In 2014, Marie Kondo sparked a worldwide minimizing trend with the release of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. When I read the book and decided to implement her “tidying” method in early 2017, my space did, in fact, get tidier, but that wasn’t all. As Kondo writes, “My clients always sound so happy, and the results show that tidying has changed their way of thinking and their approach to life.” This was true for me, but I did not expect that the KonMari method would change me as a writer.
When I began revising my latest novel in April, the mindset I had honed through the KonMari method improved my decision-making, and ultimately, my writing. While I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same results if you skip tidying up your house, here are five Marie Kondo practices that can be applied to revision.
1) Work in categories, not rooms
Up until this point, I have been a serial tidier, avowing each spring to organize the house once and for all. I would move room-by-room until the decisions of what to toss and what to keep, where to put things, and where to donate things, got so fatiguing that I quit, never really finishing. Kondo advocates organizing by category rather than room, starting with clothes. By limiting my focus to clothes, I didn’t have to figure out again what to do each time I stumbled upon more in another closet or the basement, because I’d organized them all in one go.
Similar to the room method, most writers assume that they will start with the first chapter and revise one at a time, but within each chapter, there are multiple categories–narration, character, story, scenes, and details that need polishing. If a writer goes chapter by chapter on all of these elements, then decides eight chapters in to cut a character, she or he has to return the beginning and start all over again!
This is exactly the problem Gabriela addressed during her Rock Your Revisions session at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York this August. Gabi advocated for layered revision: when a writer handles certain types of revisions before others, thus avoiding the pitfalls of serial tinkerers, who are never done revising.
2) Ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”
Once I gathered my clothes, I held each item, and asked myself, “Does this spark joy?” Kondo claims it’s the physical touch that allows you to decide quickly. To apply this concept to revision, a writer must have a clear definition for joy in this context.
The joy of a particular work is its core. To find your book’s core, consider Cheryl Klein’s questions from her incredible book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults: “What powers this book for you? What within the story gets you to your computer each morning? What is the most important thing you want your novel to convey or to accomplish? What is the thing you will not give up in it, no matter who tells you to do so?”
Klein says that the answer can be at most two things. So once I had my core, I could work through each layer and ask, “Does this point-of-view/character/story/scene/detail serve this novel’s core?”
3) Thank before you discard
No doubt, in decluttering and revision, there were times when the loss of objects or words made me nervous, and I wanted to hoard. Kondo writes, “…when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” This advice came in handy as I processed boxes of nostalgia–cards, certificates, and photographs that hadn’t seen daylight in years. While these items may have sparked joy at one point, they had served their purposes. I thanked them for what they meant at that moment in the past then let them go.
In writing, these words are our darlings. They were fun to write at the time, representing an attachment to the past, but as the story has solidified, they now distract from the core. I thanked my darlings helping me get to the better story, then deleted them.
4) Start with what remains
Kondo’s second reason for hanging on to joyless things is fear of the future. I might need my back-up back-up raincoat! My word count is supposed to be going up, not down!
To combat this anxiety known by tidiers and writers around the world, I took a hard look at what I had after discarding and deleting: the style, the aesthetic that will bring me daily joy. Of course in writing, what I had left was not enough for a publishable novel. Rather than adding another scene, I tried to go without by embellishing what I already had, ensuring that the current scenes are fully developed to feature the story’s core. If, after an honest try, doing without was impossible, then I wrote a new scene that served the story’s core.
5) Display what brings you joy
According to Kondo, assigning a place for everything and faithfully returning objects to their places is how to break the serial tidying cycle. This is a matter of self-discipline. At several points in the revision process, I was tempted to tinker with details when I wasn’t sure the scene was necessary, to keep a darling that was so very funny to me, to see my shrinking word count as a sign that I was farther from my goal rather than closer. It took self-discipline to trust that by making space for my story, it would be complete. That all my joyful work was visible, because I’d deleted everything else.
Marie Kondo cross-pollinated with my writing life for huge yields. What practices or books have unexpectedly transplanted themselves into your writing?
Jennifer Brinkmeyer writes contemporary fantasy and horror. When she’s not teaching teenagers how to rebel through literacy, she’s probably blowing bubbles with her daughter. To talk shop, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.