Thirty Seconds of Fame

Whew! It’s been a crazy few days in Dan-land. I attended the annual ACFW Conference last Thursday through Sunday, and I’m just now getting to the place where I’m slowing down to catch my breath. Crazy days, to be sure—but good crazy.

Check it out! I won!

Yup, that’s me. Do I look a little giddy? Well, I should, because I was. My novel The Voice took first place in the 2008 ACFW Genesis contest, Contemporary Fiction category.

It was a surreal moment for me. Sure, I knew there was a 1 in 5 chance I’d win. There was also a 4 in 5 chance that I wouldn’t, and the other competitors were far from weak writers. I decided well in advance that I’d maybe take third place, with a slim shot at second. After third and second were announced, I wasn’t sure what to think.

When I heard my name and title, I think I stopped breathing for a few seconds. By the time I took my first step toward the stage, I knew exactly how I had to deliver my 30-second acceptance speech.

You see, early Thursday morning just before leaving for the airport, my wife Sharon told me she really wanted to go to the conference with me this year, because she knew I would win and she wanted to be there to see it. She may have said something early on, but she never pursued it because it would be an expensive trip and we had a lot of expense this year. I could see it in her eyes. She honestly believed I would win. She deserved to come along if she wanted to; I could never do any of this without her love and support. Had I known sooner, I would have found a way to cover the cost—but it was too late.

On my way to the stage, I pulled out my cellphone and called her. I had just stepped onto the stage when she answered and I gave her the news from the podium. I can’t recall every word of my acceptance speech; I wish I had a recording so I knew what all I said. There is, however, one part I remember well. I thanked God for the woman on the phone, someone who was not surprised to hear I had won first place, would not be surprised when I receive a contract from the wise publishing house that buys The Voice, and she will not be surprised if one day she sees my name on a best-seller list. She believes in me even when I don’t believe in myself, sees great things in me I cannot always see, and is the very best Gift God ever gave me, second only to Salvation. She’s my wife, Sharon, and without her I would have never been at that podium.

I concluded by having all 600 or so attendees greet Sharon as I held up the phone. I believe the resounding roar made even the rowdy, chicken-dancing wedding party next door pause, even if for only a moment.

So, I’m now a Genesis winner. There was a lot of interest in The Voice before the awards, and even more afterward. I have editors and agents pursuing me, quite a change from the normal routine. As I told a couple of folks that night, my new goal is to become disqualified for next year’s Genesis contest (contracted authors are ineligible).

I’ve had my thirty seconds of fame and I’m back in Little Rock, back at the keyboard, getting back into the routine of life. Before me stands a frightening question.

Can I deliver what I’ve promised?

Watch this space and find out.

Writer Cycle, Cat Cycle, People Cycle.

Yes, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog entry. All of my writing time has been obsessively focused on two major priorities: sending out proposals for Inheriting Air (and I might add, sending out a manuscript or two) and finishing The Voice, the novel that made me a finalist in the 2008 ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished novelists. My goal (a bit unreasonable, knowing how slow the publishing industry can move at times) is to make myself ineligible to enter Genesis in 2009.

I just did an incredible thing, a step that’s never been easy for my brain chemistry to embrace. I’ve declared the first draft of The Voice to be complete. I’m around 12,000 words short of my target length, but the story is finished. The word-count shortfall will evaporate in the next draft, as I fill in some layers and accommodate a few things that I discovered later in the story’s development. I’m excited about The Voice; it has a great deal of potential. I just hope the final-round Genesis judges agree. The results will be announced on Saturday, September 20, at the annual ACFW Conference in Minneapolis.

I’d love to win, of course. I have a one-in-five chance, but even if I don’t come out on top, just being a finalist is a great honor and has already opened some doors for me (including a couple that I chose not to step through).

Now, I enter a different phase of the writing cycle. Difficult though it may be, I need to put The Voice away for a while, long enough to become emotionally detached from the characters and storyline so I can evaluate that first draft with a ruthless red sharpie. The detachment is critical; Not only do I need to cull the biological waste I might not see at close distance, I might have to hurt a character or two, or even sacrifice them on the altar of literary integrity. It’s hard to do when you’re still emotionally attached.

Tootsie

The Lovely Miss Tootsie

I have plenty of writing to do in the interim. As recently as yesterday at lunch with Sara I found an intriguing new story idea I’ll have to play with, I’m still trying to sell Inheriting Air, and believe it or not, the Lord has nudged me in the direction of trying my hand at short fiction for tweens (8-12 year olds). Yes, really.

We have a new member in the feline muse department of the Case household, an unexpected addition who insisted on adopting us during a recent run to PetsMart for food and litter. We left with a bag of kitten food and an avid consumer thereof who has given herself a name, Tootsie, by finding a hidden tootsie roll wrapper (God only knows where) and making it her favorite toy. Tingy and Marconi have come to tolerate her youthful exuberance, brokering an agreement that gives Marconi first dibs on the back of my chair and Tingy first dibs on my lap. Tootsie is a bold, fearless little four-month old tabby/calico mix (Tabico or Caliby, take your pick) and I’m sure she’ll be running the place before long.

We knew our broken hearts would eventually heal after Wookie’s death. We didn’t expect to have a new kitten as soon as we have–we were quite certain we weren’t ready–but Tootsie knew otherwise. Her playful presence and joyous embrace of life has brought us more healing than we would have imagined.

Tootsie is an unusually wise writing coach for her tender age of four months. She already distrusts adverbs and avoids them whenever possible, and has on more than one occasion looked over my shoulder and jumped on the keyboard to correct some errant bit of punctuation. That she has creative gifts in abundance can be seen in her choice of playthings. The entire world is her toy box, although she has not yet learned that everything that dangles is not meant to be swatted at by claw-equipped felines.  😯

Tootsie can by no means replace Wookie, Blondie, Buddy, or any of the other previous feline residents of our home. Each of our feline cohabitants is an irreplaceable individual, and to even consider trying to replace one with another is ludicrous at best. Tootsie represents the beginning of yet another cycle of friendship, a new entrant who has already carved out her unique place in our hearts. She’s carved a few special places on our hands, arms and legs as well. She hasn’t quite learned yet that a slight movement of the feet or hands while sleeping is not an invitation to pounce. 🙂

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.

ACFW follow-up from Rocking Chair Ridge

It just occurred to me that I never posted a follow-up to the ACFW conference. It isn’t that there’s nothing to post. It’s that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

I came away from ACFW with a different perspective on my writing. It’s not that my writing suddenly changed, but that God used some people there to talk to me about my writing in terms that I’d never considered. It’s not that I’ve come away with a different direction for my writing. It’s not that I’ve experienced a great life change. It’s not that sudden and jarring a thing; more like subtle, inner “ah-hah!” moments that tie together things that the Lord’s been doing in me. And–scary though it may be–it’s starting to make sense.

One of the great things about the ACFW conference was putting faces to the names of those friends I’ve met online. People like Sharon Hinke, who read a few pages from my current work in progress and proclaimed me “a chick-lit writer trapped in a man’s body.”  And I finally got to meet some of the ladies in my online critique group. And… well, if I tried to list everyone, I’d run out of space on the web server.

I came away energized and encouraged, and almost overwhelmed by the positive feedback I got for my project. It’s hard for me to put words to, so you know it’s a big deal!

Today, I’m at one of my favorite places on the planet–Ridgecrest, North Carolina. I’m in a rocking chair on Rocking Chair Ridge at the Ridgecrest conference center, passing the time waiting for my room to be made ready. (I’m early, believe it or not!)

I’m here for the Advanced Novel Retreat that’s going on this week. I’m excited about this event, because it’s a smaller affair that’s totally focused on improving in the craft of writing. No pitching, no selling, just growing. And I expect to grow this week.

Expecting results is at least half of getting results. 🙂

And there’s the pitch!

That phrase brings to mind the thousands of baseball games I’ve heard on the radio over the years. I think that all the guys who do MLB play-by-play must have attended the same broadcasting school, because they all seem to say the exact same line the exact same way every time the pitcher launches the ball toward home plate. Or, maybe they’re all imitating the same guy. Or maybe they’re all imitating each other. I’d still like to hear one of them rock the boat and find a new and different way to tell listeners the pitcher’s let one fly.

I suppose that today’s crop of CBA novels have a lot in common with baseball play-by-play. There are a lot of people writing according to the same formulas and fitting nicely into the same little genre slots. Sometimes I’ll be reading a novel that seems familiar, and I realize that I’ve read pretty much the same book before but with different character names and settings, and maybe a twist or two, but the same general formula. I’ve been advised that the fastest road to getting my first novel published is to write one of those predictable formula books, Romance or Romantic Suspense or a nice Cozy Mystery. Safe stuff that proves I’m sane and able to capture complete (albeit boring) thoughts on paper and complete a manuscript (a remarkable number of first-time novelists can’t do either).

Well, I tried. It’s hard to stay “inside the box” when I was never inside the box in the first place. I tried with all my might to write a straightforward Romantic Suspense, but finally had to come to grips with the fact that it’s not. There’s romance, there’s suspense, but those are all sub-plots. At its core, it’s a character-driven story of a man who is put into situations that cause him to re-evaluate his life, his values, and his destiny. I like to think of it as a journey of grace.

The title of this fledgling of mine is Inheriting Air, and it’s about to be pitched.

No, not pitched as in “tossed into the abyss,” pitched as in “Do I have a book for you!”

I’m headed toward the annual American Christian Fiction Writers’ Conference in Dallas. ACFW is a wonderful organization full of (well, mostly) wonderful people who are ACFW Logopassionate about writing great fiction. In the course of the conference, I’ll have the opportunity to sit under the teaching of some wonderfully talented writers and work toward taking my grasp of the craft of writing up a notch or two. I’ll have the joy of rubbing shoulders with a few hundred folks who love word-wrangling just as much as I do, and put faces with the names of those whom I’ve chatted with, shared with, and in some cases rejoiced (or wept) with online. And I’ll have the opportunity to “pitch” my novel to editors and agents, with the hope that one or more will catch the same sort of excitement about this story that is all over me.

Inheriting Air is the story of Jim Clarke, the protege of an aging, childless billionaire. Jim’s uncle dies and leaves him a little AM radio station in a little town in South Arkansas. It’s an annoyance that he can’t get rid of no matter how hard he tries. He is forced to travel to the little town to either “put some lipstick on the pig” and make it more salable, or put it to death and walk away from the distraction. Inheriting Air is the story of how God uses that little town and little radio station to change Jim’s life, and then uses Jim to change theirs.

Feel free to pray for me as I attend the conference and pursue this new venture. Whether the editors love it or hate it, what’s important is that it all happen according to God’s timetable. He sees this from a much better vantage point, and if He says “not yet” it’s for good cause (even if I can’t see it).

It’s my job to pitch. the Lord will take care of lining up the right catcher! 🙂

Fictional Dan

I had an email from a friend the other day, chastising me for not updating my blog since October 23rd. There wasn’t much I could say in reply other than, “I haven’t been writing because I’ve been busy writing.” I know, it doesn’t seem very logical, but it’s the truth. With logic like that, I oughta run for President! 🙂

The truth that I havebeen too busy writing to blog. But, I have a confession to make, one that might be hard for some of you to accept.

I’ve crossed over to the ‘other side.’ I’ve actually been writing fiction. 

Yes, I know . . . it’s shocking. And not only am I writing fiction, but I’m admitting to it openly. I’ve even joined an organization called American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). And when I say I’m writing fiction, I’m not kidding–I’m currently self-editing the second rewrite of my first novel, which I’ll be entering into a couple of contests shortly, and will be pitching at writers’ conferences this spring.

I haven’t completely quit writing non-fiction, of course, so if you’re a magazine editor and were hoping that this would mean no more queries from Dan . . . sorry, I’m not going away, just broadening my writing perspective. I’ve found that there are a number of advantages to writing fiction:

  • No need to deal with that pesky “truth” thing.
  • It’s okay if you make up people and situations (non-fiction editors seem to have a problem with fabricating examples)
  • If you don’t like a character, you can always kill ’em (another thing frowned upon by non-fiction editors)
  • You get to manipulate reality.
  • One word: control.
  • People are nicer to you if they think they might end up in one of your books.
  • Based on the current field of candidates, being a fiction writer can qualify one to run for President–some of the current candidates seem to be accomplished fictional storytellers. 😯

So, watch this space, fiction lovers. One of these days you’ll have yet another reason to love me! :mrgreen: