The 2021 Art of Writing conference, hosted annually by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), took place virtually from Sept. 30—Nov. 4, gathering writers, publishers, agents, and others for webinars focused on issues impacting the Christian publishing industry.

The conference, which was held online-only last year with 124 attendees, had nearly 80 registrants who watched the events live or later via the recorded sessions. ECPA attributed the attendance drop to “Zoom fatigue,” according to ECPA marketing manager Sheri Toomb. “We look forward to gathering this community of writers and authors together in-person next year,” she adds.

Issues related to diversity and mental health came into focus during the conference. On Oct. 14, the Writing with Authenticity and Intentionality webinar featured Jamie Lapeyrolerie, senior marketing manager at WaterBrook & Multnomah; Jevon Bolden, founder and CEO of Embolden Media Group—a publishing consulting firm and literary agency, and Quantrilla Ard, literary agent for Embolden. The trio discussed the critical need for accurate representations of diverse people as well as the purpose of sensitivity readers, particularly in Christian fiction.

Each speaker highlighted stereotypes authors should be aware of as they write characters and plots with people of color, including having all positive events in the story described as “light” or “bright,” and everything bad described as “dark.” “Ask yourself what you are emoting,” the panelists said. They spoke of common tropes, such as Hispanic characters being cast as immigrants, and urged writers to create nuanced and complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad, regardless of color.

The Authenticity and Intentionality discussion also addressed sensitivity readers--editors from varying backgrounds who review manuscripts--and the fears associated with using such editors. Debunking beliefs that sensitivity readers censor writers, the panelists pointed out that everyone has biases, weaknesses, or blind spots.

“Writers want to be open to what sensitivity readers say; we all have biases in some way.” Added Lapeyrolerie, “It takes a village to raise a great book.” “If the heart of the story is told from an authentic space, it will usually hit the mark,” added Ard, who also serves as a sensitivity reader for children’s books.

Another Art of Writing webinar, Emotional, Spiritual, and Mental Health for Creatives, featured Holly Oxhandler, associate professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work; Diana Gruver, author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt; and Sarah J. Robinson, an author and speaker who has battled depression.

Oxhandler referenced data indicating a 30%-40% rise in adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially related to the pandemic, and urged listeners to take a holistic approach to their health and address physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health needs.

Robinson noted the dangers of “the stereotypes of artists suffering for their work, that pain makes the work poignant, and that self-care is selfish.” Instead, she encouraged creatives “to practice self-care ruthlessly, to look for what fills us. To ask what that one small thing is that you can do for yourself.”

The panelists also discussed social media and the pressure to build a strong platform. Takeaways include how to set boundaries and share only content to “serve your soul and the audience at the same time,” said Robinson.

The finale for the Art of Writing, Free Yourself to Thrive in Your Publishing Mission, featured bestselling author Jennie Allen (Get Out of Your Head) in conversation with Chris Fabry, a radio host and author of novelizations such as War Room. Allen is founder of the IF:Gathering conference series for women and the talk also served as the kick-off of ECPA’s PubU, a networking and training event designed for Christian publishing professionals, taking place online from Nov. 3-12.

The Christy Winners

The Art of Writing conference was held in conjunction with the ECPA’s 2021 Christy Awards, held online on Oct. 28, which recognize excellence in Christian fiction. Highlights included the book of the year going to Amanda Cox for The Edge of Belonging (Revell), which tells two stories of adoption simultaneously.

“Over the years, cheering for authors who have stood on that stage, I never would have imagined that I would someday stand in the same place,” Cox tells PW following the win. “Reading Christian fiction has not only provided me with entertainment, but the words on the page also nurtured and comforted my soul. It’s so important to pause and celebrate the often-overlooked power of story to impact readers’ lives.”

Other awards went to Becky Wade, contemporary romance winner for Stay with Me (Bethany), Carrie Stuart Parks, winner in the mystery/suspense/thriller category for Relative Silence (Thomas Nelson), and Amanda Barratt, the historical award winner for The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler (Kregel). For the complete list of winners, click here.