An interesting question cropped up on my forum the other day. In this thread a member wrote:

I'm trying to write the following sentence, but I'm not sure how to punctuate it.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

Should I have a question mark after gods, or even at all?
Here's an expanded version of the answer I gave...

There is no one correct answer to this. Personally I prefer the sentence as written:

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

An alternative (suggested by another member) would be to put the first part of the sentence in italics and give it a question mark:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

I'm not a big fan of this approach, though. For one thing you can get into problems if your novel includes lots of thoughts, which it will if (as in most modern novels) you are writing in scenes portrayed from a single character's viewpoint. You don't want to end up with half your novel in italics and the other half in normal type. I would only use this method in a short story (and probably not even then).

Similar objections apply to the suggestion of using inverted commas (quotation marks) for thoughts:

'Have we displeased the gods?' Eysha thought.

One problem here is that we assume that a character is speaking, and it is only when we get to the end of the sentence we realise that they are actually thinking. Using inverted commas for thoughts also makes the text look cluttered. This approach was quite popular in the past, but nowadays it is seldom used by good writers.

Some writers would simply put a question mark after gods:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

This isn't wrong - a question mark can serve as either a comma or a full stop. To most people's eyes, however, putting a question mark in mid-sentence - without any other punctuation - looks a little odd. In this case, also, there is a risk that the reader will think that 'Eysha thought' marks the start of a new sentence. I wouldn't write it that way myself, therefore.

One thing that would definitely be wrong is putting a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought?

This sentence taken as a whole is not a question, so it cannot end with a question mark.

In summary, question marks in mid-sentence are a contentious area. Of course, where you have a spoken question followed by a speech tag, it's no problem:

"What shall we do now?" he asked.

But when you are writing a character's thoughts, there is probably no ideal solution in these cases, apart from rewriting the sentence so that the problem doesn't arise!

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Short Story Radio Open for Submissions

Short Story Radio is a new Internet radio station seeking short stories to be professionally recorded and broadcast via the website. Here's an extract from an email about the service I received from the station manager, Ian Skillicorn:

We invite writers to submit previously unpublished stories and we choose a selection of the best to be recorded and broadcast on our website. All our chosen stories are recorded by professional actors; with music added for extra atmosphere, each recorded story is brought to life by our creative team.

There is no fee for submitting a story and recording and transmission fees for chosen stories are paid for by shortstoryradio.com.

Stories are available to listeners for six months and the writers of chosen stories receive a profile in the Our Writers section of the website. Visitors to shortstoryradio.com are increasing every week. We have had over 40,000 visitors to the website since we began in 2006. Many of our listeners are fellow writers and we also have thousands of English Language students from around the world who like to listen to our stories to practise their listening comprehension skills, while being entertained at the same time.

I checked out the website myself. I'd have to say I don't think it looks as professional as WCCL's Internet radio station WritersFM, but when I tried listening to some of the stories I was favourably impressed. Short Story Radio uses a neat little online audio player which seems to work very well, and the recording quality of the stories is excellent.

One thing that did concern me a bit was that writers do not get paid for having their stories broadcast on Short Story Radio. I asked Ian about this, and he replied as follows:

I appreciate your query about fees for writers. We aim to provide a platform for writers to have a professional broadcast of their story that otherwise would not be possible, which is why rather than offering a fee, we are covering all costs including bandwith, recording, editing, music clearance etc. With all these associated costs it simply wouldn't be possible to pay for stories and keep the website going. However, as we grow we do hope to explore commercial opportunities for the stories, through which everyone involved could be paid royalties.

So there you are. If you're looking for a platform for your short stories and don't mind not getting paid, Short Story Radio is worth checking out. Submissions are being accepted from now till September 12 2007 - here's a direct link to the submissions page. Although in general I think writers should be paid for their efforts, I can understand that funds may be tight at the moment. Hopefully as the service becomes more established, Short Story Radio may be able to start offering payments to their writers.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Running a Business From Home

I was recently interviewed by Dan Martin of Businesszone.co.uk for an article titled Running a Business From Home. This is aimed at anyone who is thinking of starting a home-based business, not just writers. Dan asked to interview me as I have written several books on this subject, notably Start Your Own Home-Based Business (see below).


Dan decided to split his article into two parts, and you can see the first part by clicking on this link. I assume that a link to part 2 of the article will be provided in due course.

I thought Dan did a great job with the article. As you'll see, as well as myself he interviewed several other experts in this field, and between us we came up with a wide range of comments and suggestions. One thing I especially liked was the list of home business advantages and disadvantages. I've reproduced this below:

Advantages
  • Earn extra income on top of a full-time job
  • Low risk and low cost
  • Opportunity to trial a business idea
  • No shop front required
  • Use the internet to do business around the clock
  • Work at your own pace without normal workplace distractions

Disadvantages

  • Initial start-up costs
  • Domestic distractions
  • Visits from clients at unsociable hours
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Separating work from home life

If you're thinking of setting up a home-based business, either as a freelance writer or something else, there's a lot of valuable food for thought in this article. I look forward to reading the second part when it is published!

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Review of WritersFM

My colleague Ann Isik has written a great review of the Internet radio station WritersFM. You can read Ann's review by clicking this link.

WritersFM is one of the family of websites for writers operated by my publishers, WCCL. Others include this blog and my forum.

As well as explaining what WritersFM is about, Ann has provided commentaries on many of the interviews broadcast by the station (and available as podcasts). Here's what she says about the interview with Stephen Jackson, for example:

Stephen Jackson is a children's author and illustrator. He describes the journey to publication of MirrorWorld, an illustrated story book and adventure game written for nine to eleven year olds. The work was five years in development. The goal is to help a character called Seymour save the planet with a miraculous mirror (supplied with the book). Stephen describes his exciting UK book signing tour.

In a way, then, Ann's article isn't just a review, it can also be regarded as a listener's companion, providing additional details about the interviews so you can see at a glance which ones might be of particular interest to you. There is also a list of citations - a bibliography, if you like - for each of the interviewees mentioned, so you can find out more about them and their publications.

Ann has done a great job with this review, which is beautifully written and meticulously researched. If you're at all interested in WritersFM, I strongly urge you to check it out.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

150 Resources for Writers

I'm grateful to Jimmy Atkinson from OEDb: Online Education Database for telling me about a feature article they've just published called 150 Resources to Help You Write Better, Faster, and More Persuasively.

This is a comprehensive list of links for writers. For ease of reference it is divided into 15 categories, with the sites in each category arranged alphabetically. The categories are as follows: Almanacs, Business and Legal Matters, Citation Styles, Dictionaries, English Language Skills, Genres, News Digests, New Media Resources, Organization, Professional Organizations, Rhetoric, Toolboxes, Writing Services, Writing Skills and Writing Software.

For each resource listed, a sentence or two of description is provided. Here's what they say about the web-based organiser Backpack, for example:

Backpack: Backpack is a simple web-based service that allows you to make pages with to-do lists, notes, files, and images. Keep organized with a calendar and reminders, and with the ability to tag your notes so that they relate to each other, and send your messages via email or to your cell phone at predefined times. Sign up for free.

There were quite a few resources among the 150 listed here that I knew about, but even more that I didn't. I'm looking forward to exploring many of these resources in more detail.

About my only criticism of the list is that it has quite a strong US bias - it might have been nice to see a few non-US writing organisations listed, for example. Nevertheless, 150 Resources to Help You Write Better, Faster, and More Persuasively is an extremely useful resource for writers, and one that I expect to return to regularly in the coming months.

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