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”