Characterization II – Still Life and What’s Left on the Editing Room Floor

Saturday, 29 July 2017 / Leave a Comment

My first proper effort at a novel ran to 250,000 words and took three years to write. When it was eventually published (about a decade later) it had been cut down to 130,000 words. In the intervening years, I developed the story on various peer-led writer sites, getting the word count down to around 180,000 words. The final cut was due to publishing costs not artistic considerations (put simply: the independent publisher who put the book out couldn’t afford to publish a 600-page novel).

The first draft of my forthcoming novel The Girl in the Empty Room (Crooked Cat Books) ran to just over 80,000 words. The main character (the girl in the empty room) is a quite complex young woman. Many and varied life experiences have twisted her out of shape – drink, drugs, her parent’s divorce, failed relationships, serious debt. When I came to edit the novel, I found that, for purposes of flow, the ultimate development of the story, that I had to cut a hell of a lot of strong, interesting scenes featuring her. An essential part of the process, I suppose. But it’s always made me wonder, with books, the edited scenes, the billions of lost words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters – does the writer always make the correct decision, does the editor, agent or publisher? Who decides, ultimately? What have we as readers potentially missed out on? What rich wonderful prose, crisp dialogue, mad descriptive passages, huge characters are left on the editing room floor, consigned to history? In the same way, some people’s whole lives are passed over in preference for someone else, be it at a failed job interview, football trial or a lover leaving you for another man or woman. And we never know if they made the correct decision or not…

One of the scenes mentioned above, a pretty unpleasant story set at a music festival, is pasted below. Maybe it should have stayed in the novel, maybe not…

Still Life
Jacqueline didn't know why she'd run off like that, why she'd made such a stupid scene, dumping her friends, doing all the coke she was supposed to share with them, why she'd double-dropped ecstasy pills, and lost herself in the crowds of people milling around the festival site. She didn't know why she'd made such a big thing about coming here in the first place, pestering her parents for a weekend ticket, saving money, leaving the kids with her ex. It's not like it was a proper festival, just three main tents, some folky, bluesy shit, local bands mostly.
   She came up hard and fast.
   Dazed, disorientated, all she wanted to do was find someone with a little weed, sit down and smoke a joint, relax, get her bearings, maybe even enjoy herself a little bit–that was supposed to have been the whole idea. But all she kept doing was bumping into straggly-haired crusties in tie-dyed smocks or fishtail parkas. Discordant sounds: pounding drums, strumming guitars, thumping bass lines, muffled applause, voices and laughter. A breath of wind, a spot of rain, the smell of frying food: burgers, hot dogs and spicy Indian dishes. There was far too much to take in–fire-eaters, a mounted policeman, laughing children holding balloons, a pint of golden lager held in a rough, callused hand.
   'Can I have a sip of your beer, mate?' she shouted, tapping a man on the shoulder. Breton stripe T-shirt, cut-off denims, sandals over socks. 'I'm really dehydrated…can't seem to find a bar anywhere.'
   'Sure. You look like you need it.' A plastic glass, cool to the touch. She put it to her lips and drank deeply, feeling the cold liquid travel all the way down to her stomach. 'Hey, are you okay? You look a bit worse for the wear.'
   She handed the glass back. 'How else am I supposed to look?'
   Shambling along in another thick stream of bodies, sometimes stopping to have incoherent conversations, to hug and kiss vacant, unappealing strangers, throwing herself at one stoned, pissed up male after another, asking if she could go back to their tent, begging them for weed or booze, moving further and further away from the mundanity of her real everyday life, the boredom, the empty weeks, cooking and cleaning, the wasted hours spent waiting to pick her children up from school. It was as if she was escaping, back to a time when she was young, before she'd fallen pregnant, when there was a whole wide world, with unlimited possibilities spread out before her. 
   'Yeah, yeah,' another blurry, stretched-out-of-all-recognition face spoke right into hers. 'You can come back to our tent for a smoke. Looks like you could do with chilling out for a bit, looks like you could do with a joint or two…take the edge off.'
She woke up to suffocating heat, a dry mouth, discomfort, a body on top of hers, the smell of sweat, greasy matted hair, a bristly cheek against her breasts, long nails pinching her skin, warm, boozy breath, a heaving, rocking motion, she could feel someone inside of her, hear whispered voices all around.
   Desperately, she tried to push him off, but she was either too weak or he was far too heavy. She blinked her eyes and looked around: a canvas shell, a tent, darkness, two sets of eyes staring right at her.
   'Get–Get off me!' she managed, unsure if the words even exited her mouth, or if they'd made any sound at all. But they must've done–because whoever was on top of her stopped, withdrew, she could feel his penis slide out of her.
   'What is it?' Another rubber mask-like set of features, long hair hanging over face. 'You were well up for it a minute ago.'
  A minute, she thought to herself, unable to comprehend any construct of time, and what it could possibly represent.
   'Get off,' she repeated, pushing away at his chest, pushing him to the side so she could sit up. Two other men, no more than shadows, owners of those eyes, were sitting opposite, cross-legged, smoking a joint, one cradling what looked like a big plastic bottle of cider in his lap.
   She looked down at herself–she was fully naked, could feel a dull ominous ache between her legs.
   'What's–What's happening?'
   The man beside her wriggled around, pulling his jeans up over his hips.
   'Don't sweat it, baby,' he said, running his fingers up and down her arm with a familiarity that really freaked her out. 'We just had a little Woodstock moment, that's all.'
   'Woodstock?' She reached down by her side, hoping to find a blanket, a sleeping-bag, a slip of clothing, something to cover herself–but found nothing. 'What'd you mean?'
   He giggled, and didn't reply until one of his friends passed him the joint.
   'The sixties, free love,' he said, exhaling a big cloud of pungent-smelling smoke. 'And you, erm (chuckle, cough, splutter) certainly embraced the whole thing…like Janis Joplin…you wore us three out, all right.'
   Her mind, while still fuzzy, started to piece everything together. "Us three"? A cold, horrible, empty feeling of regret and shame fell in on her like a controlled demolition.
   'Come on,' he said, handing her the joint. Absently, automatically, she took it and drew on it deeply. 'What goes on tour and all that…no big deal, it's not like we came inside you or anything. It was a groovy scene, and you're a groovy chick.'
   A groovy chick–this she didn't repeat out loud, it sounded far too ridiculous. All she wanted to do was get out of there as fast as she could.
   'Where are my clothes?'
   One of the other men tossed a bundle across the tent, almost knocking the joint out of her hand.
   She took one more draw on it, and then handed it back to the man closest to her.
   Trying not to appear self-conscious, embarrassed or humiliated, she put on her clothes, first knickers and leggings, then fastened her bra and pulled on her top.
   'You're not going, are you?'
   'Yeah, I've, erm…gotta find my friends now. It's late.'
   'You could always stay here,' he said, shuffling close again, as if he meant to put his arm around her. 'We could always go for a repeat performance. And we've got plenty more weed and booze.'
   A horrible tense moment. All three men, the tent itself, seemed to close in on her, as if they were going to force themselves on her again, make her take off her clothes again, make her stay.
   'Look,' she shouted. 'You bastards took advantage of me while I was off my fucking face. I could probably get you done for rape.'
   'Rape! Whoa! Hang on a minute, darling. You were all over me, begged me for a smoke, said you wanted to come back to the tent. When we dished out a few lines of K, you started taking your clothes off, telling us you wanted to fuck. We only did what you asked us to do.'
   K? Ketamine? Jacqueline didn't know how to respond to that, didn't know if it was true, didn't know how far she'd gone, didn't even know who she was supposed to be anymore: mother, friend, groupie concubine, decent human being. Determined, on all fours, she bundled her way across the tent, pushing past the two other men, knocking them aside, fumbled for the zipper, slid it down, and clambered outside.
   Pitch darkness. Cold, still air. Tomb-like silence. Rows of tents spread out as far as she could see. She had no idea where her friends had pitched up for the night, was over a hundred miles from home, but much, much further away from any true sense of herself than she'd ever been before.

The Girl in the Empty Room is released on 1st of September 2017. Click on the link below to pre-order your copy:


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