Common Questoins

One Writer’s Beginnings

I am asked often, “How’d you get your start as a writer?”

The question has many possible answers. I usually say something like, “Well, I was raised as a reader and writer, more or less, in a family of readers and writers.” The first time I saw my name in print was in Highlights magazine when I was seven or eight years old; it wasn’t exactly a byline, but I knew I was a pretty big deal nonetheless. My first check for something I’d written came when I was fifteen; my older brother expressed concern, warning me that cashing the check would compromise my “amateur” status. I cashed it since I had no plans to compete in the writing Olympics.

I took my first writing class while in ministry training and thereafter wrote and published with some regularity, while maintaining a full ministry schedule.

In the late 1980s (yes, Virginia, I was alive way back then), having written regularly for my denomination’s publications, I became a magazine editor. And soon after, I attended my first writers conference as a member of the faculty who had no idea what happened at writers conferences. I wasn’t even sure if they were “writers’ conferences” or “writer’s conferences.” I’m still ambivalent on that point although the style today is “writers conferences.”

Also during that period, since for the first time in my life I had a desk job with actual office hours (which was quite a change from the 24/7/365 pace of pastoral ministry), I wrote a couple of book proposals and sent them to select Christian publishers. I’m not sure those book editors knew how privileged they were, but one of them actually called me. At midday. On my office phone. The kind with a cord.

The caller introduced himself and said, “I’m calling about your book proposal.”

“Hummina hummina?” (I’ve always been careful to present myself professionally).

“I like it. It’s a creative idea, excellent writing, and looks perfect for the teen audience you’ve aimed it at.”

“Um, yeah, um, thanks.” I considered pointing out that he had ended a sentence with a preposition but thought better of it.

“Unfortunately,” the real-live-editor continued, “we’re under contract for a similar book with Josh McDowell, an attempt to take some of his Evidence That Demands a Verdict material to a younger audience. So, I was ready to send it back to you and say, ‘We like it but we can’t publish it.’”

“Huh. Um. Oh.” I could have said more, but that seemed to express it.

“But—and here’s where it gets a little delicate, and I hope you won’t mind if I just come out with my idea—I realized that your style would work very well for something like that.  So … would you consider cowriting with Josh McDowell?”

“Hummina, um, heh, well, y’know, I’d be foolish to say no.” I’m sure he was impressed with my sophistication.

He seemed happy to hear that but emphasized that nothing was set at that point. But he promised to pursue the matter with the aforementioned Josh, and we exchanged friendly farewells. I returned the phone to its cradle and bounded from my office like Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger, walking and leaping and praising God to my coworkers.

That brief conversation led to a cooperative writing project that culminated in the March 1992 release of Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door by Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler. (I very generously gave my coauthor top billing; that’s just the kind of guy I am.) The next year, the book was awarded a 1993 Gold Medallion in the youth category by the Evangelical Christian Press Association.

Since then, Josh became a friend and mentor; and he and I coauthored a dozen other books. I’ve also written another few dozen of my own without ever becoming rich or famous. (I have a special gift for poverty and obscurity, apparently.) I’ve written and published fiction and nonfiction, edited and self-edited, slogged and blogged my way through many changes in the writing and publishing world. I’ve worked with some of the finest people on Earth, and I’ve enjoyed almost every bit of it.

That’s the longer answer to “How’d you get your start as a writer?” Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve discovered that many things about writing and publishing are beyond my control. I’ve also learned that the few things I can control are enough. I can be optimistic and tenacious, as I was early on. I can keep learning and developing, as I did way back when. And I can insist that my work always possesses the same critical qualities that gave birth to my first book: a creative idea, excellent writing, and a clear market. That’s easier said than done, of course; but once done, it’s easier sold.  And easier bought. And easier read.

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