The F Words: The Writing

For well over a year now I’ve been blogging about various aspects of The F Words, but one thing I haven’t talked about is the actual steps of writing the novel. Writers and readers are often interested in how writing takes place. So, for those who might want to know, I will try to recount the steps of writing The F Words.

Maybe twenty years ago (it was around the turn of the century) I decided I wanted to write a YA novel and that it should be about the political struggles for social justice.  The title and the opening scene came to me: the image of a teen tagging his high school wall with the f word. The title came at the same time: The F Words. (I knew there would be more than one f word in the book, because in thinking about political struggle I thought of fight, foe, fair, flexibility, freedom.) I filed this decision away in the future-books part of my brain and went about writing other things.

In the year 2016 I attended a huge demonstration for immigrant rights, and it was there that part of the plot of the YA novel came to me. You can read about that in my blog The F Words: Political Protests.

Somewhere around then I began developing the characters for The F Words. This took months. I gave them names, I gave them personalities, I gave them conflict. So far, none of this was on paper, it was all in my head.

In late 2016 I created a notebook for The F Words, giving each character a name, a description, and conflict or conflicts. For me, this is a very important step in the writing of a book. I always use a paper notebook (not computer) and I write down my thoughts — often so fast that I scribble furiously and sometimes can’t read my own writing a month later.

From notebook to first written words was, in this case, a short step: maybe two or three months. Before I started to write, I was sure of maybe one-third of what would occur — the rest I would discover as I wrote. My digital files tell me that I started and finished the first draft in 2017. Ditto for the second draft: I started it in autumn of 2017 and finished before the year ended.

The first draft took maybe seven months. Part of its plot involved the high school newspaper and freedom of speech for teens. But, as it turned out, this part of the  plot went nowhere. As I wrote, I found the story moving more strongly toward the attacks on public education and the jailing or imprisonment of protesters. And the mass deportations of immigrants.  In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper thread.

I started the third draft on January 3, 2018. I’m not sure what the difference between the second and third draft was. I think that in the third I jettisoned even more subplots, tightening the poetry and tightening the plot. Definitely developing the characters more. By April of 2018 I was writing the fourth draft, and by the end of that year I finished the fifth draft.

I then spent most of 2019 trying to find an agent who would represent the book. I failed to find such a person, and so late in 2019 I began to market the book myself.

In April of 2020 City of Light Publishing offered me a contract, and in September of 2021 The F Words was published.

In the case of The F Words, from original inkling of an idea to signing of a publishing contract was twenty years. But the data that really matters is the period from when I started the notebook in  2016 to when the manuscript sold, early 2020. That was four years of writing, totaling five drafts. 

For me, five drafts are a bit more than I usually write. Three or four is more normal for me. I’ve never, ever sold a second draft. Wouldn’t dream of submitting a second draft! I am thrilled if I think a third draft is good enough to submit.

The first draft is the most difficult to write because the writer is creating something out of nothing: creating characters, plot, scene, dialogue. The second draft is very difficult, though not as hard as the first (maybe only because it doesn’t take quite as long to rewrite as it does to write . . . in most cases). In the second draft entire chapters have to be deep-sixed. Characters have to disappear, new ones have to be created. Conflicts have to be clarified, motives developed. On and on it goes: the second draft is where a writer reshapes the entire book into something much, much better than the first draft.

The third draft usually isn’t difficult, at least in my experience. It consists of refining the second draft, dealing with foreshadowing, improving the language, making the book more literary.

And if, in the third draft, the writer failed to weave every thread tightly into the correct pattern for that particular book, then she has to do it in the fourth draft. Or, in my case, the fifth.

This was my process with The F Words, which is fiction. I’ve had similar, but not identical, patterns with my other books.

A couple of examples.  The first draft of She’s on First took me three years to complete, as compared to the seven months of The F Words. The first draft of Women at Play (nonfiction) took 92 days. That was due to my publishing contract: I was given 92 days to write the book, period. Very, very intense: I wrote eleven hours a day. With The F Words, I wrote every day, but usually just one hour. 

And Jack and Larry was different from anything else. I wrote four first drafts. That’s right. I wrote four different books. First I wrote a picture book, but I decided that wasn’t the way to go. So that first draft ended right there. Then I wrote the first draft of a middle grades book about Jack Graney. I decided that wasn’t the way to go, either. That first draft ended, too. Next came a first draft of a long magazine article. That draft went the way of the others, also. Finally came the first draft of the free verse book: this was the keeper, and from it I wrote the subsequent drafts and published the book.

Writing a book such as Jack and Larry consisted of finding the right format. Writing a mostly straight narrative novel such as The F Words was, for me, a matter of putting the story down in words on the first draft, and then improving that draft until I had a tightly woven story. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that this is the path the writing of most novels takes.

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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: Friendship

A friend is a close companion:  a person we confide in, are intimate with, play with, work with, and associate with on a regular basis. Life without friendship would be very  lonely. Friends help us look at things in a different way. They’re there when we need somebody by our side. They give, they share, they understand.

One of the subtexts running through The F Words is the power of friendship. We see the friendship between Cole and Felipe in the second chapter, when Felipe insists on helping Cole remove the fifteen f words from the school wall. And when Cole, recognizing that Felipe has held back on running for class  president, vehemently urges him to stop scrubbing off the f words and go put his  name on the candidate list. In addition, Cole and Felipe are united not only in their ten-year  history of shared  experiences, but also in their struggle for social justice.

The new student, Treva, also fights for social justice. And, like Cole, she fights to help Felipe win the class election. Whereas Cole and Felipe are practically life-long friends, Treva is a new friend. But the bonds that tie her to Cole and Felipe are strong.

Cole Renner, the main character, has many friends. Not as many as Felipe, who everyone agrees is incredibly well liked and “sociable.” Cole is friends with Emerald, whom he admires for her intelligence. With Ethan, a fellow cross-country runner. And he has a friendly rivalry with Ricardo, star of the cross-country team. 

The F Words focuses on Cole and his friends, but it’s also populated with adults — as any teen’s life is. There’s the principal (not a friend!), there’s Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher. There are Hank and Stacey Renner, Cole’s parents. There are Veronica and Carlos Ramirez, Felipe’s parents. There’s Cole’s running coach. And there’s Nikki Zurlo, secretary to the principal.

Some of these adults are friends with each other. And, some of them are friends to the teens. Which brings me to the question, What’s the difference between being a friend with somebody and being a friend to somebody?

The difference, I would say, is that the energy of the friendship travels equally (more or less) when you’re friends with somebody. The energy between Cole and Felipe is a good example of this. But when you’re a friend to somebody, the energy of the friendship travels more strongly in one direction. Not in both directions. When an adult is a friend to a student, the energy travels mainly from the adult, who is more knowledgeable, to the student. Of course, this could work the other way, as when a teen is friend to an older person who might be housebound or incapacitated in some way.  In The F Words both Mr.  Nachman and Nikki Zurlo are friends to Cole. And Stacey Renner, Cole’s mother, is a friend to Treva.

I think that the richness of the friendships in The F Words, as well as the different directions the friendships travel in, makes for a very rewarding read. That’s assuming you enjoy reading about friendships! I do.

Tennessee Williams once said, “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.” This  is so true for Cole’s life — it is partly what he is making it, and partly what his friends are making it. That is a very rich and exciting life.

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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 Rondelet

The rondelet is a French form of poetry. It contains a refrain, a strict rhyme scheme and a distinct meter pattern. Before I get into that distinct meter pattern, I want to explain that the rondelet derives from the rondel, which is  a poetic form that originated in France during the 1300s. 

The rondel, which originated in French lyrical poetry of the 14th century, made its way from France into other languages, such as English and Romanian. Its structure is a complex pattern of quatrains followed by quintets, a series of refrains, and, usually, eight syllables per line.

The rondelet derived from the rondel, but it is a much shorter verse form. Forget the quatrains followed by the quintets. The rondelet is seven lines long. That’s it. Seven lines. 

But: those seven lines require a lot of thought because they follow a very strict pattern. Lines 1, 3, and 7 are refrains. Each of these identical lines is four syllables long. Lines 2, 4, 5, and 6 are not refrains. Each of these lines is eight syllables long. 

That’s the easy part.

Now comes the rhyme scheme: AbAabbA

For those of you unversed (ha!) in poetic notation, what this denotes is as follows: (1) the capital A’s indicate the refrain which, obviously, rhymes with itself. (2) the lower-case b’s indicate that these lines rhyme with each other. (3) The lower-case a indicates that this line rhymes with the capital-A lines. But, unlike them, it is not a refrain. It is a new line. And it’s eight syllables long, not four.

Got that?

Something you can infer from what I’ve just said is that there are only two rhyming sounds in a rondelet. The A and the b. That’s it.

Not only that, but the rondelet has never been a popular form in English poetry. As far as I know, I never encountered one during all my years of college, nor during my years of reading poetry afterwards. In fact, I’m not sure how I encountered the poem at all. But I did, and something about it stuck with me.

It stuck with me so much that when, in Chapter 25, Mr. Nachman encourages Cole to visit web sites to learn about poetic forms, the rondelet was one of the forms that occurred to me, along with the sonnet, the ballad, the villanelle, the limerick, and the triolet. It occurred to me, but I made no decision about it or any of the other forms.

The decision was for Cole Renner, the main character of The F Words, to make. And I have to say, I was surprised when I found Cole (and myself) writing a rondelet. It showed me that Cole isn’t afraid of a challenge. In poetry, he is not afraid of rhyme, he is not afraid of meter, he is not afraid of syllable counts. He doesn’t consciously think about being afraid of any of these, but many a beginning poet would be. 

In The F Words, Cole ends up writing not one, but two rondelets. Sort of.  So I have to assume the form appeals to him. Remember: this is not a popular form in English poetry.

The first is one he writes to Treva. Obviously she is very important to him, and his poem choice shows this: he doesn’t pick anything easy. He picks a challenge.

Flying

I’ll be flying
When I pass the place where you stand
I’ll be flying
Even though my strength is dying
Aid this runner across the land
Add shouting voice and waving hand
I’ll be flying

It’s interesting to me now, in hindsight, that although Cole is writing to Treva, what he’s saying can be applied not only to running, not only to love, but also to political struggle. I have to admit that I was totally unaware of that as Cole and I were writing the poem.

The second rondelet that Cole writes appears at the end of the book. I won’t repeat it here, because that would be a spoiler. And it isn’t really and truly a rondelet. It’s a rondelet that Cole has changed to suit his needs — just like he believes society must be changed to meet the needs of the people. 

But I hope you think the modified rondelet is a fitting end to The F Words.

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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: Humor

I’m a person with a sense of humor, and I enjoy humor in writing. Not insulting humor, and I’m not a big fan of slapstick humor. The types of humor I enjoy when I’m reading a book are:

the unexpected happens
witty self-deprecation
situational humor
understatement
hyperbole (overstatement/exaggeration)

The use of humor is a literary tool, just as the ability to foreshadow is a literary tool. But few writing teachers talk about or teach how to use humor. I’m guessing this would be difficult to do —  if a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m not sure a workshop session could instill  the sense into  them.

Nevertheless, the use of humor is important for at least two reasons. First, it helps develop characters and it helps readers empathize with characters. It’s easy to empathize with a character who has a sense of [appropriate] humor regarding their situation. Conversely, it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with a character who has no sense of humor whatsoever: a lack of this sense makes a character seem mechanical or robot-like.

Second, humor pleases people. I love it when I run across something funny in a novel, even if that “funny” is merely a witty observation or a good pun. Appropriately sprinkling humor throughout your novels is a good way to make readers happy — and a great way to help them remember the characters and the scene. Think of all the times people mention their favorite scene in a movie: it’s almost always a scene with something humorous going on.

There’s humor in all the books I write, and it’s probably the same kind of humor: the kind that I like. The F Words, though a novel about oppression and fighting back, is full of humor.  (I can’t imagine a novel about teens that doesn’t include humor.) Below are some of the types of humor in The F Words.

Self-deprecation  — This is modesty about oneself, or sometimes criticism of oneself, but in a mocking or humorous way. Here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, where Cole has just met Treva, the new student.

“I want to help,” she says.
“Help?” I manage.
She gives me an impatient look, like I’m a dolt.
I feel like one.
“Help with the fight.”
“Against?”
“Everything. All the things that are wrong. War. Poverty. Racism. Global warming. Everything.”
Part of me is in awe.
Part of me is wondering if Treva is trustworthy.
Most of me is wondering how we’re going to do this.

Understatement — This is reporting something as smaller, less serious, or less important than it really is.

“We fight to help Felipe win the election,” I say, just to make sure we all agree on what we’re fighting for. 
“Totally,” says Treva.
“No bombs,” says Felipe. “No assassinations. Either one could get me in trouble.”

Observational Humor —  Most sitcoms contain observational humor, which is based on commonplace, everyday life and events, observed in a humorous or witty way. I guess that I employ a lot of observational humor, because I’m listing four examples of it from The F Words.

“Your name starts with f,” I tell him, “You probably count as an f word.”
“Si! I’m a capitalized f word.”
I think about that a while, wondering what I can do with a capitalized f word.

  ________

Just as Dad is about to say something, the guard on his end steps forward and taps him on the shoulder. Our guard does the same. They must practice synchronized repression.

  ________

The nurse takes me into her room. There’s not much she can do for me, she says as she wipes my cut with the sharpest stinging liquid on earth. They must keep it on hand just for students. I try not to wince, but sometimes you can’t always do what you try.

________

“I’m very disappointed in you, Cole. This is the second time you’ve been in my office this month.”
What she means is, it’s the second time she’s called me into her office. It’s not like I’d come here voluntarily. And I’m thinking it’s the last day of September, and if she had just waited a day, I wouldn’t have been in her office twice in one month.

The Unexpected Happens — The name of this kind of humor speaks for itself. My example is from a scene at one of Cole’s cross country meets where, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Nachman, his English teacher shows up. It’s Nachman who assigned Cole the task of writing two f-word poems a week.

“Right flank, Cole, right flank!”
It’s Mr. Nachman.
I can’t believe it. He came to the track meet?
To shout f words?
Oh. Wait. 
He’s warning me.
I glance toward my right just as a Palatine runner tries to overtake me, hoping to slip into the breach between me and Ricardo.

The humor in The F Words works to develop characters, engage readers, and show the complexity of lives.

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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: Setting

I’m a person who loves setting. I enjoy reading books in which setting has been developed by the author. Conversely, I don’t enjoy books which, when I’m reading  them, feel as if they could “be” anywhere: any city, any time. So, because setting is so important to my enjoyment of a book, I am always aware of it as I write. This doesn’t mean that I get it right in the first draft — but I do develop it more with each draft I write.

When it came time to set The F Words, I chose Chicago for several different reasons, prime among them that it would be easier for me to write about a setting in which I lived. But Chicago is vast: one of the most sprawling cities in the US. It measures 25 miles south to north; 15 miles east to west. 

Everyone in Chicago lives in one of its 62-or-more neighborhoods, and identifies with that neighborhood. I wanted Cole to live on the north side (I would use the south side in my next novel), in an ethnically mixed neighborhood that was largely Latino. The two neighborhoods I considered were Albany Park (48% Latino; 30% white; 16% Asian, 5% Black) and Logan Square (46% white, 44% Latino, 5% Black, 3%Asian).

I knew the Logan Square area fairly well, but not the Albany Park area, so I spent a day driving through the two neighborhoods, getting a feel for the schools, streets, parks, businesses, transportation, etc. I was leaning strongly toward the Logan Square area as the setting, but thought I should read up on both neighborhoods.

Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

One of the first things I learned in reading the history of Logan Square was that the initial inhabitants of that neighborhood were English, Norwegian, and Danish. Serendipity once again —  Cole Renner’s heritage is Dutch and Danish. So of course I chose Logan Square as the setting for The F Words.

After choosing the neighborhood, I then drove around it again, picking up the names of hardware stores, laundromats, fast-food places, restaurants, schools, bus stops, el stops, and so on. I decided which street Cole lived on (though I don’t name the street in the book) and noted how far it was from the bus stops and the main avenues that run through Logan Square.

Once I had all of that down, I then considered where a high school student’s day is spent. In school, of course! And at school events. So I had to decide whether the school Cole, Felipe, and Treva attend was a real school in the city of Chicago, or a fictitious school in the city of Chicago.

Although Cole lives in a real Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a fictitious high school within that real neighborhood, just as I created a fictitious ballpark in She’s on First and a fictitious newspaper for Dirty Proof. I don’t want problems with real sites claiming I misrepresented them. And if I used a real site, I would be required to be accurate to the tenth degree — or have readers write to tell me I got some aspect of the setting wrong. Therefore: fictitious high school.

As I wrote the first draft of The F Words, I had in front of me a map of the Logan Square neighborhood where Cole lived. I knew the block on which Cole lived, and what bus he had to catch to get to school. I wanted to know exactly where Cole’s [fictitious] school was, so I chose some vacant land on the city map and constructed Cole’s high school on that spot. I felt a sense of great power as I did this! 

After quickly building Cole’s high school on an empty lot, I tried to envision what that school looked like. This didn’t take too long: I just modeled it on the various high schools throughout the north side of the city. I gave the school exits and entrances on all four sides, and I constructed a chain link fence along one side of it. The other three sides were bordered by school lawn and public sidewalks, one of them on a major street. I  constructed the school out of light-colored brick. And then I had to give the school a name.

Chicago is a very ethnically mixed city, approximately 32% white, 29% Black, 29% Latino,  6% Asian, 4% other. (Percentages vary depending on source.) “White” is not really an ethnic division, but that’s how the Census categorizes people of European and Slavic descent. The so-called white population of Chicago is, likewise, ethnically mixed. In Chicago history Germans were the main ethnic group for many decades, followed by  the Irish, Poles, and Swedes. Among the other groups who settled Chicago are Jews, Bosnians,  Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and Dutch. 

Both in choosing character names for The F Words, and especially in naming Cole’s high school, I took into consideration Chicago’s history, particularly the history of its German immigrants.

Most of the Germans who emigrated to Chicago during the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing the failed German Revolution of 1848, which sought democratic rights for German citizens. In the US, these Germans were referred to as Forty-Eighters. Opposed to slavery, they campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and helped him win the 1860 election. 

Hundreds of thousands of German-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union Army. Of all white ethnic groups to fight in that war, Germans were the largest. Somewhere between 176,000 and 216,000 of them fought to help end slavery. (More than 179,000 Black soldiers fought for the Union.) Major General Franz Sigel was the highest-ranking German-American in the Union Army. German-American regiments came from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  And volunteers came from Illinois and from Chicago.

Given this important history, I decided I would name Cole’s high school after a Chicago German-American who fought in the Civil War. In order to do so, I spent a lot of time googling German-Americans, Chicago, and US Civil War. I don’t remember how many names I considered, but when I ran across the name August Mersy, I was intrigued. Born in Germany in 1822, Mersy participated in the 1848 revolution and after its failure emigrated to the United States, where he volunteered to fight with the 9th Illinois, which participated in the critically important Atlanta Campaign led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Drawn to all the important stuff going on in Mersy’s history (1848 Revolution, US Civil War, Atlanta Campaign), I decided to name Cole’s school August Mersy High School.

Almost two years after naming Cole’s school August Mersy High School, I was doing further research on August Mersy, and I learned that despite what my original source stated, he did not settle in Chicago. He settled in St. Clair County, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, Missouri. 

However,  by this time I liked the name August Mersy High School so much that I decided to keep it. A mistake, but one that worked out well.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order at Barnes & Noble. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.