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.

Spraying, Hoeing, and Writing.

It’s been a busy time around here, what with multiple priorities to manage at work, a staff that’s one man short (guess who gets to do the extra work?) and of course preparing for this year’s American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Conference in Minneapolis later this week. It’s a particularly exciting conference for me, because one of my novels, The Voice, is a finalist for the ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished novelists (Contemporary Fiction category).

Winning—or for that matter, just making the final five—can open doors in the tough-to-crack glass wall that separates the published from the unpublished. Many Genesis winners and finalists have landed publishing contracts after their victories; on the other hand, there are some who win and still grope that glass wall like a blind mime, looking for a point of entry. In other words, if I take first place in my Genesis category I’ll get a nice plaque that, when accompanied by a five dollar bill, will get me a latte at Starbucks. The bragging rights might open doors a crack, but if my writing isn’t strong enough to push them the rest of the way they’ll snap shut faster than Scrooge’s wallet.

All that makes for some wonderful opportunities to drown in one’s own self-doubt. We whose passions demand we write stories and share them with the world are lectured repeatedly on the importance of the perfect “Elevator Pitch,” so named because we may find ourselves in an elevator with the editor or agent of our dreams, with thirty seconds to convince them they can’t continue to do business without us. Every syllable must be fine tuned and ready to dazzle on demand. We prepare our one-sheets and  business cards while gnawing our fingernails to the knuckle, stressing over those fifteen-minute speed-dates with agents and editors. For some, the fear that we’re going to blow our only chance to make a first impression (or to atone for a less-than-stellar first impression left behind last year) can be overwhelming.

That’s exactly where I was a couple of weeks ago, when my obsessive preparations were interrupted by a couple or three days of non-stop rain (much of it perfectly horizontal) from the remains of Hurricane Gustav. Driving on a suburban street during a torrential downpour, water rushing like river rapids along the curbs, I saw a house with a semi-flooded front yard. No big surprise there; lots of yards were flooded in that neighborhood. The funny thing is that in the midst of that build-an-ark scenario, the automatic lawn sprinklers dutifully watered the lawn, sending their perfectly distributed spray exactly as designed and right on schedule, no matter how stupid, useless, or unnecessary.

As I roared in the rain, I saw myself with uncomfortable clarity. The sprinklers were doing all the right things  right on schedule, but wasting their time. I was doing all the right things right on schedule, too. Practiced pitches. Stellar one-sheets. Well-honed prose. Was I wasting my time?

In the end, if all I’ve got is my pitches and partials and one-sheets (oh, my! 🙂 ) and I’m putting it all on the line powered by my own strength, ability and ambition, I’m just watering a flooded yard. Without the empowerment of God’s calling on my writing life, I can do nothing.

Does that mean that if I’m called to write I can spew forth marginal manuscripts and God will mystically morph them into monumental masterpieces? Absolutely not. I’m reminded of a favorite quote from a the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee:

“Friends, when a man prays to God for a good corn crop, God expects him to say ‘Amen’ with a hoe.”

We can hoe until our hands fall off, but we can’t make a seed grow. That’s God’s job. Can you imagine a farmer standing in his field trying to make a seed germinate? He can’t do it. All he can do is plant, water, and hoe. It’s God who makes those efforts bring forth new growth.

It’s the same way for those of us compelled to write. We have to do our part. We study the craft, we learn how to use the gifts God gave us, but it’s God who makes those words come to life, not us. Just as only He can make a seed germinate, only He can make a spark of inspiration grow into an idea that grows into a story that grows into a novel.

We prepare, we learn, we apply those lessons, and we trust God to bring our ideas to life. Part of that process is trusting Him to make it happen at the right time, even if we disagree on that timing. We have to trust Him to inspire us with the right ideas, introduce us to the right people, and give us the right words. I’ve been to several Christian writers conferences over the past few years, and the very best connections and contacts I’ve made at those events weren’t the scheduled meetings and planned pitches. They were the surprise blessings, delightful divine appointments with people I never even considered during my highly focused preparation time.

So, I’m off to Minneapolis with preparations made, but with an agenda that’s flexible enough to accommodate God’s plan for the rest of my week. My agenda is to synchronize with God’s agenda, and let him cause whatever growth He desires.

In the meantime, I’ll try to stay out of His way, stay available, and stay faithful—and keep my hands on that hoe.

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.