Plot: The Steps of Struggle

In fiction writing there’s an endless debate over which is more important when you’re coming up with a story: character or plot. Personally, I don’t believe that one comes before the other, but that’s because when I’m planning a story, character and plot (as well as setting) come to me at the same time. I can’t create characters without at the same time creating their struggles — and their struggles and actions are the plot.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle, in his Poetics, explained what plot was: a series of causally related events. Aristotle considered plot the single most important element of drama, and he believed that it was plot which had the ability to arouse emotion in the audience.

Strictly speaking, it’s the characters’ actions (their taking steps that become elements of the plot: A, B, C, D, etc.) which arouse emotion. Characters alone, doing nothing, do not arouse emotion. But characters acting do.

Plot is a series of events that constitute a chain: each event is linked to another through cause and effect. In a linear novel, Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, which causes Event D, and so on down the line.

But even though plot events need to be understood in linear order, they need not be presented to the reader in that order. For example, in my novel She’s on First, the first event is baseball scout Timothy Michael Curry sitting on the bleachers in a college stadium in Pennsylvania, watching the Liberty Bells play a game. That could be considered Event A . . . except that the story gives an immediate flashback to a Little League game several years earlier. This event (let’s call it Event B), appears to be the cause of Event A. But about two-thirds of the way into She’s on First there are more flashbacks, revealing that Event B was not the precipitating event. It, in turn, was caused by previous events.

No matter how complex the order of telling a story (and She’s on First is of very minor complexity — there are some super-complex novels out there!), the chain of events that form the plot can be reconstructed in linear order, joined by cause and effect.

master_mediumI highly recommend Robert Kernen’s book, Building Better Plots. He defines plot in this way: “The arrangement of events in a story to elicit a desired effect on the audience. A series of events organized to progress from inciting incident through rising action to climax and finishing with the resolution.” Aristotle, who felt that drama should achieve an intended effect on the audience, would have agreed. Good writers create plot points that reveal who their characters are.

Another good book on plot is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. When I first encountered this book many years ago, I thought that a book which compressed all plots into one of twenty types couldn’t possible help me.

I was wrong. Writing a novel is a complicated business, one that requires rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, and during that process it’s often necessary for the writer to remind herself what the story is about: What is the basic plot? During that complicated process, it often helps to question the basic nature of your plot. Are you writing a Quest plot? An Escape plot? A Rivals plot? A Riddle plot? Or maybe an Underdog plot? According to Tobias, each plot requires a certain structure. His book helps you understand that structure and develop it.

The fact that plot events are related by cause and effect gives a novel great continuity. The plot events, and the character choices based on plot events, help expound the novel’s theme: the observations the author is making about life.

Writers to whom plot comes first don’t necessarily neglect character. They trust to the plot to reveal character.

UnknownAn example of how good plotting can result in greater character development is the example of Earl Derr Biggers. Back n the 1910s Biggers was a very successful novelist of popular fiction. He was, as well, a playwright and collaborator on other plays. In 1920 he and his family took a long vacation from New York through Canada, down into California, and, finally, to Hawaii. There, lying on the beach at Waikiki one day, Biggers came up with the idea of “how to commit the perfect murder.” He was so excited by this that he wrote to his editor about it.

It would be four years before Biggers found the time to return to his “perfect murder” plot, but when he did, he of course created the characters who would carry out the plot. One of the characters Biggers created was Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, Charlie Chan. This character became popular around the world, from Sweden to China, and places between. The Chan novels were translated into 33 different languages.

From a plot, Biggers was able to create a character who became bigger than the plot.

________________

Barbara Gregorich discusses different aspects of plot in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

IMG_1710

Cooperstown Bound: Third Time’s a Trip

Last month Phil and I made our third trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The first two trips were mainly pleasure trips in which we saw and enjoyed baseball history as preserved and presented by the Hall. The third trip was part pleasure, but mostly business — its main purpose was to turn over to the Library of the BHOF all of my thousands of pages of research notes on women in baseball, and also on Jack Graney and his bull terrier Larry, mascot of the Cleveland major league team 1912-17. (You can read about Jack Graney here.)

By donating these research notes to the NBHOF I will be making them accessible to researchers all over the world. Some of them, such as old newspaper clippings, can be found elsewhere by diligent research (though in separate places around the world, not all filed together as they are in my notes). But others, such as my interviews with Joe Dellacqua, Mary Gilroy Hockenberry, Wilma Briggs, Dottie Collins, and dozens of others, are unique: they can’t be found anywhere else except, now, the Library of the NBHOF.

Truth be told, I’m delighted that the NBHOF Library wants these research notes and will make them accessible to all. Donating them allows me to help others. After 28 years, it also relieves me of the responsibility of answering researchers’ questions about women in baseball between 1883 and 1993. Being relieved allows me to go forward with other projects and interests.

I started my research at the beginning of 1988 and finished in July of 1992, the same month I signed a contract with Harcourt Brace to publish Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The contract gave me a mere 92 days to write the book, and another three weeks after that to write the credits, captions, and permissions. The book was published in March, 1993.

During my four years of research, I created categories for what I was discovering. I kept my files in order, each sheet of paper within the proper file folder, each folder within the proper pocket, each pocket in the correct chronological order. But when I was confronted with a 92-day deadline in which to write a 50,000 word book that contained 99 photos, order rapidly disintegrated. Each day I worked from 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.— writing, rewriting, then rewriting once again. Under these circumstances, I had neither the time, the energy, or the interest to correctly refile all the notes I was frantically pulling out of various files each time I needed to check my facts.

By the time Women at Play was published in 1993, my files were . . . let’s just say they were no longer in order. And the very day the book was reviewed in The New York Times (March 4, 1993), I started receiving more information to supplement what I already knew. And the piles of new information I received were molehills compared to the mountains of questions I received via email, all of them inquiries about particular players, dates, games, etc. Each day for a couple of years I dug deep into my notes in order to answer questions . . . what had been a jumble grew into a sprawling mess.

IMG_3137As I accumulated even more information and more notes, I stored file boxes in the storage locker . . . under the bed . . . in the exercise room . . . and of course in my office.

After the NBHOF Library asked if I would be willing to donate my research notes, and I agreed to do so, I chose a year in which I would turn my files over: Summer, 2016. At that time I didn’t know how many file boxes I would end up with. At least three, I was certain, and maybe seven. That’s why I scheduled my file-collecting work to start in November 2015, so that I would have from seven to nine months to get the files in order.

I finished the first file box toward the end of November. I finished the second toward the end of December. I was on a roll! I would finish by the end of March or April and take the rest of the spring and summer off!

But then life, as usual, intervened. In late December of 2015 I was asked by the Private Eye Writers of America if I was willing to be a judge for the Best First Private Eye Novel Award, to be presented at the Bouchercon in September 2016 — judges’ votes due May 31, 2016. I said yes, thinking that the reading of first private eye novels would not take too much of my time.

IMG_3350Such was not the case. Even though there were only 20-some books to read and evaluate, the fact is that reading and evaluating takes more than twice as long as merely reading. So I didn’t finish the third file box until the end of February, 2016. But as I finished that particular box, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. First, I could see that my remaining research notes would occupy two more file boxes: no more. From the vantage point of February, I thought I could finish the last two boxes by mid-June.

Confession time. As I organized my files for the NBHOF, if I encountered any difficulties, I immediately shoved the difficulties aside, telling myself I would deal with them at the end of the project. Gotta keep things moving forward, you know. Which means that putting Box #4 together was a lot more difficult than putting Boxes 1 and 2 together: many of the things I shoved aside had to be decided upon by the fourth box. So I didn’t finish the fourth file box until mid-June.

Our hotel reservations for Cooperstown were set for late August, and I had already set a date of delivering the files to the Library on August 22. After I finished Box #4, I had nine weeks left in which to start and finish the fifth (final!) box.

Box #5 was the most time-consuming of all, because it contained my interview notes. For most of the interviews I had conducted between 1988 and 1992, I immediately typed the notes after I finished the interviews. While I spoke to the person, I took handwritten notes. When we finished talking, I swiveled my chair from my desk to my computer, opened a new word processing file on my Mac, and typed everything into a document. I would say that I did this for almost 90% of my interviews. But there were a few interviews, conducted late in the game, perhaps while I was writing the manuscript, that I never typed up at all.

IMG_4483Back when I was typing the interview notes, spellcheck did not exist. So any typos I made stayed in the document and  in  its subsequent upgrades to new word processing programs. I didn’t want to present notes full of typos to the NBHOF: so my main job in putting together the interview notes was to run each document through spellcheck. And then to standardize the documents’ margins, pagination, and typefaces, so that they would look like they were part of a set.

Of course I had to type up the handwritten interview notes that had somehow escaped my standard procedure twenty-eight years ago. Box #5 took longer than I thought it would — but I finished it before the end of July, 2016.

And on August 22, 2016, I delivered the five boxes to the BHOF Library.

I don’t know yet what my next book will be.

I do know that whatever it is, I will not accumulate thousands of pages of notes on it!

______________________

Some of Barbara Gregorich’s research notes (those covering the years from 1875 to 1934) can be found in Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.

Earliest Memory: A Wagon Load

Early memories that stay with us throughout our lives must do so because they have some deep meaning to us. Else why would such a memory be so persistent?

My earliest memory is very vivid. After living with it for decades, I decided to address it in a poem.

 
Pulling My Wagon

My earliest memory, the one I remember remembering,
the one in which I was conclusively aware, “I am me,
I am pulling my wagon,” finds me somewhere between

two and three years old, wearing a white cotton
shirt, red corduroy overalls, and Mary Jane shoes.
I am playing in the basement, whose silver-gray concrete

floor slopes strongly away from the center. As I walk
around and around the imposing coal-burning furnace
which heats our house, and from whose raised eminence

the floor tilts way, I hold a black cord in my right hand.
On the other end of that cord is a toy, a flatbed wooden
wagon perhaps six inches long, varnished, with four red

wheels. In the middle of the oblong platform is a round
groove, and in that groove nestles a red wooden sphere
with a small knob-like projection. I consider the sphere

a rider in the wagon and the knob the rider’s head.
Pulling my toy around the furnace is no easy feat.
Although I am too young to understand this,

cords are insufficiently stiff links between puller
and pullee, so despite my determined path, my wagon
does not follow, but veers off toward the cellar walls,

where it crashes, this in turn causing the little red sphere,
which I wish to remain upright, to slip and slide within
its groove like bathtub soap and, sometimes, to fall

out of the groove and off the wagon. I am aware,
as I continue my journey, that things are not going
my way —that what I want to happen is not happening:

the toy does not follow me but wheels off in unpredictable
directions; the rider does not sit upright in his groove
and sometimes does not sit in the groove at all. In the midst

of this, perhaps because of this, I am aware that I am me,
a somebody doing something. . . . I do not have the thought, then,
that doing something in this world is neither easy nor predictable.

Unknown

Unlike my wagon, this one has three “riders,” each of which could  topple during a revolution around the furnace.

______________

“Pulling my Wagon” appears in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Presenting to the Public: The Golden Rule

Like many writers I supplement my income and increase the sale of my books by presenting programs to the public. Usually, but not not always, my programs are related to one or more of my books. Experience has taught me that an audience loves to see photos of what I’m talking about, so ever since Apple introduced Keynote (Powerpoint’s superior cousin), I’ve taken the time to build Keynote presentations.

Today most speakers/presenters take advantage of modern technology and use graphics, movement, and sound to enhance the content of their programs. Yet despite the age we live in, many presenters fail to meet the grade. As one who goes to talks given by others, I find myself more often disappointed than not, and the reason I’m most often disappointed is that the presenter reads his or her talk.

I find this totally boring and incredibly annoying. If you’re an author (or a teacher, historian, musician, scientist, whatnot) and you intend to present to the public, think thrice about reading out loud.

Did the person who hired you ask, “Would you be willing to read a speech to our patrons?” Or: “Can you come to our event and read out loud the notes you’ve typed into your Powerpoint/Keynote program?”

I’ll bet not one Outreach Director or Program Coordinator in history has ever made this request.

So: Don’t. Read. Speeches. to. the. Audience!

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fast reader and a good comprehender of what I read. If you intend to take 60 minutes to read a talk to me, I much prefer you give me a copy of the talk so that I can go sit in a corner, read it in 15 minutes, and then use the other 45 minutes to do something exciting.

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

In giving presentations, I feel it’s my obligation to give the kind of talk I myself would love to see and hear. See. And hear. Thus I put together visuals, I add transitions and movement, and I use the logic of events or the logic of story to carry my visuals forward, so that I can simply glance at the screen and see what’s coming next.

I speak directly to the audience. I move around. I make eye contact. I use humor.

Do people actually want this?

You know what the answer is.

I recently gave one of my most popular presentations, When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose, at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Illinois. Several weeks later, the Adult Programming Specialist kindly shared with me the remarks that patrons made on their evaluation sheets. Here are some of their comments.

• interesting, good presenter, good graphics
• excellent research, brought Nellie, Rose and Margaret to life, fun facts
• very interesting, fun
• informative, told stories, knowledgeable, loved her topic
• speaker was super, kept my attention
• entertaining, informative
• the historical slides and the humor
• very impressive, Barbara’s knowledge and facts; the flow she talks with, not just ‘notes;
• enthusiasm; knowledgeable
• excellent; very knowledgeable in the subject, enthusiastic; great slides
• informed, enthused; engaged with audience; humorous; lively; much expression
• very prepared and great pace
• entertaining; funny
• knows her stuff and enjoys sharing it
• loved her knowledge and enthusiasm; but also her physical presentation; very cute “slides” and use of quotations; excellent
• enthusiastic about her subject

This is a long list. I print it not to brag about my presentation, but to help you, if you intend to speak or present in public. Look over the list and notice what stands out:

Knowledge
Enthusiasm
Humor
Visuals
Pacing
Story

These are what I want to see and hear when I attend somebody’s talk. And so they are what I give to others when I’m the speaker. Give unto others as you would have them give unto you.

If you’re going to present to the public, work on your presentation until it’s rich and full. Until it shimmers like a gem. Until it wows the audience. You will please people, and you will be invited to give more presentations — at which, being a writer, you can sell more of your books.

_______________

Barbara Gregorich enjoys sharing what she knows about writing mysteries in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. And, she gives a related 60-minute presentation titled Thinking Like a Mystery Writer.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.

____________________

Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

Finding a Found Poem

Many months ago I explored both web sites and books in order to learn more about different types of poems. I’ve already posted about the fib. The day I learned about the fib I must have been in the F section of information sites, because I also learned about the found poem.

Found poem? I muttered to myself. Is that the opposite of a lost poem?

No. It isn’t.

According to Wikipedia, which in this case provides a good definition, found poetry is “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry (a literary equivalent of a collage) by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.” (Emphasis in original.)

Okay, I thought. That’s great. I now know what a found poem is. On to another subject.

Because, you see, I never thought I’d write a found poem. Nothing about found poetry really “called” to me, you know. Perhaps the found poems were out of hearing range.

But life loves to watch us strolling happily along, thinking we’re in charge of our own decisions — and then throw something in our path that makes us do the opposite of what we said we would do.

So it was with me and the found poem.

My husband, Phil Passen, is a musician, and I am his roadie. One day Phil had a three-hour gig at O’Hare Airport, somewhere in the United terminal. I brought along a novel I had almost finished reading.

Sixty minutes later, I did finish.

Two more hours to go on this gig. And I had forgotten to bring a second novel. What could I do? Besides listen to the wonderful music, of course.

I sat there, looking all around.

Words.

Words everywhere. On posters, flashing in neon, in windows, on plastic signs, on free-standing sandwich boards, on cardboard boxes, on luggage, on trams creeping by, on suitcases . . everywhere.

So I wrote down maybe half of the words I could see.

Found Poem

And then, even though the Wiki definition does not say that a found poem makes changes in the order of words, my found poem does. I rearranged the words (okay, okay, the spacing and the lines, too, and maybe I even deleted some words) and produced my first (and so far, only) found poem. You could say I found it at O’Hare.

United We Wait

Duty Free Liberty
United Club
Wi-Fi Available
Concourse C Baggage Claim
Currency Exchange
Animal Relief Area
Welcome US Customs Require That
Life-goes-on Insurance
From the International Best-Selling Trilogy
Let Us Serve You
Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago
You’re going to need a bigger map
Please Ask for Assistance
Not just leg-room . . . laptop room
Restrooms
Prudent
Earn Miles and Rewards
Priority Boarding
Trains to City
Ticketing/Check-In
Terminals

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s not-lost poetry can be found in Crossing the Skyway.

Writing My First Novel: Part 2

So after I overcame the grief of killing off a character and once again tackled the writing of She’s on First, I had four chapters to go. And I was still working full time. I finished the four chapters in five months. Voila! A completed manuscript!

Finishing a manuscript is quite an accomplishment, but as any writer who wants to be published knows, that first step, difficult as it is, is often easier than getting published.

I set out to find an agent. Using Literary Market Place, I found the names of reputable agents and wrote short (less than a full page) query letters to three at a time, describing my novel and asking if they would like to see the manuscript. I also wrote to agents who weren’t listed in LMP but who were listed in other sources, specifically in writer’s magazines. This, as it turned out, was a beginner’s mistake.

Few agents responded. One who did respond asked to see my manuscript. He was not listed in Literary Market Place. This was a warning I should have heeded. I was so thrilled that an editor wanted to read my story that I paid no attention to warning  signs. After I mailed him my manuscript, the agent then failed to communicate. When I asked him to return my manuscript, he said he lost it. Never in my life have I been so grateful for backup: I had a carbon copy. Not long after I learned the agent had lost my manuscript, I purchased my first computer, a Macintosh. I re-typed the manuscript on the computer, backed it up on a floppy disk, and once again started out to find a reputable and responsible agent.

A Chicago writers organization sponsored a talk and interview with agent Jane Jordan Browne. I went to hear her and was impressed with what she had to say. So I sent her a query letter, and she asked to see my manuscript.

After Jane read She’s on First, she said she would represent it if I rewrote it, cutting 100 pages out of the total. The manuscript was 406 pages long, which meant I had to cut it to 306 pages. “Cut the deadwood,” she advised.

sc00d32959

It was up to me, of course, to determine what was deadwood. And that in itself was an interesting lesson. I sat down with a red pen and began to cross out sentences and paragraphs that didn’t advance the story. That took several days. Then I  began rewriting. When I finished, my manuscript was 304 pages long. I had managed to cut 102 pages.

I sent the rewritten manuscript back to Jane and she accepted it. But Jane did not have an especially easy time trying to sell She’s on First. Mostly she received rejects saying that the story was enjoyable — but that “the public” did not want to read about a female baseball player.

I, meanwhile, attended the American Bookseller Association’s Conferences each year (the ABA annual event is now called Book Expo) to look at the new crop of fiction, to study publishers, and to meet editors. One year I was thrilled to see that a novel about a woman hockey player was being prominently displayed. This made me feel that a novel about a woman baseball player might be looked at with interest by editors.

sc00160a8fThe novel about the woman hockey player apparently didn’t do well, which caused even more editors to turn down She’s on First. Finally, though, more than two years after Jane had accepted my story, she sold hardcover rights to Contemporary Books, a Chicago nonfiction publisher which was branching out into fiction.

She’s on First was published in hardcover in 1987, and I was super-excited when my first novel came out. I had an autographing at Kroch’s and Brentano’s the very first day, and other autographings in different states the entire year.

The following year She’s on First came out in mass market paperback. Paperjacks, the Canadian publisher which bought paperback rights, made She’s on First their lead novel of the month, and as I was driving across the Midwest and Southwest on an extended trip, I saw my first novel in paperback racks everywhere, including tiny little drugstores in tiny little towns. That was exciting.

One year later, She’s on First was published in Japan.

sc00161e3eIn the US, the hardcover edition sold out within a year. There was no second printing, probably because the mass market paperback was available. After my novel was out of print, my agent made sure the rights reverted to me. She did this by writing to the publisher and having them send a formal reversion-of-rights letter. This was around the year 1990.

After that, She’s on First was out of print for twenty years. During those twenty years, there were three movie options on the book, but none came to fruition. Two publishers expressed interest in reprint rights, but nothing came of that.

During the twenty years that She’s on First was out of print, I wrote many other books. I thought my first novel would remain out of print forever, available only in used bookstores and on eBay. Then came the revolution in the publishing world: digital publishing and Print on Demand, making it possible for any individual to self-publish a book. In 2010, I self-published my very first CreateSpace book, and, fittingly, that book was my first novel, She’s on First.

With self-publishing, the writer is in control. So, as writer, I restored a small scene about a female umpire — this had been cut from the hardcover version in 1986. It gave me great pleasure to restore this scene — to show that there’s more than one way for a woman to be on the baseball field, and to show that those who are discriminated against usually feel solidarity with one another.

The second thing I did once I was in charge of republishing my own novel was to put a different cover on it. By 2010 both previous covers looked dated. So I searched for photos of women playing baseball and found the one I wanted. I paid for one-time use of the photo and asked writer-illustrator friend Robin Koontz to design the cover.

The result is my favorite version of my first novel.

KindleCover-SOFI’m not sure that I expected book reviews with the reprint of She’s on First, but as it turned out, the book was reviewed, as a reprint of course.

Another big surprise to me was that on the 25th anniversary of the publication of She’s on First, Patrick Reardon wrote a review of it on his blog, The Pump Don’t Work. Twenty. Five. Years. I wasn’t paying any attention to this anniversary, but certainly should have been. I’m very grateful that Patrick Reardon was paying attention.

Writing a first novel is a daunting proposition. It’s a long road across uncharted (by you) country. You’ve never driven a vehicle before, you’ve never crossed this land before. Unknowns everywhere.

But both the newness of the experience and the blank landscape of the country can be conquered. If you were driving a journey of 10,000 miles, you would of necessity break it up into individual days. Say your goal is to drive 500 miles a day. That’s a twenty day trip. You take it one day at a time, confronting that day’s obstacles as they come up.

Writing a novel is similar. You have a journey of, say, 300 pages. You can make the trip in 300 days or, if you’re very lucky, 150 days. Even 75 days, though most first novels aren’t written that quickly. With a rough outline before you, you know where to go each day. You sit down at the computer and write.

Sort of like a batter steps up to the plate and hits.

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You can read reviews of She’s on First here.