Author Archives: Lee Allen Howard

How to Plan a Great Story

StoryI’ve studied and practiced writing for a long time, incorporating techniques I’ve learned to improve my prose. Because of this, my mechanics are good. But my storytelling was weak. Although I got great ideas and wrote about them, I found I wasn’t telling a story.

It took half my writing life to realize the importance of story structure and content. What, exactly, is a story?

A Story Is a Narrative about an Active Character

A story is a narrative account of a character who takes action throughout a series of related events or experiences that changes him in the end.

Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, in their immensely helpful How to Tell a Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), have this to say about the importance of an active character:

A story is about the person who takes action. Make sure your character is active and really does something to affect what’s happening in the story. It’s not what happens to the character that makes him interesting, it’s what he does about it.

If the conflict you’ve created, however powerful, only causes your protagonist to be passive or merely reactive, the story won’t work. If he’s simply reacting to things the antagonist has done to him, or stumbles on a clue by chance, the story won’t work. Rethink your protagonist’s qualities and make him active!

Story Plan in a Paragraph

Rubie and Provost encapsulate a story in a single paragraph:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson. When offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

Do you recognize this structure in stories you’ve read? I did. You can use it to write a novel or short story of your own. Here’s how.

Questions to Answer Before You Write

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you must answer these questions about your main character (MC), preferably before you start writing:

Something in his pastWhat past event (which happened before your story begins) happened to your MC to rip a hole in his life? Satisfying this psychological or emotional need is the central issue of your story.
Something happenedThis is the inciting incident, the catalytic event that kicks off the story and forces your character to take action. What happens that rocks your character’s world?
GoalWhat does your protagonist want? This is the prize, the thing he’s trying to get or attain throughout the whole story.
Plan of actionHow will your character go about pursuing his goal or prize? He must try and fail three times, making the situation worse, before succeeding.
Forces trying to stop himThis is the antagonist, which could be another character, entity, or force of nature that thwarts your MC’s attempt to reach the goal. The opposition generates conflict because of the antagonist’s contradictory goal and plan (define them too).
A lot at stakeWhat will this effort cost the protagonist? The stakes must be high: life or death; love lost or gained; physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual devastation—something important everyone can relate to.
Bad as they could getThis is your character’s bleakest moment. Everything has gone wrong, and it seems the opposing forces arrayed against him have won. Yet somehow, from the darkness of despair, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds. What’s the worst moment?
Important lessonThe protagonist survives the bleakest moment with a gift:  revelation. At last, he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t before. What lesson does your MC learn?
Offered the prizedecide whether to take itThis is the climax of your story. The protagonist must make a decision, preferably between two outcomes equally undesirable. When he decides, he gains something and he gives something up. It involves high emotional intensity from the reader, as well as moral and ethical considerations.
Satisfied a needThis need has been the driving force throughout the protagonist’s life to this point, whether or not he’s been aware of it (but you must be aware of it). In resolving the story, this need is satisfied.

A Story in Three Acts

The previous elements can be divided into three-act structure. Here’s where the points lie:

Before the story begins (some time in the character’s past):

Something in his past—The traumatic past event that tore a hole and created a psychological or emotion need in your MC. He must overcome this past damage to reach his goal and find happiness now and in the future.

Beginning:

Something happened—The inciting incident that kicks off the story.

Goal—What your character wants to get or achieve that he thinks will solve the problem the inciting incident has involved him in. Initially, the goal may be something trivial. But as the action progresses, it becomes his ultimate objective.

Middle:

Plan of action—How your MC goes about pursuing the goal. His first attempt fails unexpectedly, and often makes things worse, but he learns something from it. His second attempt fails even more miserably, but he learns something again. He tries a third time and meets with disaster.

Forces trying to stop him—In his attempts to solve the problem and reach his goal, your MC is opposed.

A lot at stake—The inciting incident sets the stakes, which must be serious enough for your protagonist to take action. The stakes must rise the more he tries and fails until they become dire.

Bad as they could get—Everything has gone wrong, and it looks like your MC is going to lose. Why and how does he try one final time to overcome?

Important lesson—What does the bleakest moment teach your protagonist? What does he learn that prompts him to make a decision?

Offered the prizedecide whether to take it—Everything that has gone before wedges your character between a rock and a hard place morally or ethically. But, based on the important lesson he has learned, he decides to try one more time—and either triumphs or bombs.

Ending:

Satisfied a need—The process, climax, and final action resolve the past need, and your character is changed.

I used this story planning process in writing my most popular novel to date, Death Perception.

Example Storyline in Death Perception

Here’s the one-paragraph storyline I developed for Death Perception:

Once upon a time, Kennet’s mother died [something happened to someone], and he decided that he would start a new life by making more money and moving out of her personal care home [pursue a goal]. So he started by looking for a new job and apartment [devised a plan of action], and even though Grinold and Flavia (the antagonists) tried to stop him [forces tried to stop him], he moved forward because his life and future happiness depended on it [there was a lot at stake]. And when his life was threatened [things seemed as bad as they could get], he learns he must avenge the mistreated dead [learned an important lesson], and when given the chance to move into a new apartment [offered the prize] he had sought so strenuously, he stays at the care home to gather more evidence against the antagonists, placing himself in mortal danger [decide whether or not to take it], and in making that decision he overcomes his fear[satisfied a need] created by his father’s abuse and death and his fear of conflict and change [something in his past].

This may not make sense unless you read the book, but it’s one of the exercises I did to plot Death Perception. Read it to see how I executed the plan.

Put some thought into this preliminary process, keep your MC active, and you’ll end up with a more satisfying story, one that, hopefully, will sell. Good luck!

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Eradicate Junk Words from Your Writing

No JustAs an editor, I’ve encountered a lot of meaningless, overused words peppered throughout otherwise good manuscripts. And I’ve scratched my red Uniball Micro pen over those words.

Here are some words that are junk. They’re like weeds cropping up in a manicured lawn. Eradicate them, and you’ll improve your writing.

Possible exceptions include when these words are used in dialogue, although do so sparingly.

Junk Word Example Comments
just Sheila just didn’t know what to do about it.

She was still nauseated, and not just from the bad food.

He watched her cry, just like his mother.

You can keep it if it’s a noun that means “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness.”

Used as an adverb, as in the examples, it’s junk. If you must keep it, better alternatives are simply, merely, or only.

Delete it and stop using it in your writing. For an in-depth discussion, see Are You Using the Word “Just” Too Much?

even Why did they even come?

Yet, even as the leaves fell, he persisted in hiking without a jacket.

Used as an adjective meaning “flat” or “on the same level,” you can keep it.

Used as an adverb meaning “still, yet”—delete it.

ever Wiley felt sillier than ever before.

How did she ever manage to do it?

Used as an adverb to mean “at any time,” you should delete it.
very Edward was very tall.

Hailey was caught in the very act of driving without a license.

Used as an intensive or superlative, it’s overdone and unnecessary. Ditch it and use a stronger verb.
really

Jake was a really big kid.

Alphonse really didn’t care for Muenster cheese.

Used as an adverb to mean “in reality, actually,” you can keep it, but use it sparingly.

Used as a superlative meaning “very, genuinely, truly, or indeed,” it’s a junk word—delete it.

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Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

Do you want to improve your writing? If so, you must identify and fix specific problems with your prose.

You must learn new editorial techniques and incorporate them into your writing toolbox, deliberately applying them through practice until you internalize their use. Then you’ll be able to write better first drafts.

How I Learned the Process

Lee Allen Howard's Eight-Step Writing Improvement ProcessWhen I discovered what a dangling participle was, I noticed I was dangling them in much of my writing. Finally recognizing the issue was like switching on a spotlight. I saw them everywhere. I was shocked.

It took me a few years to consistently catch and fix this problem in my writing during the self-editing process. It took a while longer to catch myself making the mistake when I was writing—and correct it on the spot.

I still goof up at times, but I’ve trained myself to recognize the issue and eradicate it from my prose. Better yet, I taught myself to stop making the mistake when writing first drafts.

Over the years, I’ve crystalized the process we go through as writers learning the craft—or anyone learning a new skill. Here’s how to use it purposefully to make your writing better.

Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

1. Write without restriction.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, this initial phase is when you tell your inner critic to take a time out and sit in the corner for a while.

Write with abandon and don’t worry about whether it’s any good. Simply get the words down as fast as you can.

You will, of course, be using techniques you’ve already internalized: the proper way to spell “accommodate,” making your subjects and verbs agree, and attributing your dialogue with “said” and not “opined.”

2. Revise your work.

Now it’s time to read your work with a discerning eye. Have you said what you meant? Have you said it the best way?

Revise to include everything that should be there and exclude anything that shouldn’t.

To learn more about revising and editing, I recommend these books:

  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Revision, David Michael Kaplan

3. Learn about problems you need to identify.

Read about dangling participles, cutting unnecessary details, using commas properly, eliminating little words, ferreting out filtering phrases.

Some excellent texts about editing on my library shelves include:

  • Getting the Words Right, Theodore A. Rees Cheney
  • Editing Fact and Fiction, Sharpe and Gunther
  • The 10% Solution, Ken Rand

4. Examine your writing critically, like an editor.

The links and books in the previous points should help you do this. But what if, even after studying, you’re blind to what your issues are—mistakes that keep you from getting published? What you don’t know can hurt you.

Although I learned by reading dozens of writing texts as well as trial and error, it took me thirty years to discover what I know now and am sharing with you. Do you have that time? Most writers don’t.

What you need is an editor who will teach you how to self-edit your work. I can help you identify your issues and provide advice that will enable you to find those problems in your work so you can fix them yourself. To learn more, see Professional Editing Service.

5. Identify issues in your writing.

Once you realize what your issues are, you must go through your writing carefully to identify those problems you’ve learned about. Cast a critical gaze at what you’ve drafted.

This could be a struggle when you’re learning to implement a new technique. But you’ll get better with practice. There’s no way around this (see side note below).

When you’re learning an editing technique, it’s too hard to fix every mistake in one pass. I recommend going through your work a story or chapter at a time, looking for only one issue—whether it’s dangling your participles, creating unnecessary distance with filter words, or overusing adverbs. Flag each with a comment that pinpoints the matter.

This approach lets you concentrate on that issue alone. It’s the best way to learn how to identify a newly discovered problem in your writing.

(Side note: For each new technique I discovered, I went through every unpublished short story on my hard drive and corrected each of them for that issue. I did this time and again, editing some stories over 500 times. That’s how I learned. In other words, practice makes perfect.)

6. Edit to correct those issues.

After identifying issues, go back and correct each one. Apply what you’ve learned in your reading. Or contact me to edit some of your work to identify issues you’ve been missing—and teach you how to fix them.

Use everything in your editor’s toolbox to improve and polish your work. Make several passes.

7. Internalize the process of identifying and correcting those problems so that every time you edit your work, you catch and fix them.

If you’ve followed the process so far, you’ve learned to identify, find, and fix your recurring issues. It’s hard work at first, but you’ll get better as you continue to practice.

You’ll eventually reach the point where you’re able to find and fix multiple issues on the first or second pass of self-editing. You have internalized the new technique; it’s now committed to your editorial toolbox.

8. Train yourself to write better so that you don’t make those mistakes in the first place.

Although you should write without restraint and not let self-criticism hamper your efforts to get the story down (step 1), you’ll experience moments when you stop to think about what you’re going to say.

These are the moments to insert the new techniques you’ve learned, applying what you’ve internalized during the editing phase to the writing process. Why forever make the mistake of dangling your participles only to fix them during editing?

Move mastered techniques into the drafting process and train yourself to write it right the first time.

Use the Process

Now that you’re aware of this process, consciously employ it to master editing skills more quickly. All it takes is dedicated practice.

Over time, you’ll continue to adopt new methods that you’ll incorporate into the writing phase, and this will make your first drafts better. Good luck!

Copyright 2021 Lee Allen Howard.

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Alright vs. All Right

This sparks the first of my Wordsmithereens columns where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen.


Okay, writing bitches, today’s installment:

Alright vs. All Right

Unlike other “al” pals such as already vs. all ready and altogether vs. all together, which are both unique phrases meaning different things, alright and all right are not.

According to English Through the Ages (William Brohaugh, 1998), all right has been in use in the English language since before A.D. 1150. This two-word phrase is an:

  • Adjective meaning satisfactory, as in agreeable, correct, adequate, suitable, or proper; safe, well; good, honest, dependable (slang)
  • Adverb meaning satisfactorily; yes, agreed; beyond doubt, certainly (Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged)

Alright has been in use since before 1890 but it is not in standard usage as a substitute for all right. Dictionary.com states in various places:

Alright as an adverb meaning “just, exactly” is considered obsolete.

It is not all right to use alright in place of all right in standard American English….

The form alright as a one-word spelling of the phrase all right in all of its senses probably arose by analogy with such words as already and altogether. Although alright is a common spelling in written dialogue and in other types of informal writing, all right is used in more formal, edited writing.

In other words, you might use it in an informal email or chat message, but not in edited work such as business documents, novels, or short stories. In Write Right (2001), Jan Venolia states that alright is a misspelling of all right. The Elements of Style says it’s “properly written as two words”; thus ends the reading of Strunk and White’s Holy Word.

However, usage changes in the English language over the years, and use of this contraction may be on the rise. M-W’s Unabridged’s entry for alright says, “in reputable use although all right is more common.” And again from Dictionary.com: “alright is coming into acceptance in British English.”

My Opinion, for What It’s Worth—

alright vs. all right

If you’re writing for Americans and want your prose to appear professional, I’d stick with all right.

If you’ve been using alright in your writing, it’s an easy fix with search and replace. My advice: do it. All right?

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Besides Beside

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


I was editing a story today, a nasty gay erotic horror tale (“Stray”), and inserting the word beside gave me pause. Was it beside, or besides? My editorial gut instinct told me there was a difference.

Beside

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines beside as:

  • An adverb meaning in a nearby position, close by, alongside: “He dropped the towel and sat beside him on the couch.”
  • A preposition meaning:
    • at or by the side of, close to, near: “The wastecan stood beside the dresser.”
    • in comparison with: “He needs to be a Stephen King if writing overlong books is to be considered unimportant beside simply having a fresh voice.”
    • on par with: “A literary achievement that can be ranked beside that of Joe R. Lansdale.”
    • (used with “oneself,” as in “beside herself”) carried out of oneself as through extreme excitement, out of one’s wits or senses: “I was beside myself with disappointment.”

Beside = next to

Besides

M-W defines besides as:

  • An adverb, meaning:
    • in addition, moreover: “The story is excellent, and besides it costs less than a buck.”
    • otherwise, else: “He knows the rules of grammar, but little besides.”
  • A preposition, meaning:
    • in addition to: “Besides being an entertaining read, I learned a lot about cremation.”
    • other than, except: “She could do nothing besides watch him bleed out.”

Besides = in addition to, except

Shelving this new knowledge beside the old, what have you besides putting it to good use in your writing? If you don’t, I’ll be beside myself…

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To Have or Have Not

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Over the past few years I’ve noticed the many uses of the verb have. It’s a useful word, but often overused in prose. During editing mode, I’ve been substituting verbs that are more accurate or lend variety. For instance, “have” is often used to mean “need”:

He had to go.

could be more precisely stated:

He needed to go.

Using “needed” points up internal necessity and rules out the possible meaning of the character externally being forced to go against his will.

The following table suggests a number of alternatives to “have” or “had” that could make your writing clearer and livelier. An execption to these substitutions is dialogue. For example, “have” can mean to associate oneself with, to participate in. Someone who would say:

“I won’t have no part in that scam.”

might not say:

“I won’t participate in that scam.”

So trade only as narrative voice permits.

Alternative Words for “Have”

Here are some meanings of “have” with examples and possible substitutes. (I’ve provided relatively few; when I printed the definition of “have” from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [software, 2003], the printer spit out five pages.)

I’m sure you can come up with more creative rewrites, but these instances will help make you aware of the many uses of “have” that native English speakers often process without noticing—and why you might want to use a more descriptive or active verb.

Meaning Example Alternative to “Have”
Own: to possess as property She has a car. She owned a Honda Civic coupe.
Contain, include: to consist of The pond had some large bluegills. The pond contained some large bluegills.
Carry, bear, support The windows had awnings. Canvas awnings hooded the windows.
To feel compelled, obligated, or required She had an email to write. She needed to write that email.
Must Drake had to do it now. Drake must do it now.
Obtain: to acquire, to get possession of Mother Hubbard found there was nothing to be had in her cupboards. The cupboards all empty, Mother Hubbard found nothing to give to her dog.
Gain He had a lot from the trip. He gained much from the trip.
Receive She asked the clerk if he had any information. She asked the clerk if he’d received any information.
Achieve They believe a settlement can be had between the two factions. They believe the two factions can achieve a settlement.
Exhibit, show, manifest Gertie had the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water. Gertie showed the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water.
To experience by sumitting to, undergoing, being affected by, enjoying, or suffering She had a painful mammogram. She suffered a mammogram.
Cherish: to entertain in the mind or feelings She had much affection for the kittens. She expressed much affection for the kittens.
To permit or suffer Mikey would not have his brother treat the dog so cruelly. Mikey would not let his brother treat the dog so cruelly.
Know, understand: to be marked by an intellectual grasp of Having no German, he could not communicate with the Bavarians. Knowing no German, he could not communicate with them.
To be able to handle adequately The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he had it. The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he mastered it.
Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver Evgeniy had his chess opponent in three moves. Evgeniy beat his chess opponents in three moves.
Trick, cheat, fool, bamboozle His new “friends” had him and abandoned him, penniless. His new “friends” cheated him, leaving him penniless.
To be in control of, be responsible for Amartha has overall command of the starfleet. Amartha holds overall command of the starfleet.
Eat, drink: to partake of I have coffee every morning. I drink… I enjoy coffee every morning.
Smoke He had a cigarette. He smoked a cigarette.
To associate oneself with, participate in Wellington refused to have any part of the chicanery. Wellington refused to take any part in the chicanery.
Control, dominate: to cause to do one’s bidding Naturally, any man with a gun would have him. Naturally, any man with a gun could control him.
Buy, bribe They could be had for a price. They could be bought for a price.
To engage and hold The carnival huckster had the interest of the onlookers. The carnival huckster held their interest. Better: The carnival huckster enthralled them.

To have or have not? You don’t always need to substitute, but when you notice that your narrative contains too many forms of this verb meaning a number of different things, feel free to swap a few for something stronger.

Until my next snit fit, write on, my friends, write on…

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Cut Unnecessary Details

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


We can overwrite, giving more information than necessary. But sometimes we also belabor the obvious by being unnecessarily specific. This post is about cutting unnecessary details.

Consider this paragraph from a first draft:

Charlie turned off the ignition, opened the driver’s side door, picked up the gun with his left hand, got out, and walked up the concrete sidewalk to the house. He pushed the doorbell with his finger, and waited. He pressed his right ear against the door. Hearing no one from inside the house, Charlie opened the front door.

When you’re self-editing, you need to look at your work critically to trim the fat, leaving juicy, lean prose. Here’s what my inner editor says as I notice the italicized words from the previous example:

  • If you’re driving, what door would you obviously open other than the “driver’s side door”?
  • Does it matter which hand he uses to pick up the gun?
  • Aren’t sidewalks usually made of concrete? If this one isn’t, is it necessary to the story to describe what kind of sidewalk it is? Probably not.
  • What else would he push the doorbell with?
  • What would you do with the rest?

Too many unnecessary details, and you’re slowing down your prose. Excise them. Here’s the edited paragraph:

Charlie turned off the ignition, picked up the gun, and got out of the car. He walked up the sidewalk to the house, then pushed the doorbell and waited. He pressed his ear against the door. Hearing no one, he opened the door.

Here are a few more observations:

  • A small frown appeared on her face. (Where else do frowns appear?) She frowned.
  • He squinted his eyes. (What else do you squint with?) He squinted.
  • She shrugged her shoulders. (What else do you shrug?) She shrugged.
  • The boy nodded his head. (What else do you nod with?) The boy nodded.
  • After she pulled up the chair, she sat on the seat. (Naturally…) She pulled up the chair and sat.
  • An unknown stranger appeared at the door. (Are there any known strangers?)
  • Their voices echoed back and forth in the dark corridor. (That’s what an echo does.)
  • When Rocco was alone again, he muttered to himself, “I’ll never do that again.” (If he’s alone, who else would he be muttering to?)
  • That’s not right, she thought to herself. (Who else do you think to, unless you’re telepathic?)
  • “I’m through with you!” Joyce yelled. “You—”
    “Don’t say that,” Kevin interrupted.
    (The exclamation point tells us she’s yelling. The dash tells us that Kevin has interrupted her, so there’s no need to use the attributions. Stick with “said.”)

If reviewing these examples is lighting a bulb above your head, why not sit down with your current WIP and practice them?

Cut unnecessary details, and your prose will soar.

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Undangling Your Participles

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Many fledgling writers have trouble with dangling participles. But before you can undangle them, you must recognize them in your writing.

What’s a Participle?

A participle is an action verb that acts like an adjective and usually ends in “-ing.” For instance, “write” is the infinitive form of the verb, and “writing” is the participle. Dangle/dangling. Snicker/snickering.

Like adjectives, participles modify nouns:

Participle   Noun
Writing desk
Dangling participle
Snickering sophomores

For example:

I hung my head and passed the snickering sophomores.

The participle is underlined; the participial phrase is italicized.

Participial Phrases

“Snickering sophomores” is the participial phrase in the previous sentence. It uses a participle that is not dangling, meaning it’s in its proper place and used correctly. Here are a few examples with the noun (subject) in bold.

Reading the story, I winced at the dangling participles.

“Reading the story” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I.”

Driving the stake through Krako’s heart, the vampire hunter realized how much she loved her night job.

“Driving the stake through Krako’s heart” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire hunter.”

These examples show participial phrases—we’ll call them “PPs” for short—close to the subjects they modify. But PPs can pop up elsewhere in sentences and modify direct objects and objects of prepositions:

Krako whistled for the bats, hanging in the dark cave.

This PP modifies “bats,” which is the object of the prepositional phrase “for the bats.” Notice the noun and the modifying PP are close together. The following says something different:

Hanging in the dark cave, Krako whistled for the bats.

It’s not necessarily incorrect if, in fact, Krako survived the vampire hunter and is the one hanging from the cave ceiling. The participial phrase modifies the noun it is closest to.

When Participles Dangle

What about this sentence?

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Mother brought up some shriveled apples.

Unless Norman Bates is narrating and Mother has reanimated, we’ve got a dangling PP here. Beware dangling PPs! They’re more insidious than zombies or vampires. (But not half as badass as giants.)

The subject of the sentence is “Mother.” The PP, “after rotting in the cellar for weeks,” is misplaced. It actually modifies “some shriveled apples.” (I’ve found, the best way to modify shriveled apples is to make apple butter…)

Mending Your Danglers

How to fix this? If Mother is actually a zombie, aim for the head. If she’s alive and merely wants to make apple butter—or rid the house of those pesky fruit flies—you could recast the sentence this way:

Mother brought up some shriveled apples that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.

This correction puts the phrase next to the noun it modifies (“apples”).

Sometimes, though, there’s no subject in sight, as in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk:

Grinding bones to make his bread, the dog danced wildly.

Fee, fi, fo, fum… Snickering sophomorically, I smell a dangling PP!

There are a couple things going on here. The participial phrase is meant to modify a subject that is not mentioned in the sentence—the giant that Jack came to kill. And while the big gourmand is grinding bonemeal for bread to spread with Mother’s apple butter, his little dog is dancing wildly, probably hoping for some of Jack’s scraps. Rephrased:

The giant ground Jack’s bones to make his bread as the dog danced wildly.

You can often use “as” to fix these problems.

After dinner the giant pulled the bread plate closer and said, “I ate his liver with some magic beans and a nice Chianti. Now pass the apple butter, Mom.”

“Please,” she insisted.

Please,” he said, patting the dog.

Summary

Dangling participles modify the wrong nouns. You fix them by ensuring that there’s a proper subject in the sentence, and placing the participial phrase right next to it.

Giants rule and zombies drool, bitches. Now, go write right!

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Help with Commas

The lowly commaI’ve been so busy with writing and teaching projects that I’ve had little time to nitpick some editorial issue.

In the meantime, here’s a helpful post about using commas properly.

A Guide to Proper Comma Use

 

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The “Al” Pals

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Today’s edition continues where we left off last time with the remaining “al” pals: altogether vs. all together, already vs. all ready, and alot vs. a lot.

Altogether vs. All Together

Pants on the Ground

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines altogether as:

  • A noun meaning nude (used with the): “He dropped his drawers and stood there in the altogether.”
  • An adverb meaning wholly, completely, thoroughly; in all, all told; on the whole, in the main, as a whole: “We were altogether shocked.”

As two words, all together means in unison: “We marched down the street all together, arm in arm.” You can split up the two words (instead of keeping them all together, har-har), and the sentence will still make sense: “We all marched down the street together.” You can’t do this with altogether: “We all were together shocked.” Nuh-uh.

Altogether = entirely
All together = collectively

Already vs. All Ready

M-W defines already as an adverb, meaning, prior to some specified or implied past, present, or future time; by this time; previously; so soon, so early; now. “He dropped his drawers already” (previously). “Would you stop looking so shocked already?” (now).

“All ready” (two words) means everything is prepared, as in “We were all ready to turn our backs.” You can split the phrase, and the sentence will still make sense: “We all were ready to turn our backs, but we just stared.”

Already = previously
All ready = prepared

Alot vs. A Lot

A lot as two words means a bunch, a great deal, many, much. “We liked his knees a lot.” Like alright, alot ain’t even a word. Don’t use it, please.

Alot = not a word
A lot = much, many

And there you have it, Al. Use them wisely and be a pal!

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