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.

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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.

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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.
 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Book Review: Charlie Chan Carries On

 

When I was sixteen years old and first read Earl Derr Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels, I loved each and every one, but my favorite was the fifth book, Charlie Chan Carries On. However, I couldn’t really say why.

What was it about this book that made it my favorite? Was it the fact that the story took place on an around-the-world cruise, and that this setting appealed to me? Or perhaps I loved the novelty of having one detective be the protagonist for the first half of the book, and another detective take over for the second half of the story.

Back in the 1990s, after I had already read each book twice, and was about to embark on reading each a third time, I did a lot of research on Earl Derr Biggers. This included reading all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, David Laurance Chambers of Bobbs-Merrill. From these letters I learned many things I hadn’t known — including something about Biggers’ attitude toward writing Charlie Chan Carries On.

Specifically, I learned that Biggers complained to Chambers about the fact that so many of his fans were telling him he should write a Chan mystery in which Charlie goes to London and meets up with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard (introduced in Behind That Curtain), and the two of them solve a case together.

Which part of these suggestions repelled Biggers more, I don’t know: that he take his character to London, that Chan co-star with Duff . . . or that the fans felt they could tell Biggers where to set his books. Disregarding all these suggestions, Biggers wrote a fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, in which he took Charlie home to Hawaii. Inspector Duff was not present in the novel.

Still . . . there was something about the London suggestion, or the meeting-Duff-again suggestion that appealed to Biggers. And so he plotted that Duff and Chan would work together — but not in the way the fans had suggested. In Charlie Chan Carries On Biggers turned the first part of the story over to Inspector Duff in London, then, in the second half, had Duff meet Chan in Honolulu (not London!). Charlie takes charge in the second half of the story and solves the mystery that Duff hadn’t yet solved.

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As I read the correspondence between Biggers and his editor and recalled the plot of Charlie Chan Carries On, I chuckled. Biggers managed to both give the fans what they wanted (another meeting between Duff and Chan) and not give them what they wanted (Chan in London). I think that in writing this book he was showing mystery readers who is in charge of the novel: the author.

Still, learning this about Biggers and his fans’ suggestions didn’t reveal to me why Carries On is my favorite of the six novels. So this time around, for my fourth reading of the novel, I decided to pay very close attention to the question of why I like this book the most.

It’s a very well constructed mystery, as are all six of the Chan novels. The story starts out in London, where Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard investigates a murder that occurs at Broome’s Hotel. The murdered man, Hugh Drake, was a member of Doctor Lofton’s Around the World tour. Duff questions all seventeen members of the tour, but gets nowhere. He wants to keep the tour from leaving, but the British legal system will not let him do so because he has no evidence with which to charge anybody with murder.

In Nice a second member of the tour is murdered. Duff, who has arrived in Nice, learns that somebody in San Remo, Italy, is in danger, even though she’s not part of the tour. Duff travels with the tour to San Remo, but the person he means to protect is murdered. Neither Duff nor the Italian police can solve the crime, and so the tour continues eastward while Duff returns to London — after asking Pamela Potter, a tour member, to keep him informed by letter, and to cable him if anybody else is murdered.

Back at Scotland Yard Duff and his superior decide to put an undercover Yard man on the case: he will join the tour in Calcutta, working on the ship’s crew. But this undercover operator does not make it past Japan.

As the tour boat makes its way to Hawaii, Duff is sent to the US to investigate safe deposit boxes (which play a role in the murder) and, eventually, to meet the tour ship when it arrives in Honolulu.

There the long-awaited reunion between Chan and Duff takes place, with Chan and Duff treating each other to lunches and Chan inviting Duff to his home for dinner.

And then, the night that Duff is to sail to the States with the remaining tour members, he is shot while in Charlie’s office at the Honolulu Police Station. Before he passes out Duff whispers, “Carry on, Charlie.” Duff’s life is saved, but he cannot leave the hospital.

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At this point Chan takes over, stating that his honor has been assailed and that he will solve the case for his friend. The last seven chapters of the book take place aboard the President Arthur as it steams its way toward San Francisco. Chan has Duff’s case notes with him and proceeds to question the tour members.

In my fourth reading, I was able to determine the identify of the killer by Chapter 18 (of 23) — with the same method that Chan was able to determine his identity. (Of course, unlike Chan, I had been here three times before!)

There are three things I noticed during my fourth reading that I hadn’t noticed in my first three. First, I observed that in this book Biggers’ does an amazing — and very funny — job of spoofing both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and her Miss Marple. I’m amazed that I never noticed this before.

Second, I think Biggers’ depictions of Americans abroad is hilarious. Earl and Eleanor made several trips abroad, and they must have encountered many Americans tourists such as the always-taking-pictures Mr. Benbow. Or the crude but good-at-heart gangster, Max Minchin. Perhaps one of the reasons I love this book so much is that the writing is so funny.

Third, I observed that although there are seventeen suspects, it was always very easy to know which character was which. I’ve read books in which there are six or seven suspects . . . and I can’t identify who is who when they next appear in the book. We’ve all had similar experiences. So how did Biggers manage to do this?

Although Duff had to question all the suspects, Biggers broke them into small groups. First we meet Doctor Lofton, who is in charge of the tour. That’s one character. Then we meet Pamela Potter and her mother. That’s three. Pamela is distinct because Mr. Drake was her grandfather and also because she is the youngest woman on the tour, perhaps twenty years old. The mother goes back to the States, so seventeen are down to sixteen. We then meet Mrs Spicer, who had the room next to Mr. Drake. We also meet Mr. Honywood, whose room is on the other side of Drake’s. We now have four characters to know (Lofton, Pamela Potter, Spicer, and Honywood). They are very distinct from one another. So far, an admirable job by Biggers.

Duff asks Doctor Lofton to assemble the tour members in a lounge. But five of them aren’t back from their London jaunt yet, so they will be questioned later. One of the seven new characters, Mr. Tait, faints the moment he enters the lounge. His young assistant, Mr. Kennaway, helps him into another room.

Now we have five people left to concentrate on: Mr. Ross, a timber merchant; Captain Keane, who isn’t a captain and who seems to lie about everything; Mr. Vivian, who seems to be the paramour of Mrs. Spicer; Norman and Laura Fenwick, brother and sister. We learn about these five, and it’s easy to keep them distinct because of their different ages, different origins, and different attitudes. The Fenwicks want to leave the tour and eventually do, narrowing the number from sixteen to fourteen.

Finally Duff meets the five people who weren’t there at the beginning of the questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Benbow are distinct because Mr. Benbow records each step of the world tour on film and is thus always with his camera; Max Minchin is a gangster from Chicago, with a very distinct way of speaking, and his wife Sadie buys jewelry everywhere they go. Mrs. Luce (the Miss Marple Spoof) is a 72-year-old sharply observant world traveler who has stories to tell about every port she has visited, and who draws lessons from her life’s experiences. As I said, these five characters are easy to keep straight, making this round-the-world story a real pleasure.

There is much I admire about Charlie Chan Carries On, but even now, after reading it a fourth time, I can’t pinpoint the reason why it’s my favorite. So let’s just say that the sheer scope of the book is what appeals to me.

 

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies contains suggestions on how authors can keep characters distinct to readers.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 6

Early in 2017 I was asked to give presentations on “How to Self-Publish on CreateSpace at No Cost.” This is a program I’ve been giving since 2010, and I update it each year, mainly because CreateSpace makes changes each year and I want the program to reflect those changes.

Each time I give the program, I use screenshots from my own books, so that people can see the decisions I had to make on CreateSpace. But in 2017 I decided I would do something different — something that might benefit those attending the presentation even more.

Self-Pub copy

Instead of showing how I use my own template (which I prefer), and instead of showing them the beautiful covers that Robin Koontz created for my books, I decided I would actually publish a book using the CreateSpace template. And I would make my own cover using CreateSpace’s Cover Creator.

This would more closely approximate the experience that most people who use CreateSpace encounter: they use the CreateSpace template, and they use Cover Creator.

There was just one problem.

I had no manuscript to publish.

What, oh what, could I do?

The answer came to me suddenly. I could take 20 or 30 of my blogs, format them, and publish a book.

It took me not quite two weeks to decide which of my 60-some blogs I would select, to put them in order, and then to write an introduction to the book. I titled the book almost instantly, based on a reference to one of my blogs.

Because my “blog book” wouldn’t be a large one, I chose a smaller sized template than I had been using. Instead of 6”x9”, I went with the 5”x8” size. Instead of creating my own 5”x8” template, I downloaded that size from CreateSpace. Then I pasted my manuscript into the template.

I inserted a header and also a footer, and I wrote the front matter and inserted a table of contents. This took me perhaps one full day, mainly because I spent some time experimenting with type size and page breaks and such.

Once my book was ready, I uploaded it to CreateSpace, which informed me that I could proceed to Cover Creator while the CS automated system checked my manuscript for errors.

Cover Creator offers 30 different cover choices. I picked one, and I searched through the CreateSpace data base for a photo of a boat, to go with my title, Xenia Steered the Boat. I found absolutely no photos of boats.

So I asked my friend Sandy Katz if I could use part of one of her paintings. Sandy generously said yes, and she sent me a JPEG of the boat painting I wanted. I uploaded her art to Cover Creator and was very pleased with the results.

But I wasn’t all that happy with the five choices of font Cover Creator gave me for the book title and author name. In fact, I outright rejected three of the five choices. Then I had to decide which of the two remaining ones was less objectionable. The font I really wanted had poor leading: the second line of the title ran into the first line of the title. I called CreateSpace and spoke to a customer service person about changing the leading on the typeface I wanted, but she informed me that this was not possible. So I opted for my second choice, which was an all-capitals title. Not my fave, but definitely acceptable.

Xenia

I took screenshots of the entire process and made a huge update to my presentation.

After I “approved” the cover I had created, CreateSpace asked me to look at my book online. Which I did, catching no mistakes. But I also ordered a softcover copy of the book before publication, and I’m glad I did, because when the book arrived, something I hadn’t noticed in the online copy leaped out at me on the physical copy — my left-hand margins were a quarter-inch larger than my right-hand margins!

How this happened, I have No. Idea. Something makes me think the error was somehow related to the CreateSpace template I downloaded. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I went back into the template and made the left-hand and right-hand margins equal. Then for good measure I proofread the book one more time. And then I uploaded again. And proofread online. And ordered one more physical copy.

When that copy arrived, I went through it page by page. And then I hit the Publish button and my tenth self-published book entered the world.

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Xenia Steered the Boat: Thoughts on Writing is a collection of Barbara Gregorich’s blogs on writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books.