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.

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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.
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Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life, You Are Not Alone

Feeling Isolated from Other Writers?

With stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders and the wisdom of social distancing, many of us are feeling isolated. I’m finding myself on Facebook more than usual just for socializing. What I’m personally not missing is my weekly critique group.

About four weeks ago we decided to try virtual meetings because I had moved away. Our first meeting, the others met up at a house and we Skyped with them all sitting around one computer. I was the only remote person. The next week we decided to try Zoom with each in one at home. It worked great and we’ve been using it ever since and have even added two others to our group. It’s great seeing everyone’s faces at once. We just have to be careful not to talk over each other.  (I’m paying for Zoom since free is limited to 40 minutes at a time. It’s well-worth the $16 something a month. Zoom lets me set up a recurring meeting which means the meeting starts automatically. Another member also signed up as a backup host.)

We are submitting our manuscripts on Monday and we “meet” on Thursday. After we share our comments on a manuscript, members return the notated copy to the author. Some of us do so via email as we’re using Word’s commenting. Others prefer making handwritten notes on a printed copy and mailing. It’s working well. And no one is having to drive anywhere. 

Most of us had participated in Zoom meetings (or webinars) which made us aware of the program/app. But there are other similar options. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

Whereby: the free option allows up to four people to meet at one time. For $9.99/month (probably plus tax), you can have up to 12 participants.

GoToMeeting: You can test it free for 14 days. Plans start at $12/month.

StartMeeting: Also has a free trial—theirs is 30 days. Plans start at $9.95/month.

Google has a G Suite Hangouts Meet: I found it difficult to find pricing and stopped looking.

JoinMe: There’s a free trial. For 5 participants it is $13/month. Prices go up from there. Appears that scheduling is only an option for a higher fee.

I just found this “Top 20 Alternatives & Competitors to Zoom” which will give you more info.

The point is, you don’t have to survive this virus without other writers. If you aren’t in a critique group, maybe now is the time to find one. SCBWI members should check their local regions and the Blueboard. If you’re on Facebook, you can find critique partners or do swaps through Kidlit 411 Manuscript Swap (For illustrators there’s Kidlit 411 Illustrator Critique Swap) or Sub It Club Critique Partner Matchup.

Happy meetings!

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Posted in Business Side of Writing, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, Writing Life

Creating during Anxious Times

Yesterday, a student who deals with depression and anxiety and, like all of us, now this pandemic, said that looking at the instruction manual felt overwhelming. Yet still she had sent in her assignment. In my letter back to her, I commended her for her accomplishment and then gave her some writing “work” advice.

Writing it made me aware of my own creativity. Or should I say lack thereof.  I’m finding it much easier to do a student lesson, critique someone else’s picture book or novel, than to actually create myself. It’s easy to jump on the news, Facebook (for socializing), etc. I need to take my own advice.

We all have upheaval in our lives right now with social distancing and worrying about the coronavirus. Some of you have children home full time now. You and/or your spouse may be working from home which is another adjustment. Or someone in the family has been laid off. It’s stressful. Perhaps these suggestions for making writing “work” easier will be helpful to you, too.

First, pick one task

Get that one done today and stop. Don’t worry about other writing things that need to be done. However, if doing one tasks leads you to wanting to do more, feel free. Just don’t agonize over those days when you can only do one thing.

But how do you know what task to do?

Set yourself a writing work schedule

1. Start by making a list of all the things you want to get done:
– read recent children’s books
– brainstorm ideas
– research for one idea
– work on first draft
– revise a short story, article, picture book, or chapter
– do market research
– listen to a podcast on ____ topic
– read blog posts on _____
– analyze feedback from others on my work
– write a cover/query letter for _____
– submit manuscript _____

Be as specific as possible.

See more sample task ideas at the bottom of this article and in the chart.

2. Commit to a time period whether it is a half hour or an hour or two. Pick three to five days a week.

3. Next, if you can, prioritize you list in order of most important. If none stand out, that’s okay too.

4. Then take your “to-do” list and plot them on a calendar OR during each scheduled time just pick one off of your list.

5. Add and cross-off items on your “want to get done” list.

Word by word, project by project, if you spend a little bit of time, you will make progress. Celebrate those accomplishments no matter how small.

Here’s a chart suggestion for recording what you’ve done so you can look back on it and be encouraged:

Second, remember you are not alone

We are all affected. Interacting digitally with others can help us not feel so isolated. My critique group is using Zoom to meet weekly. Don’t have a critique group? Offer to exchange critiques via email with other writers. (You can find them through SCBWI.org, on the Blueboard, through Facebook and Google groups, etc.) Talk to others in these groups. Comment on blog posts or podcasts that you found helpful. Share those links with others you know. And/or share on Twitter.

Third, encourage yourself

I’m finding myself doing a lot of what I call “comfort” reading—that’s rereading books that I know I’ll enjoy. Recently, it’s been the Harry Potter books. I’ve also connected with some old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years. I’m getting outside in the fresh air. What makes you happy? It’s necessary to take a break from all the bad news and uncertainty.

SOME RESOURCES:

“Turning Anxiety Into Creativity”

“What You Need to Know to Start Working from Home”

“10 ways to take care of yourself during coronavirus”

SAMPLE TASK IDEAS:

Subscribe to one blog post related to kidlit creativity. I don’t read them daily but spend time periodically to read posts. Some of my standbys are:

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/

Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge
https://gpattridge.com/

Susannah Leonard Hill’s “Perfect Picture Book Friday” https://susannahill.com/blog/

Institute for Children’s Literature blog
https://www.instituteforwriters.com/blogs/writing-for-children-blog/

Read recent children’s books. Whatever fits what you want to write. A novel. A handful of picture books. Chapter books. What did you learn?

Research one magazine market. Read about the magazine in the market book, go to the magazine’s website, read guidelines and editorial calendars, and sample copies if available. Take notes, if you like. I often write directly in my copy of a market book.

Search #MSWL on Twitter. Agents and editors give updates using this hashtag.

Brainstorm picture book ideas. January Storystorm posts on Tara Lazar’s site still up and can continue to be used. Here’s a link to day one: https://taralazar.com/2020/01/01/storystorm-2020-day-1/

Research agents on Manuscript Wishlist. https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/

Add sensory details to your short story or one scene in your novel. Taste, smell, texture, temperature, sound, and sight. What makes this setting unique?

Read an article on self-editing and practice one idea. Focus on a weakness. Do you have trouble with dialogue or punctuation? There’s help out there.

Read opening paragraphs in novels you like. Do you see a pattern? Can you apply it to your work?

Write up the backstory for one character. Then you can work in snippets of it throughout the novel. But beware of info dumps.

I could go on and on. All I know is doing something (like this blog post) makes me feel better than doing nothing creative. I bet the same will be true for you too.

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

Discipline

Recently, I had a student say children’s writing was “more challenging and restrictive” than she’d thought, and she was considering changing to an adult audience. It may be true that writing for adults is more a fit for her.

Or it might not. With this particular student, we’d only done three lessons together. She hadn’t tried nonfiction, which might be her niche if she’d give it a chance. The real issue, however, is that many of the mistakes she was continuing to make would be a problem for adult readers. So, audience wasn’t the issue. Could it be discipline?

My mother taught piano lessons in our home. I heard her students play scales and play scales. No one learns piano just to play scales—they want to play music! However, scales are a necessary step in the process. Students moved on to simple melodies and, if they worked at it, they advanced to more complicated songs. My mother could tell when students hadn’t practiced in between lessons. They weren’t improving. Writing is similar.

We have to practice, practice, practice no matter whether our audience is children or adults. We must learn the basics of fiction writing: grammar, point of view, setting, characterization, plot, etc. if we are going to succeed.

Like most instructors, I will re-explain a grammar issue, point of view, etc. in a different way in hopes that will work for the student. But sometimes I wonder, did she read what I wrote in my previous letter? Did he even try?

In both courses I teach, we give the students deadlines. Deadlines encourage discipline. Often, the students that progress the fastest are the ones who meet or beat the deadlines. Each lesson builds upon the ones before. When too much time passes between lessons, students forget what they learned earlier. I have to reteach concepts. It slows their progress which can cause frustration for both of us.

All writing is challenging in one way or another. Sometimes it’s coming up with the idea or angle. Or making a character and/or setting come alive. Or perhaps the plot isn’t working. Or the dialogue. But once those frameworks are in place, we still have to check for flow, get rid of unnecessary words, add more detail or information when necessary, etc. And, of course, proofread. The first story I sold to Highlights went through two revisions with the editor before it was accepted. This was after it had been critiqued by fellow writers and revised several times.

I love this quote from Harper Lee, “To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not.” And as Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence, motivation, and discipline.”

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