Monday, December 16, 2013


Many grammarians advise that starting a sentence with ING words—in this case used as participles—is the weakest way to begin a sentence. I wholeheartedly agree. ING words create phrases which can cause written nightmares in our work.

The reason writers should avoid beginning a sentence with an ING word is threefold.

The first fact is that too many sentences starting with a present participle (an ING word), pound a harder pattern in the reader’s mind and will echo with other INGs even when a different participle is used. (ING words also echo when it’s a gerund rather than a participle. Avoid echoes.

Singing as loud as she could, Jolene …

Trying to gather her thoughts, Jolene … (This also a bad start because this phrase would be more effective if shown rather than told.)

Secondly, just as amateur as creating echoes, writers sometimes create dangling modifiers. Because these danglers can sound natural to the ear, they are not always easy to catch. Many people talk with dangling modifiers, but they don't notice because the listener knows what they mean. That's not true in writing. A dangling modifier is when the modifying clause isn’t given the right subject in the clause that follows. à Looking at her shoes, the toes were scuffed up. It is the character who is looking at the shoes, and the first word directly after that comma ending the modifying clause should be the noun or pronoun of the person doing the action. Looking at her shoes, Jolene frowned at the scuffed toes.

Ask, who is looking at her shoes? Certainly not the toes of her shoes.

I sometimes make dangling modifiers when I revise, because though windy, my original words are what I meant, but then I try to tighten and change one of the original clauses. Sometimes in my haste, I forget to go back and look at the other part of the clause. If I don't read the entire sentence again, I'll leave a dangling modifier that will humiliate me later. :-)

The last situation concerns logic. Participle phrases often create an oversight in logic when writers want to show a character doing two things in one sentence. Make sure they can actually do both actions at the same time.

Here's what I meanà Grabbing her purse, Jolene carried the antique relic carefully with both hands and ran to the bus stop.

If both hands are busy, she can't grab her purse with one of them. The two actions cannot happen at the same time, or at least are very unlikely to happen at the same time. (She might be grabbing her purse with her foot, but I doubt it.)

Note there is a subject in the second clause, a person doing the action, so this is not a dangling modifier; but it is a mistake, nonetheless.

It is those three situations that push grammarians to prefer writers avoid participles at the head of a sentence. It is those three problems that give participle beginnings a bad rep.

That does not mean never use them. It means if you do use them, do it sparingly and make sure they don't create echoes of ING words starting your sentences; make sure they do not dangle without a subject to hang on to; and make sure they do not create an illogical meaning.

And a final reason, not attributed in the threefold analysis above, is this: most authors, editors, and publishers recognize that a newbie's way to attempt avoiding the overuse of "as" clauses (she did this as she was doing that), while at the same time showing two actions in one sentence, rely on present participles to begin their sentences. Likewise, they do the same to avoid multiple sentences starting with he or she or a character’s name.

So in a nutshell, the use of an ING word often means the writer didn't know how to avoid an "as" clause or the overuse of pronouns or a character’s name. This makes the writer look amateur. Check your writing for these mishaps. Also check your favorite authors and see what they did to avoid the problems.

When you start sentences with ING words, read through a page at a time out loud. Do you hear a pattern/echo of too many ING beginnings? Is your second clause missing the person/thing doing the action? Have you created a scenario that doesn’t hold up against logic?

One final note on participle phrases. I have a dear writing friend who shares in critiquing work through a writing group we attend. She marks every ING word as a dangling modifier. Not all participles dangle. Also, be aware that even some ING words that start a sentence are not modifiers; but rather, they serve as the subject of the sentence, or at least part of the subject. When an ING word is the sentence’s subject (or part of the subject), it is not a modifier; it is a gerund.
Racing to her car, Jolene held her purse tight against her. (Participle phrase. Racing to her car, more specifically “racing” modifies the noun Jolene)

Racing to her car was Jolene’s only hope of escape. (Gerund. Racing to her car is a phrase and the entire phrase serves as the subject of the sentence.)

I hope these tips help. Happy writing!



Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book review on On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, written by Stephen King, published by Pocket Books, 2002, and the tenth anniversary edition by Scribner in 2010.

What I like most about this book, besides that it’s available on Kindle, is that King highlighted aspects of his own life and how certain incidents stayed in his memory and played into his stories. He gave a clear picture of the life of a writer.
To me, the most useful guidance for new writers is King’s no-bull approach to telling you not only the polished brass of what you need to know, but also the dings and rust of it, the dirty grit we might have to endure to get to the truth of our stories. (And he insists on truth! Praise be, let him speak to my no-swearing-allowed reading group before I die! I don’t know a world where no one ever gets upset enough to even cuss.)
According to King, some of the necessary grit should be spending our days seat to seat in front of a computer, doors closed, fingers tapping, and enjoying our work, not whining about how we can’t find the time. Writing and reading are what you need to do: reading, even if it’s in a ten-minute wait in a line at the market. Pull the book out of your pocket, open it and read. Reading is how you learn to write. Writing is how you learn to write. Those two directives are the basics of what you need.
Beyond the daily practice of reading and writing, King mentions the tools you should accumulate in your toolbox. How happy I was to see grammar right at the top. Even if you don’t plan for your characters to speak like an English professor, or worse, the arrogant kind of inventor, you still need to know the rules in order to know how to elegantly break them.
I love breaking the rules. I’ve written entire stories with the sole purpose of breaking some rule somebody spouted at me. (I even won an honorable mention in a writing contest through one of these rebellious stories – hey, rebellion can work!)
King also pounced on the use of adverbs to the point that I pictured the jaws of a tiger ripping each one from a manuscript, gnawing on them until nothing was left but a shredded nasty looking ly. I loved it.
He also aimed his instructional pointer at the use of the passive voice, eliminating needless words (no matter how pretty), and killing your darlings. No topic, though, grabbed my attention as much as talking about theme. He reminds readers of those awful school essays we had to write, the ones with boring subjects like how you spent your summer vacation. We were supposed to think of our vacation in terms of theme (not just a silly title assigned to us) and write about it. Talk about a good way to smack into writer’s block.
King lays out a back-door approach to discovering theme. With the superiority he rightly deserves, he suggests holing up behind that closed door and typing away until you have your rough draft complete. Then go through it and do your own editing before you open the door. Afterward, you can take a break from that particular story and work on something else (because you need to keep writing every day). When you come back to your first manuscript six weeks later, you should read it with an eye out for common threads and thematic elements. Look for the symbolism you weren’t aware you used. Now you are discovering your theme, and now you can go back and make those elements even stronger.
Think of how much better you would have done back in school if you were told to write about something that inspired you, and if you were allowed to figure out what the theme of it was after you’d written it – when you can actually read what you end up with rather than deciding beforehand what you think you’ll end up with (because you might not).
This is where the real rewriting comes in, when you know what your story is about, and you are refining it so that everyone else will see the truth of it. That’s a whole lot different than simply editing for echoed words and lengthy descriptions. It’s the refining you learn to do because of the training you have through all that reading you did. Read. Then write. And live. That’s King’s truth to the life of a writer.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Turn an Editor’s Head the Wrong Way

I’ve already mentioned (Apr. 3, 2013 blog post) the harm plantations of dialogue tags can cause when allowed to infest our work, so here’s to moving on to another standout.

Wardrobe reports. I see this even in work published by well-known houses (but not by your better authors). A wardrobe report is when you introduce a character and immediately describe their clothing in the form of a report. It’s also done with facial features, bone structure, etc.

 I can’t help but think of a police report when I read these descriptive paragraphs.

Not always, but often you can spot an upcoming wardrobe report when you see the word “wore.” She wore, he wore—these are a dead giveaway to an author’s newbie ranking and a boring way to introduce a character’s style of dress.

Celia’s face showed anguish that betrayed her attire: a long yellow gown flaring out below her knees, a diamond brooch beneath the left spaghetti strap, and silver shoes, probably a Prada knockoff. Over her shoulder she wore a chiffon scarf that you could see right through. (Hello – all chiffon is sheer.)

Although the paragraph above gives a clear picture of what Celia looks like, it’s not as interesting as it could be if the same details came out during some action on Celia’s part. Readers like movement. Unless you just walked into a room where a spotlight is shining down on someone who is standing completely still (in which case it would make sense to focus solely on the looks, because that’s the purpose of the spotlight), you will want to know what’s going on with this person, regardless of how they are dressed. Yes, the attire adds to your overall assessment of the character, but not as much as it would when viewing the same articles of clothing delivered in prose with some action.

Celia’s gaze darted from one face to another, her glimmering yellow gown swaying above silver Prada knockoffs with each delicate step. She stopped in the foyer, her brows furrowing. Her hand flew to the diamond brooch pinned beneath a spaghetti strap, and her mouth formed a perfect O. She adjusted the chiffon scarf around her shoulders, a timid smile struggling on her lips.

While not perfect, the second version gives a stronger sense of what Celia is feeling and yet doesn’t rob us of any details about her clothing. This paragraph is more interesting because there’s movement in it. She is doing something – taking delicate steps, stopping in the foyer, furrowing her brows, touching her brooch and trying to put on a smile.

Unless your characters are standing on a lighted runway, or in a situation where readers expect to stop and stare in awe, don’t give a wardrobe report. Give us action, no matter how minor. Action doesn’t have to be swinging from a rope and landing in a burning building. Action can be tiptoeing to a bed made up with blankets to match the character’s bunny-patterned pajamas. As long as it’s action, you can’t go wrong. You’ll keep readers watching if you keep your character doing something.

Go through your writing and watch for the word “wore.” Rewrite the description without that nasty word. Play around a bit and see if you can come up with a better way to give readers an experience of what the character is doing or feeling while you dress them up in stylish or tattered clothing. I’ll bet you’ll like your new descriptions.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cupcakes and Good-wife Impressions

For my husband’s birthday, I made cupcakes for him to take to work. I haven’t made cupcakes in years, and I forgot what a pain they could be.
All I wanted was to be a good wife, make my husband proud, and maybe acquire some suck-up points in case I’d need them some day. I thought cupcakes would be easy with the aid of canned frosting and cake mixes to yield 48 cupcakes. All I had to do to earn a halo in domestic wonder is combine the cake mix, water, oil and eggs, then bake and frost.
First, it took a while to find our electric beaters and dust them off. Next, I had forgotten the old rule of NOT cracking the eggs on the side of the bowl, so that you don't lose eggshells in the batter. I spent quite a while chasing miniature pieces of shell, which somehow got buried in the cake mix. (Sh-h! Our secret–they got baked.)
To date, I’ve received no reports of anyone choking.
After the egg-shell chase, I turned on the beaters and everything went fine until it was time to get the beaters off to lick them before washing them. I couldn't figure out how to get them out of the mixer thing. So, I brought up the beaters out of the batter and pressed the button I assumed would shut them off. It didn’t. It turned the miniature machine on high, which decorated my microwave and cupboards with whips of chocolate.
I cleaned up the mess and moved on to spoon batter into the little paper cups lining the tins. For some reason, the paper cups kept tilting topsy-turvy in the tin or floating out every time I tried to drop batter into them. I finally got them filled, but not without dripping over the center of the tin.
Then, because each cup was only supposed to be two-thirds full of batter, and all of mine looked uneven, I had to take some batter out of the fuller cups and add to the not-so-full ones. I was really worried whether or not I measured correctly and if I’d turn out the full 48 cupcakes, especially with all the finger licking going on while trying to even out the batter.
Baking was the easiest part. The oven took care of it all by itself. And because I did not remember the rule about the egg shells, I thought ahead about what rules there might be to frosting. Luckily, tips are given on the box, which advised to let the cake(s) cool first.
I patiently waited for each little cupcake to cool off to guarantee that they’d frost well–I wanted to impress my husband. I've never been good at frosting, so I tried very hard to make sure I glazed all the way around the edges, not just the center of the cakes. I was proud, even though I couldn’t manage pretty swirls in the frosting and my cupcakes looked like the work of a three-year-old.
I ran out of frosting when I still had about five naked cupcakes to go. So, I had to take frosting off one cupcake and put it on another. This step took me about a half an hour for the first 24 cupcakes. I had the other 24 already baked and ready to be frosted with a different flavor of frosting, but after finishing the first 24, and with the whole cupcake-making becoming so mentally exhausting, I decided to take a break.
In the meantime, my husband came home and offered to frost the rest of the cupcakes. He did it in five minutes and had a third of the can of frosting left. None of his cupcakes had bare spots showing, and his frosted swirls looked bakery-made, artistic and smooth. Interesting.
I will never make cupcakes again. No matter whose birthday it is or no matter whom I want to impress. Mike cupcake days are over.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Weeding Your Tags

I’ve been doing more editing than writing lately, and I’ve noticed plantations of excess dialogue tags. Today I examined one of my own chapters, and though I may not have discovered a speech-tag plantation, there was a pretty green farm.
The idea of pruning my novel yet another time makes me wince and come suddenly aware of aches and pains in my every joint. But, I’m going to search only for needless tags on this run, so I’ll just grab the Bengay and get to work. (At least it’s my intent to focus only on these irritating dialogue labels, though I’m sure to find other pesky problems.)
To make it easier, I looked for a motivator, and though I desperately pray I do not have even two excess tags per page, I’ve calculated something that can get me moving. My novel is not 300 pages long, but for example’s sake, I’ll pretend it is. With two dialogue attributions deleted from each of 300 pages, that would kill 600 tags. Also, I’ll consider each to be at least two words. That would mean an elimination of 1,200 words.
Now that’s something to tag about.
A lot of speech attributions aren’t necessary. If a line of dialogue ending in a tag is followed by the speaking character doing something, no matter how trivial, readers will know who’s talking as soon as the name is mentioned. There’s no reason to tag then. I have found that by purposely squeezing out a number of speech tags, I’ve had to reword the sentences following dialogue. The rephrasing has often resulted in the prose becoming more active and much more concise. That’s a double whammy in one shot–no speech tag and a clearer meaning.
That, too, is worth tagging about.
 Please let me know if you have any great ideas on getting rid of these jarring weeds.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Good reads for young adults—book review on HEART ON MY SLEEVE by Ellen Wittlinger

An Oldie but goodie, which means it’s definitely worth taking off the shelf for a second or third read.
At first glance at the text of HEART ON MY SLEEVE by Ellen Wittlinger, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004, I doubted I’d get through the entire novel. It’s written in the format of emails, instant messages, and letters. I roll my eyes often enough just looking at my own inbox and sigh many times before I tackle answering the eons of mail any one day can bring. (Not that I don’t like chatting, but I guess it’s one of those “all things in moderation” things.)
I’m glad I started reading this gem. After the first page, I couldn’t quit. Wittlinger artistically travels through the hearts of teenagers enduring long-distance relationships, the angst of jealousies and break-ups, and the hopes and dreams shared by all young girls during the crucial time of self-discovery, not only in discovering who they are at the moment, but in discovering who they truly want to become.
From the sometimes selfish inner thoughts of a teenager, and the often snarky wit, to the admission of mistakes, readers will live through the lives of youngsters embraced in a tight circle, despite the miles between them.
It’s near impossible not to laugh with Chloe and her friends, and feel their joys and pains. The teen language never falters, nor does the heart in this book. Read it with a box of tissues by your side.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Analyzing Picture Books—GOOD LUCK BABY OWLS

GOOD LUCK BABY OWLS by Giles (writer) and Alexandra (illustrator) Milton, published by Boxer Books, 2012, is spread over 25 pages, 17 with third-person text (and illus.) and nine with pictures only. There are approximately 240 words, with a handful of them hyphenated. The first two pages are narration, setting up the scene. The remaining pages of text are composed of dialogue, except for three. So, nearly two-thirds of the text is dialogue.

Picture books cannot afford to waste a single word, and the words should not do the work that will be revealed in the illustrations. In other words, you must separate words and pictures in your mind, and write only what can’t be shown in the illustrations. Thoughts, sounds, and dialogue won’t work as pictures and therefore make up most of the picture book text.
This story is about two baby owls in a hurry to grow up, wanting to learn to fly, and a patient daddy guiding them along the journey.
The story opens with a strong sense of setting: a chilly winter, silent night. In addition to telling us about the “frost-coated silence,” the author reemphasizes the stillness by stating that all is “quiet,” in the “big dark barn,” and then surprises us with a squeakity-squeak. Children always enjoy funny or interesting noises when someone reads aloud to them. That, coupled with a good dose of dialogue, is a good recipe for a picture book. But that’s not all a new writer needs.
After the opening, the author delivers many exchanges of dialogue to set up the characters (two baby owls – the source of the squeaks – and their daddy), and the problem (baby owls want to fly right now). Through the lively  voices, we can hear the earnest longing of the baby owls and Daddy’s loving patience.
How else does Giles Milton bring this story to life?
He uses a simple plot structure: (1) Baby owls want to learn to fly (2) Daddy tells them they have to wait until they are stronger (3) They eventually succeed in their goal.
While revealing the story problem, the author leads us to bond with the characters by using specific voices of the baby owls begging, saying please, and trying to convince Dad that they are ready. Hearing a child beg is something all children can relate to, because they’ve done it, and that all adults will smile about (or shake their heads) because it is so familiar. In this way, the author establishes a universal familiarity, and realistic family dynamics.
At this point, the reader and listener(s) are anxious to see if or when Daddy will let his feathered little babies fly. Unlike in stories for older children, where the child must figure out a solution on his or her own, this picture book allows for Daddy giving advice. He tells the baby owls that they must wait until they are stronger, and then they can fly.
Now the baby owls have a goal, something to work toward. With carefully selected words – “after days and days and weeks and weeks” – the author shows time passing. During this period, the baby owls are determinedly working toward their goal. They are eating, stretching, and flapping their wings, a great form of exercise for baby owls, I imagine. This time of planning and exercising to grow stronger is the journey of the story.
So we see the baby owls taking Daddy’s advice and put their own effort into achieving their goal. Then the time the baby owls have been working toward comes. Daddy announces that they are ready. In a single sentence, the author tells us the babies are suddenly afraid. But they do proceed. They’ve done the work; now comes the reward. Daddy basically tells his children that they can now go anywhere; they are ready to see the world. A sort of graduation is sensed by the reader, a satisfaction that a goal has been achieved.
For the ending, Daddy wishes the baby owls good luck, but reminds them to come back soon – a gratifying and hopeful ending, because we all want our children to come back and visit after they’ve moved from home.
(*Note – I haven’t yet figured out why there is no comma in the title, and yet there is a comma following “Good Luck” on the last page. There must be a reason, but it evades me.)
The plot structure is simple, but the specific way the author has brought these characters to life with distinct voices and familiar but uniquely drawn characteristics (anxious children and loving, patient father/instructor) is one that will stay in the hearts of listeners, readers, and writers alike. The dialogue gives a personal feel to the members in this owl family, and sympathetic, practical and wholesome insights into the human condition.
Utilizing fun sounds and a bulk of dialogue when you craft your picture book will give you a good start. Having a specific dilemma and method for the characters to attain a goal will add to it. Now you just have to give your story the kind of huggable personality that the Miltons did in theirs. Good luck, Newbie Writers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Blogger Mona Vanek on Electronic Publishing in 2013

For young and new writers who write and publish –

Electronic submission requirements differ with each e-zine, but a few general rules (and some experience) will help you master writing for them. Get e-zine guides, or query the editor of an e-zine, electronically. (*see below)

If the magazine's website doesn't offer writers guidelines, find the editor's e-mail address (on the e-zine site) and send an e-mail asking for guidelines. By following them to the letter you'll learn how the editor wants your story submitted.
It often takes perseverance to locate an editor's email address, and by continuing to search you'll locate other publishing opportunities. Be sure to always check the links at the top of the home webpage first.

KidWorld is a good example. In the first column, you'll see What's New? Click 'Read the Rules'. You may find their contest is closed, but see links to e-zines that publish children's writing.
For example, I found Amazing Kids.   Be sure you're on Amazing Kids magazine site, not the Main page.

Click the tab at the top of the page to find out about contests. At Amazing Kids Main page you can find the submission email address by scrolling to the bottom, on the left side. "Submit them to us at:"
At the very bottom of the Main page, you'll also find the editor's e-mail address: Amazing Kids! Magazine inquiries –

Some editors will say what goes in bold, never to use italics, etc. Some want the story sent in the body of a regular e-mail, no italics or bold of any kind. Straight text all the way. Other magazines want the story sent as an RTF attachment to an e-mail.

Write your e-query letters and e-articles in your word processor where it's easy to edit and polish them until they're impressive. Single space your story, double space between paragraphs.

Remember that nothing on the web is underscored except a web link (URL). So those are the only things in your manuscript that should ever be underscored.


Let the editor know you envision certain words emphasized; you can use an asterick (*) before a word. The editor will decide whether to print it bold or italic.

Generally, if it's a title, or something you want underlined, here's how I do it: _Kids Master E-Zine Writing Quickly_.
You can make sure the editor knows you're using italics by writing it like the following example: my laughline . Another way to indicate that is by using the HTML marks for Italics. Example: "I am thrilled to share with you what I know about writing for e-zines." (*see sidebar for more about html.)
If you are uncertain about how the editor wants it, send an e-mail asking how to do it; editors never mind answering those kinds of questions.

When writing your e-query, don't think like a writer; think like an editor. Make your idea fully complete. As you write your e-query, have a strong visual image in mind of the article already published.
  • What is its title?
  • Does it have a blurb?
  • On the e-zine cover, will there be cover lines announcing its appearance inside?

  • Is a sidebar included at the end?

In general, readers of online e-zines tend to scan while reading so keep to your point, use short sentences, and be brief.

Follow these simple steps to get query letters and articles from the wordprocessor to the e-mail program, and not have them arrive the way you sent them, Rich T and not all scrambled.

  • Open the file. Go File\SaveAs. In the drop down box that lets you choose how to save your file, select Rich Text Format (plain text or ASCII text).

  • Next, highlight the entire file contents. Right mouse click and copy.

  • *Before closing your wordprocessor file, use SaveAs again and select your usual file style. When it says 'this file exists shall I overwrite it?' Answer Yes. Then close your word processor.

Open  a new message in your e-mail program and paste the copy from your clipboard. (Use your mouse or press ctrl+v.)

Address it to the editor who asked to see it. Before you click Send, read it through carefully. Correct anything that needs correction.

WYSIWEG! (whatyousee is whateditorgets.)
Have at least a good outline of your article handy.

Faster than you can zip up your backpack, the editor might reply, asking for more information, or maybe even for the whole article if he\she thinks your proposed story or article is already written.
Editors are too busy to fiddle around with half baked cookies. All you'll get is a bad reputation by offering something you can't produce in a timely manner.

If your idea is only an idea, say so in your query. Say, "I propose to write [your story idea]."

If the editor is interested he may ask you to write it, and may even give you tips on what he wants in it.

Your published story will get wide exposure. Other editors may see it and contact you to write for them, too. Sometimes your online story can still be submit elsewhere. Be aware though, publishers that buy your story generally want exclusive 'rights'. Some editors won't let you send it to anyone else for 90 days, others ask for a year.

Each e-publication differs according to their editorial policy.

Writing for e-zines is fun and can be profitable, but *never, ever send off a story that you've had published to another magazine without first asking the original publisher for permission!


Sidebar: Go to the magazine's website online and read the magazine. Read the archived (back) issues, too. Save a few into your word processor to dissect and study. Run your grammar check and word count on them. Use Find function to search out repeated words and buzz words -- those colorful ones editors love.

To learn more about HTML marks, buy "HTML For Dummies" at any bookstore. Be sure to get the first one, not the one that says "More HTML .... "

Here are interesting sites for children's writers:

Inkspots. You'll need to set up a free account.)

Cobblestones, & Guidelines, and other good links. (Contact:
Mona Leeson Vanek's skills in the broad field of publishing include freelance writer, profiler, news correspondent, photojournalist, writing consultant, script writer, videographer, photographer and author. A member of Internet Writing Workshop since 1996, Mona critiques a wide spectrum of non-fiction, and mentors beginning writers and colleagues. Her current work in progress is editing, revising and epublishing her out-of-print trilogy, "Behind These Mountains." In 2010, to preserve the stories of Montana's homesteader's lives, she made the three-volume series available at, To make free online writing resources avail, she also published her 10th edition of "Access The World and Write Your Way To $$$,"

Mona, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, lives with her husband, Art, and their cat, Mimi. She publishes, "The North Palouse Washington e-Newscast,", to promote the rural Washington region where they've made their home since leaving Montana, in 2005.

(copyright 2012, Mona Vanek)