Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Mystery of the Misplaced Modifier

One of my favorite writers' blogs is The Sentence Sleuth, where I notice that the writer Bonnie Trenga has written a book entitled The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier. While I would love to read the book, I'm not sure I dare. You see, misplaced modifiers have a peculiar effect on me, one that has caused me great embarrassment through the years.

In my college freshman English class, the professor distributed a sheet of examples. Naturally, I began perusing it before everyone had a copy, so I had a head start on the humor.

It all started with a smile that progressed to a quiet snort and on to a chorkle. By the time the professor had gotten through the third sentence<>

I flashed a furtive glance around the room, only to discover that I was the only one thus affected. Again, I made eye contact with the professor. She raised one eyebrow, and I lost all control. I rushed out of the room and down the hall to the nearest restroom. Once inside the security of that room with its stainless steel stalls and porcelain lavatories, I doubled over with laughter, likely frightening a student exiting a stall.

"Misplaced modifiers!" I tried to blurt. She gave me that same deer-caught-in-the-headlights look I'd received from my classmates and hurried toward the door. "You know!" I called after her. "Dangling participles..." She was gone. Without washing her hands.

Eventually, I regained some semblance of composure. Making my way back to the classroom, I stood outside the door, just out of sight, listening, testing my resolve. The professor peeked around the door at me.

"Are you okay?" she asked, broadening her smile. "You can come back in, if you like." I lost it, again, and returned to the sanctuary of the restroom.

When class was over, I hurried to the classroom to apologize profusely to the professor. "Are you an English major?" she said. I told her that I was. "I thought so. You had to be. Did you notice that you were the only one so affected?" I nodded. "They didn't get it. They didn't see what the sentences actually were saying."

If sentences with misplaced modifiers make you laugh, you can stop reading here, unless you're a glutton for punishment. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read on.

A misplaced modifier is a word, clause, or phrase that is separated from that which it modifies (or describes), making it seem to modify a word, clause, or phrase not intended. Here are a few examples:

On the way home, Karen found a gold man's watch. [Oh, really? I'd like to know where she found that gold man. Or could it be that she found a man's gold watch?]

The child ate a cold dish of cereal for breakfast. [Poor kid. He likely would have preferred a dish of cold cereal.]

We ate the lunch that we had brought slowly. [Does the writer mean that it took a long time for them to get their lunch to the place where they ate it? Or does she mean We ate slowly the lunch we had brought or Slowly, we ate the lunch that we had brought?]

After being fingerprinted, the officer put the prisoner in the cell. [So they're fingerprinting officers now, before putting the prisoner in a cell. Hmmm....]

Perhaps you now understand why my reading of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier could prove fatal to me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ten Steps to Writing Great Book Reviews

You read the book and loved it. Chances are you'll tell a friend about it, especially if she likes the same genre. You may go so far as to mention it to a few of your friends or post it on Facebook and Twitter. We authors thank you. But could we ask you to go another mile toward promoting worthy Christian fiction? Would you be willing to take some time to write a book review and post it on various book-centric sites such as, Barnes & Noble,,, Sony, and other such sites? In most cases, you need only write one review, copy, and paste.

Below are ten steps to writing book reviews that will win you favor with customers of bookseller sites. I certainly appreciate a well-written book review. Don't you?

  1. Give the book a careful reading. Don't rush through it. If you know you'll likely write a review when you finish, take notes (including page numbers for quick reference) along the journey. Highlight quotations and stylistic snippets--colorful phrases, idioms, creative similes and metaphors, for example. Name the author and the book's name in the first paragraph, if possible.
  2. Determine your purpose in writing the review. While you don't have to explicitly state it, you need to keep it in mind as you write. Complete this sentence: I want the readers of this review to _____.
  3. Identify the author's overarching theme: Examples--
    • When one forgives the most egregious of wrongs, then the heart is free to heal.
    • Marriage and family are worth fighting for to preserve.
    • Prodigals can still return home and be restored and reconciled.
    • Those who commit evil deeds in the dark will be revealed in the light.
  4. Explain what drew you to the book. Had you read other works by the author? Is it a favorite genre? Did you hear about it on a social site, or did a friend recommend it?
  5. What does the author do especially well? (Note: always write about literature in the present tense.) Examples--
    •  Characterization--Who are the main characters? Does the writer develop realistic, believable, multidimensional characters? What are their goals? What gets in the way of their achieving those goals? How far were you into the book before you cared about the protagonist? Is s/he likable?
    • Story development--Were you captivated by the story by the end of the first page or the first chapter? What hooked you? Does the author employ an unusual plot structure? Is the pacing appropriate for the story?
    • Details of setting--Did you feel that you were in the place and time of the story?
    • Evidence of thorough knowledge and/or research on the part of the author--Does the author accurately portray the time period, circumstances, environment, etc.?
    • Writing style--Do you especially like the author's imagery, diction, artistic elements, or writing style? Be specific.
  6. If possible, incorporate some quotations that exemplify the points you've cited in Number 5 above.
  7. What weaknesses in style, structure, or content did you notice? Be gentle, remembering that what you perceive as a weakness others may consider a strength. Follow the Bible's directive to "tell the truth in love."
  8. Give your readers a taste of the plot, but DO NOT INCLUDE SPOILERS! Hint at the climax, but DO NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING!
  9. Tell a little about the author. What makes her life unique? List some of his other works and awards. Include some interesting tidbits, if you know them.
  10. Describe how the book affected you emotionally. Did it live up to your expectations of the genre? Do you want to read more by this author? To what audiences would you recommend this book? 
Note: If the book was provided to you by the publisher or the author, make that known. Be sure to read "The FTC's Regulating My Book Reviews!" by Kathryn Page Camp on Hoosier Ink blog, Thursday, 23 September 2010.

* * *

Recently, Rose McCauley wrote a review of a book by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Dan Walsh. She graciously granted me permission to use that review to illustrate a well-executed book review. Thank you, Rose!

Book Review of The Dance by Dan Walsh and Gary Smalley

I have read and enjoyed several of Gary Smalley's books, both fiction and non-fiction, and all of Dan Walsh's books with great admiration, so looked forward to reading The Dance. 1. I wasn't disappointed!  2. Although this was a review copy given by the publisher, that in no way affected my review. 3.
I love books like this that teach spiritual truths through story, similar to Jesus's parables. We start with a couple who seem to be very successful in life, but not in love/marriage/relationships. I've known guys like Jim Anderson  4. who have no clue how unhappy their wife is until it is too late. And even when she tries to explain, he doesn't understand what she is saying. They aren't speaking the same love language! 5. 6. 7.

Things look pretty dire for this couple until Jim meets a little old lady who used to run a dance studio. By following her dance lessons (something he has always refused to take!) he begins to learn the lessons of love he had forgotten and some he had never known. But it will still take a miracle to unharden his wife's heart after all the years of pain. As we know, God is a God of miracles! What better place for this miracle to begin to take place than at a wedding, where Christ's first miracle began His ministry on earth? 8.

Like all of Dan Walsh's books and the books Gary Smalley co-authored with Karen Kingsbury, while reading this story you will laugh awhile and cry awhile and come away better for it! 9. And the great thing is it's the first of a series of books (The Restoration Series) written by this team!10.

* * *

Notice that not everything I included in the ten steps is included in Rose's review, but she covered most of them, and very succinctly, at that.
  1. She named the co-authors and the book in the first paragraph.
  2. She gives us her opinion of the work.
  3. She slips in the fact that she read the publisher-supplied ARC.
  4. In this second paragraph, she names the main character.
  5. She reveals the main problem or conflict of the story.
  6. She hints at the solution.
  7. She tells what is getting in the way of solving the problem.
  8. She reveals just enough of the climax to tantalize us--well, me, anyway. :-)
  9. She gives more info about her emotions during the reading of The Dance.
  10. She announce the forthcoming series.

    Rose, you definitely whetted my appetite to read The Dance. Thanks, again!

    Now, gentle reader, it's your turn to write a sterling review about the book you just finished.

    Write on!
    Because of Christ,

Dear Writer Whose Book I Don't Prefer,

This is to set your mind at ease. I will not review your latest release, even if you provided it as an ARC [advance reader copy]. You wouldn't want me to. Besides, I didn't even finish it.

Please don't take offense. Not every book is for every reader. I'm sure you know that. You're receiving much acclaim for your skill as a novelist, acknowledgement you well deserve. Congratulations on your success. It's just that this latest work becomes very dark very quickly. I found it oppressive. Horror, explicit crime, and anything that reeks of the occult or guts and gore I quickly exit, if ever I dared to crack it open. It's not that I read only "Christian" fiction, because my tastes do extend into the secular, but anything worth my time needs to respect the Christian world view--and yours does that. Fact is, some Christian fiction, including your book, leads to places I don't want to go.

I respect that many of your readers already are hooked on your genre in its secular form and that you offer an alternative that points to Christ. That's commendable. Nonetheless, I had to close the book and play some traditional jazz on Pandora to escape the thundercloud that threatened to rain down on my head.

While I won't review your book, many faithful readers will, and I'm thankful for that.

Write on!
Because of Christ,

"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." ~Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

CRASH THE ROADBLOCK! Six Rules of Brainstorming

Most writers run into roadblocks at one time or another, something that keeps their story from progressing. It may be as simple as trying to come up with a name that's true to the story's era and a character's nature, or it could be more complex, say, a major plot twist that isn't playing out well. At such times, we send out frantic S.O.S. for a little help from our writerly cohorts. Observing a few simple guidelines can make our idea sessions more productive.

Rule One:  Pray. Ask the Lord to make your brainstorming fruitful. Also ask Him to give you wisdom to recognize the best choice from many.

Rule Two:  Be specific about your purpose for brainstorming. Clearly articulate what your need is. If the group starts chasing rabbits, tactfully draw them back to task. 

Rule Three:  Accept all ideas as being equal--yours and others'--no matter how random, wild, far-fetched, bizarre, awkward, or exaggerated, without judging them. No put-downs, rolled eyes, or smirks allowed!

Rule Four:  Allow, indeed encourage, piggybacking! Let one person's idea spark another possible solution. And another. And another. Etc.!

Rule Five:  Understand that as a member of the brainstorming team, once you voice an idea, you relinquish ownership of it. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. You've essentially given it to your friend who sought your help.

Rule Six:  In light of Guideline Five, be courteous. Someone asked for your help, and you agreed to participate. If your idea turns out to be the accepted solution, congratulations! It is considered rude--not illegal, but definitely rude--to snatch back an idea you've tossed into the brainstorming ring and use it yourself in your own writing. If you really want to use it (in a different way), meet privately with the person for whom you were brainstorming, explain your plan, and ask her permission. Once again The Golden Rule rules!

Brainstorming is a pleasurable, productive way to solve problems with your fellow scribes. Keep it friendly and . . .

Write on!
Because of Christ,