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.

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

The F Words: 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.

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

The F Words: 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.

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

The F Words: 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.

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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: Publication!

Publication is very exciting — a book which may have been in the works for many rewrites and several years is finally available for the public to read. In my blogs I’ve talked a lot about the writing and rewriting of The F Words. Now that my book has been published, I’d like to talk about the many, many steps that went into preparing the book once I signed a contract with the publisher.

2020 — City of Light Publishing did all the hard work. This included editing the manuscript, designing both the exterior and interior of the book, and filling out maybe hundreds of forms on who-knows-how-many sites — because that’s just part of what publishers do in getting a book ready for release. Their work begins the day they acquire a manuscript, and probably ends . . . never.

JANUARY 2021My work was not as critical or as difficult, but I did throw myself into helping book sales. Knowing that I would have more and more work to do month by month, I started off easy in January. In order to get one small chunk of work out of the way, I rewrote the bio on my web site and on any other social media, such as my Authors Guild listing, updating each of these pages to include The F Words.

FEBRUARY 2021Early in February City of Light had the Pre-Order button for The F Words up on its site, and a week or two later on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and elsewhere. I wrote emails to friends about the forthcoming book and made sure to include the pre-order link. I also sent an email to each and every library in the state of Illinois — because the book is set in Chicago. Likewise, I wrote to bookstores in Chicago, bookstores in the suburbs, and bookstores throughout the state. And I made a note to write to each of these groups more than once. I mean, I would remember that my book was coming  out in September 2021 . . . but that doesn’t mean anybody else would. So in addition to a February reminder, I also sent a May reminder and an August reminder.

In February I spent a lot of time researching which magazines my publisher and I could write to for possible book reviews. The F Words, I felt, qualified for review in political magazines, poetry magazines, maybe running magazines, teen-lit publications, and main stream publications.

At the request of my editor, I wrote a list of Discussion Questions to go at the back of the book — for book clubs and for teachers.

MARCH 2021 — I searched online for author-interview sites and wrote to them — and got some great interviews! I’m especially fond of the one at Authors Answer.

I also began writing to public periodicals, websites, and podcasting sites that review books, informing them about The F Words.

APRIL 2021  — Thinking that it couldn’t hurt to be on YouTube, I taught myself how to make YouTube videos about different thematic elements in The F Words. The first of these videos had a steep learning curve because I had to figure out how to run Zoom with Keynote running full-screen at the same time, then record and convert to an MP4 file, then to a Quicken file, then edit the Quicken file, then upload the finished product to YouTube. Some of these steps were easy, but the Zoom-Keynote synchronization was difficult for me.

As it turned out, I ended up recording several of these videos: Protest and Poetry; Injustice and Oppression; Cross-Country Running; Friendship; and Humor. You can intuit which one I recorded first when you realize that in one of them, my head is partly cut off. As I said: Steep learning curve!

MAY 2021One of the most daunting tasks my editor and I worked on was asking people to read The F Words before publication and write testimonials — those words of praise that are often printed on the back cover of a book. This was an intense, time-consuming, nerve-wracking task — but the results were absolutely wonderful and definitely helped The F Words get reviewed in journals.

During the last week of May I did a third proofreading of the ARC (Advance Readers Copy). This was good, because I caught several errors, all of them dealing with italics. Words being referred to as words in a sentence are italicized, as follows:

Dana said she wanted liberty.
Dana said liberty was her favorite word.

In The F Words, a lot of words are being referred to as words, so we had to be very careful to italicize them when they appeared.

JUNE 2021 In early June we decided on the back cover of the book. For months my editor and I had been thinking, on and off, about whether the back cover should consist of testimonials, or of enticing information about the story. We happily settled on a mix of the two.

In June I visited many different bookstores in person, taking each of them a sell sheet which listed all the necessary information on and excitement about The F Words. Where possible, I set up future events — for after the book was published. You can’t really have an event until you have the printed books! Getting bookstores to commit to an event during the pandemic is not easy. Most of them don’t know if they will be hosting a live event or a virtual event. Or hybrid. So they hesitate.

The F Words is a book that should appeal not only to teens, but also to teachers. Particularly English teachers. So my editor and I decided that The F Words would benefit by having an Educator Guide to offer. This would be a free, online guide available on the City of Light website. In June I wrote this guide. And then I rewrote it a couple of times. 

After I  wrote the Educator Guide, I decided to write a  set of ten quizzes to go with it. Plus, of course, the Answer Key.

June also required one more proofreading of The F Words

And then came podcasting. Once I learned that I could turn my blogs into podcasts very, very easily, I decided to do that. Rather than have a robot read my blogs, I opted to record them myself. There was a short but steep learning curve on this because Anchor, the podcasting site, cut any Safari browser users off at 5 minutes, while allowing Google Chrome browser users to record for a full 30 minutes. This meant I had to switch to Chrome for my podcasts (keeping Safari for everything else).

JULY 2021 At the beginning of July there were 60 days until publication. And still: much to do.

I contacted the Chicago Public Library to see if they would carry copies of The F Words in all of their branches and consider the book for their YA Book Club. Likewise, I tried to get in touch with English teachers in the Chicago Public Schools, to suggest that they consider teaching the novel in classes, especially because it has a strong Chicago setting. I wasn’t successful at this. Contacting all the English teachers in the Chicago Public Schools was something I just couldn’t figure out how to do. In fact, I’m not sure it can be done.

On the video front, I tried uploading each of my  videos about The F Words to Amazon. I had successfully uploaded book trailers before, with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, with no problem. With The F Words, however, I encountered extremely frustrating (F word!) problems: Amazon kept rejecting my video as not meeting “community standards.”

After several days of exchanging emails with various Amazon departments, I learned that neither I nor any close relative could post videos about my own work. But other people could, and so I began to ask different friends to  upload a video or two. They, too, were unable to do so, leading me to think that perhaps Amazon doesn’t allow videos until after a book’s pub date.

Meanwhile, I was able to upload all the videos to GoodReads: no problems at all. (And I surmise that the reason I was able to upload videos to Dirty Proof and Sound Proof is because I was the publisher as well as the author.)

In early July I started sending review requests to the smaller journals that weren’t covered by the work my publisher was doing. I included some podcasts and blogs in my list.

Also, I decided to  print 2,500 copies of a bookmark. Friend Robin Koontz designed it, with me supplying the info for the back of the bookmark. I uploaded the PDF design to the SharpDots web site out in California, paid for the bookmarks and shipping, and waited for them to arrive. They arrived August 3.

On July 9 the first review of The F Words was published. This was in Windy City Reviews. You may recall that I sent out a request for such reviews back in March. The review was  good and my publisher and I were very happy. I then shared the review on social media and in emails. And I made sure to thank Windy City Reviews.

July saw the introduction of The F Words in ebook format. This had actually been around since April, but for some reason wasn’t showing as available. All kinks were finally ironed out and in mid-July the ebook was introduced to the world. It wasn’t up for sale yet, but anybody browsing could see that there would be an ebook on publication day.

In the middle of the month three of the testimonials I had received back in May went up on Amazon under “Editorial Reviews.” Such reviews are read with great interest by anybody who’s considering purchasing the book.

Also in mid-July came the first “industry” review of The F Words. Here the word “industry” refers to the book industry, and  industry-review magazines are those that  bookstores, librarians, and teachers look to for evaluations of new titles. Examples are Kirkus Reviews; Booklist; School Library Journal; and Publishers Weekly. My first industry review came from Kirkus, and it was favorable. This was exciting because such reviews help get books into bookstores, libraries, and schools. 

Toward the end of the month I decided to learn how to use Canva so that I could create posters and share them to both Facebook and Twitter. My main aim in doing this was to create posters with live links: i.e., links that went to a URL at which the person who clicked could buy my book. I spent one long day trying this, only to conclude that neither JPEGs nor GIFs would hold live links. And if they would, then I wasn’t the person to figure out how to do it. I later learned that graphics files do not contain live links.

However, I did post my creations on both Facebook and Twitter: they just didn’t have live links.

But at the same time these good things (reviews) were happening, my publisher experienced great delays in the printing process. Delays caused by the world-wide pandemic, which caused huge backups in book printing. (Too complicated to explain here.) So the publication date was moved from September 1 to September 15, 2021

AUGUST 2021 So much of the work I was doing to publicize The F Words was for social media. My social media, which is Facebook and Twitter. But teens, who are the audience for which I wrote The F Words, don’t use these media much. They use Instagram and TikTok. My publisher was posting regularly on Instagram, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

But what about TikTok? It seems that short videos (10-20 seconds long) are the way to go with TikTok. So . . . I decided to try making a video. Mainly because making a video for free is something I could do on my newly found site, Canva. I made this video not for posting, but to share with City of Light, so that their media person could perhaps use it as a guideline of what to say. 

My first author interview was published in August, from Authors Answer. I was delighted with this interview!

In August the Educator Guide that I had spent so much time writing back in June was designed by City of Light and made available, free, on their website. This very rich, detailed Guide, full of fascinating activities, would help sell The F Words because it would provide teachers with free help.

During the last week of August I submitted copies of The F Words to many daily publications, in the hope that some of them would review it.

Meanwhile, I had a major event coming up September 11 & 12  — Printers Row Lit Fest, where I would sit at the City of Light table and sell copies of The F Words. To help sell my book, I created a lot of posters and posted them on social media.

SEPTEMBER 2021 At last — publication month!

But still a lot to do.

My editor managed to upgrade the Printers Row Lit Fest table to a table under a tent! The tent would not only look impressive: it would protect us from the sun and the rain. The tent would not protect us from wind, of course, and as it turned out, both days of Lit Fest were very windy: book covers flapping, leaflets flying.

News on the Green, the newspaper which services several small towns in NE Ohio, printed their interview with me.

Just before the start of Lit Fest I heard from my editor that the Children’s Book Council selected The F Words as one of their September Hot Off the Press Picks. This kind of selection is of great benefit to writers and their books because librarians, both public and school, respect the CBC and its picks. In fact, I noticed an uptick in Amazon pre-sales for several days after the CBC announcement.

Printers Row Lit Fest was a fun experience, just as it was each of the five previous times I autographed there. It was particularly enjoyable autographing with Judy Bradbury, whose second Cayuga Island Kids chapter book City of Light published this month. Friends dropped by to buy books, and strangers bought books and initiated conversations. 

On September 15 The F Words was published! 

I realize that the nine months I’ve documented in this blog might make the whole process seem very long. But to me it seemed very short, and that’s probably because I was so actively promoting my book. And whatever I did, my publisher did at least three or four times more —  about which I am both happy and grateful.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold, as a paperback and as an ebook. It’s also available through libraries. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

Graphic Novels: Panels vs. Paragraphs

I grew up reading graphic novels, only they weren’t called that at the time. They were called comics, and what I read were the Classics Illustrated of the 1940s. I read them daytime and nighttime, indoors and out, over and over, until the pages had to be taped back to the covers. My two favorites were Moby Dick and The Prince and the Pauper. Others I remember enjoying were Robinson Crusoe; Robin Hood; Gulliver’s Travels; and The Call of the Wild.

I was probably somewhere between 7 and 11 years old when I was reading these graphic novels over and over. I have no memory of ever thinking that these were in any way different from other books. I realized that they were made of art in panels, and words (either narrative or dialogue) — but I never stopped to think about how that might be different from a “normal” book which didn’t tell the story through panels. All I knew was that I loved these stories. 

In retrospect, I think that the reason I read them over and over (in a way that I would not read a novel over and over) was that each told an exciting story in a very condensed fashion, with illustrations which heightened my empathy with the character and increased the tension.

The term “graphic novel” was first coined during the 1960s, and it actually refers to nonfiction as well as fiction. A graphic novel is in essence composed of the same content as a comic book. That is, it’s composed of comics: panels of images and text which combine to tell a story. The story need not be “comic” or humorous: it can be deeply solemn and serious, as in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Perhaps this need not be said, but the term “graphic novel” refers to a format — not to a genre. If somebody says, “I read graphic novels,” that doesn’t tell the listener what genre the graphic novels are. Graphic novels are probably present in every genre of literature.

The Classics Illustrated I read when a kid were true “graphic novels” and not comic books. (Though I read hundreds of comic books, too, mainly Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Superwoman, Supergirl, Superboy, and Captain Marvel.) Graphic novels are usually stand-alones: one book tells the entire story. Comic books tend to be serials, with the story continuing from episode to episode.

Many creators of graphic novels, however, disagree with the term “graphic novel,” which they consider too highfalutin: they want their books to be called comics, even though the books may be serious nonfiction. Comics artists agree that, unlike a traditional comic book, a graphic novel is stand-alone with a beginning, middle, and end: the story is finished at the end of the book. It isn’t continued in a series.

Although I loved comics and Classics Illustrated, I had stopped reading them by the time I was in high school. By that time I was in love with the written word and didn’t want accompanying visuals for the fiction I was reading. Moby Dick in novel form was far more powerful to me than it had ever been in comics form. As I became an avid reader of fiction, I felt that pictures interfered with the smooth flow of the written story. Pictures also imposed the artist’s interpretation of what the characters looked like on me. I preferred to imagine them myself, without the intervening and interrupting illustrations.

I did return to reading comics, or graphic novels, about ten years ago, when I read Persepolis. There I felt no sense that the illustrations and words were separate. For me, the book worked in a powerful way, with the visuals and the words telling a story together. I felt the same sense of integrated story when reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

So now I’m back to reading comics, in the form of graphic novels. I don’t read many of them, maybe three or four a year, and each time I sit down with one, I never feel the same as if I’m sitting down to enjoy reading a novel. For me, it’s more work to read a graphic novel. The pleasure I receive from being swept up in the flow of words that tell a story is slowed perceptibly by the need to look at and interpret the panel illustrations, and then to read the dialogue and/or narration. Although I’m enjoying the graphic novels (particularly the illustrations) I’m never 100% immersed in the story the way I am when reading a novel.

In recent years nonfiction graphic novels have proliferated. They cover topics such as World War II, the Civil War, Cortez, the Titanic, etc. When compared to books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, for example, I think the graphic nonfiction novels present history in a way that’s much easier to grasp (visuals!), understand (small chunks of information in dialogue boxes), and remember (because of the visuals). 

Because graphic books require so much space to tell a story, they can’t tell as much of a story as a text-only book. But graphic nonfiction history books seem an ideal way to get young students (adults, too) interested in a topic. If they’re interested in more depth, they can then read a text-only book.

Although I read comics, I have yet to write one. I started to write one for early readers, and had great fun doing it. But for some reason I never finished: I think I found it tedious to tell the story in panels rather than in paragraphs. 

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Barbara Gregorich thinks that She’s on First would work very well as a graphic novel . . . and maybe some day she’ll attempt retelling the story in that form.

Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Earl Derr Biggers: Free Sections

For the past several years I’ve posted a free chapter from one of my books as part of my New Year’s blog. This year I’ll offer two subhead sections from my 2018 title, Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

The cover design is by Robin Koontz, the photo of Biggers courtesy of the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

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Cleveland, Indianapolis, Boston

After graduation from Harvard in 1907 Biggers worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer very briefly (ten days, he later recalled) as a night police reporter. It’s interesting to speculate whether he encountered police detectives while on this job and whether this was why, when he finally decided to enter the field of mystery writing, he made his protagonist a police detective (instead of an amateur or a private detective).

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the publishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller. 

For The Traveller he wrote a daily column, “The Fact Is.” Like many daily columnists of the time, he entertained readers with humor, opinion, and verse. Just as his high school articles had dealt with virtue and vice in daily life, so did some of Biggers’ column pieces. His poem “The Rocking Chair Fleet” criticized the habit of gossip, concluding:

Came back at last as these fiction folk do
Only to look on her dear face again —
Ah me, the horror that filled him to find
Her whom he’d known to be pretty and sweet
Putting all honor and truth far behind —
Passing her time with the rocking chair fleet!

EarlDerrBiggersCover_GregorichWhen the Chicago Tribune ran an article on thirteen newspaper poets of the day, Biggers was listed as one of them. The author told the Tribune that he wrote the poem “The German Band” because he had heard a German band playing in a narrow alleyway and the sound had made him homesick.

Thankfully for mystery fans (as well as poets), Biggers’ employment as a versifier didn’t last long. After he had been writing “The Fact Is” column for a year, The Traveller made him the paper’s drama critic. A life-long lover of theater, Biggers enjoyed the work. Theater owners and producers, on the other hand, did not enjoy his reviews, which were highly critical. They demanded that Biggers be fired. But the editor — for the time being — refused their demands.

Years later Biggers reflected on the experience. “The truth in dramatic criticisms was not popular in those days among theatrical managers,” he explained to the Warren Tribune, adding that they banded together to drive him from his vantage point. “Large, truculent gentlemen encrusted with diamonds were sent up by the theatrical syndicate from New York to dislodge me. But the owner of the paper was an honest man, he only smiled and sent me word to go on.” And so he did.

For a time.

The Raccoon Coat

During the years that Biggers went to Harvard and then lived in Boston, raccoon coats were all the rage. But they were expensive, and he couldn’t afford one. Finally, though, in November of 1911, he visited his tailor, who held up for his inspection an elegant coat. Biggers recalled it as fur-lined, with “a raccoon collar and great frogs [ornamental coat fasteners] on the front.” The tailor “intimated that this was all I needed to make my position in the literary world secure — and I thought so, too. But the price — the price was staggering. ‘Take it along,’ he said. ‘That’s all right. Pay me any time.’” And so Biggers, goaded perhaps by a sense of fashion, but definitely by a desire to make his position in the literary world secure, bought the raccoon coat on credit.

680f06109bbd590da91a9ead4d0258feAmong those working alongside Earl on The Traveller staff was Massachusetts-born Eleanor Ladd, who wrote columns under the pen name Phoebe Dwight. Eleanor, New England, and journalism would greatly influence his writing — most of his plays and novels contain an independent young woman; a New Englander; and/or a journalist. Eleanor once described Earl as “a Middle West product with a Boston complex. Boston put an awful dint in him.”

He would need these inspirations soon. One snowy night in January, 1912, he returned to work after a Warren visit. In his absence, the newspaper had been sold to The Boston Herald. The editor handed Biggers a cigar.

“What does this mean?” asked Biggers. “Was I fired last Saturday, or is it next week?”

“It was last Saturday,” replied the editor. 

Biggers left the newspaper office (without back pay) and walked into a blizzard. Looking back on that night, he reflected: “By the time I reached Boston Common the intensity of the blizzard had increased, the snow swirled madly through the dusk, the lights in the office buildings along Tremont Street showed a dim yellow in the white light. I stood there in that wintry scene, wrapped warmly in my beautiful coat, broke, jobless, but not unhappy. Go back to a newspaper? No, I’d always intended to write a novel. Now was the time.”

Losing his job and walking into a blizzard was the first major crossroad in Biggers’ life.  It stopped him not at all. Combining that wintry night and the symbolic crossroads with an inn situated atop a mountain, he developed a plot and sat down to write his first novel. Unemployed, living entirely off his savings, he saved money by skimping on heat in his rented room. Instead, he wrapped himself in his raccoon coat and pounded away on his typewriter. (His very kind landlady would nonetheless bring him coal for his grate.) When he could afford it, Earl bought peanut brittle and kept it at his side, munching as he wrote.

But writers can’t live on peanut brittle alone, and Biggers would venture into the brutal winter to buy as inexpensive a meal as he could find. “I was learning about life,” he told the Warren Tribune. “Learning, for example, that a large fur coat is very much in the way in one of those dairy lunch rooms where you eat a 15 cent dinner from the arm of your chair.”

Perhaps because he had a limited supply of peanut brittle — or money — Biggers wrote his first draft at the blistering pace of a chapter a day through January and February 1912. He finished in twenty-two days. And then he rewrote at the same pace, completing the second draft as spring arrived. This intense concentration of writing the first and then the second draft would be his lifelong pattern.  Dashing off a cover letter, he sent The Seven Keys to Baldpate manuscript to Bobbs-Merrill. Very soon thereafter, there arrived “a telegram from the publisher, a fat advance, and a happy ending for all including the landlady on Beacon Hill and the tailor in Cambridge.”

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For the full story of Earl Derr Biggers, read Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 3

So where were we? Ah, yes, the third call from the KDP customer service operator. The call in which he told me: “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Please choose a cover that does work. Any cover will do.” He asked me to hold the line while he chose a cover that worked. After several minutes he returned to say that none of the three covers he chose worked. That was when I informed him that I had tested all ten covers and all seventy layout choices, and not a one of them worked. He replied that he would talk to the technical team and get back to me in 48 hours.  “When you call back,” I said,  “please have a cover that works. I need to get this book published quickly.” He told me he would have a cover that worked.

Meanwhile, I returned to my KDP page constantly, checking this and that, clicking here and there, wondering if I could find a loophole anywhere — something that would make my cover work.

That was when I noticed that KDP had an icon of a cover next to my manuscript. This wasn’t the cover I had tried to choose.  The cover contained the front title, subtitle, and author name. It contained only my name on the spine copy. My name in very little letters.And, somehow or other, it contained my author photo on the back. No back cover copy, no about-the-author copy. But also, and critically important — no triangles telling me that the copy didn’t fit.

Where did this cover come from? I hadn’t chosen it. And then I thought: This is the cover of my ebook. And I thought: They’ve added a back to the ebook cover, but no copy. And I thought: I wonder if the KDP program automatically flows the ebook cover into the softcover section. When the author isn’t looking. And without telling the user that this would happen.

October 27, 2018Well, in order to give my presentation, How to Self-Publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, I needed a softcover book. In my hand. To show to the students.

Hmmm. 

I clicked on the Order Proof Copy button and within minutes I received an email telling me that I would find the book in my Amazon cart  and that I had a 24-hour window in which to purchase a proof of my book. Cost, $2.19, plus shipping. I clicked. The book was sent.

I did not tell the KDP customer service operator what I had done. I figured if I told him, he would consider the problem solved. But I didn’t consider the problem solved. If when one publishes a Kindle ebook first and then proceeds to the softcover — if the ebook cover automatically flows into the softcover program and overrides everything one might want to do with Cover Creator, then I wanted to know that this is a fact. I wanted to see KDP state so in their instructions.

Just two days after I placed the order, my proof copy arrived.

And it had my name on the spine.

And my name overflowed the spine and came out on the back cover. Illustrating exactly why KDP does not permit spine copy on books of fewer than 130 pages: because the Print On Demand machines cannot line up the spine copy so precisely that it will be centered on a small spine.

At this point I was fed up with KDP’s Cover Creator problems, and with their taking so long to solve the problem they had created. I had been talking to them about this problem for eleven days and they had said or done nothing that helped. So on the evening of the eleventh day, I did something I seldom do: I wrote an irate letter to KDP Customer Service, succinctly stating the problem with their Cover Creator, expressing anger over the eleven-day delay, and requesting the courtesy of a reply the next day.

Which, to KDP’s credit, I received, approximately twelve hours after I had emailed them. Their reply, which was very polite, informed me that unfortunately Cover Creator does not work with books of fewer than 130 pages, and that anybody who wants to self-publish such a softcover book with KDP must use the downloadable template to design their own cover.

Which means, effectively, that everyone in this situation must either be able to design covers or be able to hire somebody who will design the cover for them. Or know somebody who will do it as a favor. Which, you may recall from my previous blog, Robin Koontz had already volunteered to do.

Minutes after I received the KDP reply I emailed Robin and sent her my cover photo and my author photo, and within a day she had designed a cover I loved. Robin sent me the PDF, I submitted the PDF to Kindle, and within minutes my cover (created by Robin) was approved and my book was ready to print.

CoverScrape,Rattle,Roll-Screened copy

Cover design by Robin Koontz

Although I was twelve days behind schedule due to the fact that it took KDP that number of days to inform me that their Cover Creator didn’t work for my book, I had been taking screen shots of the entire ebook and paperback publishing process. I was also able to put those screen shots into a new Keynote program and meet my commitment to the Naperville Public Library, where I presented How to Self-Publish with KDP, on October 27, 2018.

And, even though I encountered these apparently-never-tested problems in my experience with KDP, I can honestly say that, this particular problem aside, self-publishing with KDP is very easy. They have trimmed the number of steps necessary, they have streamlined the instruction and made everything not only faster, but easier. This certainly makes it easier for people to publish both ebooks and softcover books, and it makes it easier for people like me to teach others how to do so.

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Scrape, Rattle, and Roll: Reflections on This and That was published by Barbara Gregorich in 2018.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2

After the KDP announcement that CreateSpace would cease to exist in October, 2018, I had two choices with the programs I had scheduled: (1) Cancel them; (2) Self-publish a book through KDP and rewrite my entire Keynote presentation, from Frame 1 through Frame 115.

I went for Option Two. Somehow, between August 28 and October 15, I would self-publish both an ebook and a softcover through KDP, take screenshots of the process, put them into my Keynote program, and create order out of chaos. 

Luckily, I had more blogs available to self-publish. I chose twenty of them and titled the book after one of the blogs: Scrape, Rattle, and Roll.

KDP offers users the ability to publish an ebook only, or a paperback book only. Or both, if one is so inclined. Which I definitely was. A user could create and publish the ebook first, or the softcover first. It makes no difference. This, of course, is different from CreateSpace, which published softcovers only.

ebook firstFor eight years I had been teaching how to self-publish a softcover first, then turn it into an ebook. Why not reverse the process? KDP puts the selection box for the ebook above the selection box for the softcover — so, I reasoned, they were hinting that people should publish the ebook first.

I liked this approach for one big reason: it is easier to format a manuscript for an ebook than it is to format a manuscript for a softcover book. (Except, I suppose, for an ebook heavily loaded with charts, tables, and illustrations.) Since the step that gave students the most grief in the past was formatting a manuscript (it terrified some, frustrated others, and downright stymied most of them — they stopped and proceeded no further), I hoped that doing the easier manuscript first and publishing it as an ebook would give them confidence to go on and format the manuscript again, as a softcover book.

Scrape ebook Title, for Blog

The ebook cover

So that is how I proceeded with my collection of blog articles: I published them as a Kindle ebook first. This process was incredibly easy, and as I took screenshots and loaded them into my Keynote program, I felt that things were going well. I published the ebook on September 1, 2018, just three days after receiving the news about all of CreateSpace being merged into KDP.

Then came the softcover book, with which I anticipated no problems — for the simple reason that I had already self-published eleven softcover books through CreateSpace and had had no problems.

KDP divides its self-publishing procedure into three categories:  Details, Content, and Pricing. I filled out the Details section quickly. In fact, most of the section filled itself in — the KDP program flowed it in from my ebook. That’s good: less work for the author-publisher.

Then came the Content section. There, too, I proceeded quickly. On my computer, I duplicated the manuscript of Scrape, Rattle, and Roll. (So that, if anything went wrong, I would have the original copy intact.) I then downloaded a 5”x8” KDP template and, after watching their 3-minute video, pasted my manuscript into their template, section by section. Easy peasy.

I saved that as a PDF and uploaded it to KDP. Their Spellcheck caught four issues, but those were examples of literary license (I invented a few words in poems), and I told Spellcheck to ignore them. I then opened Previewer and looked at my book online, page by page. It looked great! And this entire process was so much quicker than the CreateSpace process used to be. KDP has reduced the number of choices and the number of decisions, so the process works more quickly.

spelling errors

All that done (and done quite easily), I proceeded to KDP’s Cover Creator. Unlike the CreateSpace Cover Creator, which offered thirty choices, this one offers ten. If you don’t like any of these ten (each of which comes with five to seven different layout choices), you can download a cover template, design your own cover, and upload.

I, however, wanted to use KDP’s Cover Creator, because I figure that’s what most of my students would be using. So I chose a cover, looked at the colors and opted for black and hot pink. Then I looked at the layouts and chose a diagonal one that I liked.

I uploaded a photo for the front of the cover, uploaded my author photo, and pasted in the back cover copy and the “about the author” copy. And that is when everything came to an impasse.

KDP’s Cover Creator template would not approve my design. Two triangles (with exclamation marks inside) showed up, one next to the back cover copy, one next to the bar code area. The triangles told me my copy was too large to fit inside the area and urged me to click on Change Size. I did. But no matter what size of type I chose (eight point, for god’s sake!) and no matter which font I chose, the triangle told me that the copy did not fit and that I could not proceed.

So I deleted the back cover copy and I deleted the author copy. I could not delete the bar code. Two triangles still told me the [nonexistent] back cover copy did not fit.

triangle

After trying for a long time to solve this problem, I finally emailed KDP. In return, they sent me an email stating they would call me within 48 hours. This was on a Friday. They reminded me that they did not work on Saturdays and Sundays. 

When they called, they told me that the problem was not really the back cover copy, but the spine copy. Their Print-on-Demand printing machines could not print spines on books of fewer than 130 pages: the tolerance factor was such that the printer might push the spine copy onto the front cover, or the back cover. So no spine copy was allowed on books of under 130 pages.

Fine, I said. I never put the spine copy there in the first place, I informed them — the KDP template program flowed the title of my book, plus my name, onto the spine. “So let’s remove the spine copy,” I told the customer service representative. 

He then instructed me to place my cursor in the spine area, click on it, and start backspacing. I did that. The spine copy disappeared.

But so did the front cover copy — my book had no title, no subtitle, and no author. I pointed this out to him. He kept me on hold as he went back and forth to the technical department, asking them questions. After 59 minutes, he resolved that this had to be solved by others, and he would call me within 72 hours. This was Wednesday, so that meant he would call on Monday.

Which he did. “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages,” he told me. Now, I had used my weekend hours, while the KDP team was off having fun, to check Each. and Every. One. of the Cover. Creator. Templates.

And each and every one had the exact same problem: the program flows the spine copy onto the template, and the copy cannot be removed, and the cover cannot be approved. Round and round in circles. You can read the rest of the story in Part 3, which will be published in two weeks . . . without spine copy.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books. It has no spine problems.