As a professional writer, I’m usually sure when my finished work is ready to be published. Of course, as a professional writer I hope that editors will make changes that clarify and enhance the work I gave them. Almost always, they do.
But I also know that, sometimes, what I’ve written needs help before I can submit it — there’s something that I just can’t see, or that I’m doing wrong. I can sense this. But I don’t know what that something is. When this is the case, I ask for help from my writing group and, sometimes, from a writing coach. That writing coach is Esther Hershenhorn, who knows children’s literature inside and out. She is perceptive, analytical, and incredibly helpful.
Over the last twenty years, I have hired Esther as a writing coach on one or two occasions, and have also taken classes that she teaches. In early 2018, after I finished the fourth draft of The F Words, I felt that, before I went about marketing the book, I wanted an expert opinion on it. My writing group had helped me through the first three drafts: I wanted new eyes to look at the fourth draft. And so I consulted Esther.
After Esther read the manuscript, she and I had a long, fulfilling meeting, both of us with a copy of the manuscript and our computers. We busily looked up various things online as Esther suggested them; we discussed The F Words and how to market it; we talked about the voice, the plot, the audience. You name it, we discussed and analyzed it.
Esther thought that the fourth draft was almost there. What it needed, she felt, was the weaving in of important points throughout the story — so that a reader wouldn’t feel a story thread had been dropped. I could have kicked myself when Esther said this, because I weave baskets, and so I certainly should have known that one must never drop a weaver: if one does, failing to go under or over the correct number of stakes, one has to unweave all the way to the mistake, correct it, and start weaving again.
Luckily, correcting dropped threads in fiction does not require unweaving. All it requires is finding the spots where things are missing and then inserting the missing thread.
The best way to determine where something is missing is to “color” one’s manuscript. I’ve discussed this before (see Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Normally, I think, the writer herself would decide which threads she should search for, but in this case Esther stepped in as an outsider (one who had not seen the story before, in any of its stages) and listed for me the six threads she thought I had to keep track of, so that the story was as tight and compelling as could be. For this I was extremely grateful and, actually, eager to hear which threads she thought needed to be tightened in the story.
Her first thread I could have guessed: Cole’s relationship with his father. This is an extremely important part of the story. I was pretty sure I hadn’t dropped this thread anywhere. (The color chart would prove that I did loose it in a couple of places.) I colored the Dad thread purple.
So that you can better understand what I’m saying, I’ve made a reproduction of the headers of my color chart, so that you can see the six categories. Also for your information, the “page sets” on the left-hand side indicate consecutive groups of 3-4 pages. Because the manuscript was 330 pages long, I didn’t want to deal with a color chart of one page at a time — way too huge and possibly overwhelming. So I compressed my manuscript into tiny type and looked at it in “page sets.”
Esther’s second thread was Cole’s cross-country running. Being a runner is an important part of who Cole is, and it’s also part of the plot. As soon as Esther named this category, I knew that I would find gaps in the manuscript. And I did. I colored the cross-country thread brown.
I knew that one of Esther’s six threads would be Poems or Poetry, because Cole is required to write two poems a week. This was the third thread she mentioned. I colored it green.
As Esther and I were talking and I was listing the threads she wanted me to weave in more tightly, I found myself wondering what there could be after the first three: Dad, Cross-country, Poetry. Esther’s fourth thread surprised me: Thinking about F Words. Not writing the poems, but the mental activity that takes place before Cole decides on an f word. This involves his observing, thinking, analyzing, reading a dictionary definition (not always), and sometimes looking up a word’s origin. I colored the “Thinking about F Words” threads blue.
I doubt I would have come up with this on my own. In fact, I’m certain I would not have done so. That’s because Cole’s thinking about which words to write about seemed so natural and effortless to me — such a no-brainer — that I didn’t realize that all the observing, analyzing, and thinking about f words ran parallel to Cole’s observing, experiencing, analyzing, and thinking about society. His growing skills at thinking are not confined to words — they spill over into life.
Esther’s fifth suggested thread was about alternative social systems, which is what the students in The F Words think about and talk about. I titled this thread “Socialism” because Cole’s parents are socialists and socialism is one of the alternative social systems the students want to talk about in class and out of class. I colored that thread red.
And the final thread, as you can see on the closeup, is Chicago. The setting. Esther felt, and rightly so, that I didn’t have quite enough “Chicago” references in the book. I colored that thread pink.
After I decided my colors and then went through the entire 330-page manuscript six times (one for each color), and created the chart you see to the right, I taped together the pages, hung the chart on my bookcase, and, every day before I began writing Draft #5, consulted the chart.
Wherever there were long white gaps, I had to weave the missing thread back into the story. Occasionally this involved adding a whole new paragraph, but usually it was a sentence or two, often in dialogue form. And sometimes it was merely a phrase or a word — little “connections” throughout the manuscript that helped make it a much stronger story. With no loose threads!
After I finished this draft, Draft #5, I began to market it, confident that I had a strong story that was well-written. In April of 2020, City of Light Publishing offered me a contract. And very, very soon — September 1, 2021 — the novel will be published.
I don’t often consult a writing coach, but I had a feeling that I needed Esther to help my manuscript take a qualitative leap forward. I am so glad I asked for her help, and so glad she responded.
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.