Wow! I had such a fabulous, extraordinary time at the ACFW conference! I was up past 1 AM most nights talking with writers, agents, and editors and I loved every second of it. I got home Sunday night and spent most of Monday catching up on email, bills, and sleep, of course.
I gave a talk about those pesky Motivation-Reaction Units on Friday. It didn’t go very well. The talk got started late because it was right after a keynote talk that ran a little long. Then (DRAT IT) I could not get the PowerPoint display machine to work with my laptop, so nobody could see all the cool color-coding I did in my notes. And then I ran out of time, so I couldn’t show the last few slides of my presentation.
I’ve decided to work through my entire workshop here on my blog over the next few days. MRUs was going to be the next subject anyway, so I might as well do it so I can cover all the material my way. I’ll begin this series tomorrow and it’ll continue until we get through all my notes. I will also include a link tomorrow to the PDF file with all my notes.
Today, though, I thought it would be fun to just give a lightning review of the conference, with a few pictures. I didn’t take a camera (dummy me) so I am relying here on the generosity of several folks who sent me a few pictures, mostly from the Awards Banquet.
By the way, the ACFW conference is sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers, an organization of over 1700 writers around the world. It is, of course, a niche conference serving the special needs of writers in the Christian publishing niche. (Many of the very best conferences are niche conferences, serving romance writers, mystery writers, SF&F writers, etc.) This year’s ACFW conference had almost exactly 500 attendees, including faculty.
Here’s a rundown on how the conference went:
Wednesday, September 17:
The joint meeting of the Advisory Board and the Operating Board began at 3 PM and ran past 8 PM. I serve on the Advisory Board, along with Colleen Coble, Brandilyn Collins, Rachel Hauck, Gail Martin, and Deb Raney, so the AB can be roughly described as “five Snow Whites and one very tall dwarf.” Our job is to provide some sort of wisdom and continuity to the organization, since we are all multi-published authors who are well-known in the industry.
The Operating Board has seven elected members, led by the president Robin Miller, and they do all the real work. I have been constantly impressed by their hard work, dedication, and executive skill.
By the time we finished the joint board meeting, the lobby of the hotel was teeming with many arrivals. I hung around there meeting many old friends (and meeting some new ones) waiting for my buddy John Olson. He arrived after midnight, about 3 hours late, thanks to an airplane that lost a few parts (luckily on the runway). John said he was surprised that they bothered to switch planes, since after all, you only need the landing gear for a few minutes of the flight.
Thursday, September 18:
I got up early and dragged into Margie Lawson’s earlybird class. I’ve talked about Margie a few times in my e-zine after taking her online courses. But I had never met her until today. Margie is a dynamite teacher. If you’ve ever heard her speak in person, you’ll know what I mean. The class ran from 8 AM until 2 PM, with a break for lunch.
A quick word on Margie: She is a psychologist with many years of experience in counseling. In the last few years, she has made an enormous splash among novelists with her Deep Editing class and her Empowering Character Emotions class. I absolutely love her work. There are two writing teachers who’ve astounded me with their insights. One was Dwight Swain, author of TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. The other is Margie Lawson. You can find out about Margie’s courses on her web site.
Here is a picture of Margie teaching her earlybird class at ACFW this year.
Here is a picture of Margie and me at the Awards Banquet. I had a chance to spend some time getting to know Margie at the conference and talking about fiction with her. I was delighted to learn that she’s a huge fan of my e-zine and blog and she considers me the expert on those pesky Motivation-Reaction Units.
After the earlybird class, I went to the faculty orientation meeting at 2 PM and then to the kickoff meeting for the official beginning of the conference at 3 PM. After that, there was quite a long agent’s panel discussion, involving about 12 agents. After dinner, there was an editor’s panel with again roughly a dozen editors on board. Afterwards, I met with my own agent down in the hotel bar for an hour and a half or so to do a bit of strategic planning. I ended the day, as usual, by hanging out with friends till well after 1 AM.
Friday, September 19:
I went to the bookstore right after breakfast and bought a copy of John Olson’s book SHADE, which has been getting a lot of buzz after a very strong review in Publisher’s Weekly. John was my co-author on two novels several years ago. He’s got a Ph.D. in biochemistry and quit his job a few years ago to write full-time. He was a director at a bioinformatics company in the Bay Area. I spent the morning in John Olson’s advanced track on “Writing the High Concept Novel” and it was terrific content. I am finally starting to understand some of the things John used to talk about when we were writing together.
In the afternoon, I taught my workshop on Motivation-Reaction Units and then went to a workshop on author-publisher relations that was co-taught by Allen Arnold (the head of the fiction division at the mega-publisher, Thomas Nelson) and one of his authors, Denise Hunter. This is the sort of information I wish I’d known when I first got published about 10 years ago. Allen has enormous enthusiasm for fiction and works closely with his team of authors.
The last workshop of the day that I went to was Rachel Hauck’s talk “You Write Like a Girl” — about how women can write more convincing male characters. I was the only guy there, and I mainly went to give Rachel some moral support, since I taught a workshop on this subject four years that people still talk about. A few of the ladies were teasing me about coming to this workshop, but I explained that the Manly Guy is secure in his gender identity and doesn’t worry about whether he’s the only guy in a workshop for women.
Dinner this evening was not provided by the conference — it was a chance to go eat somewhere with friends. I went out with several friends to TGIF, which was packed with a zillion other people from the conference. I’m afraid we misbehaved ourselves. When the waiter accidentally brought us an extra dessert, we took it over to uber-agent Chip MacGregor’s table and sang him Happy Birthday. Chip had his birthday back in June, so we were a mere hundred days late. He ate the dessert anyway.
After dinner, we reconvened to the hotel bar which was doing a brisk business. I had a nice talk with Tosca Lee, an author friend of mine who works for the Gallup organization coaching business people on how to use their employees. Recently, I took the Gallup “StrengthsFinder” test, which is available on their web site for a small fee. (If you buy the book “StrengthsFinder 2.0” by Tom Rath, you can take the test for free.) Tosca helped me understand my own strengths and what sort of people I’ll need to make alliances with who can compensate for my areas of weakness. The Gallup theory is that you should focus on doing things in which you are strongest and out-source your weaknesses to others. You can read all about this in the StrengthsFinder book. Google it if you’re interested.
Saturday, September 20:
I went to the second day of John Olson’s major track on “Writing the High Concept Novel” and really enjoyed it. John has many years of experience in speaking and he is not only very entertaining but he also has absolutely terrific content. He and I have quite different theories on how to create fiction. I think this is why the novels we wrote together did so well–the books got the best of me and the best of John.
After lunch, the entire conference was bused over to the Mall of America, where Barnes & Noble was putting on a gigantic booksigning. Over 100 authors were signing books, and they had two separate areas where they were continuously interviewing authors. B&N has a large bookstore there in the mall with books by all the authors, and the bookstore people said they hadn’t such a day of business since they had in one of the folks from Motley Crue.
When I got back to the hotel after the booksigning, I went to Judy Gann’s talk on how to market your book to public libraries. I’ve known Judy for several years and she has great info on this. She is a librarian herself and she’s put together a nice strategy for authors to get the word out to libraries about their books. Since there are over 16000 libraries in the US, that represents a very important market for authors, not to mention the fact that libraries can be a great place for word-of-mouth publicity on a book.
I also went to Chip MacGregor’s workshop on branding. I’m not bitter that Chip made several jokes about me, even hinting that I’m mentally unbalanced. Not bitter at all. Not one tiny bit. As readers of my blog know, branding is a hot topic for novelists. But is it required for success? No, according to Chip. It can be helpful, but there are successful authors with very broad and diffuse brands. It was a great talk, actually, and I AM NOT BITTER AT ALL.
The highlight of the conference was the awards banquet. In the last couple of years, the ladies at the conference have made quite a point to get fancied up. The guys are still lagging a bit here. Chip MacGregor showed up in his tuxedo kilt, but I’m afraid most of us Manly Guys threw on our suits at random and just showed up.
ACFW sponsors two main sets of awards, both of which command quite a lot of respect in the industry. The “Book of the Year” awards are for novels published in the last year. The “Genesis” awards are for unpublished novels, and the winners of the Genesis contest often see their books published not longer after winning. I was delighted to see that one book had to be withdrawn from the Genesis contest–“Rooms” by my good friend Jim Rubart. He withdrew it a few weeks ago because he sold it to a publisher this summer. Congrats, Jimbart!
I didn’t take a camera to the conference, but a couple of friends emailed me pictures that they had taken with me at the awards banquet. As you’ll see, we guys have a ways to go to catch up with the ladies.
This is a picture of me and Angie Breidenbach at the awards banquet. A year ago, some of the wicked ACFW writers did a skit mocking the members of the Advisory Board and Operating Board. Angie played the role of “Randy Ingermanson, Snowflake Guy.” As you can see, she bears a striking resemblance to me. Angie is the one in the red dress.
This is a picture of me and Tosca Lee at the awards banquet. Tosca claims that this is the photo of me in which I was SMILING. Since I am genetically incapable of smiling in front of a camera, I think she accidentally got the wrong sort of mushroom in her pizza, but we’ll humor her.
I’ve gotten to know Tosca a bit over the past year, and have found her to be super-intelligent and very witty. After looking at her picture for a couple of nanoseconds, you will not be surprised to hear that she was Mrs. Nebraska in 1996 and 1998 and was a first runner-up for Mrs. America. You can forget all the “dimwit and snooty” stereotypes you’ve ever heard about beauty queens. Tosca is brilliant and is not the least bit stuck up. All the proof you need for that is the fact that she is willing to hang around with uber-geeks like me.
When I got home from the conference, I was thrilled to get an email from Tosca with great news — Publisher’s Weekly has just given her a glowing review for her forthcoming book HAVAH, which will be out in October! I read HAVAH for endorsement earlier this summer and found it to be even better than her DEMON book, which came out a year ago. Despite the deplorable lack of exploding helicopters, HAVAH gives the reader a powerful emotional experience. It also made me think. I thought it was fabulous. And get this — Publisher’s Weekly gave it a STARRED review. Getting a starred review is a rare accomplishment for any writer, and is very rarely seen for Christian novels. Kudos, Tosca! I’m proud to be your friend! There is going to be a lot of buzz about this book as it rolls out.
You can find out more about Tosca and her books DEMON and HAVAH at her web site.
Sunday, September 21:
After breakfast and the final keynote talk, my roommate John Olson and I packed up and headed to the airport. Leaving is always a sad time at a conference, because there is never enough time to say goodbye to all our friends. At the airport, I finally persuaded John to autograph my copy of his new book SHADE, which is just now getting into stores. John thought it’s silly to autograph a book to me, since I’m his oldest friend in the industry, but I made him do it anyway. The book will be so much more valuable on E-bay with his signature on it. 🙂
On the plane, I napped a bit and read a bit of SHADE. Let me tell you a bit about this book. John wrote it about 10 years ago and took a proposal to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. The proposal had the phrase “vampire mythos” in it. When editor Steve Laube saw that phrase, he told John, “I wouldn’t touch this book with a 60-foot pole.”
You might think that’s a pretty stiff rejection. But as a result of that, John became the buzz of the conference. Everybody was talking about his “vampire novel” (which actually has no vampires in it.) Editor Karen Ball heard about it and met with John. They became great friends and Karen began what would be a ten-year mission to get the book published. During those ten years, Steve Laube (of the 60-foot pole) bought a few other books from John. Eventually Steve became John’s agent. Finally, a year or so ago, Steve sold John’s “vampireless vampire novel” to Karen and the result is SHADE.
The moral of the story is that rejections are not final. Good things can come out of rejections. It’s not personal, it’s business. For a very small fee, Steve Laube will be happy to sell you an authentic 60-foot pole.
In any event, as John’s writing buddy, I read SHADE at a physics conference in 1999. I finished it about 1 AM and went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep, so I turned on the light and checked in the bathtub for vampires. (They hide there sometimes.) I checked under the sink. I checked in the medicine cabinet. (You probably know about mirrors.) Then I went back to bed.
But I still couldn’t sleep, so I turned on the light and checked the room thoroughly again. Then I went back to bed.
But I STILL couldn’t sleep, so I made one last check. Those vampires can be sneaky little devils. After an extremely careful check, I went back to bed.
BUT I STILL COULDN’T SLEEP. So I turned on the light. And left it on all night. I can’t sleep with the light on, so I was a wreck the next day. But the point is that I survived the night.
All that was ten years ago. I’m now halfway through SHADE and you know what? It’s scarier this time. It’s better written. (I’ll take credit for that. John learned everything he knows from me. Ya heard it here first.)
Bottom line: SHADE is probably the spookiest book you’ll read all year. DO NOT read this book if you can’t take spooky. It also takes a bit of brain-power to “get it.” DO NOT read this book if you are a shallow reader who won’t “get it.”
You can find out more about John Olson and SHADE at his web site.
That’s all for today. Tomorrow, we’ll start working through my workshop notes on Motivation-Reaction Units. See ya then!