My Writing Life: 2

After that initial short story I wrote in high school, my next foray into fiction came about fifteen years later, when I decided to start writing novels. I had plenty of plots in mind and just needed to decide which one to start with. At the time I was working as a typesetter for the Chicago Tribune, and each work day I reported to the dark nether regions of the old Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. Working the night shift gave me an idea for a mystery novel. At the same time, I was interested in writing a novel about a woman playing shortstop in the major leagues.

I remember that Phil and I would talk about these two books on our evening walks. Which one should I write first? We both felt that a woman entering Major League Baseball was not that far away. After all, Pam Postema was an umpire in AAA ball, and rumor was she would soon make her way into the majors. Could a female baseball player be that far behind?

So we agreed that I would write the book that became She’s on First (which was finally published in 1987). Because, after all, we didn’t want real life (i.e., a woman entering the major leagues) to occur before my book was published.

As if. 

Here it is, 35 years after the publication of She’s on First, and women are still barred from the minor leagues — which are the gateway to the major leagues. You have no doubt heard the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Well, here’s a case where truth is more backward than fiction.

From the time I wrote the first draft of She’s on First until the time it was published, I wrote lots of fiction. Lots and lots of fiction. Most of it was in the form of short (150-400 word) stories for educational publishers. Usually these stories were meant for language skills workbooks. As the writer of the educational workbook, I asked the student users questions about the story they had just read, testing their knowledge of vocabulary, figurative language, cause and effect, inference, and so on. Not only did I write the story, I wrote the questions based on the story, and then of course I had to write the answer key for the parent or teacher.

A few of the workbooks I wrote are: Vocabulary Vampire; Logical Logic; Reading Baseball; Categories; Eating Right; Geography Skills; Racing Math. And about 150 others — many of whose titles I no longer remember. 

I wrote so many activity books for so many different educational publishers that I put a cork map of the US on my office wall and inserted a pin into every home state of a publisher I had worked for. When I finally gave up writing activity books (I returned to it later, but at a slower pace), I had pins in 29 of the 50 states.

———————————

She’s on First is available in paperback and ebook versions.

The F Words and She’s on First

For the last year, as I’ve been marketing The F Words, I’ve often thought about She’s on First. I suppose that the immediate reason I think of the two books together is that they are, for me, both firsts. She’s on First is the first novel I published (1987.) And The F Words (2021) is my first YA novel.

As I work on marketing The F Words, I often think about what it was like marketing She’s on First. The world has changed so much! Back in 1987 I printed special She’s on First stationery and printed (on my computer) letters and mailed them out. The time involved! The postage costs! Today, with The F Words, almost all marketing I do is done electronically: emails, web  pages, blogs, newsletters, videos, Zoom conferences, virtual visits.

However, I think that these physical similarities and differences aren’t the main reason I keep thinking of the two books at the same time. The main reason, I think, is that they are both coming-of-age novels. What that means is that they are about the struggle (usually subconscious) to achieve maturity: a state of full development. Coming-of-age novels have been around for a long time and still constitute a significant category of those searched for on Amazon and other sites. In other words, they are a popular category of novels and, unlike with some categories, they can take place in any environment, age, or in any setting. 

In thinking so much about She’s on First and The F Words, I finally came around to asking myself in what ways they are similar, and in what ways they are different.

Similarities

(1) The first similarity I see is that both protagonists face huge prejudices about how they should behave. Everywhere she turns, Linda Sunshine encounters prejudicial words, actions, and roadblocks because she is a woman who plays baseball. The color barrier was broken in Major League Baseball in 1948. The sex barrier has not been broken (for players). Similarly, Cole Renner faces huge prejudices because he is a teen, because he is working class, and because his best friend is Latino. Because he’s a teen Cole is expected to do what authority figures tell him to do, from obeying the principal of his school to obeying the Chicago curfew laws. Because he’s working class Cole is expected to be satisfied with a menial McJob. And because his best friend is Latino, Cole is suspect in the eyes of the Old Guard: those who enforce and uphold WASP norms.

(2) The second similarity I see is that neither Linda nor Cole doubt their own worth. They come from families which have instilled in them a deep sense of pride in who they are and what they can do. And what their rights are. Neither suffers angst of any kind. 

(3) The third similarity is that, in the face of intense opposition, each protagonist comes to a decision about what kind of person she/he is going to be. This is not true of all novels. In many novels, such as mysteries or thrillers, the protagonist already is the kind of person she/he decided to be. But in novels about the struggles against injustice, the main character usually makes that decision in the novel: not before, and not after.

Differences

One of the big differences that I feel when I think about both novels is the age difference.  Cole is 15 years old. Linda is 20 when the book begins (not counting the backstory) and 23 when it ends. A five year age difference is not that great. Usually. But in the case of a 15-year-old versus a 20-year-old, it’s a huge difference. A 20-year-old has graduated from high school (or not) and been out in the working world or the college world for at least two years. She has probably had at least one job, possibly several; has had one or more bosses; perhaps has had love affairs; might not live at home. The list could go on, but the point is that the 15-year-old is trapped in the environment of compulsory education, probably lives at home with one or both parents, might or might not have had a job yet, and so on. There is probably way more difference between a 15-year-old and a 20-year old than between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old. So the age difference between the two protagonists is big.

A second difference is that She’s on First takes place over a three-year span. The F Words takes place over a little less than five months. Although I like to think that the pace of both novels is fast and that the scenes propel the stories forward, the fact is that a story that takes place over five months is going to have a bit more intensity to it than one that takes place over three years. Things have to move faster in the 5-month story than they do in the 3-year story.

A third difference is the arena of the playing field, so to speak. Cole’s story takes place mostly within the confines of August Mersy High School, which he is required to attend. The public cannot see what is going on behind closed doors. The public, in fact, acts as if what goes on in high schools is just “the way things are.” Linda’s story, on the other hand, takes place on the playing fields of minor and major league ball, which the public is not only very interested in, but whose action it avidly follows, both in person and via the media. There is public discussion and debate on what happens on the playing fields (be it Jackie Robinson entering the Majors, or Colin Kaepernick taking a  knee).  Emotions run high. Sky high. Linda is always aware of the public: the fans and the media. Cole doesn’t think about the media at all — until he decides to march in front of August Mersy High School.

The fourth difference, I think, is the biggest: the point of view. The F Words is told from the first-person point of view. We see what happens only through Cole’s eyes. Nobody else’s. We see only what he sees, hear only what he hears. We know what he feels, we know what he thinks, because we are inside his mind. To me, first person POV seems so right for a novel about a 15-year-old boy. 

She’s on First is told from the third person point of view. Moreover, that third person POV is not limited to Linda Sunshine. The story is told from four major POVs: Linda, the baseball player; Timothy Curry, the scout who signed her; Al Mowerinski, the owner who hired her: Neal Vanderlin, the reporter who writes about baseball. This POV gives the reader a much wider look at what’s happening and how it affects others in baseball and outside of baseball. This POV allows for more reflection about the meaning of things. 

Despite their differences, I hope that the two novels are similarly strong.

_______________

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.

Writing My First Novel: Part 1

KindleCover-SOFBefore I wrote She’s on First, I had only two college courses on writing: nothing like the richness of fiction writing courses offered today. I had no fiction-writing workshops, either. As I tell students when I teach novel-writing workshops, it’s possible to write a novel without having taken courses in novel-writing.

But I was guided by two factors, the first of which is that by the time I was in my early 30s I had read approximately 3,000 novels of all kinds, from the greatest literature (Virgil, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Faulkner, etc.) to the lowliest pulp (mystery and adventure novels that are better left unnamed). For at least two decades I usually read three novels a week.

If you want to write fiction, then reading fiction is paramount to your training. By the time you’ve read 500 or more novels, you will have absorbed patterns, even though you may not be able to name these patterns. This knowledge will help guide you through the construction of your own novel.

The other factor that guided me through the writing of my first novel was that after I knew I was ready to write a novel, but before I actually started to write it, I walked to the local library and began taking out books on how to write the novel. This was in the early 1980s, and even back then the library had close to 40 books on the single topic of writing a novel. I spent days in the stacks, taking notes. I probably spent three or four months reading and studying the how-to-write-a-novel books.

calendar 2013One of the how-to books I read back then explained how to write a book in 365 days, so that became my goal (though I didn’t make it — more about that later). Today I’m amused at how much “more” is expected of beginning writers: several recent how-to books promise to show you how to write a novel in 30 days!

In addition to reading 40 or so books on how to write a novel, I also read at least that number of baseball books and baseball instruction manuals (how to play each position, where the cutoff man goes on a particular play, and so on). I paid particular attention to how baseball players think and talk: the way they see the world, as evidenced by what they say when they (or ghostwriters) write a book.

Another thing I did was research women in sports. I was interested in a woman playing on what is perceived of as a “men’s team,” but there was no literature relating to this situation. I do remember reading everything I could about Billie Jean King and her match with Bobby Riggs, even though tennis is not a team sport like baseball is. And I also read whatever I could about female sports reporters: what situations they faced in simply trying to do their jobs. What these reporters faced seemed most like what Linda Sunshine (my story’s hero) would face, and I got many of my ideas from reading about the reporters.

One of the pieces of advice many how-to-write-a-novel books give is that you should have both the beginning and the ending firmly in mind before you begin writing. The “middle” (usually 80-90% of the book) is something you can outline before you begin to write, or something you can invent as you go along.

In grade school I learned how to outline using Roman numerals as well as capital- and lower-case letters. But I was not thrilled with the idea of outlining my novel in this manner. This process seemed so t-e-d-i-o-u-s. But I did understand the need for “an outline,” as opposed to “outlining,” and so I created a quick, scrawled outline for She’s on First. Taking three sheets of blank paper, I divided each into thirds horizontally. This gave me nine horizontal sections, and I numbered them 1-9, for the nine chapters.

Then, in the horizontal spaces, I jotted thoughts for each chapter. Basically, these scrawled notes were about the events and conflicts in each chapter, the POV character in each chapter, and the forward movement of the baseball season. I felt comfortable with this non-outline and referred to it often while writing the book.

Because I was working a full-time job while attempting to write my first novel, I had to really discipline myself to work on the manuscript every single day. I hoped that if I could write a page a day, I would have a 365-page book within the space of a year.

On most work days I managed to write half a page to a full page after dinner each night. Then, while driving to work the next morning, I would think about what came next — either a continuation of the scene or summary I had been working on, or something new.

Unfortunately, when I reached the middle of She’s on First I encountered a major block: my plot required one of the characters to die. This upset me so much that I didn’t write anything for five full months — which meant that I did not finish my first novel within a year, as I had planned.

Dead Body

Illustration by Robin Koontz

You may be relieved (or perhaps frightened) to know that since that first experience I’ve become more callous, killing off characters left and right without regret.

During those five months when I was avoiding working on She’s on First, I attended novel-writing workshops. What stands out most vividly for me is that in every workshop I took, there were dozens of writers who had one, two, or three unfinished novels in their files.

I most decidedly did not want to be a writer who had an unfinished novel in her files — I wanted to be a writer who accomplished what she set out to do. And so, after three or four such workshops, I went back to work, armed less with knowledge of how to write a novel than with a burning desire to finish the novel I had started to write.

This experience, coupled with my love of baseball, is probably one of the reasons I autograph so many books with the phrase, “Bring the runner home.”

 

______________________________

You can read the first chapter of She’s on First here.