Category: Craft

Success as an author?Success as an author?

Depends what you mean by “success”

One of my writing groups (the one that isn’t a critique circle) has set a blog-post prompt of “How do you measure success as an author?”
We’re supposed to introspect, come up with wise words to inspire and console others. I don’t know about y’all, but the past two years have been a low-rising roller coaster, beginning with a brief burst of elation that my first book (my “debut” if you want to get precious about it) was coming out.

WIte, red, and blue award ribbons from a fair

Only then we had a little bit of a pandemic to deal with.

And now it’s two years later.

All That Was Asked has never had a book-launch party (it slightly predates online launch parties), a signing session, a reading at a convention—none of those things. Not uncoincidentally, it hasn’t made much dough for me or for my publisher. At least the print copies are mostly print-on-demand, so no one’s staring at a warehouse full of unsold copies and calling a shredding company.

But is selling a ton of books a success? To stay sane in this business, I think you have to measure success more on the basis of what you are doing than what you have done. If you’re making oodles of money in the publishing industry, that’s mostly a matter of luck, so is that success? I’d call it good fortune. It’s very much a lottery. I’ve read absolutely stunning work in critique circles, listened to mind-blowing readings by little-known writers, and I’ve even had people tell me after a reading “wow, that was awesome!”

What makes sense is to measure how this work—writing—impacts your life. Is this what you live for? Not in a rosy-eyed, dreamy way, not “I luv writing <3” but “writing is what drags me out of everything else” and “writing is my food, drink, and sleep” and “writing is how I exist in this universe.”

What I’m doing right now is working on projects that I’ve wanted to tackle for years—no, decades—but never could due to the vicissitudes of child-rearing, day-job workload, personal upheavals, and disability.  I’m not whining. These are just facts. I chose to raise kids, and it was satisfying work (and, yes, frustrating, too, but in all the right ways). However, doing the best job possible involved more than dropping them off at our barely-adequate schools. It meant advocating for them, fighting an uncaring administrative system, volunteering, fundraising, and, as a last-resort, homeschooling. At least in the pandemic age, there are more parents out there who understand that homeschooling—at least not ideally—isn’t a romp in the garden, it’s serious work. And, like most of us, for me that was work that had to take place in parallel with earning a living.

So right now, I’m successful. Every morning (afternoon?) I wake up, and there’s writing to do.

  • This kind of writing, which is off-the-cuff, barely edited, and hurled into the interweb’s event horizon, never to be seen by human eyes.
  • Critical writing, where I’m critiquing work by fellow writers, trying to help them make their stories the best they can be. 
  • Social-media writing—mostly Twitter—where I practice being concise, kind, and thoughtful.
  • And, finally, yes, writing my own stories, the ones I’ve been wanting to read.

What I’ve been looking for—and yes, I’ve found some, but far too few—are stories led by characters who have trouble communicating, who don’t fit in, who think differently than others but find a way through life anyhow. I’m tired of hero’s-journey stories and chosen-one tales that take themselves too seriously. I don’t mind playing with the tropes. For instance, one of my WIPs has a seeming “chosen one” in it, but the whole thing is a crock, a scheme worked up by a person who’s trying to change society and is using an old myth to get buy-in. Not that the “chosen” person isn’t worthy, but there’s no magic in the process—they’re carefully selected for capability and then trained for the job.

I’m not writing to market. I admit that. So I can’t complain about sales, not too much. It may take time for people like me to find the stories I’m writing for them. That’s OK. I waited a long time. A little longer—I can deal.

Well, I’m trying to, anyhow.

In the meantime, I’m keeping on. For me, that writers learned to use remote meetings to connect for critiques, discuss craft, conduct conventions, and more has been a compensatory gain during the pandemic. It’s not a benefit of this horrible time; it’s a thing we could should have been doing all along, and only just now learned to value. When the pandemic’s over, we’ll keep connected this way. That’s a good thing, but we don’t get to pretend it’s all right that millions of people died while those of us privileged to live were fumbling our way to this belated discovery.

I’ve leveraged that new learning, because I’m an engineer and tech things come naturally to me. I’ve let myself get roped into volunteering to help others less comfortable with the technology—and that’s OK, because participating with other writers helps me connect more deeply with my writing community.  I value the friendships I’ve formed with people I’ve only met in Zoom rooms. This is not a trivial feeling—I dedicated my Monday afternoons for half this past year to help a Zoom friend whose critique circle had lost their only zoom-capable member. That meant stepping aside from one of my other critique circles, one that needed me less. I’m returning to my prior group as of this month, because my friend’s old zoom-host has returned. I’ll miss the new friends I made in her circle, even though we only ever saw each other in little boxes on our computer screens.

Am I a failure because I had to defer my writing career? Looking back through my drawer of shelved and partly-done stories, one thing is strikingly clear—I was so young, so ignorant, so clueless. Much of what I’m writing now, I couldn’t have done when I was younger. In technique, I’m much better than my younger self; some of that gain I can attribute to years of writing science and engineering reports and papers, working collaboratively with colleagues on phrasing, structure, and word choice … plus coping with deadlines. Beyond the technique, older me is able to imagine more-complex characters, see worlds with more-different people in them. Through personal experience, I know most lives—most real stories—don’t have a “call to adventure” or a “supreme ordeal.” There’s no wise mentor waiting to guide us. We have to muddle through, try to survive in an irrational universe, and deal with the fact we’ll never quite make sense of it all.

Sure, I’m still learning. You have to keep learning. It’s the key to growth in every respect. Even there, though, I’m doing better, working actively to learn more of what I need to continue improving.

In my next posting, I’ll demonstrate my success by sharing a list of what I consider to be my 2021 accomplishments not only as a writer but also as a member of the writing community.

I’ll warn you right now: it’s a longer post.

On the Care and Feeding of Participial PhrasesOn the Care and Feeding of Participial Phrases

In some critique circles, shooting down misplaced modifiers has become a sporting activity. It’s fun, because they’re easy to spot and can be really funny. “The robber drove the getaway car in a batman costume” should make you smile at the image of a car cosplaying as The Batman. It’s logical that a modifier works best when it’s placed as close as possible to the thing it’s describing. For example, the descriptor “in a batman costume” should be next to “robber” and not “car.”

Unfortunately, a valuable writing tool—the participial phrase—is taking collateral damage.

An image of a 19th-century postcard showing three people "flying" with stiff airplane-like wings justting from ther sides, as they shoot at ducks in the sky.
An 1899 postcard by Jean-Marc Côté
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A participial phrase is a specialized modifier that conveys movement or change, often incorporating visual imagery and other details, while performing the duties of an adjective. This tool has its own grammar and punctuation rules. Like any modifier, it can be misplaced, but the writer has flexibility in its placement, supported by the unsung hero of grammar: the comma.

To be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with participles. A participle is what you get when you take a verb and use it as an adjective: drowned trees, running water, flying pigs, grown woman, billowing clouds. Look for the past- and present-tense endings.

A simple participle works just like an ordinary adjective and is placed exactly as you would expect. For example, “drowned trees” could be a more dramatic way to say “dead trees.” It’s not unique to English, but repurposing words is relatively common in our language. Apparently, we English-speakers are determined to keep turning one part of speech into another, as if we haven’t got enough words already. Verbing nouns is one of my pet peeves.

(Yes, I know. You saw what I did there.)

A participial phrase is both

  • a phrase with a participle in it, and
  • a phrase acting as an adjective, intended to describe the subject of a sentence.

For example, “acting as an adjective” is a participial phrase. So is, “intended to describe the subject of a sentence.”

To get a participial phrase, you build upon the participle:

Trees … drowned in the flood from the broken dam

Water … running over rocks and rills

Pigs … flying like eagles

Woman … grown wise in the ways of the world

Clouds … billowing like windblown sheets of satin (note the participle within this participial phrase)

Brilliant clouds sail high over the plains towards distant mountaints

Participles and participial phrases add flavor and texture to our sentences, and because they come from verbs, they help create a feeling of action. Questions arise when we go to put our nicely-constructed phrase into its sentence, because … where do we put the darned thing? You have three choices:

Leading: Billowing like windblown sheets of satin, the clouds sailed over the plains of Endor.

Subject-adjacent: The clouds, billowing like windblown sheets of satin, sailed over the plains of Endor.

Trailing: The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor, billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Photo Credit: Jonathan C. Wheeler, CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: these are my own terms. Reliable texts will say “at the beginning/in the middle/at the end.” yawn. Also, do not rail at me about the forests of Endor. This one is about the plains. Where, possibly, it rains. Like in Spain.)

Now … wait for it … here it comes:

If (and only if) you fail to properly punctuate a participial phrase, it becomes a misplaced modifier.

Technically, it’s a mispunctuated modifier, but to the reader, it’s confusing, and that’s why we care about misplaced modifiers. It occurs most often when the participial phrase is trailing. The separating comma before the phrase signals the reader that what follows describes the subject, in our example: clouds. Without the comma, you get:

The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Here, the reader is cast adrift and must grab for the nearest noun. While it may be possible that the plains of Endor billow, without other information, the reader will snicker, backtrack, guess what you mean, and move on, now somewhat annoyed by your absent comma.

Participial phrases bow to the humble comma or risk being misunderstood. For leading ones, you need a comma to close off the modifying phrase and move into the sentence proper. For subject-adjacent placement, commas—or their absence—are used intentionally to create subtle distinctions in meaning, distinguishing between essential description and nonessential elaboration.

A participial phrase placed next to the subject but without commas makes that descriptor an essential one. Consider:

The clouds billowing like windblown sheets of satin sailed over the plains of Endor.

Here the phrase is “essential” because it’s telling us that only those clouds that are billowing (yes, like satin) sail over the plains. Perhaps other clouds lie high in the stratosphere, unaffected by the winds below. If we put the commas back in, then we know the descriptor is colorful but nonessential. That is, we understand that all the clouds are sailing, though we pause in the middle of the sentence to enjoy the charming detail of their movement and sheen.

Placement at the beginning versus the end of a sentence allows us to create a sense of sequence, the order in which the storyteller wants the reader to experience each element. With the leading version of our Endorian sentence, the author wants you to take in the image of the shape and movement and texture of the clouds first, then imagine them sailing over the plains. It’s like when a child runs up to you with a remote-control toy and says “Look! Godzilla is driving this robot car! Isn’t it cool? Now watch what it can do!”

In contrast, with a trailing placement, the author nudges you to first realize that the clouds are sailing over the plains—maybe it’s important, because a party of adventurers must cross the stormy plain—and then lets you enjoy the clouds’ beauty. In our child’s-play example, first you are startled by a remote-control car zipping across the playground, and then a child is calling out “Wow! Cool! A robot car with Godzilla driving it!”

And now, don’t you want a robot car?

Me, too!

Were the plains of Endor too much? Let’s review, using a simpler situation. Imagine a romance in which a young woman has just learned her true love is about to sail away on a ship, and she’s hurried to the docks. She spots him boarding a vessel, but it’s way down on the pier. She has to run. She wants him to see her, but he’s too far away.

Here’s a mispunctuated participial phrase: Mun-Su ran down the dock waving to her departing lover.

We know the dock isn’t saying farewell to its lover, we know it’s Mun-Su, but as readers we don’t like to have to stop and think about it. Add the comma demanded by a trailing participial phrase, and all becomes clear as we yank out our hankies: Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Of course, you could stick the participial phrase at the front: Waving to her departing lover, Mun-Su ran down the dock. Grammatically, this is correct, but we’ve defined a situation in which Mun-Su needs to get a move on first; her running is the critical action, because the lover won’t see her waving until she gets closer.

Further, what if you want to make the situation more complex? This is an important beat in the story. Surely, you want to share the character’s innermost feelings, her physical sensations at that moment: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Those unaware of the functionality of the participial phrase will point and cry, “You must place the phrase next to the subject.” Oh, my, but then you get: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su, waving to her departing lover, ran down the dock.

Poor Mun-Su is awkwardly waving, in a nonessential way, as she runs down the dock. Sadly, I’m not seeing a happily-ever-after now. Pass me the tissues.

I do hope you have enjoyed this little missive from the Grammar Police. We protect and serve … the text.

Further reading:

Clean examples and a bonus round on dangling modifiers from Grammar Monster:

Purdue University’s online writing lab explicating plenty of complexities in participles and their phrases:

Don’t worry, Ha Mun-Su does get her happy ending eventually, and Won Jin-Ah won an award for her portrayal, too!