(Please give a warm welcome to friend of Murderati Robin Burcell, who is standing in for Toni today.)


In how a writer of international thrillers about covert government agencies and conspiracy theories discovers a dark secret… about herself.

It’s the beginning of March and I have already failed at my New Year’s resolution.  

For this reason, I am coming out of the closet, and I am willing to admit my grave secret to the world: I am a horizontal filer. Before you pull out your can of Lysol, rest assured that it isn’t highly contagious—unless you get bitten. Horizontal filers, if you don’t know, are people who usually place important things in the open, because if they file it vertically (as in a real file) they fear they will forget about it. Horizontal filers tend to fall into the out-of-sight, out-of-mind type.  And, as you are wondering if it can get any worse (it can), they are probably procrastinators.  Which is why they have the IRS.  The IRS, as you know, is that not-so-covert government agency that forces horizontal filers like me not only into putting little pieces of paper into a vertical file, but also into sorting them out into organized groups.

This is completely unnatural. If you haven’t guessed this by now, horizontal filers have messy desks.  And probably messy countertops.  And they hate tax time, which is coming up very quickly.

I’ll wager that horizontal filers who are also writers probably have the same #1 New Year’s resolution. Most of you are thinking that would be to clean the desk, but you would be wrong.  It is to find that receipt from your last purchase at Walmart before the 90 days expires and they force you to accept a discounted return price on a Walmart gift card, which, thankfully, has no expiration date, even if you are only getting ten cents to the dollar. 

Every year I resolve to turn that clean-the-desk resolution into a routine.  And ever year I fail. I clean off my desk, and it stays that way for maybe a day or two at the most. My thinking is that if my desk is clean, I can write books much faster, because it will free my imagination.  I suspect, however, that this is an elaborate government conspiracy to get me to clean off my desk before tax time, so that I can find my checkbook to write the IRS a check.

What keeps me from maintaining a clean desk is the piles of papers, magazines I intend to read, business cards from conferences, and everything else that doesn’t get handled that month (like any bill that doesn’t have a late payment penalty). All of these things get shoved in a pile, with the thought that if I didn’t need it this month or next, it can be moved to the side of the desk instead of right in front of the computer in the priority pile. And that is how I discovered the dual purpose of drawers. You can pull them out and use them to pile even more papers on top, like an extended desk shelf. 

If the stacks of paper get really bad, I might grab a file box, and shove everything in that, fully intending to go through it before it gathers dust beneath the desk. It may even be how I discovered the plot to my last book, THE BONE CHAMBER, because when I do get around to attempting to clean, it’s a lot like archeology. Layers of things that you can decipher by month and year. Old photos, bank statements, catalogs, conference programs, etc., etc. And sometimes, like in my book, I discover treasures that may actually be dangerous to all of mankind. Unlike my book, anything found on my desk is not several hundred or even two thousand years old.  I’m not even that old.  Even without Adobe Photoshop.

Every so often, I whittle that mountain of papers down to a short stack maybe an inch thick (which, considering this year started off as two file boxes of stuff, is pretty darn good).  It’s that little bitty pile left over that keeps me from succeeding, which makes me wonder if there is the precursor to the zombie virus on my desk, because that pile of papers has a life of its own.  I can separate it, move it, bury it in a box and it always comes back. I have not yet tried to fire bullet rounds through it, because there is a law about this in city limits, because the city council has not yet recognized the dangerousness of such a virus. And yet each time, I find myself putting aside the very same pile of leftover stuff as the time before:  In it are two Christmas cards circa 2002/03, one to an editor who left the business several years back, and one to my agent.  The cards never made it to the mail, and I figured I’d send them the next year.  (I haven’t sent out cards since the twins were born in 1995, so the fact I actually partially addressed two envelopes is pretty amazing.) With them are a stack of cards or letters I’ve received, dating as far back as 2000, from people I had always planned to write back to—and clearly never did—perhaps with the idea that I’d let them know about my latest book.

What’s a horizontal filer like me to do?  I keep that little pile of things clipped to a clipboard, put it aside—never to be revisited until the next time I attempt to clean the desk. Problem is that the pile on the clipboard grows, propagates, breeds like dust bunnies atop and beneath the desk, and I have to get another box, sometimes even a shopping bag to catch the spillover. Now before you get any bright ideas, I have already tried putting money on the pile to see if it would grow.  It does not. The IRS has infused money with the anti-zombie virus—a good thing to know should the zombies attack.  Most recently as I worked my way through the papers, all the way down to the annual stack from the clipboard, I ruthlessly tossed those cards and letters. Just threw them all away. They went into the recycle bin with the catalogs and the junk.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it. And if my friends and relatives haven’t figured out that I have a new book out by now without me sending notice, they never will.

We’ll see if that keeps my desk clean, or if it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  How about you? Horizontal filer?  And if so, what is the secret to keeping your desk clean?


Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. The Bone Chamber is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Visit her website at:



  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Robin and welcome to Murderati!

    Don’t clear that desk! If you do, you may well find that there is no desk at all under all that paper, and all that is holding the universe together is a web of confusion.

    (Remember, the secret of bending the spoon is that there is no spoon…)

    And a BIG thank you to Robin, incidentally, for her invaluable help on LA police interrogation techniques for my next Charlie Fox book ;-]

  2. Cornelia Read

    Go Robin! I loved reading this–you have managed to top your briliant DL calendar.

    I am a horizontal filer and mostly just a horizontal person–especially when it comes to the gravitational pull of my sofa.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Robin, fantastic to have you here!

    Horizontal filer just doesn’t seem the word to describe the utter, living chaos which is my – not just desk, but anywhere that paper is involved. I have read that right brained people need to SEE their stuff. Whatever. I have made an uneasy peace with it. It comforts me that there are others.

    Somehow, we’ve all managed this far, right?

  4. JD Rhoades

    Welcome, Robin!

    Horizontal filer married to a vertical filer, which is probably why I’m not in prison for tax evasion or disbarred for trust account violations.

  5. Paula R.

    Hi Robin, thank you for helping me to come to terms with my own problem. I too am a horizontal filer. I exhibit the same symptoms of putting things away, hoping to get to them in the near future. My piles turned into bags of stuff, that I usually end up going through close to tax time because I just have to make sure that I have everything I need. I also shred things, learned that in the military, and I have things that need to be shredded, but first I have to look through it all. What a chore! I must say though that I am learning to perfect this form of filing, by organizing my piles into things to shred, letters to answer, bills to pay, etc. The piles do continue to take on a life of their own. I am sure that one day, people like us will rid ourselves of this virus, which has the potential to be a great disease. Thanks again for pitching in for Toni. I always enjoy her posts, and you did a wonderful job pinch hitting.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  6. Camille Minichino

    I am a Folder Person. Though that means vertical filing, it’s not that much better as far as things getting lost or hidden. The reason: I have such a bad memory and so many folders, that I often create more than one folder for the same thing!
    I put folders between bookends, in small holders, everywhere.

    And let me take this opportunity to thank you, Robin, for being so responsive to all our questions, especially mine on procedure last week!

    Hope the new book does really well!

    Camille Minichino

  7. Johnny Ray

    I understand completely. If I ever cleaned off the top of my desk and surrounding areas i would see my writing come to a grinding halt. Perhaps even the whole world would stop. Yea, I know where my piece of cheese is–don’t move it!
    Johnny (Sir John) Ray

  8. Robin Burcell

    Zoë, thanks for the tip. It never occurred to me that I might be unpleasantly surprised should I succeed in my goal. We did have termites that had to be dealt with. The inspector didn’t exam my desk, probably because it was well camouflaged…

    And glad I could help with the other. Anytime!

    And to Cornelia, Alex and JD, it’s nice to know I’m in such good company!

    Louise, I’m still laughing over the "Had I but Known" label. Brilliant!

  9. Robin Burcell

    There’s something about tax time that brings out the best in us HF types. And like you, I also shred. I keep a little basket under my desk to collect things that must be shredded. (Like paid bills and things with account numbers on them.) I put it there to help keep the desk clean. So far it hasn’t worked.

    That’s my biggest fear. I would try to get organized, and then fail! I think you’re a closet HF, trying to be a VF. <g> And you’re very welcome. It’s fun answering the police procedural stuff. It’s part of that procrastination thing. Keeps me from doing that which I should be doing. Cleaning my desk.

  10. Robin Burcell

    I’m sure you’re right, JT. I’m married to a vertical filer. My husband read my blog post. He said, and I quote, "I’m not sure if this is funny or sad."

  11. Rae

    Hi Robin!

    Also a horizontal filer – seeing the paper makes me feel more useful, like there’s stuff for me to do that will contribute to…..I have no idea what 😉

    I’ve found that if you let the paper sit there long enough, it becomes irrelevant, and then you can recycle it to make room for more paper, that can sit there until it becomes irrelevant, and so on….

  12. Becke (Martin) Davis

    Robin – I’ve been a self-employed writer for almost 20 years so I’ve learned how to become somewhat organized, at least when it comes to taxes. But no matter how organized I am and no matter how carefully I prepare everything for our tax accountant, there’s always something I miss. It drives me CRAZY. I think the someone at the IRS is laughing his butt off at what all the self-employed filers go through every year.

  13. alli

    Hi Robin – welcome to Murderati! Oh, I’m a horizontal filer all the way, much to the chagrin of hubby who is definitely a vertical filer. We’re moving overseas very shortly so I’ve been going through my piles of files. Oh, oh. Maybe I need to change my ways. On second thought…. nah.

  14. Molly Weston

    Ah, all you horizontal filers should read A PERFECT MESS…by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. They give absolutely valid reasons for being horizontal filers (one is that you often spend more time filing than in looking for stuff—including a story about a scientist whose horizontal method helped him earn a Nobel Prize.

    After hearing their presentation, I’ve never since apologized for having my stuff piled high around me. I know it’s in there somewhere!

  15. BCB

    You can pull desk drawers out to create more horizontal space? And here I’d been thinking it was time to clear off my desk and get organized. Thank you SO very much, Robin. That would never have occurred to me.

    I love the title too. Very evocative of something mysteriously creepy.

  16. Robin Burcell

    You guys are all making me laugh! This is better than going to a Horizontal Filers Anonymous meeting! So what I’m hearing from most of you is that it might even be a sign of genius??? 😉

  17. pari noskin taichert

    Welcome to Murderati and CONGRATS on the new release.

    Horizontal filing? Yeah. That’s when I’m doing well <g>.

    Actually, one thing that helps me to keep the clutter down (when I’m together enough to remember this tip) is at the end of each day just throw away ten items. It works. Just ten little things. Soon enough, you’ll notice a bit of a decrease in those mountains of crappola.

  18. Kathy Crouch

    Oh my Robin you found my secret. I have two desks here, a folding table, my dining table, and two filing cabinets. I’m a tax preparer but I don’t do very good at vertical filing… Uhm I figured out only print the stuff that has to be signed. You never get the preparer copy filed <G>. I have piles of acknowledgements, on the computer tower, on the printer, and piles of papers on my desk. I hand the client their copy either when they get their check or we finish if no rapid refund. Oh I almost forgot I have the signed papers stapled and piled on a nice little footstool under my small desk where you sit for having your taxes done. Uhm every month the bills come in and sit on my desk. They get covered sometimes and I have to unearth them for paying on payday. So happy to know others have paper piles too. <G>

  19. toni mcgee causey

    I’m a vertical filer only if towers of paper count.

    Actually, that would be my natural method, but years ago, I had to buckle down and face the fact that as a small business, we had to be able to find things in files. I hired a pro to come organize it. After I performed CPR on herwhen she first saw the piles, she did a great job helping me develop a system that fit our needs and my right brain visual reference. Thoug I have to admit to having done the drawer thing a time or ten. And the footstool under the table. And a tray under the footstool.

    Thanks for being here today, Robin. Welcome… and like Rob said, that title makes me want to dig in.

  20. Robin Burcell

    LCC 2012, Pari? Still in the very early planning stages, though we do have the hotel contract signed! Sacramento 2012, folks. Mark your calendars!

    Toni, I have to ask… did it work? When the pro organizer came in, did it stay that way? I had one come in, then never heard back from her. I think she was really about selling other items. Furniture, filing trays. She was a tad disappointed to find all my cabinets organized, labeled plastic boxes and everything. It’s that everyday stuff I need help with. I think I scared her.

  21. toni mcgee causey

    Robin, it did stick. Weirdly. I now keep most of my work spaces clutter free. But she was not selling stuff–was just an individual with a knack for organization.

    I found that, for me, out of sight meant it wouldn’t get done. And I don’t want to transfer paper from point to point, which a lot of systems make you do. It’s not an absolutely foolproof method, but really, it stays clutter free and I’m generally able to find what I need when I need it.
    And yeah, it’s the daily stuff–mail, requests, etc., that pile up and cream ya.

  22. Doug Riddle

    Hello, my name is Doug and I’m a horizontal filer. I have seen the pain that my addiction has caused my family and Fluffy the cat (pile feel over, Vet says she will be ok in time with PT).

    But I have been given the cure………the 3 inch box……which was given to me by Ms. Smartypants the oldest child/grad student. The idea is you put things in the box (what a concept) and when the box becomes full you file, read or toss the contents. The results have been amazing.

    A lot of research went into the 3 inch box cure. First a 6 inch box was tried, but when full the work to empty it was just to overwhelming and defeated the purpose………soon there was 10 inches of stuff in a 6 inch box and we all know where that leads. But the 3 inch box was found to be just the right size to hold roughly 1 to 2 weeks of crap, sorry research material, depending on your the level of your addiction.

    Take the cure…..It works

  23. Barbara Rae Robinson

    And then there’s the floor. I move stacks onto the floor where I can knock them over and make myself crazy over that. I was going to try to change. Maybe I won’t try. I doubt the cure would "take."


  24. Mary Arrr

    Don’t know who gave me this minimalist filing plan, but I’ve been using it for years. Each year buy a 13 pocket folder at Staples. One pocket for each month + one for taxes/really important. Just file by putting stuff into the appropriate month. If you need to find it again, you only have 1-3 months of stuff to look through. (I’ve found that I can generally remember what season I did something in.) If you don’t need it, you put almost no time into filing. I keep the past 2-3 years on the bottom shelf in my home office, older ones are in banker’s boxes in the attic.

    I’ve refined it a bit by adding a stage that sounds like Doug’s 3-inch box. There’s a basketish box on my shelf that I toss stuff in. I go through it every so often, tossing the trash, sorting the rest by month.

    Chronological filing really seems to freak some neatnik types out, but if you have a memory for "when," it’s a great, low-effort way to go.

  25. Robin Burcell

    Ohhhh,,,, Doug! I am so loving the idea that a 3 inch box might be the answer. I did try the basket, but with the open top, it soon overflowed… But a box! Now where to find one that goes with paper-pile-chic…

  26. allison davis

    Nice to know I am in such good company with my piles and that it won’t interfere with my getting published, assuming I can turn out a good book. You’ve given hope to the pilers. Welcome to Murderati and thanks so much.

  27. Robin Burcell

    I bought one of those multi file folder things once, Mary. And that was as far as I got.

    And Allison, in reading the majority of posts, here, it looks very much like being a horizontal filer is almost a prerequisite of becoming published! So you’re halfway there!

  28. Pat Marinelli

    Hi Robin,
    Thank you so much for this blog. I am a horizontal filer married to a vertical filer. He has saved my life but not my desk. His favorite phrase is–and being a retired LEO you will love this–‘at least we don’t done have to worry about being robbed, if a thief comes in to your office first he’ll think we’ve been robbed already and leave.’.

    Last spring I made up mind mind that the papers had to go and the books had to be dealt with. I sorted, purged, and schreadded. My mistake? I rescued a kitten who climbed the stack of papers sorted and ready to be filed so to keep them from falling I placed a couple of blankets over them and now the horizontal pile of papers are her bed. Now how can I take that away from her. See horizontal piles of paper are so useful.

    Even the vertical filer says I can’t take the cat’s bed away.

    So it’s nice to know that I fit into such s wonderful group of people.

  29. Jessica Bacon

    Hi Robin. I so understand what you mean about the short stack. I used to be a vertical filer–before I became a writer. So all my bills and that sort of thing go into vertical files, after sitting around for a while. My problem is that clutter drives me insane, but what’s a writer to do?

  30. Cher'ley

    I am also a email hoarder. I always have the little stack on my desk and the last few emails that I’m not sure what I want to do with them. LOL Glad to find someone with the same affliction.


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