Another Ridgecrest Farewell

I’m concluding my week at Ridgecrest in the same spot where I began—Rocking Chair Ridge. As nice as the new Johnson Spring complex is, this is still my favorite place at Ridgecrest. Every time I sit in one of these chairs, I can’t help but think about the lives that have been changed over the years in this very spot—including my own.

Every time I come here for a conference, God shows up. This week has been no disappointment. I’ve done a horrible job of tweeting, Facebooking, and whatever the latest cool social networking thing is that popped up while I wasn’t watching. I didn’t even tweet-feet, though I did post a picture of Vonda Skelton’s feet on the BRMCWC Facebook Fan Page, just for fun. Though I may have been social-network challenged, I’m certain my time went for all the right things.

What I did do this week is study the craft of writing suspense and thrillers at the feet of award-winning novelist Steven James. I also made a few hundred new friends, hugged a lot of old friend’s necks, and refilled my writer’s soul by hanging with all those fellow word-wrangling addicts.

And as always, there were surprises.

After a gentle but firm nudge from the Holy Spirit, I spent three days in Nancy Rue’s class on writing for tweens and teens. I knew it would be wonderful the moment I walked through the door and saw TOYS! I tried to avoid it, but the inescapable fact is that ther Lord is nudging me to dedicate a portion of my writing life to novels for tween boys (9-12 years old). I feel thoroughly inadequate for that task, which puts me in a good place. If I’m to have any success, God’s gonna have to show up and I’m gonna have to get out of His way.

I had one final surprise today, the sort of moment I’d attribute to coincidence if I believed in coincidence. At lunch today I sat at a random  table with a young woman who I later learned was Andrea Gutierrez, associate editor or Thriving Family magazine. I learned that we have some common friends, and also that Thriving Family is a potential target for some articles I’ve written in the past but haven’t done much with lately. I’ve been so fiction-focused that I hadn’t even considered article writing lately, but the queries will be flying before long. Coincidence? Not hardly.

One last item from Ridgecrest: a word about those wonderful Ridgecrest volunteers. I love red shirts anyway, but after this week I love ’em even more. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with retired folks who come to Ridgecrest and volunteer their time to help the ministry. The volunteers are easy to spot. Just look for the red shirts, and you’ll more than likely find a volunteer. These folks come here from all over the country at their own expense to serve without pay, and their faithful service added so much to the week for all of us. The photo shows my absolute favorite volunteer of all time, an eighty-something lady named Marvella. She’s volunteered to serve at every writer’s conference and retreat I’ve attended here at Ridgecrest, and without her I’d have never found my way that first year. We all love you, Marvella. I look forward to seeing you here next year!

Thoughts from an ex-Newbie

I’m at the wonderful Ridgecrest conference center, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference. I came a day early,as has been my tradition ever since my first year at BRMCWC, when I flew to Asheville using credit card points and HAD to stay a Saturday night to qualify. I stayed in a cheap motel in Asheville that time around because I’d never been to Ridgecrest before. Now that I’m in love with this mountaintop the only reason I’d stay anywhere else is “no room at the inn.”

Even though I didn’t “have” to come a day early this year—the old 25,000 point flight deal is long gone—Sharon, who has a special place in her heart for Ridgecrest, encouraged me to come early anyway. The extra day is mostly a somewhat selfish indulgence for me, an opportunity to relax and enjoy this wonderful place while getting myself mentally and spiritually preparedfor the conference. It also allows me to sit through the opening session fully awake, another plus. If I flew in on Sunday I’d have to be out of bed at 4am to get here, and by Sunday night I’d be in a walking coma.

Back when I first came here, there were no reasonable shuttle services between the Asheville airport and Ridgecrest, so I had to rent a car no matter how much it pained me to pay rental on a car that spent most of the week in the same parking space. There are more transit options available now, but to come a day early I still need the rental car. The meal ticket for the conference entitles me to three institutional meals a day that bring back bad memories of cafeteria lunches in Catholic school, but it doesn’t kick in until supper on Sunday. The ability to drive down to Black Mountain for a bite to eat and a few other supplies makes the car worth the little bit extra—and the shuttles from Asheville aren’t cheap, so it’s not that much more.

Having a high degree of frugalitycoded into my DNA (at least when spending MY money), I always shop for the cheapest little car I can find and use every coupon and free upgrade I can dig up. I lucked out this year and got upgraded from a bottom-end rubber-tires-and-motor car to a brand new Hyundai Sonata. It’s all a matter of right place, right time, and a car rental desk with such low inventory that the rental guy had to borrow a car from another rental company for the guy ahead of me in line. One of the car cleanup guys dropped the Sonata’s keys on the counter just as I pointed out that I was due a free upgrade. I ended up with a BIG free upgrade! 🙂 The Sonata is a spiffy car with lots of techie doodads and “stuff.” Bluetooth, satellite radio (what a waste), and lots of other features that I wish I had time to play with, but don’t.

Late yesterday afternoon, I drove into Black Mountain for a quick visit to a drug store and a bite to eat. It had turned dark by the time I left the restaurant, but I never gave that a second thought until I pulled on to the ramp to I40 and descended into blackness. Wouldn’t you expect a car with so many techie doodads to have automatic headlights? My far less cool GMC truck does, as does Sharon’s Pontiac Vibe. I suddenly found myself in the cockpit of a cool car with lots of knobs and buttons and no idea at all how to turn on the headlights!

I survived, of course. I pulled over, opened the door (how do you turn on an interior light in this thing?) and found the light switch. Let there be light.

Thinking about that little headlight debacle reminded me of my first time at Ridgecrest. I was as lost as a Baptist preacher in a biker bar, had no idea where anything was, where to go, or what to do. I got here early—two and a half hours before the scheduled registration window opened—so I could get my bearings and find my way around, and I needed every minute. A wonderful little grandma lady pointed me toward Pritchell Hall, where they checked me in and registered me even though I was early, gave me a map and pointed me in the right direction.

All through that first conference experience, whenever newbie befuddlement struck me a helpful soul was not far away, ready to point me in the right direction, encourage me, and make me feel like I belonged at a time in my writing journey when I wasn’t sure I did. Those encouragers are part of why I’m still a writer. Without them, I would have been overwhelmed and given in to the urge to quit. Most of them will never know what a difference they made.

It’s time for me to go now. Registration is open. Time for me to go down to Pritchell and look for some newbies to encourage.

Catching Up

I’ve been a bad boy—a very bad boy.

I haven’t posted anything here in, like, forever.  Not that I haven’t had anything to say. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ll probably still be talking when I’m cold and dead in my casket (preaching my own funeral is sort of a fantasy goal of mine).

I’ve just been battling with a good old fashioned case of  “Overload meets ADD.” Here’s how it works:

  1. After discovering wonderful new twists in your plot while sleeping, your hyperfocus drives you to write that focal story until thirty seconds before you MUST leave for your Day Job.
  2. The need to eat forces you to keep up with your Day Job, even though you’d rather be writing.
  3. You get home exhausted and say to yourself, “I’ll write that blog post tomorrow morning when I’m fresh.”
  4. While watching a couple minutes of TV, you get a great idea for a blog post and add it to the list of great blog ideas you’ll write in the morning.
  5. While sleeping, you dream your storyline and “the boys in the basement” give you the perfect way to solve that little problem.
  6. Go back to number one. Rinse. Repeat.

I have a limited number of hours I can dedicate to writing, and when I get immersed in a story it’s way too easy to fall into perpetual I’ll-write-that-post-tomorrow mode. I keep making notes about things I should blog about, but I never find the time to write them. As the list grows, it becomes more intimidating and more difficult to dive into. Eventually the list takes on a life of its own and knocking it down to size becomes a gargantuan task.

In the name of catching up, I’ve gone through the list with the heart of an editor, ruthlessly cutting things that aren’t worth saying. The few items that remain are more manageable one bite. Here are a few of the items left behind that I want to get off the list, in no particular order:

Conference Bound!

Yes, in spite of a less-than-brisk economy, in less than twelve hours from this posting I’ll be on a plane headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference at the Ridgecrest Conference center near Black Mountain, North Carolina (not far from Asheville).

I’m excited to be returning to Ridgecrest after missing last year, but it’s going to be a very different experience for me this time. I’m already agented, so I won’t be playing the mating game with agents this year. I don’t have anything that’s ready to pitch, so it’s likely I’ll dispense with fifteen-minute meetings altogether. This year it’s all about growing in the craft and honing my skills as a writer, enjoying the fellowship for fellow word addicts, and encouraging others while others encourage me. I look forward to reconnecting with old friends, making some new ones, and listening to the Lord’s voice whisper in my ear on Rocking Chair Ridge.

Look for a few posts from Ridgecrest during the conference.

Rooms by Jim Rubart

This is Jim’s debut novel, and saying it’s “really good” is like calling a woman in her tenth month of pregnancy with triplets  “really pregnant.” Rooms is phenomenal, and if you’re not among the bazillion people who’ve bought it so far, you need to go straight to your local bookstore, Amazon, or  CBD and buy it today.

I take a little bit of encouragement in the knowledge that when I won first place in the ACFW Genesis contest in 2008, Jim took second place.  I was recently told by a publishing professional who I both trust and respect that I have the potential to have just as successful a debut—one of these days, but not yet. Believe it or not, there is a downside to having such a successful debut. Jim’s set his own bar quite high, and now everyone’s expectations are huge.  Rooms will be a tough act for Jim to follow, but I think he’s up to the task.

Apple Loyalty: Gone in a Flash

Apple has done a some truly brilliant things in recent years, and the techie community has taken notice. More and more IT geeks are including a MacBook Pro in their personal arsenal of computers, largely because Apple’s OSX is a pretty user interface on top of BSD Unix, one of the grand old-timers of the computing world. One thing Apple does extremely well is user interface, and choosing to build OSX on the BSD foundation set the developers free to maximize that interface–it’s too bad MicroSoft didn’t do the same.  Add in the iPhone phenomenon—an operating system that’s a subset of OSX with another brilliant user interface—and mix in the way Windows-centric Enterprise IT departments have embraced iPhone as an Enterprise-level device, and even the most anti-Apple would have to say Apple is on a roll.

Then Steve Jobs had to go shoot his mouth off about the evils of Adobe Flash. We could tolerate the iPhone not supporting flash–after all, it’s primary purpose is phone calls, email, and a little light surfing (plus all those nifty apps). As long as there’s been an iPhone, the tech-savvy have understood why flash was forbidden–Apple wants to have total control of you, your phone, and what you can or can’t do with it. Flash would change all that.

Enter the iPad, an overgrown iPhone without the phone, a device with enough screen real estate to enjoy full-length video and full-fledged web browsing.

The problem is that many websites are flash-dependent, and without flash they’re hollow shells filled with nothing. Big Brother Steve Jobs says that flash is outdated and should not be allowed to live, and therefore Apple will not allow it on its devices.

It’s interesting that Microsoft says the same things about Flash, with one major exception—Microsoft allows users to make their own decisions and access flash-based web content if they choose to do so. Apple assumes all users are too stupid to think for themselves, so the collective thinks for them and “protects” them by crippling their devices. At the root of Apple’s position is the technical reality that everyone knows but Steve Jobs won’t admit—allowing flash on the iPhone and iPad would make it possible for users to access applications that haven’t been blessed by Apple’s gods.

Come on, Steve. Everyone knows the truth, and you refusing to admit that truth doesn’t make it go away.  You’re a control freak. You want to rule the world, one smartphone at a time, by limiting our choices to those you can control and from which  you can profit.

Fortunately, I don’t live in Applestan–I’m still an American and I’m free to make my own decisions. I won’t be buying an iPad unless there’s a major shift in Apple’s mentality, and when my iPhone 3G contract comes up for renewal later this year I’ll take a long, hard look at Android-based (Open Source) phones before deciding. Apple could have had me, if only they’d dropped the Borg collective philosophy and start treating users with a measure of dignity and respect.

Need a  Job? Here’s an Idea!

It’s been all the buzz recently, all those billboards and TV spots with unemployed Americans saying, “Mr. President, I need a freakin’ job.” No doubt, some of you are offended at the use of the word “freakin'” because you know the word they meant, and I’d have to agree that word is offensive—but not nearly as offensive as the notion that it’s the responsibility of the President of the United States to personally deliver a job to every unemployed American.

I’ve been through periods of unemployment. I get it, really I do, but it’s not the government’s responsibility to give you a job. It’s your responsibility. In every time of hardship, there two distinct groups of Americans—those who whine because the government’s not doing enough for them, and those who get off their cans, find something to do, and do it better than anyone else. They’re too busy working to whine.

The interesting thing is that the INAFJ website is itself an example of just that principle in action. While they promote a “movement” with vague buzzwords and hard anti-administration rhetoric, they’re also selling tee shirts for twenty bucks a pop. That’s a tried-and-true business model that’s been used over and over by creative entrepreneurs. Find a group of people who are upset about something, become their buddy, sell them tee shirts that speak to their peeve. Whoever is behind INAFJ (the web address is registered through a registration proxy to hide the identity of the real owner) has done exactly what wise unemployed people have done for generations. 

I’m sensitive to the plight of the unemployed, so it’s with the utmost respect that I say, “If you need a freakin’ job, quit whining, get off your freakin’ can, and find something productive to do.” Don’t wait for the job to come to you; get out there and find a need, meet that need, and meet it better than anyone else. It’s the American way!

And finally: A Personal Note to Jay Leno

Thank God you’re back on The Tonight Show! We’ve missed you terribly, and now that you’ve got your late-night legs back, you rock!

It’s great to see you experimenting with new ideas, even if they don’t always work, because you’ve not forgotten what made you successful. It’s a balancing act, but you’re balancing it well these days. Keep up the great work!

I really hate that Kevin is leaving, but not nearly as much as I hated Conan’s version of the show. 🙂

Building Blue Ridge

I’m in North Carolina this week, just outside Asheville at the beautiful Ridgecrest Conference Center, one of my favorite away-from-home places in the world. Ever since I met my sweetheart in Greensboro and we honeymooned on the Outer Banks, I’ve had a special place in my heart for Carolina (only yankees and outsiders call it “North” Carolina). I love the sea oats, sand and salt air on the coast, but if I had to choose, I think I’d choose Ridgecrest (and a good car so we could drive to the outer banks regularly).

If you’ve read my blog at all, you’ve already heard me wax poetisophical about Ridgecrest, and I won’t replay those previous waxings However, some cool things have happened here since my last visit in May, like the progress on the new Convention Center buildings.

East

Southeast corner, viewed from parking lot of The ARC

Another view from The ARC Parking lot, with Rhododendron behind the new building

This cluster of structures is enormous; one picture can’t even come close to doing it justice, so I took a boatload and selected five in an attempt to show the expanse of the new facility that spans the gap between the Rhododendron/Dogwood buildings and the Mountain Laurel Inns.

Overhead View (From Mountain Laurel 3rd floor)

Connection to Mountain Laurel

Initial Framework of the Connection to Mountain Laurel

As I understand it, when the facility is complete it will be possible to have a sizable convention or other gathering (such as the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May) and never have to step outdoors. I’ll miss the “umbrella or no umbrella” challenge, but not much. 🙂

Connection to Mountain Laurel

View from back corner of Dogwood, with Mountain Laurel in the distance, behind the new complex

I can hardly wait to see what great things God does with this new facility. We could get a lot of writers in all that space!

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.

A Ridgecrest Goodbye–and Guest Blogging, too.

Well, here I am again, writing another “farewell to Ridgecrest” entry from Rocking Chair Ridge. The first Blue Ridge Mountains Advanced Novel Retreat is officially history. The final time of worship (lunch 🙂 ) is over, and I’m at that saddest of moments–having to say Goodbye to Ridgecrest until next time.

God is everywhere. We all know that. It’s not that there are certain places where there’s more of God, but that there are certain places where He’s more evident because He’s more welcome. Ridgecrest is one of those special places. Holy ground, anointed by generations of prayer mingled with generations of sweat and tears. Sitting in this old rocking chair, I can’t help thinking about those who’ve sat here before me. Decisions made. Broken hearts bandaged and healed. Lives changed. It’s certainly been an important place in my journey as a writer, as well as in my journey as a believer.

It’s time. I know that. I don’t want to leave here, but I know I can’t fulfill God’s calling and purpose for me without getting out of this chair and heading toward the airport. And, as much as I love this place, I’ll be miserable if I don’t go where He’s sent me.

So goodbye again, Ridgecrest. You’ve been a great blessing to me this week. Thank You, Lord, for all those whose dedicated work have made this tool the place that it is.

Oh, and lest I forget… I’m the featured guest blogger on Tiff Colter’s Writing Career Coach blog today.  Stop by for an interesting read!