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.

Freelancing 101

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit with your computer or pad of paper, write your stories, and then have them magically appear in print? And make money? Yes. Well. That might work in a fantasy novel, but we live in a non-fiction world that runs on contracts, deadlines, accounting, and—sorry, we cannot avoid it—taxes.

Although writing is a creative process, talent alone will not move you forward if you want to earn a living as a writer. You must start with administration and finish with marketing. Think of these two brackets as the bread and your creative work as the innards of your sandwich. Without the layers, you basically end up with salad. Here are some ways to make your first layer solid.

Partner with God

Before you do anything else, bathe your assignments in prayer. Ask God to give you discernment about what stories to write, to open doors for your story to get to where it needs to go, and to touch the hearts of those who read your story.

Quantify Your Goals

What do you want to write? Where do you want to see your work published? What steps will get you there? How long will it take? What will you let go of to make the time? It’s fine if you don’t know the answers to all these questions right away. Just do the first thing you know to do and that will lead you to the next step.

Manage Your Time

Figure out your routine. How many hours will you work per day or week? What time will you start and finish? Keep in mind that the time you spend on a project includes not only writing, but also reading, researching, brainstorming, and learning. Leave ample margin for revisions and unexpected setbacks. Make sure family and friends respect your work schedule.

Run a Tight Ship

Few people enjoy paperwork, but developing and sticking to an efficient administrative system will mitigate headaches in the long run. Use downtimes (when you don’t feel like writing) to clear away paperwork. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb for keeping paperwork off your desk is the “FLAT” approach: File it, Let someone else do it, take Action, or Throw it away!

Keep detailed accounts. Learn about rates, rights, and income tax rules for freelancers. Keep all your business-related receipts. Invoice as soon as a job is finished.

Keep track of your assignments, too. Whether you use a planner, a wall calendar, a computer program or an app on your phone, mark deadlines as soon as you have a confirmed assignment. If your article requires interviews, set up those calls or meetings before you do anything else. Don’t assume that your subject’s schedule will coordinate with yours.

Be Professional

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your manuscript is if you are a nightmare to work with. Remember that your editor or publisher is your client, and the customer is always right (in theory, at least). Show humility and grace when your work is criticized or corrected, even if you have to disagree, and resolve to be teachable. Not only will this show good character and make you a pleasure to do business with, but you will actually learn things and get better at your craft!

Meet your deadlines. Call when you said you would. And never, ever get “under-promise and over-deliver” mixed up!

4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Pursue Excellence (Not Perfection)

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Writing is a craft and, like any other skill, we must learn it well and get better at it. Natural talent and creativity play a part, but if we want people to take our writing seriously and if we want to get published, we must also pursue excellence in our craft.

Note that excellence and perfection are not the same thing. They say (whoever “they” are) that perfect is the enemy of good. I agree. The burdensome drive to achieve perfection can prevent us from completing a task or project adequately well.

In many cases, doing a good job is all that is required of us, and is also acceptable because the completion of the task is more important than its quality. For example, if your daughter is running late for school and her hair is a mess, it makes more sense to pull it into a half-decent ponytail than to take the time to meticulously French braid it. If your boss needs the minutes of the last board meeting on his desk now, you may not want to choose that particular moment to make sure all the bullet points are perfectly lined up and that you aren’t missing any commas.

Genesis tells us that, for five days, God call His handiwork “good” but, when He created man and breathed life into him through his nostrils, He called it “very good.” What made the difference? Was it because humans are vastly superior to everything else God made? I believe it goes deeper than our mere physical form and function. The key distinction in the way God made Adam and Eve was this: He breathed life into them. He gave them not only bodies, but souls. Like God, in whose image we were created, we are spiritual beings.

I see this as a model for us to follow in whatever we do: our jobs, our ministries, our hobbies, our relationships. When we breathe God into the things we create and produce—when we do what we do with love and humility and generosity—we raise them from the level of “good” to “very good.” (Notice that God did not call His creation of man “perfect” but “very good.” Only He is perfect.)

The Bible gives us clues on how to pursue excellence:

  • “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. . . Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:17 and 23).
  • “If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).
  • “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Perfect may be the enemy of good, but very good is much better than good.  This means I don’t have to kill myself trying to be the best but I am responsible for being my best. You and I have been entrusted with skills and talents we must be good stewards of.


When we breathe God into the things we create and produce—when we do what we do with love and humility and generosity—we raise them from the level of “good” to “very good.”