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.

The Importance of Pace

Just as a walking pace consists of the speed, the length of stride, and even the rhythm with which one walks, so in fiction pace consists of the speed with which a story moves, the amount of action, and the rhythm with which scene and summary follow one another.

Long paragraphs filled with long sentences eliminate most of the white space on a page and make the story’s pace slow down. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a lot of white space and make the story’s pace quicken.

For the writer, knowing how to pace a story is important because pace affects reader satisfaction.

If I took a four-hour walk on a flat, even surface and never once varied my pace, and somebody looked at a printout of my footsteps, that somebody would most likely go, “Ho. Hum. How boring.” That’s because the absence of variation makes the printout look all the same. There’s no place where I stopped. Or slowed. Or hurried. Or raced for my life. 

An unvaried pace in fiction is equally boring. Something must happen to the characters, and that something creates tension, and tension by itself increases the pace of the story. And after that tension (almost always depicted in a scene) comes a calmer, less tense summary/narrative. The back-and-forth between scene and summary helps vary the pace of a book — as long as the scenes contain conflict.

In my office I have 35 books dealing with writing skills. Only four of these books contain anything at all on pace or pacing, which leads me to believe that it’s a difficult skill to teach. One can’t teach pace without looking at a novel as a whole, from beginning to end, and that’s hard to do in a class or a book.

When I served as a judge for the Shamus Award a couple of years ago (see Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book), I was disappointed in the lack of tension in most of the novels submitted. Another way of saying this is that the pacing of the novels wasn’t varied enough: the footsteps plodded along without variation. Tension is a critical part of pacing. If there’s no tension (a strained state resulting from forces acting in opposition to one another), the pace most likely stays the same. And that is boring.

One of the oldest writing books on my shelf is Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald, copyright 1972. The writers talk about how all events in a plot must be causally connected. If the events are not causally connected, the novel loses continuity because some events have no bearing on the plot or the main character. They then go on to talk about pacing, as follows:

A novel can have continuity without pace because the author can add one continuous event after another and have a story that stands still. For example, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck could have prolonged the trek of the Joad family to California for another couple of hundred pages by continuing the chain of causally related events causing minor complications that hindered their progress. The result would have been lack of pace despite good continuity because the story would stand still and the reader would get bored. A novel will always lack pace when an author overwrites or rambles away from the plot or story line. One way to avoid this is to delete any event that doesn’t move a story forward.

Pacing is one of those things that, when working right, is hardly noticed. Readers are so focused on the characters and plot, and maybe the setting, that they aren’t conscious of the pace when that pace is good. But when the pacing is not good, readers notice right away. If the pace is too slow, they put the book down, or take forever to finish it (perhaps a kind of revenge on the slow pace of the book?).

Some editors rapidly flip through a manuscript before reading it, to judge whether the pacing is good. Pacing is different for different genres, there being no comparison between the pacing of a literary novel and that of a thriller. But the editors know that, and they’re looking for the right balance for a particular genre — in that rapid flipping through the manuscript, they’re judging paragraph length, amount of dialogue, chapter length, and any breaks in chapters. 

If as a writer you pay attention to the pace of your novels, then of necessity you will also be paying attention to other critical story elements such as scene and summary, dialogue and narrative — and paying attention to these elements will help you improve the way you tell your story.

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Barbara Gregorich discusses pace in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

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.

Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

The Beguilement of Subplots

Subplots are secondary plots within a novel, less important than the main plot but, in most cases, tied to the main plot.

Sometimes a subplot is strongly related to the main plot, perhaps providing contrast to it or perhaps running parallel to it. In Sound Proof the main plot revolves around Frank Dragovic trying to discover who murdered the fiddler. The subplot involving blackmail notes runs parallel to the main plot and even complicates it.

Some subplots have little relationship to the main plot. Instead, they seem to exist mainly to provide a change of scene or to inject a note of humor. They are diversions from the main story. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the subplot in which Tom attempts to get his friends to whitewash the fence is not related to the main plot.

Of the two types of subplots (related to main plot; outside the main plot), I as a reader strongly prefer the former. It seems to me that such subplots enrich the main plot significantly. They are like an intricately patterned Celtic knot, all entwined. The “outside the main plot” subplots are like two pieces of rope laid side by side. Not that interesting.

Adult novels might have three or four subplots for sure, and perhaps more, depending on the writer’s style and intentions. Too many subplots, though, and their sheer weight and number will detract from the main plot. A novel is a planned dinner with a featured entree — not a smorgasbord with twenty dishes to choose from.

Sometimes an author chooses to make backstory a subplot. I’ve always found this interesting, because there’s a tension between the story from the past and the story from the present, the moving back and forth between them. In She’s on First, the Amanda backstory is a subplot.

Like the main plot, each subplot will have its own story arc. It will contain action; it may occur in a different location; it may occur at a different time; and it may contain different characters. The key here is that a subplot has its own development: it’s a story within a story.

By its very nature a subplot interrupts the main story and thus breaks up the linear narrative. This provides relief from the main plot, giving readers a time to breathe and to consider something else . . . something intriguingly related to the main plot. (Or not.) Well-developed subplots end up increasing reader understanding of the story.

Subplots help develop characterization in a novel, by showing us things from somebody else’s view, or showing us parallel or contrasting events from another time. They help develop theme for much the same reasons.

I’m rewriting a 10,000-word early chapter book and have to stop to think whether it contains any subplots. I realize that, yes, it does contain one subplot which runs parallel to the main plot and then, at the end, intersects with the main plot.

I, along with many other readers, find great satisfaction when a subplot intersects with and becomes part of the main plot. Sometimes this occurs midway through the novel, which means that particular subplot is no longer a subplot but has become part of the main plot. Sometimes, as in my early chapter book, it occurs near the end of the novel, in which case the subplot is a subplot for a longer period of time.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler states that each subplot in a story should have at least three “beats.” That is, it should appear at least three times in the story. This gives the subplot weight, helps establish it in the reader’s mind, and helps anchor it to the main plot in one way or another.

When I’m forced, for one reason or another, to outline one of my manuscripts, I type the main plot in black, flush left. I type each subplot in a different color, flush right. That way, I can easily see the relationship of subplots to main plot. Is there a subplot in every chapter? Every other chapter? Are all the subplots lumped together? If so, I need to separate them and space them better throughout the story. Typing up an outline in this manner allows me to better develop the relationship between the main plot and the subplots.

Subplots have been around at least since Shakespeare’s time, indicating that master storytellers know the importance of weaving subplots into their main story. It’s difficult to imagine a novel that doesn’t contain subplots — I think such a work would be so single-minded as to feel thin, no matter the theme. Subplots add richness to the mixture.
 

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Barbara Gregorich begins Sound Proof with the main plot and one of the subplots developing in the first chapter.

Four More Figures of Speech

Expressive language brings literature (and story) to life, no matter what age level it’s written for. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock shows the truth of this in Volume 3 of her three-volume set on writing books for children. Specifically, she examines different figures of speech and gives examples of them from children’s literature.

Zeugma (ZOOG ma) might sound like something you don’t want to encounter in the dark, let alone in a children’s book. But you have encountered it: you just didn’t know its name. Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word (usually a verb) is coupled to two different nouns in an intentionally humorous way. The example Bine-Stock gives is: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And for adults, Charles Dickens was using zeugma when he wrote: “She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”

Pleonasm (PLEE o nasm) is a figure of speech that, used consciously and with control, can result in intensified language. Used unconsciously and in an uncontrolled manner, it usually results in bad writing.

UnknownWherever you encounter the use of superfluous words, you are encountering pleonasms, which abound in English (and probably in other languages as well). “Tuna fish” and “puppy dog” are examples, as is “see with my own eyes.” In the first, “fish” is superflous; in the second, “dog” is superflous; and in the third “with my own eyes” is superflous, since you can’t see with anybody’s eyes but your own. Yet such pleonasms make those who speak them and even those who read them feel comfortable — something is, for some reason, being emphasized, and that feels good.

But then there’s unintentional use of pleonasm, as in government-speak and bureaucratic documents, which say the same thing in so many ways that one loses a sense of meaning. Even short two-word expressions of pleonasm can be irritating, as in “free gift” and “true fact.”

In an earlier blog on figures of speech, I said that a writer, or even somebody who doesn’t write, can easily use figures of speech without knowing what they are. But a writer, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, chooses the best words in the best order, and so, at one time or another, a writer is bound to use one of the figures I’ve talked about. Perhaps accidentally.

This happened to me once when I submitted a poem, “Ridge and Furrow,” for a critique. Toward the end of the first stanza I wrote: “Ridge and furrow, / furrow and ridge roll across the land.” The editor critiquing the poem pointed these lines out, calling them an example of chiasmus (ky AZ mus), which is the repetition of words in first one order, then their opposite order, as in “ridge and furrow, furrow and ridge.”

I have to say that what stayed with me from this critique was not the name of the figure of speech. When I want to know the name of this figure of speech, I have to look it up. What stayed with me was that it can be effective to repeat words in their opposite order now and then.

IMG_2246Just about everybody in the English-speaking world uses litotes (LIE toe teez), and just about nobody is aware of it. Litotes is a form of understatement in which meaning is conveyed by negating a positive, as in:

The ice cream was not bad.

Zack was not sorry the pub was closed.

It’s not rocket science.

Figures of speech are literary devices that intensify language and make it richer. When I rewrite a piece, I rephrase select sentences so that they contain figures of speech — even though I seldom remember the name of the figures of speech I employ.

 

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Barbara Gregorich employed figures of speech in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

 

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.