Few things make me happier than writing about pop culture. I just completed a post for WOW! Women on Writing about why I loved the Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things.” One of the things I couldn’t get to in my post was Ingrid Michaelson’s tribute album to the show, so I decided to continue with the theme and write about the collection of songs here.
I hadn’t yet watched the show when I heard about the release of Michaelson’s “Stranger Songs,” and I waited until I was familiar with the show before downloading the album. There were a few songs that immediately drew me right in, starting with “Hey Kid,” a song about the sweet relationship between the papa bear Hopper and the tender-hearted but badass character “Eleven.” From there I had the song “Hate You” on replay. It made me feel so much empathy for Steve, who was portrayed as such a jerk in Season 1 but who became one of my favorite people in the world by Season 3. The song describes his relationship with Nancy and how he knew he couldn’t hold on to her, as much as he wanted to, but he still couldn’t bring himself to hate her. “Bad Things” and “Pretty” also focus a lot on things “Eleven” goes through during the course of the first three seasons. “Christmas Lights” is another one of my favorites, because as a mother of a teenage son, I could totally relate to the wild devotion Joyce has in the search for her son Will in Season 1. “Take Me Home” is the quintessential coming-of-age ballad that will whisk us all immediately back into our childhood and teenage years.
I think though, that even if you haven’t seen the Netflix series, you won’t be disappointed by this album. Ingrid Michaelson fans who appreciate good songwriting layered with the musical stylings of some of our favorites from the 1980s (“Christmas Lights” features chords reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” will find plenty to put on repeat here.
It took 18 years, but justice seems to have finally been served in the Mike Williams case. I first wrote about the story in this post, “The Absurd Alligator Story: An Update on the Disappearance of Mike Williams.” As I stated in that post, it was pretty clear from the get-go who was responsible for the disappearance of Mike, a 31-year-old doting father and husband to wife Denise.
I never believed the theory that Mike disappeared while duck hunting on Lake Seminole in the early morning hours before he and Denise were to set out on an anniversary trip, nor did I believe that he had been eaten by alligators. All the evidence pointing to foul play was circumstantial, however, and when his wife decided to have him declared dead so she could “move on with her life,” that didn’t make a whole lot of sense either. She could have at least pretended that she missed her husband.
It was pretty obvious that Denise probably conspired to have her husband “disappear,” especially it was revealed that her husband’s best friend, Brian Winchester,” had sold Mike a hefty life insurance policy not long before his disappearance. It also didn’t help optics when Denise married Brian a few years later. It wasn’t until she most likely turned on him during their divorce proceedings that he decided to finally admit to murdering Mike and lead investigators to the body, which was nowhere near Lake Seminole.
In February of this year, Denise was sentenced to life in prison, plus thirty years for helping plot his murder. After years of manipulating Brian Winchester and engaging in an extramarital affair with him, he finally lured Mike out duck hunting and then shot him and buried his body a few miles from the home of Mike’s mother in December 2000. According to Brian, the whole thing was supposed to be staged as an accident, with Brian shoving Mike out of the boat and into the water, where he would likely drown due to wearing a pair of rubber waders. When Mike didn’t drown, and struggled to stay afloat, Brian panicked and shot him from the boat, later removing Mike’s body and burying it elsewhere.
That part I found most chilling about Winchester’s testimony is how Denise told him she would rather be a “rich widow than a poor divorcee.” How he could go on and marry someone who would actually say that out loud is beyond my comprehension. Brian told the jury that he and Denise never discussed what exactly had happened to Mike, and she pretended like the event had never happened. I imagine all that pretending caught up to them and took a toll on their marriage, especially since Brian had to live with the knowledge of what he had done to his unsuspecting best friend all those years earlier.
In exchange for testifying against Denise, Brian received immunity in Mike’s murder case but received 20 years for kidnapping Denise and holding her hostage one evening during the time when they were separated.
I’m glad both responsible parties are now behind bars where they belong, and Mike’s family was finally able to lay their son to rest.
The following is a talk I prepared for a writers’ group panel discussion I participated in a few years ago. It’s the story of how I got my first cover story for a magazine, as well as a little back story on how my freelance writing career began. Enjoy!
Hi there, my name is Renee Roberson, and I’m so excited to be here with you all this evening. It will probably come as no surprise to you, but I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I didn’t really care what I wrote when I was a child, and let me tell you, I wrote a little bit of everything. Song lyrics, poems, essays, “pretend” news stories, book reviews, short stories. You name it—I probably wrote some pretty embarrassing versions of it.
While I’ve always loved reading magazines, I didn’t really believe I could actually write for one until after I had my daughter back in 2003. At the time I was working at a public relations firm, but really wanted to figure out a way to work from home. I started by reading a few books on the topic. Then I visited writer’s forums that discussed freelance writing. I didn’t know much about how it worked, but I knew I wanted to learn more, especially if it meant I could work from home. I started out gradually by sending some story ideas (otherwise known as query letters) to local magazines, and was surprised to make a few sales pretty quickly.
I then pitched a website called iParenting, and they also hired me as a contract writer. The Walt Disney Internet Media Group eventually purchased iParenting, which resulted in an increase in my per article rate and looked great on my resume. Those clips helped me get job as a freelance correspondent for the Lake Norman bureau of The Charlotte Observer, and eventually a few regular columns.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2004. I’ve written for newspapers, websites, magazines and blogs. Sometimes I still can’t believe people pay me to write. I’ve also spent time in the editor’s chair for two local parenting magazines, so I’ve seen my fair share of what types of query letters work and which ones don’t. But if you have ideas and you know how to execute them, magazine editors will notice you, and they are always happy to find reliable and creative freelance writers. I highly recommend giving it a try if you haven’t yet. If you dedicate the time to regularly pitching your story ideas, you can make a living as a freelance writer. It may take a few years for you to earn the income you want, but it can happen.
I have short blog post I wrote a few years I ago I would like to share with you. It gives you an idea of what kind of legwork you might do before pitching a magazine feature. Granted, not all article queries will require this much work beforehand, but you should always be willing to put a little research into whatever story it is you are pitching.
The Hunt for a Human Interest Story (WOW! Women on Writing)
A few years ago, I was working out my frustrations at the gym, trying to figure out where my writing career was going and brainstorming a few new magazine article ideas. As I was leaving through the front lobby, I noticed a flyer about an upcoming swimming fundraiser. For some reason, even though I’m not a big swimmer, I picked it up and skimmed it on my way out to the parking lot. The flyer mentioned that a local woman named Lizi was competing in a series of races in honor of her upcoming 40th birthday. The flyer had her blog address printed on it so I investigated further once I got home.
There, I discovered Lizi had Type 1 diabetes and learned more about her birthday challenge. She was signed up to compete in a variety of races, involving swimming, sprint triathlons, cycling and running, by her 40th birthday, which she called “Forty 4 Forty.” I knew I had to somehow get in touch with this woman, because I thought her story would be perfect for one of the regional magazines I had been trying to break into.
But her blog didn’t have any contact information. I figured she was local but still needed more details for a query. On a whim, I e-mailed a personal trainer I had been working with at the time and asked if she knew who the woman was. I was in luck, she did! She quickly e-mailed me back with the woman’s e-mail address. I e-mailed Lizi, who also turned out to be a nurse, to let her know I was interested in pitching a story about her, and she responded happily and graciously. We chatted on the phone so I could get some pertinent details to include in my pitch, and I let her know I’d be in touch.
Not only did the editor I contacted respond to me quickly, but she also complimented me on my story pitch. In the end, I got to meet an inspirational member of the community by contacting Lizi, and as a bonus, my article ended up as the cover story of the magazine a few months later. Lizi called me and laughed about the fact that she had become a local celebrity and all the nurses at her doctor’s office were telling her that the magazine with her cover shot was sitting in the waiting room.
These days, I work with several local magazines regularly and have tackled some tough human-interest stories, but I still get a thrill watching the story come alive and to fruition. If you come across a story that intrigues you, I say to always go for it!
Here are a few do’s and don’ts for pitching magazines:
Don’t send out scattershot query letters. Meaning, don’t write up one query letter and send out to multiple magazine editors at once. Editors are much more likely to consider you for an assignment if you are familiar with the magazine you’re pitching and make your query personalized. Spend a little time skimming through some recent issues of the publication, and get a feel for how it is laid out. Mention recent published articles that you connected with to show your familiarity.
Do have an interesting lede (or hook) pertaining to your article topic that illustrates why it would make a good piece for a magazine. You only have a few seconds to catch an editor’s eye. Make them count.
Do pitch different types of magazines, both big and small. It’s a great experience, and over time, you’ll become more comfortable crafting your ideas and hitting the send button.
Don’t send your ideas to the wrong person. Study the masthead of the magazine you are hoping to query. Publishers typically focus on the sales side of a magazine and aren’t really connected to the editorial side. Your best bet is to address your query to a specific editor.
Do pick up a copy of the latest version of The Writer’s Market. You will find listings of magazines you never even knew existed, including editorial contact names, pay rates, and what types of articles specific markets are seeking.
Below is an example of a query letter that resulted in the sale of the article to The Writer.
Dear Ms. (Name of Editor),
As a freelance writer, I do not hide the fact that I am a magazine junkie, and I particularly enjoy reading magazines like The Writer that offer helpful, informative tips for my career in a straightforward format. In recent issues, I enjoyed Julia Tagliere’s article on how to write about friends and families without alienating them in the process (October), as well as Debbie Geiger’s advice on how to use social-networking sites more efficiently in freelance writing (August).
After I had my first child six years ago, I began reading every book I could get my hands on about freelance writing so I could learn how to develop a career that would allow me to set my own hours. Like many aspiring parent writers, I sent off a few article ideas via snail mail to the big parenting publications like Babytalk, Parents and Parenting. For the most part, I never got any responses back, except for one horribly photocopied stock rejection letter that almost crushed my dreams of writing about parenting forever.
However, I took some of those same queries and sent them out to a few local regional parenting publications, and within a few months, had made several sales. For the next few years, I wrote locally and even got a job as a stringer for the daily newspaper. Eventually, I took a job as an associate editor at the regional parenting publication that had given me my first break, where I made a startling discovery — there was a lot more opportunity for publication in regional parenting publications than I had originally thought.
I always take a special interest in the “Market Focus” of your publication, and I’ve noticed there is one market in particular that hasn’t been profiled in the past two years — regional parenting magazines. Like me, many writers think if they don’t live in a city like Atlanta, they really don’t have any business writing for Atlanta Parent. Not so, I realized. Regional parenting publications may have a much lower pay scale than the nationals, but most writers have a better shot of getting published in these magazines, and if they market themselves properly, they can generate a steady reprint income. I’d like to propose a 1,200-word article titled “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” for your “Market Focus” section. In the article, I will discuss the types of articles and essays regional parenting publications seek, the importance of checking editorial calendars, lead times, reprint possibilities and evergreen topics many of these publications seek each month. “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” will also include a sidebar titled “Five Ways to Sell a Parenting Article in a Regional Publication.”
I am a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous regional parenting publications. I am a former associate editor of Charlotte Parent and also a contributing writer at www.iParenting.com.
My article, “Alternative Treatments for Autism,” recently took first place honors in the magazine feature article category of the 2009 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. I am including the clip in the body of this e-mail.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding this article idea.
About the Book:
What does it mean to belong? In a place? With a person? To a family? Where do our senses of security and survival lie? I Don’t Belong Here ruthlessly investigates alienation during moments of transit and dislocation and their impact on women’s identity. These twenty essays—ranging from conventional to lyrical to experimental in form and structure—delve into the root causes of personal uncertainty and the aftershock effects of being a woman in an unsafe world. Provocative, authentic, intimate, and uncompromising, Melissa Grunow casts light on the unspeakable: sexuality, death, mental illness, trauma, estrangement, and disillusionment with precision and fortitude
Memoir is not something I read a lot of, although I’ve been trying to remedy that over the past few years with books such as Wild and The Glass Castle. I even took a course with Grunow a few months ago on writing creative nonfiction so I could sharpen my own skills. I was curious to see how her teaching style related to her own work, and I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, I love the theme of the book; after all, who here doesn’t relate to feelings of isolation and not fitting in? I Don’t Belong Here is divided into four distinct sections: “Unspoken,” “Displaced,” “Suppressed” and “Misunderstood.” She describes the death of a part of herself after a violent sexual assault by a boyfriend in the piece “Before and After.” The description of her experience is so painfully raw and honest that the reader wants to weep along with her.
In “Fire and Water” Grunow dives into the differences between the destruction fire and floods can cause to a home, and an analysis of the impact each one leaves behind. “A flood is worse than a fire,” a co-worker tells her. “After a flood, you’ll worry whenever it rains.” She describes the damage a heavy rain and flood caused to her home in Michigan, and the effect of storms and tornados in her childhood years living in a mobile home. Grunow reminisces about riding her bike with her childhood friends, picking up the metal skirting from mobile homes that was blown about, balancing the pieces on her handlebars and cutting her knees as she pedaled. Anything, everything, can cut something else, she remembers.
Grunow’s writing is rich, lyrical, and draws parallels the one would never even think of, making for a savory reading experience. She digs deep into her own psyche while exploring her decision to get multiple tattoos during her college years.
I give workshops, presentations, trainings, all as a professional who appears professional. Underneath those layers, though, my skin sings a different song, a ballad of many verses comprised of love, pain, mistakes, imprinted memories. I could especially relate to the piece titled “We’re All Mad Here: A Field Guide to Feigning Sanity,” where she writes about doctors, You will burn through doctors the way a middle school girl burns through crushes.
I highly recommend “I Don’t Belong Here,” whether you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of memoirs and creative nonfiction, or seeking ideas for how to expand your own writing. There is much to dissect here, and I promise you by the last page, you will be ready to take a good, hard look at your own imprinted memories and how they have shaped your world.
About Melissa Grunow:
Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here: Essays (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018) and Realizing River City: A Memoir(Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.
A few months ago, I got the opportunity to attend the writing conference of a lifetime. I had heard about Writers Police Academy, which allows writers to learn about police procedure and investigations from law enforcement experts. But when I learned this year’s academy would focus all on the crime of murder, and that it was only three hours away from where I live, I hopped on registration the second it opened. The conference lasted four days and was crammed full of keynotes, networking events and classes that took place both at our hotel and at the Sirchie Training Facilities in Youngsville, N.C.
I took classes on things like “Murder Mayhem,” “Buried Bodies,” “Glorious Shoes: Footwear Evidence,” “Prints on the Page,” “The Art of Interrogation” and more. I also was fortunate enough to land an assignment detailing my experience in WOW! Women on Writing’s Fall e-zine, which explores the dark and twisty side of writing. Read my article here and then check out the other articles chock full of useful information on writing about mystery, thriller, crime and suspense. You won’t regret it.