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.

Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

Many readers, myself among them, experience something I’m going to call “wrong message” when reading a book or article. By wrong message I mean that the writer has written a sentence, paragraph, or scene in such a way that the reader logically leaps to the conclusion that This. Is. Important!

And so, having inferred that This Is Important, the reader keeps expecting the subject matter of the sentence (or paragraph, or scene) to come up again in the book. The reader anticipates that what is taking place is foreshadowing: that the writer is providing information that will later be relevant.

But in many cases . . . this never happens. The information that seemed to signal its own importance simply disappears from the book. And the reader is left a bit disappointed, a bit annoyed. Even a bit puzzled, wondering how she could have misinterpreted the writing.

So, by dwelling on something that isn’t really important to the plot and theme and character development of the book, a writer is indeed sending the reader a wrong message. The writer seems to be saying: Pay attention, this will come up later.

But then it doesn’t, and reader dissatisfaction grows.

Sentences and paragraphs have their own logic (a logic that the reader absorbs without even thinking about it). Unless a writer understands and employs this logic, she is going to be sending wrong messages to the reader.

An example of [subconscious] paragraph logic is that the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in the paragraph. This sentence sends out super-strong signals to the reader: Heads up! Comin’ at ya! After all, the writer ended the previous paragraph and started a new one specifically to break with the previous thought and to signal what the new thought/action is.

So. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains the following paragraph:

Justin parked the powerful riding mower in the garage. He entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

As it’s written, this paragraph signals that Justin parking the powerful riding mower in the garage is important. This simple sentence occupies the prime spot of importance in the paragraph. And, writers who write like this (more about that soon) tend to write many such paragraphs in which an object they are using for, say, texture or realism, occupies the primary spot in the paragraph. Often it is the same object that they use over and over: a lawn mower; a purse; a skateboard; an opal ring.

So, in such a book, the reader would encounter many paragraphs in which information about Justin and the riding mower is related in the first sentence of the paragraph, as a simple (S-V-O) sentence. Justin brushed the grass off the seat of the riding mower. Or, Justin kicked the dried grass off the wheels of the rusty riding mower. Or, Justin noticed that the riding mower needed cleaning. And so on.

The reader is going to be thinking: Aha! There’s something important about that riding mower! But in reality, that’s not the case. The writer is merely trying to add some texture to the book by painting a picture of concrete objects. 

Despite what the writer is trying to do, she is sending the wrong message to the reader, and that’s because she is placing her unimportant-to-the-plot texture in the most important spot of the paragraph. And because the simple declarative sentence shouts: Important!

Such wrong messages can be corrected by moving the texture information to somewhere else in the paragraph. Sometimes in trying to move the information, the writer realizes that it looks strange anywhere else in the paragraph. This could be a sign that the information maybe doesn’t really have anything to do with the content of the paragraph. In the case of Justin and the riding mower, it’s difficult to figure out a way to move the information into another spot in the paragraph.

But wait. 

There is a tried-and-true way to handle this problem, and that is to subordinate the not-important information to what is important. Please note that I’m not talking about a subordinate clause, which is a dependent clause containing a subordinate conjunction such as while, whereas, if, until, and so on. I’m talking about a dependent clause — one that cannot stand alone. Because it cannot stand alone, it’s “subordinate” to the main part of the sentence. The information that is not that important should be presented as a dependent clause, and the main information as an independent clause. Here’s an example:

Parking the powerful riding mower in the garage, Justin entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

Voila! Because it’s in a dependent clause, the information about Justin parking the riding mower no longer screams This. Is. Important. The way it’s now written, as a dependent clause, the information definitely adds a bit of visual information — but that information is clearly nowhere as important as what follows in the independent clause. And a reader will instantly assimilate this: a reader will understand that parking the riding mower is just throw-away information. 

Earlier I said that I would try to explain why writers end up giving the reader the wrong message. It is, I think, because the writer is so intent on the story, maybe racing ahead at full speed, that he doesn’t see the relationship between the sentences that constitute a paragraph. And, we have a habit of writing things in the same way, so if a writer has inadvertently fallen into the pattern of presenting trivial texture information at the beginning of each paragraph, you can see why the reader would be confused — everything the writer has done by placing such information into a simple sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph screams out “Pay attention!”

Sending the wrong message is a definite problem in writing, particularly among beginning writers. But it is a problem easily corrected once the writer understands the importance of the paragraph’s first sentence and the importance of subordinating less important information.

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Barbara Gregorich does not park riding mowers anywhere, but she does discuss aspects of writing well in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.              

Rewrite Decisions (and Charts)

In 2017 I wrote my first YA novel, The F Words. That was Draft #1, which ended up at 69,000 words and 50 chapters. Then I wrote Draft #2, and then Draft #3, all in a twelve-month span. Because this process went much more quickly than with many of my novels, I remember it and want to share the various rewrite decisions I made.

I worked on my first draft from roughly early February through late September. And then not only did I put the draft away for a while, to separate myself from what I had written, but I also took a long vacation. It’s essential to put any writing aside before tackling a rewrite, so that you can separate the love of what you actually wrote from the necessity of making it better. Putting days, weeks, or even a couple of months between you and your just-finished first draft is invaluable. But dropping a vacation into your separation time is, as I learned, even better. Vacations — visiting new places, talking to new people — stimulate the creative brain and allow you to entertain new possibilities.

By early November I was ready to start writing Draft #2. I gave myself the goal of rewriting one chapter a day. My chapters averaged about eight pages — few enough pages that I could look for a lot of different things that needed improving. My critique group had already read the first fourteen chapters of my novel and had given me a lot of valuable feedback. For example: perhaps I had too many subplots. Perhaps I hadn’t made it clear what the novel’s main conflict was. My protagonist wasn’t self-reflective enough — didn’t let the reader know his thoughts and feelings. My chronology of what happened when was sometimes confusing. 

That’s a lot of different things to try to correct in one draft, but I felt that by limiting myself to 4-8 pages a day, I could do it. In fact, I was able to do it, though it took about 2.5 to 3 hours each morning. As you can see, I also made myself a 50-chapter chart that I filled in each time I completed a chapter. And as you can also see, I worked on Thanksgiving Day. And on my birthday.  And on Chanukah.

In writing the second draft I deleted an entire subplot, increased the protagonist’s self-reflection, and intensified the main plot. In each chapter I also looked for wordiness and corrected it. My 50 chapters turned into 51 chapters because I split one of the chapters into two parts. All of my changes added about 3,000 words to the book.

One of the reasons I aimed to rewrite a chapter a day was that I wanted to keep my head in the book, so to speak. I went to sleep each night thinking about the plot and characters, and I rewrote my chapter right after breakfast, so that real life couldn’t interfere with the fictional world I was creating. After I finished the second draft, I asked my husband, Phil Passen, to read and critique it. Ideally, I wanted him to read the book in one day, which he has done for me in the past. This time his schedule didn’t permit that day-long read. But he was able to read it in two days, starting around 4 p.m. on a Sunday and finishing around noon on Monday. 

Phil caught several cases of repetition that I needed to address, he found some confusion in the order of events, and he thought I needed to do some additional research for one of the subplots. On all accounts, he was correct. He also suggested combining two of my chapters, so that the 51 chapters dropped back down to 50. Amusingly, the two he wanted combined were not the two I had separated. So we were both “right” in our opinions.

I wanted to write Draft #3 in a much shorter period of time than it took me to write Draft #2. For one thing, the manuscript required fewer changes, and because of that I could rewrite at least five chapters a day. As it ended up, I made myself a new grid, a circle grid. (I was tired of the rectangle!) Dividing it into 6 chapters a day (with two days in which I would rewrite seven chapters) allowed me to rewrite the book in eight days.

Draft #3 was 1200 words shorter than #2, and was back down to 50 chapters, some of them only one page long. In addition to concentrating on Phil’s suggested changes, I also researched current teen slang and made agonizing decisions on which would still be here ten years from now. And I did some research on the subplot Phil thought needed more information. After the third draft was finished I asked members of my writing group to read and critique it. They did, and I then wrote Draft #4, which took approximately the same amount of time as Draft #3.

At that point I hired Chicago writing coach Esther Hershenhorn to read and critique the manuscript. She did, and what she stressed was that I should follow six important subject-matters through the entire manuscript, never letting the reader lose track of any one of them. Esther listed the six subject-matters/themes/plots she thought were most important.

In no particular order, those six are: Cole’s relationship with his father; cross-country running; Cole writing f-word poems; Cole thinking about f-words; the Chicago setting; socialism. Esther suggested that I use the “colored manuscript” method to see where any one of these subjects was missing in Draft #4. If the subject matter was missing for a while, then the reader couldn’t keep it in mind. In other words, these were threads running through the story, and it was my job as a writer to keep weaving those threads through the story, making certain to not drop or lose any of them.

Color-coding a manuscript takes a long time. It took me six long days to go through The F Words and color the background of any sentences, paragraphs, or pages where one of the subjects was “active.” (You can read more about this technique in Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Once I finished the color-coding I taped the chart to the bookcase in my office, and every day as I worked on Draft #5, I consulted it.

You can see by looking at the chart that in Draft #4 I wove Cole’s relationship with his father, coded in blue, through almost the entire manuscript. But I did drop it in a few places (they show up white). And when it came to cross-country running, coded in brown, I had another set of white spaces — which meant that I had to weave that subject into the manuscript more as I rewrote. By the way, it makes sense that there are some small white  spaces here and there in all of the columns: a writer can’t be mentioning a subject constantly. That would come across as relentless and maybe strident. Small white spaces are fine. But big white spaces, as you can see with the brown, blue, and especially pink colors, aren’t fine. The right-hand column (pink) had the most gaps — that was the Chicago setting. I got so wrapped up in micro-settings such as Cole’s school and the cross-country running that I forgot to put larger, Chicago-specific descriptions into the story. That was a huge oversight, and I’m so glad I had the chance to correct it. A subject shouldn’t disappear from the novel or from the reader’s mind for such long stretches.

After I finished Draft #5 I began to submit it to agents and to publishers, and in 2020 I was offered a contract by City of Light Publishing.

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For various posts about The F Words, visit Barbara Gregorich’s Facebook page.          

Rewriting with Production Schedules

As a writer I sometimes have a writing schedule and I sometimes don’t. When I was writing She’s on First, my first novel, I had a part-time job as a postal letter carrier. My work schedule was erratic. On some days I started work at 4:30 a.m., some days at 11:30 a.m., and occasionally I started at 3:00 p.m. Under these circumstances all I wanted to do was write some portion of my novel every day: say 15-30  minutes of writing time. On most days I managed that.

However, I had interruptions. For  one,  I got  a full-time job which cut into my novel-writing time! And then I ran into plot problems in the novel and stopped writing for a week or so. And then I killed off a character I liked, which made me very sad and kept  me from writing for five months. And so on and so forth.

I finished the novel, rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was published in 1977. Basically, She’s on First was written without my having a production schedule. So was my second novel, Dirty Proof. All I aimed to do was write every day until the novel was finished, seven days a week. I did that, and in eleven months I completed the novel. 

Since then I’ve written many other books, all without any particular schedule applied to them — other than that I wrote every day, even if it was for only fifteen minutes. All of these books were my own ideas and my own vision. I was writing them because I wanted to tell a particular story in each book.

But I also wrote for others, and on these jobs I had deadlines, and when I have a deadline, I create a production schedule of how many pages or chapters I want to write each day. I remember one workbook in particular in which I had such a large book to write and such a short time to write it in, that when I drew up a schedule that would allow me to complete the book in time — I realized that I had to create eleven activity pages a day. Eleven! If you’ve never had to create student activity pages, you might not grasp how difficult that is. At the grade level I was working at, creating a page would take between 45 minutes and  two hours. That meant that on a bad day . . . I would have to work for 22 hours!

Well, I had no 22-hour days, but I did have several 17 hour days and many, many, many 12-hour days. In fact, I don’t think I had any work day that  was shorter than nine hours during the whole long ordeal. 

And, to make matters worse, this project took up most of July, all of August, and the first two weeks of September. Was there a summer that year? I have no idea — I was indoors writing work sheets.

Whenever I think of that writing assignment I realize that, had I not drawn up a production schedule and stuck to it, I would never have completed the job on time. 

It was during that ordeal that I did something to amuse myself. I started to color my work chart. After I completed each worksheet, I would color one square on my production chart. Filling in the squares was both a satisfaction and a relief. I then went on to the next worksheet. 

The habit of making these goal-oriented charts stayed with me for any job with a deadline. I’d analyze the time, the number of chapters/pages, and then make a chart and follow it, thus pacing myself and assuring that I would finish in time. Not all of the schedules were grueling. (Some were only semi-grueling.)

In this particular chart, each wedge represented six chapters. Each time I finished rewriting six chapters, I connected that wedge to the center of the circle. You can see that at the time I took a screen shot, I had completed 30 chapters and still had 18 to go.

The habit of making production charts then slowly crept into the writing that I did because I wanted to do it — my novels and my nonfiction books and my poetry. The habit hasn’t crept into my first-draft at all, and probably never will. When I start writing a book, I have no idea how long it will take me. Nor do I worry about it. Each book is different. Some I’ve written in three or four months, some in three or four years.

But each book has to be rewritten at least a couple of times, maybe even four or five times. And it is with the rewrites that I began to use production charts. I understand why I did this. Once the first draft is finished, a writer can look at it and see its beginning, middle, and end . . . and know where it’s strong and where it’s weak. So after letting the first draft rest for a while, then reading and analyzing it, a writer is ready to go on the second draft.

What I try to do with my second draft is add needed exposition, work on character and motivation, clarify plot, strengthen cause and effect, work on rising action, make sure I have foreshadowing, and so on. (I don’t achieve all these things in the second draft, but I try, because that means less work on the third draft.)

In order for me to do this I need to keep my head in the book at all  times. To keep my passion for the story at a peak. So . . . in order to keep myself in the rewrite at all times, in order to intensify the story, I intensify the rewriting by creating a production chart.

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Barbara Gregorich wrote Women at Play in 92 days with a production schedule that called for a completed (written, edited, and rewritten) chapter every three days.

Foreshadowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Goals During the Pandemic

On or about March 9, 2020, it was clear to me that the corona virus pandemic would require what has been labeled social distancing and lockdown. In fact, lockdown started in Illinois on March 20 and was extended through May 30.

What, I asked myself, did I want to do during this time of undetermined length? 

Things that would make me happy — because feeling sad or depressed is a detriment to the functioning of the immune system.

Writing makes me happy. Very happy. So I set myself three writing-related goals during the pandemic . . . with the hope that I wouldn’t have to add more goals.

My goals were: (1) Create and publish a book trailer for Sound Proof, one that matched in tone and style the one I had created for Dirty Proof back in 2019. (2) Publish my book on Cookie, the famous Brookfield Zoo cockatoo. (3) Read, critique, and rewrite Draft #1 of my current work-in-progress, a 94,000-word novel, thus creating Draft #2. (This was a formidable goal, and I really hoped the pandemic would be over with before I finished.)

I began working on the book trailer on March 10, and on March 20 I uploaded the finished video to youtube and GoodReads and Amazon. You can view it here.

This blog is really about the second of my three goals: publishing Cookie the Cockatoo. Cookie was a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo captured by a bird hunter in Australia in 1934 and sold to the not-yet-open Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois. Today the Brookfield Zoo is home to approximately 2,300 animals, but back when Cookie arrived he was one of only five original occupants of the Zoo. And he became by far the longest-lived. In fact, Cookie became the longest-lived cockatoo on record.

A Major Mitchell’s cockatoo

When I first saw Cookie at the Brookfield Zoo some time in the mid-1970s, I really had no idea that I would write a book about him. I was, however, struck by Cookie’s colorfulness, his incredibly loud bird calls, and, most of all, his attitude

Although Cookie was in a cage and we, the public, were outside that cage looking at him, it seemed to me that the being in charge was not us, but Cookie. He seemed to be performing for us. Or not, depending on how he felt. He seemed, above all, to be the center of things.

After my in-person encounters with Cookie, I encountered him yet another way. For several years I worked as a part-time typesetter for the Chicago Tribune. Occasionally one of my jobs was to typeset a story about Cookie’s yearly birthday party. Later, when I became a full-time freelance writer, I thought of Cookie again.

Most writers probably have all kinds of possible book topics floating around in their consciousness. Far, far more possibilities than one could write in a lifetime. Some of these ideas disappear, some merely recede, and some clamor for attention. Though not necessarily right away.

So it was with Cookie and me. He didn’t really clamor for attention until the 21st century. Maybe ten or twelve years ago he squawked and screeched so loudly in my brain that I had to sit down and write his story. And the way that story came to me was coupled with change — the changes in the world over the last eighty years. Changes to the world during Cookie’s lifetime.

And, just as with Jack and Larry, the story came to me as a series of free verse poems, each coupled to a particular year. I wrote the story, rewrote it, and rewrote it, re-examined it, rewrote it again, all over a period of maybe ten years. Originally my manuscript was titled Cookie Has Seen — because Cookie was alive and still seeing changes.

But in 2016 Cookie died. So I would need to retitle the manuscript, because Cookie Has Seen is present-perfect tense, implying that Cookie is alive and still seeing. In March 2020 a new title came to me, occasioned by the book’s theme and also by the pandemic. My title would be Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes.

I typed the new title into my 6”x9” book template, and then I asked Robin Koontz, who has designed almost every one of my book covers, if she would be willing to design a cover for Cookie. I also attached my Cookie manuscript so that, if she were willing, Robin could quickly assess the content and tone of the story.

Robin was willing, and her design is now the cover of Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes. And while Robin was thinking about the cover, I was working on the book’s Introduction, the Table of Contents, and the individual poems. And then the final About the Author.

Everything looked good, but as I formatted the book a few poems extended onto a second page by only one line. That looked awful. So I made some space adjustments and also some line adjustments in the poems. Eventually I got the content the way I wanted it. Then I worked on the page design. And after that was all done, I printed out a copy of the manuscript and proofread it. Then I submitted it to KDP and waited for a copy of my paperback to arrive, so I could proofread it again.

While waiting (the waiting took a week) I worked on designing the ebook version of Cookie. This was a lot easier than designing a paperback/hardback version, because ebooks do not contain page numbers, headers, or footers — features that cause innumerable problems during page design. 

Nor do ebooks have justified margins (if they do, they shouldn’t). Nor do the pages turn — which means that there is no such thing as a line or two of poetry that flows onto a second page. There is no second page — there is simply scrolling.

So, free of working with all these features that an ebook does not have, I was able to “design” the ebook in a matter of minutes. My main concerns were: (1) The font and font-size for the individual years (i.e., 1934, 1947, 1985, etc.), and, (2) what color (if any) to use for headers and/or titles.

For the font and size of the years, I decided on Big Caslon, 20 point. It may seem as if the size isn’t important because ebook readers can control the size of the font by increasing or decreasing it. However, whatever is on the page increases or decreases proportionally, so if my text were 12-point Palatino (it is), I would want the proportions between the headers and the text to look good. 

The other thing I decided to do was print the years in color, and I made that color as bold a pink as I could — both bold and pink in Cookie’s honor, since Major Mitchell’s cockatoos have a lot of pink in their feathers.

On April 10 my proof copy of Cookie the Cockatoo arrived. I found one error and corrected it. I then uploaded the corrected manuscript and hit the Publish button, and on April 11, 2020, Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes was published as both a paperback and an ebook.

And I was left with the third and most difficult of my three pandemic writing goals looming ahead of me.

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Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is a quick tour of world changes from a cockatoo’s point of view, suitable for ages 10-100.                   

Sharing My Research Notes

From 1988-1992 I spent every day of the year researching the story of women who had played baseball in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as part of that research I ended up with 8,000 or so sheets of paper that I stored in files, which I stored in file-pockets, which I stored in my file cabinets. In 2016 I donated all of this material to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library: you can read about it here.

But before I donated the research materials, I published some of them (the public-domain ones) as books — Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. My reason for doing this was that I wanted to make these materials available to historians, to baseball researchers, and to teachers who needed primary source materials in order to teach the research paper.

My understanding of who might find the books useful was a bit too narrow. Since their publication I’ve heard from professors of journalism, who have used them to illustrate what sports reporting was like 100 years ago. I’ve heard from women’s studies professors who use the books to illustrate the differences between how women’s sports and men’s sports were reported. And (this was a surprise) I’ve even heard from people who study and teach about clothing styles.

I have shared my research notes with many different people, in many different ways, in many different places. But I’ve never shared them on my blog. So I thought, why not? Below are examples of my research notes from each of the three volumes.

All of the newspaper articles in Volume 1 were in the public domain, so I was able to quote them in their entirety.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 1

Cincinnati Enquirer, October 6, 1905

THE BLOOMER GIRLS 
Easily Defeated the Cincinnati Stars 
Yesterday — Score 12 To 7

Before a large crowd at the Cumminsville Ball Park, the Star Bloomer Girls defeated the Cincinnati Stars by the score of 12 to 7. The girls played as if their lives depended on winning the game and though they were up against one of the strongest amateur teams in the city they never showed the white feather, but kept working hard for victory.

On the other hand the gentleman ball team playing under the name of Cincinnati Stars, after making four runs in the first inning, got careless and the fair ones had the boys at their mercy. It was simply a case of follow-me, boys, as the Bloomer Girls forged ahead with four runs and added three more to their score before they left the field. Maud Neilson [sic] pitched the first four innings and the boys made four runs off her slants and shoots. She stated she was not feeling well before the game, having been on the road for the past two weeks and for that reason was not in the best of condition. But at that, if it had not been for two unfortunate errors by the right fielder, the boys would have made but one run off her delivery. McKenzie finished the game and pitched gilt-edged ball. Only three hits were made off his delivery in the next five innings and one of them was a fluke. The work of Miss Day at first was a revelation to the large crowd in attendance. No matter where the ball was thrown she would get it. Some of her pick-ups of low-thrown balls were remarkable. She also led her side in batting. Miss Grace, in right field, made a hit with the bleachers with her fast work on bases and was picked out by the bleacherites as “The Peach” of the bunch.

At second Miss Dolly got everything that came her way and figured in two double plays. The other girls did their share in helping to down the Cincinnati Stars. . . .

Only some of the newspaper articles in Volume 2 were in the public domain. Many of them were published after 1924, which meant that I could reprint only a small portion of each verbatim: I had to paraphrase most articles. This made my job more time-consuming.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2

Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, March 12, 1933

Didrikson Says She
Can’t Accept Challenge

This is a three-paragraph article datelined Dallas, Texas, March 11. It reports that Babe Didrikson was advised that Jackie Mitchell challenged her “to face her on the mound in a baseball game this summer.” 

According to the newspaper report, Babe replied that if she accepted every challenge, “I’d be busy every hour of the day and night filling engagements that really don’t mean anything.”

Although she refused the challenge, Babe did say that “if I ever happen . . . to be anywhere at the same time Jackie is there, I’ll let her see whether she can outpitch me and bet her that she can’t.”

Muscatine Journal and News Tribune, Muscatine, Iowa, November 15, 1933

Jackie Mitchell
Signed by Doan; 
to Report Here

__________

Famous Girl Hurler and Star
Cager and Cliff Walsh
Newest Additions to Club

Seven paragraphs in all, this article reports that sports promoter Ray L. Doan signed Jackie Mitchell “to join his Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans basketball quintet.”

The second paragraph reads: “Jackie was with Doan’s House of David baseball club last year and performed efficiently as a starting pitcher. She says she was chosen as an all-American forward in a girls’ independent basketball tournament at Dallas, Tex., three years ago. In that tournament she played against Miss Didrikson.”

The article concludes by stating that the entire squad signed by Doan will report to Muscatine for a ten-day training session.

As in Volume 2, so in Volume 3 most of the articles were not in the public domain, requiring me to quote judiciously and to paraphrase.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 3

Unknown Source, Unknown Town, Unknown Date, 1934

Gair Trimmed by Girlies,
But It Was All Jolly Fun

A reporter named Cal Royal wrote this long, two-column article.

In the first paragraph he informs readers that the Gairmen were runner-ups in the City League, but were defeated by the Chicago Ranger Girls, 2-1.

Royal describes the second inning at length, because it netted the Ranger Girls their two runs. Margaret Gisolo was thrown out and Elizabeth Pull walked, advancing to second on an error. Joe Fiarito walked. Cecelia Griedl struck out without swinging at a pitch. Nellie Kearns swatted the ball to second, where the Gair player, Gibbs, misplayed it. That left Kearns on first, Fiarito on second, Pull on third. Then catcher Frank Ranallo smashed a ball to right field (the only hit off Gair pitcher Locke), scoring two runs. Rose Gacioch flied out to Locke.

After the second inning, “only three hitters faced Locke an inning.”

The Gairmen scored their only run in the first inning. They might have scored two, but Rose Gacioch “relayed a throw to the shortstop who snapped it to the plate in time to get Eccleston for the third out.”

In the following innings the Gairmen collected five hits, including two doubles, but none advanced beyond second “as the Girls turned in as good a fielding exhibition as any men’s team could show.”

The next morning Manager Southard of the Gairmen announced that the Ranger Girls would return in two weeks, but that the exact date had not been decided.

According to the article Elizabeth Pull, who had been playing baseball for 23 years, was the manager of the Ranger Girls. The writer stated that the Ranger Girls played every day, seven days a week, and sometimes twice a day. The team, consisting of twelve women and three men, started out on May 10 and was expected to continue through September 20. 

The box score indicates that the Rangers had only one hit (Ranallo’s in the second inning). Pull and Fiarito scored the two runs. The Gair team (called Robert Gair in the box score) collected six hits but scored only one run.

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Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 can be purchased in softcover or ebook format. The ebooks can be purchased as a set.

Color-Coding Your Manuscript

Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.

I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.

Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of  07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex. 

One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.

If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.

If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user. 

The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.

Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.

Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color. 

Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases. 

Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.

Manuscript written and color-coded by Chris Tebbetts.

Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.

Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.

The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.

When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.

For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.

So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.

Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped. 

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For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.

Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.