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 and She’s on First

For the last year, as I’ve been marketing The F Words, I’ve often thought about She’s on First. I suppose that the immediate reason I think of the two books together is that they are, for me, both firsts. She’s on First is the first novel I published (1987.) And The F Words (2021) is my first YA novel.

As I work on marketing The F Words, I often think about what it was like marketing She’s on First. The world has changed so much! Back in 1987 I printed special She’s on First stationery and printed (on my computer) letters and mailed them out. The time involved! The postage costs! Today, with The F Words, almost all marketing I do is done electronically: emails, web  pages, blogs, newsletters, videos, Zoom conferences, virtual visits.

However, I think that these physical similarities and differences aren’t the main reason I keep thinking of the two books at the same time. The main reason, I think, is that they are both coming-of-age novels. What that means is that they are about the struggle (usually subconscious) to achieve maturity: a state of full development. Coming-of-age novels have been around for a long time and still constitute a significant category of those searched for on Amazon and other sites. In other words, they are a popular category of novels and, unlike with some categories, they can take place in any environment, age, or in any setting. 

In thinking so much about She’s on First and The F Words, I finally came around to asking myself in what ways they are similar, and in what ways they are different.

Similarities

(1) The first similarity I see is that both protagonists face huge prejudices about how they should behave. Everywhere she turns, Linda Sunshine encounters prejudicial words, actions, and roadblocks because she is a woman who plays baseball. The color barrier was broken in Major League Baseball in 1948. The sex barrier has not been broken (for players). Similarly, Cole Renner faces huge prejudices because he is a teen, because he is working class, and because his best friend is Latino. Because he’s a teen Cole is expected to do what authority figures tell him to do, from obeying the principal of his school to obeying the Chicago curfew laws. Because he’s working class Cole is expected to be satisfied with a menial McJob. And because his best friend is Latino, Cole is suspect in the eyes of the Old Guard: those who enforce and uphold WASP norms.

(2) The second similarity I see is that neither Linda nor Cole doubt their own worth. They come from families which have instilled in them a deep sense of pride in who they are and what they can do. And what their rights are. Neither suffers angst of any kind. 

(3) The third similarity is that, in the face of intense opposition, each protagonist comes to a decision about what kind of person she/he is going to be. This is not true of all novels. In many novels, such as mysteries or thrillers, the protagonist already is the kind of person she/he decided to be. But in novels about the struggles against injustice, the main character usually makes that decision in the novel: not before, and not after.

Differences

One of the big differences that I feel when I think about both novels is the age difference.  Cole is 15 years old. Linda is 20 when the book begins (not counting the backstory) and 23 when it ends. A five year age difference is not that great. Usually. But in the case of a 15-year-old versus a 20-year-old, it’s a huge difference. A 20-year-old has graduated from high school (or not) and been out in the working world or the college world for at least two years. She has probably had at least one job, possibly several; has had one or more bosses; perhaps has had love affairs; might not live at home. The list could go on, but the point is that the 15-year-old is trapped in the environment of compulsory education, probably lives at home with one or both parents, might or might not have had a job yet, and so on. There is probably way more difference between a 15-year-old and a 20-year old than between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old. So the age difference between the two protagonists is big.

A second difference is that She’s on First takes place over a three-year span. The F Words takes place over a little less than five months. Although I like to think that the pace of both novels is fast and that the scenes propel the stories forward, the fact is that a story that takes place over five months is going to have a bit more intensity to it than one that takes place over three years. Things have to move faster in the 5-month story than they do in the 3-year story.

A third difference is the arena of the playing field, so to speak. Cole’s story takes place mostly within the confines of August Mersy High School, which he is required to attend. The public cannot see what is going on behind closed doors. The public, in fact, acts as if what goes on in high schools is just “the way things are.” Linda’s story, on the other hand, takes place on the playing fields of minor and major league ball, which the public is not only very interested in, but whose action it avidly follows, both in person and via the media. There is public discussion and debate on what happens on the playing fields (be it Jackie Robinson entering the Majors, or Colin Kaepernick taking a  knee).  Emotions run high. Sky high. Linda is always aware of the public: the fans and the media. Cole doesn’t think about the media at all — until he decides to march in front of August Mersy High School.

The fourth difference, I think, is the biggest: the point of view. The F Words is told from the first-person point of view. We see what happens only through Cole’s eyes. Nobody else’s. We see only what he sees, hear only what he hears. We know what he feels, we know what he thinks, because we are inside his mind. To me, first person POV seems so right for a novel about a 15-year-old boy. 

She’s on First is told from the third person point of view. Moreover, that third person POV is not limited to Linda Sunshine. The story is told from four major POVs: Linda, the baseball player; Timothy Curry, the scout who signed her; Al Mowerinski, the owner who hired her: Neal Vanderlin, the reporter who writes about baseball. This POV gives the reader a much wider look at what’s happening and how it affects others in baseball and outside of baseball. This POV allows for more reflection about the meaning of things. 

Despite their differences, I hope that the two novels are similarly strong.

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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: The Hate U Give

I love Angie Thomas’s YA novel, The Hate U Give. I read it when it was published and felt as if I  had been living in a stuffy room and now, at last, somebody opened the windows and let the light and the fresh air in — somebody was talking about the truths of racism, oppression, police  brutality, and resistance.

The success of The Hate U Give emboldened me to continue with my own YA novel, The F Words, whose first draft I had just finished. I strongly wanted to write about the truths of working class existence for high school students, just as Thomas wrote about the truths of Black oppression. My novel follows a parallel course, with white and Latino protagonists instead of Black. The parallel course isn’t surprising: any novel about high school students is going to be set partly inside the school and follow the path of the school day. And any novel about political protest is going to have scenes of demonstrations and rallies that take place on the streets.

One of the most powerful aspects of The Hate U Give is this: you feel on every page that Thomas has lived this. That she knows exactly what she’s depicting. That she is shouting out the truth about the lives of these particular characters.

That is exactly what I intended to do with The F Words: depict the reality of working class kids in public schools today — a “today” in which the ruling class is actively, maliciously, and mercilessly destroying public education. In Chicago alone, Mayor Rahm Emmanual and the Chicago School Board closed 54 of the city’s public schools in one year. Fifty-four! More closings than in any other city. 

It is not enough for the ruling class that the working class — Black, white, Latino, Native, Asian — already receives an education inferior to that of the middle class (we won’t even talk about the ruling class itself, with its elite schools). No: the ruling class wants to remove all  hope from working class kids. Make them so illiterate, so unschooled, so deprived of the arts and the sciences that they humbly accept the fact that all that awaits them are minimum-wage jobs or enlisting in the military.

But the working class is not accepting this. Throughout Chicago and other cities, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and students themselves organize to protest the closing of these vital neighborhood schools. Not only do these groups protest the closing of such schools: they demand, along with the Chicago Teachers Union, that the schools be revitalized. Torn down if necessary, and built anew. With a librarian in each school, a nurse in each school, adequate classrooms, smaller class size.

It was in the middle of this reality of school protests that I wrote The F Words. As the book begins, sophomore Cole Renner is angry because his father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for supposedly “inciting to violence” — but all he did was organize the neighborhood protests against the closing of the neighborhood Euclid Grade School. Because he’s caught in the act of tagging the school walls with the f word, Cole is actually “saved.” He’s saved by his English teacher, who requires him to write two  poems a week, each about a word that starts with the letter F.

This assignment, plus his participation in the demonstrations led by his father, plus his desire to help his best friend Felipe Ramirez win the class election gets Cole to thinking and analyzing. He grows. Like Starr Carter of The Hate U Give, Cole Renner is on his way to becoming a leader of the  working class struggle for justice.

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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: Canva Posters

Sometime in July 2021, before The F Words was published, a maxim occurred to me: a picture is worth a thousand words. I thought about that. I was writing thousands of words: these blogs. And I was speaking thousands of words, too: podcasts.

But I wasn’t using many pictures. Other than the book cover, that is. I was getting maximum mileage out of the book cover, sharing it everywhere, creating bookmarks that feature the cover. 

So I decided to make some posters about The F Words and share them on social media. To do this, I started a free account on Canva, a graphic design site that offers both free use and upgraded paid use. My intent was to create posters with a live link: a URL that viewers could click on and buy the book.

Unfortunately, it took me many experiments to learn that JPEG files cannot contain live links. PDF files can  contain live links. But Facebook does not permit the posting of PDF files. This inability of graphic files to contain live links should have registered with me before I even started. But sometimes I need to go through a process to really learn about it.

So. No live links.

Nevertheless, I went ahead and made posters anyway and shared one on social media very third or fourth day. 

One of the Canva decisions I had to make regarded my “color palette.” Based on the book cover of The F Words, Canva suggested five colors. But these were browns and neutrals such as ash and white. I wanted something more lively, so I ignored Canva’s choice and chose colors that pick up on the subtler aspects of the cover; the teal, the yellow-orange, and the black. By default, teal, orange, and black became my “brand” colors.

My intention was to make at least twelve posters, maybe as many as twenty, and to concentrate on the themes of fighting injustice; the writing of poetry; Cole’s worries about his father being in Cook County Jail; Felipe’s running for class president; Cole’s interest in Treva; and Cole’s running cross-country. I figured that the wide variety of topics stood a chance of appealing to more teens. Those who weren’t interested in cross-country might be interested in poetry. And vice versa.

Generally, the two things that help sell books the most are reviews and personal recommendations. But I think that these posters must have helped sell a few books, because each time one was posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I saw sales go up on Amazon.

Among all the things I’ve done to help get the word out about The F Words, I don’t know whether posters rank in the top half of successful efforts, or the bottom half. But I do know that I enjoyed making them — and I hope you enjoy looking at them.

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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: Educator Guide

This blog first appeared as an article in the SCBWI-Illinois journal, Prairie Wind.

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During the 1980s and into  the 1990s I used to write educational materials: activity sheets, teacher guides, parent guides, flashcards, scripts for audio how-to instructions, and teacher guides and parent guides.  At one point I was doing freelance work for educational publishers  in twenty-nine different  states! I had a cork board US  map on my wall and had a pin stuck into each state I had worked “in”.

After about a dozen years of such intense concentration on guides and activity sheets, I let the work taper off, so that I could refresh. That was good for me. It allowed me to spend more time writing the things I wanted to write: novels and nonfiction books. Every five years or so, I might take one job writing educational materials. I enjoyed dipping back into the waters of educational writing. But one dip was enough for another five years.

Which brings us to the present day. I haven’t written educational materials for at least ten years, and then one day my editor at City of Light Publishing said, “Let’s have an Educator Guide for The F Words.”

Okay.  This made sense to me. Educator Guides are vital to most teachers, who are overworked with too many students and too much to teach. If somebody can prepare a good guide for the teacher, then the teacher doesn’t have to do it herself. 

With that in mind, I set myself the task of writing a good educator guide for The F Words. This ended up taking  more time than I thought it would for two reasons: (1) As the author of the book, I knew waaaayyyyy too much about The F Words, and this knowledge crept into the questions I asked. (2) Because most teachers teach novels chapter by chapter, or at least in groups of chapters, but some teachers prefer to ask their big questions after students have read the entire book, I felt that the guide needed two sections — a section of questions based on each chapter, and a section of questions based on the entire novel. I had never written such a guide before . . . and I can see why. This took twice as much time!

FIRST SECTION
Chapter 12

  1. Pros and Cons — When Treva tells Cole that she might be changing her mind about being an anarchist, she says she’s been talking to people. When Cole asks her who, what does she reply? What are the pros and cons of “naming names”?
  2. Analysis of Motivation — When Jillian tells Treva, “I’d like to talk to Cole. Alone,” what do you think she expects to happen? Is she dissing Treva? Explain your reasons for thinking yes or no. What happens that is the opposite of Jillian’s expectations? What does this scene tell us about Jillian? What does it tell us about Treva?
  3. Vocabulary — Ms. Delaney tells Cole to not talk to her “in that insolent tone.” What does insolent mean? Do you agree or disagree that Cole was being insolent when he asked the question she reacted to?
  4. Analysis — Upon leaving Delaney’s office, Cole writes the poem “Fence.” In what way is the poem a response to what just happened in Ms. Delaney’s office?

SECOND SECTION

  1. In Chapter 2, Cole thinks: Nachman is messing with my mind, even though he’s not here. In what ways did Mr. Nachman end up “messing with” Cole’s mind?
  2. In Chapter 2, Ms. Delaney introduces the term troublemaker, warning Cole to not turn into one. In what other places in the novel does this term come up? Is being a troublemaker always a bad thing, or can it sometimes be a good thing?
  3. In Chapter 2, Felipe says “Tió Hank is strong.” Felipe says this several times throughout the story. In what ways is Hank Renner strong? In what ways is his strength important?
  4. Spanish is part of this story. It first appears in the second chapter, and from there throughout the novel. Discuss the different attitudes that characters have toward people who speak Spanish. What is Treva’s attitude? Jillian’s? The teacher who told Bianca to learn English or “go home”? Why do you think so many Anglo Americans feel hostility toward people who speak Spanish?

After “overwriting” the guide, I then went back and cut out about a third of the questions, to make things more manageable. Even so, this is an in-depth guide. Teachers and anyone else can download this Educator Guide for free from the City of Light Publishing web site.

What’s more, after writing the guide I was inspired to write ten activity sheets. These are also downloadable for free. 

Writing an educator guide for a novel I was the author of — this was a new experience, very different from all my previous writing of educator guides. And despite the hard work, it was an enjoyable experience.

You obviously don’t need a guide or quizzes to read and enjoy The F Words. But you might want one or both of these things if you’re teaching the book. Or if you’re curious about what kinds of questions help students better understand literature.

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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.

The F Words: A Stranger Comes to Town

In literature the stranger-comes-to-town motif is quite common. In films, for example, there’s In the Heat of the Night. There’s Shane. There’s The Brother from Another Planet.

Stranger-comes-to-town is a type of plot, just as seeking revenge is a type, and going on a journey is a type. It’s the skeletal structure on which a writer hangs a story.

The stranger coming to town changes everything. For better or for worse. Definitely for the town, and sometimes for the stranger. In In the Heat of the Night the Virgil Tibbs character, a Black detective from Philadelphia, tracks down and unveils the truth about who murdered Phillip Colbert. The suggestion is that Tibbs has changed the minds of some of the townspeople about racism.

In Shane the stranger is the title character, who comes to “town” (Wyoming territory) and stands up against land robbers, killing three of them in a gun battle. The movie shows that, without Shane, the Starrett family would have been victims of the land robbers. Shane changed the outcome.

The Brother from Another Planet takes “stranger” to a new level: an alien from outer space. The mute alien changes things for those he encounters by repairing things and healing people, suggesting that there is a far better way of living than we on Earth have found.

The three strangers I’ve mentioned change thinking and outcomes in one way or another.

The F Words structure is not hung on the stranger-comes-to-town motif — but there is a stranger who comes to August Mersy High School. That stranger is Treva Soldat, who comes from Portland, Oregon, where, as a student, she has participated in protests against standardized testing and especially against rote teaching for standardized testing. Treva brings that experience of political struggle with her.

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago calls itself the “Third Coast,” probably because it feels so hopelessly Midwestern compared to the East Coast and the West Coast, which hog all the glory. Dressed all in black, Treva comes from the West Coast, with an anarchist tattoo on her wrist. She comes ready to judge liars, cheaters, racists, and self-seekers. And she does not hesitate to speak out.

Treva is a catalyst to the situation Cole and Felipe find themselves in. While they are still angry over Jillian’s racism, Treva is already suggesting battle plans. Cole and Felipe not only understand that battle plans are important, they’re impressed with Treva’s commitment. In no time at all, the three of them have formed a team that will fight for Felipe’s election.

In no time at all, the three of them are fighting for Cole’s re-instatement.

And then they are fighting for the future of one of the characters in the book.

In each case, Cole and Felipe would have and could have fought alone. But in each case, Treva helps make the battle easier by having already been through such a struggle in Portland, or by suggesting alternatives. The difference she makes when she comes to town is that she becomes the third person on the team. (In fact, it’s hard to say if, without a third person, there even is such a thing as a team.) And, a triangle, with three points, is the strongest architectural figure that exists. Treva helps change things at August Mersy High by transforming a very strong two-point relationship into a stronger-still three-point team. 

Unlike Virgil Tibbs, she doesn’t introduce a new way of thinking or looking at the problem: Cole and Felipe already know and understand the problem. Unlike Shane, she doesn’t change the outcome of [most of] the situations. Of the three film examples I’ve given, Treva is most like The Brother in that her knowledge and experience suggest better possibilities.

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The F Words: Circular Ending

Generally a work of fiction has one of two kinds of endings: circular or linear. You can think of a circular ending as one in which the hero returns home: back to where he started from. You can think of a linear ending as one in which the story conflicts come to a climax and then the story ends: nobody returns home. 

Two of my favorite classic novels are Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The ending of the first is circular, that of the second, linear.

“Returning home” doesn’t mean to the exact same place with the exact same attitude. Time and events change us all, and they especially change the hero of a novel. Because somebody or something has changed, “spiral ending” is probably a better name than is “circular ending.” In a circular ending, the hero would end up at the very same point on the circle from which she started. But in a spiral ending, the hero ends up at the same spot (literal or metaphorical), but on a different plane. She could be on a spiral above where she started, or below where she started. In other words: there are similarities between the hero’s position at the beginning and her position at the end — but there are also profound differences. When, at the end of Great Expectations, Pip returns to the place he grew up, he is a very different person than the one who left that home to fulfill his expectations.

Most action and adventure stories have linear endings rather than circular ones. Moby Dick is sort of an adventure story, chasing the Great White Whale around the world. Its ending is a linear one. It ends in the middle of the Pacific Ocean rather than in New Bedford (where it began), so Ishmael does not “return home.”

When I’m reading a novel, I don’t consciously think about what kind of ending I would prefer, circular or linear. What I think is: I want the ending to be satisfying. I want it to be decisive. Please don’t let this be a book in which the author doesn’t know where to end, and so seems to end the book several times. Please let the ending be true to the story. And not trite. Please, please, PLEASE don’t let the author preach to me as the book ends. Please don’t let the author wrap up the “meaning” of the book by having characters state the obvious.

As you can infer, endings are important to me: I want them to be wholly satisfying. That’s the bottom line. I don’t care if they’re linear or circular, as long as they’re satisfying.

That’s me as a reader. Me as a writer thinks pretty much the same way. Before I start writing a book, I have lived with the characters and plot for months and months. And I know what the ending will be. I don’t know the middle, but I do know the way the story should end for these characters in this situation. And in choosing that ending, I never think, “Hmmm. Circle? Line? Which shall it be?”

But when it comes to rewriting and everything is up for consideration, that’s when I examine the ending and ask myself if it’s circular or linear. And, more importantly, I ask myself if that type of ending is good for that particular story.

The end reflects the promise of the beginning.

Linear endings are more apt to end with a bang: they head uphill, with the conflicts getting stronger and stronger, until they reach a climax. Then, a brief denouement, and the story is over with. Adventure stories are usually linear, and since detective stories are adventures of a sort, it makes sense that their ending is linear: onward to the  next adventure. Each of my two mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, has a linear ending. This makes great sense for detective stories: the case begins, the case is solved, the case is closed. 1-2-3. End of story.

A circular ending, on the other hand, is one of contrast between the main character at  the beginning and the main character at the end. The circular ending establishes a new “norm.” In The F Words, for example, Cole Renner at the book’s ending is a more formidable opponent of injustice than he is at the beginning. Circular endings have been called endings of quiet strength: that seems to describe Cole’s character at the end of The F Words.

She’s on First, my first novel, also  has a circular ending. In She’s on First, it is not the main character (Linda Sunshine, the baseball player) who comes back to the beginning: it is one of the other point-of-view characters. The character who started the story is the character who ends it. You could say that the situation is the same: scout and player in conflict. But an awfully lot is different, and that difference gives hope to the reader.

In The F Words, it’s both situation and character who are the same. Cole was “speaking” in the very first scene, and he is speaking in the last scene. But what he speaks, and how he speaks it, and to whom he speaks it — all these things have changed. And those changes give hope to the reader.

Which isn’t to say that all circular endings give hope. Some do not. I’ve never felt hope at the ending of Great Expectations. Only sorrow. But circle endings do give a sense of solidity to a story: a feeling that “home” matters — home being not a house or family necessarily, but a place, feeling, or stance that is vital to the main character.

Linear or circular — the ending must fulfill reader expectations. Which I hope The F Words does.

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Today is publication day for the ebook version of The F Words. You can purchase the ebook at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon . . . or any other online venue that sells ebooks. You can also ask your library to buy copies. 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.

The F Words: Subplots

Subplots are delicious. These little stories within the larger story give readers a great taste of something else: they are breathers from the tension of the main plot. They also show us, indirectly, more about the main character. I’ve written about the importance of subplots before (see The Beguilement of Subplots).

I can’t really say that I think a lot about subplots when I’m writing a book. They seem to come naturally to me. The story is moving along, and something happens and I realize: Oh. This is an important part of the story, in a subplot fashion. And then I think of ways to develop that subplot.

Picture books don’t have subplots. (Or, if they do, the subplots are generally expressed through the illustrations.) Early chapter books might have one subplot per story. Middle Grade novels of 30,000 or 40,000 words might have two subplots. Adult novels . . . my best guess is that four or five subplots are the limit. I’ve read novels with more than four or five subplots, and I find that I start twitching: too many subplots detract from the main story line. I catch myself asking something like, What is this novel about, anyway?

It’s important to understand that each subplot has its own story arc: a conflict with its own beginning, middle, and end. And subplots are usually resolved, mostly in the order in which they were introduced.

But with all those arcs floating around, you don’t want to let them entangle each other, the way clothes hangers might, giving your book an overly complicated, overly involved, or snarled feel. As I learned the hard way, there is such a thing as too many subplots. Thank goodness for my critique group, which pointed this out to me through the first four drafts of The F Words.

Let’s look at how many subplots I had in the first draft:

Cross-country
Working on the school newspaper
Felipe running for class president
Cousin Bianca
Self-defense classes
Hunger strike by parents against the closing of grade school
Relationship with Treva
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole

That’s eight subplots! No wonder the members of my critique group kept mentioning the number of subplots, even going so far as to state they weren’t sure what the main story was.

Okay. I can take a hint. In the second draft, I dropped the school newspaper and the subplot about Felipe’s cousin Bianca. I kept Bianca in the story, but in a different way: without a story arc. Dropping those two, I was down to six subplots.

Still too many. In the third draft I dropped the self-defense classes subplot, which had me down to five subplots.

As I started to write the fourth draft, I felt there was still one subplot too many. Correcting this turned out to be easy, because the hunger strike subplot (based on actual events in the struggles against the closing of Chicago schools) spanned only two chapters in the book. That’s probably enough of a span to constitute a subplot, but it’s also a sign that the subplot is inserted into the plot in one big chunk, and isn’t woven into the story. So the hunger strike subplot had to go.

By the end of the fourth draft, I had four strong subplots in the story:

Cross-country
Felipe running for class president
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole
Relationship with Treva

The first subplot is about sport, the second one is political. The third can go in the political category, or it could go in the same category as the fourth subplot, which is coming-of-age (for lack of a better term). The main plot centers on Cole’s father being in jail and Cole agreeing to write poetry for Mr. Nachman: the first of these is political, the second is literary.

Architect Mies van de Rohe gave us the statement, “Less is more” as a way of looking at art. The less there is cluttering up the work, be it a building or a novel, the more impact there is as the intent of the piece shines through.

Analyzing the plot and subplots in this way, with a less-is-more approach, I felt I had a strong story going — and in the case of subplots it was subtraction, not addition, which helped me make that story stronger.

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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.