Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed . ~ 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jesus was NOT born in a manger!

Think about it. A manger is a feeding trough for animals. For Jesus to have been born in a manger, Mary would have had to have been lying in it. Jesus was born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, then laid in a manger. (See Luke 2:7)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In case of crash

        “Oh, no.”
      It happened—what every writer who depends on a computer dreads—a computer crash.
      I was 700 miles from home, one week into a three-week visit with my daughter, 50,000 words and a year and a half into  first novel, and halfway through a book-editing project that was due in 10 days. It would be two weeks before I could get home to my computer fix-it man and my backup computer.
      But all was not lost, thanks to a little technological miracle called a flash drive. Since I’d backed up all my important files on my flash drive, I was able to plug it in to my daughter’s computer and complete my work on time.

      Backing up your work is easy and inexpensive. And it doesn’t take much time if done regularly. Several methods are available.

* USB flash drive. This portable device, which plugs into one of your computer’s USB ports, will store up to 8 gigabytes (GB). Prices range from $10 to $150. About three inches long and less than an inch wide, it’s a wonderful device, especially for travelers.

* CD / DVD. Since most computers can burn CDs—and newer ones can burn DVDs—saving your work to a CD is simple and relatively inexpensive. Blank CDs are available in CD-RW (rewriteable; you can revise the files) or CD-R (non-rewriteable; the files are read only; you can’t revise them). You can find them in stores, online and through mail order catalogs for as little as 15 cents each (depending on how many you purchase at one time), CDs can hold up to 700 MB. At about double the cost, DVDs can hold about 4.7 GB.

* External hard drive. Prices range from $90 to $500. It plugs into the USB drive and offers huge storage space—up to 1 TB (terabyte—one trillion bytes).

* Online. There are two ways to save your work online. One is to email your files as attachments to yourself, using an online email account such as Yahoo, which now offers unlimited storage space. The other is to subscribe to an online storage service, which, depending on storage capacity, will cost you nothing or as much as $65 a month.

      And don’t forget to save documents as you work. It’s frustrating and irritating, when the muse finally hits and you’re pecking away, lost in the rush of creativity, and your computer freezes. To be safe set your word processing software to automatically save a copy every few minutes.
      Fortunately, the problem with my laptop was an easy, inexpensive fix.  But it was a timely reminder of the need to back up my work.

This article appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Word from the Springs, the monthly newsletter of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Volume 6, No. 11)  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why you DON'T want notoriety

I often hear the word notoriety used in place of the word fame. The two are not synonymous. One has a positive connotation, the other a negative one.

I once heard a Southern Gospel singer use notoriety as he spoke of his growing fame. No, Mr. Singer, you do NOT want notoriety. Why? Because although notoriety indicates fame, it is fame for a bad reason. Notoriety has a negative connotation.

Notoriety, according to my trusty Webster's, means a being notorious (don't you hate it when a they define a word by using the word being defined?) and notorious means well known or commonly known, especially for a bad reason; widely but unfavorably known or talked about. 

So unless you aspire to be well known for the wrong reasons, don't say you desire notoriety.

Coming next month in Grammar Goofs: My issues with a common Christmas phrase.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A kick in the pants

For the second time in my writing career, I’ve taken on the NaNoWriMo challenge. Every November, fiction writers across the land hole up for the purpose of cranking out a 50,000-word novel. It took me a year to write each of my two completed novels. Well, two. One year to stop being scared of the project and another year to actually write it. NaNoWriMo is the kick in the pants I need to get past the fear and into the writing.

To produce 50K words in one month, we all but shut ourselves off from the rest of the world. A hunter getting ready for deer season is nothing compared to a fiction writer getting ready for NaNoWriMo. Some writers turn off their phones, disconnect their Internet, and cancel their cable or satellite service. Me, I’m not that extreme. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t get my NCIS fix.
Quality doesn’t matter. Quantity does. It’s all about numbers. So they say. Me? I can’t restrain the editor/English teacher in me long enough to write the 1,667 words per day I need to get 50K done by Dec. 1. I can’t resist going back and tweaking the last page I wrote, or revisiting a previously written chapter to work in a scene to set up something that will happen later. But I’ve learned that keeping a separate document for “things to research” helps me to keep pushing forward.
Fifty thousand words scares me, but not 1,667. As I write this, at 4:49 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, I’m at 12,086 words. That counts chapter titles and notations in the text about what I need to add, change, verify or research. But I have to be careful because we writers are notorious procrastinators, and are afflicted with ADD. Anything—and I mean anything—can get us derailed.
I could have gotten derailed from the get-go. My husband came home from a two-week hunting trip to Colorado on Nov. 2, with 290 pictures and 290 stories—and a pile of laundry as big as a Rocky Mountain. My youngest son, whom we see very little even though he lives in Johnstown, came home for a day. Nov. 1 marked the end of the first nine weeks at school, meaning grades were due. Yada, yada, yada. But I didn’t give up. I simply refigured how many words I needed to write a day to reach 50K by Dec. 1. I can do this.
And so it is with anything in life. Sometimes the mountains we face are daunting, the problems overwhelming, the journey too long. We get derailed or need to tend to things with a higher priority. But we don’t give up. We fix our eyes on the goal, readjust, realign, reconsider—knowing that one step forward is one step closer.

Let us throw off everything that hinders . . . and run with perseverance the race marked out for us. – Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)     

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Finding your niche

In the movie, Marley and Me, John Grogan languishes at the obit desk of a big city newspaper, watching his buddy get the opportunities to write the kind of stuff he wants to write. When his editor needs someone to write a column, Grogan reluctantly agrees to fill in temporarily. His “temporary” column is a big hit. But it took a stint as a bigger-city reporter for him to realize his niche was really column writing.
What is your niche? How do you find it?
Webster’s online dictionary defines niche as “a place, employment, status, or activity for which a person is best fitted.”
How can you determine the best fit for your writing?
Simple: examine your passion, your talent, and your experience.
First, what are you passionate about? What message do you want to get out through your writing? Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or both, the driving force of your piece is the message. But remember to show, don’t tell—and don’t preach! Remember how Jesus used parables. Go thou and do likewise.
Second, where do your talents lie? Identify what kind of writing you do best—and for what audience. I have a friend who writes excellent medical articles for a veterans’ newsletter. She has the ability to discern what’s important, trim the excess, and write difficult-to-understand material in a way anyone can understand. Another writes historical fiction, taking dry historical facts and giving them life and breath. Still another writes delightful children’s stories.
Finally, what are your experiences? What do you know and understand well? What do you love to do? Interview people? Research? Teach? Make people laugh? If you enjoy people, then you’ll find interviewing individuals and writing their stories a natural fit. If you love the hunt and dig for more information, then writing informational pieces would serve well. And don’t rule out fiction.
Some writers instinctively know what their niche is. Others, like Grogan, stumble upon it and grow into it. Identifying your passion, your talent, and your experience will help you find your niche.
NOTE: I scored a double ace this month: This article appeared in the November issues of Christian Communicator and Wordsmith, the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild newsletter. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting back on track

Tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 8, 2010, will be my last day teaching full time.

Back in August--two weeks before school started--I was asked to fill in temporarily as an English teacher at the local Christian high school where I'd taught for five years (2001-2006) -- just until a permanent teacher was found. But the board and the administrator wanted me to be the permanent teacher.

"I can't," I told them. "I need time for my freelance work. I need time to write."

Producing a daily radio program, writing a weekly newspaper column, mentoring writers through Christian Writers Guild, and working on my fiction projects took more than the couple of hours after school I had, and after supper I was too tired to do much of anything, let alone something that required brain power.

But teaching has always been my passion, and truth be told, I didn't want to leave until we'd covered Macbeth in English Lit. And Silas Marner  in World Lit. And . . .

Since most of my classes are in the morning, I suggested that I work half days. They liked the idea. So starting Monday, I'll teach in the mornings and write in the afternoons.

Before I was asked to teach, I'd planned to finish editing a book manuscript for a friend by Labor Day. I'd planned to finish the revisions on my novel, The Heart Remembers, at the same time. But, as John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

But next week, Lord willing and the creeks don't rise, I'll get back on track.

Perhaps you, too, planned to start that book you've always wanted to write, send out that query about an article idea, research markets for your devotionals. But life happened.

Don't despair. Take care of the things that crop up, then get right back on track.

My writing goals for October include finishing the editing project, record some new radio programs, keep caught up with mentoring and writing my column--and finish revising The Heart Remembers. I'm itching to get started writing novel number three. A couple of weeks ago I attended an open house at a local one-room schoolhouse owned by the historical society to research my next project. While I was scribbling notes, my protagonist, a young girl named Ubby who will teach in a one-room schoolhouse, was suddenly there with me, telling me about herself and giving me plot ideas. I couldn't write fast enough.

November is just around the corner. NaNoWri Month--National Novel Writing Month. The goal for those who participate is to write 50,000 words from November 1-30. That's 2,500 words a day, five days a week, four weeks a month. I can do that. That's one chapter a day. I've done it before. I can do it again.

I can't wait.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to become a more productive writer

I wasn't going to take the late night workshop. Two full days into the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference, my brimming brain and tired body wanted only a comfy bed. I looked at the workshop title, "Top 10 Strategies for Becoming a More Productive Writer." I thought of all the time I wasted on Facebook and checking my email every few minutes.

"It's only and hour," I muttered, So I postponed jammies and a cup of "Sweet Dreams" tea and headed for the elevators. I was glad I went.

Presenter Joseph Bentz, author of seven books--three novels and four nonfiction--and full time professor, took away all my excuses for not doing what I sit at the computer to do: write.

Here are his tips, fresh from my notebook:

1. Make yourself sit at the computer even if nothing is happening. He called this "Winning the Battle of the First 20 Minutes." Setting rules for this time is crucial:
  • No email
  • No Internet
  • No Facebook 
  • No phone
  • No getting up
2. Let yourself play with ideas before you begin the formal writing.

3.  Start writing at the point in the project where you have the best ideas and feel the most confident.

4. Set reasonable goals and stick to them.  Determine a number of pages per day or hours per day that you will write. Make it a low number at first.

5. Write to discover your ideas.  Don't wait until you already know what you want to say to start writing. In this way, you can write your way through difficult areas.

6. Write youself a note at the end of you writing to indicate what you would have done next if you had continued.

7. Read as much as you can.  It will improve your writing.

8. Write down ideas as soon as they come to you.

9. Ignore the market.

10. Pay attention to the market.  The idea behind this apparent contradiction is that we writers, especially those of us still waiting for our first book contract, can get discouraged by the current market conditions and say, "Why bother?" But the stories within us beg to be told, and we are slave to the story that's wiggling, squirming, screaming to get out. At the same time, we must be aware of what's selling and shape our proposals and projects to fit the market's needs. Respond to the market, but don't let it control creativity. That was my interpretation, anyway.

OK, he gave more than 10:

11. Cultivate an "obsession" with your work-in-progress. Be with it everyday or it will start to fade, die, lose its edge. You'll lose the story world. Like a carbonated beverage that's been left open too long, it'll lose its fizz.

12. Let God do in you what each book is supposed to do.

13. Don't follow false deadlines. What are "false deadlines"? Those other authors set for themselves that don't fit you.

14. Don't waste time on envy of other writers.

Thank you, Professor Joseph Bentz, for your timely and practical tips. I enjoyed your workshop immensely. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Life happenings

In case you've been wondering why I haven't posted a new blog for a couple of weeks . . .

It appears I've been called out of Midian (see my blog "In Midian").

In the middle of August, the administrator of the local Christian school approached me at church. The high school English teacher had resigned. Would I fill in temporarily until a teacher could be found? The school is near and dear to my heart. I was on the board that established the school in 1997, then taught for five years before I resigned to write full time. Two of my grandchildren now attend. How could I say no?

So now I get up a 5 a.m., have a half-hour workout (I'm trying, as always, to lose weight), then get ready for work. I teach Bible (grades 9 & 10, combined), a college prep class for the three seniors, English 7/8, 9/10, and 11/12, as well as keyboarding to grades 7, 8, and 9.

My after-school hours are for my freelance work, which includes producing five radio programs a week, writing a weekly newspaper column, maintaining two blogs, planning and preparing for a local Christian women's conference (at which I'm speaking), reviewing my Christian Writers Guild students' lessons, and working on my novel.

Hubby has learned to can (see my blog post "Canning Partner"). In fact, he'll be canning tomato sauce while I'm in Indianapolis this weekend for the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference.

I've been focusing on getting ready for the conference, as I have two novels written and ideas for seven more. Editors will abound. I think I'm almost ready. Just have to  send this week's column; get the laundry off the line, out of the dryer, out of the washer into the dryer; take my shower; and pack the last minute stuff. In an hour.

So I'd better get moving. I do plan to get back to my planned blog schedule soon.

Until next time, when I'll report on the ACFW conference, hasta luego!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's your game plan?

      From my viewpoint as a spectator who knows little about soccer, the players are all over the field, haphazardly chasing a ball, trying to kick it into a net.
      But there’s more to soccer than meets the untrained eye. Pre-designed plays, defensive and offensive maneuvers, skill, and an understanding of the opponent all factor into this grueling sport, as does endurance and training—and a strategic game plan.
      Writers need a game plan, too, else we’re like the clueless soccer player, running randomly around the field, kicking at an elusive object, hoping somehow we’ll connect and make a sale.
      Perhaps the most important part of the writer’s game plan is developing writing goals—daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

What’s a Goal, Anyway?

    This seems elementary, but unless you understand exactly what a goal is, you’ll be like the clueless soccer player who’s better left on the sidelines.
    A goal is the specific end result for which you work. It is measurable and is something over which you have control.
      My overall goal as a writer is to be published. While that goal is measurable (publication), it’s also vague and not one over which I have control.
      How do you write goals that are specific, measurable, and controllable?
      Take, for example, this article. My goal is to write a well-written article of no more than 650 words on setting writing goals and submit it this week to The Christian Communicator.
It’s Specific
    Nothing fuzzy about that. It’s specific in that I’ve stated the topic, the length, the market, and a definite time I’ll submit the manuscript. Think 5 W’s:
  • Who? “I”
  • What? A 650-word article about setting writing goals
  • When? This week
  • Where? The Christian Communicator
  • How? Well-written
  • Why? To give writers an understanding of both the importance of goal-setting and how to do it

It’s Measurable
    The goal has standards that can be measured: Is the article within the suggested word count? Am I staying on topic? Am I following the editor’s guidelines? Am I on target as far as the deadline?
It’s Something I Can Control
      Although I’ll take great pains to submit my best work, I have no control over whether or not manuscript is accepted for publication. So I state the goal in terms of what I can control:
  • Quality: (“Well-written”) Submit only my best work. Have someone read and critique the manuscript before I submit it. Stay on topic and deliver what I promised, following the publication’s writers’ guidelines, including word count.
  • Punctuality: (“This week”) Send the manuscript by the deadline—before, if possible.
  • Professionalism: All of the above. Remember the skilled soccer player? He trains to become the best he can be, so he can build up endurance and persevere. Good writers plan their work and work their plan as they formulate daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, then follow through. They are also flexible, adapting and reformulating those goals to fit changing scenarios. They develop a good offense in terms of a submission plan and meet disappointment and rejection (defense) with persistence. They understand—and seek to understand better—the world of publishing as a whole, and the specific publication to which they want to submit their work. And always, always, they strive to learn technique and hone their skills.

Share Your Goals
      I send my weekly goals to my online writing critique group, as well as a brief recap of what I accomplished the previous week. It helps me not only to be accountable, but also to recognize my tendency to over-schedule.
      Like soccer, freelance writing can be grueling, with goals just as elusive as kicking that ball in the net. But having a game plan in place helps you—in training, enduring, and reaching those goals.

Examples of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals

Daily goals:
  1. Write first draft of goal-setting article
  2. Edit article for client
  3. Do bookwork; send invoices
  4. Blog 

Weekly goals:
  1. Produce radio program CD and mail
  2. Write column on Thursday
  3. Keep up with editing and mentoring
  4. Write two chapters of novel-in-progress
  5. Clean office; organize and file
  6. Blog twice

Monthly goals:
  1. Write 10 chapters of novel-in-progress
  2. Submit weekly column on time; work a week ahead
  3. Do bookwork on the first of the month
  4. Keep up with blog
Yearly goals:
  1. Complete first draft of novel
  2. Submit weekly column on time
  3. Keep up with editing and mentoring in a timely manner
  4. Do bookwork once a month
  6. Set up a work schedule and stick to it
  7. Research markets for devotionals and submit to them
  8. Submit one article/devotional a week to a paying market
  9. Put money aside monthly to attend writers’ conferences     

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Deborah Dunn: Smart about Life

Her heart is in helping others. So she took her counseling career to a higher level: writing, speaking, and creating a conference ministry just for women whose time and budget won't allow them to attend women's events that would feed and nourish their spirits.

A wife, mother, and grandmother, Deborah Dunn, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice near Raleigh, N. C. She is the author of four books, the most recent being Stupid About Men: 10 Rules for Getting Romance Right (Simon and Schuster/Howard Books), and the creator of Southern Christian Women.

"My goal is to unite women of all ages, races, and denominations through regional conferences, retreats, and an online community," she says.

Her conference model ideally teams SCW speakers with local talent and testimonies to support church outreach and ministry.

"I love to speak to women everywhere about the absolutely crucial importance of making wise life decisions, especially about romance," she says.

Southern Christian Women ™ is a traveling team of seasoned authors and speakers from below the Mason/Dixon Line whose purpose is to celebrate the joys and struggles of being a woman of faith regardless of age, cultural background, geographical origin, or religious affiliation.

"The day is designed to inspire, encourage, and enlighten women from all walks of life as they come together to hear wonderful praise and worship, speaking, fellowship, and testimony," she says.

Worried about the toll of the current economic crisis on women and their families, Dunn says that about two years ago she prayed that God would give her a fresh vision for reaching out and helping women in small towns, especially those areas of the south with more challenges than others. 

A veteran speaker herself, Dunn had just released Stupid about Men, her second book, as the recession hit. Like most Christian authors these days, she struggled with getting her message in front of her intended audience. Frustrated that most women’s conferences were too expensive and required too much time for most busy women, she conceived of a way to design events that would eliminate those challenges. The idea of a team of funny and inspirational southern female speakers traveling to churches and calling themselves Southern Christian Women popped “seemingly out of nowhere” and within a few weeks she had booked her first conference.

“I knew then that it was a God thing!” Dunn says.

But as word got out, event coordinators from different parts of the country began emailing her about the feasibility of bringing the conference to their areas. Surprised, Dunn quickly reassessed her original goals. She began to realize that the stories of Southern women appealed to people everywhere.

“Women everywhere have had to face a lot of hardship, but especially those in the South. We seldom get credit for how strong, savvy, smart, and self-supporting we can really be, especially during economic downturn," she says.

"Southern or not, ordinary women are doing extraordinary things under difficult circumstances, often on a daily basis. The truth is that without women, the church would simply fall apart.

"This conference is about celebrating those strengths, while admitting our weaknesses with grace and humor. We are sisters in the Lord; it is our job to support each other, laugh at ourselves, and praise God for it all, regardless of where we were born. After all, being Southern is just a state of mind.”

Visit Deborah's website.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writing the Breakout Novel

When I first decided to try my hand at writing a novel, I was at the St. Davids Christian Writers Conference. The year was 2005.* Although writing fiction had been a lifelong dream, I'd been afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone and that I didn't have what it takes (mostly the latter). Well, you don't know unless you try, right? So I asked for recommendations for some good how-to-write-a-novel books. I was at a writers conference--the best place to be to ask and receive good, solid writing advice.

Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel was highly recommended, so as soon as I got home, I ordered it online, along with the accompanying workbook. The person who recommended it to me preferred the workbook, but I read the book first--and loved it. It's one of those books you highlight, underline, scribble in, and use up a whole packet of sticky notes to make it easier to get to the pages that have material you want to remember.

Now, you don't have to purchase and read and pore over and study and memorize every how-to-write book there is. You just have to find one that inspires you and teaches you--one that you absorb like a sponge. How to Write the Breakout Novel promises to help you "take your fiction to the next level." It did for me. Considering I started at level zero--all I had was a desire and an idea. Today I have two completed (not-yet-published) novels, and ideas--solid ideas--for two historical trilogies and a contemporary stand alone. I'll be delving into Maass's book and workbook again.

Maass writes in a straightforward style that gets straight to the point. He uses lots of examples to show you what he means (show-don't-tell), and he challenges you to take these concepts and apply them to your work-in-progress.

The book contains 11 chapters, plus an introduction. He deals with story premise, stakes, time and place, characters, plot, contemporary plot techniques, multiple viewpoints, subplots, pace, voice, endings, advanced plot structures, and theme. The final chapter is appropriately titled, "Breaking Out." Everything you need to know about writing a novel in one, 264-page book.

From the back cover:
Maass details the elements that all breakout novels share--regardless of genre--then shows you writing techniques that can make your books stand out and succeed in a crowded marketplace. You'll learn to:
  • establish a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place
  • weave subplots into the main action for a complex, engrossing story
  • create larger-than-life characters that step right off the page
  • explore universal themes that will interest a broad audience of readers
  • sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish
  • develop an inspired premise that sets your novel apart from the competition
OK, you say, this is all written to get you to buy the book. True, but consider this: my first novel went to committee at four publishing houses--before I'd gotten an agent. And you know how hard it is these days just to get an agent. Sure, I got a lot of "nos"--that's par for the writing course. But for a first novel, it has a good track record. And it opened the door for my second novel: An editor from a major Christian publishing house who liked the first novel is working with me on the second.

The workbook is divided into three sections: Character Development, Plot Development, and General Story Techniques. Appendix A helps you to outline your novel, and Appendix B is a follow-up work checklist. use the workbook after you've written your first draft. (Read the book before you write the first draft.)

Investing in books to build your professional library is as vital to your writing as watering, feeding, and cultivating your garden. Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying workbook are two you definitely want in your library. 

*Click here to find out what else happened at that conference by reading my friend and fellow Novel Bud Melanie's Rigney's blog on her new website. And while you're there, do explore her new site. It's soooo Melanie!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writers Write Day

Writers, there is a tug-o-war going on for your attention. It mostly comes in the guise of the Internet. To combat this, someone declared a "Writers Write Day." The goal of this all-day event is to immerse writers in their manuscripts without the distractions of blogs, Facebook, social networking sites, news sources, etc. Let's admit it, they do pull us away, and sometimes hours go by, and we have lost valuable writing time. Officially, Writers Write Day was yesterday, but I need to make "Writers Write Day" every day. How about you?

Here is what to do:
1. Put a "do not disturb" sign on your door.
2. Write for at least three hours in the morning. If you start at 9 a.m., that will bring you up to the noon hour.
3. Take a lunch break.
4. Write for four hours in the afternoon.
5. That evening post on your blog, Facebook, etc. how it went. How much work did you get done?

Here is what you CANNOT do:
1. Do not peruse the Internet. That includes Facebook and other social networking sites.
2. Do not make phone calls unless absolutely necessary, and make them during your break.
3. No text messaging.
4. No television or radio, but by all means listen to inspirational music that helps the creative juices flow.

Let your family and friends know that you will be going into a day of seclusion to work on your manuscript. Hope you have an incredible time writing.

Why not make every Wednesday Writers Write Day?

(Adapted from an email I received.)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

10 Commandments for writing people stories

Everyone has a story.

But not everyone can write his own story. That’s where you, the writer, come in. Following are 10 ways to craft your people stories like a pro.

1. Thou shalt do thy homework. Obtain background information on your subject and have a basic understanding of his area of expertise. Before interviewing a local man who helped develop NASA’s Landsat satellite, I learned all I could about it. This saved time and freed me to ask more personal questions, providing fresh material.

2. Thou shalt prepare thy questions beforehand. This gives purpose and direction to the interview, and saves time. But don’t limit yourself to the list, and do skip irrelevant questions.

3. Thou shalt dig deep. Get behind the eyeballs and into the heart of your subject. Ask “why” questions. An article, like a good soup, is only as good as the ingredients. You won’t use all the information, but getting more than you need will give you choice material.

4. Thou shalt listen carefully and follow your nose. When the subject says something intriguing, explore it. Don’t be afraid to go down a path that opens up. You never know when it’ll lead to a gold mine.

5. Thou shalt get a healthy dose of anecdotes. Stories show, don’t tell, and are more fun to read than exposition.

6. Thou shalt get an abundance of quotes. When writing the article, use quotes for the subject’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, and attitudes, not factual information. It’s OK to tweak the grammar—people don’t want to sound stupid—but don’t mess with the meaning. Never use “When asked, [subject] said . . .” Weave the information into the article seamlessly. And just use “said” for the attribution, not “stated,” “commented,” “replied,” or anything other than “said.”

7. Thou shalt start strong and end strong. What is the most intriguing thing about the subject? Which quote, story, or fact will hook the reader’s interest? Which will serve as a good takeaway?

8. Thou shalt keep thyself out of the article. No using first person pronouns unless in a quote, no referring to your reactions to the subject or what the subject said, no expressing your own opinions (editorializing). This isn’t about you. Let the subject speak. The message will come through loud and clear.

9. Thou shalt let the reader see and hear the subject. What was he wearing? What does she look like? How did he say that? What mannerisms did you observe?

10. Thou shalt provide accurate information. Check other sources and don’t be afraid to call the subject back to verify accuracy or meaning. No one likes to be misquoted or misrepresented. It’s your byline, and you want your name to be associated with honesty and integrity.

Well-written stories about people overcoming obstacles, beating the odds, and achieving their hearts’ desires are always in demand because they inspire, encourage, and give us hope that we, too, can do the same.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


She penned her first poem in first grade. In high school, she wrote for the school paper and edited the school’s literary journal. In college her love for writing blossomed in English Comp and she decided that one day she’d write a book.

“The next thing I knew,” says Vonda Skelton, “I was 40. My life was half over, and I had never written that book—or anything else!”

So, once again, she put pen to paper, this time writing her first book in a couple of months.

“I never edited it, never proofed it,” she recalls. “I sent it out to 10 publishers. The submissions were back before the stamps were dry! Yes, that was a while back, before the days of self-adhesive stamps.”

Seven years and 63 rejections later, Vonda finally saw her byline—on an article she sold to the editor of Focus on Your Child at a Christian writers’ conference “over bacon, eggs, and grits.”

“I believed I had something of worth that God wanted me to share,” she says, “and I was hardheaded enough to believe it when others might have quit.”

Since then Vonda’s writing credits have bloomed: four books (one nonfiction book for women and three children’s fiction), and numerous articles for national publications. She’s even interviewed Kirk Cameron and Bob Carlisle.

“Published writers aren’t always the best writers out there,” she says. “They’re sometimes simply the writers who don’t quit. I know there are manuscripts tucked away in desk drawers or computer files that are much better than anything I could ever produce. But those manuscripts will never get published because the writers got a handful of rejections and quit.”

Vonda’s current project is a nonfiction book for baby boomers, which she works on while fulfilling a demanding speaking ministry and babysitting grandchildren. She also would like to try her hand at adult fiction.

“God has gifted us with exactly what we need to complete the calling He has placed on our lives,” she says. “We all have to learn to fulfill that calling. He places in each of us the passions and gifts necessary to do it.

 “I often think: What if I had stopped sending out queries after Rejection number 63?”


NOTE:  Vonda will be one of three speakers for the Seasons of Life Christian Women’s Conference in Punxsutawney on Oct. 16. For more information about the conference, visit the conference blog page. Visit Vonda's Website, where you can also access her blog, “The Christian Writer’s Den.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My summer stack

It's been an unusually busy summer so far--with travel to Colorado Springs to work on Christian Writers Guild course rewrites, the week-long St. Davids Christian Writers Conference, my daughter's too-short, two-week visit home, getting the house ready for her and her two boys, and keeping caught up with basic freelance responsibilities. So I haven't had time to delve into reading as I would like.

But the rest of the summer lies golden before me for that opportunity. I plan to get up at 6 a.m., go for my walk, have my tea and quiet time, then be at the computer by 8 a.m., work until 2, then spend the rest of the day reading (hopefully while making use of the hammock out back), swimming in my son's pool next door, and fixing an easy supper for hubby and me.

I have a stack of books I'm itching to delve into, some fiction, some professional, some "just because." This week, since I'm still switching gears from Grandma mode, I'm taking a shortcut and forgoing the book review and posting a list of the books in my stack. Now, I probably won't read all of them by Labor Day, but I do want to make the best use of my time in the hammock. 

So here's Michele's Summer Reading List in no particular order, writing books first:
  1. Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell
  2. Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today's Best Writers & Teachers, Sherry Ellis (ed.)
  3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King
  4. Writers on Writing, James N. Watkins (ed.)
  5. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, Donald Maass (I already started this one, but will have to reread, or skim over, the four chapters I've already read.)
  6. Writing for the Soul, Jerry B. Jenkins (I read this several years ago, but it's time for a re-read.)
Books in my summer stack that I picked up at St. Davids Christian Writers Conference:
  1. Don't Let Me Go: What My Daughter Taught Me About the Journey Every Parent Must Take, David W. Pierce
  2. The 365-Day Fun Bible Fact Book, with several contributions by my friend and writing colleague, Roberta T. Brosius
  3. Head in the Sand . . . and other unpopular positions, a collection of humorous essays by another friend and writing colleague, Linda M. Au
  4. Donkeys Still Talk: Hearing God's Voice When You're Not Listening, by my friend, online writing critique group buddy, and writing colleague, Virelle Kidder (I read this when I first met Virelle, about 10 years ago. I've been getting the nudge to re-read it.)
  5. When They Come Home: Ways to Welcome Returning Catholics,co-authored by my friend, online writing critique group buddy, and writing colleague, Melanie Rigney
  6. Autism & Alleluias, by another online critique group member (another critique group), Kathleen Deyer Bolduc
Ambitious? You bet. But spending an hour a day in the hammock doing one of the things I love best--reading--is as good as it gets.

Happy summer reading!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Grammar goof: "I thought to myself."

Oh, pulleaze!!! Who else are you going to “think to”? 

Correcting the goof:
Use “I thought,” “I said to myself,” “I muttered to myself” or “I scolded myself.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Agent queries: one size does NOT fit all

    It took me two years to write my first novel, and when it was finally ready for submission, I figured the work was done. Not!
    I now faced the daunting task of finding a publisher—not an easy feat these days for a first-time novelist. Most publishers consider only manuscripts submitted by an agent or one they’ve requested after meeting the author at a writers’ conference.
    Since I can’t afford to attend more than one writers’ conference a year, it seemed imperative to secure an agent.

First: Finish It!

    Wanting to see if my idea would float (and being fairly wet behind the fiction ears), I started the marketing the book when I had only a one-page synopsis, the first chapter, and a vague idea of where I was going with it. Although the response was encouraging, I learned lesson number one: finish the novel. No agent or publisher would even consider it until then.
    “We get lots of ideas,” one agent told me, “but only a few follow through and finish.”

Do Your Homework, Part 1: Use the Market Guide
    Two years later, completed manuscript in hand, I learned lesson number two: A one-size-fits-all query would not suffice. One agent wanted a one-page synopsis, another a six-page synopsis. One wanted the first 50 pages, another the first three chapters, still another only the first chapter. Two wanted the entire manuscript, but one wanted it submitted electronically, while the other wanted hard copy sent via USPS.
    When I realized that my baby wasn’t going to snatched up by the first agent I contacted (or the second or third or fourth . . . ), the real work began.
    Poring through the “Christian Literary Agents” section of the Christian Writers’ Market Guide, I highlighted those I thought might be a good match for both me and my manuscript. In particular, I noted the following:
  •  Length of time in business: when the agency was established and how many clients it represented
  •  Open to first-time novelists and new clients: if it was open to newbies and if a referral was required
  •  Genres it preferred
  •  Commission they received
  •  Expenses, such as copying and postage, for which the author would be responsible
  •  Contact: How the agency preferred to be contacted: via email or USPS; and what they wanted to see: query, synopsis, sample chapters, or any or all of the above
  •  “Tips” for “insider information”

Do Your Homework, Part 2: Research Online

    List of potential agents in hand, I first went to the Predators and Editors website, where most of the agencies were listed. I crossed off those that weren’t recommended, starred those that were, and noted whether the agency had verified sales to a royalty-paying publisher on record. (Note: Sally Stuart gives additional resources to research potential agents in the Christian Writers’ Market Guide. Also read carefully the information on the Predators and Editors website prior to the alphabetical listing.)
    My list trimmed, I then visited each agency’s website. I crossed one off when I noted misspellings. I spent hours on each site, reading every page carefully, and taking note of the following:
  •  Tone and appearance: Did the agency’s web presence appear professional, yet friendly?
  •  Information about the agency: history; agent bios and genres each agent handled; clients; recent sales; submission guidelines; and contact information
  •  Information for authors: some sites gave excellent resource information, such as how to write a query, how to make a pitch—workshop-quality stuff.
  •  Submission guidelines: Exactly what they wanted (query, synopsis, sample chapters, number of pages, book proposal, entire manuscript), how they wanted it (electronic via email or hard copy via USPS), and if a simultaneous submission was OK. Here is where I learned I had to tailor the query letter to the agency.

Develop a Spreadsheet

    To keep track of submissions, I developed a spreadsheet in Excel, making columns for the following:
  •  Date sent
  •  To whom
  •  Agent or publisher (A or P)
  •  Material submitted
  •  Manner of submission: electronic or USPS
  •  Response time
  •  The date I could begin looking for a response
  •  The date I received the response
  •  Response (yes or no)
  •  Comments the agent made about the manuscript
I also included on the spreadsheet the publishers and editors I’d contacted on my own. This gave me a complete submission history at a glance. I stapled the spreadsheet to the inside of a file folder, which I tucked inside a pocket folder that included my notes and any correspondence pertaining to the manuscript.

Prepare the Submission
    Each submission took at least an entire workday to prepare, following the agency’s requirements exactly.
    If I wasn’t sure about something, I emailed the agency. They were glad to know I was taking their guidelines seriously. And it’s always good to verify that it’s OK to send an attachment (plus they’d be expecting it).
    Make sure you send the file in a format they can open. I inadvertently sent a file as a Word Perfect document, instead of WORD. The file can be saved as RTF (rich text format), which most operating systems can open. Some agencies prefer submissions copied and pasted in the email message box.
    If you’re submitting hard copy, keep the following in mind:
  •  Use good quality paper; I prefer 24-pound, with a brightness of 96 or above.
  •  Keep the pages loose; do NOT use paper clips or staple the pages together. A blank sheet of paper, folded in half, may be used as a mini-file folder, separating the synopsis from the sample chapters.
  •  Put your name, the title of the manuscript, and the page number in the header and, if you want, a copyright notice in the footer. (The Header and Footer feature in WORD will automatically put this information on each page.)
  •  Always include an SASE for the agency’s response.
  •  Don’t forget contact information: your name, address, phone numbers, email address.

Don’t Send It Yet
    Not until another writer or freelance editor reads it over. Fresh eyes (and fresh brains) will find what your overworked ones miss. Reading the page backwards doesn’t always work.

Forget It!
    Once you’ve sent your baby off into the world, let it go. Move on to your next project—until you get that phone call letting you know all your hard work has paid off.

(This article appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of Advanced Christian Writer)



Thursday, June 24, 2010

Virelle Kidder: Finding her song

“I never planned on being a writer,” writes Virelle Kidder in her latest book, The Best Life Ain’t Easy, But It’s Worth It (2008, Moody Publishers). “I literally fell into it one brilliant June morning in front of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.”

When she writes “literally,” she means it. The two slipped discs in her neck and lower back caused by the fall required 15 months of neck traction and a cervical collar.

“Not welcome news for this mom (of four teenagers) in high gear,” she says. “There was little choice but to settle into my new contraption and learn to listen to God all over again.”

After a few weeks, she began to look forward to the time alone behind that bedroom door, reading God’s Word, listening for His voice, and just resting. “The perfect escape,” she called it.

“Within a few months the strangest thing would happen,” she writes. “Something like a song begging a voice echoed from a place before unknown. Day by day, it drifted through forgotten rooms in my soul where faces and voices I’d once loved still lived. I longed to bring them to life again, to listen and linger over ideas once muffled by my busy life.”

What, she wondered, was she to do with this? Tell someone was the answer.

So she told her husband the stories that bubbled from her heart and soul—in the morning over coffee in the bathroom while he shaved. Steve’s interest surprised her. “Tell me more,” he’d say. One day he said, “You need to write these stories down. Our children need them. Others need them.”

And so she did. Mothering Upstream was published in 1990 by Victor Books. The song had found a voice.

Today Virelle is the author of six nonfiction books, a retreat and conference speaker, and a writing teacher and mentor.

But she’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t easy. Writing, especially nonfiction, requires a transparency most find uncomfortable. Opening your heart and life to an unseen reader, hoping your words will reach across time and distance and touch another’s life, means being vulnerable. But that’s the only way to be authentic, she says. Because it’s in the sharing of your very real pain that others identify with you. They know you’re real.

Says Virelle, “Writing became my song to sing back to God.”

Adapted from her memoir, The Best Life Ain’t Easy, But It’s Worth It and published in THE UPPER CASE, the newsletter of the St. Davids Christian Writers Association, Winter 2010

Visit Virelle's website.

"No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV)

Virelle's book, Meet Me at the Well: Take a Month to Water Your Soul (Moody Publishers, 2008) has spawned three satellite ministries: Virelle's "Meet Me at the Well" women's retreat, a companion Meet Me at the Well Bible study, written by Jocelyn Hamsher, and an inspirational music CD by Lisa Troyer. You never know what God has in store for those who trust and obey. For more information, click here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Jerry B. Jenkins on Writing for the Soul

Jerry Jenkins's book, Writing for the Soul: Instruction and Advice from an Extraordinary Writing Life, should be on every writer's professional bookshelf. Especially beginners. Especially intermediate writers. Especially professional writers. A candid look into the real world of the professional writer, Writing for the Soul is packed full of advice, born of decades of experience. It's also the story of Jerry's journey from a high school sports stringer for his local newspaper to a best-selling author with over 150 titles to his name. But it's not a "look at what I've done" type of book. Jerry's much too humble for that. It's more like "look at what you can do."

For those of you who don't recognize the name, Jerry B. Jenkins is the co-author of the bestselling Left Behind series. He's also the owner of the Christian Writers Guild and publishes a weekly blog for writers every Wednesday. (Click on under "Writers' Blogs in the right margin of this page.)

Writing for the Soul serves up thirteen chapters addressing all phases of the writing life, from "Why Write?" to "Keeping the Goal in Sight." Sprinkled throughout the book are helpful writing tips and interesting anecdotes about famous folks Jerry's had the privilege of writing about.

Jerry addresses the reader on the inside front flap of the book's dustcover:
Now is the time for honest, perhaps painful, self-assessment. If you have what it takes, including skin thick enough to endure the honest evaluation of your work, you can succeed in making the most of every opportunity. I'm living my dream as a full-time freelance novelist, writing about things I believe in and care about. And you can too. The path is crowded and the passage long, but but the reward is worth it. You can write for the benefit of your soul. And you can write to reach the soul of another.

From the back cover:
"In Writing for the Soul," best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins takes you on a personal and inspiring journey, imparting experience and wisdom gained from his impressive writing career. Unknown in his early days, Jenkins persisted in his passion to write, and his story reveals rewards that can come to writers who put in the hard work and keep their priorities straight. Jenkins shares honest and straightforward truth about how to find writing success and why the journey is a continuous one.

"With heartfelt advice and intimate anecdotes that will satisfy writers and fans, Jenkins discusses:
  • the skills and abilities requires to build an exciting career
  • breaking into the industry through reporting and writing for small markets
  • establishing and maintaining a professional image
  • how even experienced writers should continue to learn and grow (including Jenkins himself).
"Writing for the Soul is filled with Jenkins' autobopgraphical stories--including many of the famous people he's written about--and the lessons he's learned from his decades of experience in the writing and publishing world."

Jerry's big on continuously learning, reading, improving your skills. That's why 10 years ago he bought the Christian Writers Guild, which offers courses for writers all along the spectrum, from beginners on. And why every year, usually in February, he hosts the Writing for the Soul Christian Writers Conference. I recently was on the team of writers who rewrote two of the Guild's writing courses. The Guild, reflecting Jerry's desire is committed to helping writers move up to the next level.

The writing team discusses changes to the Writing Essentials course with Jerry
(from left) Julie Ieron, Karen O'Connor, Jerry, Michele Huey

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Grammar goof: misplaced modifiers

I laughed out loud when I read a local radio station’s online news email:

“Walker was charged with burglary, trespass, and other charges in connection with Walker breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and videotaping an intimate moment she was having with his cell phone camera.”

My, that must be some cell phone camera! The technology these days . . .

Correcting the goof:

It has to do with the placement of modifiers. A modifier is a word or phrase that describes, or modifies, another word. A modifier that describes, or modifies, a noun is an adjective; a modifier that describes or modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb is an adverb.

Modifiers can be single words or phrases, but they should be placed next to the word they modify. When they aren’t, they are called misplaced modifiers, and can create some pretty hilarious sentences.

In the above gaffe, “with his cell phone camera” is meant to modify the verb “videotaping.” In other words, he was charged with using his cell phone to videotape an intimate moment his girlfriend was having. Placing the phrase at the end of the sentence, next to the verb “having,” makes it modify “having.” You get the gist.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Writing goals: What's your game plan?

From my viewpoint as a spectator who knows little about soccer, the players are all over the field, haphazardly chasing a ball, trying to kick it into a net.

But there’s more to soccer than meets the untrained eye. Pre-designed plays, defensive and offensive maneuvers, skill, and an understanding of the opponent all factor into this grueling sport, as does endurance and training—and a strategic game plan.

Writers need a game plan, too; otherwise, we’re like the clueless soccer player, running randomly around the field, kicking at an elusive object, hoping somehow we’ll connect and make a sale.

Perhaps the most important part of the writer’s game plan is developing writing goals— daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

What’s a goal, anyway?
This seems elementary, but unless you understand exactly what a goal is, you’ll be like the clueless soccer player who’s better left on the sidelines.

A goal is the specific end result for which you work. It is measurable and is something over which you have control. For example, my overall goal as a writer is to be published. While that goal is measurable (publication), it’s also vague and not one over which I have control.

How do you write goals that are specific, measurable, and controllable?

Take, for example, this article, which was published in Christian Communicator in January 2009. My goal was to write a well-written article of no more than 650 words on setting writing goals and submit it that week to Christian Communicator.

It’s Specific
Nothing fuzzy about that goal. It’s specific in that I stated the topic, the length, the market, and a definite time I’ll submit the manuscript. Think 5 W’s and H of journalism:

  • Who? “I”Me
  • What? A 650-word article about setting writing goals
  • When? That week
  • Where? Christian Communicator
  • How? Well-written
  • Why? To give writers an understanding of both the importance of goal-setting and how to do it

It’s Measurable
The goal has standards that can be measured: Is the article within the suggested word count? Am I staying on topic? Am I following the editor’s guidelines? Am I on target as far as the deadline?

It’s Something I Can Control
Although I take great pains to submit my best work, I have no control over whether or not manuscript is accepted for publication. So I state the goal in terms of what I can control:
  • Quality: ("well-written”). Submit only my best work. Have someone read and critique the manuscript before I submit it. Stay on topic and deliver what I promised, following the publication’s writers’ guidelines, including word count.
  • Punctuality: (“this week”). Send the manuscript by the deadline—before, if possible.
  • Professionalism: (all of the above). Remember the skilled soccer player? He trains to become the best he can be, so he can build up endurance and persevere. Good writers plan their work and work their plan as they formulate daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, then follow through with them. They are also flexible, adapting and reformulating those goals to fit changing scenarios. They develop a good offense in terms of a submission plan and meet disappointment and rejection (defense) with persistence. They understand—and seek to understand better—the world of publishing as a whole, and the specific publication to which they want to submit their work. And always, always, they strive to learn writing techniques and hone their skills.

Share Your Goals

I send my weekly goals to my online writing critique group, as well as a brief recap of what I accomplished the previous week. It helps me not only to be accountable, but also to recognize my tendency to over -schedule.

Like soccer, freelance writing can be grueling, with goals just as elusive as kicking that ball in the net. But having a game plan in place helps you—in training, enduring, and reaching those goals.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meet Melanie Rigney

I first met Melanie Rigney in 2005—the same time I met author Virelle Kidder. Both were teaching at the St. Davids Christian Writers Conference at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. We connected—I think it was in the cafeteria when we sat at the same table one day—when we all confessed to wanting to write a novel. So we formed an online critique group (Melanie lives in suburban DC, Virelle lives in Florida, and I live in western Pennsylvania) to encourage and nudge each other forward with this daunting challenge and hold each other accountable to get it done.

Virelle had already published several nonfiction books, as well as articles. Melanie was the former editor of Writers Digest. My background was nonfiction as well, mostly devotionals and newspaper articles.

We call ourselves the Novel Buds: Novel meaning not only a fiction book, but also “new” because we were all new at writing fiction; and Buds because we’re writing buddies, and a bud is a flower that hasn’t blossomed yet.

In the five years since, Melanie has become more than a critique partner, more than a writing buddy. She’s become a cherished friend, and I’d like for you to get to know her, too.


Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the oldest of four children, Melanie dreamed of someday living in New York City and seeing the world. It was in fourth grade that she wrote a short story called “Amy’s Valentine,” and the writing bug bit. Throughout junior high, high school, and college, Melanie wrote for the school newspapers.

“Writing always came easily to me,” she says. “I had good internships and got a good job right out of college—but it took decades for me to consider myself a writer and see this as a gift.”

She graduated from South Dakota State University with degrees in journalism, French, and political science. Decades passed and she found herself in Washington, DC, divorced, working a full-time job, editing on the side to honor her financial obligations—and finding her way back to God, which she described in her memoir.

Today, she no longer needs the extra income that the freelance editing brings, but she’s found a second career in a love that began in fourth grade: writing.

These days she mostly writes devotionals and fiction. Her current project is what she describes as “an edgy Christian novel with the working title of Fifteen. It’s about repairing, with God’s help, a seriously broken marriage.”

Me and Melanie at St. Davids Christian Writers Conference
June, 2006

Q&A with Melanie:

When did you first break in? I’ve been fortunate and had great jobs that sometimes led to people asking me to freelance. My work published in Time magazine several times in my early 20s; I was their stringer for the state of South Dakota for two or three years.

What are some of your successes?
To date, I’m proudest of a memoir that likely will never be published. The writing is good and honest and true. Beyond that, I focus more on what I’m doing today than what I’ve done in the past. I’m a regular contributor to Living Faith, the Catholic devotional and to Your Daily Tripod, a Catholic blog. I’m just finishing up an edgy Christian novel and hope to have it to my agent in the next few months.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a writer? My memoir.

What are your writing goals?
To write what God wants so that it reaches His intended audience. To touch souls.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a writer?
Carving out the time to write. I’ve got a great but intense day job, a beautiful friendship ministry, and an addiction to Facebook’s Farmtown application!

What for you is the most satisfying aspect of freelance writing?
Hearing that my work spoke to someone, frequently in a way I never intended.

What does it take to be successful as a writer? Perseverance. Great writers can’t be made, but good ones certainly can. Being a friend as Christ desires. Sitting in your room and writing won’t get you anywhere. Find a writing community. Be on fire about what you’re doing and share that passion.

What advice do you have for struggling writers? If you are continually getting rejected, consider whether there’s a reason. Perhaps you’re approaching the wrong markets or there’s something that needs to change in your work.

Beginning writers?
Write from the heart. Worry after you’re further along about what’s marketable. Get in an online or real-time critique group with people at the same level or a little higher who are writing in your genre.

What do you want to be remembered for? My passion for God and my ministries.

What is your philosophy of life (or guiding principle)? Keith and Mick said it best: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

Melanie's book, When They Come Home, is featured today on my inspirational blog, God, Me & a Cup of Tea.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Firing up the muse with James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure

Of all the books on how to write fiction, I keep returning to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure again and again. Why? It motivates me. I can’t sit and read its pages for very long before ideas bombard me, scenes play out in my mind’s eye, and characters hiss their secrets and problems in my ear. Something about the way Bell writes fires up my muse. It’s like he’s sitting and talking to me, tutoring me one-on-one on how to write a novel.

He begins the book with exposing the “Big Lie”—that writing can’t be taught.

“I was so ticked off about the Big Lie that I started teaching others what I’d learned about the craft of writing,” he writes.

What does it take to learn how to plot? Just do it, he says. Sit down and write. Write every day. Set a word goal and write.

“First get it written, then get it right,” he advises. “Don’t spend too much time worrying and fretting and tinkering with your first draft.”

Sound like you? Yeah, me too.

In the fourteen chapters following the exposure of the Big Lie, Bell discusses

* What holds your plot together
* LOCK (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout)
* How to explode with ideas
* How to begin strong, muddle the middle, and end well
* Setting up scenes
* Character arc
* Whether or not to outline (There are two types of novel writers, he says: OP people and NOP people—Outline People and No Outline People—I fall into the latter category.)
* Plot patterns
* Plot problems and cures

“A good story is life with the dull parts taken out,” he writes, quoting Alfred Hitchcock.

I tucked a small legal pad (the size of the book) inside the back cover and kept a pencil in hand to jot down the ideas that came to me as I read. Sometimes I had to put the book down and hurry to the computer to record the scene that was swirling around in my head.

I wrote two novels with Plot & Structure within reach. Whenever I’d get stuck, I’d flip through the pages and start reading. Before long, I wasn’t stuck anymore.

In time I learned to trust my muse—to hear, listen to, and follow my characters. That’s when I learned I was a NOP. For me, writing fiction is akin to getting up on a horse, pointing it in the direction I want to go, slapping its behind, and letting it gallop where it will.

I’m getting ready to start my third novel. I’ve already taken down my dog-eared, highlighted, bleeding-with-red-ink copy of Plot & Structure from my bookshelf, bought a new notepad and sharpened my pencils.

For more information on James Scott Bell and how to obtain your copy of Plot & Structure, click here to visit his website. He's got a great page for writers, too.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Grammar gaffe: Are you nauseous or nauseated?

I hear it all the time--even on television: "I'm nauseous."

Tsk, tsk. Are you really?

Nauseous is an adjective that means causing nausea; sickening, disgusting; sickening to contemplate.

is a verb that means to feel nausea, become sick; sick at the stomach.

So when you say, "I'm nauseous," you're actually saying, "I'm sickening, disgusting, and sickening to think about. I cause nausea in others."

“Do not, therefore, say ‘I feel nauseous’ unless you are sure you have that effect on others.” (Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, p. 53)

If you're feeling like you want to throw up, you're nauseated. If folks can't stand to be around you, you're nauseous.

Know the difference!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Lazarus at your gate

“Global” seems to be the latest buzz word. We’ve got to think, speak and act “globally.” No more the small-town mindset.

Global philosophy, unfortunately, has infiltrated the way we writers and speakers approach our work. We seem to think that if we aren’t published or if we don’t speak on a national—or global—level, we aren’t successful.

Too bad. Because opportunities abound close by to use your writing and speaking skills to make a difference in the world around you—in your little corner of the world. This is your “Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8), your immediate environment.

I, too, was once sucked into the global viewpoint. After finding some early success on the national level—I was published in Guideposts, The Upper Room and Teachers in Focus—I thought I was on my way—Not!

It was frustrating to submit a manuscript repeatedly to various appropriate markets and receive more rejections than acceptances. I did my homework and pored over the market guide, followed the guidelines and studied the publication, but still those rejection slips came. Oh, I sold a few poems here and there, but no consistent sales.

Everyone Has a Story

This is the nature of the freelance writing beast. I remember reading or hearing somewhere that it takes at least 10 years to get published consistently. Ten years of frustration and rejection slips? Uh-uh. I’m much too impatient.

While I devoured how-to magazines and books on the craft of writing, attended writers’ conferences to hone my skills and network with publishers, editors and other writers, I yearned for a regular byline—and knowing that my efforts were making a difference in someone’s life. And, at 40-something, I was more sensitive to time slipping by. I didn’t want to wait until I was nearing retirement age before I made an impact on the world.

So when I spied an ad in the local newspaper for a part-time writer, I applied—and, to my surprise, got the job. The publisher wanted three features a week—stories on local people, places and events.

My first feature was about a 90-year-old man that gardened, baked bread and went deep-sea fishing. My second article, which was picked up by the AP, was about a man who defied death a dozen times in his lifetime. Shortly after that, the AP picked up another article I wrote, this one about a Doberman who had a membership in a local gym.

Meeting people and listening to their stories thrilled me. Interviewing was not a chore, it was more like a visit with a friend. I found a purpose, a mission: Through these “good news” stories I could spread hope, encourage others and brighten their days.

The people features evolved into a weekly series, “People Who Make a Difference.” Readers nominated individuals in the community who made a positive difference in the lives of those around them. The series brought the community’s Good Samaritans out of the woodwork and shone a spotlight on those who worked selflessly behind the scenes, rarely receiving accolades and attention.

Devotionals Add Depth

I suggested a devotional column for the weekly religion page. “No.” The publisher was adamant. “I want you to focus on feature stories.”

But I didn’t give up. One day I walked into the publisher’s office where, with the day’s edition spread out on his desk, he was complaining about wasted space. I saw my chance.

“Wasted space? I’ll show you wasted space!” I said, flipping to the religion page and tapping the canned devotional reading. “Let me write something that’s fresh.”

“I won’t pay for it,” he said.

“That’s fine,” I said.

Minute Meditations
ran weekly for three years until I left that paper for another, with three times the circulation. And because the publisher never paid for my column, he didn’t own any rights to it. I took it with me to the next newspaper, where it’s run for seven years, winning second place in the 2009 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's Keystone Press Awards for columns.

Expanding into Radio

This column birthed a daily radio program, God, Me and a Cup of Tea (now also the name of the column), which airs on a local Christian stations two books of meditations, compilations of some of my favorite columns; and three CD recordings of radio programs. Readers order the books for friends and relatives who live out of the area and don’t get the newspaper—books are much more durable than newspaper clippings.
The radio program, by the way, was launched on a local secular station, which broadcast it twice a day. One listener told me he set his alarm five minutes earlier so he could hear it. Three years after it was dropped due to a change in management, I still get comments from former listeners who miss the program.

Speaking Opportunities

The column and the radio program led to opportunities to speak, where I sell books and CDs and interviews with local radio and television stations.

Finding my Purpose in Jerusalem

My articles in Guideposts, Upper Room and Teachers in Focus were one-shot deals. But writing week after week to a local audience gives consistency and continuity to an expanding ministry. I have found purpose, fulfillment and joy—much better than rejection and frustration any day.

In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man spent a lifetime ignoring the poor man, whom he saw daily at his own gate. Perhaps he had his eyes on the “bigger picture”—which he thought was more important and worthy of his time and effort. But he missed the most important chance of all to meet another’s needs—and it stared him in the face day after day.

My readers and listeners are my Lazaruses.

Who are yours?

Look for local opportunities:

* Newspapers
* Radio stations
* TV stations
* Newsletters (church and business newsletters, Chamber of Commerce)

How to Approach the Publisher, Editor or Station Manager

1. Do your homework. Know the names—correct spelling—and official titles of the publisher, editor, or station manager. Know the circulation of the newspaper and the broadcast range of the radio or television station. Know the number of staff and their positions. Who is their projected audience? What social class? Age range? Take note of who the advertisers are and how frequently their ads are run. Read the newspaper, listen to the radio station or watch the television station to familiarize yourself with its slant, tone and personality. If you’re arch-conservative, a newspaper or station with a liberal slant will not be a good match. Also note any holes that you may be able to fill. What is needed? What do you have to offer that would be better than they have now?

2. Call first and set up an appointment to go in and talk to the person in charge, the one who makes the decisions. Ask to talk to the person directly. Be polite. Tell him or her you’d like to discuss an idea for the newspaper or station. Fit yourself into their schedule.

3. Be prepared. Go in armed with samples of your work, your publishing credits (if you have any), a prototype of the column, series or program you propose—and how it will benefit the newspaper or station. Their first thought will be “what’s in it for me?” In other words, will it sell papers, increase readership or listeners, add advertisers, make more money for them? If you propose an ongoing program, series or column, present enough ideas for several months’ worth. They want to know if you’re good for the long run.

4. Accept whatever is offered. Perhaps the editor needs someone to cover school board or township meetings. Accepting will get your foot in the door and may lead to the opportunity you’ve been waiting and working for.

5. Pray for guidance and wisdom—and an open door to God’s will—not only before you approach the publisher, editor or station manager, but every day of your writing career. Remember, if God calls you, He will enable you, open and close doors to guide you—and give you ideas. That’s how you survive in the long run.

(Published in Christian Communicator, May 2008)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Featured Author Dianne Neal Matthews

Meet Dianne Neal Matthews—wife, mother, grandmother, and Christian writer:

Dianne grew up in west Tennessee and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from the University of Tennessee at Martin, where she met her husband, Richard, then went on to earn her master’s degree in education from the University of Memphis.

Since 1982 Dianne and Richard have made east central Illinois their home. They have three grown children, a five-year-old granddaughter, and are looking forward to their first grandson joining the family in early June.

After attending the Write-to-Publish conference in 1999, Dianne began writing professionally. Her publishing credits include newspaper features and op-ed columns, magazine articles, and devotionals for websites, church bulletins, and publications such as The Quiet Hour.

Tyndale House published her first book, The One Year on This Day, in 2005 and her second book, The One Year Women of the Bible, in 2007. She also contributed a story to the bestselling anthology, Classic Christmas: True Stories of Holiday Cheer and Goodwill (Adams Media, 2006).

Her awards include recognition by the Illinois Press Association and a Roaring Lambs Award from the Amy Foundation, and the Writer of the Year Award at the 2006 Write-to-Publish Conference for The One Year On This Day.

Besides writing, she speaks and teaches at conferences, is a 2006 CLASS graduate (Christian Leaders, Authors, and Speakers Services), a member of AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers Association), Christian Authors Network, Toastmasters International, and the online group, The Writers’ View.

Growing up, what were your dreams?
I wanted to travel, see other places, and learn how other cultures lived. At some point during my early teen years, I wanted to be any one of about fifty occupations—ranging from a lawyer to an auto mechanic (don’t ask me where that last one came from!).

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
When I learned to use a pencil in first grade! (I didn’t attend kindergarten.) As a little girl, I loved to make up stories and share them. But as an adult, I didn’t have the courage to pursue creative writing. It was just a fantasy that I carried around until my mid-forties when I was asked to write articles for our church’s newsletter. That was enough to get me hooked.

Who/what encouraged, motivated, inspired you?

Our pastor at the time, David Jankowski, encouraged me to think about writing professionally and urged me to attend a writing seminar. Shortly after that, a brochure for the Write-to-Publish conference appeared in my mailbox. Despite my fears and doubts, I attended—and a new, wonderful world opened up to me. Now I try to attend every year if at all possible.

What do you think is the hardest aspect of (freelance) writing?
It’s tough to juggle all the business aspects of the freelance life—marketing/promotion, maintaining contact with editors, staying educated on the publishing industry, record-keeping, managing a website and online presence, etc. Sometimes it’s hard to find time to write! My biggest challenge is probably staying focused and disciplined when I don’t have a contract or deadline. I also have a hard time choosing which ideas to pursue and which ones to put on the shelf.

What are your writing goals?
I’m working on a proposal for a nonfiction book with chapters instead of short devotionals. I love to interview and tell other people’s stories, so I hope to do more of those articles. I also want to try my hand at fiction, but I find myself dealing with the same fears and doubts as when I first started writing.

Why do you write?
I write because I love words and communicating God’s truth. Most of all, I believe that God has called and prepared me for this.

What for you is the most satisfying aspect of freelance writing?
Feedback from readers who share how a specific devotional or article spoke to their personal need or situation and brought them comfort and encouragement.

When did you first break in?
When I attended my first conference in 1999, I’d never thought of writing devotionals. But I set up an appointment with the editor from Warner Press after she spoke on a panel. I showed her a one-page piece I’d written about a lesson from my cat and she said I might be a natural devotional writer. I applied and was accepted as a Master Writer for the company and got to submit ten devotionals each year for use on the back of church bulletins.

What advice do you have for struggling writers and beginning writers?
If you truly believe that God has called you to write, then never give up—no matter what happens. Ask for God’s guidance about every decision and project. Grab every opportunity to learn and to practice your craft. Be willing to set aside your own personal agenda so that you don’t miss what God has in store for you—which might be something you’ve never thought of before.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
Writing devotionals that relate Scriptures and spiritual principles to everyday life

What do you wish to accomplish through your writing?
Right now I’m in the process of evaluating my writing efforts to make sure I’m where God wants me to be. But my main goal is to find fresh, interesting approaches to show the relevance of God’s Word to contemporary life.

Current project: I am currently finishing a two-book contract for Baker Books—both one-year devotionals. Drawing Closer to God: 365 Meditations on Questions from Scripture will release this October. The second book (untitled at this point) moves through the Bible in chronological order and will be published in October 2011.

Who is your favorite writer?
I love classic literature so I’d have to include Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Eliot. I also love Tolkien’s work. As for contemporary authors, two of my favorites are Frank Delaney and Stephen Lawhead. I especially admire C.S. Lewis for his ability to write effectively in a wide range of genres and for the way he communicated biblical truth so clearly.

What does it take to be successful as a writer?
A commitment to work hard and persevere even when nothing seems to be happening. A teachable spirit open to constructive criticism and a willingness to keep learning.

What do you want to be remembered for?
As a writer, I would like to be remembered as someone who was excited about God’s Word and who encouraged others by showing how the Scriptures relate to our life situations today.

Tell us about your book, The One Year Women of the Bible (Tyndale House Publishers, 2007)

What is it about?
The daily devotionals blend scenarios of contemporary women (mostly based on real women) with stories of biblical women, looking for life lessons that we can learn from them and apply to our own life. Even though our lifestyles may be different, women today face the same basic needs, desires, struggles, and problems that biblical women faced. We can learn a lot from these kindred spirits and their relationships with the God who never changes.

What inspired it?
Because there are so many more stories about men in the Bible, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the important roles that women played. God entrusted women with key assignments to carry out His work. In the New Testament, Jesus elevated women in ways that shocked a culture where the men thanked God in prayer that they were not born as women.

What do you hope readers will get out of it?
I hope that readers will gain a new appreciation for how highly God values women and how He shapes us in unique ways to carry out His purposes. God’s creation wasn’t complete until He created the first woman—the finishing touch. Now He longs to be intimately involved in the details of our life and looks forward to the day when he will claim us as his beloved bride.

Any special, memorable stories associated with it?
The reader feedback I’ve received is priceless. One of my favorite emails came from a woman who had changed churches and had been feeling spiritually alone and unable to serve the Lord. She didn’t intend to buy a daily devotional but came across my book. This woman related to the biblical women’s stories and began to journal, something she had given up. Now she plans to pass on the journal to her two daughters when they’re older. Another reminder of how many kindred spirits are out there in the world today—and in the Bible—waiting to be discovered.

Thank you, Dianne, for sharing with us. Click here to visit Dianne's website.

For a chance to receive a copy of Dianne's book, The One Year Women of the Bible, email with "Dianne's book" in the subject line. The recipient's name will be posted May 13.