The F Words: A Writing Coach

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.

 

The F Words: Setting

I’m a person who loves setting. I enjoy reading books in which setting has been developed by the author. Conversely, I don’t enjoy books which, when I’m reading  them, feel as if they could “be” anywhere: any city, any time. So, because setting is so important to my enjoyment of a book, I am always aware of it as I write. This doesn’t mean that I get it right in the first draft — but I do develop it more with each draft I write.

When it came time to set The F Words, I chose Chicago for several different reasons, prime among them that it would be easier for me to write about a setting in which I lived. But Chicago is vast: one of the most sprawling cities in the US. It measures 25 miles south to north; 15 miles east to west. 

Everyone in Chicago lives in one of its 62-or-more neighborhoods, and identifies with that neighborhood. I wanted Cole to live on the north side (I would use the south side in my next novel), in an ethnically mixed neighborhood that was largely Latino. The two neighborhoods I considered were Albany Park (48% Latino; 30% white; 16% Asian, 5% Black) and Logan Square (46% white, 44% Latino, 5% Black, 3%Asian).

I knew the Logan Square area fairly well, but not the Albany Park area, so I spent a day driving through the two neighborhoods, getting a feel for the schools, streets, parks, businesses, transportation, etc. I was leaning strongly toward the Logan Square area as the setting, but thought I should read up on both neighborhoods.

Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

One of the first things I learned in reading the history of Logan Square was that the initial inhabitants of that neighborhood were English, Norwegian, and Danish. Serendipity once again —  Cole Renner’s heritage is Dutch and Danish. So of course I chose Logan Square as the setting for The F Words.

After choosing the neighborhood, I then drove around it again, picking up the names of hardware stores, laundromats, fast-food places, restaurants, schools, bus stops, el stops, and so on. I decided which street Cole lived on (though I don’t name the street in the book) and noted how far it was from the bus stops and the main avenues that run through Logan Square.

Once I had all of that down, I then considered where a high school student’s day is spent. In school, of course! And at school events. So I had to decide whether the school Cole, Felipe, and Treva attend was a real school in the city of Chicago, or a fictitious school in the city of Chicago.

Although Cole lives in a real Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a fictitious high school within that real neighborhood, just as I created a fictitious ballpark in She’s on First and a fictitious newspaper for Dirty Proof. I don’t want problems with real sites claiming I misrepresented them. And if I used a real site, I would be required to be accurate to the tenth degree — or have readers write to tell me I got some aspect of the setting wrong. Therefore: fictitious high school.

As I wrote the first draft of The F Words, I had in front of me a map of the Logan Square neighborhood where Cole lived. I knew the block on which Cole lived, and what bus he had to catch to get to school. I wanted to know exactly where Cole’s [fictitious] school was, so I chose some vacant land on the city map and constructed Cole’s high school on that spot. I felt a sense of great power as I did this! 

After quickly building Cole’s high school on an empty lot, I tried to envision what that school looked like. This didn’t take too long: I just modeled it on the various high schools throughout the north side of the city. I gave the school exits and entrances on all four sides, and I constructed a chain link fence along one side of it. The other three sides were bordered by school lawn and public sidewalks, one of them on a major street. I  constructed the school out of light-colored brick. And then I had to give the school a name.

Chicago is a very ethnically mixed city, approximately 32% white, 29% Black, 29% Latino,  6% Asian, 4% other. (Percentages vary depending on source.) “White” is not really an ethnic division, but that’s how the Census categorizes people of European and Slavic descent. The so-called white population of Chicago is, likewise, ethnically mixed. In Chicago history Germans were the main ethnic group for many decades, followed by  the Irish, Poles, and Swedes. Among the other groups who settled Chicago are Jews, Bosnians,  Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and Dutch. 

Both in choosing character names for The F Words, and especially in naming Cole’s high school, I took into consideration Chicago’s history, particularly the history of its German immigrants.

Most of the Germans who emigrated to Chicago during the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing the failed German Revolution of 1848, which sought democratic rights for German citizens. In the US, these Germans were referred to as Forty-Eighters. Opposed to slavery, they campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and helped him win the 1860 election. 

Hundreds of thousands of German-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union Army. Of all white ethnic groups to fight in that war, Germans were the largest. Somewhere between 176,000 and 216,000 of them fought to help end slavery. (More than 179,000 Black soldiers fought for the Union.) Major General Franz Sigel was the highest-ranking German-American in the Union Army. German-American regiments came from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  And volunteers came from Illinois and from Chicago.

Given this important history, I decided I would name Cole’s high school after a Chicago German-American who fought in the Civil War. In order to do so, I spent a lot of time googling German-Americans, Chicago, and US Civil War. I don’t remember how many names I considered, but when I ran across the name August Mersy, I was intrigued. Born in Germany in 1822, Mersy participated in the 1848 revolution and after its failure emigrated to the United States, where he volunteered to fight with the 9th Illinois, which participated in the critically important Atlanta Campaign led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Drawn to all the important stuff going on in Mersy’s history (1848 Revolution, US Civil War, Atlanta Campaign), I decided to name Cole’s school August Mersy High School.

Almost two years after naming Cole’s school August Mersy High School, I was doing further research on August Mersy, and I learned that despite what my original source stated, he did not settle in Chicago. He settled in St. Clair County, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, Missouri. 

However,  by this time I liked the name August Mersy High School so much that I decided to keep it. A mistake, but one that worked out well.

_____________________

The F Words is available for Pre-Order at Barnes & Noble. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.