The F Words: Writing from the Middle

My usual method for writing a novel is to come up with a situation first (as in a woman playing major league baseball), then create both the characters and plot within that situation. As I’m thinking of these things (often this takes months and months), I envision the novel’s beginning and its ending — so that, when I sit down to write the book, I know how it starts, and I know how it ends.

Everything in between is unknown. So I usually take it step by step: event A causes event B, which causes event C, and so on, all the way to the end. Everything between the beginning (usually the first and sometimes second chapter) and the ending (usually the last and sometimes also the next-to-last chapter) is considered the novel’s Middle.

Ninety percent or so of the entire book is called its middle. Laughable, isn’t it? No wonder writers have trouble with the middle of their books. That’s little different from saying they have trouble with the whole book!

For who knows what reason, however, I didn’t write The F Words in quite the same way I had written all my other books. Back when I started writing it, I had just read about and purchased a short book titled Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell. I remember that I read a mention of this book somewhere and I was intrigued. Mainly because I couldn’t imagine writing a novel from the middle.

What did this mean, I wondered? You start writing at the middle and write some chapters backwards, to the beginning, and others forward, to the end? That didn’t sound pleasant. And, really, I wanted to know: what was this approach? How did it work?

So I bought the book and read it in one sitting. And what the author means is that a good movie or good novel is structured in such a way that the main character has a “look in the mirror” moment in almost the exact middle of the movie/novel. This is an important moment of self-assessment. All the first half of the novel leads up to that moment, and all the second half of the novel leads away from the decision of that moment. (Really, the book should be titled something like Write Your Novel Toward the Middle.)

Well, I thought: this makes a lot of sense! And so I considered the moment of self-assessment that my main character, Cole Renner, would probably have. It took me maybe a day of thinking to figure it out, but when I did, I had an Aha moment.

Knowing what Cole would think and decide at the midway point of the novel allowed me to aim toward that moment, and then, once I got there, aim toward the results of his decision: the ending. 

In my previous method of writing novels, it’s as if  I were running a Marathon with no visual markers: doable, for sure, but difficult to judge “where” one is in the book. That is, difficult for me to judge what should be happening where. I would  have been better off if I had thought of the Marathon as running from Chicago’s south side northward to the halfway point of the John Hancock Building, and then continuing northward from there. The John Hancock Building would be visible to me every step of the way for the first half of the race. It would be a visual marker of what I was heading toward and how far away (or how close) it was.

Having a middle point of my novel to aim at made the writing process much, much faster. I’m not sure why that was, but I think that’s because it’s a lot easier to think only of the events leading up to the midpoint, without having to worry about the events that come after. In other words, I thought about one half of the book, not the whole book. This didn’t seem as daunting.

For me, choosing the middle point of The F Words worked extremely well. Knowing that middle point helped me plot the story better and also really helped me strengthen the book’s theme, because Cole’s midpoint decision is strongly tied to the conclusion.

Writing toward the middle also, unexpectedly, helped me with the poetry that Cole creates. More about that in my next blog.

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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: Point of View

Character, setting, plot, and point of view are considered the four pillars of fiction. A writer needs to create interesting characters, a setting that interacts with the story, a plot based on cause-and-effect, and a point of view that tells the story the way the author wants to reveal it, or the way the author wants the reader to experience the story.

A writer need not determine these four pillars in any particular order. It’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in the exact same order for each story. It’s possible that some writers don’t consciously think about any of the pillars. And it’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in a different, random order for each story they write.

I’m in the latter category. I am pretty sure that for She’s on First, I determined the plot and the characters together. Two pillars, but I worked on them at  one and the same time. For Dirty Proof, I know that I worked on the setting first: I was determined to write a mystery that took place in a newspaper plant, and once the setting was settled, so to speak, I was then able to work on characters and plot. The same was true of the sequel, Sound Proof — I determined the setting (a folk music festival) first, and from there I worked on the plot. 

In no case in any of my writing did I determine the point of view first. In theory it is possible to decide on POV first, I suppose, as in: “Oh, I think I’ll tell a story from Third Person Limited POV.  Now that I’ve decided, what shall my story be?” Possible, yes . . .  but . . . bizarre?

It makes no sense to decide the POV for your story until and unless you have a fairly good idea of who the characters are and what their problems are. I suspect that most writers come up with their POV during the same time that they’re thinking about their characters and plot, because POV goes hand-in-hand with characters and plot.

But, at the same time, POV is distinct from both characters and plot. POV is the angle or viewpoint from which the story is told. From whose eyes the story is seen and reported. And while there is something called the Second Person POV, it’s unusual. The two main POVs are first person and third person. 

Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many readers love first-person because it feels so close: right inside the character’s head. Others love third-person because it’s so broad (and  presumably objective), allowing them to look inside the head of several or many characters.  First-person tends to capture reader interest instantly. Third-person often takes a while. First-person narration has to be looked at with some suspicion: how can a reader be sure that the character telling  the story is telling it truthfully? Third-person sometimes feels cold and distant, and maybe even long-winded. But it does offer that bigger picture.

When it comes to POV,  I feel that I don’t actually choose it. I feel it chooses me. Somehow or other, it arrives at  the same time the characters and plot do. I have written maybe 200 books (from 12 pages to 500 pages in length), and only once have I changed the POV — from third person to first person. That was in a 36-page picture book. It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I do believe that for each book I’ve written, I’ve made a good choice on POV.

She’s on First is written in third-person POV. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back on it now, I think that POV came to me because of it telling a broader story. A wider perspective. And we are used to baseball reports of one kind or another, most of them written articles that try to employ an objective voice. So that POV seemed right to me and I went with it.

Both Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are told from the first person POV, from the eyes of the private eye main character, Frank Dragovic. That seemed something of a no-brainer because so many private-eye novels are told from the first-person POV. Adventure-thriller novels seem to employ the third-person POV. I have in my files an unpublished adventure-thriller novel, and that’s told from the third person POV.

As I started to work out the characters and plot of The F Words, the POV that came to me was first-person. This is often the POV of a YA novel, and it fits with how teens experience the world — the world and everything that’s happening seems to affect them directly. They really see things from the “I” point of view. I certainly did when I was a teen.

But with The F Words, I made another choice in addition to first-person POV. I chose to tell the story in present tense — something I had never, ever done before. Here, too, it’s not accurate to say that I “chose” to do so, because when I sat down to write the first chapter, I made no conscious decision: the words just came out in present tense. It’s as if Cole Renner were telling the story and this is how he was telling it and if by some chance I wanted a different verb tense . . . too bad! 

At first I wasn’t sure I liked how Cole was relating the story. But by the middle of the second chapter I was feeling comfortable with it. And by the third chapter I was certain I could not go back and change the story to past tense: it wouldn’t feel as urgent or immediate. Or as Cole-like.

I find first-person present-tense POV somewhat compelling. So much so that when I wrote an adult novel after I finished The F Words, I used present-tense for that, too. But now I’m working on a Middle Grades story, and that comes with a third-person POV. Which feels very right for this particular story. 

If POV is difficult for you to choose, one of the best things you can do is write your first chapter from both a first-person POV and a third-person POV. Read each chapter and ask yourself which sounds like the way you want the reader to receive the story. That’s the POV you should choose.

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The F Words: Setting

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

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

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

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

Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The F Words: Naming Treva

My first thought in naming the third character in The F Words was this: should her name end in a? That may strike you as a weird thought, but it’s one that always crosses my mind when naming a female character.

Fully one-third of all girls’ names in English end with the letter a. Of the current top ten girls’ names (Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Charlotte, Mia, Amelia, Harper, Evelyn), seven end with a. This propensity of names to end in a is true in most Indo-European languages, partly because a was the ending of female Roman names, partly because adding a became the way a  male name was changed into a female name, as in Oliver/Olivia or Henry/Henrietta, Lauren or Lawrence/Laura.

Names from the Romance languages and Slavic languages are particularly high in female names ending in a. And, maybe because my own name ends in a, I gravitate toward such names. In She’s on First the hero is named Linda. (Though in Dirty Proof the protagonist is named Suzanne — so I’m not wedded to the a ending.)

Once I knew the character’s name would end in a, I proceeded to think about what it would be. Because Cole and Felipe’s names start with letters in the first-half of the alphabet, I wanted a name that started with a letter from the second-half of the alphabet. (Believe me, these considerations and decisions do help readers differentiate characters and recognize them as soon as they appear in another scene.)

Okay, then —  the third character would have a name that started with a letter from N-Z, and end in A. I had a gut feeling that the name should start with a blend, probably because neither Cole nor Felipe’s name starts with a blend. 

This feeling that the name should have a blend led me to consider the initial letters P (Pl, Pr), S (Sl, Sm, Sp, St), and T (Tr). I immediately seized on Tr and came up with the name Treva. As you can infer, it’s Trevor/Treva. The name satisfied me, and it’s a two-syllable name (though I wasn’t consciously trying for that), so there’s a nice balance in the syllable-count of Cole, Treva, Felipe.

I think it could become very boring if I discussed how and why I named each of the minor and not-so-minor characters in The F Words, so I won’t do that. But I do want to say something about naming one other character, and that is Cole’s ex-girlfriend, whom I first named Sydnye. I don’t remember why. But I do remember that everybody in my writing group objected to the name and to the spelling of the name. Every time they read a section of the book that contained Sydnye, they felt they were reading a typo. And they couldn’t remember who she was. (Maybe because of my exaggerated spelling of the name.)

Okay. I had to get rid of not only the weird spelling, but the name itself. But I couldn’t figure out what to replace it with. For weeks and weeks I went through baby-naming books and websites, skimming the names, hoping that a name would grab me as just-right for the character.

Nada.

And then one day I was reading about a current-day girls’ baseball team on which one of the players was named Paloma. Hmmm. Paloma. That was different. Contemporary. So in the second and third drafts of the The F Words, I named the character Paloma.

This time it was me, not my writing group, who couldn’t remember the name. As I was writing the drafts and came to a scene with Cole and . . . Cole and . . . what’s her name again? I kept having to look it up!

Obviously, no matter how lovely a name Paloma is, it wasn’t working for my character.

Back to the drawing board. Which meant back to the baby-naming books. This time I settled down into an easy chair with a pen and paper in hand and a cup of coffee by my side. I s-l-o-w-l-y went through the names again.

And when I got to the J’s — I found it! Jillian. Don’t know how or why I missed it the first time around. But it sounded right and felt right. And, as it turns out, the name works very well in one of the campaign-for-class-president scenes in which Jillian and Felipe are both running for the same office.

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The F Words is now available for Pre-Order on Amazon.

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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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.

Foreshadowing

As so well defined by The Fiction Dictionary, foreshadowing is a literary technique in which the writer gives the reader a subtle hint of some important event that will occur later in the story — it helps the reader develop expectations about what’s going to happen. The important event is often surprising or shocking. 

The example The Fiction Dictionary gives of foreshadowing is from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story seems like the depiction of an ordinary, even uninteresting, family trip. But the foreshadowing helps prepare the reader for the tragic ending. The foreshadowing is such that I, as a reader, felt uneasy. I knew something bad was going to happen.

In Of Mice and Men George’s killing of the dog foreshadows his killing of Lennie. The first killing sets a tone and direction and thus prepares the reader for what comes later.

Here’s how I introduced foreshadowing in Chapter 19 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies:

Think of foreshadowing as hinting. To foreshadow an event in a novel is to give earlier hints that it might happen. Great writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner all use foreshadowing, whose purpose is twofold: to involve the reader more in the story by creating anticipation and suspense, and to make the events to come seem more plausible.

Foreshadowing adds richness, tension, and depth to a story. When the foreshadowed events happen, they feel more profound or important because it appears that some cosmic force had underlined their importance by “warning” us they are to come. It’s as if Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, takes a giant red pencil and “underlines” certain life events, be they words, actions, or even the weather. This makes it seem that what happens was meant to happen.

Books which lack foreshadowing seem so much more “on the surface” than books in which events are intricately bound to future results through foreshadowing. 

Here’s another piece of advice I give writers in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel:

But if you’re thinking that you’re required to foresee and insert foreshadowing from the beginning of your story — at a time when you’re worrying about character, plot, setting, and dozens of other things — rest assured that foreshadowing is often added during a rewrite. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, you know where your story started, where it ended up, and how it got there. Now’s the time to ponder which events you want to foreshadow (to make them more anticipated, and to make them more plausible) and how you want to accomplish that.

Narrative, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness thought can all be used to foreshadow. I most often use the narrative to foreshadow, but I’ve also used dialogue and character thoughts.

As I wrote Sound Proof, my second mystery novel (the one featured in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel) I had a lot of fun with the foreshadowing, employing it from the first chapter onward. I used it not only to hint at what would happen at the book’s climax, but also to make the minor character villain more plausible.

Although foreshadowing is usually thought of as a technique in fiction, it’s also used in literary nonfiction. Any story that has a strong plot can make use of foreshadowing, the anticipation of future events — if not their exact nature, at least their general outline.

In Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog, I used the fact that baseballs can take “good hops” or “bad hops” to foreshadow the sad events that occurred before the eventual triumph. By the repetition of “bad hops,” I wanted readers to know something bad would happen in the story, sooner or later.

One of the wonderful things about foreshadowing — wonderful for both writer and reader — is that it makes readers anticipate: makes them want to know more. And what writer in the world wouldn’t be thrilled with readers wanting to know more about his/her story?

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies provides information and how-to advice on many different aspects of writing fiction— mystery fiction as well as other fiction.

Writing Jack and Larry

The ideas that become books come to writers in different ways. The idea for Jack and Larry came to me from somebody else. For me, that is atypical: I come up with my own ideas, and I have more of them than I’ll ever be able to write books about. But a fellow member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), Fred Schuld, had a kind of personal history with the story of Jack Graney and his bull terrier, Larry. Fred’s father was a born-and-raised Clevelander who lived during the time Jack played for Cleveland. Fred’s father infused him with a love of Larry’s antics. He didn’t need to infuse him with a love of Jack Graney, because when Fred was growing up and also when he was raising his own family, Jack Graney was the Voice of the Cleveland Indians, and Fred was a fan of both the team and their announcer.

So Fred, as a historian and researcher, collected newspaper references from the 1910s, little mentions here and there of Larry, Jack Graney’s bull terrier. And in the early 1990s Fred began to suggest that I write a book on Jack Graney and Larry. Eventually, I became convinced that I wanted to write such a book.

The information that Fred Schuld gave me consisted of small (50 words or so) articles. These were primary source materials because they were written at the time Jack and Larry lived. These clippings helped me see what kind of person Jack was; what kind of dog Larry was; how the fans viewed Jack, Larry, and the team; and how the newspapers viewed them. I also got the bigger picture of how the Cleveland team was faring.

Thanks to Fred Schuld, I got to meet Jack’s daughter, Margot Graney Mudd, and also his grand-daughter, Perry Mudd Smith. When Margot was growing up, her father told her and her brother stories about Larry, and Margot shared with me her favorite of those stories. I included that story as “Taking Care of Business.”

Once a writer decides that, Yes, she’s going to write a particular book, that doesn’t mean the going is easy. It took me several years to write Jack and Larry because I wasn’t sure what form the story should take or how to tell it. Fred Schuld thought it should be either a magazine article or a picture book. Or both. 

Aiming to write an adult magazine article with an emphasis on history and aiming to write a children’s picture book at the same time is like two forces pulling in opposite directions: progress is difficult, if not impossible.

I tried writing Jack and Larry’s story as a history article, but I wasn’t happy with it. I tried writing it as a picture book (Larry Leaps In was the title), and I wasn’t happy with that, either. The history article was mainly Jack’s story. The picture book was mainly Larry’s story. My gut feeling, which I couldn’t let go of, was that the story I wanted to tell was the story of Jack and Larry together.

Some of the editors to whom I submitted the manuscript of Jack and Larry considered it a weakness that the story was neither Jack’s story nor Larry’s story. They wanted it to be one or the other: one hero/protagonist, not two. I disagreed.

I’m not saying that I was right or that the editors were wrong. Each view is legitimate. I wanted to write the story that I saw in my head. The editors didn’t see that particular story, or they thought that particular story wouldn’t be appealing, and/or wouldn’t sell to the public.

In a situation like this, a writer always has two choices: (a) rewrite the story according to the editor’s suggestions (and these suggestions are often what’s best for the story); or (b) continue to stick to the story one sees . . . but try to make that story better in every way. In this case, I went with the second choice.

After I gave up on the history article and gave up on the picture book, I still had to answer the question of what kind of book I should write. I was torn between writing a middle grades book (roughly ages 8-12) and writing an adult book. I felt the story of Jack and Larry would appeal equally to each audience. But when it came to writing a book for adults, I felt they might want more of the story of Jack Graney himself, less of the story of his bull terrie — though the dog-lovers among them would enjoy the antics of Larry. As would middle-graders.

So I wrote Jack and Larry as a crossover book — one that appeals to both children and adults. I had never written such a book before, nor have I written one since. 

Writers usually have an audience (individual or plural, invented or real) in mind when writing a book — we think of ourselves as speaking to that particular person. It helps to have such a person in mind because it helps us shape the story, make it interesting and appealing to that person. When writing She’s on First, for example, I had in mind a young woman who was passionate about baseball and wanted to play. She wasn’t a real person, she was an audience I invented. But when writing Jack and Larry I found myself writing to two audiences at the same time — a 10-year-old boy who loved dogs and baseball, and a 40-year-old woman who loved baseball and history. I tried to write in a way that wasn’t too adult for the 10-year-old and wasn’t too juvenile for the 40-year-old.

The single most difficult problem I encountered while writing Jack and Larry was how to tell the story in an exciting way. And here I found that straight prose just did not work. That could be because the clippings I had were small, the information sparse, and sometimes the articles mentioning Larry were many weeks apart. So whenever I wrote straight prose sentences, I felt they were inadequate: I felt I might end up writing extra sentences just to make the book longer. That I didn’t want to do.

The problem of length, of sparse facts, and of exactly how to tell the story — this took me seemingly forever to overcome. But one day I sat in a comfortable chair in my office, pulled the manuscript out of its file, and — all of a sudden, out of nowhere (but more likely out of my subconscious), it came to me that I could tell the story in free verse.

The advantage of free verse as a way of telling Jack and Larry’s story was that it allowed me to tell the story in vignettes. Which is exactly how the story came to me: in small glimpses from the newspapers. As soon as I began rewriting the story in “lined prose,” I thought of myself and the reader peering at a major league ballpark through a knothole in the fence, catching a glimpse of the action.

I think I succeeded in writing a book through which readers catch glimpses of early 20th century baseball in Cleveland, Ohio. When fans of the book write to me, they often mention a particular glimpse that appeals to them most. Some mention the poem about Larry meeting President Woodrow Wilson, others the one about Larry “coaching” third base. My own favorite is the two-part glimpse titled “Looks Like a Loss” and “Triple Steal and Bite.”

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Catch your own glimpses of Jack Graney, Larry, and the Cleveland teams of 1912-1920 in Jack and Larry.

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.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 3

So where were we? Ah, yes, the third call from the KDP customer service operator. The call in which he told me: “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Please choose a cover that does work. Any cover will do.” He asked me to hold the line while he chose a cover that worked. After several minutes he returned to say that none of the three covers he chose worked. That was when I informed him that I had tested all ten covers and all seventy layout choices, and not a one of them worked. He replied that he would talk to the technical team and get back to me in 48 hours.  “When you call back,” I said,  “please have a cover that works. I need to get this book published quickly.” He told me he would have a cover that worked.

Meanwhile, I returned to my KDP page constantly, checking this and that, clicking here and there, wondering if I could find a loophole anywhere — something that would make my cover work.

That was when I noticed that KDP had an icon of a cover next to my manuscript. This wasn’t the cover I had tried to choose.  The cover contained the front title, subtitle, and author name. It contained only my name on the spine copy. My name in very little letters.And, somehow or other, it contained my author photo on the back. No back cover copy, no about-the-author copy. But also, and critically important — no triangles telling me that the copy didn’t fit.

Where did this cover come from? I hadn’t chosen it. And then I thought: This is the cover of my ebook. And I thought: They’ve added a back to the ebook cover, but no copy. And I thought: I wonder if the KDP program automatically flows the ebook cover into the softcover section. When the author isn’t looking. And without telling the user that this would happen.

October 27, 2018Well, in order to give my presentation, How to Self-Publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, I needed a softcover book. In my hand. To show to the students.

Hmmm. 

I clicked on the Order Proof Copy button and within minutes I received an email telling me that I would find the book in my Amazon cart  and that I had a 24-hour window in which to purchase a proof of my book. Cost, $2.19, plus shipping. I clicked. The book was sent.

I did not tell the KDP customer service operator what I had done. I figured if I told him, he would consider the problem solved. But I didn’t consider the problem solved. If when one publishes a Kindle ebook first and then proceeds to the softcover — if the ebook cover automatically flows into the softcover program and overrides everything one might want to do with Cover Creator, then I wanted to know that this is a fact. I wanted to see KDP state so in their instructions.

Just two days after I placed the order, my proof copy arrived.

And it had my name on the spine.

And my name overflowed the spine and came out on the back cover. Illustrating exactly why KDP does not permit spine copy on books of fewer than 130 pages: because the Print On Demand machines cannot line up the spine copy so precisely that it will be centered on a small spine.

At this point I was fed up with KDP’s Cover Creator problems, and with their taking so long to solve the problem they had created. I had been talking to them about this problem for eleven days and they had said or done nothing that helped. So on the evening of the eleventh day, I did something I seldom do: I wrote an irate letter to KDP Customer Service, succinctly stating the problem with their Cover Creator, expressing anger over the eleven-day delay, and requesting the courtesy of a reply the next day.

Which, to KDP’s credit, I received, approximately twelve hours after I had emailed them. Their reply, which was very polite, informed me that unfortunately Cover Creator does not work with books of fewer than 130 pages, and that anybody who wants to self-publish such a softcover book with KDP must use the downloadable template to design their own cover.

Which means, effectively, that everyone in this situation must either be able to design covers or be able to hire somebody who will design the cover for them. Or know somebody who will do it as a favor. Which, you may recall from my previous blog, Robin Koontz had already volunteered to do.

Minutes after I received the KDP reply I emailed Robin and sent her my cover photo and my author photo, and within a day she had designed a cover I loved. Robin sent me the PDF, I submitted the PDF to Kindle, and within minutes my cover (created by Robin) was approved and my book was ready to print.

CoverScrape,Rattle,Roll-Screened copy

Cover design by Robin Koontz

Although I was twelve days behind schedule due to the fact that it took KDP that number of days to inform me that their Cover Creator didn’t work for my book, I had been taking screen shots of the entire ebook and paperback publishing process. I was also able to put those screen shots into a new Keynote program and meet my commitment to the Naperville Public Library, where I presented How to Self-Publish with KDP, on October 27, 2018.

And, even though I encountered these apparently-never-tested problems in my experience with KDP, I can honestly say that, this particular problem aside, self-publishing with KDP is very easy. They have trimmed the number of steps necessary, they have streamlined the instruction and made everything not only faster, but easier. This certainly makes it easier for people to publish both ebooks and softcover books, and it makes it easier for people like me to teach others how to do so.

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Scrape, Rattle, and Roll: Reflections on This and That was published by Barbara Gregorich in 2018.