Most of you know about Marie Kondo, the new tidying expert, bestselling author, star of Netflix’s hit show “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” and founder of KonMari Media, Inc.
Kondo is famous for teaching people to find the things in their lives that don’t spark joy, and then letting go of them.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I spent many weeks in May and June “letting go” of much of my newest book. Since then I’ve read several novels by other authors, and judging by that, I’ve concluded that “letting go” of words we love must be one of the hardest parts of writing.
As a gardener, it’s difficult for me to sow too many seeds and then thin out the seedlings to give them a better chance at growing into thriving plants. But thinning seedlings is necessary, and so is thinning sentences, paragraphs and occasionally scenes and chapters.
So how do we know what should go and what should stay? I thought you might enjoy a quick look at the decisions novelists make.
For writers, cutting a novel begins with following Kondo’s advice.
The easiest part of shortening a novel is getting rid of any part of it that doesn’t “spark joy.” A careful read through sets the process in motion.
Clunky sentences? Eject them. Descriptions that go on forever? Cut or shorten them. Scenes that don’t move the book forward? If the information has to be shared with the reader, then condense the scene into a few sentences of narrative.
Does a reader really want to see everything a character sees on her walk home from work? Or does she only want to see the one thing that’s important to the plot? Maybe a headline on a newspaper, or a glimpse of an old lover, or the same guy who’s taken to watching her from his front steps every afternoon.
“Jennifer’s walk home was uneventful. Same vendor on the sidewalk, same line at Starbucks, same woman sweeping her stoop. Then she spotted the guy on the steps, the one who had been there yesterday and the day before, the one who watched her so intently she knew he could pass a quiz on every one of her faults and attributes.”
Or, of course, we could describe the vendor at length, where he’s from and what he sells, moving on to how much Jennifer loves Starbucks and wishes the line weren’t so long because she’d really love an iced white chocolate mocha, but she hates to wait in line because of it reminds her of summer camp, where they served instant mashed potatoes in the cafeteria. And we could finish with how many times she’s seen the woman sweep her stoop, what the woman wears, what she’s said to Jennifer in the past, and Jennifer’s feelings about stoop-sweeping in general.
And finally, the guy watching her.
Nothing about that scene, none of which has anything to do with what’s important in the story, would spark joy. It should be easy to eject.
But what if everything sparks joy? After all, the author wrote this, and every word lives close to her heart.
In the same way that every one of the twenty-five black T-shirts in your dresser might make you feel wealthy and secure, you probably wouldn’t miss twenty of them if they disappeared tomorrow. Twenty extra words in a sentence or paragraph are exactly that. Perhaps they spark joy, but for whom? Writing is about the reader as much as the writer. And while we may want to expound at length on our favorite topic, pretending it’s important dialogue and not a conversation that nobody would put up with in real life, we can’t do it. Because what good is a lecture nobody wants to listen to? What good is a scene that sparks joy in the author if nobody wants to read it?
So sparking joy isn’t always a great test for a writer unless we can remove ourselves far enough that we can imagine how much joy we’re sparking in our readers.
Nuts and bolts.
As I was cutting many thousands of words from my novel, I approached it this way. After a careful, thorough read through, I realized I had three scenes I could simply turn into a few paragraphs of narrative. Every scene should accomplish several things, and if it didn’t, I needed to get rid of it. So I started with those.
Once no big chunks were left to cut, I looked at little chunks. I had carefully marked them as I read. For instance, I loved attending the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs in January, but I had included too much description–even though I had tried not to. So anything that slowed the pace of the scene was shortened in that round.
Next I looked for repetition. And yes, there was a lot of it. Remember I wrote this book over many months. I couldn’t always remember exactly what I’d written six months before. Still, I didn’t worry because this always happens and I knew I’d catch repetition on the read through.
Repetition also happens when we find a better way to say similar things as the book progresses. If we leave every mention in, we’re hitting our readers over the head, or worse, we’re assuming our readers are not as smart as they are. Readers don’t need constant reminders. They get the point the first time or sometimes the second–if something else in the story has changed. So during this stage, I find the best time and the best place for a particular point, and that’s what I leave in.
Finally, and not as hard as it sounds, I cut words. Do I need every word in a sentence? Short is better, and it doesn’t matter how brilliant I though a metaphor or descriptor was at the time, if it doesn’t really serve a purpose, out it goes.
I cut 30,000 words. (About 120 pages.) I’ve read books shorter than that. Will a one of those words be missed? Not by me. Everything in the book that sparked joy, once I considered my reader’s joy, too, is still there. The rest is like those twenty black T-shirts. They weren’t needed, and they only added clutter. The final product was worth the work.
I hope you’ll think so, too.