Writing the first draft of your novel is absolutely the most fun a writer can have. The next is receiving an award for the finished product.
It’s the middle that is challenging.
It’s the moment when you look at your work and your brain flashes with – what was I thinking?
You weren’t thinking. Misplaced modifiers and badly placed participial phrases are often the result of quick writing and a propensity, while creating the first drafts, of place holding. The challenge is rooting these sentences out of the manuscript and email or business proposal before they (and you) become the butt of a joke.
Sloan Madison managed to escape from the borrowed truck before it sank and swam to the river bank. His water soaked clothes dragged at him, impeding his slippery climb up the steep bank. The car burbled and creaked as it slipped under the dirty, opaque water. He huffed and puffed, struggling for breath. Where was the other car? The other driver? Had he just been run off the road by a ghost or was there someone else trapped underwater?
Did you notice the challenge?
Sloan Madison managed to escape from the borrowed truck before it sank, and swam to the riverbank.
How do these sentences escape? For that matter, how did the car escape?
One reason these sentences survive is they are often buried in the middle of a paragraph or description that surrounds the offending sentence with additional context and meaning, which often aids in making the offending sentence more clear. This is a reflection of lazy writing as well as fast writing. As we crank out emails and blog posts at furious rates we lose contact with individual sentences and depend on context, general understanding, the reader to make sense of our words. But every sentence matters and constructing each one and paying attention to each one leads us to stronger, more understandable writing. Can your reader understand what you are saying?
The other reason these sentences sneak in is that in our drafts, we use them as place holders and then never fix them.
Because we created a whole scene, we think we can get away with the inadequately punctuated sentence. Or we placed the driver, swimming and the river bank all into one sentence because we will return to that part later. The challenge is remembering to fix the placeholder sentence like this.
We want to cram all the interesting facts into the one sentence. We want to make sure we get it all in. It’s okay to write two sentences or even three sentences. I’m a fan of long, interesting sentences but sometimes writers get lost in lengthy sentences and by the time they reach the last words in the line, they’ve lost track of what they started to say in the beginning. Don’t do this. Look at your sentences and evaluate them. Can they be shorter?
Is it appropriate and more interesting to add in more information rather than less?
Can your character survive a car wreck, then after a harrowing escape, finally swim to the river bank? Often oddly place modifiers are the result of telling action rather than showing action. If you focus on showing – how did the driver swim to shore? What was she thinking? Was the dirty water cold and kind of disgusting? Did she keep her mouth tightly closed so as not to swallow any of the putrid swill? How steep was the bank as she scrambled up the muddy sides? The problem with the car swimming away disappears because you’ve done a better job showing the action rather than just casually discussing it.
So what is the solution?
Slow down, does each sentence serve the larger purpose of explaining the action, or have you just jotted down a place holder, thinking, I’ll get back to that in post-production. But sometimes, we never do. If you are running along with great action and you need a place holder sentence, highlight it, return to it in the sober light of day and make the necessary changes.
You want to be clear, interesting and smart. You don’t want to build a reputation as a writer who unconsciously animates cars. That’s been done.
For what we hope is a book filled with reasonable sentences, visit Future Girls.