My Writing Life: 4

Eventually I gave up my day job, knowing it would mean a decline in income, but an increase in opportunity to write and sell what I wrote. During my first three months of self-employment, I had grave concerns about my decision — mainly because I had said yes to a gigantic editing job for a company that sold refrigerators and refrigeration systems. It was my job to thoroughly edit the refrigeration manuals, so that both the customers and the sales force knew what was being said. 

This meant that I had to verify each fact (this was before the internet!) on how many BTUs were involved, how many coils, what temperatures, and so on. I worked on this manual on location, at the headquarters of the company hired to do the editing. I worked in a dark cubicle in a dark room. On refrigeration facts.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wake me when it’s 5 p.m., please.

One of the things this experience solidified in my mind was that people who wrote technical manuals did not write good English, in that they Did. Not. Say. What. They. Meant. I think they were trying to say what they meant, but they couldn’t distinguish between what they said (what their words said) and what they meant to say. This is a common problem with many beginning writers, or with people who write but don’t understand how to write well. I’m not singling out technical writers.

Anyway, as I started to say, this experience made me doubt my decision to “quit my day job.” But after I finished editing the thousands of pages of technical writing and was paid for my work, I simply decided: No more technical manuals. 

For several years a portion of my freelance writing consisted of writing users’ guides to filmstrips, audiotapes, educational kits and packages, and the like. The users’ manuals were meant for either teachers or parents or students themselves.

Again, here was an example of having to write clearly and concisely. It wasn’t super-exciting, but I enjoyed writing a good users’ manual. I was paid $250 for a 400-800 word explanation of how to use the written “product.” But then publishers began cutting the payment for this work, and I stopped doing it. Since then, I swear, users’ manuals are written by computers!

The most concise, succinct, pithy, terse stories I was ever assigned to write were 50 word stories. You got it: 50 words. Preferably 48 or 49 words, but top limit of 50. These were for preschoolers who were looking at a single page of plastic-y paper into which was inscribed some kind of digitized (I think) design. When the preschooler held a small device over the inscribed part of the page, a voice read the 50-word story — which related to what was illustrated on the single page. I’m not able to describe this very accurately because I was never given a sample product, the way I usually am.

This was exacting work. Look at an illustration. Create a story to go with it. Write the story in 50 words or fewer. And I want to point out that a STORY has characters and conflict and resolution. 

Thank goodness this company did not pay by the word: they paid a set amount for each story. I don’t remember what that amount was, but I think it may have been $150. If you compare that to what I was paid to write a 400-800 word users’ manual, you can see that story writing paid better, and I think that was because the company was paying for not just the words, but the creativity involved and the difficulty of the assignment.

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Editing refrigeration manuals helped Barbara Gregorich earn income while researching the story of female baseball players and publishing Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.

My Writing Life: 3

When I first decided to try writing full-time, I attended many writers conferences so that I could learn about the writing business and various publishers. One piece of advice every established writer gave — advice that is still given today — was this: Don’t quit your day job.

This is good advice for the simple reason that writing doesn’t pay well, at least not in the US. Back in 1950, the average advance for a first novel was about $3,000. Today it is still that. Or, in many cases, less. According to a 2015 survey of Authors Guild writers, those full-time writers who were earning $25,000 in 2009, were earning $17,500 in 2015. That’s a 30% decline in income. And the part-time writers who earned $7,250 in 2009, earned only $4,500 in 2015. That’s a 38% decline in wages. The majority of writers are poorly paid for their work and are thus forced to earn income in other ways.

Many writers teach, as I did when I taught college English. Some writers give speeches/presentations, as I do. Some writers earn income doing something totally unrelated to writing. I did that when I worked as a typesetter and later when I worked as a letter carrier for the postal service.

Another good piece of advice (in addition to “Keep your day job”) for writers who are starting out is to seek out writing-related work. Usually this is part-time work such as being a stringer for newspapers. I did that for a year, covering local sporting events and town board meetings. (Yawn!) But producing x-number of words under very tight deadlines (an hour!), and having those words published, not only develops your writing skills — it also gives you credentials if you want to apply for a full-time writing job in some field.

After going through the stringer experience, I decided to apply for a job as a writer-producer of educational filmstrips back in the late 1970s. I was hired and immediately was assigned a series of four related filmstrips on a language arts subject. I don’t remember what my first filmstrip set was, though I do remember some of the later ones. 

It was my job to figure out how to teach students a topic such as “How to Read a Newspaper” in four filmstrips, maximum number of 60 frames in each strip. So I had to think, analyze, outline, and then create the characters in the filmstrip, write their dialogue, draw little doodles of what the graphic frames would look like. Then I hired the photographer, the student models, and arranged for photography to take place at a certain location. As producer and director, I was always present on the location site. (No, I did not get to shout “It’s a wrap!”). 

After selecting the photos I wanted (usually 10-15% of what the photographer shot), I arranged them in order, took them to the film department, worked out a production schedule for the filmstrip to be ready. Meanwhile, I had to audition and hire narrators for the project, then accompany them to the recording studio and listen very carefully to everything they said as they narrated.

Of all the surprising things I learned while writing and producing filmstrips, the most surprising one was How. Many. Takes. it took to narrate each filmstrip. Narrators, even professional ones, stumble. They pop the letter P into the mike, so it sounds like a small explosion. They slur over the “ing” or “ed” endings of words. In Chicago they pronounce the word may-or as if it were mare. And so on. I have never had to be as vigilant on any project as I had to be while listening to narrators. 

Speaking of narration, I spent many months writing audio tapes aimed at high school students. Each tape was 30-45 minutes long. I can barely remember what the topics were: obviously something that could be explained via the spoken word, without visuals of any kind. I seem to recall something about how to make a schedule, how to read a book, how to balance a checkbook.

That was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I don’t think audiotapes are used much today, unless they are merely the audio part of a visual lesson. 

What I remember most about writing those audios was that in order to write a good one, I had to organize the topic really well. Logically, so that one point flowed into another. And I had to explain the steps clearly and concisely, with examples or analogies. Writing short, as they say, is a great way to learn how to write well — it teaches you to make the writing flow logically, and it teaches you how to cover each step with no more than the necessary information.

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When Barbara Gregorich wasn’t busy listening to studio narration, she worked on writing Dirty Proof, a mystery novel.

The F Words: Minor Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

My Writing Life: 1

It’s interesting for me to consider where my writing life began. An image from my very early years comes to me: I’m holding a blue crayon and I’m “writing” all across the pages of a picture book. By the time I got to first grade I realized that was not the way to treat a book. I also realized that I hadn’t been writing — I had been scribbling lines on paper.

I was first conscious that I enjoyed writing — and that I might grow up to become a writer — when I was eleven years old and wrote a poem, “I Want a Horse.” It was a four-line poem in iambic tetrameter (I didn’t know that then) with a rhyme scheme of abcb. I still remember the poem to this day, and I’m kind of amazed that I chose to have two of the four lines not rhyme. Did I do that by myself? Or was I modeling the quatrain on poems I had heard? I suspect the latter, but I have no way of knowing..

My poem, “I Want a Horse,” stayed in my mind for so many years that, a few decades after I wrote it, I used it (exactly as I had written it) in one of the educational workbooks I’ve written. So the poem I wrote at the age of eleven was published decades later.

For who knows what reasons, after I wrote the horse poem I stopped writing poetry. For a long, long time. I finally took it up again in the early 2000s, and for several years I wrote just about everything in free verse, including my book Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

I published my first book of poetry, Crossing the Skyway: Poems, in 2013. Interestingly, one of the poems in the book is about a horse, and a few years after the book was published I blogged about the horse poem. Writers, as you can tell, use things over and over, but in a different way each time. 

The first time I was published I was sixteen years old, and publication came from the encouragement of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. One of our in-class assignments was to write a personal-experience piece. I wrote about why I hate onions. My teacher strongly encouraged me to send the piece to the local newspaper. I did, and they published it. “Wow!” I thought. “Getting published is easy!”

Of course, getting published is not easy, and I learned that soon enough when I began writing books.

By the time I was in college I was a writer of poetry (only one poem, true), nonfiction (essays, personal experiences, humor, research papers, etc), and fiction. Although I suspect I wrote fiction in grade school and junior high, I don’t remember any of it. The first piece of fiction I remember writing came in tenth grade, when I wrote a short story about a Pony Express rider (horses again!). I remember really liking my own story. Then, several years later, when in college, I researched the Pony Express for some reason and learned that just about every detail I had made up in the story was wrong. Wrong!

Thank goodness that story was never published: it would be too embarrassing to have readers point out the inaccuracies. One thing the experience taught me is this: research fiction before you write it! That’s something I’ve done ever since.

Something else embarrassed me about my high school Pony Express story, and that was the name I gave the hero. Ashley Marathon. It sounded like a such a wonderful name to me when I was sixteen years old. But just a few years later, I began to realize that Ashley (Gone with the Wind notwithstanding) was an unlikely name for a mid-19th century young man to have. Not impossible, but definitely unlikely. The same was even more true of Marathon.

Ever since writing that Pony Express story I have paid careful attention to character names, both first and last. I use three or four different name sources each time I write fiction: Census Bureau information on common first names in each decade, as well as two excellent reference books on the history of last names in the US. 

And I enjoy knowing that a mistake I made early in my writing, when I was sixteen years old, ended up teaching me to research so that I could make stories more realistic.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent free verse book is not about a horse. Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is about the most famous resident of the Brookfield Zoo.

The F Words: Symbols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More, whispered my subconscious. More places! 

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

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

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example:

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

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Italics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be delicious, as in anticipating a birthday present. Or it can be terrifying, as in anticipating a hurricane. In literature foreshadowing works to indicate or warn the reader that something may happen. It’s never as exact as the date of a birthday, nor as specific as “Hurricane winds exceed 160 mph.”  

And — unlike a birthday or a hurricane — the happening that readers anticipate may not happen at all. Not everything is foreshadowing. However, when something is foreshadowing, the reader is usually very, very satisfied: anticipation has been realized.

Probably my favorite foreshadowing in one of my own books is the pitchfork in Sound Proof. I like that so much that I’ve considered carrying a pitchfork with me wherever I go.

That, however, would be cumbersome, and maybe even weird, so I’ve resorted to fewer specific-object foreshadowings in my recent work. And, next to the pitchfork in Sound Proof, my favorite foreshadowings are in The F Words.

Without telling you exactly what the words foreshadow (wouldn’t want to ruin your reading pleasure), I’ll list some of my favorites from The F Words.

page 1 — But as it turns out he has fast reflexes or maybe just knows which direction to move in . . .   That’s Cole Renner, the 15-year-old narrator, reacting to the fact that he can’t escape from Mr. Nachman, his English teacher.

page 39 — And that’s when I notice something in my sideways vision.
Tall and straight, like a pillar.   That’s Cole noticing Treva Soldat for the first time.

page 55 — “You don’t want to be a cabbage. A coleto is a jacket.”   That’s six-year-old Felipe telling six-year-old Cole what cole and coleto mean in Spanish.

page 123 — You need both kinds of muscles, so you’re ready for any situation.”  That’s Cole’s Coach, talking to the cross-country team.

page 170 — “. . . in jail you’re punished no matter which end of the fight you’re on.”  That’s Della Kazarian, Hank Renner’s defense attorney.

page 192 — “Holidays can be tough. Very tough.” That’s Mr. Nachman.

page 214 — “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.”  That’s Emerald, describing how members of Cole’s English class ended up at his track meet.

These are just a few of my favorites, but they’re far from being the only examples of foreshadowing in The F Words. Other foreshadowing includes Jared Anderson threatening Cole; ICE’s appearance throughout the novel; Felipe’s mother being worried about his attending the pro-immigrant demonstration.

And more. In fact, there are probably foreshadowings that I don’t even recognize as such, mainly because I wasn’t conscious of writing them as such. 

The fact is, I’m almost never aware of consciously writing a foreshadowing in the first draft, and often in the second draft as well. It’s only when I get into the third draft, where I’m starting to tie things together and make connections of all kinds, that I begin to recognize some of the foreshadowing. This is fun for me as a writer, and I hope it’s fun for you as a reader.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Publication!

Publication is very exciting — a book which may have been in the works for many rewrites and several years is finally available for the public to read. In my blogs I’ve talked a lot about the writing and rewriting of The F Words. Now that my book has been published, I’d like to talk about the many, many steps that went into preparing the book once I signed a contract with the publisher.

2020 — City of Light Publishing did all the hard work. This included editing the manuscript, designing both the exterior and interior of the book, and filling out maybe hundreds of forms on who-knows-how-many sites — because that’s just part of what publishers do in getting a book ready for release. Their work begins the day they acquire a manuscript, and probably ends . . . never.

JANUARY 2021My work was not as critical or as difficult, but I did throw myself into helping book sales. Knowing that I would have more and more work to do month by month, I started off easy in January. In order to get one small chunk of work out of the way, I rewrote the bio on my web site and on any other social media, such as my Authors Guild listing, updating each of these pages to include The F Words.

FEBRUARY 2021Early in February City of Light had the Pre-Order button for The F Words up on its site, and a week or two later on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and elsewhere. I wrote emails to friends about the forthcoming book and made sure to include the pre-order link. I also sent an email to each and every library in the state of Illinois — because the book is set in Chicago. Likewise, I wrote to bookstores in Chicago, bookstores in the suburbs, and bookstores throughout the state. And I made a note to write to each of these groups more than once. I mean, I would remember that my book was coming  out in September 2021 . . . but that doesn’t mean anybody else would. So in addition to a February reminder, I also sent a May reminder and an August reminder.

In February I spent a lot of time researching which magazines my publisher and I could write to for possible book reviews. The F Words, I felt, qualified for review in political magazines, poetry magazines, maybe running magazines, teen-lit publications, and main stream publications.

At the request of my editor, I wrote a list of Discussion Questions to go at the back of the book — for book clubs and for teachers.

MARCH 2021 — I searched online for author-interview sites and wrote to them — and got some great interviews! I’m especially fond of the one at Authors Answer.

I also began writing to public periodicals, websites, and podcasting sites that review books, informing them about The F Words.

APRIL 2021  — Thinking that it couldn’t hurt to be on YouTube, I taught myself how to make YouTube videos about different thematic elements in The F Words. The first of these videos had a steep learning curve because I had to figure out how to run Zoom with Keynote running full-screen at the same time, then record and convert to an MP4 file, then to a Quicken file, then edit the Quicken file, then upload the finished product to YouTube. Some of these steps were easy, but the Zoom-Keynote synchronization was difficult for me.

As it turned out, I ended up recording several of these videos: Protest and Poetry; Injustice and Oppression; Cross-Country Running; Friendship; and Humor. You can intuit which one I recorded first when you realize that in one of them, my head is partly cut off. As I said: Steep learning curve!

MAY 2021One of the most daunting tasks my editor and I worked on was asking people to read The F Words before publication and write testimonials — those words of praise that are often printed on the back cover of a book. This was an intense, time-consuming, nerve-wracking task — but the results were absolutely wonderful and definitely helped The F Words get reviewed in journals.

During the last week of May I did a third proofreading of the ARC (Advance Readers Copy). This was good, because I caught several errors, all of them dealing with italics. Words being referred to as words in a sentence are italicized, as follows:

Dana said she wanted liberty.
Dana said liberty was her favorite word.

In The F Words, a lot of words are being referred to as words, so we had to be very careful to italicize them when they appeared.

JUNE 2021 In early June we decided on the back cover of the book. For months my editor and I had been thinking, on and off, about whether the back cover should consist of testimonials, or of enticing information about the story. We happily settled on a mix of the two.

In June I visited many different bookstores in person, taking each of them a sell sheet which listed all the necessary information on and excitement about The F Words. Where possible, I set up future events — for after the book was published. You can’t really have an event until you have the printed books! Getting bookstores to commit to an event during the pandemic is not easy. Most of them don’t know if they will be hosting a live event or a virtual event. Or hybrid. So they hesitate.

The F Words is a book that should appeal not only to teens, but also to teachers. Particularly English teachers. So my editor and I decided that The F Words would benefit by having an Educator Guide to offer. This would be a free, online guide available on the City of Light website. In June I wrote this guide. And then I rewrote it a couple of times. 

After I  wrote the Educator Guide, I decided to write a  set of ten quizzes to go with it. Plus, of course, the Answer Key.

June also required one more proofreading of The F Words

And then came podcasting. Once I learned that I could turn my blogs into podcasts very, very easily, I decided to do that. Rather than have a robot read my blogs, I opted to record them myself. There was a short but steep learning curve on this because Anchor, the podcasting site, cut any Safari browser users off at 5 minutes, while allowing Google Chrome browser users to record for a full 30 minutes. This meant I had to switch to Chrome for my podcasts (keeping Safari for everything else).

JULY 2021 At the beginning of July there were 60 days until publication. And still: much to do.

I contacted the Chicago Public Library to see if they would carry copies of The F Words in all of their branches and consider the book for their YA Book Club. Likewise, I tried to get in touch with English teachers in the Chicago Public Schools, to suggest that they consider teaching the novel in classes, especially because it has a strong Chicago setting. I wasn’t successful at this. Contacting all the English teachers in the Chicago Public Schools was something I just couldn’t figure out how to do. In fact, I’m not sure it can be done.

On the video front, I tried uploading each of my  videos about The F Words to Amazon. I had successfully uploaded book trailers before, with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, with no problem. With The F Words, however, I encountered extremely frustrating (F word!) problems: Amazon kept rejecting my video as not meeting “community standards.”

After several days of exchanging emails with various Amazon departments, I learned that neither I nor any close relative could post videos about my own work. But other people could, and so I began to ask different friends to  upload a video or two. They, too, were unable to do so, leading me to think that perhaps Amazon doesn’t allow videos until after a book’s pub date.

Meanwhile, I was able to upload all the videos to GoodReads: no problems at all. (And I surmise that the reason I was able to upload videos to Dirty Proof and Sound Proof is because I was the publisher as well as the author.)

In early July I started sending review requests to the smaller journals that weren’t covered by the work my publisher was doing. I included some podcasts and blogs in my list.

Also, I decided to  print 2,500 copies of a bookmark. Friend Robin Koontz designed it, with me supplying the info for the back of the bookmark. I uploaded the PDF design to the SharpDots web site out in California, paid for the bookmarks and shipping, and waited for them to arrive. They arrived August 3.

On July 9 the first review of The F Words was published. This was in Windy City Reviews. You may recall that I sent out a request for such reviews back in March. The review was  good and my publisher and I were very happy. I then shared the review on social media and in emails. And I made sure to thank Windy City Reviews.

July saw the introduction of The F Words in ebook format. This had actually been around since April, but for some reason wasn’t showing as available. All kinks were finally ironed out and in mid-July the ebook was introduced to the world. It wasn’t up for sale yet, but anybody browsing could see that there would be an ebook on publication day.

In the middle of the month three of the testimonials I had received back in May went up on Amazon under “Editorial Reviews.” Such reviews are read with great interest by anybody who’s considering purchasing the book.

Also in mid-July came the first “industry” review of The F Words. Here the word “industry” refers to the book industry, and  industry-review magazines are those that  bookstores, librarians, and teachers look to for evaluations of new titles. Examples are Kirkus Reviews; Booklist; School Library Journal; and Publishers Weekly. My first industry review came from Kirkus, and it was favorable. This was exciting because such reviews help get books into bookstores, libraries, and schools. 

Toward the end of the month I decided to learn how to use Canva so that I could create posters and share them to both Facebook and Twitter. My main aim in doing this was to create posters with live links: i.e., links that went to a URL at which the person who clicked could buy my book. I spent one long day trying this, only to conclude that neither JPEGs nor GIFs would hold live links. And if they would, then I wasn’t the person to figure out how to do it. I later learned that graphics files do not contain live links.

However, I did post my creations on both Facebook and Twitter: they just didn’t have live links.

But at the same time these good things (reviews) were happening, my publisher experienced great delays in the printing process. Delays caused by the world-wide pandemic, which caused huge backups in book printing. (Too complicated to explain here.) So the publication date was moved from September 1 to September 15, 2021

AUGUST 2021 So much of the work I was doing to publicize The F Words was for social media. My social media, which is Facebook and Twitter. But teens, who are the audience for which I wrote The F Words, don’t use these media much. They use Instagram and TikTok. My publisher was posting regularly on Instagram, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

But what about TikTok? It seems that short videos (10-20 seconds long) are the way to go with TikTok. So . . . I decided to try making a video. Mainly because making a video for free is something I could do on my newly found site, Canva. I made this video not for posting, but to share with City of Light, so that their media person could perhaps use it as a guideline of what to say. 

My first author interview was published in August, from Authors Answer. I was delighted with this interview!

In August the Educator Guide that I had spent so much time writing back in June was designed by City of Light and made available, free, on their website. This very rich, detailed Guide, full of fascinating activities, would help sell The F Words because it would provide teachers with free help.

During the last week of August I submitted copies of The F Words to many daily publications, in the hope that some of them would review it.

Meanwhile, I had a major event coming up September 11 & 12  — Printers Row Lit Fest, where I would sit at the City of Light table and sell copies of The F Words. To help sell my book, I created a lot of posters and posted them on social media.

SEPTEMBER 2021 At last — publication month!

But still a lot to do.

My editor managed to upgrade the Printers Row Lit Fest table to a table under a tent! The tent would not only look impressive: it would protect us from the sun and the rain. The tent would not protect us from wind, of course, and as it turned out, both days of Lit Fest were very windy: book covers flapping, leaflets flying.

News on the Green, the newspaper which services several small towns in NE Ohio, printed their interview with me.

Just before the start of Lit Fest I heard from my editor that the Children’s Book Council selected The F Words as one of their September Hot Off the Press Picks. This kind of selection is of great benefit to writers and their books because librarians, both public and school, respect the CBC and its picks. In fact, I noticed an uptick in Amazon pre-sales for several days after the CBC announcement.

Printers Row Lit Fest was a fun experience, just as it was each of the five previous times I autographed there. It was particularly enjoyable autographing with Judy Bradbury, whose second Cayuga Island Kids chapter book City of Light published this month. Friends dropped by to buy books, and strangers bought books and initiated conversations. 

On September 15 The F Words was published! 

I realize that the nine months I’ve documented in this blog might make the whole process seem very long. But to me it seemed very short, and that’s probably because I was so actively promoting my book. And whatever I did, my publisher did at least three or four times more —  about which I am both happy and grateful.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold, as a paperback and as an ebook. It’s also available through libraries. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Thinking of F Words

In an earlier blog, The F Words: A Writing Coach, I mentioned that Esther Hershenhorn (the writing coach!) gave me a list of six “threads” to follow throughout my novel, making certain that I didn’t drop any of those threads for too long. One of those six threads was “Cole thinking about F words.” 

As I mentioned, this thread surprised me. I would not, I think, have come up with it on my own. Cole’s actually writing F-word poems: Yes, that I would have listed as an important thread. But his thinking about words that start with the letter F? No. I would not have come up with that as a thread.

And yet.

As soon as Esther said this, I became aware of two things: (1) Cole does think about F words throughout the novel. (2) When a person thinks about something he is doing, or will be doing, he or she is most likely analyzing the subject. And, I realized, a person capable of thinking about and analyzing a subject is a person of greater-than-average intelligence. Possibly a person with leadership skills.

This ability to think about and analyze a subject is not confined to intellectual matter such as, say, language. The ability can be used to further understand and influence any human activity. Take sports, for example. Cole and some of his fellow students run cross-country. In writing the running scenes, I realized that a person could approach the task of running in two different ways. He could just get out there and run as fast as he could, hoping nobody else was able to run faster. 

Or, he could think about what was happening in any given race. He could evaluate the other teams of runners, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, develop (on the spot, even, while running) a strategy for dealing with this. He could also, as Cole and his teammates do, look ahead (as far as possible on any given course) and think about any obstacles, hills, dips, trees, etc.: think about them in terms of being prepared for them, and, again, of maybe using them somehow. And all but the most obtuse cross-country runner would be thinking of openings as they . . . well, opened in front of him.

Being able to think about and analyze a subject or activity aids a person tremendously: it makes him or her more knowledgeable, and more capable of acting not only now, but in the future.

Once I thought about this (no irony intended), I realized that every time Cole thought about an F word, he not only revealed part of his personality, but he moved forward — forward through the mass of F words toward the ones he chose. The ones that meant something to him.

In The F Words Cole encounters many obstacles, ranging from the City of Chicago putting his father in jail, to his best friend Felipe running for class president, to the cross-country races he runs, to the principal being eager to expel Cole from August Mersy High. These problems aren’t somewhere on the periphery of Cole’s daily life: they are at the core of it. And so, as he chooses F words and thinks about them, Cole is subconsciously choosing  words that will move him toward solutions to his problems. (I should say words which express the concepts that will move him toward solutions.)

In thinking about and choosing these words, Cole is on his way to becoming a leader of the fight for social and political justice.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.