Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Call 1-800-GET RID OF JUNK

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Our family has been doing a big project---cleaning and reorganizing our storage room. It’s a very big job because a lot of stuff has gotten crammed in there. As we’ve been pulling stuff out, we’ve found a lot of things that we thought we would need one day, but have never used. Some in the family wanted to keep it, thinking we might still need it someday, and others thought we should just get rid of it, so we can have a nice spacious storage room.

I think writing is a lot like this. When I draft my manuscript I’ve got a lot of stuff and ideas crammed in there. When I go back and revise and edit, sometimes I think to myself where did that scene/character/bit of dialogue come from? It’s like my own little personal word storage. I hesitate to get rid of it in case I need it, but the reality is, it probably has to go so I can have a nice flowing story that isn’t bogged down by junk. But how do you make the decision about what to keep and what to get rid of?

Here are a few ideas for getting rid of word junk:

Each character/scene/bit of dialogue should be essential to your story. Don’t have extraneous characters that don’t matter. If you’re talking about Uncle John watching the funeral from the corner, don’t just leave that story bit hanging---use it. The reader may or may not think of that as a clue to your mystery, but you can use it. If you don’t plan to use it and Uncle John was just a throwaway line or filler, cut him out.

Don’t use laundry lists of description words. "It was a lazy sunny June day where even the bees buzzed quietly." Writers are painting a word picture and when you do that it’s like throwing paint balloons on your canvas and hoping your reader doesn’t notice that your picture is obscured. They will. Cut that all out if you do it. Be precise and keep an eye on the big picture.

Don’t use passive voice. Make your voice work. Passive voice always has that “I’m telling you the story,” feeling that puts readers to sleep. “A new light was being installed by the electrician,” is much easier to read as, “The electrician was installing a new light.” Cut out the passive and make it direct and active.

Pay attention to the comments from your test readers or critique group. Ask them if there were any points that were confusing or boring and if there were, cut them out or at least pare them down and rewrite them into something direct and exciting. Even if it's your favorite scene that you loved, you have to be able to cut it or make it into something else. It's like cutting up your favorite old writing shirt. It's still useful, but in a different way. Which can be hard, but sometimes you just have to do it.

Find your favorite word. Everyone has one. I see a lot of authors use the words “really” “actually,” or “just.” Cut all of those out. They are filler words and rarely needed.

Don’t keep saying the same thing over and over. I recently read a chapter where the main character was described three times. Readers generally don’t need to be hit over the head. Avoid being redundant and saying the same thing, even if you’re saying it in a different way. If you make your words powerful enough, the reader will remember the first time and that will suffice.

So my storage room that was stuffed with stuff is now looking quite nice with a lot more space to move around in. It was hard to get rid of some things, but in the end I think it was totally worth it. Getting rid of extra stuff can be freeing, both in my house and in my writing, but it’s definitely a process. My house shouldn’t be a storage place for unused and unneeded items and my novel shouldn’t be a word storage place for unused and unneeded descriptions, characters, or dialogue.

So my new mantra is: Toss the junk!


At 4/16/2009 1:19 PM, Anonymous Chas Hathaway said...

Oh man, I have a lot to work on! Thanks for the advice. It's so easy to slip into these mistakes - but thank heaven for the ability to clean up!

- Chas

At 4/16/2009 2:17 PM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

I must have bookswaps on the brain because I was just thinking silly thoughts about a website where you can offer your "written junk" to another author who might need it.

"Free to good home, one scene of Uncle John watching the funeral from a corner."

"For trade, the third description of the main character in exchange for first description of secondary character, preferably female."

"For self picker uppers, one case lot of "actually's." Will throw in one "just" if desired."

Okay, sorry to be so flippant. Please return to your regularly scheduled blog and comments.

At 4/16/2009 2:31 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Melanie, you totally crack me up.

I once had an evaluator say my manuscript was really wordy. What?? I thought I'd polished this thing! But then as an experiment I went through a scene to see how many words I could trim out. It was amazing to see how much flab I could cut without affecting the story at all! It was an eye-opener.

Great blog, Julie.

At 4/16/2009 2:45 PM, Blogger LexiconLuvr said...

Great post! I'm sure my MS is going to be the winner on the next biggest loser. =]

At 4/16/2009 7:01 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Melanie, you seriously made me laugh. Thanks everyone for the comments! :)


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