Rewriting: Macro

One of the most difficult things about rewriting is knowing where to begin. The first draft of a book consists largely of the writer telling the story to herself, making things up as she goes along, creating characters and conflict, creating rising action, climax and conclusion. A lot can — and does — go wrong during this process. Knowing that there are many things wrong with a first draft, a writer is often overwhelmed with how and where to begin the changes.

Enter the Sorting Hat, which may divide your rewrites into two boxes. Perhaps three. Maybe, even . . . four. The first box is always Macro — Big Things That You Need to Change. There may be a Middle box, and there will be a Micro Box: small things that need to be polished.

sorting-hatThe problem is, the Sorting Hat merely lets you know there are at least two boxes. It’s up to you to read your manuscript critically and decide what the macro changes are. In fact, you end up doing the sorting yourself while the Hat looks on, doing nothing.

I believe it’s critical to separate all the medium-sized changes and small changes your novel may need from the BIG changes it needs. Don’t try to make all the necessary changes in one rewrite: it’s usually much too difficult to be dealing with correcting big things and little things in the same go-round. In fact, human nature being a bit on the lazy side, many people will ignore the big things and correct only the little ones, thinking they’re doing a good job of rewriting.

Macro problems can include structural problems, character problems, balance between scene and summary, and plot problems, for example. Overwriting (purple prose, explaining too much, heavy exposition, and so on) might be a macro problem, but I usually think it’s a Medium problem: at least in comparison to structural problems, point of view problems, and character-development problems.

A writer must deal with the macro issues before attempting the micro rewrites — it does little good to have powerful words and beautiful sentences in a book that has major flaws in structure, conflict, point of view, and narrative.

Probably the first thing any teacher of writing will explain about rewriting is that before you rewrite, let the manuscript rest. Relax. Idle. Do nothing. After I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I try to let both fiction and nonfiction sit around untouched for anywhere from one to three months before I attempt my first rewrite.

Resting time is important because the writer, having spent a year or more writing a book, is too “into” the manuscript to see what major rewriting the story may require. Letting the manuscript rest allows you to go on with other things in your life (preferably without thinking of the manuscript in much detail) so that when you do return, you can see the story with more objectivity — you are distancing yourself from the “you” who wrote the first draft. When approaching my first rewrite of a book, I adopt the attitude that the person who wrote it is somebody I know and like, but somebody whose story I am going to improve greatly by looking at it objectively.

imagesAlmost always, the first draft is full of flab: loose, excess flesh. Not a pretty image, I know. The flab must be toned up. The toning comes from cutting. You must cut paragraphs, pages, entire scenes or chunks of narrative that you labored over for months or years. This cutting will do wonders for your story which, now free of excess, looks leaner, meaner, and fit.

How much of your first draft is flab? That varies, of course. My first draft of She’s on First (my first novel) was 400 pages long. My agent told me: “Cut 100 pages and then I’ll represent it.”

I did cut 100 pages. (102, if I recall.) What I cut mainly was repetition . . . descriptions that weren’t necessary . . . transitions that could be replaced by wordless white space . . . scenes that could be summarized or shortened. At first I thought this would be painful. But it wasn’t. In fact, it felt good to improve my story and my writing by tightening it.

In the macro rewrite, a writer needs to look at balance — the balance between showing and telling or, to use technical terms, the balance between scene and narrative/summary.

The more common error is to write too much narrative and not enough scene. That’s probably because narrative is easier to write: we just sit down and begin typing. Scene is more difficult. If we’re writing fiction, we must imagine our characters in conflict and show this with realistic dialogue and action. If writing nonfiction, we can still include scenes, but then we must watch for too much detail, too much description.

An easy way to see whether you have some sort of balance between scene and summary is to take a yellow marker and highlight the scenes. If they’re few and far between, this means your book is almost exclusively narrative. That might work for some nonfiction, but it doesn’t work for fiction, whose readers want drama.

Backstory and flashbacks are devices the writer sometimes needs to tell the story. But in the first draft we tend to use these devices in Big. Chunks. that are Pages. Long. In the macro rewrite, it’s necessary to pulverize these chunks into smooth granules and sprinkle them throughout the book. In my first rewrite of Sound Proof I was able to eliminate all the backstory I had stuffed into chapter two and sprinkle it in a few places throughout chapter one.

Often character problems fall into the Macro box. In writing She’s on First I needed to develop several of the characters more, which meant I needed to think about their goals, their motivation, and their actions. Developing characters in a different or additional way is difficult for me: they seem to be what they are when I’ve completed the first draft, and changing my perception of them is hard. But sometimes this must be done, and I’ve found that it can be done, no matter how difficult it appears at first. Sometimes, though, the main problem with a character is . . . he or she isn’t necessary to the story. That means (Gulp!) Getting. Rid. Of. The. Character. Believe me, this is even more difficult than  improving a character’s motivations.

Most writers, I suspect, find the macro rewrite difficult. I do. It involves a lot of major changes, and these aren’t easy. But when I finish my first rewrite, I always feel good. The roadbed has been bulldozed and leveled, the pavement put down. What remains to be done is a lot more fun than all that heavy work. I will talk about micro rewriting in another blog — after I recuperate from all this heavy work.

 

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Earl Derr Biggers rewrote each of his novels once, publishing the second draft. Barbara Gregorich rewrites most of her books three times, usually publishing the fourth draft.

Keeper of the Keys: A Delightful Conceit

UnknownA conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.

Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.

Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?

Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.

Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.

Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.

Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.

Granlibakken-TMW-112416-3-4As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.

Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.

One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.

The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.

Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.

 

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In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.

 

Women at Play and Libraries

In my previous blog I wrote about my best-known book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, which is now available as an ebook.

First published twenty-five years ago by Harcourt, Women at Play went into a second printing, and then, eventually, it went out of print. But it has had a long and interesting life through baseball book collectors, through stores that sell used books, and also through libraries. I’m particularly fond of and amused by the way Women at Play has gone into libraries, out of them, and then back into them.

imagesWhen the book was first published, many, many libraries purchased copies, probably because Women at Play was the first book to present the history of women who played hardball. Soon, however, there were many more books on the subject. For at least ten years, though, I could find a copy of Women at Play in just about any library I visited almost anywhere in the country.

But just as libraries buy books, so they divest themselves of books due to limited shelf space and the need to buy new titles as they come out. Eventually Women at Play was taken out of some library collections. But libraries love books and would not destroy them — the library copies were either sold or donated and ended up online. If you typed “Women at Play” into Amazon, you could (and probably still can) choose from among five to ten online sellers . . . many of whom specified that the copy you would receive was an ex library book. Which is how I learned that libraries were taking Women at Play off their shelves.

But here’s the amusing thing. I intended to organize my thousands of pages of research notes on women in baseball and donate them to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. (See Cooperstown Bound: Third Time’s a Trip). Before I did that, though, I ended up publishing the public-domain part of my notes in a three-volume collection titled Research Notes for Women at Play. I published Volume I in 2010.

Perhaps because Research Notes was an unusual book, or perhaps because they remembered Women at Play, many libraries (both public and academic) purchased copies of Volume I.

The existence of Research Notes led to a renewed interest in Women at Play itself. And libraries that had divested themselves of the original title now ended up rebuying that title so that, in addition to having Volume I on hand, they could also have the actual work on hand. Because Women at Play was out of print, libraries ended up buying used copies of it through Amazon and other venues. I like to think that somewhere, at least one library purchased back its own book.

There’s something about this circle of in-out-in that makes me smile.

Now I’m hoping that the existence of Research Notes on library shelves makes libraries want to buy the ebook edition of Women at Play.

 

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To purchase the 25th anniversary edition of Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, click here.

Women at Play: 25th Anniversary Edition

For the past several years I’ve posted a free chapter from one of my books as part of my New Year’s blog. That book has been Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

But this year’s giveaway chapter comes from my best-known book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, published twenty-five years ago (Harcourt). The paperback version has been out of print for twenty years, and there has never been an ebook version.

Until today. I’m publishing Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball as an ebook. A text-only ebook, because photo permissions cost way too much.

All the stories are here: Maud Nelson, Margaret Gisolo, Jackie Mitchell, Babe Didrikson, Dottie Collins, Rose Gacioch, Jean Faut, Lois Youngen, Bernice Gera, Pam Postema, Julie Croteau, the Sun Sox. And more. All the original sidebars are here, as are the charts, credits, etc.

The new cover design is by Robin Koontz. The baseball on the front cover was given to me by Nellie Kearns, who played with Maud Nelson’s All-Star Ranger Girls during the 1930s.

The free chapter is below.

WAP-EBOOK

 

 

Jean Faut

 

In seven years of overhand pitching, two perfect games were pitched in the All-American Girls Baseball League—and Jean Faut of the South Bend Blue Sox hurled them both. “She had great strength,” says catcher Shirley Stovroff, “and she was very smart. She had a mixture of pitches—fastball, curve, drop, slowball—and she had excellent control.” The league’s leading hitter, Dottie Kamenshek, evaluates Faut this way: “She put them all just where she wanted.” Pitching overhand was never foreign to the Blue Sox ace. She grew up playing hardball, and when the league switched to overhand, Jean was like a fish in water, moving effortlessly through the environment.

Few pitchers were able to make a successful transition from underhand to overhand. Among those who did were Dottie Wiltse Collins, Joanne Winter, and Helen Nicol Fox. Those who couldn’t went back to softball or, like Connie Wisniewski, converted to another position. By 1948, when the league went overhand, softball had all but obliterated baseball as a sport for women, and ironically the AAGBL, which started out by capitalizing on the softball craze, found as it moved toward the more exciting and exacting game of baseball that pitchers were suddenly difficult to find. In desperation league managers began to convert their hardest-throwing outfielders (who naturally throw overhand) into pitchers.

These converted outfielders learned about pitching from their managers, from watching their teammates, and from being on the mound themselves. Their knowledge was only as deep as their league pitching experience. Jean Faut’s was not. “I had more experience than most of the girls in the AAGBL,” she contends. “I came into the league with a fastball, a sharp curve, screwball, drop and change—and a lot of deviations from these basic pitches.” Born January 17, 1925, in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, Jean grew up two blocks away from the practice field of a semipro baseball team. She hung around the field and yearned to play, and by the time she was thirteen the players had taught her how to pitch. Faut learned so well that when she was still in high school she pitched several exhibition games for the semipro Buck-Montgomery League, an experience she describes as “a great thrill.”

In 1946 a scout from Allentown, Pennsylvania, offered the five-foot-four, 137-pound young ballplayer a chance to attend AAGBL spring training in Pascagoula, Mississippi. “The rookies went in first,” she remembers. “All the representatives were there from the cities, the board of directors. They chose who they wanted.” After finishing fifth out of six teams in 1945 with a 40-60 record, the South Bend Blue Sox would have been among the first to select players. Board Director Harold Dailey, who had smarted so badly from losing Rose Gacioch to Rockford in 1945, wrote of the 1946 tryouts, “We got Wirth and Faut out of the deal.”

The Blue Sox started Senaida “Shoo Shoo” Wirth as shortstop and Jean Faut as third baseman. “I had a strong arm,” she says, “so third was a natural spot.” Late in her rookie season, the league permitted some sidearm pitching and manager Chet Grant asked Faut to take the mound. Although she didn’t like to pitch sidearm because “it’s not very good for your arm, almost like throwing a screwball,” she started twelve games, winning eight and losing three. The League went to overhand in 1948. “I was ready then,” she states. “I was home free.”

When Jean Faut moved to South Bend, Karl Winsch followed her there. A pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Winsch was called up to the majors in 1946 along with his roommate Del Ennis, who flourished there. But Winsch sustained an injury in spring training that ended his career. When that happened, he moved to South Bend and in 1947 he and Jean were married. In that year, Chet Grant sent his sophomore to the mound in forty-four games, and she posted a 19-13 record with a 1.15 ERA. By midseason, Jean was pregnant; she gave birth to her first child in March 1948. Writing about the Blue Sox 1948 season, Harold Dailey opined that “Faut was not in condition until July owing to the drag on her by pregnancy.” Starting thirty-four games, she compiled a 16-11 record.
Faut turned twenty-four years old before the 1949 season started. “I started to mature,” she reflects. “You get better, your control gets better. You work on new pitches.” The overhand ace was now in her element. In 1949 she started thirty-four games and racked up a 24-8 record and a 1.10 ERA.

Unlike Lois Florreich, another great hurler of the overhand era, Faut didn’t have intimidating speed. Outstanding hitters such as Dottie Kamenshek rank Faut as the best pitcher of the League’s overhand days despite her lack of velocity, recognizing that what matters is whether the pitcher gets the batter out, not the speed of the ball as it crosses the plate. Yet many hitters’ perception of greatness is thrown off by speed: they rank the pitcher who gets them out on a blazing fastball higher than the one who gets them out on an adequate fastball, or on a combination of pitches. Umpires, too, were baffled by Faut’s success. One of the umpires even stepped into the batter’s box during practice and bragged, “I can hit you.” So Faut whiffed him. “Afterward, he still didn’t understand why he couldn’t hit me.” Even her own manager, Davy Bancroft, said he just didn’t understand why batters couldn’t hit her.

“My biggest asset was control,” Faut explains. “I have very strong wrists and could do things with the ball. I got that way splitting wood by the hour when I was a kid.” Her variety of pitches also helped. “I had a good curveball and could throw it overhand, three-quarters, or sidearm. If overhand, it went straight down. I threw a screwball, like a slider, but not often. And a fastball. I could throw them with different speeds.” And if, as they say in the majors, 90 percent of pitching is mental, Jean Faut had that, too. “Part of my success was that in my mind I could record the pitches and the order of pitches I threw to each girl, so they never saw the same thing twice. I was a mathematical whiz in school. They’d never know what was coming, so they’d start guessing. When batters start guessing, they’re never right.”

Some analysts of the All-American Girls Baseball League say that the reason batting averages went up so dramatically in the last third of the league’s existence was that there were few really good overhand pitchers. Faut disagrees, naming Lois Florreich, Maxine Kline, and Millie Earp as great overhand hurlers. She should know, for in addition to 35-45 pitching appearances a year, Jean often played an additional forty games at third base, where the Blue Sox counted on her fielding and hitting. Faut believes that the hitters coming into the AAGBL in the 1950s were strong athletes who mastered baseball hitting. She points to the Weaver sisters in particular: “Betty Foss would run the bases and the dirt would fly up. One time I was pitching and Betty Foss hit the ball straight at me. It came so straight and fast I couldn’t see the spin, couldn’t react. I saw the seam and then it hit me in the stomach, there wasn’t even time to get my glove up. When I undressed, I saw the stitch marks on my stomach.”

Strong hitters or not, Jean could handle them. On July 21, 1951, she pitched a perfect game in Rockford against the Peaches, retiring twenty-seven batters in a row. Dottie Kamenshek, who prided herself on not striking out, whiffed twice that night. It was, says Kammie, “the best game I’ve ever seen pitched. It was just perfect. Overpowering.” The next morning, the South Bend Tribune reported that “Jean Faut, a sturdy gal with a lot of heart, a fast ball that hops, and a curve that breaks off like a country road pitched a perfect no-hit, no-run game to subdue the Rockford Peaches, 2-0, at Playland Park Saturday night. . . . The chances of a no-hit game were never mentioned in the Blue Sox dugout during the game, according to baseball superstition, but the crowd of 1,490 were fully aware that baseball history was in the making.” Whiffing eleven of the twenty-seven batters, the Sox hurler got behind the count on only two. “She threw three balls to Eleanor Callow in the fifth and then fanned her. One other time she threw three balls, then two strikes, and the batter grounded out.”

Faut’s 1951 pitching record was 15-7 with a 1.33 ERA. She was chosen Player of the Year and helped lead the Blue Sox to their first Shaughnessy Series victory. In 1952 she went 20-2 (a .909 winning percentage), posted a 0.93 ERA, and once again helped lead her team to a series victory, batting in the cleanup position. With the playoff series tied, she hurled the deciding game against the Peaches, hitting two booming triples for extra measure. In 1953 she pitched her second perfect game, this one against the Kalamazoo Lassies on September 3. That year she was again elected Player of the Year, only the second person in League history to receive the award twice (the other was Doris Sams).

In major league ball, Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson compiled a .665 winning record and a 2.13 lifetime ERA, while later-day greats such as Sandy Koufax (.655 and 2.76), Bob Gibson (.591 and 2.91), and Tom Seaver (.603 and 2.86) had somewhat lower winning percentages and higher ERAs. Jean Faut’s career statistics are 140 wins and 64 losses—a .686 winning percentage and a 1.23 ERA. Of all her accomplishments, she is proudest of her ERA, because “that’s the most important statistic of a pitcher.”

Although Faut was a real team player, her life on the Blue Sox was that of a loner. It wasn’t just that Jean was married and therefore didn’t room with another player or take part in their pregame or postgame activities. And it wasn’t just that she was raising a child. In 1951, Karl Winsch became manager of the South Bend Blue Sox, a job he held until the league folded. Under Winsch, the Blue Sox won their only two championships, but there was tremendous dissension on the team. Groups of players wouldn’t talk to the manager, and then they wouldn’t talk to Jean. Winsch wouldn’t talk to Jean, either. “Neither side communicated with me” she says. “It was a big squabble.” At the end of the 1953 season, she retired from baseball at the age of twenty-eight because it was just too rough being married to the manager.

“I suffered because I wasn’t playing,” she remembers. At first, she’d go to the games and sit in the stands, but that would make her miserable because she wasn’t playing. So, “to fill the void I went to the bowling center.” Jean became such a good bowler that in 1960 she turned pro, retiring from that status in 1988. Today she bowls with the senior women’s tour. Her highest game to date is a 299, just short of perfect.

In 1946, the same year that Jean Faut attended the league tryouts, another Pennsylvania woman went to spring training in Pascagoula. For nine years, Ruth Williams played for the South Bend Blue Sox and then the Kalamazoo Lassies. She’ll always remember one game. “Jeannie Faut beat me in sixteen innings, one to nothing, back in 1952,” says Williams. “She was pitching for the Blue Sox, I was with the Lassies. I had pitched forty consecutive shutout innings, then I got tied up with Jeannie. She was the best player in the league. She doubled off me in the sixteenth, moved to third on a bunt, and scored on a sacrifice fly. Figured it would be Jeannie that would end my streak.” It figured because Jean Faut was to pitching what Dottie Kamenshek was to hitting and Sophie Kurys was to base stealing—without peer.

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To purchase the 25th anniversary edition of Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, click here.

 

The Great White Whale: Part 2

UnknownIn my most recent re-reading of Moby Dick I was struck by the organization of the book — something I paid scant attention to in previous readings. Specifically, this time around I became aware that Ahab doesn’t enter the book until a quarter of the way through; that the first whale is killed about half way through; and that only the last three chapters contain the face-to-face confrontations between Ahab and the crew on one hand, the great white whale on the other.

This time around it felt to me as if Melville had artfully designed a trawling net, wide at the front end (the first half of the book), tapering to a narrow end where the fish/readers are inevitably led. I realized as I neared the last quarter of the book how I had been led into a more and more focused world (Ahab’s wish to kill Moby Dick). Everything that came before seemed to push toward this end — and there was no escape.

It was an especially gloomy feeling to me to know that for the men on board the Pequod, there was likewise no escape.

During my most recent reading I found to my surprise how many of the symbols I remembered. For example, I remembered that “all men live enveloped in whale lines.” Likewise, we are tied to others through monkey-ropes.

One of my favorite symbols appears in the chapter titled “The Tail,” where Ishmael describes the whale’s tale: “Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”

Moby_Dick_final_chaseAlthough Ahab’s single-minded, unheeding obsession with the great white whale bothered me even the first time I read the book, only in subsequent readings did I come to realize the immorality of Ahab’s actions: not just toward the natural world, but also toward his fellow humans, chief among them his crew, but also fellow sailors he encounters on the high seas.

This inhumanity is highlighted toward the near end of the book, when a man he knows, a fellow captain from Nantucket, begs for his help, for only 48 hours. The captain’s young son has been lost at sea in a whaling boat that didn’t return and can’t be found. Even Stubbs’ heart turns for the better: ‘We must save that boy!” he cries.

But Ahab cold-heartedly refuses and orders the captain off his ship. Ahab is for pursuit of Moby Dick and will let absolutely nothing stand in his way.

As Ahab pursues the White Whale, getting closer and closer, the omens and symbolism increase. During the typhoon, the lightning turns around the Pequod’s compass needle so that it points to the opposite of reality: the needle points East when the ship is sailing West. Ahab himself turns around reality: all he sees is what Moby Dick did to him (bit off his leg). Which is significantly less than what he tried to do to Moby Dick (kill him.)

Once the great white whale is sighted, the book rushes toward its conclusion in a very dramatic way. The last three chapters are titled “The Chase — First Day,” “The Chase — Second Day,” and “The Chase — Third Day.” Each of the first two days, Ahab is warned. The first day, Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in half and Ahab falls into the sea, saved by the Pequod.

e2c146a3fdc967d78893f68a79d8a8ee--penguin-classics-melvilleThe second day Moby Dick breaches, which all see as an act of defiance. Having breached, the great white whale turns and heads for the three crewboats, smashing each of them. The whale then moves on, going its own way.

On the third day Ahab realizes he was “befooled, befooled!” That is, he fooled himself into thinking he was immortal. Even knowing that — even knowing that his crew and ship will perish if he persists — Ahab plunges on. That is when Moby Dick turns on the Pequod, smashing it in half with his majestic forehead. The ship goes down and all but Ishmael perish.

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

The Great White Whale: Part 1

images-3Call me Captivated. That’s how I felt when, at the age of 19, I first read Moby Dick. It was unlike any book I had read — at once intimate but academic, earthy but technical, wide in its subject matter yet focused on Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. I felt in the hands of a writer who was going to take me on an important voyage.

Before I actually read the novel, I had been aware of the story. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I read a Classic Comics version of Moby Dick. The art, the narrative, the dialogue, the way the story moved, the subject matter — I loved all of these things. My parents took my brother and me to see the movie, which came out in 1956 and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. I don’t remember much about the movie . . . I think I found it long and not as interesting as the Classic Comics version.

Despite the fact that he wrote a long, highly technical, intricate novel, Melville (unlike the authors he was surrounded by such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) never went to college. “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote in Moby Dick.

Before he became a writer, Melville was a whaler. As such, he knew of the 1820 real-life wreck of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, and he read the first-hand account about that wreck, written by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.

One can imagine what the whale must have felt, relentlessly pursued by a ship that wanted to murder it. If whales think, it surely must have thought or felt: “I must strike back.”

And so it did.

I like to think that Melville sided with that whale.

Moby Dick wasn’t much appreciated during Melville’s lifetime. Readers and critics of the 20th century, however, came to understand this vast, awe-inspiring novel. Perhaps one of the first to start what is now called the Melville Revival was British author D.H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a small but insightful book, Studies in Classic American Literature. This book was one of my reading assignments for an undergraduate American Literature class. I found myself laughing at many of the passages in which Lawrence mocked American obsessions. But beneath his humor and mockery, Lawrence had the greatest respect for Moby Dick. He concluded: “. . . as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.”

Just a few years ago I read a small but powerful book, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, published in 2011. I highly recommend this pithy 21st century look at a masterpiece.

Each time I read Moby Dick, I’m struck by the powerful beauty of the great white whale, “. . . seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

It is this natural beauty that Ahab pursues, in order to annihilate it, just as whalers annihilated whales to near extinction.

New Zealand was the first of the twentieth-century whaling nations to give up whaling. That was in 1964. A few years ago I saw the traveling exhibit, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. One of the many things I learned was that there are very rare whales about which little is known. If I recall, they swim very deep and spend much of their time underwater.

Considering how humans have hunted whales, these rare whales may be doing the wise thing. Perhaps they, too, know the story of Moby Dick . . . but from the whale’s point of view.

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

Not One Woman

Many and many a blog ago, in Woman Yes, Girl No, I wrote about some people’s inability to use the word woman. Recently I was reminded of this by a book I read. In it, the author either refused to or could not get himself to use the word woman.

My response was to write a “skinny” poem, also called a “short lines” poem.

WLM-picture-of-logo

Let There Be Light

The man
writes
a book
peopled
by men,
boys,
ladies,
and girls,
but not one
woman.

In four
hundred
pages,
not one
woman.

I want
to rate
this book
one star
but can’t:
even one
star
belies
the dark.

 

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Barbara Gregorich has published one book of poetry: Crossing the Skyway.

Early Readers: A Short Phase

In a young reader’s development, early readers come immediately after start-to-read primers, but before early chapter books. Dr. Seuss’s books, such as The Cat in the Hat, are easy to read because of their emphasis on phonics and simple words, but they’re not early readers. I consider them more of a start-to-read book. Or, if anything, they are unique books in that parents read them to children as picture books, children memorize them, and then children read them at the beginning of their reading lives.

For decades early readers were orphans in the world of children’s books, seldom receiving consideration for either the Caldecott (which usually went to picture books for illustration) or the Newbery (which usually went to Middle Grades books for story). Then, in 2006 the American Library Association, which awards both the Caldecott and the Newbery, instituted the Geisel Award, named after Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who pioneered beginning readers during the 1950s.

Early readers most often have chapters. Or, they sometimes consist of two, three, or four separate stories. A chapter or story runs 300-600 words long. The length of the book is usually 48 pages, but can be as short as 32 pages or as long as 64 pages. Early readers contain illustrations: usually “spot” illustrations which are smaller than picture-book-sized illustrations.

UnknownThe size of early readers is different from the size of picture books — they have a slightly smaller trim size, making them feel less like “baby” books and more like “real” books to the child selecting them. The trim size of Alien & Possum, for example, is 6.25”x9.25”.

Not all children’s book publishers are interested in publishing early readers, perhaps because early readers appeal to a child for only a short time in that child’s life: 6 months, maybe a year. Reading abilities and reading comprehension grow in leaps and bounds, and a child who’s reading an early reader at the beginning of second grade might be ready for an early chapter book of 80-100 pages by the end of second grade.

Picture books, on the other hand, are suitable for children aged 2-8 years, and early chapter books are read by ages 8-10, or even older. Parents are more willing to buy picture books and early chapter books than they are to buy early readers, which their children might outgrow very quickly.

Children, on the other hand, often develop a fierce loyalty to early readers, and this loyalty can last into adulthood. I’ve heard many adults speak passionately about early readers such as Frog and Toad, or Henry and Mudge.

003124As far as I know, early readers of the Frog and Toad variety didn’t exist when I was a child. In fact, I read the Frog and Toad stories as an adult and fell in love with them. Written and illustrated b y Arnold Lobel, the first book in the series, Frog and Toad Are Friends, was published in 1972.

People who write early readers are aware that they must use somewhat simple sentence structure and a somewhat restricted vocabulary. But I think that writers of early readers make up for these restrictions by finding a beautiful rhythm of sentences. Here are the first five sentences of “Down the Hill,” the first story in Frog and Toad All Year:

Frog knocked at Toad’s door.
“Toad, wake up,” he cried.
“Come out and see
how wonderful the winter is!”
“I will not,” said Toad.
“I am in my warm bed.”

One of the very popular early readers series is the Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant, first published in 1987. Henry is an only child and Mudge is his dog, who grows from a puppy into a 180-pound canine. Rylant won the very first Geisel Award in 2006 for Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas.

Another early reader series is the Fox series, written and illustrated by James Marshall (of George and Martha fame). Like Arnold Lobel, Marshall wrote with a beautiful rhythm, economy of words, and great humor. The first Fox title, Fox All Week, was published in 1984.

Because I love reading early readers, it should come as no surprise that I sometimes write early readers. The first of these, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories, was 64 pages long. It contained three stories and came to 64 pages mainly because the publisher divided each of the three small stories into four small chapters. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review. Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center all liked it, the latter making it a Choice 2007 book.

Unknown-1For the sequel, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories, the publisher left each of the three stories intact (instead of breaking them into chapters). The book then came out to 48 pages, a much more economical arrangement, considering the cost of color printing. Booklist thought the stories contained “deliciously sticky, comical situations.”

If you have never read an early reader, or did but have forgotten the wonderful way in which it tells a story, look at one of the books I’ve mentioned the next time you’re in a bookstore. Try any of Arnold Lobel’s Toad and Frog books, or James Marshall’s Fox books, or Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge books, or her Poppleton books. You just might get hooked on the rhythm of the story.

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When she isn’t writing early readers, Barbara Gregorich writes books such as Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

Book Review: Charlie Chan Carries On

 

When I was sixteen years old and first read Earl Derr Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels, I loved each and every one, but my favorite was the fifth book, Charlie Chan Carries On. However, I couldn’t really say why.

What was it about this book that made it my favorite? Was it the fact that the story took place on an around-the-world cruise, and that this setting appealed to me? Or perhaps I loved the novelty of having one detective be the protagonist for the first half of the book, and another detective take over for the second half of the story.

Back in the 1990s, after I had already read each book twice, and was about to embark on reading each a third time, I did a lot of research on Earl Derr Biggers. This included reading all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, David Laurance Chambers of Bobbs-Merrill. From these letters I learned many things I hadn’t known — including something about Biggers’ attitude toward writing Charlie Chan Carries On.

Specifically, I learned that Biggers complained to Chambers about the fact that so many of his fans were telling him he should write a Chan mystery in which Charlie goes to London and meets up with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard (introduced in Behind That Curtain), and the two of them solve a case together.

Which part of these suggestions repelled Biggers more, I don’t know: that he take his character to London, that Chan co-star with Duff . . . or that the fans felt they could tell Biggers where to set his books. Disregarding all these suggestions, Biggers wrote a fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, in which he took Charlie home to Hawaii. Inspector Duff was not present in the novel.

Still . . . there was something about the London suggestion, or the meeting-Duff-again suggestion that appealed to Biggers. And so he plotted that Duff and Chan would work together — but not in the way the fans had suggested. In Charlie Chan Carries On Biggers turned the first part of the story over to Inspector Duff in London, then, in the second half, had Duff meet Chan in Honolulu (not London!). Charlie takes charge in the second half of the story and solves the mystery that Duff hadn’t yet solved.

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As I read the correspondence between Biggers and his editor and recalled the plot of Charlie Chan Carries On, I chuckled. Biggers managed to both give the fans what they wanted (another meeting between Duff and Chan) and not give them what they wanted (Chan in London). I think that in writing this book he was showing mystery readers who is in charge of the novel: the author.

Still, learning this about Biggers and his fans’ suggestions didn’t reveal to me why Carries On is my favorite of the six novels. So this time around, for my fourth reading of the novel, I decided to pay very close attention to the question of why I like this book the most.

It’s a very well constructed mystery, as are all six of the Chan novels. The story starts out in London, where Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard investigates a murder that occurs at Broome’s Hotel. The murdered man, Hugh Drake, was a member of Doctor Lofton’s Around the World tour. Duff questions all seventeen members of the tour, but gets nowhere. He wants to keep the tour from leaving, but the British legal system will not let him do so because he has no evidence with which to charge anybody with murder.

In Nice a second member of the tour is murdered. Duff, who has arrived in Nice, learns that somebody in San Remo, Italy, is in danger, even though she’s not part of the tour. Duff travels with the tour to San Remo, but the person he means to protect is murdered. Neither Duff nor the Italian police can solve the crime, and so the tour continues eastward while Duff returns to London — after asking Pamela Potter, a tour member, to keep him informed by letter, and to cable him if anybody else is murdered.

Back at Scotland Yard Duff and his superior decide to put an undercover Yard man on the case: he will join the tour in Calcutta, working on the ship’s crew. But this undercover operator does not make it past Japan.

As the tour boat makes its way to Hawaii, Duff is sent to the US to investigate safe deposit boxes (which play a role in the murder) and, eventually, to meet the tour ship when it arrives in Honolulu.

There the long-awaited reunion between Chan and Duff takes place, with Chan and Duff treating each other to lunches and Chan inviting Duff to his home for dinner.

And then, the night that Duff is to sail to the States with the remaining tour members, he is shot while in Charlie’s office at the Honolulu Police Station. Before he passes out Duff whispers, “Carry on, Charlie.” Duff’s life is saved, but he cannot leave the hospital.

Unknown

At this point Chan takes over, stating that his honor has been assailed and that he will solve the case for his friend. The last seven chapters of the book take place aboard the President Arthur as it steams its way toward San Francisco. Chan has Duff’s case notes with him and proceeds to question the tour members.

In my fourth reading, I was able to determine the identify of the killer by Chapter 18 (of 23) — with the same method that Chan was able to determine his identity. (Of course, unlike Chan, I had been here three times before!)

There are three things I noticed during my fourth reading that I hadn’t noticed in my first three. First, I observed that in this book Biggers’ does an amazing — and very funny — job of spoofing both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and her Miss Marple. I’m amazed that I never noticed this before.

Second, I think Biggers’ depictions of Americans abroad is hilarious. Earl and Eleanor made several trips abroad, and they must have encountered many Americans tourists such as the always-taking-pictures Mr. Benbow. Or the crude but good-at-heart gangster, Max Minchin. Perhaps one of the reasons I love this book so much is that the writing is so funny.

Third, I observed that although there are seventeen suspects, it was always very easy to know which character was which. I’ve read books in which there are six or seven suspects . . . and I can’t identify who is who when they next appear in the book. We’ve all had similar experiences. So how did Biggers manage to do this?

Although Duff had to question all the suspects, Biggers broke them into small groups. First we meet Doctor Lofton, who is in charge of the tour. That’s one character. Then we meet Pamela Potter and her mother. That’s three. Pamela is distinct because Mr. Drake was her grandfather and also because she is the youngest woman on the tour, perhaps twenty years old. The mother goes back to the States, so seventeen are down to sixteen. We then meet Mrs Spicer, who had the room next to Mr. Drake. We also meet Mr. Honywood, whose room is on the other side of Drake’s. We now have four characters to know (Lofton, Pamela Potter, Spicer, and Honywood). They are very distinct from one another. So far, an admirable job by Biggers.

Duff asks Doctor Lofton to assemble the tour members in a lounge. But five of them aren’t back from their London jaunt yet, so they will be questioned later. One of the seven new characters, Mr. Tait, faints the moment he enters the lounge. His young assistant, Mr. Kennaway, helps him into another room.

Now we have five people left to concentrate on: Mr. Ross, a timber merchant; Captain Keane, who isn’t a captain and who seems to lie about everything; Mr. Vivian, who seems to be the paramour of Mrs. Spicer; Norman and Laura Fenwick, brother and sister. We learn about these five, and it’s easy to keep them distinct because of their different ages, different origins, and different attitudes. The Fenwicks want to leave the tour and eventually do, narrowing the number from sixteen to fourteen.

Finally Duff meets the five people who weren’t there at the beginning of the questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Benbow are distinct because Mr. Benbow records each step of the world tour on film and is thus always with his camera; Max Minchin is a gangster from Chicago, with a very distinct way of speaking, and his wife Sadie buys jewelry everywhere they go. Mrs. Luce (the Miss Marple Spoof) is a 72-year-old sharply observant world traveler who has stories to tell about every port she has visited, and who draws lessons from her life’s experiences. As I said, these five characters are easy to keep straight, making this round-the-world story a real pleasure.

There is much I admire about Charlie Chan Carries On, but even now, after reading it a fourth time, I can’t pinpoint the reason why it’s my favorite. So let’s just say that the sheer scope of the book is what appeals to me.

 

___________________________

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies contains suggestions on how authors can keep characters distinct to readers.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 6

Early in 2017 I was asked to give presentations on “How to Self-Publish on CreateSpace at No Cost.” This is a program I’ve been giving since 2010, and I update it each year, mainly because CreateSpace makes changes each year and I want the program to reflect those changes.

Each time I give the program, I use screenshots from my own books, so that people can see the decisions I had to make on CreateSpace. But in 2017 I decided I would do something different — something that might benefit those attending the presentation even more.

Self-Pub copy

Instead of showing how I use my own template (which I prefer), and instead of showing them the beautiful covers that Robin Koontz created for my books, I decided I would actually publish a book using the CreateSpace template. And I would make my own cover using CreateSpace’s Cover Creator.

This would more closely approximate the experience that most people who use CreateSpace encounter: they use the CreateSpace template, and they use Cover Creator.

There was just one problem.

I had no manuscript to publish.

What, oh what, could I do?

The answer came to me suddenly. I could take 20 or 30 of my blogs, format them, and publish a book.

It took me not quite two weeks to decide which of my 60-some blogs I would select, to put them in order, and then to write an introduction to the book. I titled the book almost instantly, based on a reference to one of my blogs.

Because my “blog book” wouldn’t be a large one, I chose a smaller sized template than I had been using. Instead of 6”x9”, I went with the 5”x8” size. Instead of creating my own 5”x8” template, I downloaded that size from CreateSpace. Then I pasted my manuscript into the template.

I inserted a header and also a footer, and I wrote the front matter and inserted a table of contents. This took me perhaps one full day, mainly because I spent some time experimenting with type size and page breaks and such.

Once my book was ready, I uploaded it to CreateSpace, which informed me that I could proceed to Cover Creator while the CS automated system checked my manuscript for errors.

Cover Creator offers 30 different cover choices. I picked one, and I searched through the CreateSpace data base for a photo of a boat, to go with my title, Xenia Steered the Boat. I found absolutely no photos of boats.

So I asked my friend Sandy Katz if I could use part of one of her paintings. Sandy generously said yes, and she sent me a JPEG of the boat painting I wanted. I uploaded her art to Cover Creator and was very pleased with the results.

But I wasn’t all that happy with the five choices of font Cover Creator gave me for the book title and author name. In fact, I outright rejected three of the five choices. Then I had to decide which of the two remaining ones was less objectionable. The font I really wanted had poor leading: the second line of the title ran into the first line of the title. I called CreateSpace and spoke to a customer service person about changing the leading on the typeface I wanted, but she informed me that this was not possible. So I opted for my second choice, which was an all-capitals title. Not my fave, but definitely acceptable.

Xenia

I took screenshots of the entire process and made a huge update to my presentation.

After I “approved” the cover I had created, CreateSpace asked me to look at my book online. Which I did, catching no mistakes. But I also ordered a softcover copy of the book before publication, and I’m glad I did, because when the book arrived, something I hadn’t noticed in the online copy leaped out at me on the physical copy — my left-hand margins were a quarter-inch larger than my right-hand margins!

How this happened, I have No. Idea. Something makes me think the error was somehow related to the CreateSpace template I downloaded. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I went back into the template and made the left-hand and right-hand margins equal. Then for good measure I proofread the book one more time. And then I uploaded again. And proofread online. And ordered one more physical copy.

When that copy arrived, I went through it page by page. And then I hit the Publish button and my tenth self-published book entered the world.

________________

Xenia Steered the Boat: Thoughts on Writing is a collection of Barbara Gregorich’s blogs on writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books.