3 ways your novel might carry unwanted junk

junkIt’s a writer’s prerogative to change their mind. All the time. It’s called revision. We’re steering the story one way, then a stronger idea comes along, or a development proves impossible, or an editor or beta reader persuades us to do something else instead.

As we cut, add and rearrange, our drafts build up unwanted junk. Here are three ways this might be tripping the reader up.

Plot and character

So we’ve changed our mind about where we’re pushing a character or a plot strand. We may have tidying to do.

When movies do this – particularly if they have to recut after shooting is finished – they have to patch the scenes they’ve already got. Inevitably we’ll see characters worrying about stuff that looks important but goes nowhere – often to irritating effect. But writers can edit in infinite detail. Are your characters making an issue of things that now don’t matter?


Quite often a theme won’t become apparent until we’ve wrangled the book through many drafts, but that doesn’t stop us stabbing in the dark to find it. Language, imagery, dialogue and setting will all reflect what we think the themes are. If we’ve had a few reorientations we might end up with theme schizophrenia. Although that can add up to a rich book, it could also make unholy muddle. Look for echoes of earlier themes when you revise – and decide if you still need them.


A town’s streets show the traces of its history. A road might be crescent-shaped because of a building that disappeared centuries ago. The town is stuck with that – but does your novel have story structures that are more fiddly than they need to be? Do your characters serpentine through the plot because they’re navigating vanished landmarks?


Clutter or art?


Novel-writing isn’t a science. Our story’s evolutionary dead ends might be like junk DNA – a sequence of instructions that seems to say: ‘grow wings, no don’t grow wings, it’s not a bird any more’. Once thought to be useless to a modern human being, junk DNA is now believed to be important – though what it does is still opaque and mysterious.

By serendipity, your novel’s junk DNA might enrich the themes, or provide quirky, unexpected contrast and relief. (Readers are generous and tend to think you have placed every word deliberately. They don’t know how much irrelevant rubbish passes through a book as well.)

Clutter and clarity

So maybe junk isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s treasure. Other times, though, it can confuse the reader and clutter the story. Your manuscript will be leaner, more elegant, better honed if you strip it out.

Is your novel carrying the baggage of previous lives? Do you de-clutter your stories?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Gyula on February 3, 2013 - 1:23 pm

    When my editor sent his remarks about my novella, wrote down what I needed to change. Then point by point I went through the story and checked: if I changed something, did it have any effect on other parts. If it did, I worked on that part too. It can be tiring, even exhausting, but you must do it to keep the consistency.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2013 - 7:25 pm

      Exhausting – that’s definitely the word for it, Gyula. And you’ve nailed here how painstaking we have to be. Having said that, I enjoy the feeling of sharpening a novel’s purpose so that it does exactly what it needs to. I’m sure your work will have benefited from such rigorous and thorough editing.

  2. #3 by Bill McCurry on February 3, 2013 - 1:56 pm

    Oddly, the scenes and lines I love most are often the worst rubbish. Although they were gems in the first draft, by the third draft they no longer fit–but I adore them too much to see they should be excised. Thank goodness for beta readers.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2013 - 7:27 pm

      Bill, that’s an interesting take on the ‘kill your darlings’ issue. Those fine scenes may well have fitted once. Moreover, they might have been the first times you really felt you hit your stride. Then the rest of the novel changes around them and suddenly they don’t fit.
      Amen about beta readers!

  3. #5 by Marcy L (@MarcyTooTimid) on February 3, 2013 - 1:59 pm

    I’ve never tried writing a novel, but I am trying to get better at cutting clutter from my essays. Sometimes I just love a line, and it’s hard to see that it doesn’t add anything.

    I know what you’re talking about with those movie scenes, too.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2013 - 7:28 pm

      Welcome Marcy, thanks for leaving a comment even though you don’t write novels! Perhaps we can tempt you…

  4. #7 by Carol Riggs on February 3, 2013 - 4:36 pm

    I like this analogy! with a novel having “DNA” and the baggage of “previous lives.” It’s SO easy to have unwanted clutter, not only when drafting and stabbing around for the theme, but also after a major/majorish revision. I love to have ALL my details mesh with the characters’ viewpoint, theme, mood, genre, etc, so it’s often exhausting to run around tidying all these things! (like, I wouldn’t have an agricultural metaphor in a sci-fi novel–the character/narration just doesn’t blend…it took me a while to figure that out, however!

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2013 - 7:30 pm

      Hi Carol! Yes, revision is as much about tidying and chucking out as it is about writing new stuff. It makes me laugh when people ask how often I might go over a book from first draft to last. With all the things we have to do it must be hundreds of times.

  5. #9 by Jami Gold on February 3, 2013 - 5:49 pm

    A big one that tends to change for me in revisions is motivation. I’m forever tweaking those things. 🙂

    For me, motivations tie together character (sometimes plot) and theme. There’s a lot we can change in our story just by tweaking motivations, but those can easily end up a mess if we don’t adjust across the board.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2013 - 7:31 pm

      Hi Jami! Motivation – love that insight. The more we understand a character, the more we know what they might do and why. And that develops from spending time in the book’s company.

  6. #11 by ED Martin on February 3, 2013 - 8:56 pm

    I’ve run into this in a novel I’m working on. A character in the first section is very important for the ending and I intended to weave his story through the rest of the book, but now other characters have stepped in and he’s been pushed aside. It’s taking a lot of editing to get him back in there.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 4, 2013 - 11:57 am

      ED, that can be frustrating, but by recognising the problem you’re half-way to solving it. I’ve had that happen… ‘What happened to so-and-so? He seemed so important…’

  7. #13 by Jackie Buxton on February 4, 2013 - 11:06 am

    Great advice, Roz, very true. I think of these pieces of ‘junk’ as little cotton threads – they might be superfluous information but left hanging around they’ll divert our attention (ie having to pick up the little blighters from the stairs carpet) from the job (plot) in hand. I think this is where readers play such an important part – they can often spot erroneous sentences/ ideas even scenes way before we do.

  8. #15 by Candy Korman on February 4, 2013 - 4:22 pm

    I de-clutter my fiction!!!
    It’s sometimes as hard as tossing out that beautiful but unwearable dress with sentimental attachments, but…

    If it doesn’t forward the plot OR illuminate the character, it’s OUT. That was one way a novel became a novella, but it’s a good novella so I’m happy.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 4, 2013 - 6:49 pm

      Oh the dress analogy is good, Candy. And funnily enough, I had to remove a cherished scene from My Memories of a Future Life that featured a dress…. It was a family heirloom and I wanted to weave it somehow into the book. In the end, though, it slowed the pace so it ended up on the cutting room floor. Removing it was a struggle, but as soon as it was done I felt a weight lift.

  9. #17 by annerallen on February 4, 2013 - 5:14 pm

    I’m revising an old novel and I’m finding a whole lot of those “crescent-shaped detours”! All these points are very useful.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 4, 2013 - 6:48 pm

      Thanks, Anne! It’s amazing how stuck we can get with certain patterns in the plot, long after we remember why we did something!

  10. #19 by renée a. schuls-jacobson on February 9, 2013 - 1:18 pm

    I’m deciding if I want my protagonist to consider having an affair. This would change everything. EVERYTHING. And while I don’t want to do it, my book is talking to me at night. Almost demanding that I do it. Glurg. I can hardly imagine what this kind of “after-editing” might require. (((Hold me.)))

    Gene sent me. 😉

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 10, 2013 - 10:13 am

      ‘My book is talking to me at night..’ wow, I know that feeling. And you’re walking around thinking ‘but all the work I will have to do… and this won’t happen, and that can’t happen…’ Looks like you’re going to have to do it, though. Take note, anyone who thinks writers sit in supreme control of all their characters!
      Thanks for a brilliant insight into the process of writing.
      Which Gene? If you mean Lempp, say hi. If you mean the disturbing individual in my novel, lord help us. I thought the only person he bothered at night was me. 🙂

  1. 3 ways your novel might carry unwanted junk | Hunted & Gathered | Scoop.it
  2. Writing Resources: 9 February 2013 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer
  3. Top Picks Thursday 03-07-2013 | The Author Chronicles

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: