Every Story Has Its Seasons: Fall Clean-Up

Spring – seeds of your first ideas, images, characters, plotlines send up green shoots!

Summer – the story blossoms, flowers and weeds alike.


Fall. I’m working on my earth pond, pulling out invasive weeds and dredging stinky sludge and algae. I check every scoop for frogs and salamanders so it’s slow work. And it’s hard work too. The huge pond rake becomes even heavier when dragged through water.

If I don’t do this, the inlet pipe gets clogged up and the pond becomes cloudy with silt and will eventually fill up and return to the mosquito-infested swamp it once was.

salamander in netEarly fall is a good time for a pond clean-up.The frogs and salamanders I disturb are able to swim away and dig themselves into the mud again. If I leave it till later, when it’s much colder, they can be very sluggish and I worry about whether they’ll survive.

Dredge too early, in the spring, and the frogspawn and young salamanders will be destroyed.

Just like with the earth pond, fall is the optimum time for cleaning up a story! This is the time when a story’s process, motivations, scenes, points of view have become overgrown or tangled up in other weedy storylines, or even died off and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Start too early, before you have enough meat on the bones of your story, and you might well cut out important material that has not yet come to fruition.

Leave it too late and not only the story, but your attitude towards it, may have become a totally clogged-up mess, too hard to budge. (If this has happened to you, check out Block Busting by Ruth Harris on Anne R. Allen’s blog or Mary Carroll Moore’s Getting Started Again)

Fall Clean Up: Dredging Your Storyrakes and scooper nets1. Take out the ‘shimmering’ moments

(Thanks to Alexandra Johnson, author of ‘The Hidden Writer’ and faculty member of the Creative Writing M.F.A. at Lesley University, for the idea of ‘shimmering’ moments)

These are source moments, the moments that excite you. They are the reason why you’e writing the story. They have to be in the story even if you don’t know why. For me this is a gut feeling. You may like to be more analytical. Don’t worry about order or structure, just put them in a new document.

2. Cut everything that isn’t essential.

Be honest. Loving a scene/moment isn’t good enough. If you don’t feel in your gut that it’s essential – snip, snip, out it goes! (But keep back-ups of everything in your story’s compost pile!)

3. Scour the crucial moments.

You need to forget all your original ideas about your story and come to this with fresh eyes.

What are these pieces saying? What theme (or pov, or scene…) is starting to emerge?

Underline words or verbs or images or colors that seem to be significant even if you don’t quite know why.

4. Can you cut three more things?

Often when you’ve pared the story down to the bare bones, you can see what it’s about and where it’s going.

…your worn-out idea or endeavor can shine more brightly if you will take some of it and throw it away.  It is the same idea as the sculptor removing more marble in order to reveal more of the hidden form. A powerful way of renewing or strengthening one’s intention or action that has become fatigued is to throw some ideas away, and focus.

Take three hairs out of your endeavor and throw them to the ground. There they become like a wake-up call….[…] We know that cutting away the deadwood helps a tree to grow stronger.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves

5. Re-envision your essential sections – one by one.

Maybe develop them into a scene, rewrite the scene from a different pov. I often turn to “Naming the World” (ed. Bret Anthony Johnston) for ideas of how to take a new look at ‘old’ material.

6. Experiment with putting your sections in different sequences.

How do these pieces of the puzzle fit together? Many writers recommend index cards. For some reason that doesn’t work for me. I cut and paste in my document.

7. Put back a scene/sentence/image that you had cut but now can see where it belongs.

Do you need to re-write this material to adjust for the new spine of your story?

Then try putting in another sentence or verb or scene. Nah, doesn’t belong after all? Out it goes.

One at a time.

8. What does the story need to be properly filled out?

Any flashbacks/dialogues/scenes? A different ending?

This isn’t the final edit. Your fall dredging may well be followed by a winter (or two) of ideas and images withering and dying off as you struggle with bringing strands together or finding the ending, then another spring burgeoning of yet more new ideas, before a final summer blossoming.

But let’s just enjoy this fall moment – of being able to see (however fleetingly) the shape of the story again, of rediscovering that sense of being back on track, of moving forward.earth pond


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