by Anne R. Allen
Recently I’ve seen sad posts by a number of new writers who are having trouble marketing a self-published debut novel, or are discouraged by numerous rejections. Some are furious at the world for not loving their stuff.
In a lot of their work, I see the same problem. It’s usually right there in the title or on the cover (if the cover is homemade.)
The books are too cluttered. The authors are hoarding too many characters, themes and messages. It’s time for them to Marie Kondo their work.
For anybody who doesn’t pay attention to popular culture, Marie Kondo is a superstar organizing consultant and author with her own show on Netflix.
Her principles can be applied to writing as well as housekeeping. So if you’re having trouble finding a publisher or audience for your book, maybe it needs some of Marie Kondo’s advice.
Maybe the book’s cover shows a drawing of Noah’s Ark. In it are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Botticelli’s Venus, and The Beatles from the Sergeant Pepper album. Except Ringo looks like Harry Potter. And in the background is a mushroom cloud with the image of a bat in the smoke.
All the themes of the book are right there on the cover! Plus a bat, because bats are cool.
Or there’s a map of the world, with the faces of a dozen people superimposed over major cities. And a sunrise at the top. And a sunset at the bottom. Then a large gun obscuring part of the title. And two semi-naked lovers in a clinch.
You wanted everybody to know this is an international thriller with a hot love interest and lots of scary people shooting each other.
The only problem is the covers ended up looking like those collages you made from magazine clippings in second grade..
Titles that Try Too Hard
These same books tend to have titles like:
- Obscurity: The Reality of the Finite and the Hope of the Infinite on the Global Stage—A Thriller
- Love is a Dirty Old Cow, Maybe the One Who Jumped Over the Moon, or Ran Away with the Spoon—A Time Travel-Horror-Chick Lit-Mystery
- You Don’t Know Jack…or Jill, or the Pail, and it’s all Downhill from Here—A Romance in the Time of Climate Change
The authors have tried to stuff way too much information into a poor little title.
Time to Declutter That Novel!
If you’ve self-published one of these novels and only have a handful of reviews and sales, I’d suggest unpublishing and starting over. Lots of practice novels were tossed onto Amazon in the heat of the Kindle Revolution that should never have seen the light of day. At least in their present form.
Do a little mourning and then get ready to tidy up.
I do understand the urge to throw everything into your first novel. I did the “kitchen sink” thing myself. It was a saga about 4 interconnected women, a type of women’s fiction that was super popular at the time. Books like Ruth Harris’s million-selling blockbuster “Modern Women.”
But I was no Ruth Harris. I was just a beginner, and I had no idea how to tie the stories together with one story arc. I also tried to make each woman a symbol of something grand and wanted the novel to be about life, the universe, and everything.
When it got to 300,000 pages, I realized I had a problem. I was cramming way too much into one book.
Don’t Try to Write About Life, The Universe and Everything.
For one thing, it’s been done. Brilliantly. By the late, great Douglas Adams. RIP.
We need to remind ourselves there will be more novels. We don’t have to solve all the worlds’ problems in one book.
A novel needs to be about one person. With one theme. And one primary story arc. There can be lots of secondary characters and secondary arcs, but your main story has to be about one thing. When writers say they can’t write a synopsis because they have four protagonists, I know the problem isn’t the synopsis, it’s the novel. It’s trying to do too much. It needs focus. And probably some major decluttering.
Follow Marie Kondo’s Rules of Tidying Up to Declutter that Novel
I wish I could say I’ve actually followed the advice in Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in my own housekeeping. But I seem doomed to live in clutter. Her principles make a lot of sense, though. (Except the one about only having 30 books. 🙂 )
Recently I realized those principles can be applied to writing as well as housekeeping.
1) Commit yourself to decluttering.
Start by saving a copy of your original ms. in case you decide to put something back. Keep copies in several places, so it’s safe.
Also remember that every piece you cut out can be recycled in a story, poem, or separate book.
Now you can be ruthless. Cut this thing to the bone. You can always put stuff back.
2) Imagine your ideal lifestyle writing career
What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? If you’re planning a career as a writer, you’ll want as many titles as possible. Maybe this book can be divided into two or three books? Or maybe you can use it as a map for a whole series
But what if you envision a career in a different genre? Maybe you wrote in this one because you thought it was easier, or more likely to make money.
If this isn’t your ideal genre, this isn’t the book you want to sell first.
If you’re writing romance, but really want a career in women’s literary fiction, or you’re writing a cozy when in your heart of hearts you want to write another Handmaid’s Tale, stop, think, and be honest with yourself. You don’t want to publish a debut novel in the wrong genre. If it succeeds, you’ll be asked for more of the same.
Plus you may have put parts of your ideal book into this one because that’s what your muse does.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections began as one chapter in a novel that he ended up discarding. He decided to write a “book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot.” His decluttered novel went on to win the National Book Award.
Is there a book inside this one that needs to be liberated?
How does this book fit into the writing career you hope to have? Maybe it’s the practice novel most authors have in a drawer somewhere. If it is, put it in that drawer, open a new doc, and start writing that book you really want to write.
3) Finish discarding first
Two of the biggest problems that land newbie books in the slush pile are 1) too many characters (especially point of view characters) and 2) scenes that don’t further the plot.
So work on discarding those first.
Ask yourself: is the book about one person? Does the reader get distracted from the main story by other characters? Are they hijacking the story?
Decide who the protagonist is and discard anybody that doesn’t add to that person’s story.
Is there a character who takes over around chapter 10 who might need her own book? That’s what happened to me. I realized Princess Regina’s subplot took us away from the main storyline. So I wrote her a book of her own (It’s called Food of Love. It was my first book to attract a publisher.)
How about secondary characters? Can they be consolidated? Could the heroine have one best friend instead of three?
What about minor characters? Did you give each a name and backstory? Pull those people out and save them for short stories. In this novel it’s better to call them “the barista”, “the pizza delivery guy” and “the waitress” unless they become important characters later.
Do you have too many POV characters? Are you in the head of that pizza guy or the barista? Nathan Bransford wrote a great post last month explaining why head-hopping is not “omniscient” storytelling. It’s just lazy and confusing. Declutter!
Now look at those scenes that don’t seem to go anywhere and lack tension. Are they simply about world building, or showing character? How about cutting the scenes and slipping that information into another, more exciting chapter?
4) Tidy by category, not by location
Editing the whole book sentence by sentence is a tedious slog.
Instead, do it by category. Go through and get rid of all the extra adverbs. Then pull the adjectives you can replace with strong verbs. (Note I said “extra”. I’m not anti-adverb or adjective. Just take another look. You’ll be amazed how many you don’t need.)
Then take a second look at those sentences that say “Her heart raced, her stomach clenched, and her body trembled with fear.” Choose one phrased to say she’s scared instead of three (And maybe say it without using a cliché or worrying about whether you need a semicolon in there.)
Then do a search for your favorite crutch words and dump as many as possible. (Mine is “just.”)
Your word count gets slimmed down really fast this way.
5) Ask yourself if it ‘sparks joy’
Yes, you’ve been told to “kill your darlings.” But the truth is darlings are often darling for a reason. If a scene or character “sparks joy” maybe it needs to be there. Literary author and creative writing professor Samuel Park told us why not to kill your darlings in a great post back in 2011.
So look to see if it’s the stuff around the darlings that needs to be cut. As I said above, two of the biggest problems that land newbie books in the slush pile are 1) too many characters and 2) scenes that don’t further the plot. Those are often the characters and scenes that don’t “spark joy.”
Transition scenes are often joyless and unnecessary
Do you have “transportation” chapters—where you’re moving the character from one important scene to another? Maybe your heroine flies back east to reconcile with her mother after she hears an asteroid is about to hit Earth. You don’t have to take us on that plane ride. Have her decide to fly home, then show the scene when she gets out of the taxi at her mother’s house. We all know about airplanes. You don’t have to take us on one more tedious trip.
Ditto the scene where she drives to her boyfriend’s house after she finds out he’s been cheating on her with the astronaut. Or the scene where she puts on that drop-dead outfit so she can seduce the man who decides who gets to go to the space station and survive the asteroid holocaust.
All you need is a scene break. Or even better, a chapter break. Readers love short chapters these days.
So stop hoarding unnecessary scenes and superfluous characters. If they don’t spark joy–toss them. It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel!
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) July 7, 2019
For more on decluttering your novel, see Ruth Harris’s post on Stephen King’s rule and the power of the Delete button.
What about you, scriveners? Do you have a WIP or “practice novel” that you’ve crammed with everything but the kitchen sink? Did you use it to try to solve all of life’s persistent problems? Or have you been successful with Marie Kondo’s declutter process in your writing?
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After Princess Regina, a former supermodel, is ridiculed in the tabloids for gaining weight, someone tries to kill her. She suspects her royal husband wants to be rid of her, now she’s no longer model-thin. As she flees the mysterious assassin, she discovers the world thinks she is dead, and seeks refuge with the only person she can trust: her long-estranged foster sister, Rev. Cady Stanton, a right-wing talk show host who has romantic and weight issues of her own. Cady delves into Regina’s past and discovers Regina’s long-lost love, as well as dark secrets that connect them all.
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