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The Personality-Driven Humor Book

By Marsha Marks



What makes it different?  What makes it funny?  One author's line-edit-from-hell, and an interview with the editor of New York Times Best selling humorist, Jill Conner Browne.


There comes a time in every writer's life when her insecurities rise to the surface and cause her to freak out over every edited word. This time occurred for me, in November 2004 as my first personality-driven humor book FLYING BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS: Flight Attendant Adventures on a Wing and a Prayer, came back from line edit.  Yes, I'd written other books before.  And yes, some people said I was funny.  But, none of my other books were categorized as HUMOR.  And they certainly were not, as this book was, filled with jokes on every page.   

Nor were my first three books (as this book was) edited by someone new to the company, brought in at the last minute, just before the manuscript was due.
My new editor rewrote 80% of my sentences.  "Oh come on," she said, "I reworded them, so they would read easier." 

 "But…" I tried to say, "Humor isn't always about an easy read.  I mean, look at Jill Conner Browne's work.  Her odd way of wording a sentence is what makes her funny." 

"You," I was told by my publisher, "are not Jill Conner Browne".   

Now, there is not a lot you can do when you are a writer who is not Jill Conner Browne, and you are in a final edit with an editor who rewords sentences so they "read easy".  Except mourn the loss of jokes that might have been.  And hope one day to talk to a kindred spirit.  Someone who understands editing the personality-driven humor book is different from editing other books.  

After my edit-from-hell experience, I curled into a fetal position under my computer to absorb the shock and it was there, I noticed an old November 2003 issue of Writers Digest Magazine.  

In that magazine, Doug White interviewed Dave Barry.  And Dave Barry said, he obsesses over every word.  Agonizes over every line he writes.  Then I got a wonderful idea.  Why didn't I just call up Dave Barry, and while I was at it, call up my other humor hero, Jill Conner Browne.  And we'd all commensurate.   And they would say, "I don't know how ya stood it."  But, one of the shocks of being an author which I didn't know before I was an author, is, we don't all know each other. And I had no clue how to get in touch with these people.   

So I resorted to a tactic, writers have been using for years, I read the acknowledgements in Jill Conner Browne's latest book, and thereby got the name of her editor.  Then I got serious about asking that editor just 7 questions.   Jill Conner Browne's editor is Rachel Kahan of Crown books.  Following are the questions I asked her, and her answers.  

MM: How would you define a personality-driven author? 

Rachel Kahan: A personality-driven humorist is an author who, like a stand-up comedian or sitcom star, is known for being a funny person, rather than just someone who writes books that make us laugh (for example, there are a lot of very funny novelists whose books are hilarious but aren't "personality-driven.")  They tend to have a very distinct voice or style that comes through both on the page and in person. 

MM: You have edited humorist Jill Conner Browne who is known for writing books that don't flow from story to story.  Were you ever tempted to remove one of her stories within a story? 

Rachel Kahan:  Jill's definitely one of those authors who has her own unique style of writing-she likes to go off on tangents and tell stories within stories….(but) they are…an integral  part of her writing, which is why we keep them in there.    

MM: What is the Key to editing a Personality-driven book? 

Rachel Kahan: I think the key with editing most personality-driven books-humor or not-is to edit lightly.    

MM: What advice would you give a new editor, who knows every rule of grammar and then discovers her first project is to edit a "personality driven humor book?" 

Rachel Kahan: The author's voice is more important than the niceties of grammar.  Jill's voice is very authentically funny and if it bends the traditional rules of structure, well, that's usually part of what makes it funny to begin with.  

MM: What is the key point to remember when editing a personality-driven humorist?  

Rachel Kahan: The key with a personality-driven humorist is to make the reader feel like they're sitting at the kitchen table with that author, jawing the day away and having a laugh.  Jill does that better than any writer I know, and she really does talk like that-I save all her e-mails because they're so damn funny.  

MM:  You have worked with Dave Barry and with his editor Betty Prashker, (Crown's former editorial director who is now retired). In November 2003, Writers Digest published an interview (by Doug White) in which Dave Barry said he agonizes over…just the right word.  And is obsessive…and nit-picky about every word. Could you comment on this. 

Rachel Kahan: It doesn't surprise me that he spends a lot of time on each word… He's a humorist but he's also a consummate professional and an enormous amount of thought goes into his work.  

MM: What is the primary distinction between a personality driven humorist and other authors. 

Rachel Kahan: Many of them become celebrities in their own right.   For Jill Conner Browne's most recent book (which was #1 on the New York Times list this past weekend), we sent her on a month-long national tour and readers came out in droves to see her.  Her readings and signings tend to draw hundreds of fans.   Those fans turn out because they want to meet Jill in person-if it were just about her writing, well, they could stay home and read any of her four books.  For some authors (and it's not just limited to humor authors), they become bona fide "personalities" who are part of our cultural discourse and who are well known as much for who they are as for what they write.

So, my interview was done with Rachel Kahan, and in a way, I felt as if I had talked with Jill Conner Browne herself, and with Dave Barry.  You might be wondering what happened to my manuscript.  Well, it is slated for release May 17th 2005, and we'll have to see when it comes out, if my sentences were left in place.  In the meantime, I am still living under my computer, eating fruit and vegetables brought in a basket each morning by our dog.  But, someday I'll come out, and write, what I hope is another humor book. When I do, please God -- let Rachel Kahan be my editor.

Marsha Marks  is the author of 4 books, including her 2005 release Flying by the Seat of My Pants.   Her articles and short stories have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines.  She may be reached via email at

© 2005, Marsha Marks, All Rights Reserved