Here’s an exercise you can do to make your current novel better:
- Search your manuscript for the word “as”.
- Remove it from every sentence that uses “as” to make two events simultaneous.
That’s it. very simple. Extremely effective.
A few examples will make this all clear. In each example, I’ll show you the wrong way to do it, followed by an explanation of why it’s wrong, followed by a better option.
Wrong: Joe threw a punch at Eric as he approached.
Why it’s wrong: Your purpose as a novelist is to create a movie in your reader’s brain. This sentence throws up several speed bumps for your reader. Let’s break it down to see why.
The sentence has three events, and they happen in this order:
- Eric approaches Joe.
- Eric gets within punching range of Joe.
- Joe throws the punch.
Now you can see three things that went horribly wrong.
First, the sentence puts things out of order. The sentence shows Joe throwing a punch and then it shows Eric approaching.
Can’t the reader figure out that things are written out of order? Yes, your reader can do that by using logic. But now you’re making your reader’s brain work much harder than it should. The reader has to cut the video you made, reorder it, and splice it back together. That’s a speed bump in your reader’s brain. Readers put down books that have too many speed bumps. They usually won’t be able to say why, other than “it just didn’t feel realistic.” Now you know why. It didn’t “feel realistic” because you made your reader edit your movie.
The second horribly wrong thing is that the sentence uses the word “as” to say that these things take about the same length of time. But they can’t possibly happen at the same time. It might take several seconds for Eric to approach. It takes a tenth of a second for Joe to throw the punch.
Can’t the reader figure out the timing problem? Yes, again your reader can use logic to mentally speed up the approach of Eric or slow down Joe’s punch. But either way, the movie looks all wrong in your reader’s brain.
The third horribly wrong thing is that the sentence uses the word “as” to say that these things happen at the same time. But they don’t. Eric has to approach and get within range before Joe can punch. Even if you had put them in the right order, that pesky “as” would still be saying they’re simultaneous when they aren’t. See how silly that looks: Eric approached as Joe threw a punch at him.
You know the drill by now. Yes, the reader can sort things out by mentally editing your hashed-up movie into something sensible. No, they should never have to edit your movie.
It’s your job to edit the movie so the reader can see it on the first reading without editing. Something like this:
Eric walked up and put out his hand. “Hey, buddy!”
Joe slugged him in the gut.
Wrong: The front door swung open as Madeline strode in.
This one’s better. Things are shown in the right order. The two events take about the same amount of time. But Madeline can’t make her grand entrance until the door’s open.
Better: The front door opened, and Madeline strode in.
You might be thinking I’m just being persnickety here. I only changed one word. But it’s the one word that destroys the movie in your reader’s brain.
Wrong words matter. Your reader can’t picture the door swinging open at precisely the same time that Madeline strides in. The door has to start swinging open, and then the door has to move at least a foot, and only then can Madeline can get in, no matter how slim she is.
Wrong: George clenched his teeth as his face slowly turned red.
The problem here is that clenching your teeth takes a tenth of a second, but your face takes several seconds to turn red. The events are shown in the right order, but they happen on different time-scales.
Better: George clenched his teeth. His face slowly turned red.
Again, it’s only a small change, but now the movie doesn’t need any editing. The reader can see it exactly the way it’s written.
Kick ‘Em in the As
In my critique group, we refer to this process as “kicking ‘em in the as.” Here’s the full process:
- Search for the word “as” in your manuscript.
- For each “as”, ask the following questions:
- Does one event start before the other? If so, remove the “as” and write them as two phrases or two sentences, with the events in the correct order.
- Do the events take different lengths of time? If so, remove the “as” and rewrite the sentence in an order your reader can visualize.
- Are the events actually simultaneous and do they actually take the same amount of time? If so, see if you can possibly remove the “as” and order the events from most important to least important.
- If the word “as” is not being used to say that events happen simultaneously, it’s probably fine and you can leave it in. Your job as a writer is to kick the bad “as” and keep the good “as.”
Try kicking one of your scenes in the “as.” It should take about 5 minutes. Then read it and see if the scene looks more like a movie in your head.
Congratulations. You are now officially a “bad-as” editor.