Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers can be simple words or phrases or clauses. I think phrases and clauses trip up more writers except perhaps for nonnative English speakers.

A misplaced modifier isn’t close enough to what it is modifying. It’s too far away from the subject.

Example 1: She opened the door, frowning at him.
The door isn’t frowning—she is.
– It would be clearer like this: Frowning at him, she opened the door.
– If you want to indicate she frowned after she opened the door, there are several options: Opening the door, she frowned at him. OR She opened the door and frowned at him.

Sometimes a simple one-word misplaced modifier can make the meaning incorrect or confusing.

Example 2: In the drawer, I found a gold woman’s wedding ring.
The woman isn’t gold. In fact there is no woman.
– Correct: In the drawer, I found a woman’s gold wedding ring.

An ambiguous modifier can make the meaning unclear. Careful placement is required.

Example 3: Only Mark wanted to go to the store in town.
So, everyone else wanted to stay home. Right?
– But maybe it should be: Mark only wanted to go to the store in town.
He didn’t want to stop and get gas, too.
– But perhaps that wasn’t the writer’s intention: Mark wanted to go to the only store in town.

Each placement gives a different picture, doesn’t it? Commonly ambiguous modifiers include: almost, even, hardly, just, merely, nearly.

A dangling modifier has nothing in the sentence to modify. The intended subject is missing.

Example 4: Opening the cupboard door, it was full of mismatched teacups and saucers.
Who is opening the door? We don’t know.
– One possibility for correction would be to make it two separate sentences: He opened the cupboard door. Inside were mismatched teacups and saucers.
– Another possibility is adding who is doing the action: Opening the cupboard door, he poked around the mismatched teacups and saucers.
Notice I didn’t say: He opened the cupboard door and saw mismatched teacups and saucers. Describing what someone sees is not nearly so interesting as what they are doing with the objects.

A dangler often makes it appear that the wrong object is doing the impossible.

Example 5: Running upstairs, the carpet was dirty.
I’ve heard of carpet runners, but never actually saw a carpet run.
– Correct: The upstairs carpet was dirty.
– Also correct: I ran upstairs and picked my way across the dirty carpet.

I like this comment from examples.yourdictionary.com: “Modifiers are one of the most beautiful elements of the English language. They paint our prose and add starlight to our stanzas. Just make sure your modifiers are standing as close as possible to the word or words they’re describing. Otherwise, they may appear to be dressing up another portion of the sentence.”

If you want to test your recognition of dangling and misplaced modifiers, take this quiz. http://www.grammargrounds.com/misplaced-and-dangling-modifiers-quiz.html I like how the answers show which ones are misplaced and which ones are dangling.

And if you want to laugh at illustrations of misplaced modifiers, check out this slideshow: https://www.slideshare.net/Scribendi_Editing/12-hilarious-misplaced-modifier-examples.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Picture Book Fails

Authors and publicists send me picture books for review. I always warn them that I’m a recommender. That means if I don’t like the book, it won’t be on my site.

Right now I have a stack of five that make me wonder, what were you thinking?

One talks about and shows characters painting the other characters. Just what a preschool/kindergarten teacher wants in a classroom—a paint free-for-all. And don’t parents have enough trouble with siblings painting/drawing on/coloring each other as it is?

The four others use song lyrics from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I thought it sounded like a cute idea. Until I got the ARCs.

  • One book screamed cultural appropriation. Those words may have been acceptable in 1977, but not now.
  • Another was an antiestablishment song. Let’s teach our toddlers to resist their parents. I don’t think so. Especially when the illustrations put the babies in a dangerous situation.
  • A third was about tomorrow being better, which gave me a lot of hope. Yet some of the lyrics just don’t work for children, so it ended up with a thumbs down.
  • The best of the bunch is a great song, but I’ve always felt the lyrics have strong sexual connotations. The illustrations have toned that down by making the singer a girl’s dog. That works if the adult readers don’t know or never hear the song. But otherwise?

Were the song lyric books meant to be for the grandparents and great-grandparents who lived during the ‘60s and ‘70s? Although there is no back matter. I’d think a collection of the songs with information about the singers would be more appropriate. At least I’d find that interesting.

Perhaps, these publishers needed to ask themselves, “What will a child get out of this story?” Or “What will this encourage children to do?” Or “Is this age appropriate?”

What does this mean for us as picture book creators?

  • Remember who your audience is. Make sure your words and pictures fit the age range.
  • Think about the takeaway. Is it one you’d want your little one to get?
  • Consider how a child might act the story out.
  • Get feedback from other writers.
  • Make sure you read great picture books being published now.
Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Stuck on Repeat

As writer’s it’s easy for us to get stuck in a groove or a track. Round and round we go. But unlike the view from a merry-go-round, we don’t want our readers seeing the same scenes or words over and over. If we repeat, it should be intentional.

So, what constitutes unnecessary repetition?

Repetitive Words

Reading the same word too close together or too often is boring. This doesn’t include really common words. “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it,” Brian Klems says. But for other words, it’s a danger. For example, there are many words to indicate eating. I might munch, crunch, gulp, slurp, etc. We bite, chew, swallow as part of the process. If every time my character eats, the word used is always the same, a reader may get annoyed. The more unusual the word, the more obvious overuse is. The shorter the piece, the more an overused word will stand out.

Overuse of Names

Be aware of how often you use a character’s name in dialogue.

“Bob, when you’re at the store…”
“Yes, Marge?”
“Will you pick up lettuce, Bob?”
“Yes, Marge.”
“And, Bob, don’t forget tomatoes.”
“Okay, Marge.”

Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? And there’s no action.

Repetitive Information

“This is redundant” is a note I put on a student lesson when the information has already been given. I often find it with the same wording. It’s like the writer forgot she wrote it. This means she is probably not spending enough time revising.

“Trust the reader to get it” is often in response to the writer showing the reader, then telling the same thing. For example:

            Jordan pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and tapped the screen. “Come on, come on. What time is it?” The phone lit up. “Four o’clock! Leo’s gonna kill me.” He shoved his feet into untied shoes, and laces flapping, raced out the door.

Jordan was late to work.

The first paragraph shows Jordan’s late for something. We don’t know what, but when he shows up at work, we’ll get it. “Jordan was late to work” is telling. Not as interesting, besides being unnecessary.

How do you find overused words or repetitive information in your own writing?

  • Check common overused words and see if they are culprits in your writing. Here’s a short list: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, next, practically, really, seems, simply, so, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, that, then, utterly, very, well.
  • Read your writing aloud. Or you can have your computer read it to you. You’ll probably hear a word or two that occurs too often, and hopefully information that you’ve already told the reader.
  • If your manuscript isn’t too long, use an online tool to catch words. You’ll copy the text and paste it in. I’ve found several options:
    • A word counter, such as https://wordcounter.com/ literally counts words and shows the results. You can ask it to exclude small words.
    • A word cloud maker. The larger the word shows in the resulting image, the more often it has been used. Here’s a generator I’ve tried: https://www.wordclouds.com/ Of course, you’ll probably see your main character’s name a lot as well as common words. But what else are you seeing?
  • Get feedback from others. Use a critique group or beta readers.

Fixing Overused Words

Some can simply be eliminated. A writer I knew called them “weasel words”—they slip their way into your writing. Removing them doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider taking an adverb and weak verb and replacing both with one stronger verb. Did she slowly climb the tree or did she inch up the tree? Same idea for adjectives and nouns. Is that big dog a Labrador or a Great Dane? See how these latter examples give you a better picture?

Think about other words you could use—we all know a lot! Ask yourself if you are using the best word. “It’s cloudy” could refer to an overcast day, a storm about to cut lose with rain, or a hurricane, but each would be very different to experience. A thesaurus is a useful tool if you get stuck, but choose words you know. Or consider how to say the sentence differently.

It can be difficult to find out where you’re stuck on repeat—that’s why using different methods is helpful. But once you become aware of your common patterns, you can use find or search in your word processor to track down the sneaky words.

Posted in Craft, It's Not Just Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Revision

Years ago a magazine editor responded to my initial submission with a letter requesting me to make changes and to resubmit the story on spec. Excited about her interest, I made the changes, cutting the manuscript from over 700 words to less than 500.

The editor wrote again: “You’ve done a great job on this revision! However…” and she went on to say how part of the story wasn’t realistic. I politely wrote back expressing why I thought it was realistic, but also offering to revise it.

The editor’s next letter began: “Sometimes the simplest stories are the trickiest to get right! We like this a lot, but…” She then pointed out a problem that made me say “OUCH!—I should have seen that.” I fixed it and sent the story again. This time my reply was an acceptance!

Of course, the editor could have sent a letter saying, “No, it still doesn’t work for us.” If that had happened, I’d have been disappointed, but still would have sent the improved manuscript off to another market.

Here are ten tips to help you with your next revision:

  1. Refresh. Set your manuscript aside for several weeks.Don’t look at it or even think about it. When you return to the manuscript, your goal is to read it as if you’ve never seen it before.
  2. Reformat. Change the font size or style, before rereading. Even simply changing margins will help you see the manuscript differently.
  3. Have someone else read it aloud. It’s amazing the mistakes I hear in a manuscript despite having silently read it over and over again. I also hear where the reader stumbles or doesn’t give my desired emphasis—both hints that I need to work on those sections. I may even realize I can’t decide who is talking without the visual cues of new paragraphs.
  4. Get your writing reviewed by other writers and listen to their critique with an open mind. Don’t automatically shut out ideas and suggestions. Even if they don’t work for you, looking through another’s eyes can stimulate your mind. However, if several point out a problem, you know you haven’t reached your target yet.
  5. Don’t stifle your own reactions. I don’t know how many times my inner voice responds to someone else’s comment with, “You knew that wasn’t quite right, didn’t you!” I also like asking myself if my story came full circle. If I can’t give myself an honest yes, I have more work to do.
  6. Request help. Sometimes, I know something isn’t working, but don’t know where to go next. Another writer may make a simple suggestion that turns the light on for me.
  7. Re-examine. Ask others what they think the theme or premise is. If you’re writing is working, their answer should be close to what you envision. Tell them what emotion you’re hoping to evoke in a scene and ask if you accomplished it. Ask them to state your story problem. If your reaction is “Wow, they didn’t get it,” it probably means you didn’t give it clearly.
  8. Renovate with viewpoint. Not just from 3rd to 1st person, although that can make a difference, too, but change who is telling the story. Make that boy a girl. Or see it through her best friend’s eyes instead of her own.
  9. Reshape. Changing the form sometimes purges the dross. Try writing poetry instead of prose, diary entries, or a newspaper report of the events. You may discover the story takes off on its own in another format.
  10. Rewrite. All the thought stirring usually motivates me to get to rewriting. Sometimes it’s with excitement; sometimes with frustration at how I’ve fallen short.

Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how revision took my manuscript to published short story in Highlights for Children (April 2000). That makes it much easier for me to revise.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Revising a Novel

typewriter-584696_1280.pngI’ve seen writers propose the 5-draft novel writing process. Others talk about how many drafts they’ve been through before the book goes to their agent/editor. What draft am I on? I never know because I revise as I go. Some writers will tell you this is wrong, but I’m not alone in my process. Jared Reck says, “I write a few scenes by hand, then go back and type and revise, then back to hand-writing — the first finished draft of A Short History of the Girl Next Door was pretty polished; it just took me four years to get to that point.”
Revising During the Writing Process – How it Works for Me
When I get ready to write a new scene or chapter after a break in writing, I read the previous one or ones. This gets me back into the story, and yes, I will make changes and additions. Typos, misspellings, or wrong words annoy me, so if I notice any, those are fixed. (I write on a computer.) Then I move forward with the story. My break could be stopping for lunch, quitting for the day and coming back the next, the weekend off, or even longer depending on what else is going on in my life.
After I’ve made some progress on a novel (more than a couple chapters), I create a novel timeline or story ladder that is unique for each novel. You can read about that process here. This helps me have a quick overview of the story anytime I need one.
I also begin to share a chapter at a time with my critique group. This reading aloud helps me spot more typos or awkward phrasings. My critique partners are good at pointing out where I need more, have confusing areas, etc. Of course, this causes more revisions. Sometimes what they say means I create a whole new scene. If that new scene requires changes elsewhere, I’ll do that during this time, too.
Then I move forward with the story again, repeating these processes until I reach the end.
Meanwhile
Meanwhile, I am always learning. I learn by attending workshops, conferences, retreats and other writing events, by reading blogs, newsletters, and articles, and by reading novels in and out of my genre. These often make me think about my story and I go back with new insights which most likely mean I need to add to my story. (I have a tendency to underwrite.)
I also learn from what my critique partners are working on. It may be what they are doing well. Or it may be something not working that I or someone else notices which makes me wonder if I’m doing the same thing.
Revisions Once the Story Is Complete
After some time away, I try to read the whole novel quickly with the purpose of thinking about the big picture of the story. I make notes on the major problem areas to work on. I also note bumps (where I stopped reading, felt something wasn’t quite right, etc.) When I’ve read the whole manuscript through, I attack the areas I’ve noted. When done, I wait a few days and reread the revisions to see if they are working.
I may ask myself questions. Sometimes, I ask my critique group the same questions about my story. E.g. Is the ending satisfying? Was the problem solved too easily? Did this scene feel realistic? Are the beginning and ending as strong?
Polishing
I have several stages in polishing. Some add to the text, such as making sure I’m using sensory details in scenes (post here). Others take words away, which includes tightening, cutting overused words, getting rid of passive verbs, etc. (my post here). But whether adding or subtracting, these methods are meant to make the writing itself stronger.
Querying
I also revise after feedback from agents I’m querying.
In the End
Is my method the best? Probably not. But it works for me. Writing a novel is not a one-size-fits-all process, so please don’t let anyone try to convince you it is.