When I saw this image, the first thing that popped into my mind was that I need to declutter the entire house—something that’s been on my mind for the past four years MSB has said he wants to retire. Decluttering this mess will make it so much easier for us to move to our new home.
But as I work on edits for myself and others, I can see how the five piles could work for authors too during the self-editing phase. Once we declutter our manuscripts and sweep out everything we don’t want to keep, we’re ready to start pitching to an agent or editor—or, for us indies, we’re ready to send our masterpiece-in-the-making to our freelance editors for even more polish.
So, let’s play with the meme and see what we can learn from it. I’m going to start at the bottom and work up.
Got pet words and phrases that seem to appear on every page? How many filler words do you use? Lots of “wells,” “uhs,” “ers,” and “hmms” in your dialogue? Have you relied on easy terms and clichés instead of being original? Adverbs? Multiple descriptors? Multiple beats in dialogue that emphasize motion over emotion, action rather than reaction?
There’s a Dixie Dumpster for that. It’s called “delete.”
Block it all off and hit that magic ax button. Most pet words, adverbs, and fillers can be eliminated entirely without loss to the context. For everything else, choose stronger verbs, choose to be unique in what you’re presenting. Find action beats that are truly relevant to the scene, context, subcontext of the dialogue or provide props unique to each scene for the characters to fiddle with when you need an identifier. Or just use the invisible words “said” and “asked.”
Be merciless. Kill the common.
You may find something in your manuscript that you dearly love but doesn’t really fit, some darling you have to kill. A great line, a snappy bit of dialogue, an endearing scene—whatever it is, it doesn’t work in this particular peace and really should go.
Don’t cry over it, donate it.
I have a file where I dump all these little jewels for use in other manuscripts. A couple of novels that will never see the light of day donated some wonderfully descriptive phrases to books that are on the market now. When editing one of my novels, I had to combine a couple of characters for expediency, but the personality of one who got the walking papers is sitting in the file, waiting to become a personality in another book.
You have something in your book that is vital, but won’t be easy for your reader to swallow. It has a feasibility issue.
Time to sell it.
I had this problem in The Simulacrum, but didn’t recognize it. The reviewer for Kirkus caught it though, and I’m still kicking myself for not seeing it first. In the novel, Mary wants to hire Gunnar—a brash, argumentative detective who’s supposed to be the best in his field—but the man makes her crazy. He’s about to go on vacation and is unwilling to take the job, and besides, he doesn’t believe what she tells him is the motive behind the murder. Any normal person would have walked away and found someone more accommodating, but no. Mary tempts him to take the job by offering to pay him double his usual fee. Why? Because, eh, she’s already here in his office, and finding another detective would be a bother.
I can’t believe I did that. If I could do it over, I’d sell it better to the reader so that the Kirkus reviewer would have nothing like it in our otherwise stellar review.
Recycling often means to take something and turn it into something else. For writers, this means taking “dumps” and recycling them into “thread.”
Backstory dumps. Research dumps. Setting dumps. Description dumps. All these dumps work far better when you recycle them. Stretch them out into thin threads to be woven organically throughout the story. Pace their delivery. Weave them over and under and through the plot, discarding what isn’t absolutely necessary and showing what’s vital at the perfect time for best impact.
Once you’ve gone through the decluttering process, you reach your goal:
Whatever is left should be a vast improvement over what you started with. For those taking the traditional route to publication, you’re good to go. See if it sells, and if it does, you’ll have an in-house editor catch the things you didn’t.
For indies, especially those professional and experienced enough to understand just how blind we are to our own work, you’re ready for your freelance editor. If you’ve done your job well, and if your editor charges by the hour, you have just saved yourself some money.
Whether traditional or indie, declutter your work before sending it out.