Book Review: Motorbikes and Murder by A.C. Christensen
The plot centers around a female ex-Marine named Mackenzie Merrywood who is riding her motorcycle around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, bound for California. She meets up with a group of female bikers and though she is seeking the isolation and solitude of riding the open road by herself, joins up with this ‘gang’ after a run in with a trucker. Mackenzie stays with this group as they ride along the Pacific Coast and follow the Columbia River, heading towards Sturgis, South Dakota for the big rally. Along the way, the group runs into more than a few problems, including a serial killer with a penchant for cutting the hair off his female victims.
This is a self-published book, and, unfortunately, it really shows. As I said in a previous book review of a self-published book, just because you self-publish doesn’t mean you can take shortcuts in the process. Just because you can hit that publish button and make your work available to the public, does not mean you should.
I’m pretty understanding of books that have subtle plot problems, or books where I’m just not the target audience. Those types of books I can read, and say “It wasn’t for me, but I would recommend it to people who like X”, or perhaps draw a small lesson for my own writing out of it, while at the same time praising the writer for the their style or their prose.
But I have a really hard time being gentle with books that I paid for that weren’t even proofread. I’m not talking about developmental editing (plot) here, or even line editing (editing to make the prose more efficient). I’m talking about spelling mistakes, capitalization errors and basic grammar errors. I’m talking about knowing the difference between “their, there and they’re” and “its and it’s” and “too and to” and “conscious and conscience”, and doing the little formatting things like properly denoting thoughts with italics. There’s a grammar error in the first line of Chapter One. There are three proper name errors in the first paragraph of Chapter Two. There are spelling errors in the titles of some of the chapters.
These are all things that should have been caught with a simple re-read by the author. Yes, it is hard to catch some of these things, but hard is no excuse. There’s no excuse for an author not to know some of these basic rules of the English language. Buy Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and read it. Really. Actually read it. Don’t just have it on your shelf, collecting dust. Open it to a random page every day and read the page until the contents are all second-nature.
Copy edit issues aside, how was the rest of the book? Well, since there was no copy-edit done, it’s pretty safe to say that there wasn’t a lot of time spent on the line-edit. The dialogue did have something I’ve never seen done before. It lacked contractions. “I am” instead of “I’m”. “You will” instead of “You’ll”. Yes, the meaning of the line is the same, but we’re talking about motorcycle-riding bad-asses here, not 18th Century English school teachers. Authors, speak your dialog aloud. If you are tripping over it, it’s time to edit.
Also, when the characters were swearing, the text censored the words “sh**” instead of “shit” and “f**k” instead of “fuck”. Really? We’re talking about serial killers and rapists who get their dicks cut off, and you’re worried about the letters “it” and “uc”? No. Don’t do that. If you want to have your characters swear, let them swear. If you want to keep it clean, don’t let them swear. Say they cussed, or raged, or something. Don’t censor. It makes the writing look timid and makes the author look frightened of words.
A small point on character naming, but one authors shouldn’t forget. Name the characters with appropriate names that give the reader an impression of the character. There were a few characters I just didn’t get a good feel for because the names were generic. And be aware of over-using certain sounds or letters. I counted at least four characters with names that started with M, and three of those also had last names that started with M. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Make use of them all.
As for the plot itself, if you are going to write a murder mystery involving the police and FBI (don’t call it the F.B.I. bureau for god’s sake), keep the actions of the agents and officers involved real. Learn their language and follow protocol. Make friends with a retired cop and have them give you feedback. Read Just The Facts, Ma’am by Greg Fallis. An FBI agent will not search a suspect’s motorcycle without cause or a warrant and pocket evidence for use later. The agent will not let crimes slide just because they are on vacation.
Spoiler Alert: The end of the book involves a chase that goes from Sturgis, SD to Sedona, AZ, through Denver, CO and Gallup, NM, where the hero chases the villain through the night on her motorcycle after having been awake for something like eighteen hours before starting the chase. Mackenzie rides from Sturgis to Gallup without an extended stop. That’s over 970 miles of highway and mountain road. 16 hours of riding. My father-in-law figured that one out. I used to live in the Denver area, and I once drove from Moab, UT to Denver (a much shorter trip) after a three day mountain biking trip on the White Rim Trail. I was driving a car, and had 3 hours sleep before I started, and I still needed to stop in Vail for 2 hours of sleep just so I could see the road clearly. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a motorcycle, but 16 hours (at best) sounds utterly implausible. What’s worse is that the trip wasn’t necessary in the first place. A much shorter trip could have had the same effect, removed the implausibility and ratcheted up the tension.
I was a little frustrated with this book yesterday as I was reading, and I posted a few thoughts on Twitter when I took breaks. I wondered how literary agents could read stuff like this, day-in and day-out. The answer was, they don’t. They stop reading after a page or two or twenty at the most, and throw it away if it is not working. If I had a job in the publishing business, I would have to get used to doing this. It didn’t take me long to read this book (it’s only 244 pages) so, perhaps 4-5 hours of reading. I’ve been trapped in my house for the last few weeks, so 5 hours doesn’t seem like as much time wasted as it would if I had lots of other things to do. But I swear this is the last time. I’ve now pretty much sworn off self-published books unless I really know the author and trust that they did the basics to make the book readable.
Self-publishing, as someone said at the PNWA conference, has taken the slush pile and moved it from the agents’ desk and put it in the public’s lap. Half-hearted efforts like this really don’t do anything to change that impression. This book received a number of 5 star reviews on Amazon.com. I can’t believe those reviews are honest and not planted. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen, and as a consumer who buys books based on recommendations and an author who hopes to someday have some recommendations, this behavior is really bothersome and should not be encouraged.
If you want to self-publish a book for your family and friends to read… some kind of family history or personal story, with no intention of commercial sales, self-pub is a great way to go. But if you really want to write for public consumption, please refrain from hitting that publish button until you’ve had a professional editor review your work, and you’ve fixed everything they’ve told you about, even if the thought of doing another edit depresses the crap out of you. A corollary to that rule: If you’ve never gotten depressed from editing feedback on your manuscript, you’re aren’t getting it reviewed by the right people.