Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

Many readers, myself among them, experience something I’m going to call “wrong message” when reading a book or article. By wrong message I mean that the writer has written a sentence, paragraph, or scene in such a way that the reader logically leaps to the conclusion that This. Is. Important!

And so, having inferred that This Is Important, the reader keeps expecting the subject matter of the sentence (or paragraph, or scene) to come up again in the book. The reader anticipates that what is taking place is foreshadowing: that the writer is providing information that will later be relevant.

But in many cases . . . this never happens. The information that seemed to signal its own importance simply disappears from the book. And the reader is left a bit disappointed, a bit annoyed. Even a bit puzzled, wondering how she could have misinterpreted the writing.

So, by dwelling on something that isn’t really important to the plot and theme and character development of the book, a writer is indeed sending the reader a wrong message. The writer seems to be saying: Pay attention, this will come up later.

But then it doesn’t, and reader dissatisfaction grows.

Sentences and paragraphs have their own logic (a logic that the reader absorbs without even thinking about it). Unless a writer understands and employs this logic, she is going to be sending wrong messages to the reader.

An example of [subconscious] paragraph logic is that the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in the paragraph. This sentence sends out super-strong signals to the reader: Heads up! Comin’ at ya! After all, the writer ended the previous paragraph and started a new one specifically to break with the previous thought and to signal what the new thought/action is.

So. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains the following paragraph:

Justin parked the powerful riding mower in the garage. He entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

As it’s written, this paragraph signals that Justin parking the powerful riding mower in the garage is important. This simple sentence occupies the prime spot of importance in the paragraph. And, writers who write like this (more about that soon) tend to write many such paragraphs in which an object they are using for, say, texture or realism, occupies the primary spot in the paragraph. Often it is the same object that they use over and over: a lawn mower; a purse; a skateboard; an opal ring.

So, in such a book, the reader would encounter many paragraphs in which information about Justin and the riding mower is related in the first sentence of the paragraph, as a simple (S-V-O) sentence. Justin brushed the grass off the seat of the riding mower. Or, Justin kicked the dried grass off the wheels of the rusty riding mower. Or, Justin noticed that the riding mower needed cleaning. And so on.

The reader is going to be thinking: Aha! There’s something important about that riding mower! But in reality, that’s not the case. The writer is merely trying to add some texture to the book by painting a picture of concrete objects. 

Despite what the writer is trying to do, she is sending the wrong message to the reader, and that’s because she is placing her unimportant-to-the-plot texture in the most important spot of the paragraph. And because the simple declarative sentence shouts: Important!

Such wrong messages can be corrected by moving the texture information to somewhere else in the paragraph. Sometimes in trying to move the information, the writer realizes that it looks strange anywhere else in the paragraph. This could be a sign that the information maybe doesn’t really have anything to do with the content of the paragraph. In the case of Justin and the riding mower, it’s difficult to figure out a way to move the information into another spot in the paragraph.

But wait. 

There is a tried-and-true way to handle this problem, and that is to subordinate the not-important information to what is important. Please note that I’m not talking about a subordinate clause, which is a dependent clause containing a subordinate conjunction such as while, whereas, if, until, and so on. I’m talking about a dependent clause — one that cannot stand alone. Because it cannot stand alone, it’s “subordinate” to the main part of the sentence. The information that is not that important should be presented as a dependent clause, and the main information as an independent clause. Here’s an example:

Parking the powerful riding mower in the garage, Justin entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

Voila! Because it’s in a dependent clause, the information about Justin parking the riding mower no longer screams This. Is. Important. The way it’s now written, as a dependent clause, the information definitely adds a bit of visual information — but that information is clearly nowhere as important as what follows in the independent clause. And a reader will instantly assimilate this: a reader will understand that parking the riding mower is just throw-away information. 

Earlier I said that I would try to explain why writers end up giving the reader the wrong message. It is, I think, because the writer is so intent on the story, maybe racing ahead at full speed, that he doesn’t see the relationship between the sentences that constitute a paragraph. And, we have a habit of writing things in the same way, so if a writer has inadvertently fallen into the pattern of presenting trivial texture information at the beginning of each paragraph, you can see why the reader would be confused — everything the writer has done by placing such information into a simple sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph screams out “Pay attention!”

Sending the wrong message is a definite problem in writing, particularly among beginning writers. But it is a problem easily corrected once the writer understands the importance of the paragraph’s first sentence and the importance of subordinating less important information.

————————————

Barbara Gregorich does not park riding mowers anywhere, but she does discuss aspects of writing well in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.              

Rewrite Decisions (and Charts)

In 2017 I wrote my first YA novel, The F Words. That was Draft #1, which ended up at 69,000 words and 50 chapters. Then I wrote Draft #2, and then Draft #3, all in a twelve-month span. Because this process went much more quickly than with many of my novels, I remember it and want to share the various rewrite decisions I made.

I worked on my first draft from roughly early February through late September. And then not only did I put the draft away for a while, to separate myself from what I had written, but I also took a long vacation. It’s essential to put any writing aside before tackling a rewrite, so that you can separate the love of what you actually wrote from the necessity of making it better. Putting days, weeks, or even a couple of months between you and your just-finished first draft is invaluable. But dropping a vacation into your separation time is, as I learned, even better. Vacations — visiting new places, talking to new people — stimulate the creative brain and allow you to entertain new possibilities.

By early November I was ready to start writing Draft #2. I gave myself the goal of rewriting one chapter a day. My chapters averaged about eight pages — few enough pages that I could look for a lot of different things that needed improving. My critique group had already read the first fourteen chapters of my novel and had given me a lot of valuable feedback. For example: perhaps I had too many subplots. Perhaps I hadn’t made it clear what the novel’s main conflict was. My protagonist wasn’t self-reflective enough — didn’t let the reader know his thoughts and feelings. My chronology of what happened when was sometimes confusing. 

That’s a lot of different things to try to correct in one draft, but I felt that by limiting myself to 4-8 pages a day, I could do it. In fact, I was able to do it, though it took about 2.5 to 3 hours each morning. As you can see, I also made myself a 50-chapter chart that I filled in each time I completed a chapter. And as you can also see, I worked on Thanksgiving Day. And on my birthday.  And on Chanukah.

In writing the second draft I deleted an entire subplot, increased the protagonist’s self-reflection, and intensified the main plot. In each chapter I also looked for wordiness and corrected it. My 50 chapters turned into 51 chapters because I split one of the chapters into two parts. All of my changes added about 3,000 words to the book.

One of the reasons I aimed to rewrite a chapter a day was that I wanted to keep my head in the book, so to speak. I went to sleep each night thinking about the plot and characters, and I rewrote my chapter right after breakfast, so that real life couldn’t interfere with the fictional world I was creating. After I finished the second draft, I asked my husband, Phil Passen, to read and critique it. Ideally, I wanted him to read the book in one day, which he has done for me in the past. This time his schedule didn’t permit that day-long read. But he was able to read it in two days, starting around 4 p.m. on a Sunday and finishing around noon on Monday. 

Phil caught several cases of repetition that I needed to address, he found some confusion in the order of events, and he thought I needed to do some additional research for one of the subplots. On all accounts, he was correct. He also suggested combining two of my chapters, so that the 51 chapters dropped back down to 50. Amusingly, the two he wanted combined were not the two I had separated. So we were both “right” in our opinions.

I wanted to write Draft #3 in a much shorter period of time than it took me to write Draft #2. For one thing, the manuscript required fewer changes, and because of that I could rewrite at least five chapters a day. As it ended up, I made myself a new grid, a circle grid. (I was tired of the rectangle!) Dividing it into 6 chapters a day (with two days in which I would rewrite seven chapters) allowed me to rewrite the book in eight days.

Draft #3 was 1200 words shorter than #2, and was back down to 50 chapters, some of them only one page long. In addition to concentrating on Phil’s suggested changes, I also researched current teen slang and made agonizing decisions on which would still be here ten years from now. And I did some research on the subplot Phil thought needed more information. After the third draft was finished I asked members of my writing group to read and critique it. They did, and I then wrote Draft #4, which took approximately the same amount of time as Draft #3.

At that point I hired Chicago writing coach Esther Hershenhorn to read and critique the manuscript. She did, and what she stressed was that I should follow six important subject-matters through the entire manuscript, never letting the reader lose track of any one of them. Esther listed the six subject-matters/themes/plots she thought were most important.

In no particular order, those six are: Cole’s relationship with his father; cross-country running; Cole writing f-word poems; Cole thinking about f-words; the Chicago setting; socialism. Esther suggested that I use the “colored manuscript” method to see where any one of these subjects was missing in Draft #4. If the subject matter was missing for a while, then the reader couldn’t keep it in mind. In other words, these were threads running through the story, and it was my job as a writer to keep weaving those threads through the story, making certain to not drop or lose any of them.

Color-coding a manuscript takes a long time. It took me six long days to go through The F Words and color the background of any sentences, paragraphs, or pages where one of the subjects was “active.” (You can read more about this technique in Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Once I finished the color-coding I taped the chart to the bookcase in my office, and every day as I worked on Draft #5, I consulted it.

You can see by looking at the chart that in Draft #4 I wove Cole’s relationship with his father, coded in blue, through almost the entire manuscript. But I did drop it in a few places (they show up white). And when it came to cross-country running, coded in brown, I had another set of white spaces — which meant that I had to weave that subject into the manuscript more as I rewrote. By the way, it makes sense that there are some small white  spaces here and there in all of the columns: a writer can’t be mentioning a subject constantly. That would come across as relentless and maybe strident. Small white spaces are fine. But big white spaces, as you can see with the brown, blue, and especially pink colors, aren’t fine. The right-hand column (pink) had the most gaps — that was the Chicago setting. I got so wrapped up in micro-settings such as Cole’s school and the cross-country running that I forgot to put larger, Chicago-specific descriptions into the story. That was a huge oversight, and I’m so glad I had the chance to correct it. A subject shouldn’t disappear from the novel or from the reader’s mind for such long stretches.

After I finished Draft #5 I began to submit it to agents and to publishers, and in 2020 I was offered a contract by City of Light Publishing.

————————————

For various posts about The F Words, visit Barbara Gregorich’s Facebook page.          

Rewriting with Production Schedules

As a writer I sometimes have a writing schedule and I sometimes don’t. When I was writing She’s on First, my first novel, I had a part-time job as a postal letter carrier. My work schedule was erratic. On some days I started work at 4:30 a.m., some days at 11:30 a.m., and occasionally I started at 3:00 p.m. Under these circumstances all I wanted to do was write some portion of my novel every day: say 15-30  minutes of writing time. On most days I managed that.

However, I had interruptions. For  one,  I got  a full-time job which cut into my novel-writing time! And then I ran into plot problems in the novel and stopped writing for a week or so. And then I killed off a character I liked, which made me very sad and kept  me from writing for five months. And so on and so forth.

I finished the novel, rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was published in 1977. Basically, She’s on First was written without my having a production schedule. So was my second novel, Dirty Proof. All I aimed to do was write every day until the novel was finished, seven days a week. I did that, and in eleven months I completed the novel. 

Since then I’ve written many other books, all without any particular schedule applied to them — other than that I wrote every day, even if it was for only fifteen minutes. All of these books were my own ideas and my own vision. I was writing them because I wanted to tell a particular story in each book.

But I also wrote for others, and on these jobs I had deadlines, and when I have a deadline, I create a production schedule of how many pages or chapters I want to write each day. I remember one workbook in particular in which I had such a large book to write and such a short time to write it in, that when I drew up a schedule that would allow me to complete the book in time — I realized that I had to create eleven activity pages a day. Eleven! If you’ve never had to create student activity pages, you might not grasp how difficult that is. At the grade level I was working at, creating a page would take between 45 minutes and  two hours. That meant that on a bad day . . . I would have to work for 22 hours!

Well, I had no 22-hour days, but I did have several 17 hour days and many, many, many 12-hour days. In fact, I don’t think I had any work day that  was shorter than nine hours during the whole long ordeal. 

And, to make matters worse, this project took up most of July, all of August, and the first two weeks of September. Was there a summer that year? I have no idea — I was indoors writing work sheets.

Whenever I think of that writing assignment I realize that, had I not drawn up a production schedule and stuck to it, I would never have completed the job on time. 

It was during that ordeal that I did something to amuse myself. I started to color my work chart. After I completed each worksheet, I would color one square on my production chart. Filling in the squares was both a satisfaction and a relief. I then went on to the next worksheet. 

The habit of making these goal-oriented charts stayed with me for any job with a deadline. I’d analyze the time, the number of chapters/pages, and then make a chart and follow it, thus pacing myself and assuring that I would finish in time. Not all of the schedules were grueling. (Some were only semi-grueling.)

In this particular chart, each wedge represented six chapters. Each time I finished rewriting six chapters, I connected that wedge to the center of the circle. You can see that at the time I took a screen shot, I had completed 30 chapters and still had 18 to go.

The habit of making production charts then slowly crept into the writing that I did because I wanted to do it — my novels and my nonfiction books and my poetry. The habit hasn’t crept into my first-draft at all, and probably never will. When I start writing a book, I have no idea how long it will take me. Nor do I worry about it. Each book is different. Some I’ve written in three or four months, some in three or four years.

But each book has to be rewritten at least a couple of times, maybe even four or five times. And it is with the rewrites that I began to use production charts. I understand why I did this. Once the first draft is finished, a writer can look at it and see its beginning, middle, and end . . . and know where it’s strong and where it’s weak. So after letting the first draft rest for a while, then reading and analyzing it, a writer is ready to go on the second draft.

What I try to do with my second draft is add needed exposition, work on character and motivation, clarify plot, strengthen cause and effect, work on rising action, make sure I have foreshadowing, and so on. (I don’t achieve all these things in the second draft, but I try, because that means less work on the third draft.)

In order for me to do this I need to keep my head in the book at all  times. To keep my passion for the story at a peak. So . . . in order to keep myself in the rewrite at all times, in order to intensify the story, I intensify the rewriting by creating a production chart.

——————————————

Barbara Gregorich wrote Women at Play in 92 days with a production schedule that called for a completed (written, edited, and rewritten) chapter every three days.

Sentences: Position of Modifiers

To write good sentences, writers must understand what it is that their sentence says. Sentences have a life of their own — they say what the words and word order say, not what the writer might intend them to say, not what the writer might expect everybody to understand as her intent. If a writer is careless or indifferent to sentence structure, her sentences may create confusion. Or ridicule. 

Below are two examples of sentences that say what the words and word order say. The first causes confusion due to its ambiguous pronoun reference. The second sentence says that a book wrote a book: this one may arouse laughter due to the misplaced modifier. I’ve rewritten each sentence so that there’s no ambiguity in the first and no dangling modifier in the second.

Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix.
“If you don’t add more paprika to that spice mix,” Claire told her sister Lisa, “I won’t eat your insipid stew!”
Lisa’s sister added more paprika to the spice mix, just as she had warned Lisa she would.

An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Rangers is the author’s best book to date.
The author is an accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, and Rangers is his best book to date.
An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Joe Borders has written his best book to date: Rangers.

I sometimes think that well more than half of all incorrectly written English sentences are victims of misplaced modifiers. That’s what’s wrong with the second of the above examples — the first part of the sentence is meant to modify the author himself. It is not meant to modify his book: the book is not an accomplished, best-selling writer. Yet the writer of that sentence has unthinkingly placed the modifier where it doesn’t belong, possibly thinking that the words on the page say what’s in his/her head. They don’t. They say what the words and word order say — that Rangers is a best-selling writer. Rangers is not a best-selling writer. Rangers is the book written by the best-selling writer.

To understand what is wrong about misplaced modifiers, it helps to know that English, which evolved from several other languages (Latin, French, Norse, German, Anglo-Saxon), evolved in a revolutionary way. These other languages depended on word endings to tell the listener or reader what the sentence meant. Words could appear in a sentence pretty much in any order: it wasn’t the order, but the word ending, that told who did what to whom in what manner and when.

English changed that. English made position the factor that determines meaning. “The bear chased Gretchen” means something entirely different from “Gretchen chased the bear.”

In English, words and phrases should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase that they modify — not in a willy-nilly order as the writer may think of them.  When the writer does not follow this logical pattern, sentences may unintentionally misinform or say ludicrous things — as in the three sentences featured below.

• A costumed person raced past me, leading a dachshund in a wizard’s robe.
• I wrote the song while traveling on the back of a menu.
• Screeching around the corner on two wheels, the house was on fire.

Just a few days ago I stood in front of a sign which read: Stand behind the pink line until called to ensure the privacy of other patients. My immediate reaction (with a touch of panic) was that I would be called upon to ensure the privacy of other patients.

Then I realized that the sign couldn’t possibly mean what I thought, so I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what the sign was trying to say. It was trying to say:  In order to ensure the privacy of other patients, please stand behind the pink line until called. This puts the phrase that explains “why” closer to stand than to called — the phrase belongs as close as possible to the verb it actually modifies, else it will seem to modify the other verb! The phrase explains why one is required to stand behind the pink line; it does not explain why one will be called.

To write clear sentences, avoid misplacing your modifying phrases. 

__________________

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, Barbara Gregorich discusses the topic of writing well.

Color-Coding Your Manuscript

Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.

I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.

Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of  07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex. 

One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.

If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.

If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user. 

The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.

Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.

Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color. 

Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases. 

Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.

Manuscript written and color-coded by Chris Tebbetts.

Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.

Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.

The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.

When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.

For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.

So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.

Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped. 

———————————————

For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.