My Review of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Theme Park

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Welcome to The Ark Encounter, the Answers in Genesis Ark Park, located in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter is the enormous Noah’s Ark replica, built 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 7 stories tall, and reportedly the largest timber-framed structure in the world. The Ark Encounter is also one of the more controversial theme parks built in the United States in the last several years, largely because it is a government-supported tourist attraction with a decidedly religious focus and an end-of-the-day price tag of $172,000,000.

IMG_6062My family I visited the Ark Encounter on July 7, 2016, the park’s official opening day, with some friends. I wasn’t there as a life-long Answers in Genesis supporter, nor was I there as a life-long anti-AiG protestor. I was there because I love the story of Noah’s Ark, because we happened to be in-country and only seven hours away, and because I frequently write about the state of American Cultural Christianity on this blog. Visiting the new flagship of American Cultural Christianity (see what I did there?) on opening day seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even at $40 a pop for my family of five (the baby was free).

But surprisingly, as I’ve been thinking about what to write regarding Ken Ham’s big boat built in the bluegrass backwoods, I’ve been struggling. Do I write a simple report of my trip? Do I tell my thoughts about the controversial displays – the dinosaurs in cages, the explanations of Young Earth ideology, the mannequins of Noah and his family?  Do I respond to the protestors who congregated around the exit from I-75, frustrated by AiG’s alleged non-scientific view of the origins of the planet, and who seem to have made it their mission to see the Ark Encounter fail as a theme park?

I decided not to delve into any of those topics, but rather, to give a simple list of the positives and negatives of this theme park as I see them, as I do when I review Christian films.

Positives about the Ark Encounter

1. The ark itself

AiG attempted to build a replica that was the size of Noah’s Ark according to biblical instructions (300 cubits by 50 by 30), and the scope of the project is stunning. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe what it’s like, standing underneath the replica, looking up at that massive stern. The experience really did bring the biblical account to life.

As you can see by the pictures, AiG’s attention to detail with the ark is unarguably impressive. When they could, the builders used very old shipbuilding techniques, a feat that must have been a massive undertaking. One can’t help but admire the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the construction of the replica ark, by people who – in many cases – were doing it as an expression of their Christian faith.

2. The “Fairy Tale Ark” and the living quarters displays

The Fairy Tale Ark display really caught my attention. This was a simple room filled with children’s books about Noah’s Ark. At first, I thought the room was going to be celebrating that the story is taught to children, but I quickly realized that the purpose of the room was actually to condemn the trivializing of the Noah’s Ark story.

I was completely caught off guard by this display, and it really resonated with me. For the longest time, I’ve been amazed that a story about the destruction of the world was often told as a children’s story, and even in Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel for which this blog is named, I tried to capture the seriousness of the flood and not make it cartoonish. I was glad to see that the AiG people felt the same way.

That being said, seeing what that room represented surprised me, considering how much Ken Ham and AiG disliked Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly mature Noah film, even devoting a two hour video review to critically dissecting the film. It’s been a while since I watched the review, but I think they must have at least appreciated that Aronofsky shared their serious approach to the event.

The second display that impressed me was found on the third deck, and it was the AiG representation of what the living quarters on the ark might have been like for Noah and his family. This was another section where an impressive amount of attention was given to detail, and a great deal of thought given to what life may have been like for people at that time.

Since one of the main complaints about Aronofsky’s Noah was that he took too many liberties with his film, AiG appeared ready to head off any criticism about their own filling in of details with a rather lengthy explanation of their view on taking artistic license with biblical material.

IMG_6217Here are some images of the living quarters, where you can see the craftsmanship and detail that went into the creation of the displays.

3. The tenacity of Ken Ham and AiG

Ken Ham and the AiG people fought doggedly for years to get the funding to build the Ark Encounter: They raised millions through private donations; they were determined to participate in a Kentucky tourism tax rebate program, going so far as to take the fight to court; they were persuasive enough to convince the little town of Williamstown to give them a break on property taxes and a very good deal on the property [edited]; and when the attempts to raise donations didn’t seem to be doing the job, they gave supporters and investors the opportunity to purchase high-risk bonds for thousands of dollars a pop, and supportive investors apparently turned up in droves to do so. atheiststoAiG_zps5c32d784When their detractors were celebrating the project’s demise, Ham and company kept working, and they ended up having the last laugh as the park opened on July 7.

Say what you will about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (and there’s plenty of people out there saying plenty of things!), but you have to admire their determination and tenacity to tell the story they want to tell in the face of massive opposition (even if they do go too far in response from time to time).

And I should say that as a Christian, I can’t argue with the desire of the folks at AiG to expose as many people as possible to Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said:

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Creating something like the ark does draw people in (although I question Ken Ham’s claim that 40% of attendees will be non-Christians – most non-Christians I know aren’t the least bit interested, and most of my Christian friends are only moderately interested), and the Ark Encounter might very well result people coming to faith in Christ.

After all, Scripture has story after story of God using unexpected and sometimes even foolish means to accomplish His ends. In this case, even though the secular society sees something like the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as complete and utter foolishness, and many authentic Christians agree with that assessment, as a Christian I can’t discount the possibility that God can use these things to bring people into a relationship with Himself.

More about that later.

4. The Ark Encounter’s economic potential

I’m not sure if this section should go in the positives or negatives, but I’ll go ahead and add it as my last positive. A segueway into the negatives, if you will.

Kentucky has one of the worst state poverty rates in the country, and Williamstown is among the lowest for any town anywhere. Having a major tourist attraction in this region could potentially help the economy in the long run, and this was one of the big selling points that Ham and AiG used to get the state and the town onboard with the controversial tax rebates and interest-free loans. The Ark Encounter’s sister attraction, The Creation Museum, helps make the case as the attraction has drawn nearly three million visitors in its nine years of operation, and having the two attractions so near to one another is a draw for many people who might not come to Kentucky otherwise.

Furthermore, Ken Ham has stated multiple times that the Ark Encounter could potentially bring a couple of million visitors in its first year alone. Having said that, it should be noted that others claim that those high numbers were purposefully inflated to make the park more attractive to investors. Whether or not it was purposeful, I can’t say. But unfortunately, with only 30,000 people reportedly visiting in the first six days, it doesn’t look like the end result will be anywhere near a couple of million.

That being said, my family must have spent close to $1000 in travel, lodging, food, and the Ark during our four day excursion, and there were hundreds of families at the Ark Encounter on opening day. That’s a lot of money injected into the area. Critics counter this idea by pointing out that the Ark Encounter has taken money away from the state through lost tax revenue and interest payments on that huge loan, and that it will be years before that loss becomes a gain for the local economy. And if the Ark Encounter fails, it will never be a gain.

This is a very complicated issue, and you can read a detailed account of it here, and the Answers in Genesis point of view here, and then you can make the decision for yourself.

Negatives about the Ark Encounter

  1. The displays

Other than the two displays already mentioned, most of the displays were pretty underwhelming. I saw posters explaining the AiG interpretation of Scripture, the AiG explanation of how the earth could be 6,000 years old, supported by a few television-sized video monitors. I also saw a few exhibits demonstrating what life might have been like on the ark for Noah and his family. There were also several fake animals in cages (including the infamous dinosaurs… I didn’t see the unicorns), but they didn’t really do anything, so they weren’t terribly interesting.

Considering that Ken Ham was bragging that the Ark Encounter would compete with Disney and be “beyond Hollywood”, and furthermore that he continually emphasized that the park had been designed by the person who had designed the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, I was expecting more bang for my $160 bucks. See, the park is heavy on attempts to proselytize visitors and educate them about Creation theory, but extremely light on entertainment.

I’m assuming that as time goes by, more displays will be added, but they need to be more than just posters on the wall or the odd mannequin. The ark needs to be a dynamic, moving place to visit, and they shouldn’t just rely on visitors being impressed by a big boat, because that wears off quickly and won’t bring people back. I know that AiG has plans for a Tower of Babel, a first century village, a theater, and other things, but right now the Ark Encounter needs to bump up the entertainment factor if they want their numbers to be sustained.

Here are some simple ideas that AiG can use for free: (1) have actors wandering the decks in costume and in character, interacting with visitors. (2) Have much more multi-media, maybe even 4-D films that help you to experience what it would have been like to be in the flood. (3) since AiG loves dinosaurs so much, use Ken Ham’s Aussie connections to get dinosaur puppets from Erth to be a part of the experience.

The bottom line? There are a thousand things AiG could do to make the Ark a “must-see” park for everyone and not just believers, who are currently the only ones interested in visiting. Part of that is to make the place entertaining as well as informative. After all, it’s not the Creation Museum, so loosen it up a little! Make the experience more immersive and interactive and maybe even add some levity and fun, and even I might be convinced to return.

2. The sole focus on apologetics as ministry

As I walked around looking at the displays, I kept my eyes open for anything that would indicate that there was any sort of charitable component to the Ark Encounter, this ministry that was taking so much money to build.

IMG_6235Perhaps a portion of the ticket sales would go to help the poor in Kentucky? Maybe AiG would give you the opportunity to donate to help build schools or hospitals in some developing country as you buy your official Noah’s Ark cubit in the gift shop for $19.99 a pop?

Surely there would be something in this Christian theme park that reflected the charge of a Christian to help the poor?

But I saw nothing, and while it did disappoint me, it also didn’t surprise me. After all, as I said before, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, and after operating costs, every dime that is spent on visiting the Ark Encounter will undoubtedly go to pay back the massive 68 million dollar interest-free loan that was given to AiG by the city of Williamstown (which – interestingly – has a poverty level of 18.3%) and to return the investment given to those who purchased the bonds. This certainly makes business sense.

But does it make ministry sense?

3. The evangelistic component

Along those lines, I’ve said multiple times that I admire that Ken Ham and AiG have placed such a high priority on their projects sharing the Gospel. They have put an impressive amount of time and energy into building what they call “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”

But having visited the Ark Encounter, having walked the halls, examined the displays, and seeing what they have to offer, I can’t help but question how much of an impact this outreach will have on non-believers.

I’ve spent the past couple of days scouring the internet for any examples on non-believers visiting the ark, and in that time I’ve seen several reviews from visitors whose views weren’t in line with AiG when they visited. Reading their reviews seemed to indicate that none of them were convinced of anything afterwards, even after they were treated very respectfully by Ark Encounter and AiG employees.

This led me to expand my search for any skeptics who had been convinced by the Creation Museum, since it has been around for nine years. I found plenty of negative reviews by Atheists and Christians alike (here, here, and here – just to show a few), and I did find a couple of anecdotal examples of children from Christian families telling their parents that they wanted to follow Jesus as a result of visiting the museum, but I didn’t find any stories of skeptics or non-believers having any sort of change of heart from their visit to that attraction.

Sadly, if anything, the argument could be made that the typical response of non-believers to the Creation museum was having their skepticism reinforced by the visit. Watch this video for an example (and there is a bit of salty language):

The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter both seem to suffer from the same problem that plagues most of the Christian films I review. They want to be evangelistic, but their impact outside of the faithful appears to be negligible.

Incidentally, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. There could be scores of people who have come to faith as a result of their experiences with the Creation Museum, and there could be scores who will because of the Ark Encounter. If so, and if someone would like to provide evidence that I’m wrong about the evangelistic impact of the Creation Museum on skeptics, then I’ll gladly retract this point and have my positives outweigh my negatives.

4. The Cost

While I admire the tenacity, determination, and heart for evangelization of the people behind the Ark Encounter, I’ve also struggled with the fact that they are doing an Ark Encounter at all. Such a huge sum of money for building a theme park? My struggle finally came to a head one morning last May when I opened Twitter and found an AiG Tweet touting the benefits of building a Noah’s Ark theme park right next to a Tweet from J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos, talking about their push to raise money to help orphans.

Seeing the two money-raising efforts side-by-side took my breath away. On the one hand, as a Christian, I respect AiG’s effort to share the Christian faith. On the other hand, as a Christian, I’m horrified that believers have struggled and fought and spent years raising an enormous amount of money to build a for-profit theme park replica of Noah’s Ark.

And it warps a part of my brain that it’s been done in the name of Christian ministry.

At this stage in the project it may be a tired argument (although I wouldn’t call it a stupid argument, as some have), but I can’t help but think what else could have been done with that money that might have had even more of an impact, if not on propagating the Creationist viewpoint, at least in sharing the Gospel and demonstrating a valuable apologetic, by meeting the physical needs of the poor and sick.

For example, over on Twitter, @branthansen wrote this:

Brent’s Tweet represents the heart of my struggle.

But didn’t Jesus command his followers to make disciples and to teach? Isn’t that what the Ark Encounter is doing?

As I said before, Answers in Genesis claims to have obeyed that command by building the Ark Encounter, and they have a point. People visiting the park will be exposed to the biblical teaching that the world is a damaged place, and that Jesus’s life, ministry, and death on the cross is the answer to fixing the damage.

At the same time, Jesus also said this:

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So, what do we do with this? First, some counter arguments:

1. Giving to the poor is not AiG’s wheelhouse. After all, AiG’s stated mission is to help people learn how to defend the Christian faith, and building an attraction like the Ark Encounter is one way to go about doing that.
2. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”, and $172 million dollars is nothing to Him. As a friend wrote to me, “If Ham spends $100M on a colossal mistake, God is not one dime the poorer, nor are His plans set back by a day.”
3. I don’t personally know the Ark Encounter supporters, investors, or AiG employees, and I don’t know what they do with their private money. For all I know, they give more in a month then I give in a year, and the money given to AiG was on top of their already generous contributing to all sorts of worthy charities.
4. Christians should never endeavour to do big things for large sums of money? What if a Christian filmmaker successfully raised $172,000,000 to make a big blockbuster film? Would that make me “struggle”?

These are all good questions, and all good points. But they don’t change the fact that this sort of money raised in a for-profit ministry venture makes me uncomfortable, especially when there is so much need in the world.

And it leads me to ask the question: Would Jesus build an Ark Park, or would he turn over the tables in the gift shop?

I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know.

My final thought on the Ark Encounter: would I recommend a visit?

Christian or not, the ark itself is magnificent and is really something to be seen. But considering the cost of a ticket, there needs to be more going on to make it worth the expense, especially if you’re bringing a family. Once the park gets the zip lines up and running, once they get a few more (hopefully entertaining) displays in the ark, once they get a few more animals in the petting zoo, I’d say give it a go.

This is true, even if you’re not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but not a young-earth Creationist. Just be prepared to talk to your kids about what they will see, and to talk about why they will be seeing it. It can lead to some really interesting conversations about different belief systems, and different ways of interpreting Scripture. And yes, Bill Nye, it can even lead to discussions about science.

At least it did with my kids!

And if you do decide to go, and you agree with me on the charity/cost issues, then do the job that AiG should be doing and donate a matching amount to the tickets you purchased to a worthy charity of your own choice, preferably one that works in Kentucky.

I’d recommend a charity like the Christian Appalachian Project.

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Thimblerig’s Visit to the Ark Encounter

I’m posting the pictures today, and will be back in the next couple of days to write up my actual thoughts on my family’s visit to the Answers in Genesis Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky. I’ve captioned the pictures, so you can get a sense of my thoughts from that, but more details will follow in the review.

Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures!

The God’s Not Dead $100M Lawsuit

god is not deadAccording to the Hollywood Reporter, David A.R. White and Pure Flix are being sued for God’s Not Dead. For $100,000,000.

That’s one hundred MILLION dollars.

And no, they are not being sued by a horde of angry atheist philosophy professors. Rather, they are being sued by a duo of fellow Christian filmmakers.

Again.

The new lawsuit is brought to you by director and producer Michael Landon, Jr (the son of Little House on the Prairie‘s Michael Landon – not relevant, but interesting) and writer Kelly Kullberg, wherein they allege that Pure Flix used Kullberg’s story ideas without proper credit or remuneration in God’s Not Dead.

The suit can be seen here in its entirety if you enjoy reading legal documents. If you don’t, I’ll summarize.

According to the suit, Kullberg and Landon wrote the script for a film called Rise, based on the story of a fictional Christian university student being harassed by an atheist philosophy professor. At some point while the script was being developed, Kullberg pitched the idea in detail to a potential investor, that person went on to share details of the story with Ted Baehr from Movieguide®, and Baehr shared those details with David A.R. White while they were on some kind of a “working vacation.”

The suit alleges that White and others in Pure Flix had been struggling to break story for Proof, an apologetics film they’d been developing, and this was the subject of his and Baehr’s discussion on said vacation. Further, the suit alleges that Baehr went on to tell White elements of Kullberg’s story that had been told to him by this potential investor, perhaps unaware that these elements were the intellectual property of Landon and Kullberg.

The next thing you know, Pure Flix drops Proof and not long after makes God’s Not Dead. That movie, as we all know, went on to make buckets of money (the suit says $140,000,000, but the internet says it is closer to $100,000,000). Either way, the overwhelming success of God’s Not Dead enabled Pure Flix to expand their operations exponentially; they developed a distribution wing that allowed their films to open wider than ever before, they became more involved in film production, they expanded their presence in the overseas market, and perhaps most significantly, they started a Netflix-esque home streaming service to attempt to meet the needs of the enormous faith-and-family-film demographic.

Interestingly, a similar lawsuit was brought against Pure Flix last year for $10 million. In that suit, producer John Sullivan and writer/actor Brad Stine alleged that they had also developed a script that closely followed the God’s Not Dead story line, the aforementioned Proof. But in their case, they had actually been working closely with White and Pure Flix to develop the script before they’d been dropped like a soggy eggroll.

[editor’s note: the suit doesn’t actually say anything about a soggy eggroll.]

Kullberg alleges that White was so inspired by the ideas behind Rise that he pulled out of Sullivan and Stine’s script, hired new screenwriters to write God’s Not Dead, and the rest is history.

On the one hand, it’s interesting that in both cases, White allegedly heard details from both story ideas, and details from both versions wound up in the finished product of God’s Not Dead. In Landon and Kullberg’s case, the similarities are pretty staggering, and it makes quite a compelling argument that it could very well be a case of copyright infringement.

On the other hand, people come up with similar ideas all the time, especially in Hollywood. Just look at these somewhat recent examples: Jobs and Steve JobsUnfriended and Friend Request; Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. In the case of the atheist professor and the Christian student, both Landon & Kullberg and Sullivan & Stine developed the same basic idea independently. Not to mention that that variations of that story have been floating around for years.

So, what do we do with this? Is it typical Hollywood shuck and jive, just with a somewhat “sacred” bent? Is it another example of how absolute financial success corrupts absolutely? Is it more proof that Christians in business are just as susceptible to temptation and greed as anyone in business?

Is it another example why a Christian film industry is a bad idea?

Maybe. Maybe not. But it is a situation worth looking at as a cautionary tale (regardless who might be right, and who might be wrong), especially for Christians who are looking at getting involved in business or the arts, or just about anything where windfall profits are a possibility.

Meanwhile, those of us on the outside will sit back and watch how it plays out. Personally, I’m rooting for this to be resolved amicably, and then for Pure Flix to do the very meta move of developing this as the plot for God’s Not Dead 3.

Written by all six screenwriters, of course.

By the way, click this link to find some more details about the development of Sullivan and Stine’s screenplay by screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy, who was working with White and Pure Flix to help develop the script along with his writing parter, Tim.

[edit: Some people have commented that if the script wasn’t copyrighted, then Landon and Kullberg really don’t have a case. If you read the entire suit, you’ll see that Rise was copyrighted. The suit says, “Kullberg registered the Rise screenplay with the Writers Guild America in 2010 and with the United States Copyright Office in 2012.”]

The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

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I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist • Preview Chapter 2

They made it to the ark, but the danger has not passed.

Someone on board the ark is not what they seem, and Thimblerig discovers that there are plans afoot to steal the Seed of Asarata, the key to life after the flood. Now, to save the seed and the future, he and his company of animals will have to steal it first, right out from under the noses of Noah, the humans, and the wild dogs who protect it.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

For a preview of chapter 1, read here.

Chapter 2

“C’mon Bunco, get me out of here!”

Soapy, the copper-furred orangutan, held onto the bamboo bars of his cage and watched hopelessly at the pygmy elephant standing outside pulled futilely at the twine tied around the bars with her trunk. The two were founding members of Thimblerig’s company of animals, and two of the other con artists who had made it onboard the ark after encountering the unicorn.

“I’m working on it, Soapy!” The pygmy elephant grunted. “You’re supposed to be the pickpocket. Can’t you do anything?”

“It’s tied too tight!” Soapy slapped the bars and flopped down on the floor of the cage. “This is so wrong! I didn’t do anything!”

A flurry of white feathers flew past the pen, circled above, and landed on the top.

“Morning, all,” Shi Lau said. The white duck, also a member of Thimblerig’s company of animals, moved aside so that a midnight-black raven could land beside him, and he almost tumbled off as the room shifted, a regular occurrence as the enormous ark was being continually tossed around by the massive storm outside like a toy boat in a puddle.

“Morning, Shi Lau,” Big Bunco said, sitting down and wiping her brow with her trunk.  “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Yonah,” Shi Lau answered, turning to the raven. “He came for some figs. Yonah, say hello to the mammals.”

“Hello, mammals,” the raven squawked, waving a wing.

“What’s the word?” Shi Lau asked. “Soapy still complaining?”

“Complaining? I’m standing up for my rights!” Soapy countered. “I don’t deserve this!”

The duck poked his head through the bars and laughed. “Quit your griping, Soapy! You got caught in the bird section and you lost your privileges. Don’t you know actions have consequences?”

“Oh, shut your bill, Shi Lau!” Soapy snapped back at the duck, taking a swipe at the billed face, but the duck yanked his head back out before he could be hit.

“Hey, don’t be angry at me,” Shi Lau said. “Be angry at the doves. They ratted you out to Kid Duffy.”

“Don’t remind me,” Soapy said. “Dirty fink wild dog.”

“As if they didn’t mess things up enough in the forest,” Shi Lau said disgustingly, hopping off the pen and sailing down to the ark floor beside Big Bunco. “Lousy wild dogs.”

Before the flood, the wild dogs had been the undisputed leaders of the forest, but they had been anything but benevolent. Ruling over the other animals with fear and intimidation, they had kept everyone firmly under their paws. When the flood came and washed everything away, everyone had expected that life would be different, but they were still being ruled by Kid Duffy, the only surviving male wild dog.

It seemed like nothing had changed.

“I was just trying to make a trade!” Soapy shot back.

“Yeah, Duffy’s not big on black markets,” Shi Lau answered. “He likes things organized.”

“At least he let you be down here with us,” Big Bunco said cheerfully. “He could have stuck you back up with the rest of the apes.”

“Who would he get to carry me up there? The doves?” Soapy grumbled. “And since when are you such an optimist?”

“What’s wrong with being optimistic?” Big Bunco said. “Things could be a lot worse, you know!”

“How could it be worse?” Soapy asked, slapping the bars right behind Big Bunco’s head. “I’m stuck in a cage!”

“For starters, you could be stuck outside the ark!” Bunco said, standing up and facing the ape. “I don’t remember you being that great a swimmer!”

As if to underline her statement, the storm made the ark shift again, throwing everyone out of balance. Ignoring the sensation, the two friends glared at each other through the bars, the tension was as thick as the heavy rain constantly falling outside.

“So where’s Sheila?” Shi Lau finally asked, referring to the ever-idealistic kangaroo who was usually around. “I’m surprised she’s not here making you feel even worse.”

“Oh she was here, alright,” Soapy said. He flopped back down again, an orange-fur heap on a bed of yellow straw. “She told me not to be upset, but to…”

“Trust the unicorn!” they all said at once.

“Tabitha and Mullins took her to check on Elbridge,” Big Bunco said, returning her attention to the stubborn knot of twine that kept Soapy encaged. “But I think they were just trying to give Soapy some relief.”

“At least somebody cares…” Soapy complained.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” a familiar voice said, and they all turned to see Thimblerig step out of a shadowy recess in the wall.

“Ha, ha.” Soapy replied, brightening up. “You better have something to make me feel better.”

“Yeah, where are the figs?” Shi Lau asked, flapping down to the floor beside Thimblerig, trying to poke his bill into the pouch slung over Thimblerig’s shoulder. “We’re getting tired of the grub they keep giving us up in the aviary.” The duck pulled back suddenly, an unpleasant, wrinkled look on his face. “What’s that smell!”

“It’s nothing!” Thimblerig said, pushing the duck away. He plopped down, his back against Soapy’s cage, pulled the empty bag over his head, and tossed it to the floor. “I struck out.”

“Again?” Shi Lau squawked. “I thought you said you could take those reptiles for a bagful!”

“I could, and I still can,” Thimblerig muttered, in no mood to be grilled on his failed con.

“If the figs on Asarata were coulda’s, then all the forest would go hungry,” Shi Lau replied, shaking his head and looking back up at the raven. “Sorry, Yonah. No figs.”

“No worries,” The raven answered, obviously disappointed, but also relieved that he didn’t have to stick around. “I’m going to take off. Don’t want to end up in a cage! See you later, mammals!”

Thimblerig watched the raven flap away, and then turned to the duck.

“Bringing strangers down here for figs? Seriously?” he asked.

“What?” Shi Lau said. “He’s a good egg!”

Everyone groaned, and Thimblerig sat back against the cage, pulled a piece of straw from the floor and started sucking on it.

Over the course of their journey to the ark, the duck had been a constant thorn in Thimblerig’s paw, complaining and doubting him every step of the way. Of course, he’d been right that Thimblerig was a no good con-artist, and the fact that he’d figured him out was probably what bothered Thimblerig the most.

He had been a con. One of the best in the forest, no doubt, and from the start he had intended to take the little company of animals for every fig he could get his paws on, but Thimblerig’s attitude towards them – including the duck – had changed.

The unicorn had seen to that.

“Maybe the raven’s fine, but I think we’re best off just sticking with each other,” Thimblerig said. “Better the wild dog you know then the one that you don’t.”

“Speaking of wild dogs, Thimblerig, can you talk to Kid Duffy? Talk him into springing me?” Soapy’s doleful eyes peered through the bamboo cage. “You were a leader, so maybe he’d listen to you.”

“He’s still a wild dog,” Thimblerig huffed. “He won’t listen to anyone.”

“Except the humans,” Big Bunco said.

At the naming of the humans, everyone grew quiet and nervous, as if by mentioning them one would appear.

The humans.

They walked on two legs, had little fur of their own, and were incapable of communication beyond grunts and making unintelligible sounds. Yet, it seemed that they were the ones who had built the ark, and they were undoubtedly the ones who were in charge.

“Forget the humans, and forget Duffy, we don’t need them,” Thimblerig finally said, standing. “We don’t need anyone.”

“Where you going?” Big Bunco asked as Thimblerig turned to go.

“I have no idea,” Thimblerig said, his voice weary. “So I guess I’ll go lie down.”

The other animals watched with concern as Thimblerig trudged down the big animal-filled room heading towards his own little pen.

Big Bunco found Thimblerig laying on the straw in small pen, staring up at the glowing firegems dotting the rough wooden rafters above. She had to hold onto the wooden slats of the pen with her trunk to keep from being knocked down as the ark rode the massive waves outside, but the groundhog didn’t seem to be bothered it in the least.

“A fig for your thoughts,” she said, sitting down beside him, glad to be lower to the floor where she was less prone to nausea.

“It didn’t bother me, Bunc,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “It hurt my pride a bit, but not really.”

“What didn’t bother you?” she probed gently.

“Blowing the game down in the reptile room,” he said, shifting on his bed of hay. “Can you believe it? I blew a game with an easy mark, and it didn’t bother me.”

“You seemed bothered when you came back up,” she said.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t about that.” Thimblerig sat up, resting his weight on one arm while he looked at his friend. “Ever since what happened out there, nothing’s been the same. My priorities are all out of whack. I’m not the same since before… him.”

Big Bunco nodded. She’d been feeling the same way. Before the flood she’d been content with her comfortable life as a grifter. But her interaction with the believers and her encounter with the unicorn on the road to the ark had her questioning everything. Her priorities, her hopes, her plans – none of those things seemed to matter any more.

“I’m thinking about leaving it all behind,” Thimblerig said, immediately getting Big Bunco’s attention again. He lay back down on the hay and resumed his staring at the ceiling. “The whole racket. I think I’m done.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Done with what?

“Being a con,” he answered. “The whole bit.”

“You’re going straight?” she asked, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“Yeah, I think I am,” he replied, his voice getting stronger. “I just have this feeling that it’s not supposed to be my life anymore, that Tannier Isa wants me to do something different, but I’m just not sure what.”

Big Bunco felt like she’d just been knocked in the head with an oversized tree trunk. Thimblerig the groundhog, going straight? Was that even possible? She wanted to laugh, to tell him that animals like them couldn’t just change, no more than a zebra making the switch from stripes to spots.

But she couldn’t, because as much as she might deny it, she’d felt it in herself.

She didn’t know if any of them had really changed, or if it was just being trapped on a giant hollowed-out tree trunk in the middle of a world-destroying flood, but she had a strong urge to avoid the topic. She needed to get away.

“That’s great, ‘rig, really,” Big Bunco said, standing, trying to keep her voice from shaking. The ark pitched from the stern, nearly knocking her back down, but Thimblerig jumped up to steady her. “Will I ever get used to being on the water?” she laughed, feeling shaky in more ways than one.

“We won’t be here forever,” he answered. “The unicorn has a new life waiting for us on the other side of the storm. Trust me.”

For a moment, Big Bunco felt swept up in the fervency of Thimblerig’s words. Could it be true? She realized with a mixture of horror and amazement that she actually did trust him, and the truth of that trust gutted her. After all, the first rule of being a con was: trust no one.

“I’ll see you later, ‘rig,” she said, breaking from him and moving towards the opening of his pen. “Got to go help Soapy break out of his cage.”

“Hey, Bunco?” Thimblerig stopped her. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything to the others. Not yet, at least.”

“Sure, ‘rig, whatever you say,” she replied. He smiled and gave her a quick wave, and then settled back down onto the hay.

She shook her head as she wandered away from the groundhog and back towards her friends. She had some thinking of her own to do.

Look for another excerpt in the coming weeks.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be released on May 1, 2015.

Want to read Thimblerig’s Ark before the sequel is released? Get your copy by clicking on the cover below!

Click book cover to go to Thimblerig's Amazon page

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist • Preview Chapter

They made it to the ark, but the danger has not passed.

Someone on board the ark is not what they seem, and Thimblerig discovers that there are plans afoot to steal the Seed of Asarata, the key to life after the flood. Now, to save the seed and the future, he and his company of animals will have to steal it first, right out from under the noses of Noah, the humans, and the wild dogs who protect it.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

Chapter 1

“What do you say, pal? You in, or you out?”

Thimblerig the groundhog stared across the makeshift table, trying to read the emotionless eyes of the big green iguana, a feat which was extremely difficult. But Thimblerig didn’t have the luxury of being picky these days.

These days.  Just a couple of weeks earlier, the days had been a lot less complicated.  Back then, Thimblerig had been a simple grifter, plying his trade under the enormous branches of Asarata, the Queen of the Jungle, the great fig tree.

And then he met Tannier Isa, the supposedly mythological unicorn king, and everything changed.

It all happened so quickly, too.  One moment, he had been minding his own business, playing his modest shell game for the few figs it could win him, trying to keep his prime spot by the base of the tree, and the next moment he was the leader of a small group of animals, running for their lives from the wild dogs who ran the forest.

And craziest thing of all? He’d gone from mocking the feeble-minded suckers who claimed to believe in unicorns to being a die-hard, certified (or certifiable?) believer himself. Not just one of them, but a leader of a whole group of them.

It had only been a week since he and his little group of believers had scrambled onboard the ark just before the decimating waters had struck. Now he spent his time trying not to think about the world’s destruction happening on the other side of the wooden walls, and getting used to being tossed around like a cub as the ark navigated waves as large as mountains.

And so Thimblerig stole away from his pen in the mammal section and snuck down to the reptiles in attempt to avoid thinking about all of that. And to see if he could win a few figs.

Old habits die hard, after all.

Thimblerig’s nose wrinkled as a terrible smell wafted by. The reptiles had been given a large room deep in the bowels of the great ark so that they could be cool and enjoy the darkness, but unfortunately, the ark had been engineered so that all of the animal waste slid down empty pipes and made its way to the very bottom, a level below the room in which he stood.

How can the reptiles stand it? Thimblerig thought. Maybe their noses work differently than everyone else’s?

“Just give me a minute,” the iguana answered, pulling the groundhog back to the game. He stared down at the three shells sitting on the small rough plank of wood before him. Thimblerig knew exactly what the iguana thought, exactly where he thought the pea sat, and he also knew that it didn’t really matter, because the pea sat exactly where Thimblerig wanted it to sit.

That is, tucked safely under a claw on his right paw.

“Ask for a minute, and I’ll give you two,” Thimblerig, the consummate showman, called for all to hear. “So that your guess may be right and true.”

He looked up at his reptilian audience. Many stared down from their perches on the beams above, some watched while clinging to the walls. It gratified Thimblerig to see so many pairs of glowing eyes looking with curiosity down at his game out of the darkness. If he could get used to the smell, he could really clean up in a room like this, a room filled with gullible believers, unaccustomed to the con. I could get away with anything down here, he thought. No humans, no Kid Duffy, no nobody.

Thimblerig gulped. No nobody indeed, just a room full of animals who – in the wild – would enjoy having a plump groundhog for breakfast. They can’t eat me on the ark, he reminded himself. It’s against the rules.

But as an animal who had made his living breaking the rules, this thought didn’t necessarily make Thimblerig feel any better.

“Alright, I’m in,” the iguana finally said. He reached his snout into a little pouch around his neck, pulled out a dried fig, and dropped it on the table beside the shells. “It’s on the right.”

Thimblerig had rehearsed it a thousand times. “Are you sure?” he asked, crestfallen. “You don’t want to pick the middle one?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the iguana replied.

“Not the one on the left?” Thimblerig asked.

“I said I’m sure!” the iguana spat, impatient.

Good, good, Thimblerig thought. Emotions lead to mistakes.

“Well, I’m not so sure,” Thimblerig goaded. “I’ll see your fig, and raise you one.” Thimblerig reached into his pouch, pulled out two of his dried figs, and set them down carefully beside the iguana’s lone fig. And then he smiled.

The iguana stared at Thimblerig, either sizing him up or imagining him as breakfast. Thimblerig did his best to lizard-stare the iguana back, not permitting himself to be sized.

Finally, the lizard’s tongue flicked, and Thimblerig knew he had him.

The iguana was pulling out another fig when a screeching voice pierced the darkness of the reptile area.

“Lagar!?!”

A female iguana came stomping through the crowd, scattering reptiles to the left and right on her way to Thimblerig’s makeshift table. Seeing Lagar with his head in his fig bag, the table with figs on it, and a groundhog standing before it all, the female immediately knew what going on.

“You’re betting? Losing all our figs to a furback?”

Lagar slowly drew his head out of the bag, revealing a face full of emotion: Fear.

“No, it’s not like that…” he muttered, with trembling voice.

How humiliating, Thimblerig thought, suddenly glad he didn’t have a mate.

“It’s not like that,” she mocked, moving up so close to the male iguana that her flickering tongue lashed Lagar’s face like a little wet slaps. “We get two figs a day, and you’re dropping them on the table like they grow on trees!”

“Well, they do,” Thimblerig said. And if he had been capable of reaching into the air and pulling words back into his mouth, he would have done it.

“What did you say?” she said, turning to the groundhog.  Over the female’s head, he saw that Lagar was shaking his head, ever so slightly. A warning?

“I just said that figs do grow on trees,” Thimblerig stammered, not enjoying being the target of that withering iguana gaze. “Fig trees, to be exact.”

The female hopped up on the table and stuck her big, green, scaly face right into his smaller furry one. “And do you see any fig trees, furback?” she hissed.

“Um, no,” Thimblerig admitted.

“Then take your rotten figs and your rotten games and get out of here before I call that wild dog to come down and take care of you!”

With a final flick of the tongue, she leapt off the table, scooped the figs into her bag, and pushed her emasculated mate off into the darkness, followed by the rest of the reptiles.

It was only after they’d gone, and Thimblerig was able to breathe again, that he realized that she’d just made off with his two figs as well as her mate’s. Alone with the darkness and the stench, the only light coming from the glowing firegems embedded into the walls, Thimblerig packed up his shells and kicked the wooden board aside.

Yeah, the unicorn had definitely messed up the groundhog’s mojo, and then some. The crazy part was that there was a time when having one of his games self-destruct so spectacularly would have decimated him, but now he wasn’t so bothered by it.

Maybe it’s time to try a new line of work, Thimblerig thought, turning and heading up the ramp back towards the other mammals in the levels above.

Look for another excerpt in the coming weeks.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be released on May 1, 2015.

Want to read Thimblerig’s Ark before the sequel is released? Get your copy by clicking on the cover below!

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

Give the gift of the groundhog this Christmas!

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

Now it’s a bit cheaper to give the gift of the groundhog for Christmas!

Amazon.com has a special going now through Dec 13. Use the code “25OFFBOOK” at checkout under the “Gift cards & promotional codes” section to receive 25% off Thimblerig’s Ark!

In the interest of full disclosure, this is good for any book, but why would you buy another book when you can get a copy of Thimblerig’s Ark?

Nanowrimo • You Are The Hero Of This Story

This is a pep talk I wrote for the 2015 Nanowrimo Young Writer’s Program. It was originally published on the Young Writer’s Program website.
You’re staring at the blinking cursor on your screen, doubtful that you will make your daily word-count goal.

Again.

“Why did I ever decide to do this?” you mutter under your breath. “This month was destined to end in failure!”

The cursor keeps on blinking.

Mocking you.

It’s that sentence. The Worst Sentence Ever Written. The sentence you’ve been monkeying around with for the past hour. You need to change it, but taking the time to change won’t help you reach your goal, and you’re already far behind in your daily word-count.

Your story is going nowhere. The characters are all one dimensional caricatures. The plot’s a dud, and the themes are non-existent, and…

…why did you think you could ever write a novel in the first place?

You slam your laptop shut and cry out in misery, “The mountain’s too tall, the forces arrayed against me too strong, and all hope is lost!”

But wait.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve seen this before, somewhere…

frodosammtdoomFrodo and Sam, emotionally and physically spent, edging their way up the rocky slope of Mt. Doom, the top of the mountain visible but unreachable under the burden of the ring…

Harry Potter, trapped in the besieged halls of Hogwarts, surrounded by the dark forces of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, desperate to figure out the location of the final Horcrux…

Lucy and Susan, holding onto one another in the bitter pre-dawn coldness, crying over the dead body of the great lion, knowing that all of their hopes died with him…

And then, it hits you. This is your dark night of the soul.

NaNoWriMo is your hero’s journey, you are the hero, and this is your point of decision. Do you turn back in defeat, or do you press ahead?

But it’s not just that. You’re also the writer, which means that this is your story.

You control the valiant champions fighting for good and the shadowy forces of evil. One side will win or lose at your beck and call.

This is your story.

It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, if your dialogue is believable, or even if it is well-written. What matters is that you finish.

And Hero, you are almost there.

With that knowledge, you are free to re-open your laptop and write, because this is your story.

And you are the only one who can tell it.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtNate’s novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, is available for a free Kindle download from November 19 until November 23 (PST) in celebration of NaNoWriMo. Go download and enjoy!

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist, is being written this month during NaNoWriMo, and will be published in Spring 2016.