How a Writers Conference Changed My Writing Journey

A Guest Post by Shannon Vannatter

In 1999, I realized that story in my head since I was a teenager, could be a book. It poured out of my fingers and in a matter of three months, I wrote it, had my mother proof it, and polished it the best I knew how. Several people I told about the book suggested writers groups and conferences, but I figured why waste time learning how to write when I can just write.

In the next six months, I wrote a second book and received fifty-two rejection letters on the first manuscript. My third book was published by a Print on Demand publisher. At that time, it was a new industry and people didn’t shop online for books. Sales were dismal. I realize now, the novel was terribly written, unedited, over-priced, and still haunting me on my Amazon page.

This was about the time, I learned that the first book I wrote had been published by a different POD press without my knowledge or permission. We found a copyright lawyer who sent the publisher a cease and desist letter. The publisher e-mailed me to say that my book got lost in his system and was accidentally published. He called me everything but a nice lady, claimed he needed a heart transplant, and threatened to sue me for harassing a handicapped person. In the end, he stopped publishing the book, but never paid me royalties for the three books he sold. I got him taken out of the Christian Writers Market and sent a warning about him to Writer Beware. He promptly sent me more nasty e-mails.

I decided I needed to go a different route and learned there was another writer in the large fragrance company where I worked in the corporate offices. We became friends and she invited me to a local writers conference. I worked forty hours a week and my Saturdays were my only day to relax. I didn’t want to go. The only reason I did was because it fell on Labor Day weekend, so I could relax on Monday.

That conference changed my life. I learned a whole new language called craft and writing journey. I soaked everything up like a sponge and joined the group. A few months later, I joined a second group and learned even more. Neither group was Christian and none of the other members wrote the same genre as me. Eventually, I found a national Christian group online and joined it. I wanted to go to the conference so badly, but we couldn’t afford it.

In 2005, I learned that my grandmother had left me a savings bond. It was just enough for the Christian conference. I went and realized I still knew nothing about writing. I joined a critique group and started entering contests that offered feedback from published authors or editors. For the next three years, God made a way for me to go to the national conference along with two to three local ones.

Finally, in September 2008 at the Christian conference, I took a self-editing class and it was like the scales fell from my eyes. I knew what needed to go in a book and what didn’t. That afternoon, I had an appointment to pitch to an editor. Her eyes lit up and she asked for the full. I told her I’d taken a great class and wanted to apply what I’d learned to the manuscript. She said that was fine and to send it to her once I finished. The following January, I got my first contract for a three-book series.

All that to say, first of all, you’ve made the right decision to attend the Mid-South Christian Writers Conference. The class I’ll be teaching is “Cut the Fluff.” It’s a similar technique to the one that fixed my book all those years ago. I hope this conference changes your life, that you find encouragement, validation, and the class that drops the scales from your eyes and takes you to that next level in your journey.

So tell me about yourself. How many years have you been writing? What genre to you write? Is this your first conference?

Meet Shannon

Award-winning Shannon Taylor Vannatter writes contemporary Christian cowboy romance novels and has over a dozen published titles. It took her nine-and-a-half years to achieve traditional publication. She gleans fodder for her fiction in rural Arkansas where she spent her teenage summers working the concession stand with her rodeo-announcing dad and married a Texan who morphed into a pastor. Shannon is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and taught a novel-writing continuing education course at Arkansas State University along with countless sessions at conferences canvassing AR, MO, TN, TX, and GA. In her spare time, she loves hanging out with her husband and son, flea marketing, and doing crafts.

Shannon’s Workshop

Cut the Fluff

This class will cover seven integral elements for a great read, the purpose behind each element, and how to weave them together into meaningful scenes that create a riveting story. Writers will learn what is superfluous to the story and when to kill their darlings by implementing a great self-editing technique.


The Story Comes First

A Guest Post by Jean Matthew Hall

Thousands of writers write picture books for children. I do. Or, at least we try.

Great picture books are a seamless blend of evocative language and amazing art. They speak to us.

But those perfect words with exactly the right sounds aren’t primary.

Gorgeous or hilarious or cute illustrations aren’t primary.

The STORY itself is first, primary, everything! Without a story that speaks to a child’s heart a picture book falls flat.

So, what is a STORY? Let’s take a quick look at its working parts.

STORY must have a sympathetic main character. For picture books we almost always have only one. The reader must care about that person. And the author of a picture book must make that happen on the first page, first paragraph, first sentence usually.

That main character must have a problem, a need, or an overwhelming desire. It doesn’t have to be life-changing or universe-altering. But it does have to be critical to the main character.

The STORY must also have difficulties for the main character to overcome. Even in nonfiction picture books there must be problems and more problems for the reader to discover solutions or answers to the problems.

Sometimes writers use words like RISK, or STAKES to describe those problems the main character must overcome. Because they need or want something badly enough to merit fighting and overcoming whatever to gain it. That’s what makes the reader root for, sympathetic with, the main character. It helps the reader to identify with that kid with the problems.

In picture books STORY also means that the main character learns from or changes because of the struggle to gain that something.

I advise others who want to create picture books – especially rhyming picture books – to write the STORY first. Don’t think about language. Don’t think about art. Don’t even think about marketing. Tell the STORY!

Then, you can go back and play with the language, make everything rhyme, eliminate enough words to leave the illustrator lots of room to work.

But write the STORY first!

No matter how amazing your rhyme or rhythm, how eloquent or hilarious your prose, the STORY comes first and foremost.


Around Our Way on Neighbor’s Day by Tameka Fryer Brown

The Runaway Pumpkin by Kevin Lewis

Freedom in Congo Square by Carol Boston Weatherford

The Bear and Hare books by Emily Gravett

Board books by Jill Roman Lord

If Jesus Lived Inside My Heart, God Made You Just Right, If Jesus Walked Beside Me and more

Board books by Hannah Hall

You Nest Here With Me by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple

Nature’s Paintbox by Patricia Thomas

Meet Jean

Jean Matthew Hall lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She is represented by Cyle Young of Hartline Literary. Her premier picture book is due to be released by Little Lamb Books in early 2019, to be followed by three more books in this Four Seasons series. Jean is a member of the SCBWI, Word Weavers International, and the Kentucky Christian Writers. She is also an AWSA Protégé. Jean is a former director of the Write2Ignite! Conference in Tigerville, SC. Her desire is to write stories, articles and poems that encourage young children and the caring adults in their lives. You can visit Jean at, on Facebook at Jean Matthew Hall Author, and on Twitter @Jean_Hall.

Jean’s Workshop

Introduction to Writing for Young Children: Board Books, Picture Books, Early & Easy Readers

This workshop presents a bird’s eye view of writing for young children (birth through 7 years old). We will also take a look at some DOs and DON’Ts of writing for young children, and some must-have resources. A question and answer time is included.

A Quarter Century of Stories

A Guest Post by Tracy Crump

Who would have thought the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series would be around for more than a quarter century? I doubt even Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen realized what they were starting when they published that first book in 1993.

Now, three hundred titles and hundreds of millions of books later, the company is taking on more projects and bringing out more new products than ever before under the leadership of Amy Newmark. What does this mean for you, our Mid-South Christian Writers Conference attendees?

Last year, I led a workshop on writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul, sharing as much of what I’ve learned in writing for them as I could fit into one hour. This year, Andi Lehman will join me on Friday afternoon of the conference to present our four-hour workshop on writing for this wonderful series.

Between us, Andi and I have published two dozen stories in Chicken Soup books. Not only will we teach guidelines and techniques to help enhance your writing, we’ll conduct hands-on sessions to get you started on stories you can submit to Chicken Soup. Andi’s “Weaving Your Web” will show you how to generate story ideas and narrow them down to a publishable piece (attendees love Andi’s energetic teaching style). And I’ll help you “Dissect a Chicken.”

DISCLAIMER: No animals are harmed in the presentation of this workshop.

So join us Friday, March 15, from 1-5 p.m. for “Stirring the Pot: Writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Then stay for Meet and Greet. Then come back on Saturday for the best conference around!

Meet Tracy

Tracy Crump has published two dozen stories in anthologies, including nineteen in Chicken Soup for the Soul. As co-director of Write Life Workshops, she conducts workshops and webinars on writing for the series, and her “How to Write for Chicken Soup for the Soul” course is one of Serious Writer Academy’s top sellers. Her articles and devotionals have appeared in national publications, and she edits The Write Life, a popular writers newsletter that includes story callouts. She is a freelance editor and proofreader for Farmer’s Almanac.Visit Tracy at or

Tracy and Andi’s Friday Session Workshop

Stirring the Pot: Writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul receives thousands of submissions but selects only 101 for each book. How can you increase the chances they’ll choose your story? Come learn what Chicken Soup wants, what they don’t want, and how you can stir up a winning Chicken Soup story.

Announcing 2019 MSCWC Special Friday Sessions & Saturday Workshops

The MSCWC Faculty Committee has worked hard to bring another great line-up of classes presented by publishing professionals and accomplished authors.

On Friday, March 15th, TWO special workshops are  available at an extra cost. For more details, visit Friday Workshops on the MSCWC website.

On Saturday, March 16th, we’re offering NINE fantastic workshops on  various aspects of writing. Be sure and check the MSCWC schedule so you can choose the three you most want to attend.

Great news! Selected workshops will be offered twice!

2019 Friday Only Sessions

Tracy Crump and Andi Lehman — Stirring the Pot: Writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul receives thousands of submissions but selects only 101 for each book. How can you increase the chances they’ll choose your story? Come learn what Chicken Soup wants, what they don’t want, and how you can stir up a winning Chicken Soup story.

Johnnie Alexander — Opening Scene Critique Workshop

The opening pages of your manuscript need to shine bright to get the attention of a publisher or agent. You’re invited to submit the first five or six pages (the opening scene) of your novel for critique. As a group, we’ll discuss craft elements such as: opening hook; characters; point of view; showing/telling; and voice. This workshop is limited to six participants.

2019 Saturday Workshops

Johnnie Alexander and Patricia Bradley — Creating Characters with Personality and Pizzazz!

To write an unforgettable story, create memorable characters and then deepen their emotional connection to your readers. We’ll share ideas for developing well-rounded characters using techniques such as Myers-Briggs Personality Types and “channeling” your character’s inner life.

Rhonda Dragomir — Microsoft Word for Writing Wranglers

Microsoft Word (MS Word) is like a bronc, and sometimes writing wranglers get bucked off into a pile of manure! This workshop teaches skills in MS Word that will break the bronc into a working partner, saving you hours of time and making your writing stand out to agents and editors.

Victoria Duerstock — Building Platform 101

Victoria will share her top tips to begin building your platform to demonstrate understanding and success to an agent or editor. We will cover social media, email lists, and the marketing section of your proposal.

Linda Fulkerson — 15 Must-Haves for Author/Writer Websites

This presentation will cover 15 must-haves for author/writer websites. Attendees will learn how to ensure his or her website is secure, compliant with government guidelines, competitive with search engines and engaging for readers and that it builds one’s author platform, increasing the ability to sell books, products, and services.

Vanessa Davis Griggs — The SmART of Writing

Whether fiction or nonfiction, there is an art in writing. Learn the art as you follow your dream of not only being published but of owning the process from start to finish.

Jean Matthew Hall — Introduction to Writing for Young Children: Board Books, Picture Books, Early & Easy Readers

This workshop presents a bird’s eye view of writing for young children (birth through 7 years old). We will also take a look at some DOs and DON’Ts of writing for young children, and some must-have resources. A question and answer time is included.

Bob Hostetler — Writing for Teens

Our keynote speaker, a former editor of magazines for children and youth, presents the “Ten Commandments” of writing for teens.

Shannon Taylor Vannatter — Cut the Fluff

This class will cover seven integral elements for a great read, the purpose behind each element, and how to weave them together into meaningful scenes that create a riveting story. Writers will learn what is superfluous to the story and when to kill their darlings by implementing a great self-editing technique.

Brenda Yoder — Non-Fiction 101: Everything You Might Need to Know and More

How do you write compelling non-fiction that connects with your audience? In this workshop, author Brenda L. Yoder equips participants with the tools needed to write great non-fiction that keeps readers coming back for more.


Friday Workshop: Seven Steps to Successful Self-Publishing

We’re offering something new this year at the Mid-South Christian Writers Conference.

On Friday, March 16th, best-selling indie author Hallee Bridgeman will teach Seven Steps to Successful Self-Publishing, including tips and tricks for the current market.

This four-hour version of the workshop Hallee presented last year will allow her time to discuss topics on a more complex level.

With more than a half million book sales, Hallee is a best-selling Christian author who writes action-packed romantic suspense focusing on realistic characters who face real world problems. Her work has been described as everything from refreshing to heart-stopping, exciting and edgy.

Hallee is a member of the Published Author Network (PAN) of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) where she serves as a long time board member in the Faith, Hope, & Love chapter. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), the American Christian Writers (ACW), and Novelists, Inc. (NINC).

Learn more about Hallee at her website

The workshop costs an additional $35 with conference registration or $55 for the Friday workshop alone. To register, click here.


With such great workshops, you might have a hard time choosing your top three! But that’s a great conundrum, isn’t it?!

Once again, we’re offering NINE fantastic workshops on various aspects of writing at the 2018 Mid-South Christian Writers Conference. Be sure and check the schedule so you can choose the three you most want to attend.

So bring your laptop or paper and pen. You’ll want to take plenty of notes.

We’ll provide the beverages.


Johnnie Alexander & Patricia Bradley – Popular Clichés to Avoid in Your Fiction

We don’t always know what we don’t know and that can lead to rejection. Two experienced authors share what they’ve learned from their agents and editors about the scenes, plots, and clichés to avoid plus their experiences with the traditional publishing process.

Hallee Bridgeman – Creative Marketing Plan

In a competitive publishing industry, authors must learn to market. But how? And where to start? Join best-selling author Hallee Bridgeman as she shows how to begin marketing your book before it’s even published, where to advertise/market, and how to create a support team that will help spread the news of each release.

Brandilyn Collins – The Four Ds: Desire, Distancing, Denial, and Devastation

Desire, Distancing, Denial, and Devastation form the story structure for your novel. We’ll talk about each one, focusing particularly on Desire. What does your character want? (Many novelists think they know—until their story starts to sag.) You need to understand the concept of Desire fully, because what your character wants—what deep down drives his actions and perceptions—will catapult him through your story and lead to the other three Ds.

Tracy Crump – Stirring the Pot: Writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul

Since Chicken Soup for the Soul receives thousands of submissions and only publishes 101 in each book, how can you increase the chances they’ll choose your story? Come learn what Chicken Soup wants, what they don’t want, and how you can stir up a winning Chicken Soup story.

Alice Faye Duncan – The Future Has a Past: Writing Non-Fiction and Historical Fiction for Today’s Generation

Children, teenagers, and adults need captivating history books and historical novels that inform and inspire. This session will offer writing tips and primary resource tools for non-fiction writers and novelists interested in writing about historical events.

Gary Fearon – Songwriting Shortcuts for the Writer

Finding the perfect music for your lyrics is easy with a few secret tricks geared especially to wordsmiths. Whether you’re a newcomer or an experienced songwriter, you’ll discover new and intuitive approaches to crafting memorable melodies in this entertaining, enlightening session.

Bethany Jett – Zero to Book Deal in Three Months

“Zero to Book Deal” teaches how to turn a few resources into publishing opportunities with magazines, radio, guest posts, and speaking engagements. We will navigate the components of creating fantastic nonfiction proposals, building a speaking list, and leveraging every opportunity already in your arsenal.

Carolyn Tomlin – The Four Articles Editors Love and How to Write Them!

This workshop shows an easy format for writing the four basic articles for magazines and newspapers. You will learn how to select and know the magazine, identify the reader, and write a query letter that catches the attention of the editor and results in a contract.

Jon Woodhams – Writing for Continuity Fiction Series

Using Guideposts’ successful fiction series as a model, the workshop will explore the often-untapped potential of writing for continuity fiction series. In addition to learning about Guideposts’ unique place in Christian fiction, topics will include how the Guideposts model works, the ideal writer for a continuity series, how writers collaborate to create a series, the unique skill set needed to succeed as a continuity writer, and more.

Workshop Tales: How Secondary Characters Can Make or Break Your Novel

hlayer_richards-u3552A Guest Post by Ramona Richards

When I open my workshop on secondary characters, I often tell about editing one of the first novels of a best-selling Christian author—and how I delivered the news to her that she needed to cut one of her secondary characters.

She wasn’t happy. I could understand her concern. This young man had a significant role in her book from Chapter 2 right up to Chapter 40. He was the heroine’s friend and sidekick. But, despite all her intentions, he had turned into much more than a sidekick; he was a distraction. He drove much of the action by making decisions that should have belonged to the heroine, and for 300-plus pages, the reader became more interested in him than the hero.

He was a prime example of how secondary characters can easily kill a book, especially in romance novels, in two ways:

1) They’re too weak or too strong. Neither is good when it comes to secondary characters. If they’re too weak, they can fail to perform their duties, which is to engage the reader (and editor!) in all aspects of the H/H’s lives. If they’re too strong, they become as dynamic or more so than the lead(s). They take over roles and duties that should be carried out by the leads, thus weakening the lead’s character development.

For instance, one of the most infamous “secondary who took over” characters in movie history has to be Captain Jack Sparrow. According to the writers, the protagonist of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is Elizabeth. The film opens with her, and is primarily her story. But it’s not her entrance that people recall when they think of the film.

2) They proliferate like little bunnies. There are so many of them, no one can keep them straight. In addition to having a secondary character who tries to take over, the easiest way to lose an editor’s attention is for your story to be confusing or annoying. By the time you introduce, describe, and give a life history to the 20th secondary character, an editor is going to be both.

For instance, everyone knows that it takes hundreds of crew members to make a cruise ship run smoothly. But if you set a romantic suspense book on a boat that size, don’t involve your reader with everyone on the ship’s manifest.

Take a moment to think about some of your favorite secondary characters, either your own or from well-known books or movies. Any of them take over? Which ones would you like to see have their own story told?

As we go through the workshop, I’ll give tips and guidelines on developing fully your secondary characters—making them special—while still keeping them in line. We’ll also talk about levels of characters, character archetypes, and what role the antagonist plays in all this.

I hope to see you there!

mmq-cover-revised-by-ramona-richardsMeet Ramona

Ramona Richards is a speaker, writer, and editor whose latest book, My Mother’s Quilts, is from Worthy Publishing. Ramona has been an editor for Abingdon Press, Thomas Nelson, Rutledge Hill Press, and Ideals magazine, and has freelanced for more than a dozen others. The author of seven novels, three books of devotions, and numerous magazine articles, she is a frequent speaker for women’s and writers’ groups, and has presented at numerous conferences across the country.

Ramona can be found online at:  Facebook   Twitter    LinkedIn

Ramona’s Workshop

Shoot the Deputy: How Secondary Characters Can Make or Break a Novel

Secondary characters are often too prolific or too underdeveloped. This workshop provides tips on controlling your supporting cast: how different levels of characters should be revealed and built into the plot, explanations of how flat secondary characters can kill a sell, and tips on how to layer your characters in order to build interest and curiosity without taking over a book.