Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Are You Cheating Your Reader?

Sally couldn't wait to tell her best friend, Rhea, that Tommy had finally asked her to the Junior-Senior Prom. The dance was only three days away, and she'd need Rhea to help her shop for a killer outfit to make sure Saturday's date wouldn't be the last between Sally and Tommy. She'd waited and hoped for this for so long, and it was finally true!
She rushed down the crowded hall to her locker, which was next to Rhea's. They'd exchanged many quick secrets in the moments between classes while they switched out one set of books for another. The date with Tommy was one secret Rhea wouldn't have to keep for long. Sally couldn't wait for Paula to learn she'd lost in the race for Tommy's attention. A delicious thrill rushed through her at the thought of the double victory.
As she passed dreamy Mr. Holton's classroom, she glanced through the tiny rectangle window in the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of him--and stopped in her tracks. The hallway noise faded, and Sally barely noticed getting bumped by students passing her. Behind the closed door to Mr. Holton's darkened room, Tommy held Rhea in his lap as they engaged in a wet, sloppy kiss.
Chapter Two
Sally whistled as she walked to school the next day. On the way, she stopped by the Community Church. Would the doors be open at this time of day? She ran up the steps to find out--they were! Walking softly through the silent sanctuary, she came to a midway point and sat on the padded pew. Dear Lord, Please forgive Tommy and Rhea for what they were doing yesterday. I'm sure they didn't mean to hurt me. 
Feeling better, she left the sanctuary and rushed to school. Today she'd discover how well she'd done on her math test!
Feel cheated? I certainly did when I read something along this vein recently. Instead of finding it at the beginning of the novel, I found it near the end, which tells me the author was rushing to finish the manuscript and she didn't want to take the time to explore Sally's emotions after being betrayed--or she was afraid to explore them. Whatever her excuse, she cheated.
Usually the example of an author's failure to follow through for their readers isn't quite this blatant. Still, for whatever reason, such scenes occur, and my advice to the writer is simple: Don't do that!
It's a dirty trick, let me tell you. The author piqued my interest, so of course I continued reading, which is what any author would want. But when the book ended and the only other reference I found to the two times she dangled something meaty over me was a catch-all that eliminated both problems with a wave of her hand, I was left unsatisfied--which isn't what the author wants. Such is the stuff that sparks bad reviews and discourages a first-time reader from reading your second book.
Whenever you introduce something new into your novel, follow it through to its logical conclusion. You don't have to tie it up in a pretty little bow, but you can't leave it dangling, either. Explore the emotions and present the actions required to settle the issue, or cut the entire scene as dead weight and move on.
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Monday, July 29, 2013

Misplaced Modifiers: From the Misleading to the Ridiculous

by

Donn Taylor


            One of the basic grammattical errors in writing is the misplaced modifier. And in spite of all the copy editing and proofreading that goes into printing most novels, quite a number of misplaced modifiers still slip through. The result can be anything from misleading to ridiculous, but always a distraction from the writer's actual meaning. So I am visiting the problem once again, providing a few bits of good advice as well as a few laughs—some from published novels, some from journalism and other sources.


            In normal English usage, a modifying phrase refers to the noun or pronoun (or sometimes verb) closest to it. A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying phrase is placed away from the noun or pronoun the writer intends it to modify. The results are always confusing, but often ridiculous:

             Looking in through the window, the new sofa could be seen.

            This construction places the sofa simultaneously outside the window looking in and inside the building being seen. Physicists tell us this is probably possible with subatomic particles, but they have not yet extended that theory to sofas.
            This kind of misplaced modifier usually occurs when the writer begins the sentence thinking active voice and, after the comma, changes to passive voice. The most common cures are to give the modifier something logical to modify or to change the modifying phrase to a dependent clause:

                 Looking in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

                 or, When I looked in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

            Writers should find their misplaced modifiers during proofing or revision. The cure is always to rewrite the sentence so that the modifier is placed as close as possible to the word (noun, pronoun, verb) it modifies. With that lesson learned, let’s enjoy some prime examples that somehow crept through the editing process in novels from first-line CBA publishers. (I leave to my readers the process of moving the modifier to a logical place or rewriting the sentence to establish logic. I will content myself with a few sardonic comments.)


                        “[A] man in grey slacks and a blue blazer holding a walkie-talkie waved at them.”

Comment: Those sports jackets get more versatile every day!

                        Taking his first step, the slippery surface caused him to fall flat on his back.”

Comment: Male surfaces that walk? Must be Sci-fi.

                        Standing up slowly, a wave of vertigo swept through him.”

Comment: Would things have been worse if the wave had stood up quickly?

                        Having come straight from the airport in the clothes they’d worn to travel, his query made sense.”

Comment: Casually dressed queries rarely make sense.

                        Adorned in mostly homemade ornaments, its pine scent mingled with the kitchen aromas.”

Comment: Adorned or unadorned, the scent still smelled. But at least it was sociable.

                        Hidden away in the cabin, my mind continued to wander.”

Comment: Confined to the cabin, it couldn’t wander far.


                         [Name] tore into a piece of French toast as his eyes scanned the copy, letting out an expletive.

Comment: He should wash his eyes out with soap.
 


 But some of the most ridiculous examples come from local newspapers:


                        [The driver] allegedly ran the stoplight where the roads intersect at a high rate of speed.

Question: Did the cops cite the roads for speeding?
                    

                        [The student] did not detect the small machete wrapped in plastic bags that her father uses as a tool on hunting trips under the seat.

Comment: Most people would hunt outside the truck.
 

                        The governor shot the coyote that he said was threatening his daughter’s puppy with a Ruger .380-caliber pistol.

Comment: The coyote had his teeth on the trigger.

             The principle to remember: Keep the modifiers close to the words they modify. In revising and proofing, look for misplaced modifiers and move them to their proper places.

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