Words of Wisdom

by William J. Petersen

When I was 20 years old, I decided to give freelance writing a try. Why not? I had been reading Sunday  school literature since I was six years old, and I understood that editors were crying out for children’s stories.

So I hastily compiled a list of six Sunday school papers aimed at kids 9 to 12 years old. Then I went to my typewriter (computers hadn’t been invented yet) and pounded out a story about a wanna-be baseball player named Herbie, who was afraid of getting hit by a baseball every time he came up to bat.

The story ended with Herbie coming up to bat in the last inning with the bases loaded. He got hit by a pitch to force in the winning run.

I decided to send the story to Scripture Press, because my church used Scripture Press materials. It was returned to me—rejected—within a week. I was disappointed, of course, and I thought the editor was stupid for turning down such a classic story for junior aged boys, but I had five other Sunday school papers on my list. If Scripture Press decided to turn down a classic, I would send it to one of their competitors!

I got my second rejection within a week, from the Free Methodists in Winona Lake, Indiana. So I sent my masterpiece to the Assemblies of   God in Springfield, Missouri—another rejection—and then on to the Nazarenes in Kansas City, and then to David C. Cook, at that time in Elgin, Illinois, and finally to a Baptist publisher.

Within six weeks, believe it or not, I had collected six rejection slips.

I was discouraged, yes, but I wasn’t quitting, though I had reached the end of my list. I thought of trying a few more denominational houses, but since I had written Herbie specifically  for the Scripture Press publication called My Counselor, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe the  editor had a quarrel with the boss the first time. Or maybe he had an upset stomach, or maybe . . .

Well, within another ten days I received a letter from the editor of My Counselor. When I saw the envelope, I was sure it was another rejection.

I was wrong.

The editors had accepted “Herbie, the Ball-shy Wildcat”  for publication. It appeared in print the following year. And amazingly, every three   years during the next dozen years, the publication reprinted Herbie, and of course each time they sent me a little check as well ($15 for the first publication and $10 for each reprint).

Word of Wisdom Number One: It’s always too soon to quit.

Years later, when I was editorial director of a book publisher, a very discouraged lawyer and wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript that had been rejected 27 times. We accepted it and A Time to Kill  became a bestseller. Its author, John Grisham, became one of the best-known novelists of the past 50 years.

It’s always too soon to quit.

Branch Out

I’m not especially gifted in any particular area of writing. The flip-side of that is, I never knew what I couldn’t do until I tried. So I have tried a lot of different things: Gospel tracts, movie scripts, TV commercials, missionary biographies, Bible study curricula, quizzes, fiction, personality sketches, how-to’s, poetry, interviews, radio writing, daily devotionals, fund-raising letters, humor, writing for kids, you name it.

I am no Bible scholar, but I have written some very successful books on the lives of biblical characters, as well as curriculum for adult Bible study classes.

By trial and error I’ve learned that, despite my success with “Herbie,” I  don’t do fiction very well. But I’ve been trying to learn that craft, and managed to self-publish several unpublishable novels in my eighties.

While serving as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I introduced students to all genres of writing. One writer was especially interested in fiction, but she had to go through the lessons on writing newspaper articles, how-to articles, devotionals and all kinds of things. She finally got the chance to develop her novel, but by then she’d had two non-fiction articles accepted by national publications and one magazine had invited her to do a regular column.

So you never know what doors the Lord might open for you.

Word of Wisdom Number Two: Take some risks. Branch out into new areas. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t limit yourself to one writing genre.

Edit yourself

I’ll never forget Miss Fackler. She was my freshman writing teacher in college, and I was scared to death of her. No frog had ever  been dissected the way she cut apart my writing.

Oh, I had been accustomed to seeing red marks on my papers, showing  me where I had misspelled a word or used the wrong punctuation. But she asked questions: Why did you say this? Is that the best word to use?  Do you really need that paragraph? Can’t you say this in fewer words?

I dreaded her favorite expression: Superfluous.

But before long, I was asking some of those questions myself before I turned in my paper. In the process, I learned the importance of self-editing.

Now writing and editing are two different skills. I doubt if Miss Fackler ever had anything published, but in her role as teacher, she was a fine editor. And she taught me both skills.

You will be a better writer if you learn to edit your own work effectively.

Don’t edit as you write. Get your first draft down on paper or on the computer, and then you can edit.

Sometimes it helps to wait a few days before editing. Then, does it still make sense? Can you outline it now? One of the first things I do in self-editing is to look at the verbs and eliminate all the forms of “to be” that I can, replacing those dead verbs with action verbs. Then I look at sentences beginning with “There” and “It.”

Then I look at word-length, sentence length, paragraph length. I look at “ly” adverbs, impersonal pronouns. Use Anglo-Saxon words, not Latin compounds, wherever possible.

These cautions might paralyze you during the writing process. Write freely. But then go back later and prune your work to make it stronger.

Word of Wisdom Number three: Learn to be self-critical, to be your own editor. When you write, be warmly involved in your story. When you edit, be coolly detached.

William J. Petersen, father of CFWN editor Randy Petersen, passed away in January, 2021, at the age of 91. An editor at Eternity Magazine for thirty years, he also authored more than twenty books. These were notes for a talk at a writer’s conference a few years ago.

Aim for the Stars

Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Don’t Lose Your First Love (for Writing)

Those who have been writing for a while may feel like the honeymoon is over, particularly when dealing with multiple rewrites or struggling to meet a deadline. Just as we are to guard our hearts against losing our first love for the Lord in our spiritual journey, the same principle may apply to our first love for writing… The best advice may be: “Do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

Melony Teague, As the Ink Flows, p. 56

Ignore This Advice

Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.

Marcus Sedgwick, at the 2016 Cheltenham Literature Festival

Have Fun When You Write

Just sit down and write your book.

I know that sounds painfully simple, but you’d be surprised how many people want to write a book but never do. So just “doing it” is 80 percent of the battle.

Have fun when you write. Don’t worry about how it turns out. Lose yourself in your sentences. Enjoy the tapping sound of the keyboard. Success is not not your reward. Your life is your reward. The book is merely evidence of your wonderful life.

Sean Dietrich

Point at Things

When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

Steven Pinker

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Perseverance

I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

– John D. Rockefeller

Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.

– Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

2 Peter 1:5-7

Your 2021 Writing Goal: Stop Waiting!

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

E.B. White

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

C.S. Lewis

If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 (The Living Bible)

Epiphany: A bright thought & the real end of Christmas

by Stephen R. Clark

Christmas is greeted by many with excitement, by others with anxiety. Potential stressors include being thrown together with relatives that grate, dealing with the drudge of shopping, or just enduring non-stop Christmas music.

But whether you love or loathe Christmas, nearly everyone wants to know when it’s over.

Oh, you thought December 26 was it? Nope. The official last day of Christmas is traditionally January 6, which is called Epiphany.

However, the word and the day, Epiphany, hold a variety of nuanced meanings.

A light bulb called “Eureka!”

One of the meanings of epiphany is “a shining forth.”  The word initially referred to divine manifestations. However, over time, it also came to mean “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.”

Frank Maier, a journalist, once wrote that he “experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself.” Irish novelist James Joyce is credited with first using the term this way in his novel Stephen Hero, which was a precursor to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also used the term in Ulysses,where Stephen Dedalus muses, “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”

For Joyce and others who use the word in this sense, it points to those often unanticipated and startling moments when something suddenly crashes into our consciousness with intense clarity. You know, those light-bulb-over-the-head moments. As J. K. Rowling explains, “There’s nothing better [than] when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”

For writers, epiphanies are coveted and eagerly sought after. As we craft an article or devotional, we hunger and thirst for the perfect “Aha!” image, phrase, or metaphor. That magic thing that will tie our words together, end our piece with a bang, and make our readers go, “Wow! This is an epiphany for me!”

On the thirteenth day of Christmas – Epiphany!

I had a tiny epiphany a few years ago when it dawned on me that I had managed to get through the entire Christmas season without once hearing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Amazing, eh?

The song traverses the full 12 days of Christmas, accumulating a plethora of laying hens, leaping lords, golden rings, calling birds, and a zoo’s worth of other livestock. Unfortunately, our culture only gifts on the 25th. A real disappointment when I was a kid.

Epiphany, January 6, actually marks the true end of Christmas. The 12th day of Christmas is the day before Epiphany.

Some people leave their Christmas tree up until Epiphany, when, traditionally, it is supposed to be taken down and burned, or at least recycled.

All those other gifts accumulated from your “true love”? They can now be returned, put to work, shooed away, auctioned on eBay, or eaten.

We Three Kings a caroling

Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day (or Festival of the Three Kings, or Adoration of the Magi). Viewed as the traditional day when the three wise men (magi) visited the baby Jesus, it also celebrates the Christmas star that guided them.

For some, Three Kings Day is as big or bigger than Christmas and involves even more gift-giving and great holiday food. In Bavaria, there is said to be a custom called “Star Singers,” where, from New Year’s through January 6, children dress as the three kings and go door to door caroling while holding up a large star. They are greeted at each home with money or treats, the money usually being given to charities.

According to The Christian Sourcebook (Ballantine, 1986), “Epiphany began in the Eastern Orthodox Church—perhaps as early as the third century—and originally was a celebration of Christ’s birth. In the fourth century, however, December 25 was declared Christmas, and Epiphany took on its current significance. Although Epiphany falls on January 6th, it is often observed on the first Sunday after the New Year.”

As I mentioned, the word epiphany derives from the Greek word for “appearance” or “manifestation” or “a shining forth.” So it makes sense that the Christian feast day by this name celebrates the revelation (theophany) of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgement of Emmanuel, God with us.

2020—what a long, strange trip you’ve been

So here we are, Epiphany 2021, fresh into another new year. In some respects, it feels good to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020, the year of COVID-19, massive wild fires, endless hurricanes, political madness, and so much more wackiness. It’s been a nauseating roller coaster of a year. Here’s hoping the new year brings less stress!

Still, the start of a new year is always a time of anticipating what adventure this way comes. What epiphanies lie ahead? What new insights will be gained?

In his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman says, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” I believe the same could be said for Christian writers as we live out our faith, experiencing the woes and wows of this world. Nothing is a wasted moment; all moments are seeds of epiphanies that will yield new insights into the holy.

For Christian writers, now is a good time to reflect and process on what’s passed before. To glean the goodness of God that’s there and leave last year’s tares behind. As we lean into our spiritual journey, we can be sources of epiphanies for our readers.

As John Milton wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

Lean into grace and gratitude and let Christ’s truth shine out from all you write.

I pray this year will be filled with awe-inspiring epiphanies as you continue to faithfully practice your God-given—and essential—craft of holy wordsmithing.

No Need for Telling

In a profile I wrote of Christian musician Phil Keaggy, I could have told readers his mother was kind and loving. Instead, I briefly related something he shared in our interview: She warmed his pajamas on the radiator every night before he dressed for bed. That little detail showed her loving heart and kindness. No need for telling.

Joyce K. Ellis, Write with Excellence