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Conference points writers toward publishing successes

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Ray Blackston headed home from his first Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference in 2000 feeling fairly confident — but not about his writing.

He simply knew he would not be trading in his mind-numbing corporate cubicle for a stimulating career as a novelist anytime soon.

He was quite mistaken.

Skipping the awards banquet, he left the conference early, a little deflated because he thought the instructors had simply discarded the 30-page manuscript he sent in for evaluation. It was nowhere to be found.

A phone call the next day from conference founder Yvonne Lehman resolved the mystery of the missing manuscript. She wanted to know where she should send his trophy for best manuscript.

The erstwhile financial analyst is now working on his third novel, and this year he served as an instructor at the writing conference that gave him his start.

“I always thought I’d retire and finally be able to visit Australia,” the Greenville, S.C., resident said during the April 17-21 conference held at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. “Instead, there I was last year with a friend, exploring Australia, doing research for my third book.”

He wrote his first novel, “Flabbergasted,” about a man who attends church for all the wrong reasons — to meet women — and found crossover appeal in both Christian and mainstream bookstores.

The Dallas Morning News voted it as their top inspirational book of 2003, calling it “Amazing. A novel with no illicit sex, bad words, racial slurs, or crime, that is simultaneously serious, hilarious and impossible to put down.” The book is now in its third edition.

“A Delirious Summer,” his 2004 follow-up, will be followed up yet again this June by “Lost in Rooville,” all part of what the author calls a loosely connected “Flabbergasted trilogy” of tales about faith and the single life, published by Baker Books.

Blackston suspects he missed a lot of messages that might have helped him get started a little earlier. He dedicated his first book to his second-grade teacher, who had even called his parents to tell them their son had a gift for crafting sentences.

“I called my second-grade teacher 34 years after I was in her class to tell her she was right,” Blackston said, adding the 85-year old mentor was elated by the news.

“Know that God sees your potential,” Blackston encouraged conference participants.

South Carolina writer and inspirational speaker Vonda Skinner Skelton didn’t take quite so long to heed such encouragement, but she did mull it over for a full year before she put the techniques she learned at her first Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference to use.

Her first novel, “Bitsy and the Tybee Island Mystery,” was released by Silver Dagger Mysteries in July 2003, and she is now working on her third novel.

She also is a busy freelance magazine writer, putting her nursing skills to work on articles for such publications as Christian Health and Nurse Staffing Bulletin.

“I would have never been a magazine writer without John Riddle,” Skelton said in referring to the conference instructor, freelance writer and author who understood Skelton’s desire to write fiction, but clued her in on the fact that published writers are more likely to get book contracts.

At the 2001 and 2002 conferences, Skelton won first-place scriptwriting awards and is enjoying a demanding writing and speaking career along with working one day a month as a nurse to keep her skills up to date.

“These instructors are giving you such valuable information. When we go home and don’t apply what they’ve given us, we’ve tossed this valuable gift away,” she said.

Steven James also was a conference participant in 2001, although he had written two published books. Through networking at the conference, however, he found an agent and contracts started coming in. He has written 19 books in the past five years and this year was an instructor at the conference.

“It’s really about the people you meet and the relationships you build,” James said.

For attorney Don Brown, attending the conference led to a two-book contract with Zondervan.

At the Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference, Brown showed author Alton Gansky his historical fiction manuscript set during World War II. Gansky encouraged him but asked the young former Navy JAG officer where his JAG stories were.

Brown still hopes to have his historical fiction book published but, having heeded Gansky’s counsel, he is enjoying the crossover success of the first of his JAG series, called “Treason,” a fast-paced terrorism tale featuring what he calls the drama of David versus Goliath in the courtroom.

His second novel, “Hostage,” is due to be released in November.

Brown’s first piece of advice to aspiring authors: Attend a good conference. He did.

    About the Author

  • Andrea Higgins