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Monday, October 8, 2012

Is Your As Bad?

Some learning moments are quiet, useful little nuggets, but some come as loud epiphanies, forever changing the flow of a writer's words.

My AS moment came like a bolt of lightening. When my eyes opened to this small but potentially hazardous word, it was a great big 'Why didn't I see that before?'

I'm sharing this slice of my learning curve pain on the chance a fellow writer or two might need the nugget added to their pile. So they can have their stupid AS moment, too.

The example below is taken from a draft of my third novel, a domestic thriller. If the paragraph had contained only one 'helper' AS, it would have been okay, but I had three of those stinkers in there in a row. Yowza.

DON'T: She looked up as Orlon walked through the door and her son’s voice reached her ear. Concern flew through her as she listened to his message while the men spoke across the room. Her fingers began trembling as the second message played and Orlon walked over to her.

What's really disgusting about the paragraph above is the way those pesky AS's lined up in a column on my MS and I still didn't notice. Ack! I was blind, but now I see.

DO: Orlon walked through the door, stepping in just as her son’s voice reached her ear. Concern flew through her while she listened to the message and the men spoke across the room. The phone began trembling in her fingers at hearing Ann's words.

Forcing myself to find a better way to connect these sentences not only reduced the clunky AS feeeling of the paragraph, it also brought a stronger sense of immediacy, of being more 'in the moment'.

Clearly, I needed to put my AS on a permanent diet. So I asked myself a few questions: When did I develop a big AS? Why is my AS too big? What can I do to improve the flow? Where is it okay to use 'as' in a sentence?

WHEN: Surprisingly, I didn't develop my big AS problem until my third novel. Hmmm...writer's learning-curve fog, I guess. So BOL for 'new' trouble spots.

WHY: Technically speaking, AS is a subordinate conjunction. AS fat stems from trying to put more than one action/function in a sentence. There are many conjunction words. If you're using multi actions/functions within a sentence/paragraph, try to mix up the connective tissue.

Here's a link to a website with a great birds-eye view of conjunctions and their usage:

WHAT: Trimming the AS fat requires us to get off our lazy AS and find another way to write the words. It's like exercise--we've got to make a conscious effort on a consistent basis to make a difference in our appearance. The trick is to force ourselves to look in the mirror, to analyze the flow of the prose we're laying down. Like all good diets, we've got options for trimmng the AS fat:
  • Break it up. Short sentences can speed up the pace. Clarity comes with brevity.
  • Strip it down. Maybe the paragraph would be improved with less action/function, if so, delete.
  • Mix it up. Variety is the spice of life. Insert emotions, thoughts or dialogue in between some of the actions/happenings.
  • Consider the tone. Longer, connected actions/happenings within a sentence/paragraph can convey a sense of mounting tension, of trouble brewing and thoughts festering. Tone and flow are what really count when looking at our writing sentence by sentence.
WHERE: Sometimes we need a bit of AS. It adds its own variety and pace to the story when used well, so it's good to show your AS when appropriate:
  • When things occur simultaneously. Note - if replacing the AS with 'then' or 'when' works as well or better, it's not happening simultaneously.
Example: The bus hit me just as I stepped off the curb.
  • At the beggining of a sentence. Note - use sparingly
Example: As I told you earlier, we are not going to see that movie.
  • When introducing a clause.
Example: She kept glancing at the clock as though she needed to leave.
  • When 'like' could be used, but 'as if' works better.
Example: It looks as if it will rain soon.
  • For comparison purposes, and often requires a 'double AS'. Note - use sparingly
Example: He was screaming as loud as he could

WHO: A writer's angst being what it is, I had to check out the AS's of a few of my favorite authors. Here's a snapshot look at the AS usage from the first 5 pages of a book by each author. It underscores why they are bestsellers:

Lee Child (The Killing Floor) - Page 2 ( 1 comparison); Page 3 (1 simultaneous) = Total of 2

Nora Roberts (The Perfect Hope) - Page 1 (1 connective); Page 3 (1 comparison); Page 4 (1 state-of-being); Page 5 (2 comparison) = Total of 5

James Rollins (Amazonia) - Page 2 (1 simultaneous); Page 3 (1 connective); Page 5 (3 beginning) = Total of 5

Richard Doetsche (Thieves of Legend) - Page 1 (2 comparison, 1 simultaneous); Page 2 (1 simultaneous); Page 5 (1 beginning) = Total of 5

James Patterson/Michael Ledwidge (Zoo) - Page 2 (2 simultaneous, 1 beginning); Page 3 (2 simultaneous, 1 comparison); Page 4 (1 simultaneous) = Total of 7

It's interesting to note that, of all these writers listed, Lee Child has the leanest AS factor. Not only are his books selling in the eight digits, he's widely lauded for his clean writing style, more so than any of the other authors listed. Plus he's hugely popular with both male and female readers.

You can bet your AS I'll be keeping a close eye on my AS's going forward. On I learn...round and round the writer's mulberry bush, excellence in training.

Alex Sheridan
Author of Treasure Life