POETRY FILM: APOPTOSIS, or CELL SUICIDE

Sometimes we have to lose bits of us. It’s called Apoptosis: some of our cells have to self-destruct, instead of living on and multiplying by splitting in two. They do this for our benefit. My animated text poem in the video above undergoes apoptosis to tell that story. An example; the foetal hand is a paddle – many of the cells between the finger bones kill themselves, to free our fingers to gesture, point and grasp things. Things like books.

'I don't think I lost enough cells to grasp this book.' 

Writing, in any genre, is as much about taking words out as putting words in. Poetry is about losing as many words as possible without losing any meaning, so that the remaining words also contain homeopathic amounts of the ones that went, concentrated and rich like a reduced sauce. Plays and novels, especially those which require lots of research, grow bloated with fascinating facts until the features that should be seen are distorted and masked by them. These too have to be removed, painfully, like hard-earned scar tissue, though the fact they’ve been there will somehow mysteriously enrich the surviving dialogue.
'OK, this is editing, hard core! Words, prepare to DIE!'

Stories need telling, and they each come with their own length implicit within them. Long stories, short stories, lean whippets, shaggy dogs. Cut, cut, cut like a sculptor to free your story from the block of superfluous words. Then however, judging by some of the books being pushed by big publishing houses these days, you take your beautifully honed novel to your editor, who says, oh, but  it’s got to be X thousand words because well it just has. Get thee to thy study and force a few thousand more words in there until it plumps up! And so the writer, scared stiff of being dropped, sits at their desk and thinks. Well we can spend a long paragraph on every cigarette, every cup of coffee, every single action of the protagonist’s day. We can give them a habit, and instead of establishing that then subtly reminding the reader, we can detail every time they place a bet/buy a pair of shoes/ play bingo/down a whisky. We can describe every meal and what each food item reminds them of. Oh, and shopping for the food! Nobody will notice, in fact they get more book for their dosh. Win win.
'My protagonist gave up smoking, and half my book disappeared!'

Some writers are so attached to their darlings, every one of them, they submit a swollen book in the first place. Some really enjoy actually putting words on paper/screen, so the more the merrier. Perhaps there’s a brilliant plot, interesting characters, snappy dialogue in there somewhere but it would have to spend a few months in book bootcamp to make them visible.
'Drop and give me 50 pages, you horrible little book!'
My local book group, and friends on facebook, lately have been noticing more books with padding in them. It’s as much shop best-sellers as self-pubbers. People buy a book because it’s hyped, and then they complain about how much tosh they had to wade through, but they did buy it, so the sales go up. Some books are rightly big, heavy hitters, majestic mountains of words, every single one of which is needed, and not one can be lost without damaging the whole. It might take a couple of hundred thousand words to tell one story. It might take twenty thousand or less to tell another story. Why can’t books be the size they ought to be?
Agatha Christie, Queen of Fun-Size Crime
I’ve been re-reading Agatha Christie lately for the first time in decades. Spare, brilliantly plotted, and witty. Mysterious Affair at Styles, 116pp. Roger Ackroyd, 260pp. Orient Express, 349pp. She didn’t try to make them long, or all the same size, and they were as short as they could be and still tell the story. Robert B Parker’s Spenser novels were usually slim: The Judas Goat, 188pp. Raymond Chandler said it all tersely too. Now we have the rise of the Novella, to fill the market gap created by the death of the short novel. In the same way that Mars Bars got bigger and bigger, and then they invented 'Fun Size'.  Books of any size can be fun size, if they just say no thank you to padding.

Visit my website or follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws.

Some of my thirteen books are now on Kindle UK US, iBooks UK USKoboNook and more, on all platforms worldwide.

And speaking of Fun Size, our Authors Electric Short Story Anthology A FLASH IN THE PEN is imminent: virtual launch party on facebook on 21st June!


JO said…
I agree - there are some books that need the last 100 pages taken off (The Goldfinch comes to mind) and others that could have gone on and on and on and I'd never have tired of them (A Suitable Boy - which is huge, and I still didn't want it to end).

But sometimes it's so hard, with your own stuff, to see spot the difference between darlings and dross!
Susan Price said…
'Poetry is about losing as many words as possible without losing any meaning,' Oh, exactly! I'll remember that for my workshops.
Bill Kirton said…
I love the idea of linguistic homeopathy so I'll probably steal it. A good, sharp post, Valerie. Thanks.
Unknown said…
An advantage of pod books is they can be any length you like. Nobody tells you that you must write 80 to 120 thousand words, so you don't have to pad!
Mari Biella said…
Great post, Valerie. I've always thought that a well-written book ought to be exactly the length it ought to be - and that could be a very slight novella or a doorstop or anything in between. And you're right - very often, the words that have been there do enrich the remaining narrative, by some strange process which is perhaps akin to homeopathy.
I agree - and I also agree about the finished book having something of the words that have been there even when they're gone. I always tell people that they need to know all kinds of things about their main characters - but those things don't always need to be in the book - somehow the reader (or audience if it's a play) seems to get some sense of them without the need to cram in all the details, every single bit of backstory. Excellent post. Things should be the length they need and want to be.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Brilliantly said. There are so many books out there where you know padding has gone into them to make them a certain size. This may be because a certain word count has become the norm in publishing.
Umberto Tosi said…
You didn't waste a word in this blog either - bringing each point home with the swift grace of sparrows. I enjoy the way you connect dots and cells in fluid organismic context, and your animated poem mixes media with equal agility - truly original. I'll be thinking about all this for quite a while now, visualizing what's going on under my skin and in my head. Thanks.
glitter noir said…
Thanks, Val. I connected to this blog as I'm lopping off the lard from Mastery for its 25th anny edition. 6000 words lighter. Nothing that matters is missing, leaving what's left to matter in a tighter, more elegant way. Fingers crossed.
Dennis Hamley said…
I'm sorry to come to this so late. Val, what an important post which says everything so perfectly which I've always known but ne'er so well expressed. I'm glad sometimes that I was cast off by mainstream publishers when I was because I was never asked to add, always to cut, cut, cut, which never bothered me because I was doing it already. The decline of commercial publishing standards is exactly exemplified by this. I agree with Sue. That marvellous statement about words and meanings will be taken over by me at once.
julia jones said…
And it's a YES from me too - did I sound like Simon Cowell on Britain's Got Talent? Well I tried ...

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