Saturday, November 17, 2018

Number 1 Rule for Clearing Out Old Papers, Part 1

Most of the items cluttering my writing room are paper: Newspaper clippings, old magazines, marked-up manuscripts, correspondence, and samples of marketing ideas from other writers.

Magazines and newspaper clippings linger in the hope that they will give me new ideas or substantiate facts for non-fiction articles. I saved marked-up manuscripts for that impossible spare time when I could look at them to try to find a pattern in my writing problems and writing successes.

Alas, there's no room for them all anymore, so I started going through them. If I saw an idea I still wanted to explore, I either made a note of it or put the clipping in a pile of things to scan. I ruthlessly recycled all the old manuscripts; there'll never be time to go through them all, and even if there is, are the critiques still valid?

Writing styles change over time. Consider dialogue tags. The current trend seems to be to always use "said" because that word is easily ignored, thereby not distracting the reader. Yet I remember when the trend was to replace "said" with action verbs. As Kellie McGann wrote on The Writing Practice, this was due to a belief that "...people do not simply say words; rather, they whisperyell, remark, argue, and so forth. They believe that using more descriptive words paints a clearer picture for the reader."

Stoked by this new rationale for reducing my paper load, I started weeding with a vengeance. I started losing steam in my great clearout when I came down with a weird cold in August. Realizing it was an odd time of year for a cold, I started asking around. No one was coming down with colds, but a few friends had some allergy attacks because of the rain and humidity. Since I do have a minor mold allergy, I thought that was my problem: an allergic reaction to the weather.

Fast forward three months and I was still coughing. The weather had changed, so that couldn't be it. One day my spousal unit noticed I wasn't coughing, sneezing, or blowing my nose. "Yeah, I wonder what I did right," I said, thinking it had something to do with changing my regimen of cough syrups, antihistamines, and sinus rinses. It turns out that it wasn't that at all. "You weren't clearing out your papers," he said.

Whether it was mold, paper dust, old cat dander, or plain old household dust that I was exposed to, apparently I have a dust allergy. I purchased one of those ear loop masks that people in Japan tend to wear when they have a cold. It really helped! 

So that's my number one rule: If you have ANY allergies at all, or you start to come down with a "cold," try one of those masks, also called medical masks. It will make your life much easier and is much less expensive than three months of over-the-counter cold medications and doctor visits.

And if your storage area has an evidence of mice? See Part 2 of this post, coming soon.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Oh, Those Holiday Decorations

I'm decluttering in preparation for an eventual move. As I go through every nook and cranny of the house, I'm thinking of two things: How much would it cost me to move this, and if my new living space is a lot smaller, would this crowd out my writerly possessions?

As a writer who is inspired by the supernatural and unknown, it was really difficult for me to go through my Halloween decorations. I love those stupid styrofoam gravestones, but I had to ask: Do I know if I'll even have outdoor space for them in the new place? Even if there is space, how much will this add to the total cost of moving as opposed to buying them again for the new place?

It's December and I'm going through the same process. I really should have started a month ago, but there's still time to donate or give away decorations to people who could use them. Here are some aspects I considered.


string of Christmas lightsI had a few sets that didn't light and I couldn't figure out if the problem was a bulb or lighting. Theoretically, today's strings of lights will still work if one bulb is out. So, that should mean that there's a problem with the string and it shouldn't be used, right? Okay, but how about all those bulbs that still work perfectly fine?

Okay, assume that I took the time to go through each bulb and test it in a working string. That would take precious time from my writing. Do I really want to do that?

And even if I did, maybe combining it with another task (listening to an audio book), when would I use those hundreds of little bulbs?

And if I don't have time to go through each bulb this year, that means it gets packed and gets moved. A string of lights isn't that big, but it could take the place in the moving van of some writerly items like a book or a notebook or a package of good pens.

And the final test: How much would it cost to move them as opposed to buying new strands next year?

Yet just as I'm about to drop it in the wastebasket, my conscience kicks in and reminds me that this, this trashing of potentially repairable things, is against my commitment to the new Three R's: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It's participating in our throwaway society.

So I try again. I can't get them to work. Sadly, I throw them away, and wish I knew one of those old-time tinkers who love a challenge like this.


I don't decorate as much these days. The day job usually gets very busy after summer is over, October is usually a very busy month for Halloween-related events, and November, even if I'm not actively participating in NaNoWriMo, is the month that I really feel the need to write again.

So when December 1 rolls around, and I think of devoting writing time to hanging all those decorations and then devoting time in January to take them all down and pack them away again, I realize that I just don't have time anymore.

As I did with the lights, I consider what decorating space I might have after I eventually move. I consider the cost of moving the decorations as opposed to buying new ones. I consider my ethical problems with a throwaway society. Here, though, I have an ethical choice. If they're in good condition, I can still give them away or donate them somewhere.

But unlike lights, decorations could have emotional ties. Take, for example, that Christmas stocking that a favorite aunt made. That, I'll keep. Those ornaments I've had for years? If that's the only emotional connection, that they were part of years gone by, take a picture of the ones I would like to remember, and then give the originals away.

Yule log centerpiece by artist Roxanna Benson of Benson Art (
What about that Yule log candle holder?  I can burn it in the fireplace at the end of Yule (or the end of December), or I can leave it in the nearby woods to gently return to nature. It would be easy enough to make a new one next year even if I've moved by then and don't have a basement or garage where I can craft things that require the use of a drill. I might even try this version on the HGTV web site that uses tea lights instead of tall candles (scroll down to the bottom).

I've probably waited too late to post this article. You're probably already tied up in the craziness of the season. Don't worry. I'll remind you next year. Decluttering, after all, is evergreen.

Yule log centerpiece by artist Roxanna Benson of Benson Art (

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Demonic Bookcases, Part 2

Part 2 of guest blogger Kathryn Ptacek, a writer who lives in rural northwest New Jersey and shares her old Queen Anne home with lots of books, the requisite author cats, teapots, and the occasional visiting mouse.

She's tackling the most common writer clutter problem: Crowded bookcases.

Demonic Bookcases, Part 2
by Kathryn Ptacek

One of my "supervisors"
Let me back up just a bit. Before I started the decluttering, I sat down and made a diagram of the bookcases in the living room, dining room, and front hall (the last of the tall bookcases is there). I estimated how many letters could go in each bookcase, taking into account that there seem to be numerous authors with names beginning with H and M and S. They would need slightly more room. T through Z authors go out into the front hall. As I went through the shelves I found a lot of books I could put out there in the hall—they'll be dealt with later.

Shelf 1, After
After investing in many long hours of scrubbing shelves and wiping dust off books and bending and reaching and clambering up and down a stepladder, I finally finished the first bookcase. Hurray! I put back a few teapots. It's great to see some of my collection now—and truly be able to see each piece.

The next day I started work on the second bookcase (D, E, F, G, and some H). That's finished, and I set out some teapots selectively and took photos. Now, I'm about to finish the third bookcase, and I've already swept everything off the last bookcase in the living room and the one in the dining room. The one in the front hall will have to wait a while. It seems to have ended up with a massive amount of things, some of them refugees from the other bookcases. I'm going to need a bigger box, I guess!

Living Room, After
As I've gone through more books, I found some that were by A, B, and C authors, and I've set them on that bookcase. There are now about thirty of them, with no room on the shelves. That means I have to cull at least thirty books from there. Again.

Am I happy to be getting rid of some of these books? In one way, yes, because I feel a tad "lighter."  I've heard people mention that they feel they have less of a burden on them when they dispose of something, and I can understand that. But I love my books, and I am parting reluctantly with them. All this would be solved, of course, if I could just swing some floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I have a Queen Anne–style Victorian, so the ceilings on the first floor are high, and those bookcases would be huge! As it is right now, I look at the foot-plus space over the doors and windows and think about all the books that could rest nicely there. Well, perhaps if I win the lottery ... Some books, though, I'm boxing up, such as the Ellery Queen paperbacks. I want to keep them, but I don't want that multi-book series on the shelves. Is this cheating? I'm not sure, but I can't have it both ways, I guess.

Front Hallway, After
So now I hope to finish the M authors in a day or two, then move on and get to the end of the alphabet by next week. I have some deadlines looming at present, so I've had to cut back my book sorting time. (One night after I'd just started all this, I worked until 2 a.m.) On breaks, I'll head downstairs and cull a few more books for a while. It's a fun task where I don't really have to think too hard about anything.

And my goal? Not to allow the stuff to creep back onto the shelves. I want to display my collection of teapots. What's the sense of collecting something if you and your friends can't see it? That won't be easy, but I'll keep trying. The hardest thing, though, will be that when I buy a new book and bring it into the house, I know I'm going to have to get rid of at least one or two old books. But I'll manage. What's a few more books into the culled pile, right?

Of course, now I have all those boxes of shells and stones and keys to sort through ... That's my next challenge!


Kathryn's novels are now out as ebooks from Crossroad Press and Necon Ebooks. Her first collection of short stories, Looking Backward in Darkness, was released by Borgo Press in 2013. She has short stories in two recent anthologies: Fright Mare and Expiration Date.

She can be reached at or through her Facebook pages.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Demonic Bookcases, Part 1

Today's guest blogger is writer Kathryn Ptacek, who lives in rural northwest New Jersey and shares her old Queen Anne home with lots of books, the requisite author cats, teapots, and the occasional visiting mouse.

She's tackling the most common writer clutter problem: Crowded bookcases.

Demonic Bookcases, Part 1
by Kathryn Ptacek

I love books! Big, short, thick, old, new, illustrated... books, books, books! I collect them, and it shows, because I have them everywhere in my house. Every room has at least one bookcase in it, and some have as many as six or seven. Only the bathroom remains bookless.

My late husband was also a horror writer and also a book collector, and when we moved to this house, we had little furniture–but we did have dozens of boxes of books. Those numbers increased over the years, and all those volumes piled up. On the bookcases, under tables, and on the floor here and there.

Fast forward decades, and now I'm surrounded by dusty tomes, and I'm kind of drowning. I love books, but I can't have them everywhere. I especially can't have stacks on the floor where the cats and I can knock things over, or in my case, where I can trip over them.

So I decided to cull my collection. Several years ago I started working on the hardcovers in the front parlor. The fiction hardbacks are there, while the fiction paperbacks hang out in the adjacent living room; nonfiction books reside upstairs in the two offices. And the guest room. And the hallway. I boxed up a lot of books and sent them off to a fellow to sell at auction. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

The first time I picked up a book to put in a box, I was sure I heard Charlie's voice saying, "No, not that one!" But, yes, that one. And the one next to it, and the one under it, and the three off to the left. I sent dozens and dozens of books to the auction guy. Then I stopped working on the books, and even though I wasn't buying many, they still seemed to show up downstairs. (Could books be like clothes hangers and multiply in the dark? Possibly.) Then just a week or so ago, I was staring at the bookcases in the living room and decided I needed to alphabetize these books... and then I could get rid of some.

Living Room, Before
Another problem? An incredible number of knickknacks clustered in front of the paperbacks. It was getting to the point where sometimes I could barely see the book. Somehow, objects in my hand as I entered the living room always found their way to the bookcases. What to do with the extra key to the garage? I'll put it on this shelf so I can find it if I happen to lose the other key. Oh, well, I've just come across some interesting keyrings—maybe they should go with that extra key- just in case. Flashlights? I need them at hand in a single location for when the power goes off. Little emergency radio? Better put it with flashlights so I can find everything together. Small lantern? Goes with the emergency stuff!

Seashells? On the bookshelf! Interesting rocks found on walks? Next to the shells! What's this piece of plastic? Don't know. Put it on a shelf until I can figure out where it belongs. It's a never-ending cycle. Or so I thought.

Front Hallway, Before
Last week I grabbed some cartons and removed all the stones and pieces of wood and seashells and cat figurines and keys and teapots that had piled up over the years. Into the boxes! I'll deal with them later.

Then I started pulling books off the shelves and shifting them around. The authors with "A" and "B" and "C" last names go in this one. "D" names start on this other bookcase. Can't fit them all? Time to figure out which authors I no longer love.

It's hard to part with the books. I just might read some of these in future, even though I've only had some of these books for thirty years.

But I've hardened my heart. If I truly can't stop thinking about some classic, well, there is the library. I can't own every book, right?

Kathryn's novels are now out as ebooks from Crossroad Press and Necon Ebooks. Her first collection of short stories, Looking Backward in Darkness, was released by Borgo Press in 2013. She has short stories in two recent anthologies: Fright Mare and Expiration Date.

She can be reached at or through her Facebook pages.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Getting Rid of Emotionally Bound Items

When I first started decluttering, I tried going through old things first, but that was fairly useless. Some of my oldest things contain my most precious memories. I just wasn't ready to give them up.

But going through them did help me in my future decluttering. Here are some of the techniques I've used on myself. If you have others that have worked for you, please share!

Swapping Out

I lost my parents when I was relatively young. Some things that may look useless, like a plain drinking glass or an out-of-date standing lamp, are holy relics to me. My early attempts at decluttering ended up with me caressing them for a moment and then just packing them in boxes, labeling them, and putting them in the basement.

Those things are still in the basement. I've realized I can't let go of them just yet, but I'll get there. In the meantime, I look at things that have no emotional hold and say, "If I get rid of this, then I'll have room for momma's clock."

If there are things you feel you absolutely can't get rid of, tell yourself you can keep it if you get rid of something of equal size, or maybe two things that take up the same place, and then find things that don't carry an emotional attachment (like that electric pencil sharpener that stopped working and the lamp that doesn't provide the right lighting for your workspace).

Snap It

When you get to the point where you can release an emotionally-bound item, take a photo of it. Take many. Digital photos don't take up that much space! Open up a text document or grab your favorite journal and describe what it is, what you remember about it, where it came from.

Consider using an online photo service to create a book of memories.  

Tip: Make sure you back up your photos and electronic journals.

I found the act of viewing and photographing the things I release very soothing. Capturing it digitally means that I can look at it any time: I don't need to hunt for it in boxes, go to a storage area, or dig it out of the bottom of a closet. The exercise of writing about it -- which I haven't started yet -- will be even more meaningful since I'm a writer.

I'll be writing a different blog entry on releasing (getting rid of) general items later, but emotionally-charged items have another destination you might consider. Is it grandma's old sewing machine? Maybe a cousin or a friend of the family wants it. Now's the time to get in touch.

If not, and it's very old, consider your local historical society or a museum related to the item. For example -- and I'm making this up -- maybe it's an old canning set and there's a museum of food safety. If it's it good condition, they might be interested. And now that you have the photos, it's easy to send them an email and say, "Are you interested in this?" If you live in the US and you file the long-form for taxes and the recipient is a 501(c)(3) organization, you might be able to deduct the value of the item from your taxes.

If you are downsizing because you are in dire financial straits, you can sell it. Now that you have the photos, it's easy to upload them to eBay or email to people you know who might be interested in them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What did I do with that?

Is getting clutter under control one of your New Year's Resolutions?

As you declutter, you will move, give away, or throw away things. Months later, you'll drive yourself crazy looking for one of those things. You might even buy a replacement for something you still own, compounding your clutter problem.

I use a To Do manager than includes a Note feature. (I use Toodledo, but you can also use just a text file or other note organizers such as Evernote or Microsoft OneNote.) I have a note called Where I Put Things.

Anytime I move or get rid of something, I make an entry for the item and its new location. For example, I might have an entry for "Electric pencil sharpener -- Donated to UU church yard sale June 2015" or "Desk fan -- over the cabinets over the fridge, way back on the right out of sight."

That allows me to move things out of the area I use for my writing, giving me more space for the things I need for writing (books, manuscripts in progress, and so on). It also saves me time when I'm looking for something. If it's not where I think I put it, I just open the note and search for the item.

So start now. When you move, give away, donate, or throw away something, write it down. If nothing else, you'll get some satisfaction seeing things on the list that you actually rehomed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick tip: Candles

Some of you might throw away a candle after one use, but others, especially those who use their candles for prayers, intentions, or spells, end up with half-burned candles in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere.

I keep an old cookie tin in my desk drawer. When I don't burn a candle to completion for whatever reason, I put the stubs in the tin. Then, on my once-a-year camping trip, I use the candles to start the campfire. It's ecological (I'm reusing) and it's a sound practice spiritually.

As I throw the candles in, I think of what I've used them for. Dinner with friends? I thank the Universe that I have friends and that I can afford to share food with them. Healing intention? I thank the Universe for those who have been healed, and send good thoughts to those who could not or would not be healed. If you're not spiritually inclined, consider the other effects of a simple moment of gratitude for whatever good moments the candles represent.

I also have a shoebox where I put candle holders that need cleaning. Once a year, or when I run out of usable candle holders, I clean them out. I usually try to schedule it for months when it's warm enough to go outside to do it or at least to dump the hot water I used to dissolve the candle wax.  (See the Resources section at the bottom of the page for links to cleaning candle wax. Two suggestions -- freezing candles first and putting a little water in the holder before you insert the candle -- might even cut down on the need to clean.)

By the way, if you're fighting clutter, you should be extra careful of the fire hazard of burning candles. I'm fortunate enough to have a fireplace, so if I just want to burn a candle to scent the house, I burn it in the fireplace.

If I want to be able to see the candle and enjoy its ambiance, I put it on a fireproof surface somewhere where cats, dogs, kids, and strong winds (and curtains) from an open window can't reach it.  Make sure your surface is very clutter-free first, and that, my friend is another motivation for decluttering!

(P.S. If your mind is as cluttered as my desk, set an alarm or kitchen timer to remind you to extinguish the candle.)


This link has good information on cleaning candle holders, reusing candles and wax, and other candle-related topics.

How to Remove Candle Wax from Glass Containers

This site discusses removing candle wax from other items. I'm going to try the Dawn dishwashing liquid after I do the nearly boiling water bit (I don't trust boiling water not to break the glass) to see if I can make the process quicker.

How to Remove Candle Wax from Just About Everything

Did you know that frozen candles burn twice as long and drip less? Check this out, only if to see her cool candle holders!

Fun with Freezing Candles