Writers who Hoard

photo by bionicteaching

Therese here to officially welcome our new monthly contributor, Dave King. Dave is the author of one of our favorite craft books, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and is an experienced editor. This is his first official post with us. Welcome, Dave!

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 trim a 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.


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


  1. Michelle McCartney says

    Lovely , Dave. short and sweet. No extra words. Prose tight and message simple. Way to go, Man. Must declutter now ! ………..or maybe later !

  2. says

    Welcome to WU, Dave and great piece. I’ve never written a 900-page novel, but breathing room is always welcome. I actually use the word “editing” my house because I like it so much better than “cleaning” or “decluttering” so why not use the opposite for our manuscripts? Great tips.

  3. says

    I not only hoarded story in my first draft, I had to be broken like a military recruit before I was willing to pull it apart and do the necessary decluttering. (I think I’ve mostly accomplished it, anyhow.) It’s taken several difficult years, but the good news is I came away with a firm grasp of my characters, story and theme.

    Wonderful first post as a contributor, Dave! I would say welcome to WU, but you’re a longtime valued contributor to the facebook group. Looking forward to a regular dose of your wisdom here as well.

  4. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    It sometimes kills a part of me to kill my darlings (or even put them on ice). It will be much easier to do so, when I think of it from a hoarding perspective. Thanks.

  5. says

    This post reminds me of the story of Steven King’s novel, “The Stand.” If I remember it correctly, he wrote a really long book that was then edited down and released, and recently re-released with all the stuff that had been cut, and even more stuff from the attic thrown in for good measure. A similar thing may have happened with Dean Koontz’s “Strangers,” as I recall. Of course, these two big guns can get away with a lot of overload. This also reminds me, and i’m not sure why, of role-playing gamers who insist it is perfectly reasonable for their characters to walk around with six or seven good sized medieval weapons on their person. Really? Can’t you put some of those away, just for realism’s sake? I think for the new writer, lean and mean is absolutely the way to go. Leave them hungry for more. And if you have more, you can offer it is as prequels, short stories, or whatever, possibly electronically and maybe even for free, for those fans who want as much as you can give them. But the main manuscript should be a streamlined surface-to-heart missile, and that means following Dave King’s advice!

  6. Denise Willson says

    Welcome aboard, Dave. Looking forward to reading your posts, even though I can’t scribble bitty notes all over them like I have your book. Thanks, by the way!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  7. says

    Uh, I raise my hand. My first novel was huge. Over 100,000 words. I spent years bringing it down. It’s not lean and mean, but a lot of waste and over description is gone, leaving a fast story line. It’s historical fiction. It’s just a nature of THIS particular work. Subsequent novels are much smaller from the start.

  8. says

    I will tuck this blog away for future use. I haven’t had that problem yet, so I’m glad you mentioned it. Now, I can be ready for it.

    Welcome Dave
    I like the last name. It sounds Cool.
    I just love Theresa’s introductions of new people.

  9. says

    Henri (le chat noir) would be proud of your flattened cat metaphor. :) This was great advice on hoarding and one I had to learn the hard way. Thanks for a great post– I look forward to future ones.

  10. says

    A brilliant analogy.

    I recall reading the mid-series Harry Potter books and thinking, Gad, this woman needs an editor. I can only guess that no one dared.

  11. says

    Even though I write mostly non-fiction (humor/memoir), I recommend your book to others more than any other title. So glad you’re here, Dave. Welcome.

    Hoarding in your writing. Yes. I’ve done a lot of big cutting, but last night I did something smaller. An “ly” search. Ugh. Threw most of them out, thankfulLY. (And this is at the stage where my ARCs are being shipped…).


    Leanne (or maybe I should call myself Ly-anne)

  12. says

    Well done, Dave, and welcome. In my editing work I often see huge chunks of narrative that don’t contribute to advancing the story. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to cast a stingy eye on any narrative that doesn’t do one of two things: characterize, or advance the story. Yes, setting the scene with description is a necessary tool for achieving those things, but, as Stephen King has pointed out in his “On Writing,” description can be quite lean because readers help the reader out with their imaginations. What the writers I see need the most is a trained fresh eye to help them see through the fog of information that their knowledge of the world raises to reveal the meat of their stories. Thanks.

  13. says

    Welcome, Dave! Fabulous advice. My favorite is your caveat at the end — sometimes great must characters bite the dust in service of the greater story. After all, it’s a noble death, or make that, slumber, in that big ‘ol file marked “too good to toss.” I have one. It’s massive. And even though for me it’s kinda like a roach motel — they go in, but the never come out — I still add to it just about every day, always sure that THIS time it’s the exception to the rule.

  14. says

    Great advice, but…but…but…I might NEED that pile of nice people who don’t exist, but I feel guilty sorta killing them!!!

    I have a file of deleted scenes and characters, it makes me feel better knowing they’re not ‘dead’, just in word purgatory.

  15. says

    Welcome to WU, Dave, and what a fantastic post! What you say is so true. I’d just like to add that a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes can also be invaluable in determining which parts of your novel can (or must) be consigned to the scrap heap of deleted scenes. Sometimes you can’t see anything that looks unnecessary–but that’s often because we’re too close to our own work. Editors (and beta-readers, too) can really help clarify what’s essential and what’s less so.

  16. says

    I’ve never had this issue, because I tend to write too little than too much. But it occurs to me, looking at these suggestions, that they’re cuts and tweaks that often happen when a book is adapted into a screenplay. Reams of exposition and backstory go *poof*, multiple characters are combined into one role (or a main character takes the part of a bit character who only pops up once), the dialogue is reduced to the bare bones of what needs to be said, and only the most significant events stay in. So I suppose if you have difficulty seeing the difference between extraneous and essential, you can pretend a big Hollywood studio has bought your film rights and asked you to convert the novel into a two-hour movie.

  17. says

    I was just thinking about the scene where (necessary) background info is given, but seems a little slow, and wondering where I can cut. Thanks for the suggestions of some places to look.

  18. says

    Dave, it’s great to have you here! I have recommended Self Editing for Fiction Writers to dozens of writing students and colleagues – probably at least 100. I love the exercises that allow readers to check whether they really understood the technique. That inspired me to use exercises and examples on my blog and writing craft books, Advanced Plotting. Thanks!

  19. Leslie R. says

    Hi Dave! Welcome to WU and thanks for a great post! I got a copy of Self Editing for Fiction Writers for Christmas, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  20. says

    The first draft of Wearing the Cape hit 110,000 words. The final draft weighed in around 90,000. One of my favorite scenes was cut to a couple of paragraphs and one of my favorite characters disappeared entirely. Subsequent books have not had to be so painfully pruned, mainly because I’ve gotten a better feel for story pacing, but I still have to cut. Thanks for the tips!

  21. says

    So true! My novel had too many characters, with subplots to prop them up. When it came to writing the synopsis, I was hopelessly tangled trying to explain what I thought was a simple story. It was, but I’d made it complicated. By condensing some characters, and axing some others along with all of their scaffolding, the major themes of the story came through more clearly. Sometimes less is more.

  22. says

    “Does it advance the plot?” I ask that constantly. And it’s usually the stuff I love the most that’s there just because I love it. But yes, I have ‘snips’ or ‘cuts’ files for all my novels. Much of it won’t be used, but I’m always afraid I might decide the book needs those sections after all.

  23. says

    Great tips. I’m often guilty of creating many unnecessary characters that serve only one function in the story. By combining characters, you remove the clutter and create richer characters.

  24. says

    Welcome, Dave! Cutting was explained to me firsthand. I submitted a story to Guideposts Mysterious Ways magazine. By the time the editor sent it back to me for approval, it was cut to a couple of paragraphs and used in the magazine as a “Glimpse” at a grand total of 84 words!

    Therese – I’ve watched Hoarders several times. Always makes me feel my house is spotless (of course, it isn’t and never will be).

  25. Bianca Peterson says

    Some very good advice here. I took a fiction class in which we were required, no exceptions, to cut 20% from the first draft of our story. It was a good exercise is cutting down on hoarding.

  26. says

    The visuals you provide, Dave, don’t do justice to a true hoarder’s home. A friend and I agreed to help another woman clean her aunt’s house. I’d never seen a hoarder’s detritus before. It took us an entire day to declutter and sanitize only her kitchen, but we couldn’t stomach a return trip. The pile of newspapers in the middle of the floor was almost as tall as my 5’10”–years upon years of newsprint. Details of what lined the shelves are too much for me to consider at this hour of the morning, but you may be able to imagine….

    I shudder at likening my words to that hoarder’s piles, and yet every one of my stories has a side folder of “taken out bits,” in which entire POVs or beloved scenes find a new home, locked out but not discarded. The closest I’ve been able to come to the trash can has been that folder. Gone, gone, off with its head. But not forgotten.

  27. says

    Hi David, great article. I often feel that in my fiction stories I over think everything, trying to add any detail or information imaginable to ensure that the reader understands the story and is left with no questions. But in reading this article, I think that can hurt the interest of my story and I am starting to realize that some information that is left out can be interesting to the reader–possibly create mystery. In this case the story can have a sequel or be made into a series.

  28. Rachel Thompson says

    a tight outline with well thought out cause and effects won’t allow massive clutter to accumulate. James Fry’s step method works like a light weight champ.