Yesterday, I learned about the evils of clutter when I purchased an outdoor trash can and attempted to load it into my Honda Fit. It looked so easy. Folding down the back seats would give plenty of room for my purchase, but so much stuff had congregated in the back seats and floor. Bending the trashcan wasn’t an option; I had to move all my stuff into the front seat. A Christopher Columbus expedition followed where I discovered books, throw rugs, pillows, magazines, tools, bags of old clothes, and more. All up, it took ½ hour to clear enough space for the trash can.
Then I got to thinking about the clutter in my stories and the way I try to jam my characters so that they’ll fit into the clutter, and then wonder why the story doesn’t make sense. In any novel, you have your central plot, with the subplots revolving around it. Let’s say a vampire flees his land and attempts to live among humans until his enemy catches up with him. Then you add subplots – perhaps the vampire falls in love with his neighbor, then he gets a night job, perhaps his enemy tries to steal his girlfriend. The clutter starts if you throw in werewolves, aliens, and a plethora of “walk-on” characters without duly preparing the reader for them. And whatever goes down, your character has to act true to his role. You can’t have someone with a phobia of heights climb the side of a building unless you’ve motivated and prepared him to do this way in advance. If your character prays in a monastery on one page, and then on the next, he commits a mass murder, you’ll lose your reader unless you’ve set up the story in a way that your reader might expect this.
At the last writer’s conference, a workshop leader gave me wise advice. Don’t just write a resume for your character. Take your character out to dinner. Watch TV with him at home. Bring him to work and family functions. Observe in your mind how he might interact with family members, what foods he might like, etc. Then let him tell you the story. This will help you avoid extraneous scenes that clutter your story, and the reader will keep turning the pages.
With the lessons at the conference and shopping trip in mind, I’m cleaning out the clutter from my present work in progress, and scolding myself in the process. That is my biggest challenge – the mess! It will take longer than ½ hour to clear it, but clear it I will.
What do you find most challenging about rewrites? Does clutter creep into your tales? How do you address it?