I grabbed a mass-market paperback at the airport on my way to New York from Los Angeles. This is where I get most of my fiction -- those cookie-cutter displays in blond wood lined up like piano keys along the concourses, all of them featuring the same 30 or 40 books, plus gum, water, and dramamine tablets.
I can't remember the name of the book. And I can't go look at it, because I left it on the plane. It was -- well, I want to say it was awful, but it wasn't. It could have been interesting. It was a horror novel in the Michael Crichton mold, featuring the discovery of an island overrun with creatures so isolated they'd evolved for a billion years in a different direction from all the critters we're familiar with. An interesting premise.
The author's debut novel also hit all the correct notes in the Crichton formula: throw in real-life examples of weird evolutionary tangents to underline how plausible the premise is, regardless of how improbable. Put human hubris up against the implacability of nature. Pit scientists against their own near-sighted assumptions. Throw in a lot of people getting bitten in half. How can you lose?
The author lost. He spends time introducing characters, some interesting and others not; then he kills the interesting ones. Cut to a fifty-page diversion with entire academic lectures delivered in full. Cut to the lab. Cut to the television producers. Cut back to the island, by which time I've forgotten what's happening. I got through maybe 150 of the 400 pages, skimming through increasingly long passages, and gave up.
Could the book be salvaged? Easily. There was an exciting science-horror thriller in there. But it was 200 pages too long. I think -- and this is guessing, but it's an educated guess -- the author insisted he needed all those long scientific passages that take place in Massachusetts. He had to have all the subplots and long, detailed descriptions of every single critter on the island, including vivisections. He was world-building, which can be interesting (see Isaac Asimov's Foundation series or Tolkein or the Harry Potter books) as long as the narrative is front and center.
In this book the narrative cut in and out like a longwave radio transmission from Mali.
Which leads me to my brief but strenuous point: you can write all you want. Write six thousand pages. But writing is about editing. Once you've written your masterpiece, cut as much of it out as you can possibly stand. Cut some more. Then cut. I did that with Rise Again, cutting until all the good parts had been removed. And you know what was left after all that cutting? The story.
The book I couldn't finish was one the author didn't finish, either. It was a good book with another, not-so-good book overlaid on it. It just needed to be edited down, and instead it was published as-is.
People may put my book down because it's violent, grim, disgusting, ruthless, cruel, ugly, and depressing. But they won't put it down because I failed to cut it as short as possible.
Then again, I'd give the toes of my left foot to show up in those airport book displays.
3 weeks ago