Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Editing: Now and Then


Open your document.

Find the first instance of the word "now". (ctrl + f then type "now" for you MS Word users)

Read the entire sentence aloud.

At times, the word is necessary.  For instance, when used comparatively (then and now, years ago and now).  But sometimes (particularly when used as an indicator of sequence) it's baggage.

To be sure which it is, remove "now" and read it again.

Here's an example from my latest revisions.
 
1. Those who stood around ceased to laugh and now gathered to her, fear in their eyes.

2. Those who stood around ceased to laugh and gathered to her, fear in their eyes.

Here #1 sounds sequential.  Like you’re reading instructions.  I could see it working for third omniscient in some cases.  But I’m going for third over the shoulder of Brandal, who sits watching them.
#2. Makes it feel like, though written in past tense, it’s going on right now.  As far as Brandal is concerned, it is.

1. “Oh, simple boy.” She smiled. “He can’t hear you.  He was lured by the call of a duende and now awaits judgment in its grasp.”

2. “Oh, simple boy.” She smiled. “He can’t hear you.  He was lured by the call of a duende and awaits judgment in its grasp.

This one seems obvious to me now that I’ve singled it out.  She’s telling about events that happened in that order (lured by the call, awaits judgment). But the fact that she says it in that order, shows that the events happened in that order.  When she uses the word "now" she tells that everything else happened before... 
Well clearly it happened before!  It’s almost as if she knows she’s a character in a book!

1. Zuushe appeared exactly the same years earlier as he did now.  

I put this as an example of when the word is acceptable.  It is comparing two times, "years ago" and "now".

"Then" is another potentially problematic word.  Especially in action sequences.

1. Darke approached the wrought iron gate and reached to unlatch it but then stopped.  

2. Darke approached the wrought iron gate and reached to unlatch it but stopped.

I think something that new writers don't realize is that we, as readers, are distinctly aware that (unless indicated otherwise) events happen in the order they're told.  
In #1 "then" serves to slow things down.  It steals a bit of momentum from the abruptness of whatever made Darke stop.  Both #1 and #2 pose the question to the reader: Why did he stop?  But #2 does so with a stronger sense of abruptness.  You don't see it coming.  It shows that Darke didn't plan to stop.
IN FACT, #3 may even be more effective at this!

3.  Darke approached the wrought iron gate and reached to unlatch it.  He stopped. 

<Tangent>

Notice that delivery of the line becomes more effective the less words are used!  

New writers, I can't stress enough how important this is!  We have a tendency to slather words over an idea, scene or emotion like we're slopping bbq sauce on a grilled rack of ribs, not realizing that excess words are the fat and bone, not the flavor!

4.  Darke approached the wrought iron gate and reached to unlatch it but then stopped abruptly in his tracks.

NO!!!  Exterminate the cliche "in his tracks" (whatever that even means) and the rotten adverb!

</Tangent>

Acceptable use of "then" :

1. Over the next hour they finished cutting the logs and then retired to the house where Rose sat in a rocking chair in the bedroom, mending a shirt with a needle and thread. 

Let's keep "then".  I think it could be comparable to "over the next hour."
BUT, get rid of that pesky "and."  It's baggage.

2. Over the next hour they finished cutting the logs then retired to the house where Rose sat in a rocking chair in the bedroom, mending a shirt with a needle and thread. 



I hope you find some of this useful and I'd really appreciate your feedback!  
This blog is the result of a personal editing epiphany.  I did a "Now run" through my manuscript and deleted about 70 "now"s.

As always, I'm willing to consider your opinion if it contradicts mine... After all, why else would I post this online?