My Writing Life: 4

Eventually I gave up my day job, knowing it would mean a decline in income, but an increase in opportunity to write and sell what I wrote. During my first three months of self-employment, I had grave concerns about my decision — mainly because I had said yes to a gigantic editing job for a company that sold refrigerators and refrigeration systems. It was my job to thoroughly edit the refrigeration manuals, so that both the customers and the sales force knew what was being said. 

This meant that I had to verify each fact (this was before the internet!) on how many BTUs were involved, how many coils, what temperatures, and so on. I worked on this manual on location, at the headquarters of the company hired to do the editing. I worked in a dark cubicle in a dark room. On refrigeration facts.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wake me when it’s 5 p.m., please.

One of the things this experience solidified in my mind was that people who wrote technical manuals did not write good English, in that they Did. Not. Say. What. They. Meant. I think they were trying to say what they meant, but they couldn’t distinguish between what they said (what their words said) and what they meant to say. This is a common problem with many beginning writers, or with people who write but don’t understand how to write well. I’m not singling out technical writers.

Anyway, as I started to say, this experience made me doubt my decision to “quit my day job.” But after I finished editing the thousands of pages of technical writing and was paid for my work, I simply decided: No more technical manuals. 

For several years a portion of my freelance writing consisted of writing users’ guides to filmstrips, audiotapes, educational kits and packages, and the like. The users’ manuals were meant for either teachers or parents or students themselves.

Again, here was an example of having to write clearly and concisely. It wasn’t super-exciting, but I enjoyed writing a good users’ manual. I was paid $250 for a 400-800 word explanation of how to use the written “product.” But then publishers began cutting the payment for this work, and I stopped doing it. Since then, I swear, users’ manuals are written by computers!

The most concise, succinct, pithy, terse stories I was ever assigned to write were 50 word stories. You got it: 50 words. Preferably 48 or 49 words, but top limit of 50. These were for preschoolers who were looking at a single page of plastic-y paper into which was inscribed some kind of digitized (I think) design. When the preschooler held a small device over the inscribed part of the page, a voice read the 50-word story — which related to what was illustrated on the single page. I’m not able to describe this very accurately because I was never given a sample product, the way I usually am.

This was exacting work. Look at an illustration. Create a story to go with it. Write the story in 50 words or fewer. And I want to point out that a STORY has characters and conflict and resolution. 

Thank goodness this company did not pay by the word: they paid a set amount for each story. I don’t remember what that amount was, but I think it may have been $150. If you compare that to what I was paid to write a 400-800 word users’ manual, you can see that story writing paid better, and I think that was because the company was paying for not just the words, but the creativity involved and the difficulty of the assignment.

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Editing refrigeration manuals helped Barbara Gregorich earn income while researching the story of female baseball players and publishing Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.

The F Words: The Gift of Fire

After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining  everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.

What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?

Everything.

During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.

Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.

Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.

And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties. 

Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.

And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice  needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans.  For  gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.

Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.

Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

My Writing Life: 3

When I first decided to try writing full-time, I attended many writers conferences so that I could learn about the writing business and various publishers. One piece of advice every established writer gave — advice that is still given today — was this: Don’t quit your day job.

This is good advice for the simple reason that writing doesn’t pay well, at least not in the US. Back in 1950, the average advance for a first novel was about $3,000. Today it is still that. Or, in many cases, less. According to a 2015 survey of Authors Guild writers, those full-time writers who were earning $25,000 in 2009, were earning $17,500 in 2015. That’s a 30% decline in income. And the part-time writers who earned $7,250 in 2009, earned only $4,500 in 2015. That’s a 38% decline in wages. The majority of writers are poorly paid for their work and are thus forced to earn income in other ways.

Many writers teach, as I did when I taught college English. Some writers give speeches/presentations, as I do. Some writers earn income doing something totally unrelated to writing. I did that when I worked as a typesetter and later when I worked as a letter carrier for the postal service.

Another good piece of advice (in addition to “Keep your day job”) for writers who are starting out is to seek out writing-related work. Usually this is part-time work such as being a stringer for newspapers. I did that for a year, covering local sporting events and town board meetings. (Yawn!) But producing x-number of words under very tight deadlines (an hour!), and having those words published, not only develops your writing skills — it also gives you credentials if you want to apply for a full-time writing job in some field.

After going through the stringer experience, I decided to apply for a job as a writer-producer of educational filmstrips back in the late 1970s. I was hired and immediately was assigned a series of four related filmstrips on a language arts subject. I don’t remember what my first filmstrip set was, though I do remember some of the later ones. 

It was my job to figure out how to teach students a topic such as “How to Read a Newspaper” in four filmstrips, maximum number of 60 frames in each strip. So I had to think, analyze, outline, and then create the characters in the filmstrip, write their dialogue, draw little doodles of what the graphic frames would look like. Then I hired the photographer, the student models, and arranged for photography to take place at a certain location. As producer and director, I was always present on the location site. (No, I did not get to shout “It’s a wrap!”). 

After selecting the photos I wanted (usually 10-15% of what the photographer shot), I arranged them in order, took them to the film department, worked out a production schedule for the filmstrip to be ready. Meanwhile, I had to audition and hire narrators for the project, then accompany them to the recording studio and listen very carefully to everything they said as they narrated.

Of all the surprising things I learned while writing and producing filmstrips, the most surprising one was How. Many. Takes. it took to narrate each filmstrip. Narrators, even professional ones, stumble. They pop the letter P into the mike, so it sounds like a small explosion. They slur over the “ing” or “ed” endings of words. In Chicago they pronounce the word may-or as if it were mare. And so on. I have never had to be as vigilant on any project as I had to be while listening to narrators. 

Speaking of narration, I spent many months writing audio tapes aimed at high school students. Each tape was 30-45 minutes long. I can barely remember what the topics were: obviously something that could be explained via the spoken word, without visuals of any kind. I seem to recall something about how to make a schedule, how to read a book, how to balance a checkbook.

That was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I don’t think audiotapes are used much today, unless they are merely the audio part of a visual lesson. 

What I remember most about writing those audios was that in order to write a good one, I had to organize the topic really well. Logically, so that one point flowed into another. And I had to explain the steps clearly and concisely, with examples or analogies. Writing short, as they say, is a great way to learn how to write well — it teaches you to make the writing flow logically, and it teaches you how to cover each step with no more than the necessary information.

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When Barbara Gregorich wasn’t busy listening to studio narration, she worked on writing Dirty Proof, a mystery novel.

The F Words: Bilingualism

Not counting the US, approximately 65-75% of the world’s population is bilingual. In the US in 1980 only 10% of the population was bilingual. Today that number has risen to 20%, possibly to 25%, primarily through immigrants, largely Spanish-speaking.

Many different cultures have positive proverbs about knowing more than one language. An old Persian proverb states: “A new language is a new life.” But this respectful attitude toward bilingualism and even polyglotism did not make its way across the Atlantic and into North America. Up until recently there was a stigma attached to speaking a second language (one that wasn’t English) in the US and Canada.

Yet many different studies have shown that bilingual people have many advantages over those who are monolingual. 

In no particular order, here are a few of these advantages:

  • Greater Brain Power — Bilingualism improves memory, multitasking, problem solving, and creativity.
  • Increased Academic Skills — Bilingual children score better in literacy, emotional development, and social skills. 
  • Greater Cultural Awareness — Being exposed to the language and customs of other cultures helps a person develop more empathy. As Charlemagne put it 700 years ago, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
  • Greater Job Opportunities — people who speak two languages are more competitive in the job market because they have more language skills.

Canada has a partial policy of bilingualism, assuring the right of the French minority to instruction in their own language. And students in the publicly funded schools of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick are required to study French from grades 4 through 8. (Apparently this is not an educational requirement in Canada’s other provinces.)

Because this is not a nation-wide requirement, only 18% of Canadians are truly bilingual. The rest, for the most part, speak only English, though they may speak and read French to a lesser degree. That is, not a full-fluency degree.

I can identify with people who have studied other languages but don’t have full fluency in them. That, in fact, identifies me. I do not have full fluency in Croatian or German or Russian or French (though my high school French really helps me when it comes to solving crossword puzzles!). I suspect, though, that I subconsciously yearn for fluency in a second language. 

This subconscious yearning and my actual language experiences resided within me for decades and, even though I never consciously thought about the question of bilingualism, they bubbled forth and formed a strong subtext within my YA novel, The F Words. To my surprise the whole question of bilingualism revealed itself in a way I never would have thought of had I been making a conscious decision.

Let me explain. The main idea, the thrust and theme of The F Words is not bilingualism. The novel is about a working class high school teen, Cole Renner, whose father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for “inciting to violence” while leading a public protest against the closing of a neighborhood school. Cole fears for his father, and that fear drives part of the plot. At the same time, Cole works to help his best friend, Felipe Ramirez, run for class president.

The F Words is about student rights, immigrant rights, freedom of speech . . . and poetry. The poetry is an assignment: when Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher, catches Cole tagging the high school wall with the F word, he requires that Cole write two poems a week, each about a word that begins with the letter F.

But the issue of bilingualism and the advantages of bilingualism are woven into the story. (As is the poetry.) First, there’s Felipe, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, able to converse on equal terms with all of his fellow students. Felipe, who is very sociable, wins the votes of his classmates.

Because Cole and Felipe have been best friends since first grade and spend time at each other’s houses, Cole has learned Spanish and is able to converse with Felipe’s entire family. Like Felipe, Cole can switch back and forth between languages easily. Both characters are more flexible, in many different ways, than they would be if they were monolingual. And although I never gave a single consideration to something called “mutual bilingualism” while writing The F Words, it seems to me that this is what we should want for ourselves and our country. Felipe needs to be able to speak English, but Cole (and others) needs to be able to speak Spanish. Bilingualism is a two-way street.

Cole and Felipe aren’t the only bilingual characters in The F Words. There’s also Emerald Jackson, who speaks two kinds of English: Standard and Black. Cole notices this and admires it, as when they are in English class and Mr. Nachman is asking questions about Walden.

Emerald Jackson is nodding her head up and down, up and down. “We the richest country in the world, not counting some of those little Arab emirates like Qatar. Everybody should have a huge house and three cars.” Sometimes Emerald talks in Black dialect. Like now. I always like it when she does.

Later in the same class:  

“Money rules our lives,” answers Emerald. “We need to earn it to buy food and housing. And clothes. And go to college. He’s saying we need to make decisions about what we’ll spend our lives doing.” Sometimes Emerald speaks in standard English. Like  now.

If these examples were the only bilingualism running through The F Words, the story might imply that there are no problems with being bilingual in the United States. That, sad to say, is not the case. Those who speak two languages are, unfortunately, frowned upon and discriminated against by many — even by teachers.

All my life I’ve heard monolingual people say things such as “If you can’t speak English, go back to where you came from.” It’s hard to say what’s worse about such an attitude: that it’s self-righteous, or that it’s ignorant. Almost every time I’ve heard this said, it has been said to a person who is an American. That is, born and raised in the United States, but able to speak two or more languages.

This myopic monolingual attitude is depicted in The F Words. Cole and Felipe have just been called to the principal’s office, and during the course of her interrogation Ms. Delaney asks Felipe if he’s related to Bianca Sanchez. He is. She’s his cousin, and she was expelled from their high school because, when a teacher told her to speak English or go back to Mexico, Bianca retaliated. 

Although I created the fictional situation in which this occurs, the fact is that such things are still occurring in our school systems. As I was writing the second draft of The F Words, students in a New Jersey high school walked out of class when a teacher implied that a bilingual student had no right to speak Spanish: that her only “right” was to speak “American.” As I was writing the third draft an Illinois third-grade teacher punished Spanish-speaking students (when they spoke in Spanish) by making them sit on the floor, apart from other students. There are many other examples.

When I was writing The F Words and had Bianca retaliate against the teacher, I wasn’t aware that in so many cases today the bilingual students are fighting back, using the cameras on their phones to record the incidents, then reporting to the principal and their parents and the media. I’m aware of them now. Clearly students who speak two languages are proud of speaking both languages and feel that they have a right to do so. 

Which takes us back to one of the main advantages of bilingualism — increased brain power, leading to greater creativity and skills at problem solving. I’m so glad I was able to capture and depict this situation in The F Words, and I would like to see every young person have the opportunity to move freely and happily through another language, growing in understanding and ability. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

My Writing Life: 2

After that initial short story I wrote in high school, my next foray into fiction came about fifteen years later, when I decided to start writing novels. I had plenty of plots in mind and just needed to decide which one to start with. At the time I was working as a typesetter for the Chicago Tribune, and each work day I reported to the dark nether regions of the old Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. Working the night shift gave me an idea for a mystery novel. At the same time, I was interested in writing a novel about a woman playing shortstop in the major leagues.

I remember that Phil and I would talk about these two books on our evening walks. Which one should I write first? We both felt that a woman entering Major League Baseball was not that far away. After all, Pam Postema was an umpire in AAA ball, and rumor was she would soon make her way into the majors. Could a female baseball player be that far behind?

So we agreed that I would write the book that became She’s on First (which was finally published in 1987). Because, after all, we didn’t want real life (i.e., a woman entering the major leagues) to occur before my book was published.

As if. 

Here it is, 35 years after the publication of She’s on First, and women are still barred from the minor leagues — which are the gateway to the major leagues. You have no doubt heard the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Well, here’s a case where truth is more backward than fiction.

From the time I wrote the first draft of She’s on First until the time it was published, I wrote lots of fiction. Lots and lots of fiction. Most of it was in the form of short (150-400 word) stories for educational publishers. Usually these stories were meant for language skills workbooks. As the writer of the educational workbook, I asked the student users questions about the story they had just read, testing their knowledge of vocabulary, figurative language, cause and effect, inference, and so on. Not only did I write the story, I wrote the questions based on the story, and then of course I had to write the answer key for the parent or teacher.

A few of the workbooks I wrote are: Vocabulary Vampire; Logical Logic; Reading Baseball; Categories; Eating Right; Geography Skills; Racing Math. And about 150 others — many of whose titles I no longer remember. 

I wrote so many activity books for so many different educational publishers that I put a cork map of the US on my office wall and inserted a pin into every home state of a publisher I had worked for. When I finally gave up writing activity books (I returned to it later, but at a slower pace), I had pins in 29 of the 50 states.

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She’s on First is available in paperback and ebook versions.

The F Words: Minor Characters

I often enjoy minor characters in literature, and as a writer I thoroughly enjoy creating minor characters. In literature minor characters play a variety of roles. One of their major roles, of course, is to help move the plot forward. If they weren’t there, then the major characters would have no interaction with anybody but themselves — which could become boring.

Another important role of minor characters is to help characterize the major characters — either in being like them, or in offering a different viewpoint or a different behavior. Minor characters often help us understand one of the major characters better. Minor characters are sort of like reflective screens: they help the light illuminate the major characters.

And in addition to aiding in plot advancement and character development,  minor characters help develop a novel’s tone. By tone I mean the novel’s mood, the emotions it evokes, and the perspective it presents. A minor character who exists in a romance is going to be very different from a minor  character who exists in a serious novel such as Paulette Jiles’ News of the World. In each genre, minor characters serve to reinforce the traditions of the genre and the expectations of the reader.

In She’s on First I created a lot of minor characters. This was necessary because the protagonist, Linda Sunshine, was a major league baseball player, and MLB teams have a roster of twenty-five players. In The F Words, I didn’t need as many minor characters, but I did need quite a few.

For starters, I needed Cole’s parents: Hank and Stacey. Then I needed Mrs. Green, owner of the greenhouse where Cole works. I needed fellow students of Cole’s. I needed the coach of the cross-country team. And I needed a neighbor or two: somebody who was part of the Committee to Save Public Education.

There are two kinds of minor characters: ones who have “major” roles in the book and are part of several scenes; and ones who don’t have major roles and may or may not be part of scenes. I really enjoyed creating and developing each of these many characters . . . but it would take me a long time to analyze each of them.

So, I’m going to look at four of the minor characters: Emerald Jackson; Nikki Zurlo; Coach; and Ethan. Nikki, Coach, and Ethan fall into the minor minor character roles. Emerald is a major minor character. I want to talk mostly about minor-minor characters to show that there should be a reason for every minor character you create, and that character should play some sort of role in helping develop plot, character, or tone.

Ethan — It’s not always necessary to give full names to minor characters, and Ethan is one of the other six runners on the high school cross-country team. None of them receive last names. It would be too cumbersome to do so: readers wouldn’t remember the characters’ full names.

On one of the bus rides to cross-country practice, Cole and Ethan talk about empathy. The reader sees empathy from Ethan’s perspective. Later, when Cole wants to invite friends to the pro-immigrant rally, he invites Ethan and reminds him: EMPATHY. 

Ethan comes to Felipe’s party and he listens to Fatima and Hasna talk about how they carry extra hajibs because theirs are sometimes snatched off their heads by people who hate Muslims. Ethan is a fellow student who listens and absorbs what he’s seeing and hearing. I think he’s typical of many of the students at August Mersy High School. Mostly I think Ethan contributes to creating the tone of the book — ordinary people can be inquisitive, can think, can learn, can change.

Coach — When I was writing the book, I tried to come up with a name for Cole’s cross-country coach. Nothing seemed right. Then I thought, “Well, the runners are apt to call him just ‘Coach.’” And so I went with that.

The fact that he has neither a first nor a last name puts the emphasis on this character’s function. He trains young runners. He helps them improve their skills as well as their analytic abilities. And he especially helps them improve their thinking of their group as a team. 

Coach challenges the runners to do more than they think they can. This is evident in the scene where he tells Ricardo and Cole to pass Palatine in the last half mile. He expects them to stay in the lead for that entire last half mile. 

Coach also delivers ironic statements, though neither the Coach nor Cole nor the reader know they’re ironic at the time. An example is when he tells the team that winter runs are fun runs. For Cole, they turn out to be anything but fun runs.

And Coach is also an adult character who really cares about the students he’s entrusted to teach. He takes one look at Cole in the hallways in December and tells Cole to cut back on the running. Even though he has no idea why Cole is looking stressed, Coach does recognize the strain that Cole is under and wants him to not be under that strain.

Emerald Jackson — Though Cole is white and Emerald is Black, they are good enough friends that they exchange texts, and it’s Emerald that Cole turns to when his father’s visitation privileges are cut off. Cole respects Emerald because she’s very intelligent and widely read.  Emerald in turn thinks highly enough of Cole to speak openly to him about matters such as Black people being political prisoners. 

Emerald happens to be the nearby classmate who Cole, Felipe, and Treva start their photo campaign with. She grasps the situation instantaneously, grabs two fellow tenth graders, and — the campaign is off to a fun start. In fact, it’s Emerald who sets the tone for the campaign photos.

I think that Emerald’s main role is to set the tone for where the political struggle should be. She wears a Black Lives Matter button and goes to BLM demonstrations. She is on a higher plane of political understanding and commitment than are most of the students. But she’s also a member of her high school class and seems to be able to relate to everybody. Emerald is incredibly observant and can summarize a situation instantly and wittily.

When Mr. Nachman brings members of the English class to watch the cross-country meet, Emerald utters one of my favorite lines in the book. “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.” While I thought that was typical of Emerald’s wittiness, I didn’t realize, as I was writing it, that this statement is also full of foreshadowing. Only later did I see that.

Emerald’s role is a a bit like Treva’s: a fellow student who’s slightly ahead of others in her level of commitment and understanding. In this way she’s a contrast to Ethan.

Nikki Zurlo — Nikki is secretary to Ms. Delaney. She lives in Cole’s neighborhood and is friends with his parents because she, like them and like Mrs. Green and Mr. Cafasso, is a member of the Committee to Save Public Education. Her children go to Euclid Grade School.

That these three minor characters are members of the committee is something I think most readers won’t notice. But they are, and all three serve part of the same function — to show that ordinary people are affected by the school closings, and to show that ordinary people can (and do) think and act. They can be brave . . . thereby surprising those who think such people are forever subservient. Nikki’s function is to show the quiet heroism of common, working class people. She is an adult and she functions as an adult: she takes responsibility for her own actions and, most importantly, she does what Spike Lee urged us all to do — the right thing.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

My Writing Life: 1

It’s interesting for me to consider where my writing life began. An image from my very early years comes to me: I’m holding a blue crayon and I’m “writing” all across the pages of a picture book. By the time I got to first grade I realized that was not the way to treat a book. I also realized that I hadn’t been writing — I had been scribbling lines on paper.

I was first conscious that I enjoyed writing — and that I might grow up to become a writer — when I was eleven years old and wrote a poem, “I Want a Horse.” It was a four-line poem in iambic tetrameter (I didn’t know that then) with a rhyme scheme of abcb. I still remember the poem to this day, and I’m kind of amazed that I chose to have two of the four lines not rhyme. Did I do that by myself? Or was I modeling the quatrain on poems I had heard? I suspect the latter, but I have no way of knowing..

My poem, “I Want a Horse,” stayed in my mind for so many years that, a few decades after I wrote it, I used it (exactly as I had written it) in one of the educational workbooks I’ve written. So the poem I wrote at the age of eleven was published decades later.

For who knows what reasons, after I wrote the horse poem I stopped writing poetry. For a long, long time. I finally took it up again in the early 2000s, and for several years I wrote just about everything in free verse, including my book Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

I published my first book of poetry, Crossing the Skyway: Poems, in 2013. Interestingly, one of the poems in the book is about a horse, and a few years after the book was published I blogged about the horse poem. Writers, as you can tell, use things over and over, but in a different way each time. 

The first time I was published I was sixteen years old, and publication came from the encouragement of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. One of our in-class assignments was to write a personal-experience piece. I wrote about why I hate onions. My teacher strongly encouraged me to send the piece to the local newspaper. I did, and they published it. “Wow!” I thought. “Getting published is easy!”

Of course, getting published is not easy, and I learned that soon enough when I began writing books.

By the time I was in college I was a writer of poetry (only one poem, true), nonfiction (essays, personal experiences, humor, research papers, etc), and fiction. Although I suspect I wrote fiction in grade school and junior high, I don’t remember any of it. The first piece of fiction I remember writing came in tenth grade, when I wrote a short story about a Pony Express rider (horses again!). I remember really liking my own story. Then, several years later, when in college, I researched the Pony Express for some reason and learned that just about every detail I had made up in the story was wrong. Wrong!

Thank goodness that story was never published: it would be too embarrassing to have readers point out the inaccuracies. One thing the experience taught me is this: research fiction before you write it! That’s something I’ve done ever since.

Something else embarrassed me about my high school Pony Express story, and that was the name I gave the hero. Ashley Marathon. It sounded like a such a wonderful name to me when I was sixteen years old. But just a few years later, I began to realize that Ashley (Gone with the Wind notwithstanding) was an unlikely name for a mid-19th century young man to have. Not impossible, but definitely unlikely. The same was even more true of Marathon.

Ever since writing that Pony Express story I have paid careful attention to character names, both first and last. I use three or four different name sources each time I write fiction: Census Bureau information on common first names in each decade, as well as two excellent reference books on the history of last names in the US. 

And I enjoy knowing that a mistake I made early in my writing, when I was sixteen years old, ended up teaching me to research so that I could make stories more realistic.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent free verse book is not about a horse. Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is about the most famous resident of the Brookfield Zoo.

The F Words: The Writing

For well over a year now I’ve been blogging about various aspects of The F Words, but one thing I haven’t talked about is the actual steps of writing the novel. Writers and readers are often interested in how writing takes place. So, for those who might want to know, I will try to recount the steps of writing The F Words.

Maybe twenty years ago (it was around the turn of the century) I decided I wanted to write a YA novel and that it should be about the political struggles for social justice.  The title and the opening scene came to me: the image of a teen tagging his high school wall with the f word. The title came at the same time: The F Words. (I knew there would be more than one f word in the book, because in thinking about political struggle I thought of fight, foe, fair, flexibility, freedom.) I filed this decision away in the future-books part of my brain and went about writing other things.

In the year 2016 I attended a huge demonstration for immigrant rights, and it was there that part of the plot of the YA novel came to me. You can read about that in my blog The F Words: Political Protests.

Somewhere around then I began developing the characters for The F Words. This took months. I gave them names, I gave them personalities, I gave them conflict. So far, none of this was on paper, it was all in my head.

In late 2016 I created a notebook for The F Words, giving each character a name, a description, and conflict or conflicts. For me, this is a very important step in the writing of a book. I always use a paper notebook (not computer) and I write down my thoughts — often so fast that I scribble furiously and sometimes can’t read my own writing a month later.

From notebook to first written words was, in this case, a short step: maybe two or three months. Before I started to write, I was sure of maybe one-third of what would occur — the rest I would discover as I wrote. My digital files tell me that I started and finished the first draft in 2017. Ditto for the second draft: I started it in autumn of 2017 and finished before the year ended.

The first draft took maybe seven months. Part of its plot involved the high school newspaper and freedom of speech for teens. But, as it turned out, this part of the  plot went nowhere. As I wrote, I found the story moving more strongly toward the attacks on public education and the jailing or imprisonment of protesters. And the mass deportations of immigrants.  In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper thread.

I started the third draft on January 3, 2018. I’m not sure what the difference between the second and third draft was. I think that in the third I jettisoned even more subplots, tightening the poetry and tightening the plot. Definitely developing the characters more. By April of 2018 I was writing the fourth draft, and by the end of that year I finished the fifth draft.

I then spent most of 2019 trying to find an agent who would represent the book. I failed to find such a person, and so late in 2019 I began to market the book myself.

In April of 2020 City of Light Publishing offered me a contract, and in September of 2021 The F Words was published.

In the case of The F Words, from original inkling of an idea to signing of a publishing contract was twenty years. But the data that really matters is the period from when I started the notebook in  2016 to when the manuscript sold, early 2020. That was four years of writing, totaling five drafts. 

For me, five drafts are a bit more than I usually write. Three or four is more normal for me. I’ve never, ever sold a second draft. Wouldn’t dream of submitting a second draft! I am thrilled if I think a third draft is good enough to submit.

The first draft is the most difficult to write because the writer is creating something out of nothing: creating characters, plot, scene, dialogue. The second draft is very difficult, though not as hard as the first (maybe only because it doesn’t take quite as long to rewrite as it does to write . . . in most cases). In the second draft entire chapters have to be deep-sixed. Characters have to disappear, new ones have to be created. Conflicts have to be clarified, motives developed. On and on it goes: the second draft is where a writer reshapes the entire book into something much, much better than the first draft.

The third draft usually isn’t difficult, at least in my experience. It consists of refining the second draft, dealing with foreshadowing, improving the language, making the book more literary.

And if, in the third draft, the writer failed to weave every thread tightly into the correct pattern for that particular book, then she has to do it in the fourth draft. Or, in my case, the fifth.

This was my process with The F Words, which is fiction. I’ve had similar, but not identical, patterns with my other books.

A couple of examples.  The first draft of She’s on First took me three years to complete, as compared to the seven months of The F Words. The first draft of Women at Play (nonfiction) took 92 days. That was due to my publishing contract: I was given 92 days to write the book, period. Very, very intense: I wrote eleven hours a day. With The F Words, I wrote every day, but usually just one hour. 

And Jack and Larry was different from anything else. I wrote four first drafts. That’s right. I wrote four different books. First I wrote a picture book, but I decided that wasn’t the way to go. So that first draft ended right there. Then I wrote the first draft of a middle grades book about Jack Graney. I decided that wasn’t the way to go, either. That first draft ended, too. Next came a first draft of a long magazine article. That draft went the way of the others, also. Finally came the first draft of the free verse book: this was the keeper, and from it I wrote the subsequent drafts and published the book.

Writing a book such as Jack and Larry consisted of finding the right format. Writing a mostly straight narrative novel such as The F Words was, for me, a matter of putting the story down in words on the first draft, and then improving that draft until I had a tightly woven story. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that this is the path the writing of most novels takes.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Symbols

Although I love literature and am avidly interested in many different parts of a story and the way a story works (as you can probably tell from reading my blogs about The F Words), I have, I confess, never been much interested in symbols in literature. In fact [embarrassing], I can sometimes read a novel and entirely miss the fact that some objects work as symbols.

A symbol is a concrete object whose repeated use in a story comes to represent an abstraction. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, the Mississippi River symbolizes freedom. (I actually got that symbol the first time I read the book.) The briefcase in The Invisible Man symbolizes the lies and manipulations that political institutions have used to deny Black Americans equality. When I first read The Invisible Man, I strongly sensed that the briefcase symbolized something . . . but I was so engrossed by the story that while I realized the briefcase did stand for something, I didn’t think about what it might be.

When I was reading Moby Dick, one of my favorite novels, I was fully aware that the great while whale symbolized something. And I did ponder what that might be. Evil? Innocence? A life force? The indifference of the Universe? I decided that I didn’t know. Later, I was gratified to learn that most critics agree that the symbolism of Moby Dick is meant to be enigmatic, representing nature, evil, the ocean, the universe . . . who knows.

I can’t say that I didn’t care . . . but, for me, the use of symbols in literature is not something I yearn for or gravitate toward. I enjoy spotting symbols when I read, but I’m not sure that not spotting them makes the reading any less enjoyable for me.

As a writer, I seldom employ symbols because, as I said, I don’t gravitate toward them. But sometimes as I’m writing I realize that I’m using an object repeatedly. Then I ask myself: What does this mean? Is this object important to the story? Does it represent something?

When I ask myself these questions, my subconscious jumps in with an answer, which usually goes something like this: This object plays a role in the story. If it didn’t, it would go away, no longer be part of your writing consciousness. So figure out what role it plays and use that information to write a better story.

The subconscious can be very hard for writers to deal with. Especially since all the subconscious has to do is make statements and hints and nudges — it’s the writer who has to do the actual work.

You can see that when it comes to symbolism, I have a running battle with my subconscious, trying to ignore any of its nudges regarding symbols.

But every now and then I can’t ignore these nudges. When I’m writing I may sense that something is a symbol, but I don’t necessarily know what it symbolizes. It may be the same with other writers: I don’t know. In She’s on First, I think that the baseball itself was a symbol. In Sound Proof the drum is probably a symbol, and maybe the pitchfork, too. And in The F Words the megaphone is definitely a symbol. I noticed this as I was writing the second draft. The megaphone appeared in many places. 

More, whispered my subconscious. More places! 

Much as I hate to admit it, my subconscious was right. I needed to use the megaphone in even more places than I had, just to lock down the fact that it was a symbol. And so I did. But when I say “more places,” I don’t mean twenty more places. That would be overkill. I’m talking about maybe five or six more places,  each of them visual and memorable because the scene is an  important one — as when Stacey Renner goes to the Immigrant Rights rally with Cole and his friends. As when Cole fights back against Principal Delaney.

Symbols are, remember, physical objects which stand for abstractions. River = freedom. I’m not going to tell you what I think the megaphone symbolizes, because what it symbolizes might be different to different readers. But if you’re into symbols, think about the megaphone. Feel free to post your answer!

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words and She’s on First

For the last year, as I’ve been marketing The F Words, I’ve often thought about She’s on First. I suppose that the immediate reason I think of the two books together is that they are, for me, both firsts. She’s on First is the first novel I published (1987.) And The F Words (2021) is my first YA novel.

As I work on marketing The F Words, I often think about what it was like marketing She’s on First. The world has changed so much! Back in 1987 I printed special She’s on First stationery and printed (on my computer) letters and mailed them out. The time involved! The postage costs! Today, with The F Words, almost all marketing I do is done electronically: emails, web  pages, blogs, newsletters, videos, Zoom conferences, virtual visits.

However, I think that these physical similarities and differences aren’t the main reason I keep thinking of the two books at the same time. The main reason, I think, is that they are both coming-of-age novels. What that means is that they are about the struggle (usually subconscious) to achieve maturity: a state of full development. Coming-of-age novels have been around for a long time and still constitute a significant category of those searched for on Amazon and other sites. In other words, they are a popular category of novels and, unlike with some categories, they can take place in any environment, age, or in any setting. 

In thinking so much about She’s on First and The F Words, I finally came around to asking myself in what ways they are similar, and in what ways they are different.

Similarities

(1) The first similarity I see is that both protagonists face huge prejudices about how they should behave. Everywhere she turns, Linda Sunshine encounters prejudicial words, actions, and roadblocks because she is a woman who plays baseball. The color barrier was broken in Major League Baseball in 1948. The sex barrier has not been broken (for players). Similarly, Cole Renner faces huge prejudices because he is a teen, because he is working class, and because his best friend is Latino. Because he’s a teen Cole is expected to do what authority figures tell him to do, from obeying the principal of his school to obeying the Chicago curfew laws. Because he’s working class Cole is expected to be satisfied with a menial McJob. And because his best friend is Latino, Cole is suspect in the eyes of the Old Guard: those who enforce and uphold WASP norms.

(2) The second similarity I see is that neither Linda nor Cole doubt their own worth. They come from families which have instilled in them a deep sense of pride in who they are and what they can do. And what their rights are. Neither suffers angst of any kind. 

(3) The third similarity is that, in the face of intense opposition, each protagonist comes to a decision about what kind of person she/he is going to be. This is not true of all novels. In many novels, such as mysteries or thrillers, the protagonist already is the kind of person she/he decided to be. But in novels about the struggles against injustice, the main character usually makes that decision in the novel: not before, and not after.

Differences

One of the big differences that I feel when I think about both novels is the age difference.  Cole is 15 years old. Linda is 20 when the book begins (not counting the backstory) and 23 when it ends. A five year age difference is not that great. Usually. But in the case of a 15-year-old versus a 20-year-old, it’s a huge difference. A 20-year-old has graduated from high school (or not) and been out in the working world or the college world for at least two years. She has probably had at least one job, possibly several; has had one or more bosses; perhaps has had love affairs; might not live at home. The list could go on, but the point is that the 15-year-old is trapped in the environment of compulsory education, probably lives at home with one or both parents, might or might not have had a job yet, and so on. There is probably way more difference between a 15-year-old and a 20-year old than between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old. So the age difference between the two protagonists is big.

A second difference is that She’s on First takes place over a three-year span. The F Words takes place over a little less than five months. Although I like to think that the pace of both novels is fast and that the scenes propel the stories forward, the fact is that a story that takes place over five months is going to have a bit more intensity to it than one that takes place over three years. Things have to move faster in the 5-month story than they do in the 3-year story.

A third difference is the arena of the playing field, so to speak. Cole’s story takes place mostly within the confines of August Mersy High School, which he is required to attend. The public cannot see what is going on behind closed doors. The public, in fact, acts as if what goes on in high schools is just “the way things are.” Linda’s story, on the other hand, takes place on the playing fields of minor and major league ball, which the public is not only very interested in, but whose action it avidly follows, both in person and via the media. There is public discussion and debate on what happens on the playing fields (be it Jackie Robinson entering the Majors, or Colin Kaepernick taking a  knee).  Emotions run high. Sky high. Linda is always aware of the public: the fans and the media. Cole doesn’t think about the media at all — until he decides to march in front of August Mersy High School.

The fourth difference, I think, is the biggest: the point of view. The F Words is told from the first-person point of view. We see what happens only through Cole’s eyes. Nobody else’s. We see only what he sees, hear only what he hears. We know what he feels, we know what he thinks, because we are inside his mind. To me, first person POV seems so right for a novel about a 15-year-old boy. 

She’s on First is told from the third person point of view. Moreover, that third person POV is not limited to Linda Sunshine. The story is told from four major POVs: Linda, the baseball player; Timothy Curry, the scout who signed her; Al Mowerinski, the owner who hired her: Neal Vanderlin, the reporter who writes about baseball. This POV gives the reader a much wider look at what’s happening and how it affects others in baseball and outside of baseball. This POV allows for more reflection about the meaning of things. 

Despite their differences, I hope that the two novels are similarly strong.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.