Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Then, And Then

Sadly, today my Uncampaign Mismanager and I decided to throw in the towel on our attempts to buy the open Illinois Senate seat from almost-ex-Governor Blagojevich. I so wanted to be Senator and dedicate my mighty clout to repealing the sales tax on chocolate, and we were only $27,999.68 short of the half mil we figured it would cost us. But what are ya gonna do. We knew we were racing the clock to satisfy the Guv's wild greed, and we lost to some other guy with quicker cash. Oh, well. Looks like I'm destined to be an editor, after all.

So, with my short and doomed campaign behind us, and with the refunds nearly complete to those who so cheerfully donated their Monopoly money, poker chips, and Chuck E. Cheez tokens to Our Noble Cause, I will bury my disappointment in work.

We'll start with a quick peek at the word then, followed by a caution about rules.

Technically, the word then is not a conjunction. It can be used
  • as an adverb (to clarify the time at which a verb occurs, as in, "Blagojevich extorted payola, got caught, and then was forced to resign.")
  • as a noun (to refer to a specific time, as in, "Since then, Blagojevich has resorted to taking bribes from his family members to get a haircut.")
  • or as an adjective ( as in, "the then Governor Blagojevich remained unaware of how permanent the damage to his reputation would be.")
Sometimes, we see writers skip conjunctions when using then before a final verb in a series.

She stopped, dropped, then rolled.

And I must admit, even though this sort of thing will always jump off the page for me, I sometimes let it slide. Emphasis on sometimes. What that means is that in the vast majority of cases, I will insert the conjunction for clarity and rhythm.

So, I was thinking about Alicia's posts on compound predicates with missing conjunctions, and it made me think of the rash of manuscripts lately with faulty then constructions in just about every other paragraph. And I thought I would post this reminder that then is not a conjuction, but there's a bigger point to be made about both Alicia's and my posts.

In responding to Alicia's post, several of you raised examples of highly regarded authors who occasionally drop the conjunctions in compound predicates. I'm sure you can all find examples of authors who use then as an adverb without a conjunction, too. They're out there. I know it, and Alicia knows it, and you all know it, too.

So here's the thing. We say, here's the general rule. And we're right. And you say, but so-and-so breaks it. And you're right. But it's not enough to know the rule, and know that it can be broken. We have to also understand the effect to be created by breaking the rule in different circumstances or in different ways.

Because that's where precision lies. When a word is used with forethought and deliberation in an unexpected way, when a faulty construction is left to lie on the page like a painted whore, when a rule is quietly broken or forcefully shattered, then is a precise effect being caused upon the reader.

When you chain predicate verbs without a conjunction, you can create an impression of speed, or chaos, or actions that build in sequence to a pinnacle. The effect may vary from usage to usage, because this sort of thing is case specific. When you insert a then into such a chain, you might gain control over the sequence of events without sacrificing the effect of the dropped conjunction. So there are times when these things work, and I believe Alicia also recognized valid exceptions to the rules.

What we've been seeing lately, though, is a conjunction dropped for no apparent reason. There is no sense of a meticulous author controlling her prose by artfully breaking a rule. There is, instead, a sense of abandon. And not in a good way. It's not being done here and there for precise effects, but four or five times per page, almost like a nervous stutter in the written speech. The overall impression is one of sloppiness and disrespect for the language.

The next time you notice a published work breaking a rule, I want you to do two things. First, take a moment to congratulate yourself for recognizing the breach. You've worked hard to gain the knowledge and sharp eye that allowed you to do so, and that's a good thing.

Second, I want you to step back from the page for a moment. Appraise it as neutrally as possible. Ask yourself, why is the rule being broken here? Why here and not there? What effect is being created? Try rearranging the words to "fix" the prose, and see how the effect changes. Take the time to figure it out. It will be worth it in the end.



Riley Murphy said...

You say: ‘when a rule is quietly broken or forcefully shattered, then is a precise effect being caused upon the reader.’ – and I like that. It makes sense. Your term: ‘artfully breaking the rule’, I feel, is the key here...but, how many writers know how to do this successfully? We learn by example, don’t we? And if we aren’t paying close enough attention to why the device or technique works in the piece that inspired us in the first place?...Well then, we will have missed the point and only wind up mimicking (not in a good way) instead of creating - and attaining the desired effect in our own work...
Man, there has to be some easier way through all this, isn’t there? Don’t you guys have any EASY ancient writing secrets you’d like to impart? Ones that don’t require a lot of hard work and deep examination? A pill, perhaps, that one can take to fix all the glitches while remaining pain free during the tedious process? That would be really great for me, right about now:).

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Thank you for this post. 'Then' is not a conjunction.

Edittorrent said...

Murph, I think it's good to put on the reader hat and assess the effect of the brokenness on the reading experience. What does it "feel" like? Don't learn by mere example-- learn when something works, under what circumstances, and when it doesn't work. That is, go from writer (noticing the change) to a reader (noting the effect) and back to a writer (imagining how it would work for you in your own prose). I do think the "reader" perspective is all important.

jaz said...

I was one of the people who cited well known authors who break the rules. I wasn't doing it to say, see, it's okay. I was pointing out that Annie Proulx did it effectively because of the voice she was creating (Ennis Del Mar's), which I think would be a rather unique case, and then I mentioned Jhumpa Lahiri more as a wow, even someone as precise as she does this sometimes. I'm not even sure it's effective when she does it; it was more that I was surprised she did it.

Sorry if that came across as a "famous authors do it so there" kind of a thing.

jaz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edittorrent said...

Jennifer, I didn't take it that way. Not at all. I just thought it would serve as a good launchpad for the final point of the post, which was that breaking rules is fine when it's done for a specific effect.


Riley Murphy said...

I do agree with you about the ‘reader’ perspective being all important. Having said that, I find that I have a tendency to dwell (when I am wearing my reader hat), on the parts of a book that don’t work for me - instead, of on the parts that do work. Maybe this is due to my philosophy that you learn more from mistakes - than you do from successes. Who knows?

(A lengthy pause, inserted here, followed closely by a huge sigh)...before I am given to lament:

Um...it’s a bitter pill I have to swallow, having to admit that I’m not perfect. (You gotta know, that I typed this last bit covertly, because I didn’t want the husband to find out)...I mean, why should both of us be crushed by this shocking discovery. :) Seriously, thanks for the perspective - it is greatly appreciated!

Julie Harrington said...

One of the reasons I love reading here is the repeated message that just because so and so author does this-or-that doesn't mean *you* can do it in your own writing, that it's right, or that it's necessarily viewed as favorable. Every time one of the entries emphasizes the importance of not just knowing you're breaking the rule (btw, I break this one, go figure), but why you're breaking the rule in that instance, I give a little cheer inside because I'm constantly saying something similar.

I know Jennifer thought the remark was guided toward her, but Jennifer, you have no idea how many wannabe authors out there hang their hat on "Well XYZ published author does it, so I can do it too!" and that's it. They think no further than that and refuse to realize that, hey, this could work against me when I submit my manuscript. Yet when I see it in the writing, I see what Theresa sometimes sees -- Sloppiness. Or maybe just a "laziness" (for lack of a better word) in refusing to think any further about it.

The sad part is I've grown tired of arguing about it with many writers. I'll make the comment on critiques, but if they choose to ignore it, so be it. It inevitably comes back to one argument now matter what element of storytelling and writing we're discussing. I see the topics as the building blocks of successful storytelling. They tell me it's "formula" and that doing it others ways is their voice, style, and art and refuse to consider or change. How can you even argue that?

jaz said...

Thanks Alicia for responding--I'm glad there was no misunderstanding!

I think I tend to err on the other side--remember when I asked the question about Proulx's preface--I tend to fear that quirky things will ONLY be tolerated from very successful writers.

On the then as a conjunction thing--does the test of taking the "then" out work?

Consider: He looked left, then right. If you take out then, you are left with He looked left, right. Which sounds absurd, even though it doesn't with the then in. So does this example require an and?

jaz said...

That should have been addressed to Theresa instead of Alicia. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Once I was reading articles on writing around the Internet and I found one from someone who claimed to be knowledgeable claiming that using 'and' as a conjunction implied simultaneity. The example was something about grabbing the phone, calling 911 and getting in the car, and she said this was physically impossible (guess she hadn't heard of cell phones, either). That left 'then' as the only way to connect more than one non-simultaneous verbs in a sentence.

(That reminds me: I had a contest judge mark every use of 'as' in my entry with [simultaneity]. Including usages like "she smiled as she walked," etc. Do I live in an alternate universe where people can do more than one thing at once?)

Not that rules are meant to be broken, but I swear, slavish adherence to "rules" will always yield mushy, tasteless prose, mostly of short SVO declaratives.

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, I promise, we won't disillusion your husband with news of your (very minor) imperfections. :)

I like to think that only the arrogantly misguided refuse to see their own imperfections, so recognition of a few flaws is proof of near-perfection!

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, I think "and" can imply simultaneity, but coupled with sentence order, more often means sequential action. That is, what comes first in the list of actions occurred first, and what's after that but connected with "and" occurred immediately subsequent to the first action. What other word (but "then" :) would work to say that these two actions occurred in this order in the same span of time?

Jennifer, good question about "then"-- how about "He looked left and right"?

Kathleen MacIver said...

I'm a little late here, but I hope you don't mind answering my question, because I've been waiting for you to bring up the topic of "then."

I recently published a short story with an e-publisher as an experiment, and I was a bit frustrated by their "rule" that "and then" is NEVER to be used, and that "then" on its own is only slightly better. I've seen that "rule" plenty of other places, too. They say it's sloppy writing.

Now... I can see how it CAN be sloppy writing. But I generally try to construct my sentences VERY carefully. In the case of this story, I went through every case of "then" in it (that wasn't in dialogue) and worked to take them out, to please them. In one or two cases, it wasn't a big deal. In other cases, in order to keep the flow of the sentences beautiful, and in order to keep the exact meaning I was going for clear, I had to re-write several paragraphs, adding about four sentences in the process. I know this sounds extreme, but like I said, I am very picky with sentence structure and meaning and the flow of words in a finished product, and in some of these cases, that's what was necessary to replace "then" and keep me happy.

Perhaps the newer versions were stronger, perhaps they weren't. I suspect the difference was minimal. But using "then" was definitely more concise, when I NEEDED to show the connection between two things that happened. And "concise" is something we're supposed to be working toward too. (Although, all too often I see beautiful prose sacrificed for concise.)

So I can an official ruling on the "Using then is always weak writing" rule?

Riley Murphy said...

I noticed you said ‘imperfections’...are you suggestion that I have more than the one flaw to worry about? I don't want to think about that.
Now, what were you saying about the arrogantly misguided?

Edittorrent said...

Kathleen, I'm not sure it's appropriate for me to comment on rules at other houses. Suffice it to say that I would not put that rule into effect at Red Sage, and that I haven't seen it elsewhere.


Kathleen MacIver said...

You're right. I didn't realize that that was, in effect, what I was asking.

I suppose what I meant was more another editor's viewpoint on the matter. I'm kind-of taking this whole conversation as an indication that there are definitely some cases where "and then" is proper to use.

Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, I remember when one president (LBJ) said of a future president (Ford), "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time."

Let's hope most of us are more competent, that we can walk and smile at the same time!

LBJ was actually pretty witty.