Monday, June 02, 2014

Just then, she felt like ranting

This post has been percolating for a few weeks now. It started with a book I received from Goodreads. The paranormal premise intrigued me, so I was excited to receive a copy in the mail in April. The prologue set us up nicely and had me eagerly turning the pages. By page fifty, however, I had picked up on a nasty habit of the author’s that had me irritated and almost prevented me from finishing: the (excessive) use of “just then.” He used it in nearly every chapter, sometimes twice, and even five times in one chapter near the end. It annoyed me to no end, distracting me from what would have been an excellent book and forcing me to downgrade it in my review.

It bugged me so much it had me groaning when, not far into my next book — one by an author whose books/series I had come to enjoy — I encountered the dreaded “just then.” Inundated by them in the previous book, I now found myself oversensitive to them. Even the use of it once in a single novel grates on my nerves.

I finished a book two weeks ago in which another author showed her weak dependence on the use of “just then.” With a resigned sigh, I started the next book in the series. By chapter nine I was seriously irritated with the author, to whom I offer this advice: before you turn in your next book, use the "find" feature and delete every "just then" in the manuscript. All of them!

In nine chapters we saw it eleven times, five of which were in the second chapter alone — and three of those clumped together in one scene. Some might argue that it's her "style," but there's nothing stylish about it. It's weak, sloppy and lazy writing.

In every instance, the sentence would not only stand on its own without it, but would also be stronger. Better. We were not allowed to use this gimmick in my HS and college English/writing courses, which makes the fact that editors would allow it all the more astonishing.

Last weekend, I wanted a lighter, fun read for the long holiday so opted for one I've seen highly recommended by people online. Yes, you guessed it — the dreaded "just then" cropped up several times. And this is a RITA award winner for best first book! This was not my only problem with this book, but it was one of the biggest and — again — caused me to downgrade it.

It's been a relief this past week to find not a single "just then" in John Steinbeck's classic, East of Eden. This is a prime example of what writing should be, no matter what the genre. Writing is not about taking short cuts or using unnecessary filler words to make a word count. It's about clean writing and making every word count.

Apparently I am not alone in my opinion. A web search on the subject landed me on this post by author Bridget McKenna, who says “Adding unnecessary words before the action of a sentence begins slows it down, and your writing along with it.” How right she is!


Here are a few examples of what I am talking about, taken directly from four recent reads:


1. Just then we pulled up in front of my office, and for the first time I felt the full sting of the disastrous afternoon...

2. Just then, to my right, Sal jumped behind me...

3. My eye drifted to my purse just then, and I noticed the small notebook that I'd used when I'd written down the details of my dream..."

4. Just then I was overcome by a succession of coughs...
(It actually occurred twice in this particular paragraph.)

5. Just then, through the darkness of the room, I saw to my immense relief a large black trunk...

6. Just then there was a quick knock on my door and Cat and I both looked up...

7. Just then my cell phone chirped loudly from my purse...

8. Just then Dutch reached for the light switch...

9. Just then a door opened off the lobby...

10. Just then Adam knew something was amiss.

11. Just then he detected an elegant scent, just like a woman’s perfume, carried to him on the ocean breeze.

12. Just then a rare smile crossed her lips as she thought about the other part of last night.

13. Just then she realized that she had made her decision . . .

14. Just then he saw a professor he recognized . . .

15. Just then Garrett felt his consciousness slipping away again.

16. Just then the room shifted violently again, this time to a greater degree than before.

17. Just then Constance walked into the room.

18. Just then his stomach growled . . .

19. Just then they heard a door open and close.

20. Just then Sergeant D— walked up . . .

21. Just then I noticed a kid huddled under the steps of the school . . .

22. Just then NG walked by . . .

23. Just then, C— crashed into the apartment . . .


Get what I'm saying here? In every instance, the "just then" is superfluous — not to mention down right annoying and distracting. Do yourself and your readers a favor and avoid using these unnecessary filler words. Your writing will be cleaner and stronger. Not to mention the added bonus of not annoying readers.





6 comments:

Alice Audrey said...

I'll be sure to go through my manuscripts and take out more of them. I also have that bad habit. Sometimes.

Heather said...

I have the habit of using "just" a lot, but have gotten into the habit of rereading what I write and removing most of them. I don't know that I'd really picked up on the use of "just then" as much previously, but the overuse of it in books read these past two months now has it grating on my nerves.

Jana said...

Ugh. It was annoying just as examples...I'd have sent the book flying! LOL

One explanation could be that a lot of writers are also readers. I know from my own experiences how my writing is often influenced by what I've recently read. That could explain the epidemic of "just then". Maybe?

"So" seems to be my overused filler word. My blog is chock full of them. Trying to break that habit but...it's so easy! lol


I haven't done a whole lot of reading lately. Most of the things that I've read recently and really enjoyed have been more of the memoire/autobiography types. Genre fiction has gotten more and more repetitive, it seems. The storylines feel a lot like the overuse of "just then". Even among some of my favorite authors. Makes me a little sad, actually.

Heather said...

Jana: Believe me, I nearly did send a couple of these flying. Remember, these are only a few examples drawn from four different books. The worst offender had 34 chapters and averaged at least one "just then" per chapter.

You may be on to something with the reader/writer link, though as both a reader and (sometimes) writer, it makes me wonder where they learned to write, LOL. Maybe it is what they are reading/writing, since some genres seem to allow it while others do not. As I said in today's teaser, 400 pages so far of Steinbeck and I haven't seen a single "just then."

I understand about getting tired of the same old, even from authors you love. I think that's one of the reasons I tend to read across so many genres the way I do. Keeps me from getting bored.

Adelle Laudan said...

I think every author has a few choice words or phrases they tend to over use in their first drafts.

With me, it is usually a different one each book. I'm not sure why this happens, but it does. The 'find' feature in word is a a very handy tool to search and highlight these repetitive phrases/words. The key is to weed them OUT.

Thanks for a great reminder to all writers.

Heather said...

Thanks, Adelle. I know every writer has those filler words they have to work on, but these weren't drafts, these were published books. It still astonishes me that you would find this in published books, especially so many times in one book.