Category Archives: Resources for Writers

Dangling modifiers

Dangling, misplaced and squinting modifiers

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*Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM). Other style manuals, such as CMOS, may differ.

Dangling, misplaced and squinting. These terms might sound odd, but they belong to real grammatical issues, sometimes the result of which can be quite amusing, if not confusing. Let’s look at how to avoid them with a little rearranging of text.

Dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier (or dangling/hanging participle) is a phrase that has been left out in the cold because it has nothing to modify. Most commonly, dangling modifiers appear at the start of a sentence, but wherever they appear, they make readers pause in confusion.

Incorrect:

  • Sitting under a tree, the shade felt cool.

Here, the phrase ‘sitting under a tree’ is modifying ‘the shade’ – the first subject that follows. While there often is shade under a tree, it doesn’t sit there feeling cool. So the real subject is missing.

To fix this issue, you need to include a noun or pronoun for the phrase to modify, else rewrite the phrase as a subordinate clause.

Adding a noun or pronoun:

  • Sitting under a tree, Sarah felt cool in the shade.
  • Sitting under a tree, she felt cool in the shade.

Rewriting the phrase as a subordinate clause:

  • Because Sarah was sitting under a tree, she felt cool in the shade.
  • Because she was sitting in the shade of a tree, Sarah felt cool.
  • Sitting under a shady tree, Sarah felt cool.

Misplaced modifier

A misplaced modifier is a clause, phrase or word that doesn’t sit next to the subject it is meant to be modifying. Here’s where we sometimes see a humorous outcome.

Incorrect:

  • He proposed to her under a chestnut tree with a big smile.

Did the tree have a big smile? Unless the text is a fantasy novel, probably  not.

  • She ordered an orange cake for his birthday yesterday.

Was his birthday yesterday? No, she ordered the cake yesterday.

Correct:

  • With a big smile, he proposed to her under a chestnut tree.
  • Yesterday, she ordered an orange cake for his birthday.

Squinting Modifiers

A squinting modifier ‘looks both ways’. This means it could be read as modifying the words placed before or after it, resulting in ambiguity.

Incorrect:

  • After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon I ate the cream off the top.

This could be read as ‘I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon’ or ‘with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top’.

Correct:

  • After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top.
  • After I stirred my iced coffee, I ate the cream off the top with a long spoon.

Incorrect:

  • Cats that eat grass often throw up on carpets.

Do the cats eat grass often, or do they often throw up?

Correct:

  • Cats that eat grass, often throw up on their owner’s carpet.
  • Cats that eat grass often, throw up on their owner’s carpet.

How to use a semicolon

How to use a semicolon

Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM).

Semicolons are probably the most misused punctuation mark.

If you don’t know how to use a semicolon, you’re not alone. Love them or hate them, some writers regularly confuse semicolons with commas, most likely because they’ve never been taught the correct usage.

While commas can be a bit slippery – editors sometimes disagree over whether one should stay or go, especially in fiction – the wonderful (I love its elegant little tail) semicolon has only three distinct uses. Once you’ve grasped those three concepts, you’ll find them much easier to use correctly.

Three ways to use a semicolon

 


1. Join two closely related independent clauses.

 

Note: An independent clause is a sentence that can stand alone. It’s sometimes called a main clause.

Correct: Kelly loves to eat pickles; she enjoys their salty, tangy taste.

These are two independent clauses with their own subjects and verbs. Each clause could stand alone if you decided to use a full stop instead.

Incorrect: Kelly loves to eat pickles; their salty, tangy taste.

This is an independent clause followed by a phrase. The phrase ‘their salty, tangy taste’ is acting as a noun phrase, so you might ask ‘What are you saying about their salty, tangy taste?’

Correct: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal; his waistline now paid the price.

Here we have two independent clauses. Each can stand on its own. Perfect!

Incorrect: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal; his waistline now paying the price.

Here, we have an independent clause followed by a subordinate clause, which has a subject and finite verb phrase (paying the price), but again it doesn’t make any sense without being attached to its independent clause.

A simple fix would be to add a comma and conjunction as follows:

Correct: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal, so his waistline now paid the price.


2. Join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb.

 

  1. I said I wasn’t going to do the test; however, I relented and did it anyway.
  2. Dave was always missing practice; consequently, he was put on notice.
  3. You can usually depend on the timetable; nevertheless, there will be exceptions.

*Note: Conjunctive adverbs are always followed by a comma.


3. Clarify a complex list with internal punctuation.

 

To avoid confusion, a semicolon helps to separate items that carry their own punctuation.

Correct: Mary went shopping and bought a blue tote bag; a bright-orange, square beach towel; a pair of sandals, which gave her a blister; and two pairs of funky sunglasses, each with a different design.

As you can see, some items within the list carry their own punctuation:

  • A bright-orange, square beach towel
  • A pair of sandals, which gave her a blister
  • two pairs of funky sunglasses, each with a different design

Incorrect: Mary went shopping and bought a blue tote bag; a bright-orange bag; a beach towel; a pair of sandals; and two pairs of funky sunglasses.

In this example, commas would be a better choice of punctuation.

Note: when using semicolons to separate complex lists, the last item always has a semicolon and an ‘and’.


Picture of gold punctuation marks

How to punctuate dialogue

Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM).

Dialogue punctuation is an area of fiction writing that often baffles new and experienced authors alike.

Here you will find simple explanations on how to punctuate and lay out your dialogue, plus the difference between direct dialogue, indirect dialogue and internal dialogue.

Single or double ‘quote marks’?

Single and double quote marks (also known as quotation marks) vary from country to country and publishers usually have the final decision to fit their in-house styles. Generally, Australian and UK publishers prefer single quotes, whereas US publishers prefer double, though this can still vary. The main thing is to be consistent in your choice. It’s easy enough to complete a Find/Replace in Word if you eventually decide to switch. I have used single quote marks in these examples, but you can use your own preference.

What goes inside dialogue quote marks?

Only two things should be placed within dialogue quote marks:
A. What a character says out loud (direct speech)

‘Don’t sit there. The paint’s still wet,’ he said.

B. Dialogue punctuation (e.g. comma, full stop, question mark, exclamation mark, ellipses)

  1. ‘I’m not sure if I like this,’ Ruth said. ‘It’s scary.’
  2. ‘Haven’t you done this before?’ John asked, looking amused.
  3. ‘No. Wait!’ Ruth took a step back. ‘It’s … a lot higher than I thought.’

What goes outside dialogue quote marks?

Dialogue tags  (said, asked, called, murmured, yelled etc.)
Dialogue tags are used to flag which character is speaking and often help the reader understand the tone of the character’s dialogue.

  1. ‘Will you be joining us for dinner?’ he asked.
  2. The waiter called out, ‘Sir, you left your jacket.’
  3. She leaned in and whispered, ‘Don’t forget to lock your door.’
  4. ‘Well, if you’d told me,’ David mumbled, ‘we could have worked it out.’
  5. ‘Don’t be so hasty to decide,’ Verity said. ‘You still have plenty of time.’

Notes:

  • Dialogue tags are always punctuated with a comma, unless the speech is interrupted and a new sentence begins with a capital letter (see example 5).
  • Dialogue always starts with a capital letter, unless a sentence is interrupted by a tag or action and the same sentence then continues. In this case, use lower case to continue the dialogue. (See example 4).
  • Dialogue tags are also known as attributions.

Action tags (an action the character does)

Action tags are used to flag which character is speaking, and sometimes to aid characterisation. They can also provide an alternative to repetitive dialogue tags.

She shook her head. ‘It’s not the same.’
‘It’s over here.’ Tom pointed to the shelf.

but when using both an action and a dialogue tag:

She shook her head and said, ‘It’s not the same.’

Notes:

  • Action tags are always punctuated with a full stop.
  •  Action tags are sometimes called action beats.

Dialogue without tags

If it’s clear which character is speaking, it’s not necessary to use a tag at all.

David and his brother stood looking at the broken window while their father glowered. ‘Which one of you kids did this?’

Direct Speech – Indirect Speech – Internal Dialogue

Direct speech is dialogue spoken aloud and is enclosed in quote marks:

‘Good job, David,’ she said.

Indirect speech is reported speech and does not require quote marks.

Jason said he would be there, but Susan had her doubts.

Internal Dialogue is the equivalent of thought and requires no quote marks.

Mark wondered if this was such a good idea. What if it all went wrong?

Interrupted Dialogue

When dialogue is interrupted by either an action or thought, use em dashes to set off the interruption, but do not use commas.

Interruption by action

‘When I applied for this job’—she pursed her lips to calm herself—‘you said you would support me.’

Interruption by indirect thought

‘Take three drops of rose oil’—he wondered if he had the amounts right—‘and blend it with the other ingredients.’

Interruption by  direct thought

I should have eaten when Mum offered—now that my stomach is grumbling—but I hadn’t been hungry then.

Interruption by another character’s dialogue

Gerry grabbed his satchel and turned to Kathy, who was balancing the cash register. ‘So when you’ve finished doing that, you’ll—’
‘Yes, yes. Bank the takings, and lock up the shop,’ she said. ‘Get going or you’ll miss your train.’

Trailing off dialogue

When a character trails off their speech, use an ellipses with one space prior.

Mary’s brow furrowed. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe if I …’ She bent to pick up the broken plate, then sat on the kitchen stool weeping.

Coming next:

Quotes within quotes

Image source: Pixabay

Picture of writing in a book

Competitions & opportunities

There’s only one way to get yourself noticed as a writer.

You’re writing because you want to read, correct? So you need to take a chance on your work being seen by those know. Entering short story, unpublished manuscript or poetry competitions is a great way to firstly, get your writing chops moving, and secondly, get your name circulating where it counts – within the world of readers, writers, editors and publishers.

Whether you’re new to the game or have been doodling away for years, if your words are staying hidden on your computer or smart phone, in your bottom draw or journal, you’re never going to know the satisfaction of being published.

Of course, before sending off any submission, you’ll want it to be the best it can be: polished and proofread. Workshopping through a writing group, engaging a beta reader or a professional editor will increase your chances multi-fold. If a judge spots errors in your first few paragraphs, or they can see you have no idea about point of view, character development and story arcs, I can assure you they won’t read any further – and why should they? If you can’t be bothered to put in your best effort, why should they give you their valuable time?

So go to it!

Below is the link to Writers Victoria current list of competitions and writing opportunities. Good luck and remember:  Rejection is not failure, but a step closer to your goal. 

Writers Victoria – Opportunities and Competitions


negative_reviews

Ouch! Negative reviews

Dealing with criticism is one of the realities of becoming a published author.

People outside our supportive circle of friends and family are going to read and publicly comment on our work. Fabulous! Isn’t that why you write? To affect people? To make them think, to stir their emotions?

But what happens when those comments are constructions of uninformed bile or troll fodder? And all you want to do is stab yourself in the heart? Or better still, stab the reviewer in the heart? How satisfying would that be?

As writers, we know not everyone will fawn over our work, and that’s okay. Potato Potarto. But when we come across a review that’s absolutely stinging and deliberately misconstrued, it can stick in our writerly craws for weeks, months sometimes wiping out every good review we’ve ever read about our work (so sometimes we’re drama queens). Damn it! I hate that. Get out of my head!

Logically, we know this person doesn’t know us, and probably doesn’t know our work well, so it’s not personal — it’s NOT — even though it may feel like an attack. A very, very personal attack. But unless we’re prepared to line ourselves up against a social media firing squad wall, we often have no recourse against these kinds of attacks apart from bitching to the only other people who understand — our writerly buddies. We have no voice to share our pain, to defend our work, or educate someone who thinks they’re in a competition to read fifty books a month and spew forth bile rather than read a book carefully, absorb its subtext and story arc and only then give a considered, informed review — even if they don’t like it (the word is subjective here, not personal).

The only action we can take is to MOVE ON. Block the person from our feeds, our social media, our minds. Don’t go giving them emotional real estate. While you’re stewing and fuming, they’re not even thinking about you. They’re probably sitting in their tracky dacks and stained T-shirt, stuffing their faces with peanut M&Ms and coke, illegally downloading crap movies. It’s the way of the digital world.

Move on! The moment we think about trying to defend ourselves, we’re at risk of falling on our own sharpie pens (or bashing our heads in with our keyboards). Want we really want is an apology, and a troll is never going to apologise, never going to understand the days, months, years and risks you took to wring those words onto the page, or the humungous effort it took to get published. (Have they written a book? Have they been published? Probably not.) So there you are stuck with the bitter taste of powerlessness in your mouth and a broken heart.

Or are you? Perhaps you were smart enough not read those reviews in the first place? Or you arranged to have friend vet them for you first? It’s not such a stupid idea. In fact it’s a brilliant idea. What’s the point of crazily poring over someone’s vitriol, line by line, over and over, trying to understand why they don’t like your book? Why they seemingly don’t like you?

Are we, as artists, drawn to punishing ourselves? Why is it we can have fifty fabulous reviews but that one, uninformed piece of hate is the only one that sticks in our minds, haunts us into sleepless nights and sometimes smashes our confidence? What is it we’re looking for when we insist on reading, then rereading negative reviews, continually churning the words over in our minds, dissecting and seeking to understand? Perhaps we’re looking for fault in our own work. Perhaps we feel we deserve to be shot down. Maybe our own lack of belief in ourselves is seeking a slap across our literary faces.

How do we stop? How do we deal with our fragile egos? I think Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat pray love fame nails it when she says:

I don’t look at it, and I don’t look for it.

I will not put those words in my head. I will not put those images in my head. To do so is an act of violence against myself, and I do not commit acts of violence against myself anymore.

That’s smart. But is it smart to completely ignore all criticism? Probably not. When we’re too close to the trees who’s going to help us see the plot holes in our paper forests? People we trust of course. Here’s Elizabeth’s take on it again:

I DO listen to negative criticism about my work, however — but only from certain people, and only at a certain time.

The people who I listen to about my work are people who have earned the right to offer me criticism. There aren’t many of them, but they are precious. They are a few of my closest and most trusted friends, family members, and colleagues.

 As for WHEN I listen to criticism? I only listen when there is still a chance to fix or change the work. After the book is published, THERE IS NOTHING MORE I CAN DO ABOUT IT — so why would I go digging for criticism after the book is already printed, and it’s too late?

But what about the good reviews? Should we be avoiding reviews altogether? Of course not. We deserve to hear some happy news. We’ve worked bloody hard to get where we are, and that work never stops. Enjoy the moment. Roll around in it like you’re a sparrow enjoying a dust bath, like a puppy who’s found a roll of toilet paper, a chook that’s found worm. Go for it. You earned it! Every little bit of it.

Just don’t trawling through Goodreads, looking for that negative review to counterbalance how good you feel before moving onto the next project, putting yourself on the line again. And if you do accidentally stumble across a piece of poo, well, look away. LOOK AWAY! QUICK!. It’s not your poo, it’s theirs. You don’t own it.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid negativity entirely, but understanding why we feel the way we do, and being able to control our reactions to it, goes a long way to padding our fragile egos.

Here’s the link to Elizabeth’s article. I highly recommend reading it: Elizabeth Gilbert – Dealing With Criticism


perfect_pitch

Pitch perfect

Want some tips on delivering the perfect pitch to a publisher?

During my last semester at RMIT, where I did my Associate Degree in Professional Writing & Editing, my classmates and I were offered the valuable opportunity of pitching our manuscripts to two major publishers: Penguin and Text. I thought I would share some thoughts about the experience to help other newbie authors who feel their manuscript is at this stage.

We were all nervous, yet excited. We were given two minutes each to get our pitches across and then a further couple of minutes for questions from the publishers. Not a lot, granted, but it’s amazing what you can get across in a short period of time if you know your stuff.

The biggest lesson I took away from the event was not to be concerned about a ‘poker face’ or lack of enthusiasm from the publishers. In most cases, their reactions will have no bearing on the quality of your delivery – they’re just concentrating on listening to your pitch and where it might fit within their publication list.

And if they don’t show interest, well, you just keep on trying. It’s not the end of the world, or the end of your writing career. Chalk it up as experience. And the more experience you have, the better you will get at representing your manuscript.

Some students managed to get themselves all het up, as if this was their one big chance – forget it! Look upon this as a stepping stone. I’ve got a binder with rejection letters that I’m proud of; it means I’m moving through the stages that all successful authors have been through before achieving success. If you’re expecting to nail it first time, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Go easy. It’s just the beginning.

I found that knowing your story inside-out is the key to confidence. Showing that you care about your characters and their stories is what’s going to come across in your delivery.

Quick Tips:

  • remember this is a chance – not your only chance
  • be brief: make a list of around 6 – 8 key points and stick to them
  • open with genre, name of manuscript, name of protagonist
  • focus on your pitch and not your perceptions of the publisher
  • inject some humour into your delivery
  • make eye contact
  • show passion for your writing
  • don’t expect to be perfect, it’s okay to stumble: you’re only human
  • practise your pitch again and again until it rolls off your tongue
  • practise in front of a mirror
  • know your market and be able to name some comparison authors or books
  • leave arrogance at home and don’t tell the publishers what to think
  • say thank you for the opportunity

During my research on how to pitch, I came across the above YouTube video: Make your pitch! 12 finalists pitch to big Hollywood live at the Napa Valley Film Festival.  Enjoy!


angry_man

Stories from conflict

Where do stories come from?

Some writers say the ideas simply float into their heads when they’re not really trying. Others like to brain-storm and think up a plethora of scenarios before they find the one that sits best.

I think the kernels of stories tend to come from our own everyday experiences: people we meet, situations we encounter, characters on television and in books, voices we’ve heard in a café or on a train ride. All this information is percolating in our brains and once our imaginations get a hold of that jumble, it feeds into our writerly minds, presenting us with a myriad of scenarios and characters.

Sorting through the tangle

It’s not so easy though. When stories do present themselves, they’re not something tangible we can grasp. We have to sit our butts down and let our fingers channel the ideas. In an interview with The Guardian, Tim Winton uses the metaphor of hunting to describe the story creation process: “You never look in the eyes of an animal. You never look at it directly, because it knows that you’re coming and runs away”. Isn’t it the truth? If we think too hard about the process it’s like the words slip through our keyboards instead of onto ours screens.

Running with an idea

Just yesterday, I picked up a new idea while sitting in my doctor’s waiting room (I’m fine thanks, if you were wondering). Although the scene I witnessed, involving an arrogant old man and a kindly nurse, left me angry, once I’d calmed I realised I’d been given the gift of a conflict I could develop into a short story or plot for a novel.

In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King says “The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot). What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).

I applied this What-if scenario to my old man and the nurse and this is what I came up with:

What if an arrogant elderly man, who doesn’t want to wait a lousy ten minutes for his blood test:

  • decides to chuck a tanty and knocks over a toxic sample, putting people’s lives in danger?
  • kills the nurse with a knife protruding from the base of his walking stick?
  • is beaten by his impatient wife when he gets home because he’s kept her waiting?

You know what? I used to think I was a nutcase for constantly creating tension in my mind from imagined conflicts: the dialogue between myself and the person who cut in line for coffee, or the person who took the parking spot I was waiting for, or the guard’s reaction if I lost my train pass before reaching my city stop. Now, I just let it happen and use it. There’s story fodder in every situation. Embrace it.


kids_reading

The sound of proofreading

First impressions count, and nothing says ‘novice writer’ more than sloppy mistakes.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve cringed because a silly blooper has crept through my work. Usually, it’s because I’ve been a bit blase.

Truly, it’s a form of laziness, not bothering to go back and read and re-read your own words before setting them loose on the world. But sometimes, no matter how careful you’ve been, there’s still an occasional slippery sucker that’s got by you. More often than not, it’s a simple missing article like ‘a’ or ‘an’ or a tense issue like ‘has’ or ‘have’. Super easy to miss. That’s when a fresh pair of eyes comes in handy and our proofreading service is just what you need.

Asking friends or workshop buddies to review your manuscript is a great way to test your writing on fresh eyes, but you should be able to bring your work to a decent standard on your little old lonesome first.

I’m not talking about big picture issues like story and structure here; I’m talking about the actual words on the page.

Have a look at this:

mistakes

Did you pick up the two mistakes? Maybe you saw one but not the other (look for ‘the the’ twice). This is a great example of how our eyes can deceive us and see only what our mind wants us to see.

Solution 1: Read your work aloud. Nobody has to hear you, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed. Just tuck yourself away in a quiet corner, with a coffee, tea, wine, whisky—whatever does it for you—and verbalise every word on the page. Trust me, it works; mistakes will jump out at you.

Solution 2: Get your computer to speak it for you. How? Have a look at this link: Text-to-Speech Command. It only takes a few minutes to set up this facility and once it’s been added to your Word tool bar, all you have to do is highlight your text and click the ‘speak’ command. Voila! Grab a notepad, relax and listen. Not just for errors but for sentence structure and flow

Solution 3: Use our professional proofreading service. Just let us know your word count and we will provide you with a fixed quote.


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