2021 Christmas Gift Guide

For those of you starting to panic because Christmas is just a few weeks away and you don’t have all your shopping done yet, here’s some help. Three of our CFWN team members have compiled a list of great books to check out, including one each of their own. We hope at least a couple of these will end up in your shopping cart—whether as gifts for loved ones or a treat for yourself!

Books We Loved

Stephen: For me a favorite book is memorable, leaving a deep impression. Both content and the quality of writing are important. A Carnival of Losses: Notes on Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall checks all the boxes. It’s a companion to his book Essays After Eighty. Hall was a poet, but in his later years poetry did not come easily to him, so he pivoted to the essay. His essays are poignant and the writing is lyrical. As a writer, you will be exposed to the topic of aging from a unique perspective, and you will experience stunningly good writing.

Randy: This year I got hooked on a series of murder mysteries by my friend John Duckworth. Some of you may know him from his years as an editor at Focus on the Family and David C. Cook. He has always been the funniest person on the planet, and now he has brought his misanthropic wit to a new genre. In Murder Most Annoying, his crime-solver is Carolyn Neville, a book editor who has a knack for getting in the middle of murder investigations. She struggles with her faith, her weight, and her attitude. But with a quirky sidekick (a junior editor), a vain boss, and an assortment of suspects, she always gets to the truth.

Ann-Margret: Sometimes I buy books that interest me and then they sit on a shelf for years. One book that took me a long time to finally pick up was Jesus—Safe, Tender, Extreme by Adrian Plass. As I read it, I knew that I was reading it just when I needed to. It’s a beautiful, poignant, intimate book about knowing Jesus. Plass shares with honesty and humor his own imperfect journey of faith, which is so much more effective than an expertly crafted sermon.

Books for Writers

Stephen: There are endless books on the craft of writing. Most of us probably own the better ones. But there’s one you may have missed since it has “Catholic” in the title and focuses on that least favored genre, poetry. It’s The Catholic Writer Today & Other Essays by Dana Giaoa, a poet, critic, and essayist. He’s best known for his 1991 Atlantic Monthly essay “Can Poetry Matter?” In this book he writes about beauty, faith, art, and writing as worship. You will encounter fascinating bios of a handful of poets and others, and learn about the craft of poetry as you learn of their lives. A favorite quote is, “We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.” Isn’t the same true for writers and their writing?

Randy: A deep-thinking Christian, Martin Schleske is a best-selling author in Germany, and his prose translates splendidly into English. He’s also a professional violin maker. Luthier is the proper term for that—one of many things I’ve learned in his book The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Schleske takes us to a forest where he finds the ideal wood for a new instrument. He describes the painstaking process of carving, treating, and assembling the wood into a violin that’s beautiful to see and hear. He weaves in personal stories as well. And all along the way, he finds spiritual insights in his work. Deservedly, this book was honored in Christianity Today’s Book of the Year Awards. Besides its unique subject and profound observations, the book is a lovely artifact, beautifully designed and printed. Artistic thoughts about the artistic creation of an artistic instrument, presented in an artistic form. A great gift for a creative writer you know.

Ann-Margret: I’m an illustrator as well as a writer, and I have many other creative hobbies. I suspect most writers express their creativity in more than one way, whether that’s through music, photography, sewing, woodworking, or some other craft. A Book That Takes Its Time: An Unhurried Adventure in Creative Mindfulness by Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst, the editors of Flow magazine, is the perfect gift for the creative person on your gift list. It’s packed with interesting insights, cheerful art in full color, pull-out activities, and more.

Books by Us

Stephen: Fading is my third and best collection of poetry. A memoir of sorts, the style is in the vein of Billy Collins and Luci Shaw with a dash of Rod McKuen’s best stuff. One reviewer wrote, “Imbued with the wisdom and patience of age, [this] is a tender reflection on the strange wonders and sadness of life. Overall, the emotional breadth of these poems is impressive.” Another said, “The mix of whimsical and profound subjects causes the reader to be amused some times and to be provoked other times.” I promise you will laugh, you will cry, you will understand every poem, and see yourself in many.

Randy: The One Year Book of Women in Christian History (with Robin Shreeves). Have you ever written a year-long, page-a-day book? Writing 365 of anything is a challenge. Add historical research and the need for a devotional touch, and—let’s just say we earned every penny on this one. And I’m biased, but I think it’s good. Here you’ll meet hundreds of women who changed the history of the church and the world. You’ll read their stories, within the context of their times, and you’ll note how God has worked with all sorts of people—and still does. I’m tempted to say this is a great gift for any Christian woman, but I believe men benefit from it, too. I know I have. And we tried hard to avoid churchy language, so I imagine a non-Christian history buff would learn a lot as well.

Ann-Margret: Having the opportunity to illustrate and write a devotional coloring book, possibly the first book on the market to combine those two genres, was a surprise in itself. Having it then sit on the Christian bestsellers list for three consecutive months confirmed for me that Restore My Soul: A Coloring Book Devotional Journey makes an excellent gift for just about anyone. Forty devotions are accompanied by detailed full-page illustrations that readers can color in while meditating on the text.

If you buy any of these books, please remember to write reviews for the authors, especially if you liked the books!

Don’t Burn Your Cargo

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A couple of my writer friends were recently discussing the works of Anne Lamott and one of them commented: “I’m not that crazy about her fiction, which sometimes veers to the Jesus-y, but Bird by Bird is one of the best books on writing ever written.” The reference to Lamott’s fiction piqued my interest because I’m a “Jesus-y” kind of girl, but it may have had the opposite effect on others. Lamott must know that not everyone appreciates it when she weaves her faith into her writing, but she’s made a choice between sticking to her principles and pleasing the masses.

All Christian writers face this decision at some point.

Clovis Chappell used to tell the story of two paddleboats in his home state of Tennessee. The boats left Memphis about the same time, traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Along the way, sailors from one boat began commenting on how slowly the other boat was moving. Words were exchanged, and soon the teasing escalated into a full-on challenge to out-sail each other. The competition didn’t last long, however. One of the boats began to run out of fuel because the coal that should have been enough for the trip wasn’t enough for a race. Thinking himself clever, one sailor threw some of the ship’s cargo into the ovens, which worked well as fuel and, eventually, that boat won the race. Unfortunately, the cargo they were transporting was all burned up.

God has entrusted Christian writers with precious cargo, too: the truth of the gospel, His Word. Sometimes we feel like our progress is too slow. It seems to be taking a frustratingly long time to build the audience or platform we desire. When we feel that way, we may look for ways to speed things up and get ahead, rationalizing that we want to be more effective in our writing ministry. But if we’re making sacrifices along the way that compromise the truth we are called to communicate, we end up effectively burning our cargo and becoming ineffective—if not a detriment—in God’s kingdom.

Suppose you poured your heart and soul into a devotional or memoir that testified to God’s transformative power in your life and a publisher agreed that it was a beautifully written piece with the potential to reach thousands, if not millions, of readers. There’s just one catch: The editor says your piece is too Jesus-y. “You talk too much about being born again and that’ll push some readers away. Can you tone down the Bible-speak?” (We once had a family leave our church because they thought our pastor referred to John 3:16 too often, so this scenario is not far fetched.)

You can absolutely take the shortcut to success and wealth by diluting biblical truths in the interest of selling more articles and books. The opportunities are there. The market for wishy washy messages is there. If you have mastered the craft of writing, the sky’s the limit. But I plead with you to not take this path.

Abraham thought he’d take a shortcut to producing an heir and there was a high price for that foolish decision. Esau, too, looked for a way to quickly curb his hunger, and he lost his inheritance and the blessings reserved for him. There are many other examples in the Bible of people who yielded to temptation because they took their eyes off the Lord.

But Jesus did not. Jesus faced gruelling temptations, yet He rejected the easy path to take the right one.

I’m not suggesting a Christian writer can’t make a living from his or her craft. Writing can be our ministry and our work at the same time. Yet we must never lose sight of why we write, which will influence what we write, even as we work on how we write. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the servants who multiplied the resources they were given didn’t do it for their own gain or glory. They worked hard because they were faithful to their master; they did it for his gain. Still, their diligence was rewarded, and their master was pleased.

When that is our motivation, we will also succeed in our work. We may not become wealthy, we may not become household names, but the Lord will be pleased, and He will bless and multiply the talents we have used and invested wisely.

Put Away the Phone

by Carla Foote

I was out on a late afternoon walk in a park near my home, after spending most of the day in front of my computer working on client projects. I had my phone in my pocket, but I didn’t feel the vibrating buzz and missed a call from a client. When I happened to look at my phone 10 minutes later, I faced a decision. Should I listen to the voicemail right away and respond to the client or continue walking and deal with the message in half an hour when I returned home?

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this dilemma, based on the information provided in this anecdote. A timely response to a client request is based on schedule and context.

If I am on an editorial deadline and awaiting a response by the end of the day to move forward with a project, then responding immediately is important. If the reason the client is calling is because they happen to have time late in the day to respond to earlier requests for general information, then it may not be a pressing issue.

A few months ago, as I was assessing my work style and workload, I realized that I was giving too much brain space to one client. I value that client and enjoy the work I am contracted to do for them. However, I also found that I was included in many notifications that were peripheral to my responsibilities. Since I care about quality and client relationships, I was paying attention to all the notifications. But they didn’t impact the work I was doing; they just distracted my time and attention from more important things.

So, I decided I needed to set some boundaries on my work availability and energy. Since I have a good relationship with this client that I have cultivated over a number of years, I had a conversation with my key contact person. I told her I was committed to continuing to provide excellent service to them on my assigned projects. I also said I was going to be setting some boundaries on how quickly I would respond to them when I was between assignments or due dates. And I mentioned that if I was taking a whole weekday offline in the middle of a project, I would let them know a few days in advance so they wouldn’t be expecting a response. My boundary seemed reasonable, especially because sometimes my emails to them sit unanswered for a day or two while they are busy with meetings and other projects. Side note: Not participating in too many meetings is my favorite thing about freelance work!

Carla at Kenosha Pass in Colorado, about an hour from Denver

Now, when I am out walking, sometimes I just leave my phone at home. Sometimes I bring it along because of a family need, or because I might want to take a picture of some flowers or trees. But I don’t always feel compelled to answer calls and emails immediately.

I am still providing good service to my clients—and giving my mind some healthy breaks.

Sometimes I am offline for a whole weekday to take full advantage of the perks of freelance life—usually taking a hike in the foothills outside of Denver. Flexibility is the true benefit of the freelance life. I work hard when I am working for a client. And I need to periodically to unplug and take a break. This rhythm actually improves my work, health and satisfaction with life.

Carla Foote is a freelance editor and writer based in Denver, Colorado. She is on the board of Magazine Training International and a member of the Evangelical Press Association. You can connect with her at fineprintedit.com.

Evaluate Your Priorities

What is the most important thing in your life? What are the commitments you’ve made that you can’t back out of? Figure out where your time is going and then figure out how to tweak your life to make all of your commitments work together. Priorities set the rhythm of your life. . . Once you know what you care most about, you can make a plan that keeps your commitments safe while protecting time for your writing.

J.J. Hanna

Pen, Pencil, or Crayon?

by Stephen R. Clark

All writing is not equal. Nor should it be. Just as we can use various tools to write with, such as a pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen, crayon, or marker, these can also describe different types of writing to fit different needs.

Elements that play into defining need include your audience, the action you want them to take, the medium you will use, your budget, the timing involved, and the consequence of your message.

Before you start writing, be clear about what type of writing you need so you can pick the right style.

Pencil it in

We’ve all “penciled the date in” when making appointments. This implies the meeting is a throw-away or very tentative. It may or may not happen and the consequence either way is light.

The same is true for “pencil copy.” This is writing that needs to be done “quick and dirty.” The message needs to be shared, but it isn’t vital to national or your security, so you don’t need to sweat the style. Just write the facts in plain good English and be done with it.

For instance, a reminder notice of a meeting that includes a brief agenda. You want people to show up on time, at the right place, and have something to say. All they need are the basics; the rest they’ll get and contribute at the meeting.

Ink it with a Bic

When you put ink to paper, it’s time to get a bit more serious. But maybe not too serious. The writing in an informal company newsletter needs to be well done, but it’s not great literature. The same is true for meeting minutes, church bulletins, and sale flyers.

Write in a conversational style and make sure your facts and quotes are accurate. The information needs to be fresh and timely, not weighted with endless detail and complex sentences.

Wake up & smell the marker

When it’s time to get attention and make an impression, bring out the big fat stinky bold black marker! Be audacious and gutsy. Write in broad strokes and use outlandish, exciting language. Just like they do in those tacky, but effective, carpet and auto dealership commercials.

If there’s a critical deadline your audience needs to respond by, or truly urgent information they need to take to heart, don’t be timid. Write bold, write big, make some noise, and maybe even raise a little stink, but without being offensive.

Pass the crayons

Are you writing about something fun, inventive, or playful? Then get out the crayons! Keep the tone light and colorful. Draw your audience into the fun. Make them see and feel the joy. Write to the senses.

Your company has had a record sales month and it’s time to celebrate. Don’t send out stodgy engraved invitations. Tell them to come and enjoy a steamy hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows and freshly baked glazed donuts! Give them a taste of what to expect. Whet their curiosity.

Let the fountain pens flow

Weighty topics and momentous events call for fine writing. Put on the evening gown or the tux and pull out your best gold-nibbed fountain pen.

When it’s a speech to contributors, a sermon for Sunday morning, a book for the ages, or an article detailing the ethical lapses of a company, it’s time to take time and carefully craft your message.

You need to be attentive to each word and shape every phrase and paragraph with painstaking precision.

Here is where voice is most critical in writing. Your message must resonate and be sound not only in its logic, but also in its tone. Be memorable, lyrical, and quotable.

So, whaddya need?

You’ve got a message that needs delivering. Who is it for? What do you want them to do? How are you sending it? How much time and money do you have? How truly enduring is your message?

Answering these questions will help you determine how to craft the final product. Who knows? You may need a marker headline with a crayon opening followed by a finely written body. Mixing styles is fine if it meets your need and connects with your audience. When that happens, it’s all good.

The Love of Language

submitted by Randy Petersen

This maverick Episcopal priest has been a favorite author of mine for many years. In a section on the love of language, Robert Farrar Capon wrote:

This is the era of talks, of reports, of analyses that are unbearable because the talkers and the writers are insufferably bad lovers. And, to throw a stone at my own trade, it is the era of sermons—words about the Word!—that have no taste at all, because the preachers do not see that words themselves are lovely.

An Offering of Uncles, 1967

Truth Be Told

by Randy Petersen

We have a truth crisis in our world today. I’m not the first person to notice that and I won’t be the last. Pontius Pilate’s question is ever before us, “What is truth?”

For Christian writers, it may come as a surprise that the most important discipline of our time is not theology or communication, or even political science, but epistemology—how people come to believe what they believe. This is the conflict playing out every day on social media and at family dinner tables. Perhaps we could manage honest disagreements, but this is trench warfare. Both sides are dug in.

More than ever, journalists, writers, and editors have important roles to play in hunting for and laying out the truth. We need diligence to research it, wisdom to grasp it, skill to explain it, and courage to publish it. Temptations abound. Let me suggest several notable ones that afflict not only front-line journalists, but also those who process and present their findings.

The Scoop

Old news is no news. You want to beat the competition to the story, so you might run with a partial set of facts before the full truth of a matter has surfaced. You grab quotes from someone with less expertise because the real experts need more time to study the issue. Your analysis consists of snap judgments that ignore key complexities. You dumb down the story, but you get it out there first.

The Splash

“If it bleeds, it leads,” news editors used to say. So you’re tempted to tweak the facts to make a story more sensational. You amp up a story with far-fetched questions and sly innuendo. No outright lies, but the presentation splashes suspicion all over your subject. You succeed in attracting attention to a non-story, but at what cost?

The Spin

Nowadays every story has a spin. A ball game, a good deed, a store opening, a church picnic. You might think such stories are immune, but there is probably someone spinning each of those events right or left. (Why no potato salad this year? A protest against Idaho politics?) You will be tempted (and perhaps required) to spin your story in a way your audience will accept, confirming “truth” they already believe. But is it really the truth?

Ask the Journalists

An excellent article in last winter’s Wheaton magazine quoted several journalists connected with Wheaton College. “I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth,” said UPI veteran Wes Pippert. That might seem obvious to anyone who has studied journalism, but as we’ve seen, nowadays it’s not a sure thing.

When every cell phone is essentially a printing press, people have immense publishing power, even if they aren’t “prepared for the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and understanding a range of ideological perspectives,” according to the Wheaton article’s author, Bethany Peterson.

Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today describes some of the journalistic temptations I’ve noted. “If that’s what gets eyeballs and shares, then you want to lean toward, of the possible framings, the more aggressive one, or of the possible headlines, the more hyperbolic one.” By contrast, he affirms the importance of “your commitment to truth and love of neighbor.”

In a time when the profession of journalism is often maligned, it’s refreshing to see Christians affirming their calling. “I try to tell the truth,” says Ruth Graham, a religion correspondent for The New York Times, “but also in a way that lets readers make up their own minds.”

For Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter for The Washington Post, it comes down to the Golden Rule—but that doesn’t mean refusing to say anything negative about anyone. “I want the truth,” she says. “I want someone to write a piece about the good, the bad, and the ugly about how we’re living life.”

All Truth

A philosophy professor of mine became known for the phrase “All truth is God’s truth.” As he saw it, we needn’t fear any academic pursuit, if we are indeed pursuing the truth. The same goes for the pursuit of truth in journalism. May we doggedly develop not only our nose for news, but also our nose for nonsense. Let’s sniff out unfounded claims, overspun stories, and illogical conclusions in our relentless passion for the truth.

Fear of the Blank Page

The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter’s fear of the blank canvas—the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.

— Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling