I Get to Tell People’s Stories

28 Jun

My 13-year-old daughter recently had a pretty good epiphany about my work as a writer.

After hearing about my work day involving the opportunity to interview and write about some really interesting people, Sydney said: “Your work is just you talking to people. It’s what you already do best.”


The best part about being a writer is the opportunity to tell people’s stories.

A few weeks ago (before going out West on a wonderful vacation, which has taken my attention for the last 15 days or so),  I was the sole reporter for a pretty cool sporting event in our city.

The Senior Games brought more than 10,000 athletes over 50 years of age to Birmingham, and I got the opportunity to interview a bunch of the inspiring men and women–and to tell their stories.

Here’s a sampling of some of the stories I got to share.

There was the blind swimmer who, at 70, competed in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter races. She told me: “You can do whatever you set your mind to.”


Then there was 101-year-old Julia Hawkins, who ran AND cycled at the Games.


There was 103-year-old John Zilverberg (the oldest athlete in Birmingham) who took home five medals.


And the swimmer who was a gold medalist years before in the Olympics, and now helps veterans with PTSD.


And the 86-year-old bowler who had also run in 26 marathons.


There was also Pat Boone (yes, THAT Pat Boone), who not only sang at the Games but also played basketball.


And there was my favorite story of all.

I had the privilege of meeting the very first woman to ever run in the Boston Marathon. When she first did it–back in 1967–she was almost forced off the course by angry men who didn’t want a female runner to compete with them. She’s an icon of female empowerment, and shares her story and inspiration around the world.


Being a writer is grand.

I get to meet so many people every single day who teach me more about about the human experience than I would have ever known otherwise.

It’s a great way to make a living.



Some pictures from the 2017 SCWC

10 Jun

The 2017 Southern Christian Writers Conference is in the history books.

But we have pictures to help us remember the awesome time we had.

Check some of them out:

The conference was a wonderful success, and we can’t thank all of the speakers and attendees enough for making it a weekend to remember.

Know your rights: A fun talk with Lawyer-Writer Sheree Martin

26 May

And what can a lawyer teach aspiring writers?

Other than the fact that John Grisham turned into a killer novelist, and Atticus Finch is one of the best fictional characters of all time…actually, quite a lot!

Sheree Martin is a writer and a lawyer, with lots of advice for writers on what they should know about legal advice;  she’s also a communications strategist and an aspiring novelist (so, she’s got that in common with a lot of us!).

She will also be speaking June 2-3 at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so I felt like we needed to have an advance, online meet-and-greet with Sheree to get an idea of what we can expect from her.

Question: You are a lawyer AND a writer. Tell  me about how that combination works.

I suspect anyone who is a lawyer will say that 80% of what lawyers do is write. Maybe an overstatement in terms of time, but there’s no question that words (and punctuation) are the currency of law, so lawyers must be able to write with precision.

I’ve always been focused on the broader realm of communication, even as a child. I’ve been writing in some form or fashion from the beginning. Journalism was part of the mix from as early as age 8, based on various writings saved from my childhood. On one of those early occasions, I interviewed my extended family and wrote my first “book”– a compilation of those interviews “published” in a three-ring folder with metal tabs that fold over to hold the pages in place.

When I was in the 8th grade, I decided I would become a lawyer. My heroes were the Founding Fathers, especially Benjamin Franklin (a journalist), so it’s natural that I would end up doing both. I was a staff reporter for my hometown newspaper the summer before law school and ended up freelance writing while working on my Ph.D. in Mass Communication. I worked for a number of years as a college professor but found that I was a bit too entrepreneurial for higher education. I’m fond of change and innovation and not-so-fond of committee meetings.

What legal issues do writers most need to know about?

For freelance writers: The difference between a “work for hire” and retaining ownership of copyright that can be licensed or sold to a publisher or other third party.

Using photos and illustrations of others without specific permission.

The FTC endorsement rules are vital for anyone who blogs commercially (or aspires to).

Writers, bloggers and freelance journalists who work in the realm of politics and topics of social discourse should learn everything they can about the rights of journalists (especially independent journalists) in their particular state.

Why do writers need to understand their rights?

The value of the free exchange of ideas and information goes to heart of how and why the U.S. exists as a country and why the Bill of Rights explicitly mentions the freedom of speech and press.

Every sentence the writer writes is an exercise of these freedoms, regardless of the content or message.

This is true whether the writer is proclaiming his or her spiritual faith, political viewpoint, or personal philosophy on the value of professional sports, fast food or Snapchat, or writing factual stories about a current or historical event of great (or even no) significance.

If writers do not know their rights, they can be intimidated and fail to speak out on an issue. If we don’t have competing ideas in the marketplace, we end up with an echo chamber and that serves no one.

Also, from a very practical standpoint, if writers know their rights, they feel empowered to negotiate for appropriate compensation for their work. Good writing, good reporting, is hard work. Writers deserve to be paid for their efforts.

What will your sessions at the SCWC encompass?

We’ll cover the standard copyright-related issues: What is protected by copyright, when does copyright protection “arise” and whether registration is required or recommended. We’ll take a quick look at “fair use” and how that relates to the right to quote from the work of others.

Related to fair use, we’ll also spend some time looking at whether bloggers can use photos they find “on the web” in their blog and whether attribution protects the blogger from copyright infringement.

We’ll also talk about the implications of “work for hire” in the freelance writing context.

I often get questions from writers who want to write about real life experiences involving other people, so we’ll go through a few examples relating to the right of privacy and something called public disclosure of private facts.

Defamation/libel can be an issue when writing “real life” stories, though probably less so than most writers expect. Truth is a defense to libel, of course. I don’t plan to spend much time on libel, unless those attending the session want to get into that.

We’ll also take a look at legal issues that come up in blogging, such as the FTC’s endorsement rules that require disclosure when a blogger receives some type of compensation or benefit for promoting products, services, brands.

What advice would you go back and give to yourself as a writer maybe 10 or 20 years ago?

I started my first “blog” in 1999 before it was called a blog. That morphed into a blog that I could have monetized in 2001-02-03 but I didn’t go that route, even though I was also freelancing in the online space in those days. I saw my “passion” writing as a fun side project. I wish I’d seen the passion project as a business then, in the way I do today.

But the great news is that, at least right now, the sky is the limit for what independent mediapreneurs can achieve through online media and self-publishing opportunities (if we don’t lose the free and open internet this year).

I don’t downplay the value of traditional publishing, but the fastest way to get the attention of the traditional publishing world today is success as an indie writer with “one thousand true fans” and an online following.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

In 2013, I outlined the approximately 95 theses of a work that’s titled “The Happy Life Manifesto.” (See, e.g. Martin Luther). Since then, I’ve been slowly writing essays on each thesis and I hope to finish that up this summer for publication. Thesis #1: It starts with Love.

I’m also returning to resume work on  novel I began writing in 1996, inspired by the Oklahoma City Bombing. I was about ½ – 2/3s through my first draft when I got cold feet back then. Current political events in the past year or so have inspired me to revisit the story and finish it.

As a lawyer/writer I have been working on an online course for writers that I’ve been putting together to offer as a standalone “product” to help writers with legal questions. It’s what you might call an in-depth, guided learning opportunity where I walk a writer through the various legal issues that might come up in various contexts. It resembles a practical adaptation of the media law course I used to teach as a college professor, but it’s aimed at writers and professional bloggers, not college students who need to take an academic course for graduation. It’s very “applied” for the real world of 2017.

Learn more:

Visit Sheree on Twitter

Visit Cheryl (me!) on Twitter

Learn more about the SCWC



My Favorite Books on Writing

25 May

Writers should read.

That’s one of the mantras I preach to aspiring writers.

Writers should breathe in and gulp down books of all kinds. Novels, poetry, nonfiction, graphic novels, how-to guides, memoirs…anything and everything should find as spot on our bookshelves.

Among the types of books writers should read is a subset that you might not often think about, but which is incredibly beneficial to wordsmiths.

Writers should read books on writing.

Because, we can ALWAYS learn more about the craft.

Here, then, are some of my favorite books on writing. There are so many more out there (just go look on Amazon; the book choices are truly endless), but these are some that have meant the most to me over the years.

What are your favorites?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

This one of the best (and perhaps my favorite) books on writing you’ll ever find (and I don’t even read King’s fiction; I’m a scaredy cat, after all). It gives tons of practical advice for the aspiring writer, but is told through the lens of King’s fascinating start, career and perspective.

Entertainment Weekly gave it this review: “Long live the King. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.”

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The classic handbook that covers everything from style and grammar and usage, Strunk and White’s book is one of the “bibles” every writer should have on his or her shelf.

The book’s new editions over the years have added new tips and guides, changing with the times and prescribing new advice for writers.

Time listed the book in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential books in American publishing, and poet Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss

  A more modern take on grammar and punctuation, this guide will have you laughing at the absurdities of the English language and make you want to be a much better practitioner in your writing.

Ever heard of the joke that tells the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Let’s eat, Grandma!”? That’s exactly what you’re getting here…a fun guide to something that most people won’t consider “fun.”

Grammar is a necessary evil in a writer’s life; you might as well be good at it.

(As a side note, there is a wonderful picture book for children based on the book. It’s a great way to introduce grammar to the young ones.)

How to Write Bestselling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Horror writer Koontz has sold more than 30 million copies of his own books, so I guess he should know something.

In this wonderfully-accessible and interesting guide, Koontz takes a practical, detailed approach to the art, craft, and business of novel writing. You’ll learn how to structure a story for greatest reader appeal, how to provide depth of characterization without slowing the pace, and how to recognize and use the sort of theme that is timely and appealing. Plus you’ll receive thorough instruction on other writing techniques as they apply to today’s novel, including background, viewpoint, scene setting, transitions, and dialogue. He also gives great insight into the business of writing (working with agents, publishers and so forth).

Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein

The subtitle says it all: “A master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies.”

Chapters include advice on everything from characterization to plotting to point of view to flashbacks to tension to literary values.

The book covers fiction and nonfiction, and discusses both the literary and practical aspects of writing and gettgn published.

It’s a world of information in one big book, and it’s excellent.

Writing down the Bones, by Natalie Goldsmith

This was one of the first books I read after I got my  degree in journalism and decided I wanted to live a life of writing, and it breathed into me a world of possibility and excitement. It’s Zen-like approach helped me realize that writing was more than just writing (and getting published); it’s almost a spiritual pursuit.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it includes exercises to get in touch with the writer inside of you.

Goldberg’s writing is humorous, human and poignant, and is filled with stories and advice that made me believe that “I could do this”…that “I can be a writer.”

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Lamott is one of my favorite writers; her essays speak with truth and authenticity, and her thoughts on faith are daring and on-the-mark.

Bird by Bird is her classic collection of writing about writing. Novelist Jerry Jenkins nails it on the head, I think, with this assessment: “It has you howling with laughter one minute and weeping the next as she recounts, with brutal honesty, the joys and travails of the writing life, single parenting, overcoming addiction, and coming to faith.”

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller

Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which just happens to be one of my favorite books (if you haven’t read it…go, get it, NOW). and this memoir tells of the struggles he had after scoring success with it and other books–and finding his voice again. Subtitled, “What I learned by editing my life” (I sure do love that!), it recounts his views on storytelling and uses fascinating experiences and characters to tell his tale.

It also has some awesome quotes on writing, such as:

“Good stories don’t happen by accident, I learned. They are planned.”

“…people don’t live without a story, without a role to play.”

“The ambitions we have will become the stories we live.”

“We have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner-tubes and head to the river.

“A good storyteller doesn’t just tell a better story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too.”

“…one person’s story has the power to affect a million others.”

“Fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.”

Need more books to read to add to your list? (Because, let’s face it, I left a lot of other people’s favorites out. One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty? The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard? The Writer’s Way, by Julia Cameron? Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury?) I Googled “books on writing,” and here’s the big, long list I got back:


Happy reading…

and writing!!




What do literary agents want you to know? A talk with Hartline Agency’s Tessa Hall

17 May

Aspiring novelists dream of the moment.

A literary agent falls in love with their book idea, takes them on as a client, and then sells their book to a top publisher.

For those same aspiring novelists, though, the process through which this happens is a mystery.

In fact, the life and job of a literary agent is a bit of a mystery as well. (Writers just know they need them.)

To get some answers about literary agents, what they do, and what writers can do to avail themselves to a successful agent, I recently talked with Tessa Hall–and got some great answers.

Tessa is a junior literary agent with Hartline Agency (an agency that serves both the general and Christian market); the agency currently has over 200 author clients.

Tessa is also a novelist herself, so she understand the author side of the process. Her two novels are Unwritten Melody and Purple Moon (a 2014 Selah Award Finalist in Debut Novel and YA Fiction); and she is the founding editor of PursueMagazine.net.

She will be one of the speakers at the upcoming Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa on June 2-3, where she will present sessions on “How to Submit to an Agent.” (Learn more about the SCWC here.)

Here’s part of my conversation with Tessa:

Just what does a literary agent do?

As a Jr. Agent, I work directly with a handful of his clients, oversee the submission process to publishers, review submissions we receive, speed the communication process, and negotiate contracts. The responsibilities are pretty much the same as a senior agent; the main difference is that I work for and with a senior agent and his clients. (Tessa’s senior agent is Cyle Young.)

What misconceptions do writers have about agents?

One misconception I see often—and one that I, too, used to have about agents—is that agents should give their immediate and full attention to you, their client. While it’s true their first priority should be given to their clients, it’s impossible for them to devote 100% of their attention to each and every client 100% of the time. A literary agent is responsible for multiple tasks, and unread emails constantly beg for their attention in their inbox. While we do our best at giving each client the attention he/she deserves, the client also needs to have patience, respect the agent’s time, and have realistic expectations for the author/agent relationship.

What advice would you give to writers about working with agents?

other than respecting their agent’s time and having realistic expectations about the agent/author relationship, I’d recommend that writers work hard to build their career. Ultimately, when an agent submits your work to a publisher, they aren’t just trying to sell your book; they’re trying to sell you as an author. The publisher is going to take into consideration your online presence, established readership, credentials, and potential for developing future projects. Are you actively working to further your career, or are you remaining stagnant? For the most part, agents like to work with writers who have the promise of a long-term career.

What publishing trends do you see in your area right now?

In the YA market in general, there has been a lot of interest in fantasy, books that feature diversity, as well as speculative fiction—realistic fiction with a fantasy twist. In the CBA market, non-fiction titles are continuing to remain far more popular than fiction; in fact, a few CBA publishers have recently stopped publishing fiction altogether.

With the increasing crowded market, I’m finding it more and more vital for authors—especially fiction authors—to engage with their readers on social media if they hope to stand out and continue to sell books.

What will you be speaking about at the SCWC?

I’m going to give a presentation on how to sell your book to an agent—what to do and what not to do. In the workshop, I’ll discuss what the role of an author is, the various stages of submitting to an agent, the essential elements of a query letter, how to pitch to agents in person, etc. By the end of the workshop, writers will know secrets and tips that will increase their chances of catching the attention of a literary agent.

How did you become an agent in the first place?

As an author, I’ve attended several writing conferences over the years. It’s through the connections I’ve made at these conferences that led me to this position at an agency. Even though I love writing, I’ve always known that I’d like to someday become a literary agent and help other writers pursue their publication dreams. I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

Tell me a little bit about your life outside of your work.

I live in The Upstate of South Carolina, where I spend far too much time in coffee shops or making lattes with my nine different coffee makers. =) Acting is another passion of mine. I grew up participating in theater productions and have recently worked on two Christian films, “Providence” (produced by Faith Flix Films) and “A Beautiful Life” (produced by A Grace Like Rain Entertainment).

When I’m not experimenting with new latte recipes, writing, acting, or working, I’m attempting to scratch books off of my never-ending “to read” list while cuddling with my teacup Shih-Tzu.

Learn more about Hartline Agency.

Follow Tessa on Facebook.

Check out her books on Amazon.

Learn more about the SCWC.




Some recent publications

12 May

As a sports writer during the day, I find myself writing a lot about games, and scores, and stats, and events, and coaches, and players.

Every one in a while, though, I get to delve a little deeper behind the scenes to write about things that are fun, or unique, or inspiring.

Here are a few of those recent stories:

Jesus Take the Wheel: Volunteers spread the Gospel at Talladega

Local college player vies for top hits in NCAA

Fun, new Airstream bar, restaurant coming downtown

Dancers and Drivers: Castroneves, Hinchliffe bring star power to Indy

How fast does new Baron Michael Kopech pitch? Get ready for some heat

What have you been writing lately?

I’d love to know!




What would your billboard SHOUT?!

5 May

Just yesterday I drove by the ballpark in my small community and saw that it had installed a brand new, blinky billboard. It lets passersby know of upcoming baseball games and other fun activities happening at the park.

And it also provided two admonitions to the drivers whizzing by.

And they were in capital letters, ending in exclamation points.



They were very apropos messages.

Drivers driving by certainly need to buckle up. It’s the law, and if someone is kept safer (perhaps, alive) that’s a message that needs to be shared.

And since I live in Alabama, the second message was a good one as well. It’s just May, but has felt like in-the-middle-of-Summer lately.

The loud messages made me think:

We writers have something to say; it’s usually why we became writers in the first place; it’s why we put pen to paper, or fingers to computer…we want to get our message out into the world.

If you could pronounce your message on a big, blinky sign for all the passersby to see, what would that message be?

I asked this exact question on Facebook and got some good answers:






Wonderful ideas and  messages, each of them. (I’m especially in favor of the eating of cake.)

It’s certainly something to think about.

What message is your writing going to tell?

What are you communicating with your words, sentences, stories?

What are you SAYING?