Monday, April 25, 2022

Correctly Placing Misplaced Modifiers

 Alas, I constantly edit, even when I'm not being paid for it, the author didn't ask for it, and I can't actually share it. It's just a compulsion that happens as I read, especially news stories that have presumably already been edited. 

And heck, why not share the compulsion here? Maybe someone will learn from it. I do 'revision sessions' sometimes with students, just editing on-screen and explaining as I go, and this misplaced modifier problem is one of the most common and also one of the most easily fixed mistakes.

In a sentence, a "modifier" is a word or phrase or clause which "modifies" or deepens or narrows the meaning of another part of the sentence. The most common modifiers are the one-word adjectives and adverbs which add to the meaning of a noun or verb, like: The girl's outfit proudly proclaimed her Ukrainian heritage.

But often the modifier can be an entire phrase: 

  • The play took place in the old Gem Theater
  • He was waiting for the bus to come
  • The morning before the party, the dog got sick.

Or the modifier can be an entire clause (with a noun and verb):
  • He didn't notice the shocked silence that fell across the room when he wrote his name on the board.
  • The more you remember, the more you have to forget.
  • --

Some modifiers are "bound"-- that is, they have to be in a particular position, like just before the noun they modify. You know-- The pink dress. (Not --  The dress pink.) These "bound" modifiers are usually single words or short phrases that modify a noun (that is, they are "adjectival," which means "modifies the noun" :). 

Usually, however, modifiers are unbound, especially the phrase and clause ones, and therein lies the problem. An unbound modifier can "legally" be moved around to different parts of the sentence, but what's possible isn't always what you mean. Sometimes being too free-range with modifiers creates the horrific crime of a dangler, where impossible and sometimes painful things happen:

One day she hunted for a moose wearing diamond earrings.

Decisively slashing the knife, her eyes narrowed with purpose.


I have a lot of examples of this kind of mistake, but just for now, let's fix an easy one, adapted from a sentence in a major mag article:

She admitted her enjoyment of the bullying on Facebook last year. 

Many misplaced phrases have to do with time or place-- the "where and when" of the sentence. I see this most often when there are more than one actions in the sentence, as here:

She /admitted /her enjoyment /of the bullying. (Ignore the "on Facebook" and "last year" for a moment so we can focus on the kernel sentence.)

Subject/Verb/direct object/prepositional adjectival phrase.

We usually think of action as being represented by the sentence verb (here, admitted), but actions can also be shown in nouns (participation, bullying). So here there are three actions, all of which took place but perhaps not all at once. 

Actions take place somewhere sometime, and "somewhere sometime" are often important "condition markers" to add to a sentence. (I mean, these words and phrases mark an important condition that changes or specifies something about HOW the action happens.)

But while the position of where/when modifiers might be moveable, the reality isn't: SOMETHING happened last year. SOMETHING happened on Facebook. 


1. The admission.

She admitted last year...


She admitted on Facebook...

2. Her enjoyment.

...  her enjoyment on Facebook...


...  her enjoyment last year...

3. The bullying.

...of the bullying on Facebook.


...of the bullying last year.

(I know, not a great sentence because I modified it to protect the guilty. :)

Because the author placed the where/when modifiers at the end of the sentence, right after "bullying", readers will be forced to assume that the bullying took place last year on Facebook. And that might be exactly what happened (although it's not in this case).

But... what if that's not right? What if the bullying took place last year at school, and she enjoyed viewing a video about it last week, and is only admitting it on Facebook?

What happened on Facebook?

What happened last year?

(Some of this info might have been revealed in previous sentences, though not in this case. And still, that's no excuse for imprecision in this sentence. When all it takes is a moment to get it right, make it right. :)

What's a revision which makes those very clear so that the readers won't be confused about what happened when and where?

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment of the bullying last year.


She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of the bullying last year.

Sometimes it helps to "bind" a modifier to the modified word so that there's absolutely no question--

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of last year's bullying.


This is just one sentence and one set of facts, and one point of misplacement. Though I will try, there's no way to identify every possible opportunity for imprecision. 

There are as many options as there are possible permutations of actions and actors and conditions in any sentence. But ONLY ONE IS CORRECT. This isn't about delicate subtext or deliberate ambiguity or debated issues. This is just about placing factual information in the correct place in the sentence. You can get it right as easily as you can get it wrong. But you have to recognize when it's wrong, and then make it right.

Anyhoo, point is: Be sensitive to the meaning you create when you put a modifier somewhere in the sentence. Stop and think about the various interpretations the readers might make of this placement, and whether moving the modifier might make more sense. Time and/or place modifiers are especially tricky.

So if I mean the ADMISSION, not the enjoyment or the bullying, took place on Facebook, I have two easy options (the first being optimal):

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment in the bullying.

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment in the bullying.

I have a bunch more examples that I'll post and fix in the future. Usually in order not to shame the writers and editors (who, grumble grumble, should know better), I'll change the words and keep the construction.

This is what passes for giggly gossip in my life. :)

A blast from the past-

The columnist James Kilpatrick used to devote his first column of the year to the many ways you can place and misplace the word "only" as a modifier in a sentence, and used this example to show the difference in meaning:

  1. Only John hit Peter in the nose.
  2. John hit only Peter in the nose.
  3. John hit Peter only in the nose.
  4. John only hit Peter in the nose.

(Wouldn't you say "ON the nose"? I would. I'm not sure how deep I would want to hit IN the nose.)

"Almost" and "already" and "just" are other common modifiers that can be moved almost anywhere, but each placement means something different.

Here is a nice British professor who does a great job of showing how to determine what a modifier modifies and how it works in a sentence. 

You can find some good examples of misplaced modifiers at this Guelph University site. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

What is your story's praxis?


I like to listen to the author readings of their own stories in the New Yorker podcast. It's an enjoyable way to keep up with what's going on in literary fiction, and often inspires bloggy-type ruminations for me. A recent story, “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams, made me think about the "story praxis", which is my own not-very-precise term for "what the central process is". Determining this is more helpful, I think, in a short story because they are usually more focused and narrow in purpose than a novel. But it might be useful also to consider what your story's central process is, even in a novel.

For example, the praxis (or process or progression) might be an interrogation or a quest or... Well, in this story, the praxis is a puzzle-- one that is never solved. This isn't a real spoiler-- the question is posed on the second page-- but the main characters find themselves in a remote cabin with no neighbors, phone, internet, or memory of how they came to be here.  That's the puzzle at the center: Who put them here and why?

It's a very intriguing puzzle, and shapes the story both narratively (as they try to figure it out) and syntactically (the prose style is descriptive and observational). What makes this a New Yorker story, I think, is that they never do find out. They keep creating tests and experimenting and seeking clues, but that quest becomes so circular, they start to lose track of why they are even trying. There's a spiral-shape, I think, to the narrative, as they circle and circle the question, and it always takes them deeper into un-knowing.

BTW, this was Mr. Williams's first published story. Imagine STARTING your short story career at the New Yorker!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Has a publisher held your book hostage for 35 years? Here's a way to get the rights back, legal and free.

 I actually sold my first book when I was a pre-teen, okay, 24 years old. That was back in the Dark Ages, pre-internet, heck, pre-personal computers. There was a huge publishing boom then-- paperback originals-- and I know there are many like me who assumed then that the "7-year-limited-license" meant that the publisher only got the use of the book for 7 years. Silly me!

 In fact, publishers had all sorts of ways to keep extending that license without our permission, keeping our own books from us for decades with minimal payment and no new contract.

But... Congress enacted a rule allowing artists of all kinds (Paul McCartney used this for his old songs) to regain the rights to their works after 35 years post-sale. There's now a five-year period where we can easily reclaim the rights to our own works. 

You can learn more about that here:

Reclaiming your copyright after 35 years: a new opportunity    

Starting in 2013, authors began to have the ability to reclaim copyrights they transferred to a publisher in 1978 or later. Copyright law permits authors to reclaim their copyrights 35 years after transferring rights for purposes of publication. Authors interested in reclaiming copyright need to file a notice in advance, according to a designated timetable.

Reclaiming copyright allows the author to make new publishing arrangements, including making the work openly available on the web, or taking advantage of new economic opportunities.

Take back the rights! :)


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

15 Questions to Get into Your Character and Setting


15 Questions to Get into Your Character and Setting

I'm working on a 7-day "writer's block buster" program, and have "listing" as one of the techniques. 

This exploration doesn't exactly fit into that exercise, but I wanted to post it here because it's sort of similar, and .... well, I think it's useful when we feel like we can't really get into the emotions and perceptions of our character. I'll  list the questions so you can try this if you want, then give an example of what I did with it. What I like is by keeping it all pithy-- one line for each question-- I was forced to focus on the most evocative details. It's a really good way to go deep quickly.

So this is adapted from an exercise by Les Edgerton, who wrote the great Writer's Digest book Voice.

It's about getting into character and FEELING the setting in this scene, and then letting the setting details lead to the character emotion.

Read each question aloud and then jot down its answer without pausing. As the scene opens, become the scene POV character– YOU are the character.

Where are you?

What do you see right around you?

What time is it? What is the light like?

What is your body doing?

What do you hear right this moment?

What do you think that sound is?

What do you feel under your feet?

What do you feel in your hands?

What do you feel on your face?

What do you feel in your heart?

What do you smell?

What do you taste in your mouth?

Who is with you?

What do you hope will happen?

What do you fear will happen?


Okay, what did you learn about your character and setting????  And, most important, now that you know all that, how are you going to use it in your scene?

So here's an example of how I used this free-association exercise as a way to feel the setting from inside the character.

(Carrie's point of view-- at her gran's cottage after the funeral)
Where are you?
Kitchen of Gran's cottage.

What do you see right around you?
The yellow vinyl breakfast nook booth, the old sink with the window above it and a dirty pot soaking.

What time is it? What is the light like?
Twilight. Darkness edging outside. I have turned the overhead light on and the porchlight too.

What is your body doing?
Standing at sink, hands in soapy water.

What do you hear right this moment?
Muffled voices out in the living room. Water splashing under my hands.

What do you think that sound is?
The friends who came to Gran's wake are saying goodbye to my husband Josh. I should be out there to thank them for coming.

What do you feel under your feet?
The old yellow linoleum floor. Now Gran will let me replace it.

What do you feel in your hands?
Water. Soap. The aluminum pot. Bits of gritty food from the pot.

What do you feel on your face? 
Dried tears. Dried soap where I touched.

What do you feel in your heart?
Lostness. Anger.

What do you smell?
Dishwasher soap. The last remains of the haloupki Mrs. Novak brought--
tomato and cabbage.

What do you taste in your mouth?
Hard water from the well. Bitter.

Who is with you?
Gran's friends. Aunt Barb. My husband Josh. My high school sweetheart Zach. They're all out in the living room. But I'm alone here in the kitchen.

What do you hope will happen?
That everyone will leave. Josh too.

What do you fear will happen?
That everyone will leave. Josh too.

Just freewriting that made me realize how estranged she was from her husband, and how this funeral made that clear. The washing the dishes, avoiding him, in Gran's kitchen, that made their estrangement resonant.

Analyze and Apply

Work for the emotion. Locate it. Embed it in the details. Make the character interact with the setting– but make the interaction manifest the emotion. So she's not in the living room crying with the other mourners– she's washing dishes in the kitchen, so we get the idea she's avoiding everyone. The water is warm but gritty with food bits. What does that say? Heck, I don't know, but it's sad without saying it's sad... like even this cleansing activity isn't so cleansing, just like the ritual of the funeral doesn't actually provide much closure. Everything in the kitchen reminds her of Gran, but not in a simple way– she thinks  of the yellow linoleum Gran never let her replace, for example.

Maybe she'd been crying, but now the tears are dry on her face.

One thing about real emotion is that it's not black-and-white. It's kinda complicated. It's not always direct. So she loved her Gran, but it's hard to face her death straight on. So where is Gran? And where isn't she?
Gran's in that old kitchen– the memory is there. But not in the obvious things like a framed needlework. Look for something a bit off– the peeling yellow linoleum Gran didn't let Carrie replace.

 When my grandmother died, we were all flummoxed about what to do with those awful commemorative plates that she had mounted on the wall by the dinette. She used to ask everyone she knew who went on vacation to bring back a plate for her. So there was a plate with the outline of the
Eiffel Tower, and one that proclaimed Wisconsin Dells! You know the sort of plate I mean. 

Well, none of us wanted them, but we couldn't throw them away. We ended up giving them to an old aunt, who wept over them like they were the Faberge Easter Egg collection. Anyway, doesn't that tell
you something about my grandma? And about me, that I loved her but really didn't want her dumb plates?

Use such details if you can. Objects carry emotional significance. Let's say after the funeral you're delegated to go through your grandmother's clothes to sort them out to give to Goodwill. What one item can you not give away? That item has emotional significance. You don't have to know why exactly ("I can smell her Emeraude perfume?") but it matters to you, right? Well, you don't necessarily have to know why you put this object there in the scene, but if it resonates within you, there's a reason.

I asked this at a workshop, and a woman in the front row said, with a breaking voice, "I kept a flannel shirt my husband wore." She knew exactly what I meant– because she'd done it herself, kept one item of emotional significance after her husband's death.

Avoid the generic. Don't go quirky for quirky's sake, but when it comes to objects, don't choose the same one everyone would choose. Let's say you have a young woman who is about to go off to college. What surprising item does she take with her? What does she leave behind? 

If she takes the photobooth picture of her and her best friend and leaves behind her old teddy bear, the reader isn't going to get much of a charge, because that's kind of generic. If she takes, oh, let's see, her piggy bank and leaves behind her passport... hmm. Now that means something unique. Don't know what... but the reader will figure it out. "She's afraid that she'll just leave– never go back. So she leaves her passport so that she can't just take off. She can't just leave home forever." Well, okay, maybe...
all I know is when I challenged my subconscious, that's what it told me.

Give your character something to do in the scene. I tend to write dialogue-heavy scenes, where all they are doing is talking (in a fascinating way, of course :). But if I put them in a meaningful setting,
or make it meaningful, and think about what there is to do in that setting, what objects are nearby. Give them a task, even if it's just getting dressed or washing the dishes. One writer told me she had a
character talking while he cleaned a gun, then when he finished, he loaded the gun and shot the person he was talking to! Now that's using an object to show emotion. :)

Just remember not to get heavyhanded, 10th grade English class symbolic mode. Instead of using generic symbols (the lowering sky, the cross reflected in the puddle), think about what object would have symbolic, emotional,or metaphorical significance to this character. We don't have to love
antique thimbles ourselves as long as we understand that this thimble signifies something important to the heroine. We can utterly hate muscle cars as ecologically unsound gas guzzlers, but we can still "feel" for the guy when he discovers a scratch on the GTO he restored with his older brother.

Look for objects which matter to the characters, and then let them work with them, use them. Also consider putting those objects at risk. Or have the objects put them at risk. Let's face it, people have DIED running back into their burning house to save a photo album or Mom's embroidered
pillowcases. My sister and I used to groan about my parents who kept this horrible old skillet of my grandma's, with a bad handle that rotates and dumps the hot food on your feet half the time. Not only would my parents not throw it away, they still used it every day! My sis and I talked about stealing it and burying it in the woods. :)

And you  know what? When my parents died, my sister grabbed that skillet, and still uses it. And I bet she still hasn't fixed the handle.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Heroic Flaw: Free Characterization Workshop with Alicia Rasley 2/12 2pm ET

  Alicia T Rasley


Heroic Flaw: Characterization Workshop with Alicia Rasley

Deepen your characterization with the Heroic Flaw

February 12th 2022 // 2:00pm ET

The Heroic Flaw: To deepen your characterization, learn to create "The Heroic Flaw": That which makes them great brings them down! We'll discuss how to use the character's great strength against them, to bring them into conflict, and force them to change.
This workshop will be presented Feb. 12 by Alicia Rasley, award-winning writer, experienced editor, and affirmative teacher.

Sign up here! Even if you can't attend then, sign up and I'll send a replay link after.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Starting with Idea: The Thought-driven Story

 Let's talk today about “idea” as a way to start a story. Some stories, especially those classified as “speculative fiction,” start not with anything concrete like character or setting, but with an idea to be explored.

As science fiction writer Orson Scott Card explains, “Idea stories are about the process of seeking and discovering new information through the eyes of characters who are driven to make the discoveries.”

That’s really the appeal of an idea story. No matter what it turns out to be, it starts as an intellectual puzzle. In the spirit of that sort of intellectual mission, let’s consider some ways an idea can start a story.

Questions. For example, many mysteries start with a scene that presents a question, one of the oldest questions of all, “Whodunnit?” But most authors add some additional complication, like, what could kill a man alone in a locked room? (Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal detective story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was perhaps the first to pose that question.) The point of these “idea-mysteries” is to challenge the intellect of the sleuth (and author and reader) to go beyond the expected and familiar to speculate, innovate, and interrelate clues to come up with possible though unlikely solutions.

What-ifs. This is a specialized question that truly is speculative, as it seeks to imagine something that hasn’t happened (and probably won’t). This is more of an experiment than an exploration. A good recent example is The Martian, which poses the question, “What if an astronaut was left behind on Mars?” A great classic example is Oedipus the King, which asks, “What if the detective learns he’s actually the murderer?”

There’s also a what-if variety that experiments with the past. Alternative histories like Harry Turtledove’s The Great War inspire the author and reader to consider how the present might be changed if an important past event were changed. These alternative histories have a point beyond the mere alteration, however. Philip K. Dick’s “Man in the High Castle” takes the question “What if the Nazis had taken over the United States?” to pose the deeper question, “Would Americans resist?”

Themes. A theme is a message, a “moral to the story,” that can usually be stated in a sentence, but is better developed through story events. The film Chinatown, for example, uses the “water wars” of southern California to explore the theme of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The difficult task in theme-based stories is to avoid being preachy. I’d suggest having the theme in mind and creating characters who have to discover that truth, but only at the END of the story. That way, the theme evolution will be a more organic process.

Perspective. A perspective-based story requires, you guessed it, an alteration of perspective, demonstrating that what you see is dictated partly by where you’re seeing from. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities juxtaposes the experience of the French Revolution in Paris with that of London, that of a victim with that of an observer. A variation of this perspective-test is the “fish out of water” plot, where our world is viewed through the eyes of an alien or stranger.

In my opinion, this is one of the most socially important genres, as it forces our notoriously solipsistic species to examine ourselves objectively—something more and more essential in a diverse culture.

Concepts. A concept is the simplest and yet most profound of ideas, often expressed in a single word— Freedom. Dispossession. Exile. The speculative aspect of this comes from recognizing that simple concepts are actually the opposite of simple and that only a story and a character can truly portray the complexities. For example, the film Casablanca explores the concept of “neutrality” through the cynical and detached character of Rick, a symbol of the isolationist United States trying to stay isolated in those dark months before Pearl Harbor.

Starting with the concept but developing it through the complications of a 3-D person within a culture is a good way to avoid the sort of closed system that readers of speculative fiction loathe.

Twists. This story takes something conventional and twists it to produce something both familiar and exotic. You’ll often see this in novels aimed at teens and pre-teens, as connecting the normal with the unusual trains them in the important mental skill of skepticism and imagination.

The trick here is to make the base story perfectly plausible (Harry Potter really is going to boarding school and taking courses, but they’re about incantations and potions), so that the twist is more fun, making the familiar unfamiliar.

All of these idea types pose the risk of becoming just tricks. To avoid that risk, consider that each of these should lead to a deeper question, and that is in the end what we want to explore in the story.

When I read Ender’s Game, for example, the "twist" is clear-- (spoiler warning) the children thought they were training on a videogame to stop an alien invasion, but in the end, it turns out the game was real and they'd just stopped the invasion. But I found the deeper question to be, “Why do we sacrifice our children for war?” That deeper question leads to the plot development that the adults deceive the children that war is just a game.

Another way to make an idea into a full-fledged story is to embody the idea inside a character’s journey. Ask yourself who needs to learn this theme or experience this twist? Oedipus, for example, is an arrogant man who will not accept the power of the gods over him. So he has to be forcibly confronted with the fact that they control his fate.

The most successful idea stories start with an idea… but they don’t end there. The idea is more than just a statement or speculation, but rather a process whereby the reader and characters experience the idea and come to understand what it really means.