The F Words: Interview with Tamara Rolan, Book Reviewer

Two months ago a wonderful five-star review of The F Words appeared on GoodReads. After I shared this review on Facebook and Twitter, I learned that several people (who had somehow resisted buying The F Words up until this time) were so swayed by the review that they bought my book.

Well, I thought: this is a very persuasive review. And so I decided that I wanted to interview the book reviewer for my blog: not only because she wrote such a positive review, but mainly because I think readers would be interested in learning more about book reviewers. Not book reviewers who write for major newspapers and magazines, but book reviewers who write for social media, mainly out of a love of books.

And so, here’s my interview with Tamara Rolan. I enjoyed interviewing her, and I hope you enjoy reading her replies.

How long have you been a book reviewer on Instagram and Goodreads?
I’ve been reviewing books for a couple of indie romance authors for a couple of years, but I started my bookstagram almost 1 year ago.

What made you decide to start reviewing books?
I started reviewing books to help independent/self-published authors. If you’re a reader you know about the mainstream authors or the more popular books that everyone is reading. I wanted to use the platforms available to shout out authors that others may not have heard about.  

About how many titles do you read each year, and about how many do you review?
I read an average of 100 books a year, and I probably review 40% of them across multiple platforms. I never give a rating less than 3 stars because it’s an amazing feat for someone to write a book and that’s my own little way of acknowledging that. I mainly review lesser known titles or stories that really stay with me long after the final page. 

What do you do in the real world, when you aren’t reading books?
Even though books are my passion (and my escape), I work as a Certified Nurse Midwife. I’m also a single mom to a teenage boy.

How long does it take you to write a typical review for Goodreads?
If I absolutely love the book, it takes me about 10 minutes to write it. Otherwise, it takes about 30 minutes to put my thoughts and notes into a review that makes sense. 

You must be approached by many authors and publishers asking you to review a particular book. What do you take into consideration when choosing a book that you want to review?
I first look at the genre. I generally steer away from autobiographies or books dealing with politics. Political books because those topics can be divisive and autobiographies because it feels weird to review someone’s personal account of their life. Other than that, I generally say yes to reviewing a book. I am honest about my timeline for a review, which is based on how many unread ARC’s I have. 

Approximately what percentage of the books you review are YA fiction?
I would say in the past year about 20% of the books I’ve reviewed have been YA books.

What drew you to say yes to reviewing my YA novel, The F Words?
I was intrigued based on the synopsis from your publisher. The description mentioned youth tackling racism and oppression. Not many of the books I’ve been sent or asked to review deal with such heavy topics.

At which point in reading The F Words did you feel you were invested in the story?
I was hooked 5- or 6-pages in. Cole’s teacher Mr. Nachman reminded me of some of the best teachers I had in high school, and his “punishment” was unique and not something I would expect to see for such an egregious act. It left me curious to see how the story would play out. Would Cole follow through with his F words assignment? How would he handle his father’s incarceration? What words would he write his poems on? These were all questions I needed answers to!

 “Our kids want to talk about these topics and stories like this are an awesome way to start the conversation.”

Who is your favorite character in the story? Why?
Initially I thought it would be Treva. She’s bold and fearless from the moment she steps on to the page. But ultimately it was Tia Veronica. She’s an incredible source of support for her family, which includes Cole, despite her fear of ICE and deportation.  I don’t want to give anything away because I think more people should read The F Words, but you can feel her pain after the Thanksgiving incident, and the strength it takes to make the decisions that she does to keep them and herself safe. For me it’s a reminder of what so many in our country go through on a daily basis, just to enjoy the freedoms so many of us take for granted.  

Which scene do you recall most?
A few scenes really stand out for me. The incident at Thanksgiving, which broke my heart. Cole and his mom’s first visit to the jail to see his dad but being told that they can’t. Cole’s protest at the school over his suspension. There were just so many moments that kept me engaged and made me love this book. 

In your review you said that you hope both teachers and parents purchase a copy of The F Words for the youths/young adults in their lives. Why do you think it’s important that young people read this story?
YA books like The F Words can be used to have meaningful discussions about hard topics. Some of the most insightful conversations with my son have come from something he’s read in a book. Our kids want to talk about these topics and stories like this are an awesome way to start the conversation.

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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: Libraries

Libraries have played an important part in the development of my sense of justice and my social consciousness. In my teens I used to read books by Black authors of the Harlem Renaissance: writers like Langston Hughes,  Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen.  Nobody assigned me these books. Nobody told me about them. Somehow, in browsing the library’s shelves, I came upon these books and was interested in what they had to say.

Of course I was only one of millions of teens who, then and now, rely on library books to introduce them to the world in its many aspects, from natural sciences through philosophy through powerful fiction. Reading books (which, unlike articles, are generally much deeper and richer and nuanced) is important to a person’s emotional and intellectual growth. As libraries are under attack by those who want to block our access to certain books (because they want to block our avenues of thinking), it’s more important than ever to support libraries and librarians and fight against censorship.

City of Light Publishing, publisher of The F Words, is a strong supporter of public libraries and freedom of speech. (See their title, Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn.) In June of 2022 City of Light Publishing attended the American Library Association’s annual conference, ALA 2022, in Washington, D.C., where they featured five of their recent titles: Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn, by Jonathan Zimmerman; New Girl, by Kate McCarroll Moore; The Cayuga Island Kids series, by Judy Bradbury; Kite to Freedom, by Kathleen A. Dinan,  and my YA novel, The F Words. Of course City of Light was there to represent all its titles, not just these featured five. But the five featured are books that support diversity, tolerance, intellectual curiosity, and political action — books that librarians sorely need in their collection so that young people in particular can read fiction and nonfiction that reflects the desire for and desirability of tolerance and equality.

There are 9,000 public libraries in the US. In addition, there are about 21,000 high school libraries. Adding the two together equals 30,000 libraries which could (and should, I believe) acquire The F Words and other City of Light titles for their patrons.

Some of the librarians from the network of libraries were at the ALA Conference, the largest gathering of librarians in the US. What did these librarians learn about The F Words? When it comes to teen fiction, what are these librarians looking for? 

Well, according to what City of Light Publishing experienced at the ALA Conference, the aspects of The F Words that immediately created interest were these:

  • that it’s a “boy’s book” in that the protagonist is male and the story is told from  his point of view
  • that it’s a “boy’s book” and the protagonist participates in high school sports
  • that it’s a “boy’s book” and the protagonist writes poetry
  • that it’s concerned with many different levels of social justice

It is important for everyone, but  particularly young people, to be able to see themselves in stories. Thus stories told from a girl’s or woman’s point of view, a boy’s or man’s point of view, a gay or lesbian or trans point of view, a Black or Latino point of view (and so on) are so welcomed by librarians, and so needed by young people everywhere.

More girls than boys read YA fiction. Is that because boys don’t read as much as girls do, crave other things more than they crave literature? Is it because so much YA is written from a girl’s point of view? Whatever the reason, the fact is that teachers and librarians understand how vital literature is to human growth and understanding (of ourselves and others), and so they want a wide choice of books with male protagonists (just as they want a wide choice with female protagonists). 

This is one of the main reasons why librarians were excited by The F Words — because it’s told from a boy’s point of view — and because from that point of view it combines thematic elements whose combination should pique reader interest: social justice, poetry, and sports. 

I’m so glad that my publisher was able to attend the ALA Conference and talk to librarians one-on-one about why they should be interested in The F Words. And I hope that in many different libraries across the country a teen is browsing fiction, sees The F Words, pulls it off the shelf, and checks it out.

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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: The Gift of Fire

After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining  everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.

What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?

Everything.

During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.

Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.

Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.

And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties. 

Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.

And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice  needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans.  For  gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.

Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.

Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.

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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: Bilingualism

Not counting the US, approximately 65-75% of the world’s population is bilingual. In the US in 1980 only 10% of the population was bilingual. Today that number has risen to 20%, possibly to 25%, primarily through immigrants, largely Spanish-speaking.

Many different cultures have positive proverbs about knowing more than one language. An old Persian proverb states: “A new language is a new life.” But this respectful attitude toward bilingualism and even polyglotism did not make its way across the Atlantic and into North America. Up until recently there was a stigma attached to speaking a second language (one that wasn’t English) in the US and Canada.

Yet many different studies have shown that bilingual people have many advantages over those who are monolingual. 

In no particular order, here are a few of these advantages:

  • Greater Brain Power — Bilingualism improves memory, multitasking, problem solving, and creativity.
  • Increased Academic Skills — Bilingual children score better in literacy, emotional development, and social skills. 
  • Greater Cultural Awareness — Being exposed to the language and customs of other cultures helps a person develop more empathy. As Charlemagne put it 700 years ago, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
  • Greater Job Opportunities — people who speak two languages are more competitive in the job market because they have more language skills.

Canada has a partial policy of bilingualism, assuring the right of the French minority to instruction in their own language. And students in the publicly funded schools of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick are required to study French from grades 4 through 8. (Apparently this is not an educational requirement in Canada’s other provinces.)

Because this is not a nation-wide requirement, only 18% of Canadians are truly bilingual. The rest, for the most part, speak only English, though they may speak and read French to a lesser degree. That is, not a full-fluency degree.

I can identify with people who have studied other languages but don’t have full fluency in them. That, in fact, identifies me. I do not have full fluency in Croatian or German or Russian or French (though my high school French really helps me when it comes to solving crossword puzzles!). I suspect, though, that I subconsciously yearn for fluency in a second language. 

This subconscious yearning and my actual language experiences resided within me for decades and, even though I never consciously thought about the question of bilingualism, they bubbled forth and formed a strong subtext within my YA novel, The F Words. To my surprise the whole question of bilingualism revealed itself in a way I never would have thought of had I been making a conscious decision.

Let me explain. The main idea, the thrust and theme of The F Words is not bilingualism. The novel is about a working class high school teen, Cole Renner, whose father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for “inciting to violence” while leading a public protest against the closing of a neighborhood school. Cole fears for his father, and that fear drives part of the plot. At the same time, Cole works to help his best friend, Felipe Ramirez, run for class president.

The F Words is about student rights, immigrant rights, freedom of speech . . . and poetry. The poetry is an assignment: when Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher, catches Cole tagging the high school wall with the F word, he requires that Cole write two poems a week, each about a word that begins with the letter F.

But the issue of bilingualism and the advantages of bilingualism are woven into the story. (As is the poetry.) First, there’s Felipe, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, able to converse on equal terms with all of his fellow students. Felipe, who is very sociable, wins the votes of his classmates.

Because Cole and Felipe have been best friends since first grade and spend time at each other’s houses, Cole has learned Spanish and is able to converse with Felipe’s entire family. Like Felipe, Cole can switch back and forth between languages easily. Both characters are more flexible, in many different ways, than they would be if they were monolingual. And although I never gave a single consideration to something called “mutual bilingualism” while writing The F Words, it seems to me that this is what we should want for ourselves and our country. Felipe needs to be able to speak English, but Cole (and others) needs to be able to speak Spanish. Bilingualism is a two-way street.

Cole and Felipe aren’t the only bilingual characters in The F Words. There’s also Emerald Jackson, who speaks two kinds of English: Standard and Black. Cole notices this and admires it, as when they are in English class and Mr. Nachman is asking questions about Walden.

Emerald Jackson is nodding her head up and down, up and down. “We the richest country in the world, not counting some of those little Arab emirates like Qatar. Everybody should have a huge house and three cars.” Sometimes Emerald talks in Black dialect. Like now. I always like it when she does.

Later in the same class:  

“Money rules our lives,” answers Emerald. “We need to earn it to buy food and housing. And clothes. And go to college. He’s saying we need to make decisions about what we’ll spend our lives doing.” Sometimes Emerald speaks in standard English. Like  now.

If these examples were the only bilingualism running through The F Words, the story might imply that there are no problems with being bilingual in the United States. That, sad to say, is not the case. Those who speak two languages are, unfortunately, frowned upon and discriminated against by many — even by teachers.

All my life I’ve heard monolingual people say things such as “If you can’t speak English, go back to where you came from.” It’s hard to say what’s worse about such an attitude: that it’s self-righteous, or that it’s ignorant. Almost every time I’ve heard this said, it has been said to a person who is an American. That is, born and raised in the United States, but able to speak two or more languages.

This myopic monolingual attitude is depicted in The F Words. Cole and Felipe have just been called to the principal’s office, and during the course of her interrogation Ms. Delaney asks Felipe if he’s related to Bianca Sanchez. He is. She’s his cousin, and she was expelled from their high school because, when a teacher told her to speak English or go back to Mexico, Bianca retaliated. 

Although I created the fictional situation in which this occurs, the fact is that such things are still occurring in our school systems. As I was writing the second draft of The F Words, students in a New Jersey high school walked out of class when a teacher implied that a bilingual student had no right to speak Spanish: that her only “right” was to speak “American.” As I was writing the third draft an Illinois third-grade teacher punished Spanish-speaking students (when they spoke in Spanish) by making them sit on the floor, apart from other students. There are many other examples.

When I was writing The F Words and had Bianca retaliate against the teacher, I wasn’t aware that in so many cases today the bilingual students are fighting back, using the cameras on their phones to record the incidents, then reporting to the principal and their parents and the media. I’m aware of them now. Clearly students who speak two languages are proud of speaking both languages and feel that they have a right to do so. 

Which takes us back to one of the main advantages of bilingualism — increased brain power, leading to greater creativity and skills at problem solving. I’m so glad I was able to capture and depict this situation in The F Words, and I would like to see every young person have the opportunity to move freely and happily through another language, growing in understanding and ability. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”

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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: Minor Characters

I often enjoy minor characters in literature, and as a writer I thoroughly enjoy creating minor characters. In literature minor characters play a variety of roles. One of their major roles, of course, is to help move the plot forward. If they weren’t there, then the major characters would have no interaction with anybody but themselves — which could become boring.

Another important role of minor characters is to help characterize the major characters — either in being like them, or in offering a different viewpoint or a different behavior. Minor characters often help us understand one of the major characters better. Minor characters are sort of like reflective screens: they help the light illuminate the major characters.

And in addition to aiding in plot advancement and character development,  minor characters help develop a novel’s tone. By tone I mean the novel’s mood, the emotions it evokes, and the perspective it presents. A minor character who exists in a romance is going to be very different from a minor  character who exists in a serious novel such as Paulette Jiles’ News of the World. In each genre, minor characters serve to reinforce the traditions of the genre and the expectations of the reader.

In She’s on First I created a lot of minor characters. This was necessary because the protagonist, Linda Sunshine, was a major league baseball player, and MLB teams have a roster of twenty-five players. In The F Words, I didn’t need as many minor characters, but I did need quite a few.

For starters, I needed Cole’s parents: Hank and Stacey. Then I needed Mrs. Green, owner of the greenhouse where Cole works. I needed fellow students of Cole’s. I needed the coach of the cross-country team. And I needed a neighbor or two: somebody who was part of the Committee to Save Public Education.

There are two kinds of minor characters: ones who have “major” roles in the book and are part of several scenes; and ones who don’t have major roles and may or may not be part of scenes. I really enjoyed creating and developing each of these many characters . . . but it would take me a long time to analyze each of them.

So, I’m going to look at four of the minor characters: Emerald Jackson; Nikki Zurlo; Coach; and Ethan. Nikki, Coach, and Ethan fall into the minor minor character roles. Emerald is a major minor character. I want to talk mostly about minor-minor characters to show that there should be a reason for every minor character you create, and that character should play some sort of role in helping develop plot, character, or tone.

Ethan — It’s not always necessary to give full names to minor characters, and Ethan is one of the other six runners on the high school cross-country team. None of them receive last names. It would be too cumbersome to do so: readers wouldn’t remember the characters’ full names.

On one of the bus rides to cross-country practice, Cole and Ethan talk about empathy. The reader sees empathy from Ethan’s perspective. Later, when Cole wants to invite friends to the pro-immigrant rally, he invites Ethan and reminds him: EMPATHY. 

Ethan comes to Felipe’s party and he listens to Fatima and Hasna talk about how they carry extra hajibs because theirs are sometimes snatched off their heads by people who hate Muslims. Ethan is a fellow student who listens and absorbs what he’s seeing and hearing. I think he’s typical of many of the students at August Mersy High School. Mostly I think Ethan contributes to creating the tone of the book — ordinary people can be inquisitive, can think, can learn, can change.

Coach — When I was writing the book, I tried to come up with a name for Cole’s cross-country coach. Nothing seemed right. Then I thought, “Well, the runners are apt to call him just ‘Coach.’” And so I went with that.

The fact that he has neither a first nor a last name puts the emphasis on this character’s function. He trains young runners. He helps them improve their skills as well as their analytic abilities. And he especially helps them improve their thinking of their group as a team. 

Coach challenges the runners to do more than they think they can. This is evident in the scene where he tells Ricardo and Cole to pass Palatine in the last half mile. He expects them to stay in the lead for that entire last half mile. 

Coach also delivers ironic statements, though neither the Coach nor Cole nor the reader know they’re ironic at the time. An example is when he tells the team that winter runs are fun runs. For Cole, they turn out to be anything but fun runs.

And Coach is also an adult character who really cares about the students he’s entrusted to teach. He takes one look at Cole in the hallways in December and tells Cole to cut back on the running. Even though he has no idea why Cole is looking stressed, Coach does recognize the strain that Cole is under and wants him to not be under that strain.

Emerald Jackson — Though Cole is white and Emerald is Black, they are good enough friends that they exchange texts, and it’s Emerald that Cole turns to when his father’s visitation privileges are cut off. Cole respects Emerald because she’s very intelligent and widely read.  Emerald in turn thinks highly enough of Cole to speak openly to him about matters such as Black people being political prisoners. 

Emerald happens to be the nearby classmate who Cole, Felipe, and Treva start their photo campaign with. She grasps the situation instantaneously, grabs two fellow tenth graders, and — the campaign is off to a fun start. In fact, it’s Emerald who sets the tone for the campaign photos.

I think that Emerald’s main role is to set the tone for where the political struggle should be. She wears a Black Lives Matter button and goes to BLM demonstrations. She is on a higher plane of political understanding and commitment than are most of the students. But she’s also a member of her high school class and seems to be able to relate to everybody. Emerald is incredibly observant and can summarize a situation instantly and wittily.

When Mr. Nachman brings members of the English class to watch the cross-country meet, Emerald utters one of my favorite lines in the book. “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.” While I thought that was typical of Emerald’s wittiness, I didn’t realize, as I was writing it, that this statement is also full of foreshadowing. Only later did I see that.

Emerald’s role is a a bit like Treva’s: a fellow student who’s slightly ahead of others in her level of commitment and understanding. In this way she’s a contrast to Ethan.

Nikki Zurlo — Nikki is secretary to Ms. Delaney. She lives in Cole’s neighborhood and is friends with his parents because she, like them and like Mrs. Green and Mr. Cafasso, is a member of the Committee to Save Public Education. Her children go to Euclid Grade School.

That these three minor characters are members of the committee is something I think most readers won’t notice. But they are, and all three serve part of the same function — to show that ordinary people are affected by the school closings, and to show that ordinary people can (and do) think and act. They can be brave . . . thereby surprising those who think such people are forever subservient. Nikki’s function is to show the quiet heroism of common, working class people. She is an adult and she functions as an adult: she takes responsibility for her own actions and, most importantly, she does what Spike Lee urged us all to do — the right thing.

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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: The Writing

For well over a year now I’ve been blogging about various aspects of The F Words, but one thing I haven’t talked about is the actual steps of writing the novel. Writers and readers are often interested in how writing takes place. So, for those who might want to know, I will try to recount the steps of writing The F Words.

Maybe twenty years ago (it was around the turn of the century) I decided I wanted to write a YA novel and that it should be about the political struggles for social justice.  The title and the opening scene came to me: the image of a teen tagging his high school wall with the f word. The title came at the same time: The F Words. (I knew there would be more than one f word in the book, because in thinking about political struggle I thought of fight, foe, fair, flexibility, freedom.) I filed this decision away in the future-books part of my brain and went about writing other things.

In the year 2016 I attended a huge demonstration for immigrant rights, and it was there that part of the plot of the YA novel came to me. You can read about that in my blog The F Words: Political Protests.

Somewhere around then I began developing the characters for The F Words. This took months. I gave them names, I gave them personalities, I gave them conflict. So far, none of this was on paper, it was all in my head.

In late 2016 I created a notebook for The F Words, giving each character a name, a description, and conflict or conflicts. For me, this is a very important step in the writing of a book. I always use a paper notebook (not computer) and I write down my thoughts — often so fast that I scribble furiously and sometimes can’t read my own writing a month later.

From notebook to first written words was, in this case, a short step: maybe two or three months. Before I started to write, I was sure of maybe one-third of what would occur — the rest I would discover as I wrote. My digital files tell me that I started and finished the first draft in 2017. Ditto for the second draft: I started it in autumn of 2017 and finished before the year ended.

The first draft took maybe seven months. Part of its plot involved the high school newspaper and freedom of speech for teens. But, as it turned out, this part of the  plot went nowhere. As I wrote, I found the story moving more strongly toward the attacks on public education and the jailing or imprisonment of protesters. And the mass deportations of immigrants.  In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper thread.

I started the third draft on January 3, 2018. I’m not sure what the difference between the second and third draft was. I think that in the third I jettisoned even more subplots, tightening the poetry and tightening the plot. Definitely developing the characters more. By April of 2018 I was writing the fourth draft, and by the end of that year I finished the fifth draft.

I then spent most of 2019 trying to find an agent who would represent the book. I failed to find such a person, and so late in 2019 I began to market the book myself.

In April of 2020 City of Light Publishing offered me a contract, and in September of 2021 The F Words was published.

In the case of The F Words, from original inkling of an idea to signing of a publishing contract was twenty years. But the data that really matters is the period from when I started the notebook in  2016 to when the manuscript sold, early 2020. That was four years of writing, totaling five drafts. 

For me, five drafts are a bit more than I usually write. Three or four is more normal for me. I’ve never, ever sold a second draft. Wouldn’t dream of submitting a second draft! I am thrilled if I think a third draft is good enough to submit.

The first draft is the most difficult to write because the writer is creating something out of nothing: creating characters, plot, scene, dialogue. The second draft is very difficult, though not as hard as the first (maybe only because it doesn’t take quite as long to rewrite as it does to write . . . in most cases). In the second draft entire chapters have to be deep-sixed. Characters have to disappear, new ones have to be created. Conflicts have to be clarified, motives developed. On and on it goes: the second draft is where a writer reshapes the entire book into something much, much better than the first draft.

The third draft usually isn’t difficult, at least in my experience. It consists of refining the second draft, dealing with foreshadowing, improving the language, making the book more literary.

And if, in the third draft, the writer failed to weave every thread tightly into the correct pattern for that particular book, then she has to do it in the fourth draft. Or, in my case, the fifth.

This was my process with The F Words, which is fiction. I’ve had similar, but not identical, patterns with my other books.

A couple of examples.  The first draft of She’s on First took me three years to complete, as compared to the seven months of The F Words. The first draft of Women at Play (nonfiction) took 92 days. That was due to my publishing contract: I was given 92 days to write the book, period. Very, very intense: I wrote eleven hours a day. With The F Words, I wrote every day, but usually just one hour. 

And Jack and Larry was different from anything else. I wrote four first drafts. That’s right. I wrote four different books. First I wrote a picture book, but I decided that wasn’t the way to go. So that first draft ended right there. Then I wrote the first draft of a middle grades book about Jack Graney. I decided that wasn’t the way to go, either. That first draft ended, too. Next came a first draft of a long magazine article. That draft went the way of the others, also. Finally came the first draft of the free verse book: this was the keeper, and from it I wrote the subsequent drafts and published the book.

Writing a book such as Jack and Larry consisted of finding the right format. Writing a mostly straight narrative novel such as The F Words was, for me, a matter of putting the story down in words on the first draft, and then improving that draft until I had a tightly woven story. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that this is the path the writing of most novels takes.

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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: Symbols

Although I love literature and am avidly interested in many different parts of a story and the way a story works (as you can probably tell from reading my blogs about The F Words), I have, I confess, never been much interested in symbols in literature. In fact [embarrassing], I can sometimes read a novel and entirely miss the fact that some objects work as symbols.

A symbol is a concrete object whose repeated use in a story comes to represent an abstraction. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, the Mississippi River symbolizes freedom. (I actually got that symbol the first time I read the book.) The briefcase in The Invisible Man symbolizes the lies and manipulations that political institutions have used to deny Black Americans equality. When I first read The Invisible Man, I strongly sensed that the briefcase symbolized something . . . but I was so engrossed by the story that while I realized the briefcase did stand for something, I didn’t think about what it might be.

When I was reading Moby Dick, one of my favorite novels, I was fully aware that the great while whale symbolized something. And I did ponder what that might be. Evil? Innocence? A life force? The indifference of the Universe? I decided that I didn’t know. Later, I was gratified to learn that most critics agree that the symbolism of Moby Dick is meant to be enigmatic, representing nature, evil, the ocean, the universe . . . who knows.

I can’t say that I didn’t care . . . but, for me, the use of symbols in literature is not something I yearn for or gravitate toward. I enjoy spotting symbols when I read, but I’m not sure that not spotting them makes the reading any less enjoyable for me.

As a writer, I seldom employ symbols because, as I said, I don’t gravitate toward them. But sometimes as I’m writing I realize that I’m using an object repeatedly. Then I ask myself: What does this mean? Is this object important to the story? Does it represent something?

When I ask myself these questions, my subconscious jumps in with an answer, which usually goes something like this: This object plays a role in the story. If it didn’t, it would go away, no longer be part of your writing consciousness. So figure out what role it plays and use that information to write a better story.

The subconscious can be very hard for writers to deal with. Especially since all the subconscious has to do is make statements and hints and nudges — it’s the writer who has to do the actual work.

You can see that when it comes to symbolism, I have a running battle with my subconscious, trying to ignore any of its nudges regarding symbols.

But every now and then I can’t ignore these nudges. When I’m writing I may sense that something is a symbol, but I don’t necessarily know what it symbolizes. It may be the same with other writers: I don’t know. In She’s on First, I think that the baseball itself was a symbol. In Sound Proof the drum is probably a symbol, and maybe the pitchfork, too. And in The F Words the megaphone is definitely a symbol. I noticed this as I was writing the second draft. The megaphone appeared in many places. 

More, whispered my subconscious. More places! 

Much as I hate to admit it, my subconscious was right. I needed to use the megaphone in even more places than I had, just to lock down the fact that it was a symbol. And so I did. But when I say “more places,” I don’t mean twenty more places. That would be overkill. I’m talking about maybe five or six more places,  each of them visual and memorable because the scene is an  important one — as when Stacey Renner goes to the Immigrant Rights rally with Cole and his friends. As when Cole fights back against Principal Delaney.

Symbols are, remember, physical objects which stand for abstractions. River = freedom. I’m not going to tell you what I think the megaphone symbolizes, because what it symbolizes might be different to different readers. But if you’re into symbols, think about the megaphone. Feel free to post your answer!

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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 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.

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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: Dialogue

Most readers love dialogue, probably because it reveals something happening in “real time.” That is, the action is on the page, rather than being relayed by a narrator as having happened. Dialogue isn’t “having happened,” it’s happening. Right now, as the reader sees the words. Also, I suspect that some readers (I’m one of them) like dialogue because it helps a novel move faster. Unless, that is, the dialogue is dense, with single paragraphs taking up half a page of text or more. Most readers don’t find that kind of long-winded dialogue interesting.

I enjoy writing dialogue, but not for either of the reasons mentioned above. I enjoy writing it because it helps reveal character and helps reveal plot.

Some writers I know hate writing dialogue. It terrifies them. They would much rather write narration, where the action and conflict aren’t as immediate. I’ve always felt bad for such writers, because they’re missing such a great opportunity to make their stories come alive.

Writing dialogue comes natural to me, whether I’m writing a children’s book such as Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, or an adult novel such as She’s on First. I’m able to immerse myself in the story and in the character (including the character’s age and background) and write dialogue that fits.

But when it came to writing The F Words, my first YA novel, I had a moment’s pause, and that was because most of the dialogue would be spoken by teen characters. The natural cadence of current teen speak was easy to reproduce, because there’s nothing abnormal about it. It’s not as if Yoda were speaking in inverted sentences. But just to be sure, I made a point of listening to teens speak wherever I encountered them.

It wasn’t the cadence or pattern of current teen speak that worried me. It was what to do with slang expressions. Such expressions are always a problem because they often have a very short life span. So, for example, a book published in 2012 might, if it contained a lot of slang, sound dated by 2021.

I read a fair number of YA novels every year, and I notice that the adjective dope is used in most of them. As in That’s dope to refer to something that’s awesome. Although this is obviously a common slang term, one that may be a permanent part of our language for the next few decades, I shied away from using it — mainly because I read it so much in YA fiction that I’m just tired of it. So: dope wasn’t dope for me.

I like many current slang terms (lit, for example), but was hesitant to use them, for fear that in a few years they would date The F Words. And so, I followed the advice given in most writing workshops: keep the slang to a minimum, and, in this case, try to convey teen characters in other ways.

So that’s what I did in The F Words. I used a minimum number of slang terms, I had the teens speak as naturally as possible. I used short sentences (because teens assume they all have the same data base of knowledge and feelings and don’t need to elaborate on much).

And, I think this works. Especially because I used brevity to help demonstrate what kind of people the teens are: sure of what’s right and wrong, full of wit. Most of the conversations are quite brief, in the sense that each character speaks few words. That seems very teen-like to me.

Here’s an example:

“This is good,” says Felipe. “Gracias.”
“We can start taking photos now,”Treva suggests.
Felipe smiles at this and looks around for kids to pose with. 
“Wait,” I say. “We need the word Familia on each photo.” 
“I can do that,” says Treva. “I’ll add Familia in text over each JPEG.”
I shake my head. “I’m thinking of something with more… participation. Something warmer. Something that the other students can be doing.” 
“Warm like me,” says Felipe, grinning.
“I can borrow a flame-thrower,”Treva says.
I really like her sense of humor.
Assuming she’s kidding.

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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: Italics

Italics are a form of typography in which the letters usually slant to the right. In serif fonts such as Palatino, for example, there are slight changes in some of the letters. Notice that the italic lower-case a is different in the italic version.

In sans serif fonts such as Helvetica or Arial, the italic letters lean to the right, but there are no changes in the form of individual letters.

Because they are a form of typography, it stands to reason that italics were first created by typographers. In this case by the Italian (hence the name italics) typographers Aldus Manutius and Ludovico Arrighi during the 1400s and early 1500s.

The original purpose of the italics  was to reproduce the look of handwriting, and to print “little” books: those that could be held in the palm of one’s hand, or carried in a pocket. Both the thinner font and the fact that it approximated handwriting made these little books feel quite intimate. Personal. Up-close. One would not print a book of political thoughts or scientific treatises in italics — those works still demanded the easier-to-read, less-intimate block fonts of the time: Garamond and Goudy Old Style. (Today the purpose of italics is different: they are no longer meant to be little or intimate.)

By now you may be wondering what all of this has to do with The F Words. Simply put, the connection is this: there are a lot of italics in The F Words. And that’s because the use of italics has evolved over the centuries.

In English, italics are used primarily for titles (books and movies) and for emphasis.  But they have other uses, two of which are especially important to The F Words.

Foreign Words — In English, foreign words are italicized, to indicate that they are not English words. Comprenez vous? Verstehst du? Because Felipe Ramirez and his family speak Spanish, The F Words is full of italicized Spanish words and phrases.

Words Referred to As Words — When, in writing, a word is being referred to as a word (and not to its meaning), it is italicized. Such italics help make the meaning of the sentence clear. Without the italics, meaning would seem garbled. 

The this that she uttered wasn’t the this that I knew she meant.

Whenever I see the word myrrh in print, I’m struck by the fact that it ends in rrh.

Whenever Cole Renner is thinking about f words as words, they must be italicized, so that the reader knows Cole is thinking about the word.

The existence of all these italics (along with Cole’s poems)  gives The F Words an interesting, textured look. More open. Different. Not all block letter serif straight narrative.  If you flip through the book’s pages, you can see immediately that there are interesting things going on.

And for me, the author (and also for my editor and for the book’s designer) the existence of all the italicized words meant we had to proofread Very. Carefully. And we had to proofread Many. Times. Just to make sure we caught every instance of necessary italics. Felipe says Si a lot. Did any of his Si’s escape us? And Cole thinks about words a lot. Did any of those words escape us?

I hope not. And I hope that you want to read The F Words — whose title, of course, is italicized.

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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.