The Importance of Pace

Just as a walking pace consists of the speed, the length of stride, and even the rhythm with which one walks, so in fiction pace consists of the speed with which a story moves, the amount of action, and the rhythm with which scene and summary follow one another.

Long paragraphs filled with long sentences eliminate most of the white space on a page and make the story’s pace slow down. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a lot of white space and make the story’s pace quicken.

For the writer, knowing how to pace a story is important because pace affects reader satisfaction.

If I took a four-hour walk on a flat, even surface and never once varied my pace, and somebody looked at a printout of my footsteps, that somebody would most likely go, “Ho. Hum. How boring.” That’s because the absence of variation makes the printout look all the same. There’s no place where I stopped. Or slowed. Or hurried. Or raced for my life. 

An unvaried pace in fiction is equally boring. Something must happen to the characters, and that something creates tension, and tension by itself increases the pace of the story. And after that tension (almost always depicted in a scene) comes a calmer, less tense summary/narrative. The back-and-forth between scene and summary helps vary the pace of a book — as long as the scenes contain conflict.

In my office I have 35 books dealing with writing skills. Only four of these books contain anything at all on pace or pacing, which leads me to believe that it’s a difficult skill to teach. One can’t teach pace without looking at a novel as a whole, from beginning to end, and that’s hard to do in a class or a book.

When I served as a judge for the Shamus Award a couple of years ago (see Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book), I was disappointed in the lack of tension in most of the novels submitted. Another way of saying this is that the pacing of the novels wasn’t varied enough: the footsteps plodded along without variation. Tension is a critical part of pacing. If there’s no tension (a strained state resulting from forces acting in opposition to one another), the pace most likely stays the same. And that is boring.

One of the oldest writing books on my shelf is Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald, copyright 1972. The writers talk about how all events in a plot must be causally connected. If the events are not causally connected, the novel loses continuity because some events have no bearing on the plot or the main character. They then go on to talk about pacing, as follows:

A novel can have continuity without pace because the author can add one continuous event after another and have a story that stands still. For example, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck could have prolonged the trek of the Joad family to California for another couple of hundred pages by continuing the chain of causally related events causing minor complications that hindered their progress. The result would have been lack of pace despite good continuity because the story would stand still and the reader would get bored. A novel will always lack pace when an author overwrites or rambles away from the plot or story line. One way to avoid this is to delete any event that doesn’t move a story forward.

Pacing is one of those things that, when working right, is hardly noticed. Readers are so focused on the characters and plot, and maybe the setting, that they aren’t conscious of the pace when that pace is good. But when the pacing is not good, readers notice right away. If the pace is too slow, they put the book down, or take forever to finish it (perhaps a kind of revenge on the slow pace of the book?).

Some editors rapidly flip through a manuscript before reading it, to judge whether the pacing is good. Pacing is different for different genres, there being no comparison between the pacing of a literary novel and that of a thriller. But the editors know that, and they’re looking for the right balance for a particular genre — in that rapid flipping through the manuscript, they’re judging paragraph length, amount of dialogue, chapter length, and any breaks in chapters. 

If as a writer you pay attention to the pace of your novels, then of necessity you will also be paying attention to other critical story elements such as scene and summary, dialogue and narrative — and paying attention to these elements will help you improve the way you tell your story.

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

Mountain Passes: Avalanche Pass

By the mid-1800s most of the important mountain passes in the West had been discovered and were being used for migration and transportation. Back East people were enjoying leisure time and looking to spend some of this time in the wilderness. This desire to know the wilderness wasn’t new. Almost from the first, the British colonists explored the land around them. Surveyors and scientists climbed high peaks to determine just how high they were and to gaze at the land below from atop a mountaintop. By the 1770s New Englanders climbed Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and by the 1780s they had conquered Mount Washington. 

In New York nature lovers traveled to the Catskill Mountains in the southeast part of the state. Painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederick E. Church toted their canvases, paints, and easels into the mountains of New England and New York during the 1820s. These painters were described as the Hudson River group (because the beautiful Hudson River was one of the subjects they often painted). These nature paintings attracted even more wealthy people to the the Catskills, which they believed contained  New York’s tallest mountains.

But in northeastern New York state, south of Quebec and Ottawa, lay the Adirondacks, which would prove to be wilder by far than the Catskills. Unlike all the other mountains of the East, the Adirondacks are not part of the Appalachian Mountain system. Instead, they are part of a rock layer known as the Canadian Shield. The rocks of the Canadian Shield are the oldest known rocks on Earth —  one billion years old.

There is no record of white Americans in the Adirondacks before 1836, when William Redfield, Ebenezer Emmons, and James Hall entered the area to learn about its rocks, streams, trees, wildlife, and mountains. What they discovered was a rough, harsh wilderness where winds howled and snow and ice persisted even in August. That year the group discovered Avalanche Lake, which is surrounded by steep cliffs on each side. They also discovered what they thought were the tallest peaks in New York. They were right: the area was full of so many tall mountains that it became known as the Tall Peaks region. 

The following August the three men returned with others, who this time included portrait painter Charles Cromwell Ingham. Emmons and Redfield and several of the others climbed Mt. Marcy , which at 5,344 feet proved to be New York’s tallest peak. Mt. Marcy’s summit was crusted with ice even in August. The group also explored Avalanche Pass, a long narrow pass that allows movement between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. 

Remnants of mud slide in Avalanche Pass

Avalanche Pass and Avalanche Lake received their names for the many mudslides and avalanches that roar down on them from the surrounding mountains. In 1869 landslides gouged Avalanche Pass, blocking it with debris. Eventually the pass was cleared by woodsmen and hikers. In 1942 still more avalanches blocked the pass and filled Lake Avalanche, raising its water level. In 1999 the same thing happened again: the heavy rains of Hurricane Floyd sent huge mudslides into the pass, burying it under twenty feet of dirt and uprooted trees. With shovels and chainsaws, members of the Adirondack Mountain Club worked to cut a narrow passage through the debris, so that hikers and skiers could squeeze through Avalanche Pass.

Mountain Range: Adirondack Mountains.
Elevation: 3,065 feet 
Grade: 5-26%
Location: In upstate New York, near the Canadian border, within Adirondack State Park.

After visiting the Adirondacks in the 1830s, Redfield and his companions told others about the wild area, and by the 1850s New Yorkers began to take outings there, hiking by day, sleeping in tents by night. One of the most popular destinations was Mt. Marcy and the Avalanche Pass Trail.

Although the Avalanche Pass Trail is not an easy one, it was highly popular right from the start, 150 years ago. Avalanche Lake, hemmed in by steep rock cliffs, sits at one end of the pass. To get through Avalanche Pass, a hiker had to somehow cross the lake. A hiker could walk alongside Avalanche Lake . . . except that there was no ground to walk on. There was a ledge that ran along the bottom of a cliff — but the ledge sat two to three feet under water!  Not everybody who wanted to hike Avalanche Pass felt able to walk the underwater ledge.

Back in 1868 a nature lover named Matilda Fielding, along with her husband and their niece, hired Adirondacks guide Bill Nye to take them hiking and camping. Led by Nye, the group hiked in the High Peaks region, camped out, and even climbed Mt. Marcy. When it was time to head back to civilization, Nye took the group through Avalanche Pass.

When they reached Avalanche Lake, Nye gave the Fieldings two choices: (1) he could build a raft and the group could float across the lake; (2) he could carry Mrs. Fielding, Mr. Fielding, and their niece across the underwater ledge one at a time. The Fieldings chose to be carried, starting with Matilda, who sat on Nye’s shoulders as he walked on the underwater ledge. But she started to slip down . . . down . . . down! As they saw Matilda slipping  and her skirt trailing in the water, her husband and niece shouted, “Hitch up, Matilda! Hitch up!” 

Avalanche Pass

Nye told the story to other guides and soon everybody was calling the ledge under Lake Avalanche “Hitch-up Matilda.” Today narrow wooden catwalks are bolted into the high rock walls — hikers use the catwalks rather than the underwater ledge.  But these narrow catwalks are even today called Hitch-up Matildas.

The wilderness area of the Adirondacks was so valued by the citizens of New York that in 1892 they established Adirondack National Park. Today the park comprises six million acres. This is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon Parks put together! Except for state parks in Alaska, Adirondack National Park is the largest in the US.

In Avalanche Pass a small waterfall splashes onto a big boulder. Part of the water hitting the boulder flows south and part flows north. The part that flows north trickles through Avalanche Pass and ends up in Lake Champlain. From there it streams into the St. Lawrence River, the major waterway that flows between the United States and Canada. 

The water that heads south trickles down Avalanche Pass in the opposite direction, into Avalanche Lake. From there it streams into other Adirondack lakes and finally into the Hudson River, which flows through the state of New York and through New York City itself. The Adirondack lakes provide fresh drinking water for the citizens of New York City — and it all starts in Avalanche Pass.

Avalanche Pass
Mud slides
and avalanche
jettisoned from above —
tall peaks are known to show mighty
tempers.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was South Pass.

Anglo-Saxon vs. Latin-French

Approximately 20% (possibly less) of the words in the English language come from Anglo-Saxon roots. Approximately 60% come from Latin, but indirectly —  usually through French. 

The words that come from Anglo-Saxon have been part of the language for hundreds and hundreds of years. They name relationships and actions to which we have immediate, visceral responses: foe, naked, break, slam. 

Often we don’t have quite as strong a reaction to the French/Latin synonyms of these words: enemy, nude, demolish, collide. There’s something about the French/Latin words that seems to smooth over or disguise things, to make them less stark than they are when spoken in Anglo-Saxon. 

Here are some contrasts of words with similar meanings. The first is an Anglo-Saxon word, the second is a word derived from Latin, French, or French/Latin (from the Latin into the French, then into English).

mad   insane
In the end, King Lear goes mad.
In the end, King Lear goes insane.
You might say mad when you’re describing the plot to a friend, but you would be more likely to use insane if you were writing a paper on the subject.

together       in conjunction
I feel satisfaction when we work together.
I feel satisfaction when we work in conjunction with one
The first one sounds more honest; the second sounds as if the speaker or writer is trying to amplify the importance of the process or relationship. Words of French-Latin origin can come across as being untrustworthy — as if the speaker or writer is trying to disguise something or make it seem more important than it is.

wicked      iniquitous; nefarious
The politician’s refusal to help the famine victims was wicked.
The politician’ refusal to help the famine victims was iniquitous.
As in the previous example, the first one sounds honest and heart-felt. The second judgment doesn’t sound as severe as the first.

knell        reverberation
The knells sounded throughout the valley.
The reverberations sounded throughout the valley.
Knells is a somber word, implying the weight and seriousness of death knells. Reverberations sounds more scientific and thus more distanced and less emotional.

everlastingness       perdurability
The everlastingness of our friendship warms my heart.
The perdurability of our friendship warms my heart.
First one: I am touched. Second one: get real!

It may seem, in the examples above, that I’m advocating always using words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of using words of French-Latin origin, but that is not the case. Our language would be poorer indeed if we did not have words of French-Latin origin, because these words help us express thought, ideas, distinctions, and are widely used in law, science, politics, medicine, literature, and the whole world of ideas. Words of French-Latin origin have their uses, as do words of Anglo-Saxon origin. A writer (and speaker) must learn to use each to their best effect.

Here’s an example of how important French-Latin words are to the whole world of ideas. The paragraph below is from my nonfiction book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. Each boldfaced word is derived directly from the Latin, directly from the French, or from the Latin through French — except for the word athletes, which comes to us from Greek, through Latin.

Women would play baseball again. From 1943 to 1954 they played on the most professional, most highly paid women’s teams the country has ever seen. But these teams were owned and controlled by men who required women to play the game with shorter basepaths and a larger, softer ball—concessions to women’s supposed inferior abilities. A reduced perspective was never the tradition of bloomer teams, who faced their fellow athletes on equal terms.

In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m using the differences in word origins to help characterize the two main characters. The working class character uses mainly words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The middle class character, who holds an M.A. from Harvard, uses mainly words of French/Latin origin. The words they speak and the words they think in help readers feel the differences between these two characters.

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To help characterize the very literary and Harvard-educated Earl Derr Biggers, Gregorich used mainly words of Latin/French origin in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

Exposition through Appositives

In fiction, exposition is the information the reader needs in order to understand the story: background information, for example, or descriptions of unusual things. Usually exposition is told in narrative: that is, not in dialogue.  It’s important for writers to understand that the information revealed by exposition is not the story. It’s merely necessary information without which the reader might not understand aspects of the story.

 When writing my first novel, She’s on First, I assumed that everyone reading it would know baseball. But when my agent read the manuscript, she said that the story would appeal to many people, both women and men, who liked the idea of such a story (first woman in the major leagues), but who did not understand baseball at all. My agent herself was such a person.

So, explained my agent, as I rewrote the manuscript I would have to explain various baseball terms and situations as they came up in the novel. Double play, for example. Curve ball. Three-and-two. AND: I would have to explain these terms (exposit them) in such a way that the non-baseball reader understood the explanation — but also in such a way that the baseball reader would not be offended by my “explaining” basic concepts they already knew.

Writing the exposition for readers with such different backgrounds was difficult. It was my first novel — what did I know about exposition? 

Regardless of what I knew or didn’t know about exposition, this was a problem I had to solve. So, as I rewrote the story, line by line and page by page, I paid careful attention to words, phrases, or concepts that I thought a non-baseball reader would need explanations for. And I decided, almost intuitively, to solve the problem by expositing mainly through appositives.

Yes, I remembered appositives from tenth grade English, though little did I think back then that I’d have a “real life” need to know what an appositive was. An appositive is a phrase which clarifies or provides more information about its nearby noun by renaming that noun in different words. Here’s an example from the wonderful Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale: “Miss Goldenfingers, my typing teacher, was fond of tongue-twisters.” 

As you can see, the noun that’s being renamed is “Miss Goldenfingers,” and the exposition provided is that she is the writer’s typing teacher.

As you might infer, appositives can be — and quite often are — very short. A word. Two. Three. And that’s it. A reader understands the main sentence, quickly assimilates the information in the appositive, and moves on, barely aware that he or she has been fed information. Sort of like a parent feeding a child medicine by sinking the medicine into a spoonful of pudding. 

I felt that baseball readers could tolerate exposition in such short doses and maybe not even notice it. But if I were to stop the story in midstride to explain in an entire sentence or two what a double play was, baseball readers would notice. And probably be offended.

Here are two examples from She’s on First, each using an appositive.

“One clothesliner, a low-hit line drive, came her way in the second inning.”

“Harland signaled. Two fingers: curve.”

In the first example, I explain what a clothesliner is, and I use an appositive to do so. This is smoother and less intrusive than if I had used an entire sentence to do so, as in: “One clothesliner came her way in the second inning. A clothesliner was a low-hit line drive.” In the second example I could have exposited/elaborated with something like: “Harland signaled. Two fingers. The usual signal for a curveball was two fingers.” You can see very quickly how using a full sentence of exposition can sound klunky and can stop the story. The reader momentarily comes out of the forward movement of the story while assimilating the information in the expository sentence. 

Beginning writers sometimes put all their exposition in one place: the first chapter; sometimes the second chapter; a full paragraph describing each character; several sentences at a time. Such heavy use of exposition is called an “information dump,” and that’s an excellent term for it, because the information is being dumped on the reader all at once.

Readers experience a story more deeply when the exposition is smoothly woven into the story. That smooth weaving usually requires that the writer break up the exposition into small pieces or occasional sentences tucked as unobtrusively as possible into the story.

In some genre fiction such as science fiction or forensic fiction, readers need more exposition than in most novels. Sometimes a lot more exposition before they can understand the particular science fiction world the writer has created, or understand the medical problem or procedure involved. Many readers of these genres don’t mind the “information dumps.” They’re used to them and maybe even expect them as part of their reading experience. But for readers from other genres who might be reading a sci-fi or forensic novel for the first time, the information dump can be a huge hurdle for readers to overcome. 

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Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, you will easily understand what’s happening in She’s on First.

Mountain Passes: South Pass

When Lewis and Clark were making their way up the Missouri River and then westward across the Rockies, the Indian tribes who lived there warned them that crossing the mountains at Lolo Pass anytime after August was not a wise idea. Not if one wanted to survive. There was, the Native Americans said, a much easier crossing to the south. Lewis and Clark looked for that easier pass and found Lemhi Pass, approximately 150 miles south of Lolo. Lemhi was not the pass that would give them an easy crossing.

Because they never found that southern pass, the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass, nearly perishing in the process. That was in the early autumn of 1805. And in 1806 the Corps crossed back the same way: through Lolo Pass.

But that more southern, much easier crossing lay there, 600 miles south of Lolo, between the Wind River range and the Antelope Hills. In fact, this historically important pass is actually two passes side-by-side, but collectively they are called South Pass and treated as one.

In November 1812 the first non-Native Americans crossed it: Robert Stuart, who worked for the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor. The fur-trading baron had a structure erected on the mouth of the Columbia River, naming it Fort Astoria. In June of 1811 Stuart and six other trappers left Astoria and headed east, their goods strapped to their backs. Rather than take the northern passes, they traveled southward, into the land of the Crow Indians.

Luckily for Stuart, the Crow Indians shared their knowledge, explaining to him that he could make an easy crossing at the pass that would later be called South Pass . . . . because it was the pass Lewis and Clark looked for but never found.

Stuart and his fellow travelers made a safe and successful crossing of South Pass. Stuart himself kept a meticulous journal of the trip with all its landmarks noted. He presented a copy of this journal to both John Jacob Astor and to President James Madison, who placed it in his library.

And apparently forgot about it completely, because for the next dozen years, knowledge of South Pass was lost. Except, of course, among the Indian tribes, who knew their land intimately and could not conceive of losing any life-saving information such as the location of an easy crossing of the Rocky Mountains. Nor, I imagine, could they conceive of “losing” anything as large as South Pass.

South Pass is large indeed. Mountain passes came in all shapes and sizes, from tall and narrow to short and wide, to ones with high grades to ones with low grades. As mountain passes go, South Pass is magnificently wide — 35 miles wide. You can be in the middle of South Pass and not know that you’re in a mountain pass at all. Its grade, though steep, rises imperceptibly, so imperceptibly that many of the Oregon Trail emigrants who drove wagons through South Pass did not realize they were crossing to the other side of the Rocky Mountains until they reached the crest of South Pass and looked down — down where all the water now ran toward the Pacific Ocean instead of the Mississippi River.

South Pass
Mountain Range: Between the Wind River Range and the Antelope Hills
Elevation: 7,412 feet
Location: In west-central Wyoming

The same fur-trapping fever that led Robert Stuart to Oregon and then back east across the mountains led other trappers along the same route. Two of these trappers are given credit for “re-finding” South Pass. One is William Henry Ashley, who in 1823 led a group up the Sweetwater River to its source, thus entering South Pass. 

The other is Jedediah Smith who, at the age of fifteen in 1814, read the newly published diaries of Lewis and Clark and, influenced by them, went west in 1822 to join a trapping expedition. In winter of 1823 Smith and his companions headed eastward with their furs. They asked the advice of the Crow, who drew a map of South Pass on a deerskin. Smith memorized that map and led the expedition through South Pass safely in February, 1824. Instead of giving the knowledge of South Pass to a president, Smith shared it with anybody who would actually use the pass. Thus the “lost” pass was “found” again.

Less than twenty years later, westward bound wagon trains crossed through South Pass, some of them turning southward toward California, others northward toward Oregon and Washington. Because South Pass is located in an area that receives almost no rain, and because more than half a million people drove their wagons through, you can still see wagon-wheel ruts there today, 170 years later.

Early in 1860 the Pony Express was established to carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in as quick a time as horseback transportation allowed. The route of the Pony Express went directly through South Pass. Likewise, the telegraph lines which would make the Pony Express obsolete also ran through South Pass. The Union Pacific Railroad, however, which would make wagon trains obsolete, chose a different route: but that’s another story of another mountain pass.

Along with the Cumberland Gap and Raton Pass, South Pass is one of the three mountain passes that helped change the composition of the part of North America that became the United States. These three passes allowed hundreds of thousands of Euro-Americans to flood westward into Indian lands they could not have reached so quickly had they not been able to use these passes. Historians speculate that if those half-a-million emigrants hadn’t crossed into Oregon and Washington, that area would have been held as British territory.

South Pass

Here I sit,
a wide crossing
through mighty
mountains.

Use me,
but do not
lose me.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Beale’s Cut.

Writing Jack and Larry

The ideas that become books come to writers in different ways. The idea for Jack and Larry came to me from somebody else. For me, that is atypical: I come up with my own ideas, and I have more of them than I’ll ever be able to write books about. But a fellow member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), Fred Schuld, had a kind of personal history with the story of Jack Graney and his bull terrier, Larry. Fred’s father was a born-and-raised Clevelander who lived during the time Jack played for Cleveland. Fred’s father infused him with a love of Larry’s antics. He didn’t need to infuse him with a love of Jack Graney, because when Fred was growing up and also when he was raising his own family, Jack Graney was the Voice of the Cleveland Indians, and Fred was a fan of both the team and their announcer.

So Fred, as a historian and researcher, collected newspaper references from the 1910s, little mentions here and there of Larry, Jack Graney’s bull terrier. And in the early 1990s Fred began to suggest that I write a book on Jack Graney and Larry. Eventually, I became convinced that I wanted to write such a book.

The information that Fred Schuld gave me consisted of small (50 words or so) articles. These were primary source materials because they were written at the time Jack and Larry lived. These clippings helped me see what kind of person Jack was; what kind of dog Larry was; how the fans viewed Jack, Larry, and the team; and how the newspapers viewed them. I also got the bigger picture of how the Cleveland team was faring.

Thanks to Fred Schuld, I got to meet Jack’s daughter, Margot Graney Mudd, and also his grand-daughter, Perry Mudd Smith. When Margot was growing up, her father told her and her brother stories about Larry, and Margot shared with me her favorite of those stories. I included that story as “Taking Care of Business.”

Once a writer decides that, Yes, she’s going to write a particular book, that doesn’t mean the going is easy. It took me several years to write Jack and Larry because I wasn’t sure what form the story should take or how to tell it. Fred Schuld thought it should be either a magazine article or a picture book. Or both. 

Aiming to write an adult magazine article with an emphasis on history and aiming to write a children’s picture book at the same time is like two forces pulling in opposite directions: progress is difficult, if not impossible.

I tried writing Jack and Larry’s story as a history article, but I wasn’t happy with it. I tried writing it as a picture book (Larry Leaps In was the title), and I wasn’t happy with that, either. The history article was mainly Jack’s story. The picture book was mainly Larry’s story. My gut feeling, which I couldn’t let go of, was that the story I wanted to tell was the story of Jack and Larry together.

Some of the editors to whom I submitted the manuscript of Jack and Larry considered it a weakness that the story was neither Jack’s story nor Larry’s story. They wanted it to be one or the other: one hero/protagonist, not two. I disagreed.

I’m not saying that I was right or that the editors were wrong. Each view is legitimate. I wanted to write the story that I saw in my head. The editors didn’t see that particular story, or they thought that particular story wouldn’t be appealing, and/or wouldn’t sell to the public.

In a situation like this, a writer always has two choices: (a) rewrite the story according to the editor’s suggestions (and these suggestions are often what’s best for the story); or (b) continue to stick to the story one sees . . . but try to make that story better in every way. In this case, I went with the second choice.

After I gave up on the history article and gave up on the picture book, I still had to answer the question of what kind of book I should write. I was torn between writing a middle grades book (roughly ages 8-12) and writing an adult book. I felt the story of Jack and Larry would appeal equally to each audience. But when it came to writing a book for adults, I felt they might want more of the story of Jack Graney himself, less of the story of his bull terrie — though the dog-lovers among them would enjoy the antics of Larry. As would middle-graders.

So I wrote Jack and Larry as a crossover book — one that appeals to both children and adults. I had never written such a book before, nor have I written one since. 

Writers usually have an audience (individual or plural, invented or real) in mind when writing a book — we think of ourselves as speaking to that particular person. It helps to have such a person in mind because it helps us shape the story, make it interesting and appealing to that person. When writing She’s on First, for example, I had in mind a young woman who was passionate about baseball and wanted to play. She wasn’t a real person, she was an audience I invented. But when writing Jack and Larry I found myself writing to two audiences at the same time — a 10-year-old boy who loved dogs and baseball, and a 40-year-old woman who loved baseball and history. I tried to write in a way that wasn’t too adult for the 10-year-old and wasn’t too juvenile for the 40-year-old.

The single most difficult problem I encountered while writing Jack and Larry was how to tell the story in an exciting way. And here I found that straight prose just did not work. That could be because the clippings I had were small, the information sparse, and sometimes the articles mentioning Larry were many weeks apart. So whenever I wrote straight prose sentences, I felt they were inadequate: I felt I might end up writing extra sentences just to make the book longer. That I didn’t want to do.

The problem of length, of sparse facts, and of exactly how to tell the story — this took me seemingly forever to overcome. But one day I sat in a comfortable chair in my office, pulled the manuscript out of its file, and — all of a sudden, out of nowhere (but more likely out of my subconscious), it came to me that I could tell the story in free verse.

The advantage of free verse as a way of telling Jack and Larry’s story was that it allowed me to tell the story in vignettes. Which is exactly how the story came to me: in small glimpses from the newspapers. As soon as I began rewriting the story in “lined prose,” I thought of myself and the reader peering at a major league ballpark through a knothole in the fence, catching a glimpse of the action.

I think I succeeded in writing a book through which readers catch glimpses of early 20th century baseball in Cleveland, Ohio. When fans of the book write to me, they often mention a particular glimpse that appeals to them most. Some mention the poem about Larry meeting President Woodrow Wilson, others the one about Larry “coaching” third base. My own favorite is the two-part glimpse titled “Looks Like a Loss” and “Triple Steal and Bite.”

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Catch your own glimpses of Jack Graney, Larry, and the Cleveland teams of 1912-1920 in Jack and Larry.

Narration: Overarching Words

Narration is, for many readers, one of a book’s most appealing features, perhaps second only to story. Narration is all the writing that is not dialogue. Dialogue consists of directly spoken words, words with quotation marks around them — everything else is narration.

Narration shouldn’t be confused with the Narrator, which is the consciousness that tells the story. I wrote about the Narrator in an earlier blog.

Plays and movies do not have narration. They have actions which help tell the story, they have settings, they have movement and color, and they have, above all, dialogue. But they do not contain overarching words that tell the story, both present and past — words that do not come from any character within the play or movie, but words which come from the consciousness that’s telling the story. (Some movies and plays do have narration, but it is usually brief and often serves to provide background information that it might be tedious to listen to as dialogue.)

In fiction and nonfiction, narration adds richness, texture, and scope to the story. It allows the reader to know the depths of the story and to intuit the writer’s views.

Barbara Kingsolver begins Prodigal Summer with narration, not dialogue. Here is the first paragraph of the novel:

Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

This is narration written by a great writer. The reader can sense that the story about to unfold may place non-human life on the same plane of importance as human life . . . that the story may be about making choices . . . and revealing secrets. Prodigal Summer offers readers a good story told through strong narration. You can see how readers would be drawn in by this narration: by this consciousness that knows the whole story and will reveal it the way it sees fit. The narration contains unstated but discernible beliefs and judgments.

Narration serves many purposes, one of which is providing necessary information, usually in condensed form, in order to introduce the story or move it forward.Note how much information is contained in the narration of the second paragraph of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.

I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.

Through narration a writer can write description, can show action, can reveal a character’s thoughts, and can provide exposition (necessary information for the reader to know). A writer can provide description and exposition through dialogue if she chooses, but most times that will sound unlikely or even false, resulting in bad dialogue.

In writing, Voice is the distinct personality and artistry that every good writer has, the thing that makes Faulkner Faulkner, that makes Stegner Stegner. A writer’s voice is established through various aspects of narration, including but not confined to choices such as sentence structure, vocabulary, and breadth and topic of observation. You can see that in the two examples I quoted earlier, Kingsolver and Conroy are both writing, in part, about nature — but each writer has a distinct voice. Through voice as well as through narration, the author’s world view emerges.

Because the narration of a book of fiction or nonfiction does so much work (story line, exposition, summary, condensation, description, setting of tone, etc.) and because it’s such a large part of any book (well over 50%, perhaps even 80%), some writers take the writing of narration for granted. That is, they don’t pay much attention to perfecting their writing of narration, thinking that maybe their story is so gripping that narration doesn’t matter much.

The opposite is true. Narration matters immensely. The great writers of the world have been masters of narration, lifting readers out of the the mundane and into a different world.

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For nonfiction narration, read Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers

Mountain Passes: Beale’s Cut

As early as 450 A.D. the Tataviam, a Shoshone-speaking tribe of Indians, migrated from northern California into the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys in Southern California. To move north and south between the two valleys, the Tataviam climbed a very steep, very narrow mountain pass in the Santa Susana Mountains.

More than a thousand years later Gaspar de Portola, a Spanish soldier appointed Governor of Las Californias, traveled overland from Mexico to the California coast. Exploring the mountains and valleys, Portola discovered and used the steep, narrow pass in 1769. Despite its small size, this mountain pass was the main entrance to the Los Angeles area and thus played a very important role in California history. Along the way it was called by many different names, including the San Fernando Pass, Fremont Pass, Newhall Pass, and Beale’s Cut.

Approximately eighty years after Gaspar de Portola explored the area, US Army General John C. Fremont marched through the pass on his way to southern California. That was in 1847. As a result Anglo-Californians began to call the thirteen-foot-wide gap Fremont Pass. People on foot and people on horseback were able to climb the 29% incline and walk through the 240-foot-long pass —  but carts, wagons, and stagecoaches couldn’t make it up or down the extremely steep incline.  

Sensing an opportunity, entrepreneur  Henry C. Wiley figured out a way to get wagons through the pass. In 1852 he built a huge windlass. For a fee Wiley helped tie a wagon or stagecoach onto the windlass, which sat at the top of the narrow pass, and then helped lower the suspended vehicle into the valley below. Luckily for travelers this frightening method of getting through the San Fernando Pass lasted less than two years.

In 1854 Phineas Banning, who owned a stagecoach line, organized a team of workers to dig into the top of the San Fernando Pass and lower it by thirty feet. The incline remained at 29%, but at least the highest thirty feet had been removed, so the ascent was shorter. This allowed the first stagecoaches to travel through the pass without having to be lowered by a windlass. People now called the opening the Banning Cut.

Just three years later US General Edward F. Beale marched through the pass with a caravan of 25 government camels. The camels need explaining. Just a few years earlier the US Army had purchased 75 camels from several Mideastern countries. The deserts of the Southwest were tough on horses and mules and humans, and the Army believed that camels could carry heavier loads, need less water, eat sparser food, and fare better than any other pack animal. The camels were shipped to Texas, where they became part of the army’s Camel Corps.

Although the camels performed exceptionally well, the soldiers and prospectors of the area hated the smelly beasts, which they claimed frightened their mules. General Edward F. Beale, however, thought very highly of the camels. In 1857 President Buchanan asked Beale to help create a road from New Mexico to California. This he did, having soldiers build the dirt road known as the Beale Wagon Road, which went through the Freemont Pass (Banning Cut). 

Beale took 25 of the camels with him on his exploratory and road-building route, along with soldiers, horses, and mules. The Army wanted to know how the camels would fare in the deserts of Arizona and California. Beale himself envisioned the camels as future mail carriers, each loaded with 600 pounds of missives. This never happened. Eventually the government gave up on using camels because the soldiers detested the animals. When the Civil War started, the Union Army pulled out of Texas, releasing the camels into the desert. 

Likewise, the camels that Beale escorted to Arizona and California were decommissioned from the Army and put up for sale. Beale bought several, which spent the rest of their lives on his California ranch. The last reported sighting of an Arizona camel was in 1891, but the last surviving camel of the US Army Camel Corps was Topsy, who died in the Los Angeles Zoo in 1936.

Mountain Range: Santa Susana Mountains
Elevation: 1,750 feet
Grade: 29%, then 20%
Location: In the town of Santa Clarita, California, near the Angeles National Forest.

But getting back to that steep, narrow pass that the Tataviam used to enter the Santa Clarita Valley — a few years after Banning had workers lower the pass by 30 feet, General Beale ordered a crew to cut an additional 60 feet down into the pass. This work started in 1861 and took two years of digging. The workers also reinforced and smoothed out the 240 feet length at the top of the pass. From then on Beale’s Cut, as it became known, was ninety feet less high than nature had made it. People going through the pass for the first time were astonished by how steep the ascent and descent were over such a short distance, but Beale had actually lowered the grade of the pass from 29% to 20%. Beale’s Cut served the needs of the Santa Clarita Valley for another fifty years, until the arrival of the automobile. 

In the 1870s the town of Newhall was founded in the area of Beale’s Cut, and people started to call the opening the Newhall Pass. The road through the pass was paved with asphalt in the 1870s. Although the first automobiles began to travel through the pass in 1909, the state of California was already looking to build a better road over a better route. In 1910 the Ridge Route was finished, complete with a tunnel blasted through the mountains so that traffic could avoid the troublesome mountain pass. In no time at all, Beale’s Cut was abandoned by drivers.

But not by Hollywood movie directors, who were always looking for inexpensive locations in which to film. These directors decided that Beale’s Cut looked very “western.” During the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, Beale’s Cut appeared in silent westerns and even in early “talkies.” Directors used both the top and bottom of the cut for maximum drama. At the bottom they filmed a stagecoach being held up or rushing through, as in the John Wayne film, Stagecoach. At the top, they filmed a horse and rider jumping across the large gap, as in the Tom Mix film Three Jumps Ahead. (Even today there’s still debate over whether this jump shot was faked.)

Eventually Hollywood also abandoned Beale’s Cut, and the steep, narrow gap stood there, surrounded by highways full of cars zipping by. But historians didn’t forget, and in 1992 Beale’s Cut was given historic landmark status. In 1998, during heavy rains from El Nino, a mudslide fell into Beale’s Cut, refilling approximately 30 of the 90 feet. 

In the story of mountain passes, Beale’s Cut is one of the narrowest, but also one of the most interesting.

Beale’s Cut
Nature strews mountains
every whichway, not caring
that people want through.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Kittening Gap.

Two Bears and a Pear

A compound-complex sentence is one that contains at least two independent clauses (that’s the compound-sentence part) and at least one dependent clause (that’s the complex-sentence part).

A periodic sentence (often called a suspended sentence) is one in which the sense of the sentence is not complete until the final words. Here’s an example from Dylan Thomas’s “ A Child’s Christmas in Wales”:

“Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.” 

As you can see, the meaning (sense) of the sentence isn’t complete or even clear until the words “it snowed and it snowed.” The snow is what the sentence is about.

Years ago I was writing a series of bear sentences for a possible children’s project, but, aside from the sentences, I wasn’t sure what the project could be. It was too short for a book. A series of cards? Posters? Placemats? I could never work this problem out, and so the project sits in my filing cabinet.

Except that, every once in a while, I revisit the compound-complex bear sentence just to laugh at the fact that the meaning isn’t clear until the very end.

Compound-Complex Sentence, Suspended
The bear who painted a large green pear won a purple ribbon from the judges, and the bear who painted a big blue square around the large green pear also won a purple ribbon, but the ribbons were quickly taken away after the second bear ate the first bear’s pear and the first bear squashed the second bear’s square and the judges.

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Barbara Gregorich blogged about sentences in Sentences and Train Wrecks, but luckily no bears squashed her.

The Maybe-Reliable Narrator

In fiction the narrator is the person or persons who tells the story. This could be a character in the story, or the narrative could come from somebody who is not in the story — a voice that the author chooses to write in. The Fiction Dictionary defines narrator as “the consciousness that tells the story.” Choosing this consciousness is almost always a difficult job for the writer. Often a very, very difficult job.

When a character within the story is the narrator and tells the story from his/her point of view, the reader almost immediately feels great interest in both the story and in the narrator, mainly because the point of view seems so personal. Classic examples of novels with first-person narrators are Great Expectations (Pip is the narrator) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck is the narrator). A more modern example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose narrator is 15-year-old Christopher, who is autistic.

Multiple first-person narrators are represented by Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, some of whose chapters are told by Benjy, some by Quentin, and some by Jason, all of them in their own first-person point of view. Thus the reader gets to know three different narrators.  

There is also the first-person plural narrator, as employed by David Levithan in Two Boys Kissing. In this book the narrators are a collective group (thus they speak as “we”) of dead gay men who were victims of AIDS.

Some first-person narrators fall into the category known as “unreliable narrator,” others into the category of “naive” narrator. The naive narrator is usually too young to understand the story she or he is telling, or too inexperienced or perhaps not intelligent enough. 

The unreliable narrator is one who can’t be trusted to tell the story objectively, or perhaps even truthfully. Examples abound in Poe’s short stories (you do not want to trust some of his narrators, such as the one in “The Tell-Tale Heart”). And while the narrator of Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” seems objective, he is not (as the reader eventually learns) a reliable narrator.

A first-person narrator is most often the book’s protagonist, but there are also minor character narrators. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is narrated by a minor character, as is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, who is not the main character. 

What a writer might gain by having a minor first-person narrator is the ability to present things about the major characters that they couldn’t present if they themselves were the narrators. Among other things, this includes physical descriptions, as well as any deeds that might seem like bragging if mentioned by the major character. And brilliance: Sherlock Holmes seen by Watson is brilliant beyond belief. Seen from his own point of view, he might not appear so supreme because he would have to share his reasoning with us as he told the story, rather than spring it upon us at the end.

What a writer might lose by having a minor first-person narrator is reader interest. When reading first-person narrator, minor character, I often question why the person telling the story isn’t  more immediately involved in it, isn’t the person who drives the action forward. A minor character narrator puts a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. 

When a story is told from the third-person point of view, the narrator is a consciousness outside the story, not a character inside the story. Third-person point of view can be omniscient, meaning that the consciousness telling the story knows everything about everybody. Or it can be limited, meaning that the consciousness looks into the mind of only one character, or only a few characters.

Dickens’ Bleak House is an excellent example of the third-person omniscient,  as is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The omniscient narrator was popular in the 19th century but is much less popular today. Although this narrator technique might feel easy to handle, it’s difficult to master. Bad handling of the omniscient narrator results in what’s called “head-hopping” — the consciousness jumps from the head of one person into the head of another, sometimes in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. 

Modern-day novels that employ third-person limited narrators are the Harry Potter stories and the Harry Bosch novels.

And then there’s the intrusive narrator, which is an omniscient narrator who suddenly — from way out in the universe where he or she is hovering  —  speaks to the reader! As in, “Dear Reader, what do you think of this situation?” 

In previous centuries such addressing of the reader was, if not common, at least not exotic. But I was quite surprised (startled, even) when I began to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and, lo and behold, the omniscient narrator spoke to me. I soon adjusted to this aspect of Despereaux, and I thought DiCamillo handled it very well. Her technique helped give the story a far-away, old-time, fairy-tale kind of atmosphere.

Sometimes the idea for a story comes to a writer without the narrator. That is, the writer sees the characters and events that will become the story, but doesn’t see who is telling the story. When the idea for a story arrives this way, the writer may have great difficulty deciding how to tell the story. First Person? If so, major or minor? reliable or unreliable?  Third person? If so, omniscient or limited? If limited, then limited to how many characters?

Sometimes the decision is so difficult that a writer makes a guess and writes the story, or part of it, with the selected narrator — but then feels that’s not right, so changes to a different narrator. This means rewriting EVERYTHING, because narrators do not experience, see, or feel the same things. So the whole story has to be rewritten, presenting it to the reader through a new consciousness.

In fiction the depth and pervasiveness of the narrator is of great importance to a reader’s enjoyment of and understanding of the story. And that is why choosing a story’s point of view (and thus choosing the narrator) is such a difficult part of writing.

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She’s on First is told in third person limited, from the points of view of four different characters.