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, 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)