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.


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.


One day, extremely annoyed by sycophants and imitators, I penned this poem.


Fitting In

I long to be
a bobblehead,

my head so huge
it blows my mind,

springing me from
sense and steadiness.

I want to bounce around
in every breeze,

cool as a quarterback
evading a sack,

my connections to a corpus
tenuous or less . . . or less than that.

I fancy bobbing with the boffos,
traveling with the triflers.

I long to be
a bobblehead.


Barbara Gregorich tackles other annoyances in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Four More Figures of Speech

Expressive language brings literature (and story) to life, no matter what age level it’s written for. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock shows the truth of this in Volume 3 of her three-volume set on writing books for children. Specifically, she examines different figures of speech and gives examples of them from children’s literature.

Zeugma (ZOOG ma) might sound like something you don’t want to encounter in the dark, let alone in a children’s book. But you have encountered it: you just didn’t know its name. Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word (usually a verb) is coupled to two different nouns in an intentionally humorous way. The example Bine-Stock gives is: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And for adults, Charles Dickens was using zeugma when he wrote: “She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”

Pleonasm (PLEE o nasm) is a figure of speech that, used consciously and with control, can result in intensified language. Used unconsciously and in an uncontrolled manner, it usually results in bad writing.

UnknownWherever you encounter the use of superfluous words, you are encountering pleonasms, which abound in English (and probably in other languages as well). “Tuna fish” and “puppy dog” are examples, as is “see with my own eyes.” In the first, “fish” is superflous; in the second, “dog” is superflous; and in the third “with my own eyes” is superflous, since you can’t see with anybody’s eyes but your own. Yet such pleonasms make those who speak them and even those who read them feel comfortable — something is, for some reason, being emphasized, and that feels good.

But then there’s unintentional use of pleonasm, as in government-speak and bureaucratic documents, which say the same thing in so many ways that one loses a sense of meaning. Even short two-word expressions of pleonasm can be irritating, as in “free gift” and “true fact.”

In an earlier blog on figures of speech, I said that a writer, or even somebody who doesn’t write, can easily use figures of speech without knowing what they are. But a writer, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, chooses the best words in the best order, and so, at one time or another, a writer is bound to use one of the figures I’ve talked about. Perhaps accidentally.

This happened to me once when I submitted a poem, “Ridge and Furrow,” for a critique. Toward the end of the first stanza I wrote: “Ridge and furrow, / furrow and ridge roll across the land.” The editor critiquing the poem pointed these lines out, calling them an example of chiasmus (ky AZ mus), which is the repetition of words in first one order, then their opposite order, as in “ridge and furrow, furrow and ridge.”

I have to say that what stayed with me from this critique was not the name of the figure of speech. When I want to know the name of this figure of speech, I have to look it up. What stayed with me was that it can be effective to repeat words in their opposite order now and then.

IMG_2246Just about everybody in the English-speaking world uses litotes (LIE toe teez), and just about nobody is aware of it. Litotes is a form of understatement in which meaning is conveyed by negating a positive, as in:

The ice cream was not bad.

Zack was not sorry the pub was closed.

It’s not rocket science.

Figures of speech are literary devices that intensify language and make it richer. When I rewrite a piece, I rephrase select sentences so that they contain figures of speech — even though I seldom remember the name of the figures of speech I employ.



Barbara Gregorich employed figures of speech in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.


Keeper of the Keys: A Delightful Conceit

UnknownA conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.

Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.

Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?

Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.

Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.

Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.

Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.

Granlibakken-TMW-112416-3-4As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.

Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.

One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.

The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.

Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.



In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.