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Marginal Notes

Writers who Hoard

One of my secret vices is the reality show, "Hoarders, Buried Alive." (It's on The Learning Channel, also known as the Schadenfreude Channel.) The show is about people who have crammed their homes nearly to the ceiling with stuff and are extremely resistant to parting with any of it. Why keep 2,137 different Hallmark ornaments (still in boxes) or decade-old expired cans of soup? Each of these items might come in useful, even if all of them together lead to the occasional flattened, desiccated cat. As I say, watching is a guilty pleasure. Don't judge me.

If you've just wrapped up the last scene of your novel and checked the page count--953, you may be flattening the life out of your story under a mountain of words. Or you may simply have a large, complicated story to tell. Or your book may be a trilogy disguised as a single volume. How can you tell? And what do you do about it?

Well, you can go through and trima word here or a sentence there, tightening up your prose. But this is just picking out the occasional expired can of tuna --it doesn't really solve the problem. You need to remove large pieces of story. Except that, like any hoarder, you can't see anything you want to throw away.

One place to look for the large stacks of moldy newspaper and flattened cats is in your background, especially if you're writing fantasy, historical fiction or science fiction. When your story depends on a strange culture, either from another era or in another galaxy, it's tempting to explain at length. So try cutting the passages that tell your readers where and how your characters live and see how the story reads. Maybe just showing how your characters live is enough.

Every hoarder knows that you can't have too many of anything. So pay attention to what role your various characters play in the story. If two or more accomplish the same storytelling ends, then combine them into a single character. Several unnecessary characters can clog up your plot as thoroughly as a collection of all the vcrs that were ever made can clog a room.

You can also lose a lot of overloaded boxes of stuff if you can lose a location. Just move some of your action to a setting you've already established.

Finally, a caveat. In order to clear out living space in your novel, you may have to throw away stuff that has genuine value - intriguing subplots, engaging characters. One advantage of being a writerly hoarder is that, once it's in the dumpster, it doesn't disappear forever. Just tuck it away in your idea file and bring it out for your next novel.