It was Spring. The Plotts were up with the sun and about their morning routines. Philomena was writing, Ulysses was out on Morning Inspection. Standing inside the lean-to, he looked down at his seed trays with a mixture of fond pride and wincing guilt.
‘Ulysses Pleasant Meriwether Plott,’ he said to himself, ‘You’ve been and gone and done it again.’
The lean-to built against the south side of the house was an ideal place to start things off. A sun trap during the day, when it wasn’t raining, it was warmed a degree or two by the house at night, just enough to keep the frost of.
Two weeks ago he’d sown his seeds and now they were coming up. Dozens of them. Taken all together it was possible there were actually hundreds. He peered at them through a huge old magnifying glass with a broken handle* he kept on a hook by the door. The seedlings were all so green, so tiny, and so enthusiastic. Ulysses loved the spring. Winter rolled away, the sun shone, the air warmed, and things grew.
Oh how they grew.
Serried ranks of seed trays and little pots sat on the lean-to’s shelving in neat order: aubergine, basil, broccoli, cucumber, dahlia (mixed), cabbage, leeks, marigold, melon (2 sorts), sprouts, sunflower, and more.
Ulysses sucked his moustaches, he chewed his lip, he knew what he was going to have to do and he didn’t want to do it.
So he had a cup of tea instead.
Philomena was already in the kitchen, bustling around as she whisked up some cheesy egg puffs. Three to a pan, three pans on the hob, she turned out near-endless piles of small, light pancakes nine at a time.
‘Morning, Lissy,’ she beamed.
‘Morning dear. How’s it going?’
‘Oh, I’ve been having a wonderful time,’ Philomena enthused. ‘I’ve been cutting.’
‘That’s something I need to do, but it’s difficult.’
Ulysses put the kettle and laid the table. As the kettle boiled he took down the pot and chose a tea. His mind still on his problem, he visualised endless rows of seedling enlarged through the magnifying glass. Unbidden, his hand strayed to the Nepalese ‘Autumn Flush’ and he filled the pot.
Everything was ready, they sat at the table.
‘I suppose it’s easier with words,’ Philomena said. ‘These secondary characters of mine proliferate like weeds. Then I have to go and root them out.’
‘My usual trick is to invent a new one for every little event,’ Ulysses said.
‘And when you look back you find you can combine them all into one, and get a more interesting character into the bargain.’
‘Or you can just kill them off.’
‘Well, you could,’ Philomena agreed doubtfully. ‘It’s not really a workable strategy if you’re writing light-hearted romance.’
Ulysses conceded the point. Sometimes it was hard to justify throwing away something that was perfectly good.
‘I know, it is difficult when you have a favourite,’ Philomena said, ‘It’s the same with those bits of dialogue, the scenes that you really like but don’t have anything to do with the story.’
It was uncanny, almost as if she could read his mind.
‘But I do so enjoy doing it, cut it all out, conflate those characters, trim it all down. All those unnecessary words, I love finding them, even the bits I really, really like. You can see the shape, what you were really writing about.’
It was a good feeling, Ulysses remembered it well. ‘I keep all the bits I chop out in a separate file.’
‘You need them, you need to write them, so you can get rid of them.’ Philomena sipped her tea, ‘Darjeeling?’
Philomena guffawed in a most unladylike manner, ‘Isn’t that where you and that brigand woman…?’
‘Yes indeed,’ Ulysses said rather proudly. The Plotts had few secrets.
Philly placed both hands on the table. ‘Right, time to get back to work.’
Ulysses did the washing up and thought about what Philly had said. She was so right, having too much, too many scenes, or characters, or sheer numbers of words, was exactly what you wanted. Far better to be in that situation than come to the end and realise you’d got to find 30,000 words from somewhere.
It was a bit like having a big vegetable patch and not enough to go in it. All that bare earth, wasteful and boring to look at. Novels were novel-length, and a vegetable garden was just that, not a window box. You had to have enough, and the way to do that was to not worry about having too much.
Thinning out was just another way of making sure you kept the best bits.
Ulysses Plott hung up the tea towel. He squared his shoulders, parade ground style, and walked briskly back to the lean-to. It was time to get back to work.
It was time to kill a few darlings.
~~~* 6” across, set in an antique brass surround, the black ebony handle had been ritually broken by a bandit queen, the Laughing Orchid of Janakpur, after a night of, well, quite extraordinary examinations.