Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Abandon Ship! Or why your readers might bail on you.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 15•16

shipwreckTo name names or not to name names, that is the question?  What the heck, the book is called Eeny Meeny by M.J. Aldridge. So far so clever, right?

I recently abandoned  this thriller about two-thirds of the way through. I know. It’s a weird place to stop reading. It felt spiteful, but was borne of frustration. A few nights later I skimmed the final chapters because I was still annoyed, but needed to find out if he’d pulled off the ending.   I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but sometimes they’re just the chocolate chip cookie you need to balance out life’s broccoli. Or something like that because actually I love broccoli.

Arlidge is a former television writer and the book has glowing, and I mean glowing, reviews. It’s called an international bestseller that “grabs the reader by the throat.”  It’s written in short chapters –117 of them—ala James Patterson.  The story also introduces a new series character Helen Grace and it fills in a major chunk of her backstory.

It also has a fabulous, gruesome premise, but is burdened by a number of problems that ultimately sink it and make it mediocre. These include: police procedural details that are maddeningly incongruous; lack of depth in the protagonist (although this was partly intentional) and clunky explanations about how the characters are feeling and thinking. A brief and incongruous affair begins and ends, but is never adequately fleshed out. A major character dies, but he’s also paper thin and readers don’t come to know him adequately or feel much when he’s gone.

Back to that premise: It begins when young lovers return to consciousness after being drugged.  The first lines are: Sam is asleep. I could kill him now. His face is turned from me—it wouldn’t be hard. Would he stir if I moved? Try to stop me? Or would he just be glad that this nightmare was over?

Turns out they’ve been dumped in a weird, cavernous,gun with blood empty space lined in cold tiles. Apparently the van driver who picked them up while they were hitchhiking had dumped them there. No matter how they scream or struggle there is no escape, no one hears them. And here’s the kicker: they’ve been left with a pistol with a single bullet in it. They were also left with a cell phone that has a single message on it: Once one of them is dead the other victim will be freed. And they have no food or water.

Told you it was a great premise. The chapters where the victims are held captive are the best in the novel.   I won’t mention who the villain is—readers are given teasing snippets of her backstory throughout the book. She’s finally on stage in the final chapter, but to my mind, not enough and the showdown is melodramatic.

As I already mentioned, there are some plot details that defy credulity. One that had me scratching my head was how you could drug your victims with champagne. I mean it’s corked. And the taste of drugs would be easily discernible.  And since this is a procedural all aspects of an investigation (especially when a serial killer is involved) need to be accurate and plausible. They are not. Especially troubling were Grace’s interactions with her co-workers. The medical details about extreme hunger and thirst need bolstering.  The victims’ dehydration symptoms are sketchy at best.

Then there’s the small stuff. The author describes Helen Grace as a copper and that term is used exclusively and often to describe police. She’s  drives a Kawasaki, but the verb most often used is oddly, bicycling or biking.  And no, she’s not a traffic cop, she’s a detective. And no, she doesn’t wear leathers.  And though it rains as it should in the south coast of England, she doesn’t get wet and the roads aren’t slippery. The story takes place in Southampton which never quite comes to life, but has a lot of vacant places where a serial killer can imprison victims. 

There is far too much telling of emotions as in: Helen paced outside, angry and frustrated.

Because of the quick pace a lot of actions are summarized and evntually the reader longs for a fresher approach and more physical details of the characters. At Sandy’s house, the water cascaded over Hannah, reviving her instantly. The experience should have been soothing, but Hannah was too wired for that. She was full of questions, but her overriding emotion was one of girlish excitement. She had hit the jackpot. She and Sandy had pulled it off.  

Oddly, besides improbable plotting,  it was probably the clichés and trite expressions  scattered throughout the story that annoyed and distracted me the most. To name a few starting on the first page: I rack my brains; she was too far gone for that;  a flash of anger;  And there it was in a nutshell.His ex-wife swept off her feet by another man—with Mark left out in the cold. Charlie seemed like a nice person and had handled her with kid gloves.  At first Peter Brightston had avoided his victim like the plague—Charlie felt her pulse quicken. This was personal. A grandfather who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Cool as a cucumber. Screaming all the time at the top of her lungs.

And sudden and suddenly are used a lot because coppers are suddenly bursting into rooms or screeching off on a chase.

Language is the small stuff according to many. But if I’m turned off as a reader, others will be too.

Bloody HandprintHere’s my point in criticizing this author (and his editor): The mistakes that ended up in this published novel are the same sort that I see in my clients’ manuscripts. But we fix them. Alridge and his editor didn’t correct these blunders. I find this baffling. I often spend hours researching as I edit manuscripts, especially when accuracy is essential such as in thrillers, crime novels, procedurals.

And if you take more care than Arlidge, then  his success should fill you with hope.

Finally, this author has lots of promise. If he can work with a persnickety editor, emulate Patterson less, and craft better sentences his career could be stellar.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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