Singing Praises of ACFW

I sing ACFW praises every chance I get. What an awesome organization. What an awesome conference. Put together by an awesome God. This year, I met Lynn Coleman, founder of ACFW. We chatted about how she wanted to start a Christian writing group to support and uplift one another, with no competition or jealousy. Like most things, ACFW started small as American Christian Romance Writers.

I discovered it by google in 2004. By 2005 when I attended the conference in Nashville, the name had changed to American Christian Fiction Writers. Though I’d been to numerous local conferences, writers’ group meetings, and workshops, ACFW made me realize I only knew the basics about writing.

ACFW goes deep in helping writers improve their craft. So deep, it boggles. I always get brain freeze and have to sort through what I learned when I get home. And yes, even though I’m published and an old hand at working with editors, I still learn from ACFW.

I had so many appointments, interviews, and meetings, I only got to go to four workshops this year. But I still learned. I’m not sure what yet, haven’t had time to sort it out. Oh, I did learn that the voice that tells me I’ll never get another book published when I don’t have a current contract or deadline, that’s the enemy and he tells all writers that. Now I know to ignore him and press on.

ACFW is also about having friends along for what can be a very solitary journey. I took the solo route until 2008. Though I’d been to the conference for 3 years, I stood on the fringes and wished I had someone to hug and cry over like all those other writers. In 2008, I met Linda from my local zone and rode with her to Minneapolis. I met my critique partners face to face, met their friends and Linda’s friends. We all went out to dinner together and had so much fun. The next year when I met them, I hugged and cried over them.

Lorna is my designated shoulder for phone calls or in person. Lorna and I have traversed our getting published journey together. When my husband is at work—I call Lorna and blubber over disappointments or triumphs in writing. When my husband isn’t at ACFW—he hasn’t been able to come since 2007—I blubber on Lorna over disappointments and triumphs. Lorna is getting soggy.

Linda is my designated roomie. We often dance in our room over triumphs. Dawn is my designated can’t find her writing friend. I once called her husband at home in Iowa trying to find her in the hotel so I could get the pie I left in her room. This time, I called a friend at home also named Dawn in my quest for Dawn’s room and went to the wrong room looking for Dawn.

Brenda, my other critter, is much better in person than in bobble-head form. We’ll look forward to seeing her in Dallas. Maybe we can wish her there. Kim and her sweet southern accent were missed this year, but Regina brought her husband. I wonder how many times did I say, “I love to hear him talk.” I also got to connect with Shari again. The only problem is there’s never enough time to spend with my writer friends.

ACFW is the highlight of my year. The knowledge to gain, the friends to hug, the contacts to be made. The kind of place where I can walk up to the keynote speaker–who is always way above the realm I live in–and thank them for what they said to inspire or encourage me. Knowing that all those writers sleep-walking through the conference totally get me. They hear voices too—not only their characters’, but God’s.

ACFW: The Lays Potato Chips of Conferences

Imagine if you will, a small-town girl from rural Alabama. Someone who chooses to live the country life, but with enough savvy, sophistication and credentials to survive in the  big city. Last September she embarked on a trip to Indianapolis, choosing to drive the 500 or so miles because they there were no reasonably priced direct flights into the city and she refused to fly if stopovers were involved due to an irrational fear of being separated from her luggage and the clothing there in – which is why her carry on is always packed with one complete change of clothing and every set of undergarments she owns instead of the usual essentials of make-up and hair care products. (What can I say? I can survive without Mary Kay and Paul Mitchell, but not without a fresh pair of Fruit of the Loom’s.)

The trip began as most do –  bright and early, peppered with generous amounts of excitement and confidence. After all she’d been going to Birmingham and Atlanta at fairly regular intervals since she was born. She’d even been as far north as New York City. Indianapolis should be a breeze. And as for actual friends at the conference? No big deal. As a practicing audiologist she’d been to her fair share of consortiums and continuing education events and could definitely hold her own. At least that’s what she told herself.

Until she reached Tennessee and the first fuel stop. That’s when trepidation slipped in. You see, for all our bravado she’d never actually been that far from home by herself. Friends and/or family had always been in the passenger seat beside her. What if the car broke down? It would take hours for someone she knew to get to her.

By the time she reached Louisville, trepidation was beginning to border on terror. What in the world had possessed her to go that far from home to a conference on the subject matter she knew absolutely nothing about? (Let’s face it folks, I might know an audiometer from an impedance bridge, but I don’t know nothin’ about publishin’ no novel.)

With Indianapolis looming in the windshield, she was in full by or flight mode. And flight was definitely looking better by the second. After all it was only nine hours back to Alabama. She can easily turn the car around, head home call it an eighteen hour road trip and be done with the whole thing.  After all the room rates were surely easier to divide  by three than by four.

Somehow though, the fear of being call a chicken by her family was greater than the fear one of the roommates, who she only knew online, might be a serial killer complete with duffel bag. So she made it to the hotel. Drove up to the valet stand and…

“May I park your car?”

She looked at the barely out of diapers young man like he was asking her to try the new salt and vinegar flavored Lays potato chips. Was he crazy? Did he really expect her to reach into the bag and take the first bite by handing over her car keys?

Well, being raised a polite southerner, I did the only thing I could do. I said “Yes please” and handed over the keys, taking the first bite. And guess what? It wasn’t half bad. And neither were any of the others I ate that day. Chips in the form of online friends who quickly became lifelong ones and published authors do not only give you the time of day but a hug. By the end of conference, I was completely hooked. And I quickly discovered that the ACFW conference was just like Lays salt and vinegar potato chips – once you try them, you’ll never be able to eat just one.

In Between The Chunks

Have you ever noticed that we live our lives in chunks of time? There are twelve months in a year, thirty-one days (except for February, April, June and September) in a month and twenty-four hours in a day. And of those twenty-four hours, eight are spent working, eight are spent sleeping and the other eight we often pack so tightly with doctor’s appointments, committee meetings and family activities we don’t have time to think.

Even human development is broken up into chunks of time. You’re only an infant until you’re four months old. Then you get to be a baby until you’re twelve months old. You toddle until you’re two years old. You’re a pre-schooler until you turn five. Then you’re school aged until you turn eighteen. And some time between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, at least in the eyes of the law, you become an adult.

So you see, we are constantly living in chunks. And sometimes, it seems like the chunks get so big you lose yourself among them. Yet it’s those lost times when I find the real me. The one that doesn’t worry about the deadline for the next report or whether the next client is going happy or grouchy. The one that smiles often and laughs loud and just enjoys being…me.

Those moments are found in the precious minutes crammed between the chunks. That middle of the day phone call from my brother who’s gotten bored on the drive into Birmingham or Montgomery to visit a parishioner in the hospital and chooses me, or at least my voice, to keep him company for a few minutes. The split second it takes for my nephew to stop what he’s doing, glance at me and smile before delving into some new adventure. The time it takes for a friend to dial my phone number to answer a question was really a cover for the uncertainty bombarding my soul. The moments it takes to open a card from another friend who sent it just because. Those are all the things in between the chunks.1081-1270225217ECJs

So you see, while some may measure a life based on the chunks of time and how they are spent, that’s not what I think is important. When the time comes for my life to be measured, I don’t want someone to focus on the chunks, but on the life lived between the chunks.

As Stubborn As An Old Gray Mule

If I were a betting person, I’d lay odds that stubbornness doesn’t make the top ten on most lists of sexiest traits. But I’ll take a tenacious hero, as infuriating as he may be, over a complacent one any day. Add dark hair (though there are a few sandy haired guys out there that have turned my head), rugged good looks and piercing blue or rich brown eyes filled with the gambit of emotions and I’m a quivering puddle.

So what is it about stubborn men that I find so appealing? I guess if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be they are intense. They love hard, play hard and work hard. When they know something is right, they refuse to budge. And they’ll believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

Now who exactly are these men who could give a mule lessons in stubbornness? Perhaps my personal favorite is Rhett Butler. Talk about tenacity! No wonder Ashley Hamilton looked like such a wimp next to him.

Next would be Adam Black, Dee Henderson’s hero in Danger In The Shadows. He refuses to give up on Sara even though she gives up on him. Or at least on a relationship with him. Tenacious and tender – now there’s a deadly combination for this poor southern girl’s heart.

Finally, my newest swoon worthy hero, Ian Justice, the Scottish doctor in Laura Frantz’s The Frontiersman’s Daughter. Not only does he have a stubbornness that rivals Lael Click’s, he has the kind of intestinal fortitude that allows him to survive and thrive in the wilds of Revolutionary War Kentucky. Add the dark hair, blue eyes and the accent that makes my heart pitter-patter, he definitely makes my teeth sweat.

So, if you happen to run across a stubbornly compassionate man that looks a little like Jack Hudson from Sue Thomas FBEye and has a Scottish, Irish or English accent, send him on down my way. I promise, he’ll never be bored and his tenacity will be as appreciated as a prize-winning gray mule in a log-pulling contest.images

Everything I Need To Know…

…I learned in Kindergarten. Okay, so maybe I didn’t learning EVERYTHING I need to know, especially when it comes to writing, way back then. But I certainly learned the basics. Just like Robert Fulgham said

  • Share everything. Don’t keep those doubts and fears about your writing ability – or lack thereof – bottle up. Let them out. Even if you only whisper them in the ear of your teddy bear. It will save your sanity in the long run.
  • Don’t hit people. Offer constructive criticism, not destructive. More importantly, learn to take criticism. It will have your critique partners some bloody noses along the way if you realize they offer correction out of love and a deep desire to see you succeed.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours. For one thing, plagiarism is a crime. For another, taking someone else’s work as your own is a good way to loose not only respect, but friends. After all, no one wants to be friends with a cheater.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.  Lots of problems have been solved over a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. Friendships have been established. Enemies transformed. Not even writer’s block can stand up to a good chocolate chip cookie and a milk mustache.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and dance and play and work every day some. If you don’t learn and you can’t think, how are you going to write? And if you don’t draw and paint and dance and play, how can you turn words into characters people think live right next door to them? And if you don’t work at all these things, then all you’ll ever be is a silent learner instead of a bringer of words to those who need to hear them.
  • When you go out in the world watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. This, at least for me, may be the greatest lesson of all. I know without a doubt if it weren’t for four dear friends whom I happened to stumble across on a fanfiction website, I wouldn’t be on this writing journey. These four other ladies, whom I’ve never met face to face, have become as close as sisters. And they have indeed held my hand in traffic and stuck with me when the going got rough. And from those four ladies, my circle of hand holders has grown until I’m surrounded by friends when we walk out into traffic.

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  • Be aware of wonder. After all, if we, as writers, lose the wonder with which we view this fantastic world God has made, then our words will be hollow.
  • And remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK. Isn’t that what this journey is all about? Looking for the right words. Looking for another book on the craft that will give us more insight into this crazy world of writing. Looking for friends we can share things with. And most of all, looking for God’s will in our stories.

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So you see, while Robert Fulgham may not have had writers in mind when he wrote that essay, he most certainly hit the nail on the head. For everything I’ve learned and every improvement I’ve made is based on these things I learn years and years ago in Kindergarten.

Shakespeare Was A Southerner

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Cometh hither good people

And I’ll tell you something true.

Shakespeare was a Southerner.

I have proof for you.

It has been said that Southern English is as close to Elizabethan English as one can get without borrowing a time machine. While some linguists would beg to differ, I believe I have proof.images

Aside from being able to make Much Ado About Nothing and our own fair share of Romeo and Juliet type love affairs and family feuds, we ain’t opposed to galavanting when it’s spitting rain (though we do tend to leave our ‘g’s up at the house). And even when we are only fair to middling, we know a cock and bull story when we hear one. Believe you me, we are pretty fair at telling a few whoppers of our own.

The similarities between British English and Southern English don’t just stop at the shared idioms. Both are languages of nuance. As Lewis Grizzard, late, great humorist and Southerner extraordinaire, use to boast – Only in the South can you alter the meaning of a word by a simple shift in accent. His favorite example was the word “naked.” Simple enough word right?

Well, one would think so. But in the South, things aren’t always what they seem. When someone is naked, it means you ain’t go no clothes on. With only the slightest shift in emphasis, the word becomes nekkid. And that, dear friends, means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to something.

Now whether you believe Southerners talk like a member of Shakespeare’s posse or not, you must admit we do possess quite the ability to turn a phrase. Where else would you find a woman who could wear a towsack and still look like she stepped out of a bandbox? And Lord a mercy but we can talk the horns off a billy goat even if all that chin waggin’ don’t amount to a hill a beans.

imagesSo the next time you’re feeling like a soretail cat in a room full of rocking chairs, a little down in the dumps or maybe madder than an old wet hen, just come on down past the Mason-Dixon line. When you get here, just come on up on the porch and set a spell. Who knows? Maybe somewhere on the breeze thick with the fragrance of magnolias and peach blossoms, you just might hear the whisper of the old Bard himself.

Now wouldn’t that just beat the bugs abitin’?

A Revolutionary Read

The air is heavy with the musty smell of freshly dug dirt. Your hair is plastered to your neck with sweat and the heavy dampness of the river bottom. Somewhere beyond the tree line, a twig snaps. Your heart pounds against your ribs. Is it the Shawnee? A friend? A deadly foe?

Can you see the river and smell the clean air filled with the sweet fragrance of wildflowers? Can you feel the heat? Can you hear the birds and the snapping twig? You will if you read Laura Frantz’s debut novel The Frontiersman’s Daughter. Laura Frantz picks you up and sets you down in 1777 Kentucky.images

The spit and vinegar heroine of the story is Lael Click, daughter of the famous and infamous Ezekiel Click. Through her eyes, the reader watches the story unfold. We feel her growing pains and homesickness when her father sends her to school in Virginia in order to keep her from Simon Hayes, the red haired bad boy Ezekiel doesn’t approve of. While in Virginia, she tries to resist becoming civilized. She refuses to completely release her pioneer spirit. Yet when she returns to Kentucky following her father’s death, she finds she can’t completely shed her genteel ways either. She’s caught in between the pull of the wilderness and the soft lifestyle she’s become accustomed to. And that isn’t the only thing she’s caught in between.

Lael is also caught in the web of three would-be suitors: Simon Hayes, the bad boy that gets under her skin until he does something so heinous Lael is able to shake his hold on her. Captain Jack, the Shawnee chief who is, according to her father, as white as she is. He could hold the answers to all the questions Lael has about Ezekiel Click. Finally, there’s Ian Justus, an outlander with a medical degree and a Scottish accent that could melt the ice surrounding any woman’s heart.

But it isn’t just the setting and the three-dimensional characters that make this book the newest addition to my favorite reads. It’s the quiet faith of Ian Justus, Ransom Click, Ma Horn and others. Not once did they push God down Lael’s throat. Gentle nudges. Well placed words. Quiet assurances. That’s what led Lael to find faith in God…and herself.

So. The next time you want to do a little time traveling, don your coonskin hat, plant an image of Daniel Boone in your mind and pick up Laura Frantz’s Frontiersman’s Daughter. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.images

Grasshopperitis

Have you ever noticed that the giants in life seem bigger and meaner in winter? Perhaps it is the long nights when the sky seems more ebony than midnight blue. Perchance it is the shorter days who’s skies are the color of ice. Or maybe it is the chill that screws in and attaches to your very bones.  Of course it could be something of a more human design that makes the giants appear more like the mountain troll in Harry Potter than the gentle souls like Hagrid.

Let’s face it, there is more potential for giants to rear their heads when Christmas bills meet professional dues payment deadlines with the taxman looming on the horizon. Like winter winds meeting water, it can make for some slippery situations. Suddenly, those giants we faced as bravely as David make us cower like ten of the spies Moses sent into the Promised Land.

You remember the story. Moses sent twelve men into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb return extolling the beauty and bounty of the land while the other ten warn of terrible giants that could stomp the Israelites as easily as one could stomp a grasshopper. In their eyes, there was absolutely no way a rag-tag band of refugees from Egypt could hope to defeat the biggie-sized inhabitants and claim the land. Nope. Nada. Not in a million years.

Grasshopper-4Grasshopperitis. That’s the diagnosis my pastor gave those ten in his sermon two weeks ago. The feeling of being so small and insignificant that nothing was possible. The same diagnosis I dare say a number of us would get if we were honest with ourselves. Instead of giants of the human kind, our impossible obstacles may be the mounting bills we see no way to pay. Or the chronic illness we can’t possible handle. Or the looming deadline we can’t possibly meet even if we forgo sleep, food AND trips to the loo.

But take heart people! There is a cure. A quite simple one that the ten spies…and us…overlook. What is that cure you ask?

God.

With God, nothing is impossible. You see, He’s bigger than the giants, the boogie man and the tax collector.  While we may be grasshoppers in the shadow of the towering obstacles, He is the foot that will stomp the giants and clear a path straight to the rivers flowing with milk and the mountains streaming with honey. All we have to do is trust.

So friends, when the winter winds shake the windows and the night is so dark you couldn’t see a giant if he was standing three feet in front of you, take heart. Look up. Way up. Past the ebony sky sprinkled with tiny stars and a moon that seems a billion miles away. Look up and trust. For with God, everything is possible.full_moon-t1

Year of the Chicken

Okay. I know it isn’t the year of the chicken. In fact, I’m not sure if there is a year of the chicken. If there were, however, I would be the official mascot.

Since this week’s blogs continue the journey into resolutions and goals, you probably think I’m a chicken when it comes to setting goals. And you would be right. But only partly. I’m not a chicken when it comes to setting goals, just obtaining them. At least my writing goals.

Question is, why? Most of the other goals I’ve set in my life, I’ve obtained. I’ve graduated from high school, college and graduate school – twice. I’ve gotten the jobs I’ve set out to get. I’ve made it to New York City, not once, but three times. I’ve been to Disney World. So why, when I’ve shown myself able to not only set but obtain goals, do I have such a hard time obtaining my writing goals.

Well, you think, they are probably so outlandish no one would be able to accomplish them. Wrong. They are very obtainable. Finish my current manuscript and start another. Enter contests. Go to a writing conference. See? Very obtainable. But will I actually reach those goals? Until last week, I’d probably say no. And while I could give you a million reasons why I couldn’t obtain them, the real reason. The one that keeps me setting on the nest instead of searching for insects in the yard is fear.

Fear? Well that’s a normal reaction to the unknown isn’t it? True. The fear of failure has held more than a few chickens in the coop. But in my case, it isn’t the fear of failure that scares the bejeebus out of me. It’s the fear of success.

Here’s where one of you is probably heading for the phone to dial the men in white coats. How can anyone be afraid of success? Because if I succeed, then where do I go? What if I can’t succeed again? What if I only have one story in me and once it is out there I have nothing else to offer? So, if I just sit on my talent and don’t really do anything with it, then there is nothing to fear, right?

That’s what I thought until a co-worker and I discussed the Parable of the Talents last week. You know the one. Three workers are given talents by the Master. One goes out and invests all he has. One goes out and invests part of what he is given. One goes out and buries his talents in the ground because he’s too afraid of what might happen if he loses it. Yet in the end, this fear costs him more than just the talent he’s managed to keep safe.

God has given me a talent. And so far, fear has kept me from using it to the best of my ability for His glory. If I’m not careful, fear will have me reaping His disappointment in me than His reward. So what am I going to do about it?

Simple. Make one more resolution. Set one more goal. The one goal that I will obtain no matter what. And what is that goal you might ask? One that was echoed by the angels in heaven when they appeared to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. One that even a chicken can keep. Fear not. angel03

The Voices of Christmas

“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.” Recognize those words? They are the ones that open O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi – one of my favorite Christmas stories. I just love how he pulls you into the story. Makes you agree, for at least a moment, that both Jim and Della were indeed fools. After all, neither offered great gifts of the Magi. Then, in the ending lines of the story, O. Henry reveals the truth. True the young couple didn’t offer one another gold or frankincense or myrrh. Instead, they offered the sacrificially – like the Christ child the Magi came to worship. And that made Jim, Della and all those who sacrifice their most precious treasures the real wise men of the season.

Yet it isn’t the flow of the words or even the message of the story that makes it near the top on my must-read Christmas list. It’s the voice I hear when I read those words. The soft, shaking with emotion voice of my tenth grade English teacher.

A few days before school let out for Christmas, Mrs. Pullen told her students to put away their English books. classroomShe pulled a chair into the middle of the room and opened a ragged copy of O. Henry’s beloved classic. While she didn’t have the dramatic delivery of James Earl Jones or the perfect diction and accent of Penelope Keith, the humble humility in the timbre of her voice and the sheen of emotion that soften the usually stern – at least to a teenager – appearance makes the next few moments magical. It was and continues to be her Christmas present to her classes. One that this former student still carries in her heart at Christmastime.

Hers isn’t the only voice resounding in my ear as I turn the pages of my favorite Christmas stories. There’s Mrs. Owens’ soothing alto whenever I open Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl. There’s Boris Karloff echoing from the pages of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  Roger Rees’ gentle accent whisper from the pages of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

image.phpThe list could go on and on with enough voices to fill the sanctuaries of the greatest cathedrals in Europe. With each echoed memory, the spirit of Christmas wraps around me, gently whispering that this is the true enchantment of a good Christmas tale. The real magic of Christmas comes not wrapped up in shopping mall splendor, but in the voices, hundreds strong, that pass the poetry of the season on to the next generation of wide-eyed children.

What about you? Who’s voice do you hear when you crack open the covers of your favorite Christmas book?