Cleaning up Clutter by Joshua David Bellin
I’m a little bit of a neat freak. (Okay, my wife and kids will tell you I’m a big bit of a neat freak.) Recently, I rearranged my desk to clear it of extraneous stuff: books, knickknacks, the enormous, ancient computer I use for writing. (I tucked it under the desk, out of sight.) Unlike many writers, I don’t listen to music while I work; the extra stimulation interferes with the flow of ideas. For whatever reason, I need an uncluttered environment to free up my mind.
For the same reason, I recently went through a bunch of old Word documents, half-finished story ideas and such, and deleted the ones there’s no realistic chance I’ll complete. Some people say you should never get rid of anything you write; I believe it’s important to let go of old junk that’s bogging you down. Holding onto something “just in case” you might get to it ten years down the road can turn into an excuse for avoiding what you should be working on right now.
Clutter, I’ve found, is the enemy of creativity.
When it comes to manuscripts, there are many things that produce clutter, thereby impeding the writer’s (and, if it gets to that point, the reader’s) progress. Superfluous scenes, clever but unproductive plot complications, lengthy descriptions and backstory, exposition disguised as dialogue, and all the rest of it can get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell, and it’s important to recognize clutter and be willing to root it out.
At the level of individual words, many books I read (especially YA books) strike me as needlessly cluttered. For example: I find lots of YA writers who overuse the words “start” and “begin” (or variants thereof). So instead of, “I ran away from the monster,” it’s, “I started to run away from the monster.” Or instead of “I kiss him,” it’s, “I begin to kiss him.” These are problematic constructions for at least two reasons: one, they put the emphasis on the starting or beginning and not on the action that has started or begun; and second, they’re largely redundant, since every action starts (and ends) and thus there’s no need to call attention to it. Occasionally, you might need to mark the start or end of an action—say, if a character’s been on a respirator for a long time and one day starts breathing independently. But for the most part, you should simply let the action speak for itself. The reader will figure out that it started and ended by the fact that, well, it started and ended.
You might also be surprised how many “little” words clutter up manuscripts (as well as published books). Sentences stuffed with one- and two-syllable words can hobble the reader’s rhythm, forcing her/him to slow down and work through the thicket of niggling words. Recently, I searched through an 85,000-word manuscript for common words I suspected I’d overused in the course of writing: words like “just,” “even,” “ever,” “about,” “around,” “still,” “yet,” and so on. (I also overused “huge” for some reason. Don’t ask why.) It took me two days to run all those searches, and it resulted in the elimination of roughly 200 words. That might not seem significant. But it did spare me from sentences like: “I still wondered if I’d ever find just what I was looking for.” Much better to write: “I wondered if I’d find what I was looking for.” Cleaner, faster moving, less cluttered.
I wish there were a magic formula for reducing clutter, but of course there isn’t. Trimming individual words in the manner I’ve described above is obviously easier than, say, cutting out an entire character who’s doing nothing to advance the story. For mega-clutter like that, I’m grateful to the many readers and editors who’ve been happy to point out elements my manuscripts don’t need. But whether we’re talking about macro clutter or micro clutter, it’s important for the writer to possess three qualities:
• The capacity to recognize that most manuscripts (unless they happen to be written by Hemingway) will possess clutter;
• The willingness to admit that your own manuscript does possess clutter; and
• The courage to get rid of the clutter in your own manuscript, even if that means getting rid of stuff you really like.
Experience has helped me cultivate the above qualities: for every character or scene or word I’ve agonized over cutting before the fact, not a single one has seemed like a yawning absence after the fact. Quite the contrary, I’ve invariably found that the things I thought my manuscripts couldn’t live without feel completely unnecessary after I’ve disposed of them. If I’m right that most manuscripts start out cluttered, it would follow that most manuscripts improve markedly once the clutter’s gone.
Speaking of which, I’m sure there’s something I don’t need in this blog post, but I’m starting to get tired. Or, wait, I mean I’m getting tired. Or, no—I’m tired.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Querry Genn must face the truth about the past and fight to save humanity and the future in this stunning sequel to Survival Colony 9, which New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry called “a terrific novel.”
Querry and the members of Survival Colony 9 have defeated a whole nest of the creatures called Skaldi, who can impersonate humans even as they destroy them. But now the colony is dangerously low in numbers and supplies. Querry’s mother is in command, and is definitely taking them somewhere—but where? Some secret from her past seems to be driving her relentlessly forward.
When they do finally reach their destination, Querry is amazed to discover a whole compound of humans—organized, with plenty of food and equipment. But the colonists are not welcomed. Everything about them is questioned, especially by Mercy, the granddaughter of the compound’s leader. Mercy is as tough a fighter as Querry has ever seen—and a girl as impetuous as Querry is careful. But the more Querry learns about Mercy and the others, the more he realizes that nothing around him is as it seems. There are gruesome secrets haunting this place and its people. And it’s up to Querry to unearth the past and try to save the future in this gripping conclusion to the Survival Colony novels.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORI've been writing novels since I was eight years old (though admittedly, the first few were very, very short). I taught college for twenty years, wrote a bunch of books for college students, then decided to return to writing fiction. SURVIVAL COLONY 9 is my first novel, and the sequel, SCAVENGER OF SOULS, is due out in August 2016!
I love to read (mostly YA fantasy and science fiction), watch movies (again, mostly fantasy and sci-fi), and spend time in Nature (mostly catching frogs and toads). I'm the world's worst singer, but I play a pretty mean air guitar.
Oh, yeah, and I like monsters. Really scary monsters.
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-- posted by S.P. Sipal, @HP4Writers