Back Porch Book Chat: Josiah DeGraaf (Director of Young Writers Workshop)

Back Porch Book Chat: A casual, virtual conversation about books. Join us as we chat with book lovers like ourselves about a topic we all love! Our guest today is Josiah DeGraaf, director of the Young Writers Workshop. He chats with us about reading, running a writing program, publishing trends and more! Books are linked to RR reviews, where applicable. Those of you with young authors at home will be especially interested in this interview. Interview conducted by Betsy.

Note: this interview was first published in our November (2023) Redeemed Reader Quarterly. We are re-publishing it here in honor of a very fun (and free) “Crazy Writing Week” that Josiah is running early in January. Watch our newsletter for more information on that (not signed up for our newsletter? You can do that here!). Finally, we approached Josiah about joining their affiliate program because we’ve been so impressed with their resources. If you decide to sign-up for the program after reading about it below, we’d love for you to use our affiliate links here to the Crazy Writing Week and Young Writers Workshop. We choose our affiliate relationships very carefully and are looking forward to partnering with them!

Back Porch Book Chat Josiah DeGraaf

Getting to Know Josiah DeGraaf

Before we dive in, Josiah, tell us what beverage you’d be sipping if we were meeting in person instead of virtually. If you were sitting on an actual back porch, would you prefer something warm—coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or is it still warm enough where you live that you’d prefer something iced?

At this time of year, it’s a bit chilly in Western Pennsylvania, so I’m definitely going the tea route! I’ve become a big fan of London Fogs this Fall, so I’ll be virtually sipping that during this conversation.

I’ve got family in Western PA! Tell us a bit about yourself, Josiah. How do books play into your life? Are you a writer? reader? educator? All three?

I’m a homeschool graduate who fell in love with reading while young and took advantage of my flexible school schedule to do a lot of reading and writing. After college, I taught at a classical charter school in North Carolina for several years before moving back to Pittsburgh, where I now support aspiring writers in a few different capacities. I enjoy crafting fantastical stories about characters who face the same dilemmas we do when we try to do the right thing. I also love hiking my way to gorgeous mountain overlooks and trying my best to win games of One Night Werewolf & Carcassonne.

My family loves hiking and board games, too (we haven’t tried One Night Werewolf though…).

Reading in the Midst of Real Life

What books have you most enjoyed this past year?

I recently enjoyed Calor, a new dystopian fantasy that, in addition to being a great story, also raised a lot of fascinating moral questions about how we seek to influence and persuade others. Yours, Constance was also a delightful read taking heavy inspiration from The Great Gatsby, but with a fantasy twist.

Perhaps the most moving book I read this year has been Job: The Wisdom of the Cross by Christopher Ash. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a commentary that was as emotionally moving as it was intellectually insightful. It was a beautiful blend of literary and theological interpretation.

Those all sound intriguing.

Josiah’s Job(s): Story Embers and the Young Writers Workshop

Josiah, you’re currently the Marketing Director for Story Embers, an organization that seeks to “guide and inspire Christian storytellers.” Tell us how Story Embers got started and what you are hoping to do through it.

Several years back, I got connected with a group of Christian writers who shared the same vision that I did for storytelling. We saw a lot of other aspiring authors who struggled to know what it looked like to craft authentically Christian novels. So we decided to start a new website that helps Christian storytellers integrate their faith with their craft. We currently do so through monthly blog posts and annual online summits.

young writers workshop

I know you’re also involved in the Young Writers Workshop and the Author Conservatory. Can you tell us how those two programs work and who the target audiences are?

I’d love to! At the Young Writers Workshop & Author Conservatory, we work with writers in their teens and twenties who enjoy writing. Maybe it’s just a fun hobby on the side. Maybe it’s a future career pursuit. In either case, we want to inspire and equip them to pursue their dreams.

The Young Writers Workshop is designed for high schoolers who want to write more, hone their craft, and finish projects they’re proud of. For many students, the core appeal of the Workshop is our moderated online community where they can connect with other young writers and get the support they need for their writing. We’re big believers in the power of positive peer pressure.

The Author Conservatory is a college alternative program for students who want to pursue a career as a writer & entrepreneur. Students get personal feedback and mentorship from professional authors, editors, and entrepreneurs. And by the end of three years, they should have a viable strategy for writing great stories while supporting themselves financially.

One of the areas we feel strongly about at Redeemed Reader is encouraging fellow Christians in their writing work, particularly when they are writing for the secular market. When we discovered Story Embers (and later, the Workshop and Conservatory), we were interested because several of the authors we’ve reviewed in the past few years have come through—or been associated with—these programs. I’m sure it’s rewarding to see some of these graduates land a publishing deal! What can participants in the programs hope to accomplish? Obviously, publication is a goal for many, but sometimes those options are simply out of our control. What else are you hoping to encourage young writers to do?

It’s so rewarding to see our students get published—and even more rewarding to read their books and see how talented they are! 😊

What participants can hope to accomplish depends on the program. The Young Writers Workshop and Story Embers provide ongoing support and training, but these programs serve a lot of different writers with different goals, so there’s a broad range of results. The Author Conservatory offers a more dedicated curriculum with mentorship that results in more consistent results. The goal is for each student to finish the program with the skills they need to get published and support themselves financially.

To your latter point, though, I think it’s essential that writers not just hone their craft in hopes of eventually getting published. While publication is great, writing first and foremost needs to be a means by which we honor God and bless others. A young writer doesn’t need to be published to do either! Creating a great story and sharing it with a few friends still has worth and value. Honing our craft as writers also enables us to better encourage others with our words in our day-to-day lives.

Yes and amen! I’ve appreciated authors like Andrew Peterson (Adorning the Dark),Makoto Fujimura (Refractions), and Edith Schaeffer (Hidden Art) who encourage Christians to be creators and makers because we’re made in God’s image first and foremost; God is, of course, the ultimate Creator. Publication is one way to share writerly gifts with others, but it is certainly not the only way, or even the best way.

Josiah’s Advice for Writers Regarding Editing

Sometimes, at Redeemed Reader, we get frustrated with well-meaning (and talented!) Christian authors who seem to settle for smaller/independent publishing routes that often seem to coincide with sub-par editing. Everyone needs an editor! Not simply a cheerleader. Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring authors about seeking a good editor? Do you cover how to be a good editor in your program?

I think the price tag often deters writers from getting a professional editor. Getting full professional edits on a full-length young adult novel can easily be in the $2,000-$4,000 range. And I completely understand why some writers are thus tempted to find a less experienced editor instead.

My advice for aspiring writers, though, is that while saving up for a professional edit takes time and diligence, you’re going to have a hard time “breaking out” without a professional editor. Thousands of new books are published on Amazon every day. If you want to stick out from the crowd, you need to be at the top of your game. And you’re not going to be able to get to that level without a lot of professional guidance.

The various programs I work for each cover how writers can better edit their own work. If someone is looking to become a professional editor themselves, though, I generally refer them to the Christian PEN Institute.

That’s very helpful to have a solid recommendation. Three cheers for professional editing! But knowing how to edit your own work is a big step in the right direction.

Josiah, are you seeing any trends in the broader world of publishing that would be helpful for Christian writers (or readers) to know about? For instance, we’ve noticed an uptick in Christian publishing in general, especially with some of the imprints like Enclave. Christian fiction seems to include a broader scope than it did 30 or 40 years ago: more variety in both subject matter/genre and what seems to be acceptable. And fantasy seems to be ever popular.

I have also been encouraged by the broadening scope of Christian publishing. The rise of indie publishing has also enabled new writers to break out who offer something different than what traditional houses are willing to publish. So readers have a lot more options for what kinds of Christian novels they want to pick up, which I think is a win all around.

exile daughter of arden

I’m more experienced with trends within the fantasy genre than with the broader market. In that market, I’ve noticed fairytale retellings become very popular over the past five years (first in the general market, and now in the Christian market). I would also agree that imprints like Enclave have done a fantastic job of attracting a larger audience for Christian fantasy.

Actually, we interviewed a Christian fantasy author for this edition who re-wrote a Grimms’ fairy tale (readers, that was Loren Warnemuende, author of the Daughter of Arden trilogy)!

Josiah’s Advice for Young, Aspiring Authors

What advice would you most like to share for young, aspiring authors (and/or those who have young, aspiring authors in their home)? What types of stories would you like to encourage them to write?

The #1 difference between young aspiring authors who succeed and those who don’t is persistence. One tangible difference is whether they can finish the first draft of an entire novel or not. When writers do so and keep writing, there are a lot of dreams that can become possible. Because of how the industry works, the journey may often take longer than a writer would hope it to take. But quiet patience in God’s timing combined with consistent determination will take writers a long way.

God is telling powerful stories in each and every one of our lives. I tend to find that the best fictional stories are drawn from aspects of our own stories and what God has taught us. I’d encourage young writers to think about how they can draw from their own story to write new ones. That’s the kind of story that doesn’t get old.

Book Recommendations from Josiah

Are there any books you would recommend to our audience?

There are so many great writing resources out there. For aspiring authors, though, my top three recommendations would be:

  • Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland
  • Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins
  • Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins

Thanks, Josiah! Readers, I can attest to the excellence of each of the programs Josiah mentioned. Story Embers has a great (free) newsletter with loads of other (free) resources. My daughter is finishing up her year of “academic track” work with the Young Writers Workshop; she’s done well, and she’s thoroughly enjoyed both the community and the resources. We know a young woman at church who’s in the middle of the Author’s Conservatory project, and one of my former English students is about to begin that program. If you have young, aspiring authors at home, they are well worth investigating and budgeting for. Watch for my interview with my daughter later this week!

And remember, readers, if you think your son or daughter (or students) would like to sign up for the upcoming Crazy Writing Week (which is free!), we’d love it if you also support Redeemed Reader by clicking through our affiliate link for Crazy Writing Week.

You can read the rest of our Back Porch Book Chats here (our guests have been business owners like Josiah, bookstore owners, teachers, and more).

Josiah DeGraaf taught high school English for four years in the small North Carolina town that inspired the Andy Griffith show. After helping Southern rednecks enjoy Homer & Austen, he moved to small town Pennsylvania, where he currently resides as the program director of the Young Writers Workshop. His passion is for helping Christian writers enthrall readers with honest storytelling. Over the past six years, he’s taught thousands of young writers how to hone their craft and finish projects they’re proud of.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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