I have a theory about best-selling authors. Once they have finally made their breakthroughs, they tend to get lazy.
I have noticed that subsequent novels often become longer – just eyeball your collection of Harry Potters on the bookshelf and observe the chronological increase in spine widths, like a literary Fibonacci sequence. They also tend to contain a fair number of editorial no-no’s (such as clichés) that are the bread and butter of every ‘How to write’ self-help book their authors used to swear by (see what I did there?). In fact, the same sort of lapses that would have landed their manuscripts on the slush pile had they not already made a name for themselves.
Case in point. I’m right in the middle of A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, author of the New York Times best-seller City of Light. Published in 2010, her follow-up, A Fierce Radiance, is a great example of the continuing rise of the lab lit genre. Unfolding as the United States is drawn into the Second World War, the story follows the development of penicillin from promising but frustrating mouldy precursor to the mass-marketed miracle cure it eventually became. It is also a romance, a spy story and a murder mystery.
And the novel is definitely bona fide lab lit, with labs, colorful fungi growing in jam jars, experiments and quirky, non-stereotyped scientists in their white coats (including one who’s wearing a cocktail gown underneath because she’s come back to her bench after midnight straight from a party – sound familiar, anyone?) And as the scientists are observed mostly from the perspective of a photographer from Life magazine, called in to document the developments, it offers an interesting and creative insight into how science looks to a complete outsider.
There is a but, of course. I’m halfway through and mourning how the intriguing plot, well-crafted prose, beautiful descriptions and light, skillful touch are so frequently marred by schoolgirl errors. Lips are pursed. People are ‘clocked’, several times in as many chapters. Scenes begin with too many greetings, introductions and how-are-you’s, chatter that’s normally trimmed off as unnecessary padding. I can live with that. But what is starting to jar me right out of my suspended disbelief is the growing evidence that author hasn’t the slightest faith in her readers’ powers of comprehension.
Show not tell is a fundamental concept that every beginning writer is taught. Do not tell the reader something – show them. Even worse is to show and tell – having patronized the reader, the author then hammers them over the head with the obvious. Here’s a (made-up) example:
“I hate you!” Henry yelled, banging his fist angrily against the wall.
In this sentence, someone is yelling, and banging his fist: the anger is clearly shown. In fact, it didn’t even need to be shown three times (exclamation mark; yelling; the fist-banging). I would use only one of the elements.
So here’s how Belfer ruins an otherwise perfect scene, which the reader can clearly see and hear, a scene that would have brought the words to life were it not for the subsequent howlers. The photographer, Claire, is ringing the busy Life magazine office to check something alarming out.
She called collect. Frieda accepted the charges.
“Hi, Claire, everything okay? Sure you can borrow it, just bring it back. No, he needs it now.” From the clipped tone of her voice, from her simultaneous conversations, Claire knew Frieda was distracted, others standing at her desk. Frieda saw nothing amiss in Claire’s call, a photographer checking in, standard procedure.
This is reader-bludgeoning, plain and simple. The dialogue itself is perfect – we’ve all experienced phrases like that at the other end of the line, and it’s difficult to write dialogue that sounds this natural. But there my praise ends. Frieda is obviously distracted, obviously addressing the last two phrases to a person or persons nearby. What’s more, it’s clear from the very fact that she’s doing her job normally that she is not suspicious of the motivations behind Claire’s call. To tell us all this is not only unnecessary, but painful. Especially as the violations accumulate, chapter after chapter, until you want to throw the book across the room.
I’m going to finish the novel, because I’m interested in the plot and I do so love seeing science take center stage in fiction. Still, it’s a shame that the book wasn’t taken in hand by a decent editor before it was let loose into the world.
And speaking of which, it’s too soon to go public with the details, but it looks as if I may very well have secured a London agent for my third novel – provided I commit to some strenuous editing, and the result hangs together. After a productive meeting in a Hampstead tea room last night, I have agreed to take on the challenge of condensing the manuscript by almost forty percent. It’s a daunting proposition, but strangely, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
Aside from show not tell, there is nothing truer in fiction than less is more.