The F Words: Naming Cole and Felipe

Once a story idea comes to me, I spend months (sometimes years) getting to know my characters. Their sex and age come to me immediately, when I conceive of the story — but their names don’t. The names take a lot of thinking about. In the case of The F Words, the first name of the main character came to me after several days: Cole.

Cole is a modern-sounding first name. In the Middle Ages it was a shortened form of Nicholas, which it can still be today; but it’s also a shortened form of more modern-sounding first names such as Colton and Coleman. And, it has become a name in itself. So that part of it felt right.

When I looked up Nicholas, I was reminded that it comes from the Greek and means “victory of the people.” (Nike is the winged goddess of victory.) That felt super-right for my character, who, due to cause-and-effect, comes to fight for “the people.”

Even though it often plays no role whatsoever in a novel, I do like to give my characters an ethnic background. In Cole’s case, I decided that his forebears came from both Denmark and the Netherlands. Cole is tall, and people from northern Europe are genetically taller than people from southern Europe. Cole is also a cross-country runner. I don’t remember if I thought of that before I realized he was tall, or after I realized it. 

So then I slowly went through New Dictionary of American Family names, looking for a last name for Cole. Eventually I came across the name Renner, which sounded right. It’s of Dutch origin. And — here’s the interesting part — it means “One who carried messages on foot or horseback, a runner.” In the process of writing The F Words (a process that took eighteen months, counting rewrites) I completely forgot that Cole’s last name originally meant “one who carried messages.” But carrying messages ends up being an important part of the plot! Amazing how these things seep into a writer’s consciousness and come out when they’re needed.

Before I started to write my novel, I knew that Cole would have a best friend, and that friend would be Mexican-American. And — I felt the friend’s name had to start with F. That just seemed right for a book titled The F Words.

The first name that came to mind was Felipe . . . but I was also aware of Fernando and Francisco. Using online research, I found a list of the most popular Mexican boys’ names. Francisco was sixth in popularity. Fernando was fifteenth. Lower down in popularity (but still in the top 120) were Felipe, Fabiano, and Facundo. 

Out of these five, my first choice just felt right — and so Cole’s best friend since first grade is named Felipe.

Full Disclosure: My husband’s name is Phil, and I suspect that might have had something to do with my name choice. Phil is a kind, caring, gregarious person — and so is Felipe.

I like the fact that Cole is a one-syllable name and Felipe is a three-syllable name. This difference in syllable count adds a nice texture to the writing: a different texture than if both characters had one-syllable first names.

In a novel it often pays to have three main characters rather than two. With two characters, A and B, the writer can examine the relationship A-to-B and B-to-A.

But with three characters, a different dynamic enters the picture. A-to-B; B-to-A; A-to-C; C-to-A; B-to-C; C-to-B. By adding just one more character, the writer gets three times as many relationship and conflict situations to explore. In literature, “three” seems to be a magic number. Three attempts. Three wishes. Three little pigs. You get the point.

So I knew I’d have a third main character. I just didn’t know what her name would be.

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The F Words: Political Protests

I’ve been a professional writer for a long time. My first novel, She’s on First, was called “the best book that’s written on the idea of the first woman to play professional baseball,” and was reviewed by Sara Paretsky on the front page of the Chicago Tribune features section. My nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, was featured in the Sunday New York Times and won the SABR-Macmillan Award for Best Baseball Research of the Year.

In children’s literature I’ve published more than 150 educational activity books. As a freelance editor/writer at School Zone Publishing I wrote eighteen Start to Read books and developed and wrote their Read and Think series. I’ve written many BrainQuest cards for Workman Publishing and my BrainQuest Workbook Grade 4 is very popular. My early reader, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories (Houghton, 2005) received excellent reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal and was named Book of the Week by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

And yet — I had never written a YA novel. 

I had started one, way back in 2001. But I never got beyond the first chapter. I thought that maybe it would be about freedom of speech in a high school context. 

As with many projects, I put this one aside on the assumption that if it was meant to be, it would happen.

At long last (well, 2018 to be exact) it did happen. I did write a YA novel. That novel, The F Words, will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021. In other words: this year.

What caused my single chapter, sitting there in a lonely file on my computer, to come to life? It had to do with a protest demonstration. One day (I think it was in 2016), I was one of  perhaps 20,000 participants in an immigrant-rights march in Chicago. All around me I observed teens: thousands of them. 

I was very happy to see them. Their presence reminded me of politically active teens from the Sixties, when we protested for civil rights, for women’s liberation, and against the war in Vietnam. And this made me wonder: What are the circumstances that make a teen of today politically active? That help make him or her protest injustice? (This was before the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of mass protest, so much of it fueled by teens and even preteens.)

My question was the germ of the idea that led me to revisit the first chapter of The F Words and write the rest of the story — another forty-nine chapters.

The first draft was rough, carrying forward ideas of free speech and the school newspaper and public demonstrations. In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper part of the story and stuck with the heart of the first chapter — my character, 15-year-old Cole Renner, spray-painting the F word on the school walls.  

If I hadn’t been on that demonstration with all those teens, and hadn’t asked myself the question of what makes them political in these times, I may never have written The F Words. Just one more reason I’m glad to participate in protest demonstrations.

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The F Words will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021.           

To Newsletter or Not To Newsletter

For more than twenty years I’ve read and heard that authors should have mailing lists and send out newsletters — to let their readers know about updates, author events, book reviews, awards, what the next book will be, and so on. Newsletters, perhaps more than any other format, help create repeat readers: those who will buy your next book.

When the internet first made email newsletters possible, I, as an avid reader, used to subscribe to author newsletters, mainly by mystery writers. But I soon tired of them and unsubscribed, for two main reasons. First, I thought many of those early newsletters were very long. Way more news than I had the time to read. Second, many of them were heavy-handed with the “buy my book” approach. 

With the growth of the worldwide web, it became easier for authors to be less blatant about the buy-my-book aspect of their web site or newsletter. The web allows authors to provide a link to their books. Readers can click on the link or not. As a reader, I love this. I like to explore these links, read about the books, and then buy them, file them away for future reference, or ignore them.

Despite the fact that author newsletters have become shorter and less blatant, I never got around to writing one. Until now.

Now, I feel, is the time for me to explore whether or not a newsletter is something my readers want. Whether it is something that will help get the word out about my books. Whether it will strengthen the relationship between my readers and me — via reactions to, comments on, and requests.

The reason I feel that now is the time for me to start a newsletter is that my first YA novel, The F Words, will be published September 1, 2021. There’s a lot of marketing that writers do to help sell their books, and heaps and heaps of those marketing efforts take place months before the book is published. My thinking is that I have eight or nine months before the publication of The F Words: now’s the time for me to start talking about the book, to get people excited about it.

Unlike my blog, in which I cover various topics in mid-depth, so to speak, my newsletter will cover topics only in brief. A quick mention to inform or to pique interest, and no more. While my blogs average 800 to 1,000 words each, my newsletters will average 50-400 words. While it takes a lot of time for me to write each blog, it won’t take much time at all for me to zap off a newsy newsletter. And because the newsletter will be quick, it will, I hope, sound very upbeat.

If you’re interested in my newsletter, click on the link below. 

At the end of a year, I hope to revisit this topic and analyze the first year’s results.

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To subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter, click here.

Rewrite Decisions (and Charts)

In 2017 I wrote my first YA novel, The F Words. That was Draft #1, which ended up at 69,000 words and 50 chapters. Then I wrote Draft #2, and then Draft #3, all in a twelve-month span. Because this process went much more quickly than with many of my novels, I remember it and want to share the various rewrite decisions I made.

I worked on my first draft from roughly early February through late September. And then not only did I put the draft away for a while, to separate myself from what I had written, but I also took a long vacation. It’s essential to put any writing aside before tackling a rewrite, so that you can separate the love of what you actually wrote from the necessity of making it better. Putting days, weeks, or even a couple of months between you and your just-finished first draft is invaluable. But dropping a vacation into your separation time is, as I learned, even better. Vacations — visiting new places, talking to new people — stimulate the creative brain and allow you to entertain new possibilities.

By early November I was ready to start writing Draft #2. I gave myself the goal of rewriting one chapter a day. My chapters averaged about eight pages — few enough pages that I could look for a lot of different things that needed improving. My critique group had already read the first fourteen chapters of my novel and had given me a lot of valuable feedback. For example: perhaps I had too many subplots. Perhaps I hadn’t made it clear what the novel’s main conflict was. My protagonist wasn’t self-reflective enough — didn’t let the reader know his thoughts and feelings. My chronology of what happened when was sometimes confusing. 

That’s a lot of different things to try to correct in one draft, but I felt that by limiting myself to 4-8 pages a day, I could do it. In fact, I was able to do it, though it took about 2.5 to 3 hours each morning. As you can see, I also made myself a 50-chapter chart that I filled in each time I completed a chapter. And as you can also see, I worked on Thanksgiving Day. And on my birthday.  And on Chanukah.

In writing the second draft I deleted an entire subplot, increased the protagonist’s self-reflection, and intensified the main plot. In each chapter I also looked for wordiness and corrected it. My 50 chapters turned into 51 chapters because I split one of the chapters into two parts. All of my changes added about 3,000 words to the book.

One of the reasons I aimed to rewrite a chapter a day was that I wanted to keep my head in the book, so to speak. I went to sleep each night thinking about the plot and characters, and I rewrote my chapter right after breakfast, so that real life couldn’t interfere with the fictional world I was creating. After I finished the second draft, I asked my husband, Phil Passen, to read and critique it. Ideally, I wanted him to read the book in one day, which he has done for me in the past. This time his schedule didn’t permit that day-long read. But he was able to read it in two days, starting around 4 p.m. on a Sunday and finishing around noon on Monday. 

Phil caught several cases of repetition that I needed to address, he found some confusion in the order of events, and he thought I needed to do some additional research for one of the subplots. On all accounts, he was correct. He also suggested combining two of my chapters, so that the 51 chapters dropped back down to 50. Amusingly, the two he wanted combined were not the two I had separated. So we were both “right” in our opinions.

I wanted to write Draft #3 in a much shorter period of time than it took me to write Draft #2. For one thing, the manuscript required fewer changes, and because of that I could rewrite at least five chapters a day. As it ended up, I made myself a new grid, a circle grid. (I was tired of the rectangle!) Dividing it into 6 chapters a day (with two days in which I would rewrite seven chapters) allowed me to rewrite the book in eight days.

Draft #3 was 1200 words shorter than #2, and was back down to 50 chapters, some of them only one page long. In addition to concentrating on Phil’s suggested changes, I also researched current teen slang and made agonizing decisions on which would still be here ten years from now. And I did some research on the subplot Phil thought needed more information. After the third draft was finished I asked members of my writing group to read and critique it. They did, and I then wrote Draft #4, which took approximately the same amount of time as Draft #3.

At that point I hired Chicago writing coach Esther Hershenhorn to read and critique the manuscript. She did, and what she stressed was that I should follow six important subject-matters through the entire manuscript, never letting the reader lose track of any one of them. Esther listed the six subject-matters/themes/plots she thought were most important.

In no particular order, those six are: Cole’s relationship with his father; cross-country running; Cole writing f-word poems; Cole thinking about f-words; the Chicago setting; socialism. Esther suggested that I use the “colored manuscript” method to see where any one of these subjects was missing in Draft #4. If the subject matter was missing for a while, then the reader couldn’t keep it in mind. In other words, these were threads running through the story, and it was my job as a writer to keep weaving those threads through the story, making certain to not drop or lose any of them.

Color-coding a manuscript takes a long time. It took me six long days to go through The F Words and color the background of any sentences, paragraphs, or pages where one of the subjects was “active.” (You can read more about this technique in Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Once I finished the color-coding I taped the chart to the bookcase in my office, and every day as I worked on Draft #5, I consulted it.

You can see by looking at the chart that in Draft #4 I wove Cole’s relationship with his father, coded in blue, through almost the entire manuscript. But I did drop it in a few places (they show up white). And when it came to cross-country running, coded in brown, I had another set of white spaces — which meant that I had to weave that subject into the manuscript more as I rewrote. By the way, it makes sense that there are some small white  spaces here and there in all of the columns: a writer can’t be mentioning a subject constantly. That would come across as relentless and maybe strident. Small white spaces are fine. But big white spaces, as you can see with the brown, blue, and especially pink colors, aren’t fine. The right-hand column (pink) had the most gaps — that was the Chicago setting. I got so wrapped up in micro-settings such as Cole’s school and the cross-country running that I forgot to put larger, Chicago-specific descriptions into the story. That was a huge oversight, and I’m so glad I had the chance to correct it. A subject shouldn’t disappear from the novel or from the reader’s mind for such long stretches.

After I finished Draft #5 I began to submit it to agents and to publishers, and in 2020 I was offered a contract by City of Light Publishing.

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