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.

The F Words: A Writing Coach

As a professional writer, I’m usually sure when my finished work is ready to be published. Of course, as a professional writer I hope that editors will make changes that clarify and enhance the work I gave them. Almost always, they do.

But I also know that, sometimes, what I’ve written needs help before I can submit it — there’s something that I just can’t see, or that I’m doing wrong. I can sense this. But I don’t know what that something is. When this is the case, I ask for help from my writing group and, sometimes, from a writing coach. That writing coach is Esther Hershenhorn, who knows children’s literature inside and out. She is perceptive, analytical, and incredibly helpful.

Over the last twenty years, I have hired Esther as a writing coach on one or two occasions, and have also taken classes that she teaches. In early 2018, after I finished the fourth draft of The F Words, I felt that, before I went about marketing the book, I wanted an expert opinion on it. My writing group had helped me through the first three drafts: I wanted new eyes to look at the fourth draft. And so I consulted Esther.

After Esther read the manuscript, she and I had a long, fulfilling meeting, both of us with a copy of the manuscript and our computers. We busily looked up various things online as Esther suggested them; we discussed The F Words and how to market it; we talked about the voice, the plot, the audience. You name it, we discussed and analyzed it.

Esther thought that the fourth draft was almost there. What it needed, she felt, was the weaving in of important points throughout the story — so that a reader wouldn’t feel a story thread had been dropped. I could have kicked myself when Esther said this, because I weave baskets, and so I certainly should have known that one must never drop a weaver: if one does, failing to go under or over the correct number of stakes, one has to unweave all the way to the mistake, correct it, and start weaving again.

Luckily, correcting dropped threads in fiction does not require unweaving. All it requires is finding the spots where things are missing and then inserting the missing thread.

The best way to determine where something is missing is to “color” one’s manuscript. I’ve discussed this before (see Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Normally, I think, the writer herself would decide which threads she should search for, but in this case Esther stepped in as an outsider (one who had not seen the story before, in any of its stages) and listed for me the six threads she thought I had to keep track of, so that the story was as tight and compelling as could be. For this I was extremely grateful and, actually, eager to hear which threads she thought needed to be tightened in the story.

Her first thread I could have guessed: Cole’s relationship with his father. This is an extremely important part of the story. I was pretty sure I hadn’t dropped this thread anywhere. (The color chart would prove that I did loose it in a couple of places.) I colored the  Dad thread purple. 

So that you can better understand what I’m saying, I’ve made a reproduction of the headers of my color chart, so that you can see the six categories. Also for your information, the “page sets” on the left-hand side indicate consecutive groups of 3-4 pages. Because the manuscript was 330 pages long, I didn’t want to deal with a color chart of one page at a time — way too huge and possibly overwhelming. So I compressed my manuscript into tiny type and looked at it in “page sets.”

Esther’s second thread was Cole’s cross-country running. Being a runner is an important part of who Cole is, and it’s also part of the plot. As soon as Esther named this category, I knew that I would find gaps in the manuscript. And I did. I colored the cross-country thread brown.

I knew that one of Esther’s six threads would be Poems or Poetry, because Cole is required to write two poems a week. This was the third thread she mentioned. I colored it green.

As Esther and I were talking and I was listing the threads she wanted me to weave in more tightly, I found myself wondering what there could be after the first three: Dad, Cross-country, Poetry. Esther’s fourth thread surprised me: Thinking about F Words. Not writing the poems, but the mental activity that takes place before Cole decides on an f word. This involves his observing, thinking, analyzing, reading a dictionary definition (not always), and sometimes looking up a word’s origin. I colored the “Thinking about F Words” threads blue.

I doubt I would have come up with this on my own. In fact, I’m certain I would not have done so. That’s because Cole’s thinking about which words to write about seemed so natural and effortless to me — such a no-brainer — that I didn’t realize that all the observing, analyzing, and thinking about f words ran parallel to Cole’s observing, experiencing, analyzing, and thinking about society. His growing skills at thinking are not confined to words — they spill over into life.

Esther’s fifth suggested thread was about alternative social systems, which is what the students in The F Words think about and talk about. I titled this thread “Socialism” because Cole’s parents are socialists and socialism is one of the alternative social systems the students want to talk about in class and out of class. I colored that thread red.

And the final thread, as you can see on the closeup, is Chicago. The setting. Esther felt, and rightly so, that I didn’t have quite enough “Chicago” references in the book. I colored that thread pink.

After I decided my colors and then went through the entire 330-page manuscript six times (one for each color), and created the chart you see to the right, I taped together the pages, hung the chart on my bookcase, and, every day before I began writing Draft #5, consulted the chart.

Wherever there were long white gaps, I had to weave the missing thread back into the story.  Occasionally this involved adding a whole new paragraph, but usually it was a sentence or two, often in dialogue form. And sometimes it was merely a phrase or a word — little “connections” throughout the manuscript that helped make it a much stronger story. With no loose threads!

After I finished this draft, Draft #5, I began to market it, confident that I had a strong story that was well-written. In April of 2020, City of Light Publishing offered me a contract. And very, very soon — September 1, 2021 — the novel will be published.

I don’t often consult a writing coach, but I had a feeling that I needed Esther to help my manuscript take a qualitative leap forward. I am so glad I asked for her help, and so glad she responded.

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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: English Teacher Hero

In my high school, Brookfield High (Brookfield, Ohio), my favorite teacher was my English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. I was fortunate enough to have her as my teacher for two years rather than one. She influenced me  greatly with her love of learning, her wide range of knowledge, her understanding of the human condition as expressed through literature, and her love of language. In addition, she had a great sense of humor. 

It’s possible that I would have become a writer no matter what, but I do know that Mrs. Drummond strongly encouraged me to consider becoming a writer. For that, among other things, I am eternally grateful.

When I went to college, I majored in English and in History, but when I went on to grad school, I studied American Literature. I myself went on to become an English teacher at the college level, working as an instructor at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College.

English teachers and teaching English and literature are in my background, for sure, and probably in my blood. This is not to say, however, that I consciously think about English teachers a lot. As far as I know, I don’t.

Yet when I started to write the opening scene of The F Words, who is it that catches Cole tagging the high school walls with the f word? It’s Mr. Nachman, his English teacher. It could have been his cross-country coach. Or his math teacher, or history teacher, or social studies teacher. It could have been the principal, or the assistant principal. Or the custodian. Yes, it could have been any of these others, but the truth is that I never, ever, gave a conscious thought as to who would intercept Cole — Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, stepped into the story and onto the page without my selecting him. He just appeared and there was never in my mind the slightest thought of sending him back.

Mr. Nachman, I believe, was destined to intervene in order to help Cole, whose father is in Cook County Jail for organizing his neighborhood to protest against the closing of the local grade school. It is because his father has been thrown in jail for exercising his civil rights that Cole is angry. Furious. Frustrated. Which is why he tags the high school wall with the f word.

Mr. Nachman, of course, understands why Cole does this. If he didn’t understand, he wouldn’t be much of an English teacher: if he didn’t understand, it would mean that reading great literature left him with little or no empathy. If he didn’t understand, he would be a failure as a teacher.

Because he understands many different things at once  — that Cole is angry and frustrated; that defacing public property is not a responsible way to act; that somebody had better clean up the spray paint, and fast; that there are better, stronger, more effective ways to protest injustice — Mr. Nachman does not report Cole to the principal. Instead, he offers Cole a way out: if Cole volunteers to clean off the paint and writes two poems a week, each about a word starting with the letter f . . . then Nachman will never tell the principal who tagged the wall.

Mr. Nachman never states his motive for requiring Cole to write the two poems each week. Instead, he simply tells Cole that he (Cole) is pretty good at writing poetry. His motive, though, is to get Cole to think, to analyze, to reflect. About himself, other people, institutions, ideas — anything and everything that crosses Cole’s consciousness.

Like any good teacher, Mr. Nachman knows his students. The poetry-writing assignment calms Cole down and does get him to think, analyze, and reflect. And then, in the middle of the book, when Cole has made a major decision, Mr. Nachman steps in with more information about f words and about poetry. (I discussed this in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry and the Middle).

Even that is not the end of Mr. Nachman’s importance to Cole’s life and to the story. But you will have to read the novel to see how that works out.

Mr. Nachman is not the hero of The F Words. The  hero is Cole. And Felipe. And Treva. And their fellow students who fight for justice. The teen characters are in the foreground. But in the background are a few adult heroes. Cole’s English teacher is one of them.

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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: Conflict

Conflict is at the heart of all good fiction. The main character is in conflict with something: another person; society; himself/herself; the forces of nature. The attempts of the main character to achieve his or her goals results in conflicts, some small, some large. Conflict engages reader interest. Conflict helps the main character grow. Without conflict, a novel would be slow. Even dull. 

In the opening scene of The F Words, Cole is in conflict with society: the city of Chicago has sentenced Cole’s father to time in Cook County Jail. Cole believes his father did nothing wrong. In fact, Cole believes his father did everything right in helping the neighborhood and community fight against the closing of a local public  school. 

In anger and frustration — because he sees no way of confronting the forces he is in conflict with — Cole tags his high school wall with the f word. He is caught doing so by his English teacher. In a nonosecond, Cole’s conflict with society changes into a conflict with his teacher. That conflict is resolved, thanks to his teacher’s commitment to what’s important. 

The life of most teens is full of many different conflicts, ranging from the fact that they are not permitted to make decisions on issues that are important to them, to the fact that they confront bullies in school, to the fact that they want to be liked but might not know how to achieve that aim. And so on.

Cole’s life is no different: he faces many different conflicts. One of the important but minor plot points in The F Words involves standardized testing as required by Illinois and other states. The students hate the yearly tests, but even more they hate repeated classroom drills on the tests. The  principal (Ms. Delaney), however, wants the teachers to teach to the test and wants the students to perform well so that her school’s federal funding won’t be affected. She is an advocate of “item teaching” rather than “curriculum teaching” — that is, teaching answers to the questions that have appeared on previous tests rather than teaching the larger body of knowledge and skills that would allow students to answer the questions correctly even if they haven’t memorized those  particular questions. Cole’s refusal to take the standardized tests the previous year put him in conflict with the principal, who wants 100% turnout for each standardized state test.

Another thing that puts Cole in conflict with the principal (far greater conflict than his refusing to take the state tests) is that she suspects he’s the one who tagged the high school wall with the f word. She calls him into her office and tries to get him to confess. But Cole knows that if he confesses, he will receive a suspension and thus won’t be able to run cross country. This scene occupies most of Chapter 2 of the book . . . and the conflict escalates as the story continues.

In addition to the state testing and the principal wanting to know who tagged the high school wall, there’s the issue of bullying: a serious problem not only in schools, but throughout our society. Sometimes those who say they are against bullying and intimidation act otherwise: when a victim confronts a bully, the victim is sometimes held as being of equal blame. This is the case in Cole’s school, and the situation causes still more conflict between Cole and the principal.

The principal isn’t in conflict only with Cole — she’s in conflict with his best friend, Felipe, who wants to run for class president. The principal really supports the other candidate, who’s a known quantity. Felipe is not. In trying to discourage Felipe from running for the office, the principal finds herself in further conflict with Cole, who is helping his best friend run the campaign.

While it may seem that Cole’s conflict with society, as shown in the opening scene, is dwarfed by his conflicts with individuals, that’s not the case. In his struggles against the principal and against a bully, Cole is in conflict with society because the social and political structures support the principal and the bully: they do not support Cole or his friends. Whether or not the political is personal (as with the principal and the bully), it remains political. Whether or not the conflicts in The F Words take on overtones of the personal, they remain deep political conflicts between right and wrong, between those in power and those deprived of power.

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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: Poetry and the Middle

In my previous blog I mentioned that in writing The F Words based on the advice in Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell, I reaped not only the benefit of writing a book more easily and more quickly, but also the benefit of improving one of my thematic elements precisely because I was writing the novel toward its middle.

That thematic element was Cole’s writing of poetry. Specifically, only poetry about words that began with the letter f. As I mentioned in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry, I felt good about the two poems Cole wrote in Chapter 1. They reflected Cole’s experience and his deepest concerns.

And so, off to a good start, both Cole and I were quite happy to have him continue writing such poems. Whenever he was struck by an f word (and he was struck by a lot of them) he decided whether or not to write a poem about it.

He wrote one about his best friend, Felipe. And about the Ferris Wheel he and his parents used to ride when he was younger. He wrote about force. Then he learned a new word and wrote about a fusillade. And so forth.

As I approached the middle of the book in my writing, something began to nag at me, and that was that Cole’s poems all had a recipient: Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, who had made the writing of them a condition of his not telling the principal that Cole had spray-painted the high school wall. Having had wonderful English teachers in high school and college, having been an English teacher myself, I realized that Mr. Nachman was not a passive recipient of these poems. He assigned them for a reason, and he would comment on them for a reason.

As soon as that realization hit me, I understood that Mr. Nachman would help Cole understand more about language and structure. And thought and action. I also understood that what Mr. Nachman has to offer Cole should logically follow Cole’s midpoint self-assessment. So, a couple of chapters after Cole’s midpoint decision, Mr. Nachman talks to him about trying some poetic forms (which include syllable-count poetry). He explains to Cole that writing poems that fit a certain form challenges poets in a way that free verse doesn’t. What Cole has been writing up to this point are free verse poems.

Mr. Nachman gives Cole the URLs to a couple of web sites which explain poetic form. At home Cole visits these sites and dismisses many of the forms as waaaaaay too difficult. But the syllable-count cinquain appeals to him. Curious about what form will do to a poem, he rewrites one of his free verse poems, “Force,” as a cinquain. Thus the poem “Force” appears twice in the book. Cole’s gut feeling is that the more “disciplined” form poem is more more interesting. In fact, he likes the way the form poem explodes with power.

Force

Force us
into corners
where we can barely breathe,
force us back so far we explode
on you.

For the remainder of the book Cole writes both free verse poems and form poems. His last poem is a strong form poem . . . indicating both that Cole understands the need for people to fight back against oppression, and that he has internalized that the methods of fighting back must be shaped and organized.

Would these scenes and this theme (through poetry) have occurred to me if I had been writing the novel from beginning to end without thinking about what happens in the middle? The answer is, I don’t know. I like to think that they would have, but I can’t say that for certain. What I do know is that they happened because I was thinking specifically about what should happen in the middle of the novel. That was when I realized that something should happen not only to Cole, but to the poetry he writes. In so many different ways, I am so glad I took the time to read and think about Write Your Novel from the Middle.

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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: Writing from the Middle

My usual method for writing a novel is to come up with a situation first (as in a woman playing major league baseball), then create both the characters and plot within that situation. As I’m thinking of these things (often this takes months and months), I envision the novel’s beginning and its ending — so that, when I sit down to write the book, I know how it starts, and I know how it ends.

Everything in between is unknown. So I usually take it step by step: event A causes event B, which causes event C, and so on, all the way to the end. Everything between the beginning (usually the first and sometimes second chapter) and the ending (usually the last and sometimes also the next-to-last chapter) is considered the novel’s Middle.

Ninety percent or so of the entire book is called its middle. Laughable, isn’t it? No wonder writers have trouble with the middle of their books. That’s little different from saying they have trouble with the whole book!

For who knows what reason, however, I didn’t write The F Words in quite the same way I had written all my other books. Back when I started writing it, I had just read about and purchased a short book titled Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell. I remember that I read a mention of this book somewhere and I was intrigued. Mainly because I couldn’t imagine writing a novel from the middle.

What did this mean, I wondered? You start writing at the middle and write some chapters backwards, to the beginning, and others forward, to the end? That didn’t sound pleasant. And, really, I wanted to know: what was this approach? How did it work?

So I bought the book and read it in one sitting. And what the author means is that a good movie or good novel is structured in such a way that the main character has a “look in the mirror” moment in almost the exact middle of the movie/novel. This is an important moment of self-assessment. All the first half of the novel leads up to that moment, and all the second half of the novel leads away from the decision of that moment. (Really, the book should be titled something like Write Your Novel Toward the Middle.)

Well, I thought: this makes a lot of sense! And so I considered the moment of self-assessment that my main character, Cole Renner, would probably have. It took me maybe a day of thinking to figure it out, but when I did, I had an Aha moment.

Knowing what Cole would think and decide at the midway point of the novel allowed me to aim toward that moment, and then, once I got there, aim toward the results of his decision: the ending. 

In my previous method of writing novels, it’s as if  I were running a Marathon with no visual markers: doable, for sure, but difficult to judge “where” one is in the book. That is, difficult for me to judge what should be happening where. I would  have been better off if I had thought of the Marathon as running from Chicago’s south side northward to the halfway point of the John Hancock Building, and then continuing northward from there. The John Hancock Building would be visible to me every step of the way for the first half of the race. It would be a visual marker of what I was heading toward and how far away (or how close) it was.

Having a middle point of my novel to aim at made the writing process much, much faster. I’m not sure why that was, but I think that’s because it’s a lot easier to think only of the events leading up to the midpoint, without having to worry about the events that come after. In other words, I thought about one half of the book, not the whole book. This didn’t seem as daunting.

For me, choosing the middle point of The F Words worked extremely well. Knowing that middle point helped me plot the story better and also really helped me strengthen the book’s theme, because Cole’s midpoint decision is strongly tied to the conclusion.

Writing toward the middle also, unexpectedly, helped me with the poetry that Cole creates. More about that in my next blog.

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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: Poetry

If you’ve been reading my blogs on how I wrote The F Words, you might remember that I set out to write a YA novel about student rights, immigrant rights, and political protest. Never did it cross my mind that I would also be writing a novel about poetry. Or writing poems themselves.

But somehow, that happened. It happened in the first few pages, with the inciting incident: Cole’s English teacher, Mr. Nachman, catches him tagging the high school wall with the f word and makes him atone for it by: (1) cleaning up the graffiti, and (2) writing two poems a week for the entire school year, each about a word that begins with the letter f.

Honestly, I don’t remember how I came up with this atonement. It just seemed right, something that an English teacher such as Mr. Nachman (who has a sense of irony) would require for a student’s emotional and intellectual growth. The words came out of Mr. Nachman’s mouth . . . and suddenly both Cole and I were stuck with writing two f-word poems a week

Well, just as I went full-speed-ahead with the inciting incident, I decided to do the same with the poetry. The inciting incident occurred on a Thursday night and, as Mr. Nachman reminded Cole, the next day was Friday. Two poems were due.

So Cole goes home and pulls out a dictionary, turns to the f words, and his eye alights on the word far. He opens his tablet and writes:

Far

is not here
it is there
far is the opposite
of near

It’s hard for me to remember exactly what I was thinking as I was writing about Cole writing the poem. I was definitely into the mind of a 15-year-old working -class high school boy. He would want to do as little work as possible on this extra assignment. So: short word, short poem. Short work. Cole’s feeling pretty confident.

He scans the list of words after far and considers writing a poem about fart, but decides Nachman might not accept it. Then his eyes light on fartlek, a training technique for runners. Cole is a cross-country runner: he knows fartlek.

Cole gives the poem a title and starts copying the dictionary definition, breaking up the lines so that what he’s writing looks like a poem. He gets this far:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

Cole wants to consider the poem done. But he realizes that Mr. Nachman will realize that he (Cole) merely copied a dictionary definition. And he was given instructions to not do that. So Cole adds another stanza, entirely his own, and the poem ends up like this:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

But whoever called it play speed
never
had to 
do it.

For a moment Cole is deeply bothered by the words intense time in the poem, so much so that he thinks of not turning the poem in. But that would mean writing a third poem, which he doesn’t want to do. So he prints out the two poems, puts them aside for the next day, and goes to sleep.

What was evident to me as I was writing this first chapter was all the anger and fear Cole feels because his father is doing time in Cook County Jail. The “Far” poem is a sign of how much he misses his father, who is no longer near. The “Fartlek” poem reflects a large part of Cole’s life and interest: his cross-country running. But the stanza he adds to the poem reflects his understanding that training is not easy. In fact, it’s very difficult, and doing it requires commitment. 

I felt good when Cole wrote these two poems in the first chapter. I felt that what was on his mind was coming out in poetry. I felt that he was well on the way toward self-reflection and change. All a result of the inciting incident. 

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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.