The F Words: Dialogue

Most readers love dialogue, probably because it reveals something happening in “real time.” That is, the action is on the page, rather than being relayed by a narrator as having happened. Dialogue isn’t “having happened,” it’s happening. Right now, as the reader sees the words. Also, I suspect that some readers (I’m one of them) like dialogue because it helps a novel move faster. Unless, that is, the dialogue is dense, with single paragraphs taking up half a page of text or more. Most readers don’t find that kind of long-winded dialogue interesting.

I enjoy writing dialogue, but not for either of the reasons mentioned above. I enjoy writing it because it helps reveal character and helps reveal plot.

Some writers I know hate writing dialogue. It terrifies them. They would much rather write narration, where the action and conflict aren’t as immediate. I’ve always felt bad for such writers, because they’re missing such a great opportunity to make their stories come alive.

Writing dialogue comes natural to me, whether I’m writing a children’s book such as Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, or an adult novel such as She’s on First. I’m able to immerse myself in the story and in the character (including the character’s age and background) and write dialogue that fits.

But when it came to writing The F Words, my first YA novel, I had a moment’s pause, and that was because most of the dialogue would be spoken by teen characters. The natural cadence of current teen speak was easy to reproduce, because there’s nothing abnormal about it. It’s not as if Yoda were speaking in inverted sentences. But just to be sure, I made a point of listening to teens speak wherever I encountered them.

It wasn’t the cadence or pattern of current teen speak that worried me. It was what to do with slang expressions. Such expressions are always a problem because they often have a very short life span. So, for example, a book published in 2012 might, if it contained a lot of slang, sound dated by 2021.

I read a fair number of YA novels every year, and I notice that the adjective dope is used in most of them. As in That’s dope to refer to something that’s awesome. Although this is obviously a common slang term, one that may be a permanent part of our language for the next few decades, I shied away from using it — mainly because I read it so much in YA fiction that I’m just tired of it. So: dope wasn’t dope for me.

I like many current slang terms (lit, for example), but was hesitant to use them, for fear that in a few years they would date The F Words. And so, I followed the advice given in most writing workshops: keep the slang to a minimum, and, in this case, try to convey teen characters in other ways.

So that’s what I did in The F Words. I used a minimum number of slang terms, I had the teens speak as naturally as possible. I used short sentences (because teens assume they all have the same data base of knowledge and feelings and don’t need to elaborate on much).

And, I think this works. Especially because I used brevity to help demonstrate what kind of people the teens are: sure of what’s right and wrong, full of wit. Most of the conversations are quite brief, in the sense that each character speaks few words. That seems very teen-like to me.

Here’s an example:

“This is good,” says Felipe. “Gracias.”
“We can start taking photos now,”Treva suggests.
Felipe smiles at this and looks around for kids to pose with. 
“Wait,” I say. “We need the word Familia on each photo.” 
“I can do that,” says Treva. “I’ll add Familia in text over each JPEG.”
I shake my head. “I’m thinking of something with more… participation. Something warmer. Something that the other students can be doing.” 
“Warm like me,” says Felipe, grinning.
“I can borrow a flame-thrower,”Treva says.
I really like her sense of humor.
Assuming she’s kidding.

________________

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: Italics

Italics are a form of typography in which the letters usually slant to the right. In serif fonts such as Palatino, for example, there are slight changes in some of the letters. Notice that the italic lower-case a is different in the italic version.

In sans serif fonts such as Helvetica or Arial, the italic letters lean to the right, but there are no changes in the form of individual letters.

Because they are a form of typography, it stands to reason that italics were first created by typographers. In this case by the Italian (hence the name italics) typographers Aldus Manutius and Ludovico Arrighi during the 1400s and early 1500s.

The original purpose of the italics  was to reproduce the look of handwriting, and to print “little” books: those that could be held in the palm of one’s hand, or carried in a pocket. Both the thinner font and the fact that it approximated handwriting made these little books feel quite intimate. Personal. Up-close. One would not print a book of political thoughts or scientific treatises in italics — those works still demanded the easier-to-read, less-intimate block fonts of the time: Garamond and Goudy Old Style. (Today the purpose of italics is different: they are no longer meant to be little or intimate.)

By now you may be wondering what all of this has to do with The F Words. Simply put, the connection is this: there are a lot of italics in The F Words. And that’s because the use of italics has evolved over the centuries.

In English, italics are used primarily for titles (books and movies) and for emphasis.  But they have other uses, two of which are especially important to The F Words.

Foreign Words — In English, foreign words are italicized, to indicate that they are not English words. Comprenez vous? Verstehst du? Because Felipe Ramirez and his family speak Spanish, The F Words is full of italicized Spanish words and phrases.

Words Referred to As Words — When, in writing, a word is being referred to as a word (and not to its meaning), it is italicized. Such italics help make the meaning of the sentence clear. Without the italics, meaning would seem garbled. 

The this that she uttered wasn’t the this that I knew she meant.

Whenever I see the word myrrh in print, I’m struck by the fact that it ends in rrh.

Whenever Cole Renner is thinking about f words as words, they must be italicized, so that the reader knows Cole is thinking about the word.

The existence of all these italics (along with Cole’s poems)  gives The F Words an interesting, textured look. More open. Different. Not all block letter serif straight narrative.  If you flip through the book’s pages, you can see immediately that there are interesting things going on.

And for me, the author (and also for my editor and for the book’s designer) the existence of all the italicized words meant we had to proofread Very. Carefully. And we had to proofread Many. Times. Just to make sure we caught every instance of necessary italics. Felipe says Si a lot. Did any of his Si’s escape us? And Cole thinks about words a lot. Did any of those words escape us?

I hope not. And I hope that you want to read The F Words — whose title, of course, is italicized.

————————————————

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: The Hate U Give

I love Angie Thomas’s YA novel, The Hate U Give. I read it when it was published and felt as if I  had been living in a stuffy room and now, at last, somebody opened the windows and let the light and the fresh air in — somebody was talking about the truths of racism, oppression, police  brutality, and resistance.

The success of The Hate U Give emboldened me to continue with my own YA novel, The F Words, whose first draft I had just finished. I strongly wanted to write about the truths of working class existence for high school students, just as Thomas wrote about the truths of Black oppression. My novel follows a parallel course, with white and Latino protagonists instead of Black. The parallel course isn’t surprising: any novel about high school students is going to be set partly inside the school and follow the path of the school day. And any novel about political protest is going to have scenes of demonstrations and rallies that take place on the streets.

One of the most powerful aspects of The Hate U Give is this: you feel on every page that Thomas has lived this. That she knows exactly what she’s depicting. That she is shouting out the truth about the lives of these particular characters.

That is exactly what I intended to do with The F Words: depict the reality of working class kids in public schools today — a “today” in which the ruling class is actively, maliciously, and mercilessly destroying public education. In Chicago alone, Mayor Rahm Emmanual and the Chicago School Board closed 54 of the city’s public schools in one year. Fifty-four! More closings than in any other city. 

It is not enough for the ruling class that the working class — Black, white, Latino, Native, Asian — already receives an education inferior to that of the middle class (we won’t even talk about the ruling class itself, with its elite schools). No: the ruling class wants to remove all  hope from working class kids. Make them so illiterate, so unschooled, so deprived of the arts and the sciences that they humbly accept the fact that all that awaits them are minimum-wage jobs or enlisting in the military.

But the working class is not accepting this. Throughout Chicago and other cities, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and students themselves organize to protest the closing of these vital neighborhood schools. Not only do these groups protest the closing of such schools: they demand, along with the Chicago Teachers Union, that the schools be revitalized. Torn down if necessary, and built anew. With a librarian in each school, a nurse in each school, adequate classrooms, smaller class size.

It was in the middle of this reality of school protests that I wrote The F Words. As the book begins, sophomore Cole Renner is angry because his father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for supposedly “inciting to violence” — but all he did was organize the neighborhood protests against the closing of the neighborhood Euclid Grade School. Because he’s caught in the act of tagging the school walls with the f word, Cole is actually “saved.” He’s saved by his English teacher, who requires him to write two  poems a week, each about a word that starts with the letter F.

This assignment, plus his participation in the demonstrations led by his father, plus his desire to help his best friend Felipe Ramirez win the class election gets Cole to thinking and analyzing. He grows. Like Starr Carter of The Hate U Give, Cole Renner is on his way to becoming a leader of the  working class struggle for justice.

____________

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: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be delicious, as in anticipating a birthday present. Or it can be terrifying, as in anticipating a hurricane. In literature foreshadowing works to indicate or warn the reader that something may happen. It’s never as exact as the date of a birthday, nor as specific as “Hurricane winds exceed 160 mph.”  

And — unlike a birthday or a hurricane — the happening that readers anticipate may not happen at all. Not everything is foreshadowing. However, when something is foreshadowing, the reader is usually very, very satisfied: anticipation has been realized.

Probably my favorite foreshadowing in one of my own books is the pitchfork in Sound Proof. I like that so much that I’ve considered carrying a pitchfork with me wherever I go.

That, however, would be cumbersome, and maybe even weird, so I’ve resorted to fewer specific-object foreshadowings in my recent work. And, next to the pitchfork in Sound Proof, my favorite foreshadowings are in The F Words.

Without telling you exactly what the words foreshadow (wouldn’t want to ruin your reading pleasure), I’ll list some of my favorites from The F Words.

page 1 — But as it turns out he has fast reflexes or maybe just knows which direction to move in . . .   That’s Cole Renner, the 15-year-old narrator, reacting to the fact that he can’t escape from Mr. Nachman, his English teacher.

page 39 — And that’s when I notice something in my sideways vision.
Tall and straight, like a pillar.   That’s Cole noticing Treva Soldat for the first time.

page 55 — “You don’t want to be a cabbage. A coleto is a jacket.”   That’s six-year-old Felipe telling six-year-old Cole what cole and coleto mean in Spanish.

page 123 — You need both kinds of muscles, so you’re ready for any situation.”  That’s Cole’s Coach, talking to the cross-country team.

page 170 — “. . . in jail you’re punished no matter which end of the fight you’re on.”  That’s Della Kazarian, Hank Renner’s defense attorney.

page 192 — “Holidays can be tough. Very tough.” That’s Mr. Nachman.

page 214 — “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.”  That’s Emerald, describing how members of Cole’s English class ended up at his track meet.

These are just a few of my favorites, but they’re far from being the only examples of foreshadowing in The F Words. Other foreshadowing includes Jared Anderson threatening Cole; ICE’s appearance throughout the novel; Felipe’s mother being worried about his attending the pro-immigrant demonstration.

And more. In fact, there are probably foreshadowings that I don’t even recognize as such, mainly because I wasn’t conscious of writing them as such. 

The fact is, I’m almost never aware of consciously writing a foreshadowing in the first draft, and often in the second draft as well. It’s only when I get into the third draft, where I’m starting to tie things together and make connections of all kinds, that I begin to recognize some of the foreshadowing. This is fun for me as a writer, and I hope it’s fun for you as a reader.

__________________

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: Canva Posters

Sometime in July 2021, before The F Words was published, a maxim occurred to me: a picture is worth a thousand words. I thought about that. I was writing thousands of words: these blogs. And I was speaking thousands of words, too: podcasts.

But I wasn’t using many pictures. Other than the book cover, that is. I was getting maximum mileage out of the book cover, sharing it everywhere, creating bookmarks that feature the cover. 

So I decided to make some posters about The F Words and share them on social media. To do this, I started a free account on Canva, a graphic design site that offers both free use and upgraded paid use. My intent was to create posters with a live link: a URL that viewers could click on and buy the book.

Unfortunately, it took me many experiments to learn that JPEG files cannot contain live links. PDF files can  contain live links. But Facebook does not permit the posting of PDF files. This inability of graphic files to contain live links should have registered with me before I even started. But sometimes I need to go through a process to really learn about it.

So. No live links.

Nevertheless, I went ahead and made posters anyway and shared one on social media very third or fourth day. 

One of the Canva decisions I had to make regarded my “color palette.” Based on the book cover of The F Words, Canva suggested five colors. But these were browns and neutrals such as ash and white. I wanted something more lively, so I ignored Canva’s choice and chose colors that pick up on the subtler aspects of the cover; the teal, the yellow-orange, and the black. By default, teal, orange, and black became my “brand” colors.

My intention was to make at least twelve posters, maybe as many as twenty, and to concentrate on the themes of fighting injustice; the writing of poetry; Cole’s worries about his father being in Cook County Jail; Felipe’s running for class president; Cole’s interest in Treva; and Cole’s running cross-country. I figured that the wide variety of topics stood a chance of appealing to more teens. Those who weren’t interested in cross-country might be interested in poetry. And vice versa.

Generally, the two things that help sell books the most are reviews and personal recommendations. But I think that these posters must have helped sell a few books, because each time one was posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I saw sales go up on Amazon.

Among all the things I’ve done to help get the word out about The F Words, I don’t know whether posters rank in the top half of successful efforts, or the bottom half. But I do know that I enjoyed making them — and I hope you enjoy looking at them.

———————————

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: Friendship

A friend is a close companion:  a person we confide in, are intimate with, play with, work with, and associate with on a regular basis. Life without friendship would be very  lonely. Friends help us look at things in a different way. They’re there when we need somebody by our side. They give, they share, they understand.

One of the subtexts running through The F Words is the power of friendship. We see the friendship between Cole and Felipe in the second chapter, when Felipe insists on helping Cole remove the fifteen f words from the school wall. And when Cole, recognizing that Felipe has held back on running for class  president, vehemently urges him to stop scrubbing off the f words and go put his  name on the candidate list. In addition, Cole and Felipe are united not only in their ten-year  history of shared  experiences, but also in their struggle for social justice.

The new student, Treva, also fights for social justice. And, like Cole, she fights to help Felipe win the class election. Whereas Cole and Felipe are practically life-long friends, Treva is a new friend. But the bonds that tie her to Cole and Felipe are strong.

Cole Renner, the main character, has many friends. Not as many as Felipe, who everyone agrees is incredibly well liked and “sociable.” Cole is friends with Emerald, whom he admires for her intelligence. With Ethan, a fellow cross-country runner. And he has a friendly rivalry with Ricardo, star of the cross-country team. 

The F Words focuses on Cole and his friends, but it’s also populated with adults — as any teen’s life is. There’s the principal (not a friend!), there’s Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher. There are Hank and Stacey Renner, Cole’s parents. There are Veronica and Carlos Ramirez, Felipe’s parents. There’s Cole’s running coach. And there’s Nikki Zurlo, secretary to the principal.

Some of these adults are friends with each other. And, some of them are friends to the teens. Which brings me to the question, What’s the difference between being a friend with somebody and being a friend to somebody?

The difference, I would say, is that the energy of the friendship travels equally (more or less) when you’re friends with somebody. The energy between Cole and Felipe is a good example of this. But when you’re a friend to somebody, the energy of the friendship travels more strongly in one direction. Not in both directions. When an adult is a friend to a student, the energy travels mainly from the adult, who is more knowledgeable, to the student. Of course, this could work the other way, as when a teen is friend to an older person who might be housebound or incapacitated in some way.  In The F Words both Mr.  Nachman and Nikki Zurlo are friends to Cole. And Stacey Renner, Cole’s mother, is a friend to Treva.

I think that the richness of the friendships in The F Words, as well as the different directions the friendships travel in, makes for a very rewarding read. That’s assuming you enjoy reading about friendships! I do.

Tennessee Williams once said, “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.” This  is so true for Cole’s life — it is partly what he is making it, and partly what his friends are making it. That is a very rich and exciting life.

————————————————————

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: The Rondelet

The rondelet is a French form of poetry. It contains a refrain, a strict rhyme scheme and a distinct meter pattern. Before I get into that distinct meter pattern, I want to explain that the rondelet derives from the rondel, which is  a poetic form that originated in France during the 1300s. 

The rondel, which originated in French lyrical poetry of the 14th century, made its way from France into other languages, such as English and Romanian. Its structure is a complex pattern of quatrains followed by quintets, a series of refrains, and, usually, eight syllables per line.

The rondelet derived from the rondel, but it is a much shorter verse form. Forget the quatrains followed by the quintets. The rondelet is seven lines long. That’s it. Seven lines. 

But: those seven lines require a lot of thought because they follow a very strict pattern. Lines 1, 3, and 7 are refrains. Each of these identical lines is four syllables long. Lines 2, 4, 5, and 6 are not refrains. Each of these lines is eight syllables long. 

That’s the easy part.

Now comes the rhyme scheme: AbAabbA

For those of you unversed (ha!) in poetic notation, what this denotes is as follows: (1) the capital A’s indicate the refrain which, obviously, rhymes with itself. (2) the lower-case b’s indicate that these lines rhyme with each other. (3) The lower-case a indicates that this line rhymes with the capital-A lines. But, unlike them, it is not a refrain. It is a new line. And it’s eight syllables long, not four.

Got that?

Something you can infer from what I’ve just said is that there are only two rhyming sounds in a rondelet. The A and the b. That’s it.

Not only that, but the rondelet has never been a popular form in English poetry. As far as I know, I never encountered one during all my years of college, nor during my years of reading poetry afterwards. In fact, I’m not sure how I encountered the poem at all. But I did, and something about it stuck with me.

It stuck with me so much that when, in Chapter 25, Mr. Nachman encourages Cole to visit web sites to learn about poetic forms, the rondelet was one of the forms that occurred to me, along with the sonnet, the ballad, the villanelle, the limerick, and the triolet. It occurred to me, but I made no decision about it or any of the other forms.

The decision was for Cole Renner, the main character of The F Words, to make. And I have to say, I was surprised when I found Cole (and myself) writing a rondelet. It showed me that Cole isn’t afraid of a challenge. In poetry, he is not afraid of rhyme, he is not afraid of meter, he is not afraid of syllable counts. He doesn’t consciously think about being afraid of any of these, but many a beginning poet would be. 

In The F Words, Cole ends up writing not one, but two rondelets. Sort of.  So I have to assume the form appeals to him. Remember: this is not a popular form in English poetry.

The first is one he writes to Treva. Obviously she is very important to him, and his poem choice shows this: he doesn’t pick anything easy. He picks a challenge.

Flying

I’ll be flying
When I pass the place where you stand
I’ll be flying
Even though my strength is dying
Aid this runner across the land
Add shouting voice and waving hand
I’ll be flying

It’s interesting to me now, in hindsight, that although Cole is writing to Treva, what he’s saying can be applied not only to running, not only to love, but also to political struggle. I have to admit that I was totally unaware of that as Cole and I were writing the poem.

The second rondelet that Cole writes appears at the end of the book. I won’t repeat it here, because that would be a spoiler. And it isn’t really and truly a rondelet. It’s a rondelet that Cole has changed to suit his needs — just like he believes society must be changed to meet the needs of the people. 

But I hope you think the modified rondelet is a fitting end to The F Words.

_____________

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: Educator Guide

This blog first appeared as an article in the SCBWI-Illinois journal, Prairie Wind.

*     *     *

During the 1980s and into  the 1990s I used to write educational materials: activity sheets, teacher guides, parent guides, flashcards, scripts for audio how-to instructions, and teacher guides and parent guides.  At one point I was doing freelance work for educational publishers  in twenty-nine different  states! I had a cork board US  map on my wall and had a pin stuck into each state I had worked “in”.

After about a dozen years of such intense concentration on guides and activity sheets, I let the work taper off, so that I could refresh. That was good for me. It allowed me to spend more time writing the things I wanted to write: novels and nonfiction books. Every five years or so, I might take one job writing educational materials. I enjoyed dipping back into the waters of educational writing. But one dip was enough for another five years.

Which brings us to the present day. I haven’t written educational materials for at least ten years, and then one day my editor at City of Light Publishing said, “Let’s have an Educator Guide for The F Words.”

Okay.  This made sense to me. Educator Guides are vital to most teachers, who are overworked with too many students and too much to teach. If somebody can prepare a good guide for the teacher, then the teacher doesn’t have to do it herself. 

With that in mind, I set myself the task of writing a good educator guide for The F Words. This ended up taking  more time than I thought it would for two reasons: (1) As the author of the book, I knew waaaayyyyy too much about The F Words, and this knowledge crept into the questions I asked. (2) Because most teachers teach novels chapter by chapter, or at least in groups of chapters, but some teachers prefer to ask their big questions after students have read the entire book, I felt that the guide needed two sections — a section of questions based on each chapter, and a section of questions based on the entire novel. I had never written such a guide before . . . and I can see why. This took twice as much time!

FIRST SECTION
Chapter 12

  1. Pros and Cons — When Treva tells Cole that she might be changing her mind about being an anarchist, she says she’s been talking to people. When Cole asks her who, what does she reply? What are the pros and cons of “naming names”?
  2. Analysis of Motivation — When Jillian tells Treva, “I’d like to talk to Cole. Alone,” what do you think she expects to happen? Is she dissing Treva? Explain your reasons for thinking yes or no. What happens that is the opposite of Jillian’s expectations? What does this scene tell us about Jillian? What does it tell us about Treva?
  3. Vocabulary — Ms. Delaney tells Cole to not talk to her “in that insolent tone.” What does insolent mean? Do you agree or disagree that Cole was being insolent when he asked the question she reacted to?
  4. Analysis — Upon leaving Delaney’s office, Cole writes the poem “Fence.” In what way is the poem a response to what just happened in Ms. Delaney’s office?

SECOND SECTION

  1. In Chapter 2, Cole thinks: Nachman is messing with my mind, even though he’s not here. In what ways did Mr. Nachman end up “messing with” Cole’s mind?
  2. In Chapter 2, Ms. Delaney introduces the term troublemaker, warning Cole to not turn into one. In what other places in the novel does this term come up? Is being a troublemaker always a bad thing, or can it sometimes be a good thing?
  3. In Chapter 2, Felipe says “Tió Hank is strong.” Felipe says this several times throughout the story. In what ways is Hank Renner strong? In what ways is his strength important?
  4. Spanish is part of this story. It first appears in the second chapter, and from there throughout the novel. Discuss the different attitudes that characters have toward people who speak Spanish. What is Treva’s attitude? Jillian’s? The teacher who told Bianca to learn English or “go home”? Why do you think so many Anglo Americans feel hostility toward people who speak Spanish?

After “overwriting” the guide, I then went back and cut out about a third of the questions, to make things more manageable. Even so, this is an in-depth guide. Teachers and anyone else can download this Educator Guide for free from the City of Light Publishing web site.

What’s more, after writing the guide I was inspired to write ten activity sheets. These are also downloadable for free. 

Writing an educator guide for a novel I was the author of — this was a new experience, very different from all my previous writing of educator guides. And despite the hard work, it was an enjoyable experience.

You obviously don’t need a guide or quizzes to read and enjoy The F Words. But you might want one or both of these things if you’re teaching the book. Or if you’re curious about what kinds of questions help students better understand literature.

____________

The F Words is available for Pre-Order 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: Humor

I’m a person with a sense of humor, and I enjoy humor in writing. Not insulting humor, and I’m not a big fan of slapstick humor. The types of humor I enjoy when I’m reading a book are:

the unexpected happens
witty self-deprecation
situational humor
understatement
hyperbole (overstatement/exaggeration)

The use of humor is a literary tool, just as the ability to foreshadow is a literary tool. But few writing teachers talk about or teach how to use humor. I’m guessing this would be difficult to do —  if a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m not sure a workshop session could instill  the sense into  them.

Nevertheless, the use of humor is important for at least two reasons. First, it helps develop characters and it helps readers empathize with characters. It’s easy to empathize with a character who has a sense of [appropriate] humor regarding their situation. Conversely, it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with a character who has no sense of humor whatsoever: a lack of this sense makes a character seem mechanical or robot-like.

Second, humor pleases people. I love it when I run across something funny in a novel, even if that “funny” is merely a witty observation or a good pun. Appropriately sprinkling humor throughout your novels is a good way to make readers happy — and a great way to help them remember the characters and the scene. Think of all the times people mention their favorite scene in a movie: it’s almost always a scene with something humorous going on.

There’s humor in all the books I write, and it’s probably the same kind of humor: the kind that I like. The F Words, though a novel about oppression and fighting back, is full of humor.  (I can’t imagine a novel about teens that doesn’t include humor.) Below are some of the types of humor in The F Words.

Self-deprecation  — This is modesty about oneself, or sometimes criticism of oneself, but in a mocking or humorous way. Here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, where Cole has just met Treva, the new student.

“I want to help,” she says.
“Help?” I manage.
She gives me an impatient look, like I’m a dolt.
I feel like one.
“Help with the fight.”
“Against?”
“Everything. All the things that are wrong. War. Poverty. Racism. Global warming. Everything.”
Part of me is in awe.
Part of me is wondering if Treva is trustworthy.
Most of me is wondering how we’re going to do this.

Understatement — This is reporting something as smaller, less serious, or less important than it really is.

“We fight to help Felipe win the election,” I say, just to make sure we all agree on what we’re fighting for. 
“Totally,” says Treva.
“No bombs,” says Felipe. “No assassinations. Either one could get me in trouble.”

Observational Humor —  Most sitcoms contain observational humor, which is based on commonplace, everyday life and events, observed in a humorous or witty way. I guess that I employ a lot of observational humor, because I’m listing four examples of it from The F Words.

“Your name starts with f,” I tell him, “You probably count as an f word.”
“Si! I’m a capitalized f word.”
I think about that a while, wondering what I can do with a capitalized f word.

  ________

Just as Dad is about to say something, the guard on his end steps forward and taps him on the shoulder. Our guard does the same. They must practice synchronized repression.

  ________

The nurse takes me into her room. There’s not much she can do for me, she says as she wipes my cut with the sharpest stinging liquid on earth. They must keep it on hand just for students. I try not to wince, but sometimes you can’t always do what you try.

________

“I’m very disappointed in you, Cole. This is the second time you’ve been in my office this month.”
What she means is, it’s the second time she’s called me into her office. It’s not like I’d come here voluntarily. And I’m thinking it’s the last day of September, and if she had just waited a day, I wouldn’t have been in her office twice in one month.

The Unexpected Happens — The name of this kind of humor speaks for itself. My example is from a scene at one of Cole’s cross country meets where, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Nachman, his English teacher shows up. It’s Nachman who assigned Cole the task of writing two f-word poems a week.

“Right flank, Cole, right flank!”
It’s Mr. Nachman.
I can’t believe it. He came to the track meet?
To shout f words?
Oh. Wait. 
He’s warning me.
I glance toward my right just as a Palatine runner tries to overtake me, hoping to slip into the breach between me and Ricardo.

The humor in The F Words works to develop characters, engage readers, and show the complexity of lives.

—————————————————

The F Words is available for Pre-Order 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: A Stranger Comes to Town

In literature the stranger-comes-to-town motif is quite common. In films, for example, there’s In the Heat of the Night. There’s Shane. There’s The Brother from Another Planet.

Stranger-comes-to-town is a type of plot, just as seeking revenge is a type, and going on a journey is a type. It’s the skeletal structure on which a writer hangs a story.

The stranger coming to town changes everything. For better or for worse. Definitely for the town, and sometimes for the stranger. In In the Heat of the Night the Virgil Tibbs character, a Black detective from Philadelphia, tracks down and unveils the truth about who murdered Phillip Colbert. The suggestion is that Tibbs has changed the minds of some of the townspeople about racism.

In Shane the stranger is the title character, who comes to “town” (Wyoming territory) and stands up against land robbers, killing three of them in a gun battle. The movie shows that, without Shane, the Starrett family would have been victims of the land robbers. Shane changed the outcome.

The Brother from Another Planet takes “stranger” to a new level: an alien from outer space. The mute alien changes things for those he encounters by repairing things and healing people, suggesting that there is a far better way of living than we on Earth have found.

The three strangers I’ve mentioned change thinking and outcomes in one way or another.

The F Words structure is not hung on the stranger-comes-to-town motif — but there is a stranger who comes to August Mersy High School. That stranger is Treva Soldat, who comes from Portland, Oregon, where, as a student, she has participated in protests against standardized testing and especially against rote teaching for standardized testing. Treva brings that experience of political struggle with her.

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago calls itself the “Third Coast,” probably because it feels so hopelessly Midwestern compared to the East Coast and the West Coast, which hog all the glory. Dressed all in black, Treva comes from the West Coast, with an anarchist tattoo on her wrist. She comes ready to judge liars, cheaters, racists, and self-seekers. And she does not hesitate to speak out.

Treva is a catalyst to the situation Cole and Felipe find themselves in. While they are still angry over Jillian’s racism, Treva is already suggesting battle plans. Cole and Felipe not only understand that battle plans are important, they’re impressed with Treva’s commitment. In no time at all, the three of them have formed a team that will fight for Felipe’s election.

In no time at all, the three of them are fighting for Cole’s re-instatement.

And then they are fighting for the future of one of the characters in the book.

In each case, Cole and Felipe would have and could have fought alone. But in each case, Treva helps make the battle easier by having already been through such a struggle in Portland, or by suggesting alternatives. The difference she makes when she comes to town is that she becomes the third person on the team. (In fact, it’s hard to say if, without a third person, there even is such a thing as a team.) And, a triangle, with three points, is the strongest architectural figure that exists. Treva helps change things at August Mersy High by transforming a very strong two-point relationship into a stronger-still three-point team. 

Unlike Virgil Tibbs, she doesn’t introduce a new way of thinking or looking at the problem: Cole and Felipe already know and understand the problem. Unlike Shane, she doesn’t change the outcome of [most of] the situations. Of the three film examples I’ve given, Treva is most like The Brother in that her knowledge and experience suggest better possibilities.

———————————— 

If you enjoy shopping at your local bookstore, you can purchase The F Words in person, or order it through IndieBound. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.