To Cut or Not to Cut …

Editing is essential for any novel.

Whatever length of story intended, there will always be far more words and pages than required once you arrive at the last sentence.

It’s inevitable that there will be repeated comments or thoughts. At least it’s inevitable if you are as slow and disorganized a writer as I am.

So some edits are easy. Cut the repetitions, reduce some of the details and avoid at times slowing down the pace and delaying the action too much.

Editing my fourth novel, now completed, means cutting around 8,000 words.

The first 3,000 words quickly get chopped – but the next few thousand are far harder to lose.

I am aware that my characters drink too many cups of coffee. They have the habit of opening numerous bottles of wine. They look into the fridge too often and wonder what to have to eat. I seem to feel a need to explain what they are eating for dinner, whether it’s marmalade or just butter on their morning toast. What they have chosen to wear that day. Whether they like their tea weak or strong.

But clearly the reader does not need to know quite so much of the inner – and outer – habits and workings of the characters.

Or do they?

Whenever a novel is written, it’s a clue to the ordinary and everyday routines relevant to those times. What people ate for breakfast, what they drank and how they went to work. How they cleaned their teeth, how often they washed their clothes and their hair.

Every novel is a social and domestic history as well as a story.

As my fourth novel is set in 1983, I have found myself needing to remember any particular details relevant to life in 1983 that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. Of course there was minimal technology, no internet, no easy communication – all of which I find most helpful in weaving plots. And I’ve been aware of key events going on in the political world to give the novel a strong context. These references need to be kept, I feel.

So what else to cut?

And what, pertinently, did writers of the past cut out and edit from their final manuscripts meaning that those references are lost to us forever?

What valuable information about domestic lives and settings have we lost as a result?

I mean, how often did the Bennet sisters wash their hair? Were their lovely dresses creased with no electric iron to hand? What was the state of their teeth? I’m sure social historians know all about the history of toothbrushes and toothpaste, but think how useful a casual reference in a 19th century novel would be to us less enlightened souls.

Did Mr Rochester take sugar in his coffee – or was that not A Thing in the mid 19th century? Surely, as a Byronic, gothic type he would have drunk his coffee strong and black!

Of course there are some details about food and meal habits in classic novels. In Pride and Prejudice Mrs Bennet invites Mr Bingley to a ‘family dinner’ at which she is determined to serve ‘two courses.’

But hardly our understanding of an informal family meal of, say, chicken casserole followed by apple crumble.

No. Afterwards Mrs Bennet is triumphant that:

the venison was roasted to a turn – and everybody said they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucas’s last week; and even Mr Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done.

Venison and partridge? And what about the vegetables? Were any served?

You see, I would like to know. Did Jane Austen or her publishers cut that bit out?

Sometimes, it’s the lack of detail in novels that tells us about habits and traditions of the past. Weddings, for example, seem to be far from the elaborate, much-planned, excessively costly affairs of today. Emma Woodhouse’s wedding to the delectable Mr Knightly (if Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is the father we all desire, undoubtedly, Jane Austen’s Mr Knightly has to be every woman’s ideal husband!) is a quiet and discreet event and we are told that: The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby and very inferior to her own – ‘very little white satin, very few lace veils, a most pitiful business.’

Which tells us that white satin and lace veils were considered decidedly vulgar in the first decade or two of 19th century, given the characterisation of Mrs Elton!

But I must get back to my cutting of The Odyssey of Lily Page.

I must have my finger poised over the delete button and excise anything and everything I can from the manuscript on my screen.

Fortunately, in 1983 life was a little simpler when it came to coffee. At least I don’t need to have my protagonists agonising over whether to choose filter, americano, latte, cappuccino, flat white, dry white, mocha, oat, soya or almond milk – that will have saved me several hundred words, for sure!

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