By Lori Stanley Roeleveld
Change is on the horizon for Christian writers in New England. The unique voices of believers from this region have a new opportunity for training, encouragement, and community in the New England Christian Writers Retreat held for the second year this past October 17- 20th.
Sixty Christian writers set aside their daily lives and gathered at Singing Hills Conference Center in Plainfield, New Hampshire. The affordable rate of $320 for a double room, $300 for a dorm room, which included the conference sessions, workshops, and six meals, provided the perfect opportunity for veteran and beginning writers to retreat from the urgent to focus on their long-term writing goals. Surrounded by peak foliage, the writers prayed, wrote, consumed snack food, and took advantage of classes and face time with eight volunteer faculty experienced in an impressive array of professional writing ventures.
Forty-five conferees and four faculty hailed from New England. Other conferees traveled from as far as California and Florida to study under veteran writer Cecil Murphey, author of one hundred and thirty-seven books, Tessa Afshar, author of award winning Biblical novels, and speaker/writer/publisher Karen Porter of Bold Vision Books, an independent, Christian publishing company. Featured also were Shawn and Suzanne Kuhn, owners of SuzyQ, a full-service author promotion and retail development firm, Lauren Yarger, theater critic and writer/book reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and this reporter, Lori Roeleveld, Rhode Island Christian blogger and first-time author. Lucinda Secrest McDowell, accomplished speaker and author of 11 books, served as one of three co-directors, keynote speaker, workshop leader, and encourager extraordinaire.
The retreat was born in the imaginations of CT writers McDowell, Yarger, and Afshar but it was such a sell-out it’s already outgrown the Singing Hills venue. In June 2016, the third New England Christian Writers Retreat is scheduled to be held from the 17th through the 19th at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston. The co-directors’ hopes were for a local opportunity to nurture, train, and encourage Christians called to write and to build a thriving community of New England believers committed to writing for God. It’s clear from the turn out this year that God shares their dream.
While the event was scheduled to begin officially late afternoon Friday, over half the participants (for an extra $50. fee which included two meals) and all faculty opted to arrive for the optional pre-conference day on Thursday. Participants found a well-organized registration process with clear information packets, detailed campus maps, lovely wrapped linens, and a swag bag containing free books donated by authors/publishers and a wealth of writing resource information. The main meeting room was furnished with tables and chairs where all participants were assigned a designated work area with a nameplate. When large group sessions were not being held, this became the quiet room for writers to work. For many, Thursday was the perfect day to set up shop with laptops, desk lamps, resource material, and coffee mugs to settle in for long sessions on their own projects.
Others chose to spend that day hiking the well-marked trails around Singing Hills, napping in the clean, uncluttered dorm rooms, or greeting old friends (and making new ones) beside the fireplace in the community room outside the quiet area. Throughout the day, the conference bookstore grew as participants and faculty arrived bringing their own books available for purchase. On this day, the comradery and supportive nature of the Christian writing community was evident as faculty mingled freely with beginning writers discussing everything from common connections to tips about the business of writing. Throughout the day, the usual greetings were “Where have you come from?” and “What do you write?” The third most asked question that day was, “Oo, what did you bring?” as conferees contributed baked goods and snack food to the munchies table set up in the community room. Last year’s participants quickly turned newbies into fans of NH alum Bob Paige’s homemade cookies.
Friday morning, the conference got right down to business with a pre-breakfast prayer time led by this RI writer, a first-time faculty member, and a breakfast devotional in the dining hall led by MA alum Cindy Saab. A used book table was set up outside the dining hall to raise funds to offset retreat costs. Friday morning was devoted to individual writing and, for those who arranged them, writing critique sessions with co-directors McDowell, Afshar, and Yarger. Conferees submitted samples of their work prior to the retreat hoping to receive feedback on their strengths and areas they could improve. By mid-afternoon, most of those registered had arrived and were either at work in the quiet room or attending a workshop on Writing for the Secular Market by Lauren Yarger.
One mark of the Christian writing community is the willingness of veteran writers to serve beginners. This was made clear when through informal discussions; a number of conferees expressed a desire to learn more about ghostwriting so GA faculty member Cecil Murphey held an impromptu workshop on the topic after lunch. Cec quickly became a favorite of attendees and faculty due to his vast experience in Christian writing and his gentle spirit. Cec demonstrated his commitment to investing in other writers by offering a listening ear and sound counsel to all who asked.
On the first evening, McDowell introduced the faculty including last minute replacement, VA faculty member Shawn Kuhn. Twila Belk, Cecil Murphey’s long-time assistant was originally scheduled to present workshops but had to cancel due to a family emergency. Shawn Kuhn filled in as faculty and his wife, Suzanne, co-owner of Suzy Q, attended and interacted with conferees but spent much of the conference resting to recover from recent surgery. As participants stood to tell their name, where they came from, what they wrote, and give one word for their day, the most frequently used word was “encouraged.” That encouragement continued, accompanied by wave after wave of laughter, when TX faculty member Karen Porter spoke on “Reinventing Your Life as a Writer.” Karen knows a thing or two about reinventing your life demonstrated through the story she told of falling from the heights of power in the corporate world to unexpected job loss in mid-life. Karen reached out to the Lord in the valley of unemployment and reinvented herself through editing, writing, speaking, and now as owner of the small traditional publishing company, Bold Vision Books.
Following the main session, conferees could gather in the recreational room for informal readings of their work, write through the night in the quiet room, peruse the book and snack table, or retire to their rooms. Technical challenges with the Wi-Fi at the conference center turned out to be a mixed blessing as conferees, accustomed to checking in on social media, found themselves unplugged and chose to take the opportunity to enjoy a true retreat.
Saturday again began with morning prayer led by MA alum Rachel Britton, author of Prayer Zone Workout. At breakfast, MA alum Laurie Kinkaid delivered a stellar performance as the Proverbs 31 woman, which left the conferees breathless with laughter but also moved to see the ancient scriptures in a new light. Cecil Murphey kicked off the morning session with his talk titled, “Unleash the Writer Within” based on his book by the same title. Cec exhorted the conferees to find their unique voices and write the message God’s designed them to write. Conferees could then choose from a variety of one-hour workshops delivered between 10:15 and 2:30.
The co-directors were thoughtful to arrange workshops on a wide-variety of writing topics. Tessa Afshar taught on “Character Development in Fiction” at the same time Lucinda McDowell covered “Non-fiction Storytelling” and this writer, Lori Roeleveld, taught on “Finding Your Voice and Your Audience as a Blogger.” Next, attendees could hear Shawn Kuhn teach about “Author Promotion 101: Rules of Engagement,” Karen Porter’s training on “Communicating as a Speaker,” or Cecil Murphey’s talk on “Writing Personal Experience.” During lunch and dinner, writers sat at tables hosted by each faculty member in order to ask follow-up questions or simply glean more information about writing. After lunch, conferees had a second opportunity to take Roeleveld’s blogging workshop or they could hear Cecil Murphey teach on “Discovering Your Authentic Style,” or Lauren Yarger’s workshop on “Launching and Marketing Your Book.”
Following the workshops, writers spent time hiking, writing, or having one-on-one time with faculty to discuss questions related to their writing or publishing opportunities. After dinner, the publishing conversation continued as the faculty formed a panel to answer questions about “Trends in Publishing Today.” Conferees asked questions of the panel whose experience ranged from multi-published authors Cecil Murphey and Tessa Afshar, to publisher Karen Porter, author representative Shawn Kuhn, and first-time author, Lori Roeleveld. Lauren Yarger queried the panel about issues such as the wide-range of publishing opportunities now available through small traditional publishing houses to self-publishing and the increasing need for authors to understand not only how to write but also how to market their writing. The general message of the panel was that while there seem to be smaller financial advances and greater marketing challenges to making a living as a writer, there has never been a better time for someone with a message to be able to see it in print. McDowell brought the room back to the point of Christian writing with her inspiring message on “What Your Audience Desperately Needs.” McDowell used the story of Jesus and His disciples in the storm to remind conferees and faculty that readers are in need of writing that draws them closer to Jesus Christ.
Sunday’s prayer time was led by MA alum Jane Rattray. The breakfast devotional was delivered by first-time SC conferee and author of Pilipinto’s Happiness: The Jungle Childhood of Valerie Elliot, Valerie Shepard, daughter of the late Jim Elliot and Elizabeth Elliot. Shawn Kuhn held one final workshop on “Reaching Your Audience through Social Media,” and then conferees gathered in the main room for worship, communion, and a moving message titled “Obedience and the Successful Writer,” by Tessa Afshar. Conferees enjoyed a final lunch and while many had to make flights or travel home to family, all were welcome to remain and write or enjoy the lovely wooded campus until 4pm on Sunday.
This writer has attended numerous Christian writing conferences around the country but was especially excited to gather in New England with other local Christians seeking to glorify God with their writing skills. It was a thing of joy to finally not be the only RI Christian writer but instead, be one of six! The affordable conference did not disappoint. There was a strong sense of community that included even the first-time faculty. Some attendees have published their writing while others are just beginning but everyone brought with them a clear desire to serve God and to take the work of writing seriously. Throughout the retreat, small groups met in serious discussion while others prayed for other attendees, committing their words to the Lord.
The conference directors were organized and tended to any need immediately without complaint. The staff of Singing Hills were gracious and accommodating. The food was delicious and there were gluten-free and vegetarian options. The intermittent Wi-Fi was a slight bump in the road but the conference staff worked through the night with their communications vendor to get it back up and running. Alum from last year’s conference volunteered their time at this year’s retreat to staff the book table, deliver devotionals, lead the informal readings, guide writers on hikes, and pray with anyone seeking support.
In short, if these faculty and conferees are exemplary of the people God has chosen to communicate His message through the written word, we have every reason to hope that they will represent New England well and deliver blessings beyond our region in the name of Jesus Christ. If God has given you a gift with words, prayerfully consider attending in 2016. You will find details at www.newenglandchristianwritersretreat.com.
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. Her new book, Running from a Crazy Man (and other adventures traveling with Jesus) releases in December 2014 and is available for pre-order at Amazon. Jesus lover. Blogger. Wife. Mother. Part-time dragon slayer. You’ll find Lori at her website www.loriroeleveld.com or on her front porch writing.