Punctuation Marks – 3

The first thing that impressed me about the Harry Potter novels was the story; the second thing that impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s use of semicolons. I was happy to see her punctuate closely related independent clauses with a semicolon. 

And I have found, when reading some mystery fiction, more semicolons than one would normally encounter in a novel. The first question I ask myself is: Was the author an attorney? Quite often the answer is Yes. Perhaps the legal mind is attracted to the fine distinctions made by semicolons. 

Moby_Dick_final_chaseThe semicolon has four major uses, as follows:

1  To link two closely related independent clauses

    Jason sailed the Argos; Ahab sailed the Pequod.

2  To link clauses connected by conjunctions such as however, as a result

    Ahab was consumed with the idea of vengeance against Moby Dick; as a result, he smuggled five Parsee harpooners aboard the Pequod.

3  To separate items in a list, when items within each part of the list contain commas.

    The author kept her manuscript in three forms: as an electronic file, which she stored on her computer or, sometimes, on two different computers; as a paper file, which she kept in her locked file cabinet; and as a digital file, which she kept on her flash drive, which was with her at all times, even when she slept.

4  To link lengthy clauses that also contain commas, so as to distinguish between clauses.

   The gardener turned the soil over twice a year, using a spade, a pitchfork, a hoe, and, finally, a rake; but she planted seeds only once, after the first turning-over.   

Just as the semicolon seems a bit formal, so, too, do parentheses. As Karen Elizabeth Gordon explains in The New Well-Tempered Sentence, parentheses are meant to include additional information within a sentence — not the main information, but additional info. “They make for a softer interruption than the abrupt snapping or daring that dashes do. . . .” she explains. (Note the abruptness of that dash two sentences ago? Note the softness of this additional information?)

Punctuation-MarksGordon’s book (one of my favorite of all grammar books) is full of examples of parentheses usage. As you can see in the previous sentence, I have placed additional information within parentheses. Wisecracks, asides, insults (!), and even punctuation marks that reveal a writer’s attitude (Attitude with a capital A?) are usually placed within parentheses. 

Brackets are called square brackets in some English-speaking countries, but in the US they’re simply called brackets. I learned about brackets in high school, probably when I was learning how to write a research paper, and I can recall using them in college papers, too. But then I began writing adult fiction and nonfiction and children’s fiction and nonfiction and also children’s activity books and filmstrips and such — and brackets disappeared from my writing.

RN3Only to resurface again in 2010 when I wrote Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1. Ditto for Volume 2, which was published in 2013, and ditto for Volume 3, published in 2015.

The reason that brackets resurfaced in my writing is that one of their main uses is to enclose material added by someone other than the original author. In Research Notes I quoted a lot of original material (mainly newspaper articles from 1875-1923), and in many cases I needed to add explanatory material or indicate that something was incorrectly spelled.

In the first example below, I add the information that the Hartford referred to is in Michigan. In the second example I add a sic to indicate that the incorrectly-spelled word preceding the sic was there in the original newspaper text.

“Manager Olson has arranged for a game with Hartford [Michigan] for Friday afternoon, May 11, at the Hartford ball grounds.”

“The season has been a disasterous [sic] one to many carnivals and circuses, and with no encouraging outlook for the present season, the wise and conservative showmen will probably be in winter quarters not later than the early part of October.”

In an earlier blog I wrote that I think the apostrophe will disappear from American English sooner or later, because people simply do not understand its use to show possession. Another punctuation mark in grave danger of disappearance — it has practically vanished — is the hyphen. I often find myself confused by a billboard or ad slogan that, after three or four readings I finally figure out. Had words been properly hyphenated, I would have understood instantly. For example:

a third best vacation

a third-best vacation

The first two or three times I read the top line (which is how it appeared on a billboard), I thought somebody had taken three best vacations. Frankly, I didn’t see how that was possible. The vacations could have been good, better, best, but all three of them could not have been best. Finally I figured out that the writer meant to sneer at a particular vacation, calling it third-best. When the hyphen is missing, it takes a couple of readings to figure out exactly what is meant. (See my poem blog on the hyphen, Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion.)

Importance-Hyphen1

Here’s another example of  how a missing hyphen — which is meant to join words that need to be understood as belonging together — can cause a reader to stumble.

Twice now I’ve seen the cover of a book that is titled:

BLUE EYED STRANGER

So each time I’ve seen this, I’ve read it as a blue stranger who happens to be “eyed,” and that strikes me as hilarious. The ridiculousness of the situation makes me realize that the cover designer means this to be a

BLUE-EYED STRANGER

Upon looking this book up online, I see that text descriptions (i.e., not the cover, but words) call it Blue-Eyed Stranger. So apparently it’s just the cover that is wrong. Either that, or the write-ups about the book have corrected the poor punctuation because they just couldn’t stand it! 

Which is why I do not carry a pen with me.

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Barbara Gregorich loved using both the colon and a comma in one of her book titles — Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Punctuation Marks – 2

Just as many people are afraid of the comma (in that they don’t know how it works or when to use it), so, too, they’re afraid of the apostrophe. Probably more than they’re afraid of the comma!

The apostrophe was used in French before it was used in English, and in French it was used to indicate an elision — one or more letters missing from a word. As in Let’s go to a movie, there’s a good one playing just down the street, and it’s been ages since we’ve eaten popcorn. During the 1500s learned Englishmen and Englishwomen imitated the French by importing the apostrophe to indicate elisions.

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English was full of elisions. Think of any of Dickens’ novels. Or British mysteries, with words such as t’night and prob’ly. Some pages look as if a careless writer spilled a saltshaker of apostrophes over everything. Personally, I find too many such apostrophes intrusive to my reading experience. One or two per page, okay. Seven or eight . . . bothersome!

In addition to showing that some letters have been omitted, an apostrophe can also be used to show possession. Based on today’s evidence, I’m guessing that the apostrophe as a mark that shows possession will disappear from American English altogether.

Most people seem terrified by this little punctuation mark and don’t know how to use it to show possession. Or plurals. They seem to just throw the apostrophe in wherever they find an s! A sign that should read Fresh peaches, $2/pound might read Fresh peache’s, $2/pound. Or, Fresh peaches’, $2/pound.

In written language possession is fairly easy to infer. Dad painted Jasons bikes bright red, but Mom painted Saras bikes lime green. That probably looks strange to somebody who uses apostrophes correctly — but it looks a lot better than Dad painted Jasons’ bike’s bright red, but Mom painted Saras bike’s lime green. Perhaps in such cases misusage is worse than no usage. (The correct way to punctuate that sentence is as follows: Dad painted Jason’s bikes bright red, but Mom painted Sara’s bikes lime green.)

Unlike the apostrophe, the slash mark travels under so many different names, I’m not sure it can be trusted. It can be called The Slash (/), the Forward Slash, the Solidus, or the Virgule. I wasn’t taught the slash mark when in high school, nor when in college, and for those reasons I tend to think of it as a modern punctuation mark — more recent, say, than the comma or colon or semicolon.

RomanVirgilFolio014rVergilPortraitBut I am wrong. The slash was used during the days of Ancient Rome, and it made its way into Middle Ages manuscripts, where one slash represented a comma and two slashes (how bold!) represented a dash. The two slashes eventually straightened themselves out to look like a modern-day equals sign (=), but that sign was still a dash, not a mathematical symbol. Eventually the two horizontal dashes (=) became a single dash, which we still use today

The basic purpose of the slash today is to indicate per, as in $500/week. It is often used to indicate alternatives, as in and/or, but books such as The Chicago Manual of Style suggest this expression be avoided because its meaning is unclear. Use the word and, use the word or, or rewrite the sentence another way.

What Jack/Jill will be going up the hill means is this: Either Jack alone or Jill alone or the two of them together will be going up the hill. You can see why people prefer to use the slash mark rather than write out the possibilities indicated by the slash mark.

My favorite use of the slash mark is to indicate line breaks in quoted poetry. To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Unlike the slash mark, the colon has always impressed me as a straightforward punctuation mark, easily understood. (Much more so than the sneaky semicolon.)

Basically a colon is used to introduce a series, the items in the series being examples of the statement that comes in front of the colon. But the colon should not be used to create a list that is really the object of the verb. Here are two examples:

CORRECT — The necessities of life include these: air, water, food, shelter.
INCORRECT — The necessities of life include: air, water, food, shelter.

panctuationIn the correct example, the pronoun these is the object of the verb include. So the first example is correct: the items after the colon rename, or serve as examples, of these.

In the incorrect example, the verb include is being separated from its object. In the incorrect example the words in front of the colon do not constitute a complete sentence. The necessities of life include is not a complete sentence.

The colon is an emphatic punctuation mark. Not as emphatic as the dash, but still, it commands one’s attention. A colon can be used between two independent clauses when the second clause explains the first, expands upon it, illustrates it, or paraphrases it.

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote one day after tasting a particularly assertive wasabi.

Note to Self

Bite of wasabi:
Eyes go sobby.

Tasting wasabi:
Eschew as hobby.

________________

There is no wasabi in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Punctuation Marks: 1

At some point in my third-grade year, I realized that I loved punctuation — it helped me make clear the meaning of whatever I was writing. All those little marks (!, ?, -, —, and ,) were like codes that others could read. And only those who understood the code could understand the sentence! I was very into mysteries and secret codes, so punctuation marks fit right into my way of thinking.

Which, for a seven-year-old, wasn’t far off the mark: punctuation marks exist not to trip up the writer (who must choose to place or not place these squiggles), but to aid the reader in understanding the “secret” meaning of the sentence. With punctuation marks, the meaning is revealed. Without punctuation marks, the meaning can be ambiguous or simply unclear.

punctuation-marks--magnetic-display-accents

The first punctuation marks children are introduced to are the period, the question mark, and the exclamation point. These are all end punctuation marks and thus easy for children (and adults) to understand. The period marks the end of a declarative or an imperative sentence.

In times past the period could also come after a single word. Love. Hunger. Catastrophe. The same is true today, especially in informal writing such as on Facebook and blogs, where the use of the period to emphasis each individual word of a short thought is prevalent. This. Is. The. End.

As the example above shows, punctuation marks can help convey a writer’s tone, inflection, attitude, and meaning.

The real question about the question mark is, when does it go inside quotation marks, and when does it go outside quotation marks? It goes inside the quotation marks when it is/was the punctuation for what is being quoted. “Who has seen the wind?” asked Christina Rossetti in her famous poem.

At all other times, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks. Aren’t you tired of the ad, “Things Go Better With Coke”?

Exclamation marks are used to show surprise, downright astonishment, or just great excitement. In writing for publication, the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. In informal writing, such as that in personal letters, on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, the exclamation mark can be used (and is used) more often. Feel free to use it! Often!! As often as you like!!! A zillion times, if you want!!!!!!!!!

And speaking of quotation marks, as I was two paragraphs ago, I remember the first time I encountered French quotation marks. >>Well, knock me over with a feather!<< I exclaimed. >> What are these weird-looking marks?<< They were so different from anything I had ever seen that I wondered if maybe they were typos. Later I encountered the same type of quotation marks in Russian.

I must say, these are very assertive quotation marks, unlikely to get lost to a reader who is merely glancing at text. On the other hand, because they’re not very subtle, I wonder if they’re too intrusive for somebody reading fiction: they seem to call attention to themselves and thus take the reader out of the novel for a moment or two.

If you read a lot of British novels, you must have noticed that the system in the UK is opposite that in the US. Where we start off with double quotes, and then switch to single quotation marks for a quote within a quote, the British start off with a single quotation marks and then, if there’s a quote within a quote, they switch to double quotation marks.

Most people exhibit no fear of periods, question marks, or exclamation points. And maybe not even of quotation marks. But when it comes to commas, some people start to tremble.

While a period indicates a full stop (meaning that one thought or piece of information has been completed), the comma represents not a full stop, but an ever-so-slight pause. In spoken language this pause conveys meaning: pieces of information are being slightly separated. In writing, the comma conveys the same meaning: pieces of information are being slightly separated, to help the reader better understand what is being said.

When she wrote fiction she avoided commas, which she felt slowed down sentences, but when she wrote nonfiction she tossed in hundreds of the little squiggles.

In the example, the clause that is slightly separated conveys additional information. That this information is additional is conveyed by the two commas. Without the additional information, the sentence would read: When she wrote fiction she avoided commas, but when she wrote nonfiction she tossed in hundreds of the little squiggles. Commas are like friendly orange traffic cones: they make clear the path the reader is to follow.

KindleCover-SOFOver the centuries, English and American writers have used the comma less and less. Twentieth-century writers used far fewer commas than did nineteenth-century writers. Presumably twenty-first century-writers will use fewer commas than did twentieth-century writers. I actually experienced this first-hand with one of my own works. When I wrote She’s on First, back in the late 1970s, I used what I thought was the minimal number of commas. That is, I wanted to make meaning clear, but I didn’t want to over-qualify things with commas. In 2010 I decided to bring She’s on First back into print. As part of that process I re-read the manuscript, page by page. To my chagrin, I was very surprised by all the commas I had used . . . twenty-five years earlier. I ended up taking many of them out, mostly those that came after introductory phrases at the beginning of sentences.

Punctuation marks are guides, and people living in different time periods may need more guides, or fewer guides.

________________

Think of the time you’ll save reading the fewer-commas version of She’s on First.

The Beguilement of Subplots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

The Threads of Destiny

 

When I was sixteen years old and had just received my driver’s license, I drove my brother and myself to the Warren Public Library, where we browsed the Local Authors shelf and discovered Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan. Never did I think — as we stood in that dark corner and pulled old, well-worn hardback books off the shelf — that I would end up writing a book about the author whose works I held in my hand.

But destiny, if we want to call it that, is woven of many threads, and finding those books in the public library was the first thread.

Had that been the only time I encountered the novels of Earl Derr Biggers, I’m sure I wouldn’t have written a book on his life. Destiny does not dangle by a single thread.

yarns-threads-500x500But in the 1970s, when my husband and I were both letter carriers for the US Post Office, during a very cold and very snowy (90 inches) winter, we won a trip to Hawaii. Which, I assure you, we took immediately: January 3, if I recall. And there, greeting us as we stepped off our plane, was a book rack. And on that rack were paperback editions of the Charlie Chan novels. So of course I bought one and read it. After we returned home I bought the other five and read them, too. Thread number two.

Twenty years later I was searching for topics to write magazine articles on. Being from Ohio, and having read the Chan novels twice, I came up with the idea of writing about Earl Derr Biggers who, although he was a world-known author of the Golden Age of mystery, was a name most people don’t recognize today. I wrote a 4,700-word article that was published in Timeline, the magazine of the Ohio Historical Society. And then I wrote a 1,000-word article that was published in Harvard Magazine. (Biggers was a Harvard graduate.) Thread number three.

 

Around about then (1999) I began to wonder if I should write a book on Earl Derr Biggers. I decided not to, for two main reasons: (1) Because Biggers left very little behind in terms of letters, papers, and manuscripts, it would not be a very large book — and trade publishers like large books; (2) I was not keen on the thought of writing a manuscript and then marketing it to various publishers who probably wouldn’t accept it for publication, Biggers being relatively unremembered.

EarlDerrBiggersCover_GregorichBut in 2010 I began to experiment with self-publishing some of my manuscripts. I’ve been very pleased with the process and the results. There you have thread number four.

After 2010 I knew that sooner or later I would get around to writing a book on Earl Derr Biggers. When, though — that was the question.

Little did I know that the answer would bring me full circle. In 2017 the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library (the new one, not the old one I visited in my teens) invited me to speak on Earl Derr Biggers on March 3, 2018. Thread number five!

I wasn’t about to give a speech without having a book to sell after the speech. And so, at long last, I braided the threads together and published my book, which is titled Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. You can look inside the book by clicking here.

 

_________________

Earl Derr Biggers deserves to be remembered, and Barbara Gregorich is glad she can contribute to people learning about him.

Rewriting: Macro

One of the most difficult things about rewriting is knowing where to begin. The first draft of a book consists largely of the writer telling the story to herself, making things up as she goes along, creating characters and conflict, creating rising action, climax and conclusion. A lot can — and does — go wrong during this process. Knowing that there are many things wrong with a first draft, a writer is often overwhelmed with how and where to begin the changes.

Enter the Sorting Hat, which may divide your rewrites into two boxes. Perhaps three. Maybe, even . . . four. The first box is always Macro — Big Things That You Need to Change. There may be a Middle box, and there will be a Micro Box: small things that need to be polished.

sorting-hatThe problem is, the Sorting Hat merely lets you know there are at least two boxes. It’s up to you to read your manuscript critically and decide what the macro changes are. In fact, you end up doing the sorting yourself while the Hat looks on, doing nothing.

I believe it’s critical to separate all the medium-sized changes and small changes your novel may need from the BIG changes it needs. Don’t try to make all the necessary changes in one rewrite: it’s usually much too difficult to be dealing with correcting big things and little things in the same go-round. In fact, human nature being a bit on the lazy side, many people will ignore the big things and correct only the little ones, thinking they’re doing a good job of rewriting.

Macro problems can include structural problems, character problems, balance between scene and summary, and plot problems, for example. Overwriting (purple prose, explaining too much, heavy exposition, and so on) might be a macro problem, but I usually think it’s a Medium problem: at least in comparison to structural problems, point of view problems, and character-development problems.

A writer must deal with the macro issues before attempting the micro rewrites — it does little good to have powerful words and beautiful sentences in a book that has major flaws in structure, conflict, point of view, and narrative.

Probably the first thing any teacher of writing will explain about rewriting is that before you rewrite, let the manuscript rest. Relax. Idle. Do nothing. After I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I try to let both fiction and nonfiction sit around untouched for anywhere from one to three months before I attempt my first rewrite.

Resting time is important because the writer, having spent a year or more writing a book, is too “into” the manuscript to see what major rewriting the story may require. Letting the manuscript rest allows you to go on with other things in your life (preferably without thinking of the manuscript in much detail) so that when you do return, you can see the story with more objectivity — you are distancing yourself from the “you” who wrote the first draft. When approaching my first rewrite of a book, I adopt the attitude that the person who wrote it is somebody I know and like, but somebody whose story I am going to improve greatly by looking at it objectively.

imagesAlmost always, the first draft is full of flab: loose, excess flesh. Not a pretty image, I know. The flab must be toned up. The toning comes from cutting. You must cut paragraphs, pages, entire scenes or chunks of narrative that you labored over for months or years. This cutting will do wonders for your story which, now free of excess, looks leaner, meaner, and fit.

How much of your first draft is flab? That varies, of course. My first draft of She’s on First (my first novel) was 400 pages long. My agent told me: “Cut 100 pages and then I’ll represent it.”

I did cut 100 pages. (102, if I recall.) What I cut mainly was repetition . . . descriptions that weren’t necessary . . . transitions that could be replaced by wordless white space . . . scenes that could be summarized or shortened. At first I thought this would be painful. But it wasn’t. In fact, it felt good to improve my story and my writing by tightening it.

In the macro rewrite, a writer needs to look at balance — the balance between showing and telling or, to use technical terms, the balance between scene and narrative/summary.

The more common error is to write too much narrative and not enough scene. That’s probably because narrative is easier to write: we just sit down and begin typing. Scene is more difficult. If we’re writing fiction, we must imagine our characters in conflict and show this with realistic dialogue and action. If writing nonfiction, we can still include scenes, but then we must watch for too much detail, too much description.

An easy way to see whether you have some sort of balance between scene and summary is to take a yellow marker and highlight the scenes. If they’re few and far between, this means your book is almost exclusively narrative. That might work for some nonfiction, but it doesn’t work for fiction, whose readers want drama.

Backstory and flashbacks are devices the writer sometimes needs to tell the story. But in the first draft we tend to use these devices in Big. Chunks. that are Pages. Long. In the macro rewrite, it’s necessary to pulverize these chunks into smooth granules and sprinkle them throughout the book. In my first rewrite of Sound Proof I was able to eliminate all the backstory I had stuffed into chapter two and sprinkle it in a few places throughout chapter one.

Often character problems fall into the Macro box. In writing She’s on First I needed to develop several of the characters more, which meant I needed to think about their goals, their motivation, and their actions. Developing characters in a different or additional way is difficult for me: they seem to be what they are when I’ve completed the first draft, and changing my perception of them is hard. But sometimes this must be done, and I’ve found that it can be done, no matter how difficult it appears at first. Sometimes, though, the main problem with a character is . . . he or she isn’t necessary to the story. That means (Gulp!) Getting. Rid. Of. The. Character. Believe me, this is even more difficult than  improving a character’s motivations.

Most writers, I suspect, find the macro rewrite difficult. I do. It involves a lot of major changes, and these aren’t easy. But when I finish my first rewrite, I always feel good. The roadbed has been bulldozed and leveled, the pavement put down. What remains to be done is a lot more fun than all that heavy work. I will talk about micro rewriting in another blog — after I recuperate from all this heavy work.

 

________________________________________

Earl Derr Biggers rewrote each of his novels once, publishing the second draft. Barbara Gregorich rewrites most of her books three times, usually publishing the fourth draft.

Early Readers: A Short Phase

In a young reader’s development, early readers come immediately after start-to-read primers, but before early chapter books. Dr. Seuss’s books, such as The Cat in the Hat, are easy to read because of their emphasis on phonics and simple words, but they’re not early readers. I consider them more of a start-to-read book. Or, if anything, they are unique books in that parents read them to children as picture books, children memorize them, and then children read them at the beginning of their reading lives.

For decades early readers were orphans in the world of children’s books, seldom receiving consideration for either the Caldecott (which usually went to picture books for illustration) or the Newbery (which usually went to Middle Grades books for story). Then, in 2006 the American Library Association, which awards both the Caldecott and the Newbery, instituted the Geisel Award, named after Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who pioneered beginning readers during the 1950s.

Early readers most often have chapters. Or, they sometimes consist of two, three, or four separate stories. A chapter or story runs 300-600 words long. The length of the book is usually 48 pages, but can be as short as 32 pages or as long as 64 pages. Early readers contain illustrations: usually “spot” illustrations which are smaller than picture-book-sized illustrations.

UnknownThe size of early readers is different from the size of picture books — they have a slightly smaller trim size, making them feel less like “baby” books and more like “real” books to the child selecting them. The trim size of Alien & Possum, for example, is 6.25”x9.25”.

Not all children’s book publishers are interested in publishing early readers, perhaps because early readers appeal to a child for only a short time in that child’s life: 6 months, maybe a year. Reading abilities and reading comprehension grow in leaps and bounds, and a child who’s reading an early reader at the beginning of second grade might be ready for an early chapter book of 80-100 pages by the end of second grade.

Picture books, on the other hand, are suitable for children aged 2-8 years, and early chapter books are read by ages 8-10, or even older. Parents are more willing to buy picture books and early chapter books than they are to buy early readers, which their children might outgrow very quickly.

Children, on the other hand, often develop a fierce loyalty to early readers, and this loyalty can last into adulthood. I’ve heard many adults speak passionately about early readers such as Frog and Toad, or Henry and Mudge.

003124As far as I know, early readers of the Frog and Toad variety didn’t exist when I was a child. In fact, I read the Frog and Toad stories as an adult and fell in love with them. Written and illustrated b y Arnold Lobel, the first book in the series, Frog and Toad Are Friends, was published in 1972.

People who write early readers are aware that they must use somewhat simple sentence structure and a somewhat restricted vocabulary. But I think that writers of early readers make up for these restrictions by finding a beautiful rhythm of sentences. Here are the first five sentences of “Down the Hill,” the first story in Frog and Toad All Year:

Frog knocked at Toad’s door.
“Toad, wake up,” he cried.
“Come out and see
how wonderful the winter is!”
“I will not,” said Toad.
“I am in my warm bed.”

One of the very popular early readers series is the Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant, first published in 1987. Henry is an only child and Mudge is his dog, who grows from a puppy into a 180-pound canine. Rylant won the very first Geisel Award in 2006 for Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas.

Another early reader series is the Fox series, written and illustrated by James Marshall (of George and Martha fame). Like Arnold Lobel, Marshall wrote with a beautiful rhythm, economy of words, and great humor. The first Fox title, Fox All Week, was published in 1984.

Because I love reading early readers, it should come as no surprise that I sometimes write early readers. The first of these, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories, was 64 pages long. It contained three stories and came to 64 pages mainly because the publisher divided each of the three small stories into four small chapters. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review. Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center all liked it, the latter making it a Choice 2007 book.

Unknown-1For the sequel, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories, the publisher left each of the three stories intact (instead of breaking them into chapters). The book then came out to 48 pages, a much more economical arrangement, considering the cost of color printing. Booklist thought the stories contained “deliciously sticky, comical situations.”

If you have never read an early reader, or did but have forgotten the wonderful way in which it tells a story, look at one of the books I’ve mentioned the next time you’re in a bookstore. Try any of Arnold Lobel’s Toad and Frog books, or James Marshall’s Fox books, or Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge books, or her Poppleton books. You just might get hooked on the rhythm of the story.

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When she isn’t writing early readers, Barbara Gregorich writes books such as Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.