Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Chat with Joyce Ellis

by Susan Reith Swan

I was given the delightful assignment of interviewing Joyce Ellis. SDCWC is blessed to have her on our faculty this year to teach nonfiction writing. I’m looking forward to meeting her and learning from her. If you check out her website,, you will discover the breadth of her writing and teaching. She is a consummate professional but above all else, she is personable and approachable.

Despite the fact that she is in the middle of packing up her house, which she and her husband recently sold, she graciously took the time to answer my questions. Sit back and enjoy the conversation Joyce and I had via email. Then, I think you’ll feel like I do, that you’ll arrive at conference, ready to meet your new friend, Joyce!

1. I see that in addition to writing nonfiction, you've written a novel, Tiffany, and your website mentions other fiction. Which do you enjoy writing more, fiction or nonfiction, and why?

Actually, I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years. I published numerous fiction stories for take-home papers early in my career, have published two juvenile novels—one of which I’m updating now for possible republication—and then Tiffany, a mystery/romance set in a hospital and loosely based on my sister’s love story.

I enjoy writing (OK, I enjoy having written) both fiction and nonfiction. I often say, I like the balance because I believe writing nonfiction brings a concreteness and logical order to my fiction, and writing fiction brings creativity and life to my nonfiction. But I must confess there’s something magical, and freeing, to me about writing fiction, and I do enjoy the writing process more in that of nonfiction. I enjoy what I call the “leg-work research” and the joy of seeing plot elements come together. I’m actually working on two fiction projects now—the revision I mentioned earlier and a new project that’s been brewing in my brain for a long time, “waiting to be served.”

2. What do you hope to both give to us and receive from us at St. Davids?

The Lord has taught me so much and given me so much during my more than 40 years in this business—both writing and editing—and I enjoy passing along what I can to others. I love to work with writers and help them develop their craft, to see light bulbs go off above their heads, and to hear their excitement when they see that although writing isn’t easy, they now have tools to help them keep growing in their writing.

I’m always energized by being around other writers—beginners and veterans—and I’m continually trying to keep learning and developing my craft. So I’m looking forward to that aspect of the conference when I’m there.

3. I read that you aspire is to live in an RV and travel the country. Have you camped before? If so, will you share an interesting camping story?

(Is that what you're moving into now?)

The RV is just a pipe dream, I think. But lately I’ve begun to think we may be closer to that than we think. We’ve sold our house and at this point we feel like Abraham, waiting for the Lord to lead us to a “land” He hasn’t shown us yet. But we’ll probably have to find an apartment until then—or maybe an RV—what a riot that would be! As I’ve been sorting, packing, and “pitching,” my defining question has been, “Will this fit in an RV?”

When we talked about touring the country in an RV, our grown son said, “It’d never work, Mom. You’d have to pull U-haul with all your sample magazines.” So I’ve also been going through my files and sample magazines, scanning some things, and filling my recycling barrel with as much as I can get rid of from my office. But early in the process, I decided to weigh everything I was tossing. And I’m proud to announce that I have now thrown away more than half a ton of “excess baggage” from my office. Yikes!

And—oh, yes, a camping story. When I was a child, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, my family did a lot of tent camping. We didn’t have much money, so I can only remember staying in a motel/lodge once—when we were in Yellowstone and my mom was afraid of the bears. But my dad wanted to take us to as many states as possible, visiting the state capitol buildings, if feasible. One night, when we arrived at our campsite, it was already dark. Dad and my older sister took the lead, putting up our big old heavy canvas tent while we younger ones unpacked the essentials for our one night in that location. We couldn’t see where the boundaries of our campsite were. Then it started to rain, so we all hopped into fast-forward mode. When we finally settled into our sleeping bags and said good night, we were exhausted. About 2 AM, the unmistakable sound of a freight train startled us awake. We held onto each other for dear life as it sounded like the train would run right through our tent. The next morning, we discovered we had pitched our tent only about 25 feet away from the railroad tracks! Way too close for comfort!

4. You mention having had some difficult situations in your life that you've overcome. So much of being a writer involves "overcoming"--rejections, publishing houses shutting down or being absorbed by others, many submission doors closing, the turmoil and change our whole industry is undergoing, etc. How can we as writers be overcomers in the face of all this?

I’m still working on this, to be honest, and will address some of this in my talk, “Persistent Perseverance,” at the conference. It can be discouraging for even seasoned writers to experience how much more difficult it is to get their work published today. Fear of rejection and fear of failure are things I think we all struggle with. Many of us are perfectionists as well, so sometimes we won’t submit our writing because we fear it’s not good enough. I recently asked a group of about 50 writers how many of them struggled with insecurity regarding their work, and they all raised their hands. I’m ashamed to admit that I, myself, have shelved one partially finished novel just because one editor I spoke with at a conference panned it. And I think even when a project dies because of editorial changes or publishing houses closing, we somehow take it personally, and it can take a toll on us emotionally.

A couple of nuggets from respected authors help me at times like this: I have a quote from Brennan Manning framed on my wall. It says, “We cannot use failure as an excuse to quit trying.” And I’ve read and reread Luci Shaw’s book, The Crime of Living Cautiously, because it speaks so well to the writer’s life—though it’s not written specifically to writers. One of the most memorable lines in that book is this: “Are you feeding your fears or fueling your faith?”

That question has also propelled me to faithfully participate in a local critique group. I’m a big proponent of critique groups. And I made two rules for myself when I joined the one I’ve been part of for more than 35 years now:

1. Never go without something to read.

2. Never stay home because I didn’t have something to read.

That, of course, left only one other option: I had to write something for each time we met. And my critique group often helped me think of markets I didn’t know about that might be a perfect fit for what I wrote. Then I could, indeed, mail, or in today’s world, email them, and report back to the group what happened when I sent my “babies” out.

Honestly, bottom line: I think it all comes down to being faithful stewards of what God has given us.  

5. What is your favorite or the most meaningful piece of writing advice you've ever received?

There have been many, but two things specifically jump to mind. One piece of advice came from Dr. Dennis Hensley, who’s a prolific author and masterful writing teacher—he’s also head of the writing program at Taylor University. Early in my career I heard him say, “If someone asks you if you write a certain type of piece, say yes, and then learn how.” That advice has given me a great deal of versatility in my writing.

The second thing that came to mind wasn’t really advice, as such, but it was a fragment of a prayer. At one of our local Christian writers group meetings, Roger Palms, who was the editor of Decision magazine at that time, closed in prayer, and he asked God to help us write well-written manuscripts for His glory—and to mail them. Oh, how that stuck with me!

I hope this is an encouragement to those reading this as well. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Meet Anne Slanina, children's book author & St. Davids faculty member!

How did you come up with the idea for the Annie Mouse series?


Throughout my life, I have had a great deal of my creative inspiration come to me in dream form.  I had been working on an academic article on imaginary friends, but in the middle of working on it I had a dream in which an angel showed me a children’s book, complete with the title: Annie Mouse Meets her Guardian Angel. I got up and transcribed everything from the dream and that eventually became my first book in the series. The ideas flowed from there.  



Have your education degrees and past work experience helped you as you write these children’s books?


Absolutely!  Aside from my work as an Elementary/Early Childhood Education Professor at Slippery Rock University, where I prepare people to be early childhood teachers, I hold a K-8 teaching certificate, with additional certifications in early childhood education, K-12 Reading, and K-12 gifted education.  I have literally taught at every grade level.  One thing that became perfectly clear was how important an understanding of child development is to being an effective teacher.  Children’s perceptions of what is happening around them are often very different from the way adults view the same reality. Adults spend a great deal of time being frustrated with the behavior of children and go into discipline mode, which adds to the hurt, anger and frustration for both adult and child.  Often, what is needed is to sit down and read a good book that helps children understand the meaning and intentions of the adults in their world. I taught remedial reading for many years and discovered that, in many cases, reading problems went away once the social-emotional issues were addressed.  I focused on using “bibliotherapy” in my reading classes, so it was natural that, once I began writing my own books that they would fit into that genre.  Each of my books was inspired by my experiences working with children.


Through my position at the university, where I teach a variety of early childhood courses, including literacy and Social Studies methods, I have come to learn that the majority of pre-service teachers view Social Studies as something that is “boring.”  I’ve also learned that many believe Route 66 no longer exists.  Since I travel the historic route every year, I saw another opportunity to incorporate many instances of Annie’s confusion at what she is seeing and hearing while teaching a slice of American history in a more exciting, engaging manner. The result is my two latest books, the companion books: Annie Mouse’s Route 66 Adventure: A Photo Journal and Annie Mouse’s Route 66 Family Vacation, the chapter book.


Are there more books planned for the series?

YES!  I always have ideas for several others, and have notebooks filled with “scribbles.” I’m not quite certain which one will be next, it just depends which one “pulls” me the most.  I would like to do more Photo Journal books and have begun planning one for Pennsylvania.  I have other “issue” books in mind, too, such as Annie Mouse needing to get glasses, one of the little brothers playing with matches, and- eventually one that deals with Daddy dying, but I’m not ready to tackle that one yet.  


What’s your writing process like for a new book? Do the plot and circumstances come on their own, or do you see something in life around you and think, “This would be perfect for Annie Mouse to experience!”?


With the exception of the first book that “came to me” in a dream, I consciously developed the rest of my books from something in my life -memories and circumstances- that I felt would be perfect for Annie Mouse to experience.  I write from things I have personally experienced, so that I could write from a place of my own heart and soul; experiences that have touched me deeply. Each of my books, including the first one, has a very personal story behind it, which I will share with the St. David’s conference attendees.


People give me ideas all of the time, but unless I have had an in-depth experience with the topic, it won’t feel authentic to me. I come from a very large family and have taught in so many different settings, that I have so many more Annie Mouse adventures to tell!


My newly released chapter book, Annie Mouse’s Route 66 Family Vacation, incorporates many of the little “events” that children experience in life. Circumstances that seemed like they would make a good plot, but wouldn’t have worked well in a stand-alone picture book, became “episodes” in the chapters.  All of them were things that happened to me, my children, students or things I have seen or witnessed on my travels.  For instance, when Annie gets car sick, and none of her siblings are happy with the results, came from a recollection of one of my first car trips in a relative’s new car. When the Mouse Family stops at a “Flea Market” and the children wonder why they are selling fleas- that was something one of my own children asked in confusion as a young child.


I do eventually want to write the story where Daddy dies. Not only have I lost my own father, I had to help a six-year-old through the loss of her father. I couldn’t write that book from an authentic viewpoint if I didn’t have the personal experience of working one-on-one with a young child and witnessing the range of emotions she experienced.  That book is sketched out in one of my notebooks, but I’m just not ready to say good-bye to Daddy Mouse yet. 

Tell us a little about what you’ll be sharing with us at the St. Davids conference!


Some of the things that I’ll be sharing include:

·       aspects of child development that are important to understand in order to write for young children

·       defining bibliotherapy and sharing examples

·       how to find your own unique voice for writing children’s stories

·       “dos and don’ts”

·       my inspiration behind each of the books: from dreams to getting my “Kicks on 66”

·       my writing process and “getting started”




Friday, May 30, 2014


by Sue Boltz

I sit down to write this blog, my husband calls to me. 

"Honey, I'm leaving now." 

How sweet. He's giving me time to write by leaving the house. He'll be gone about an hour, and in that time I should be able to produce something worth reading about the St. David's Christian Writers Conference.
But I hear a knock at the back door. It is four of the six boys from the family that lives next door. They want to borrow our air pump for bike tires. These guys shoveled our driveway for us this winter—the worst winter in more than a decade. They are amazing, and I cannot do enough for them, so I skip out to the garage for the pump.
Back at my computer, I gather my thoughts, and the phone rings. It's Mom. She's turning 80 this year and decided that I should take over some of her financial work. Her memory is not as good as it used to be, so sometimes she calls about something that I already told her I took care of. It takes a while to reassure and calm her. 
Ah, the blog. Now, it's the doorbell at the front door. AT&T wants me to buy U-verse. Not today, thank you very much.
I need a break and a drink of water.  Where was I?  Oh yes, St. David's.   
I go every year to this four-day conference the third week in June. It's a place where I can immerse myself in writing. The workshops get my creative juices flowing, and new ideas form. My goals become clear, and I write. I know I can take workshops and classes on-line, but it wouldn't be as good. This conference is an oasis of sweet concentration.
Like-minded and talented people catch me on fire in face-to-face dialogue. Critiques show me my weaknesses and make me stronger. Writing is solitary, but at the conference there is strength in numbers. I've made friends there who will look things over in a manuscript before I send them to an editor. That way, I'm not embarrassed by obvious typos and errors that I can't see, even though, I've read it out loud and meticulously proofread several times. I gratefully do the same for them. After returning home, the drive and passion continue. It's easier to write and keep writing no matter the distractions.

And now, here comes my husband home from the store.
Sue Boltz is a longtime friend of St. Davids and is also a member of its board of directors.

Friday, May 23, 2014

First Spark

by Vickie Price Taylor

That first spark of excitement for any new adventure is always the sweetest. Don’t you agree? Remember the elation of your first solo drive? How about the tingle of anticipation for your first college class? Ah, and the unrivaled thrill of that first kiss…unforgettable.  The events of the past several weeks have me thinking of the first moment I realized I was a writer.

My journey into the writing world did not follow the usual path. My love for the written word didn’t begin with a favorite childhood storybook, nor did it ignite through the daily chronicling of the passions and travails of adolescence. There was no teacher along the way who inspired me to pursue that particular path.

No. The first moment my desire to write flared to life was at our own St. Davids Writer’s Conference.  It was there that the leader of the fiction critique group told me my writing was good, a confirmation that fanned the flame. It was there I met two of my favorite authors, one of whom read my work and encouraged me to continue, an endorsement that fed the fire. It was there that I received three first place awards for my various contest entries, producing a warm glow inside that made me believe in the impossible.

St. Davids introduced me to the writing life, instructed me in how to hone my craft, and embraced me with a respect not often found in so competitive a business.  I will forever be grateful to those many professionals for taking the time to teach, to shepherd, and to encourage.

Are you looking for a place to fan your creative flame?  Why not start where I did?  St. Davids Writers’ Conference. This year’s conference will be held at beautiful Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, from June 17-21.  It’s not too late to register. Simply follow the above link to find out more information and come find your spark.


Vickie Price Taylor has a bachelor’s degree in English Education and has spent the better part of the last decade sharing her passion for writing with high school students. A lover of fiction, she is most often either reading a good book or working on writing one of her own. Her stories have earned finalist positions in both the 2007 Molly Contest and the 2011 TARA Contest. She has served on the St. Davids’ board for three years and is currently the conference director.  When she’s not hanging out with her family or jogging the trails in her home state of West Virginia, you can find her on her blog at



Friday, April 25, 2014

Are You Twitterpated Yet?

One of the biggest struggles I have as an author is social media. As a novelist, I’m not known for my short-windness by far. I write stories, long stories, with lots of words. 

Yet, what can I say when I’ve only got 140 characters to share? 

Most of the time, I watch social media flutter across my screen, a reader, more than an author of my own tweets. 

Did you know there are about 241 million monthly active users on Twitter?
Are you one of them? 

Imagine it. 500 million tweets sent per day. At 140 characters max per tweet that’s like…well, that’s too many zeros for me to even try to comprehend. It's like mini chunks of a a novel or even a series of novels. How would we keep up with all of them? 

We'd have to be twitterpated, right?

For many of us authors, it’s a love/ hate relationship with Twitter. We feel it’s our duty to tweet. We have to get our name out there, make a presence for ourselves. And we have to do it in 140 characters or less. 

As an active user, we can scan down the tweets on our feed glancing at the ones of interest and ignore the annoying ones. You know the ones where authors tweet every 5th tweet, “buy my book.” 

Every spring my kids and take peanut butter and bird seed and make feeders to hang on the only tree in our back yard. Throughout the following days, we watch from the window or on the back porch for the birds that visit our tree and enjoy the buffet we’ve left for them. 

We refill that feeder often; otherwise I know the birds would not return. We have even found a few squirrels hanging out and licking peanut butter goodness from their paws. 

I love sitting on my back swing and watching those birds. They’re vibrant beauty brings a smile and a little zing to my heart that lifts my spirits throughout the day. 

As an author, I think there is much we can learn from the birds that is applied so aptly to Twitter. Why else would we call it tweets? 

There are three basic principals we can all apply to our Twitter feeds as authors. 

1.      Feed our flock
2.      Refill often
3.      Respect them for who they are

Birds are an animal of survival. They’re looking for food like worms and birdseed. Those you find on Twitter are looking for something, too. They’re hungry for information and connections. They’re not looking for fillers, but meaty tweets with real information from real people. 

If all you ever do on Twitter is reply to other people’s tweet or retweet something you liked that was said by another tweeter, you’ll be so much more ahead of the game than just linking up to your book and saying “buy this.” 

Birds don’t like spam; neither do those who hang out on Twitter. 

Feed those who perch on your virtual tree. Most likely, they have the similar interest as you do or have found your writing interesting enough to want to hang out on a limb with you. 

Once they’re in the same tree with you, don’t forget to refill the feeder. 

Birds and followers are scavengers, they’ll soon wonder away if you no longer have anything of interest to them. 

As an author, it’s hard to know what exacta mixture of tweets will satisfy your flock. I like to keep mine fresh with quotes, photos, videos, random thoughts, and questions that allow others to give their input on a current project. 

Only you know what mix of tweets works best, but keep the feeder full unless it’s time for migration.
Like birds, your readers are of many species. Not all of them will share your faith, your ideals, or even your values. So when they decide to take flight, don’t despair. There are millions of birds out there looking to take that open spot on your branch. 

When one bird leaves, be grateful for the time they shared your feed. 

We are all birds of a feather as the saying goes. Some of us fly south for the winter, while others take formations of vee. Some birds can’t fly. Yet, all birds lay eggs and hatch their young. 

Just like I know that you, as an author, can hatch a flock of your own on Twitter.

Are you feeling twitterpated yet? 

 Romantic at heart, this crafty mom has written for various online and print magazines, newspapers, and online venues. Susan is the treasure of the Saint Davids Christian Writers Association and Director of the West Branch Christian Writers one-day conference. When Susan isn't writing, she enjoys crafting, visiting friends, and a good cup of tea. You can download her FREE ebook Emma's Dilemma when you visit her at

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Is It Called "Good Friday"?

By Sue Fairchild

Tomorrow is Good Friday, a religious holiday observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary. You can get a full explanation of the holiday here:
I’ve been a Christian my whole life… or at least as far back as I can remember. I know what Good Friday commemorates, but I have always been hung up on the word “Good” as part of the holiday’s title.
I understand that for Christians, it was technically a good day. In fact, for all of humanity it was a good day, because with the death of one man, it freed us of all our sin. No more would we be burdened with the need to sacrifice lambs for their sins… it was now all paid in full.

Good for us.
Not so good for Jesus as he bled and died the most painful of deaths.

It doesn’t seem like it would have been a good day for the apostles either. I’ve read many fictionalized accounts of this important day and I’ve pondered what it would have meant to be there, beneath the cross as my beloved mentor and friend struggled with the pain. It’s hard for me to watch those shows on T.V. where people get accidentally hurt. It’s hard for me to go into hospitals and nursing homes. It’s hard for me to look at the face of a loved one who is ill. How could I have stood there and watched the unspeakable agony of pain and death as it cut through Jesus’ body?
Certainly that would not have felt like a good day.

Our pastor recently spoke on the Fruits of the Spirit and focused one Sunday on goodness. In his sermon he mentioned that in Jewish tradition the title “The Good” was a title reserved for God. So people would not have been referred to as “good” and certainly a day would not have been deemed “good.” It was a word used for a much higher entity. Yet, today, we use the word “good” very often. Everything, it seems, is “good”: “Oh, this soup is good” or “How are you? I’m good.” It has become commonplace.
Of course, the event is not titled “Good Friday” in the bible. From what I can discern from my research it was probably the Roman Catholic Church that titled the day “Good Friday” because it leads into the day when Jesus rose from the dead. has this to say:

The Baltimore Catechism declares that Good Friday is called good because Christ, by His Death, "showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing." Good, in this sense, means "holy," and indeed Good Friday is known as Holy and Great Friday among Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox. Thus the answer given by the Baltimore Catechism seems a good explanation, except for the fact that Good Friday is called good only in English. In its entry on Good Friday, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that:

The origin of the term Good is not clear. Some say it is from "God's Friday" (Gottes Freitag); others maintain that it is from the German Gute Freitag, and not specially English. Sometimes, too, the day was called Long Friday by the Anglo-Saxons; so today in Denmark.
If Good Friday were called good because English adopted the German phrase, then we would expect Gute Freitag to be the common German name for Good Friday, but it is not. Instead, Germans refer to Good Friday as Karfreitag—that is, Sorrowful or Suffering Friday—in German.

So, in the end, the historical origins of why Good Friday is called Good Friday remain unclear, but the theological reason is very likely the one expressed by the Baltimore Catechism: Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe.

I have to admit… I’m with the Germans on this one—I think Sorrowful Friday is a better title. But it did lead to the Resurrection and so I can see that point too… now that I can see the big picture, of course.

On this “Good” Friday I would like for you to consider how it must have felt for Jesus’ friends to see him up on that cross. How it would have felt for his mother watching from the ground. I think it’s important for us to consider how it was in that moment. They didn’t know he would rise from the dead, despite Him repeatedly telling them that He would rise. They didn’t know that three days later they would be celebrating once again with him. They just saw his excruciating pain and suffering. If we don’t think about that moment, I think it can lose its powerful message. Do we truly understand what had to happen for us to be free from our sins? Although Sunday will certainly be a “good” day… let’s not forget what had to happen to get there.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Heart to Heart with Agent Jim Hart...

Jim Hart is an agent with the Hartline Literary Agency, and will be teaching workshops at St. Davids on “Why You Should Hire an Agent” and “Proposals that Pop.”  He also will offer free 15-minute appointments to conferees interested in pitching their books to him. Jim was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer the following questions.
—Audrey Stallsmith      

Why did you decide to become a literary agent? 

I really needed a job that I could be passionate about.

Is the job harder or easier than you had expected?

Parts of the job have been a challenge. Receiving eight rejections in one day from a single publisher can be hard!

In your experience, what is the biggest mistake that beginning writers make when approaching an agent?

Not doing their homework. Is your book even appropriate for the agent that you’re sending to? Have you looked at their preferred submission guidelines? Are you prepared with a convincing and complete proposal?

If you could change one thing about the Christian publishing industry, what would it be?

I think I’m struggling with the idea of turning some authors into ‘literary rock stars.’ I recognize the need for strong marketing – without it books would not be sold. But, as a follower of Christ, I tend to be uncomfortable with the pedestal that the Christian entertainment industry, as a whole, seems to put creative people up on.

Do you market only to Christian publishing houses or are you willing to approach secular ones as well?

I’m beginning to approach general market publishers.

What types of books and authors do you prefer to represent?

I have a very eclectic palate when it comes to books. I like nonfiction books that deal with church growth, evangelism strategies, and also biographies. For fiction I just like a good story, regardless of genre. I lean toward unique and quirky styles. It’s okay with me if it’s a story that I’ve already heard, if it’s being told in a fresh manner.

How necessary is it for those authors to have an online presence these days, and which of the following would you consider the most important:  a web site, online articles, social media, or a blog?

I personally like to see a professional looking author web page that is content rich with blogs, videos, and great graphics. Look professional and you’re more apt to be taken seriously. If you don’t have an adequate, substantial, national platform, then it’s going to be tough to have a publisher pick you up. If you’ve been published, you still have to be a major component in the marketing process, and that includes an ‘all-of-the-above’ mentality.