When I visited author Marilyn Wentz on her farm, I saw these sheep in a pen. The scene struck me as humorous, as if the one sheep in the foreground was holding a meeting of the flock. She seemed to have their attention. And a discussion seemed to ensue. Many of Marilyn’s (and her mother Millie’s) sheep have names. In All We Like Sheep the two shepherds tell stories of lambs and ewes named Carla, Charlene, Foxy Lady, Scotch, Squirt, Pumpkin, Spring, Teddy Bear, Gomer, Pibb, and Blue.
This marshy field teems with life. When our car speeds by it, though, we don’t notice or experience the wildlife hidden in the grasses, wading in the mud, singing from the reeds. One day we stopped our car, rolled down windows; looked through binoculars; listened, felt, smelled; tasted the breezes. Myriads of bird life, colors, textures of fauna and flora brought the place alive to us. Good writing does that also: draws in the reader, reveals hidden things, opens possibilities.
I taught from the following list at a recent writers workshop. Afterwards, a couple of wide-eyed writers said to me, “You really want good writing.”
Well, yes, I do! The better-written a manuscript comes to me, the more I like it. Here at Cladach we may resonate with the premise and material of a nonfiction manuscript—we may like a novel’s characters and plot—so much that we are willing to devote the editing time needed to bring the writing quality and style up to these standards. We may ask an author to go back and re-write/revise/re-work a manuscript. Then we also do in-house macro editing, line editing, and copy editing. The following list gives most of the elements of style and “good writing” that we look for in a manuscript and strive for in the books we publish.
Here’s how to give your writing pizzazz so readers will want to invest in it, engage with it—be entertained, convinced, and inspired by what you say. Check your writing against this list to make sure it communicates as clearly and persuasively as possible.
1. Have you written from your heart as well as your mind? (If not, read this post. If yes, go on to the rest of the list.)
2. Write in the active voice. Choose strong, active verbs.
3. Write concretely, rather than abstractly. Show, don’t just tell. Appeal to all the senses.
4. In nonfiction as well as fiction, use storytelling as much as possible.
5. Stay in a definite, consistent POV. Through whose eyes is the reader seeing?
6. Hook the reader on the first page/ first paragraph/ first sentence/ first word.
7. Keep the reader’s attention as each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter leads to the next.
8. Maintain a logical or chronological flow of thought or action. Use transitions when needed.
9. Strive for precision and conciseness. Cut extraneous/ repetitious words and phrases. Less is more.
10. Give thought to word choices—consider subtleties, connotations, nuances; find the zing and zest of the right word.
One story in the book Faithful Friends tells about a little mixed-breed, playful dog named Bogar, loved by the Rubin family in Hungary. In 1944 “the unthinkable happened.” Cathy Rubin, a little girl at the time says, “We heard a commotion outside. On a loud-speaker the soldiers told all Jews to line up in the street. We had no place to run or hide. … We only had time to leave Bogar free outside. I prayed to God that he would be safe.”
Here is what happened as told from the dog’s point of view:
Bogar did not understand. He watched his family line up and march with everyone else. He had often gone on walks with his people; perhaps this was a walk of some kind. But he could smell the fear and sense the tension, so he knew it wasn’t a family outing like before.
When his loved ones went into the ghetto, the guards shooed him away. When he would not leave and tried to get inside to be with his family, they threw stones at him that hurt him so badly he yelped. He quickly learned not to linger near the gate. He had been left at home before, but his family had always come back, and it was rare for everyone to be gone at the same time.
So Bogar waited outside the gates of the ghetto for his family to return, being careful to stay far enough away so that no one paid much attention to him. Every now and then a soldier would toss him some scraps to eat. There was a stream nearby where he was able to drink water, and when it rained he had the puddles.
After what seemed like a lifetime, Bogar saw people coming out of the gates in a long line. He ran up and down the line until he found them, his people. Then he jumped and wiggled with joy—now they would all go home!
But they did not go home. They marched again. So, being a loyal dog, Bogar followed them.
Finally they reached the train station and he saw his family climb into a big square train car with lots of other people. There was crying. Occasionally a gun shot made him cringe; the hair rose up on his back and a deep growl rumbled in his throat.
Again, he was forced apart from his family. The soldiers shouted and shoved people. Once in a while a boot would swing in Bogar’s direction. The people getting on the train did not pay attention to him and he had to run a distance away to avoid being trampled. As he hid in some bushes, he whimpered softly, sensing that his people were going far away, leaving him for good.
Once everyone was gone, he slowly wandered around trying to figure out what had happened. He was hungry, thirsty and tired. At first he ran after the train; but he could not catch up to it. Next he went back to the ghetto, hoping that he would find his people and food there, but gone were the few soldiers who had been kind to him. He headed back to his home.
Time passed, and he found it harder to get food. There were no food scraps in the streets or garbage heaps. One time he went up to a man and the man grabbed him and hurt him. He bit the man and got away, but he instinctively knew that the man would have killed him. He became fearful of all people and avoided them, running each time someone saw him or hiding when he detected them first.
Things were not much better when he got back to his home. Some of the neighbors who were still there and knew him would leave a scrap of bone for him or some rotted food. He was not accustomed to eating vegetables but he was so hungry that he ate anything he could find. Once he even chewed the soles of a boot that he found. He went from being a clean dog with a shiny coat to a dirty, matted dog whose ribs stuck out. Even the rats, rabbits and mice became scarce. Once in a while he would catch a bird and would even eat bugs. The days wore on.
Kathy Rubin’s family survived forced labor in Austria. She writes:
On that glorious day in May, 1945, we were free! We were herded up and sent out to fend for ourselves, but we were free. We were alive and all of my family had survived. We started the long walk back to our home. It was the only place we could go.
I’ll never forget walking that final mile. Because we were all so weak, we did not talk. But in our hearts, we wondered if Bogar would be there for us….
… Every day I would walk around our community, hoping to see Bogar, praying that God would bring him home to me and my family. I asked everyone I met if they had seen him, but most people were not sure; they did not remember what he looked like. They were busy trying to survive and did not pay much attention to stray dogs. Many dogs roamed the area. Some people I asked thought Bogar was dead, others thought they saw him run away. This was understandable, since they may have seen him follow us to the ghetto and thought he was gone.
The days passed and I could not find him. I was not strong enough to walk far or I would have walked back to the ghetto and train station to look for him. Slowly my hopes diminished. We were all thankful that we made it through the war and that we were still alive. We were joyful to be reunited with some of our neighbors and friends and to be able to worship at the synagogue again. But we mourned the loss of one family member: Bogar.
We had heard stories of dogs being caught and eaten, or being beaten or shot by soldiers. The bigger dogs would attack the smaller dogs as they starved to death. It wrenched my heart to hear these stories. I kept thinking that Bogar hated the sounds of war and the soldiers so much that he would try to escape. But how could he find food? I knew that, to survive, people had caught and eaten all the animals they could get. I wondered, What will be left for Bogar? Then I remembered that he was small and he would not need much food to live.
A month later, I was walking down the road about a mile from home, still hoping to find Bogar when I saw a dog that looked like Bogar. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. My heart skipped a beat and I held my breath. I hesitated to call his name, for fear it was not him and the disappointment would hurt so much.
Hesitantly, I called, “Bogar! Bogar!”
The dog stopped and looked, frozen in place. Then like a shooting star, he ran to me, jumping and licking my hands and face. It was Bogar—my sweet, wonderful Bogar!
I knelt and hugged him for a long time. What joy and relief. I thanked God for taking care of him. For the first time since we were taken away, I felt peace and hope. God did care.
The two of us hurried home as fast as our weak bodies could, and I burst through the door shouting to the family, “Bogar’s home! Bogar’s home!”
We all hugged and kissed him, then we all hugged each other, tears in everyone’s eyes. Next we gave him some of our precious little food, water and a soft, warm place to sleep. After we got over our excitement, we saw that Bogar had had a rough life while we were gone. He was thin, his coat did not shine, and it seemed that there was a haunted look in his eyes. … For the next year we had our wonderful Bogar with us, then he got sick and died and we all mourned deeply.
Kathy Rubin escaped in 1956 from Hungary. She and her husband made their way to the U.S. where they reared two children and had many family pets. Kathy now enjoys gardening and helping people.
Read Kathy’s story and the stories of nine other Holocaust survivors in the book (from which this post is excerpted):
FAITHFUL FRIENDS : Holocaust Survivors’ Stories of the Pets Who Gave Them Comfort, Suffered Alongside Them, and Waited for Their Return
Here’s an eclectic list of books, varied in subject, genre, and form. I like to find the best in popular books, old and new, and find hidden gems that are less-well known but sometimes even more worthy of being found on a “best-seller” list. Perhaps you’ll discover a new favorite among these:
(In no particular order)
STONE BY STONE: Tear Down the Wall Between God’s Heart and Yoursby Jasona Brown (WhiteFire, 2015) – I’m part of a group of prayer ministers in my church. We spent several months this past year reading and discussing this book and praying together over personal issues that came up. Stone by Stone brings to light obstacles in our hearts that hinder us from freely and fully receiving God’s love and living in wholeness, in the joy of the Lord. Topics covered include:guilt, unforgiveness, lies believed, trauma, and unhealed memories. I enjoyed the conversational style of the author, the way she so transparently shared her own story, and the way her compassion for hurting people comes through.
A GUIDE FOR LISTENING AND INNER HEALING PRAYER: Meeting God in the Broken Places by Rusty Rustenbach (NavPress, 2011) – As the title indicates, this is a comprehensive guide. It includes personal stories from the authors life and examples from other people’s lives as well. I recommend it to anyone desiring to remove barriers to intimacy with God and to be free of negative emotions that have plagued you for years, to experience release, freedom, and healing of emotional wounds. This book can lead individuals step-by-step in that healing process, and it can equip groups like the one I’m in, to facilitate a listening and inner-healing prayer ministry for the wounded people the Lord brings to us.
THE LANGUAGE OF GOD: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (Free Press, 2007) – Science has not been my forte. But this is a fascinating book. Like many Christians, I had some skepticism. Can you really believe both science and the Bible? Collins, a pioneering medical geneticist who headed the Human Genome Project presents a clear and sincere personal testimony of coming to faith in Jesus. He also discusses scientific discoveries in an easy-to-follow way that I actually enjoyed. He says we don’t have to choose between science and God. Especially helpful is Collins’ explanation of how and why a Bible-believing Christian may accept the theory of evolution.
SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY: A Woman’s Journey through Poems selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy (Grand Central, 2014) – I love poetry and have a collection of poetry books. Some are antiques that belonged to my great-grandmother. Some are tomes I studied in college. I turn to poetry in times of deep emotion and it helps me walk through those times. Well, for my birthday last year I received a Barnes & Noble gift card. I decided I wanted a current volume of poetry. I remembered seeing a small “Poetry” section in our local B&N. When I went there, that section had disappeared, but a few poetry books were squeezed on half a shelf somewhere at the bottom of the “fiction” section. Sad. The pickings were slim. But She Walks in Beauty stood out to me. After scanning the topics (“Falling In Love” “Marriage” “Work” “Growing Up and Growing Old” “Friendship” “Silence and Solitude”) I bought the book. It didn’t disappoint. Ms. Kennedy included poems by some of my “old” favorites, such as Frost, Yeats, Browning and also introduced me to contemporary poets. She even included Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila and poetic passages from the Bible. The poems cover nearly every aspect of a woman’s life. To me the best parts, though, were Ms.Kennedy’s insightful, personal, and beautifully-expressed introductions to each subject group of poems.
SOLDIER’S HEART: A Novel by Michele McKnight Baker (Heritage Beacon, 2015) – I read this Civil-War era novel in manuscript form. Many fiction manuscripts have crossed my desk through the years. But few have made as strong an impression on me as this one did. An agent sent me the manuscript. During 15 years of acquiring manuscripts for Cladach, only twice have I failed to win a contract for a book I really wanted to publish. Soldier’s Heart is one of those. The characters, the setting, the time period, the twists of plot, authentic conflicts, and the theme of generational sins and reconciliations make Soldier’s Heart an unforgettable read. What we now call PTSD, often diagnosed in military personnel returning from war, used to be called “soldier’s heart.” If you enjoy Christian historical fiction—read this novel.
ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFULby James Herriot (Bantam, 1974) – One winter day I felt like reading something cozy and familiar; so I perused the well-worn volumes of my personal library and pulled some James Herriot books off the shelf. I first read his warm and wonderful series of Yorkshire-vet tales in the 1980s. The Chicago Tribune (according to the back cover) said this book was “bursting with love, laughter and the joy of life” and a “soul-satisfying autobiographical book. Human beings just naturally respond to a writer as lovable, wholesome, eloquent, humorous and well-stocked with anecdotes as James Herriot.” I agree. Worth keeping for decades and reading over again.
ALL WE LIKE SHEEP: Lessons from the Sheepfold by Marilyn Bay Wentz and Mildred Nelson Bay (Cladach, 2015) – I read this book more closely than any other on this list, since I edited it! When Marilyn first sent her completed manuscript, which I had agreed to publish, I had just read a couple of James Herriot’s books. He describes so vividly his experiences with sheep and other farm animals. I looked forward to more such stories from a sheep farmer I knew, right here in Colorado. During the revision process, I asked authors Marilyn and Millie, “Do you enjoy your sheep? Do you love what you do— the farm, the outdoors, the mornings and evenings, the barn, the pastures, etc? Your choices of words, images, vignettes will help me experience the sheep farm vicariously. I want to smell the sweet hay, to hear the lambs bleat, to feel a newborn lamb, the bite of a chilly midnight during lambing season. I want to laugh and cry with you as you deal with rogue dogs and coyotes, search for a lost lamb, watch your flock come running as they recognize your voice.” Marilyn and Millie caught the vision of “creative nonfiction” and accomplished the feat of writing their shepherding experiences as stories with dialogue, sensory details, and emotion. In an entertaining way, the authors “show us” as well as teach us why the Bible says we are all like sheep.
THE UNCONTROLLING LOVE OF GOD: An Open and Relational Account of Providence by Thomas Jay Oord (Intervarsity Press, 2015) – I have some of my preacher father’s and some of my preacher grandfather’s theology books that were handed down to me. I’ve acquired and studied other, more recent theological books, mostly written from the Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, as well as broader Evangelical and even a few Reformed works. In recent years, have enjoyed books by N.T. Wright and Jurgen Moltmann. I heard about Thomas Jay Oord before I knew of his many books. Since we had mutual acquaintances, I responded to Mr. Oord’s request for readers to review his then-forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I read it in pdf form. This book provokes thought and lays out a convincing case concerning why evil happens even though “God is love.” You can read my Amazon review of the book here.
LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo (Penguin Audio, 2009) I own three video/DVD versions of Les Miserables — an old movie, a more recent movie, and a stage musical production. The story—with its timeless themes of justice, mercy, and redemption—always inspires and the music lifts me. I wanted to read the book, but haven’t yet tackled that thick volume. Instead, I started an Audible membership and downloaded this Audible/audio version of the great classic. My husband and I listened to it on a long road trip and enjoyed this abridged, well-narrated version of the book. An accessible way for tired or busy eyes to devour and relish great literature.
Are you experiencing joy, even when your path may lead through trials, disappointments, and losses? This kind of joy is infectious. With this joy you can “brighten the corner where you are.”
As a young teen in my father’s church I remember one old lady who stood in every testimony service to give an account of all her woes. Then in a mournful voice she would conclude, “But the joy of the Lord is my strength.”
Although my generation never thought we’d get old, the thought must have crossed my mind: “Is that what I have to look forward to, when I’m a ‘mature saint’?”
Since then I’ve met truly joyful elderly Christians who inspire me to focus on the gifts of each moment and on our abounding hopes for the future. Likewise, I’ve met Christians of all ages with disabilities who focus on their abilities and using with abandon the gifts they have (I had a wheelchair-bound friend who both painted and played basketball). I’ve met young mothers and fathers who have lost babies, or who face the fatality of serious cancers, but focus on unseen hopes, on loving and enjoying loved ones while they have life.
I’ve also witnessed this kind of God-created joy in nature. As children, my sister and I had a little dog named Buster who joyously followed our escapades in the neighborhood and in the vacant lot near the parsonage. Whether we were running, skipping, skating, riding bikes, walking on stilts … Buster was there. But trouble lurked in stickery patches where goatheads pierced his little paws. He never cried or stopped. Just kept running on three legs. More than once I saw him holding up a second paw and running on two legs! We hurried to his rescue and removed the thorn(s). But I do believe that, if he had stickers in three paws, he would have tried his best to hop along on one leg. It wouldn’t have surprised me—much—knowing Buster.
Nature—including our pets—can speak to us about the Creator’s ways and His provisions. We are drawn to nature photos for their calming, inspiring effect. These—and other types of photos—can add zing to blog posts and books. For instance, visual treasures—both of nature and other subjects—reside within many Cladach books.
In the next few weeks I’ll dig for these treasures and share my favorites here.
Today I present two black-and-white photos fromWalking In Trust : Lessons Learned with my Blind Dog by Gayle M. Irwin (above and below). These photos show the joy of a dog named Sage as she experienced life and navigated her environment. Blindness didn’t stop her—or her people—from adventures (that you can read about in the book).
Who would think—from these photos—that Sage the Springer Spaniel was totally blind?
Sage inspires us to live fully, this moment, in the joy of the Lord.
Wentz, a journalist whose first book, Prairie Grace (historical fiction set in 1864 Colorado Territory) was an award finalist, credits her mother as her mentor in both writing and sheep herding. Wentz says, “It was an amazing experience to write this book with my mother, considering her depth of knowledge, her love of both sheep and the Bible, and her gentle humor.”
All We Like Sheep, a mix of creative memoir and Bible-centered devotional, was conceived from the heart and experience of this mother-daughter duo. “People see flocks of sheep grazing in the mountains or on the plains but understand little about the joys and trials of herding sheep,” says Bay. “Stories in All We Like Sheep: Lessons from the Sheepfold help the reader understand sleepless nights of lambing, attacks on the ewes by rogue dogs and coyotes, the bond experienced when the lambs respond to the shepherd’s voice, or how sheep protect themselves and ewes always recognize their own lambs.”
According to Catherine Lawton, Cladach editor and publisher of the book, All We Like Sheep: Lessons from the Sheepfold closes the experiential gap between those who farm sheep, those who enjoy seeing pastoral scenes of sheep, and those who would like to better understand why the Bible so often mentions sheep (over 500 times).
Lawton adds, “These women are talented storytellers. Christian readers, especially, will appreciate the spiritual and biblical insights that Wentz and Bay have gleaned from their sheep-herding experiences. Each story/chapter closes with questions ‘to ponder’ and a short prayer. Photos from the sheep farm are sprinkled throughout the book.”
Chapter titles include: “Ice Baby,” “A Lamb Called ‘Her’,” “The Little Ewe Who Thought She Could,” “Keep Out the Thief,” “It’s All About the Smell,” “Eternity in Our Hearts.”
Marilyn Bay Wentz grew up on the property her parents still farm northeast of Eaton but has lived in rural Strasburg for nearly two decades. She has written hundreds of news releases and articles for agricultural organizations and other clients. Mildred Nelson Bay and husband, Marvin, have farmed since 1970. She has been active in her local church, AWANA and Gideons, International, and has written articles for regional publications.