There are two reviews one can write for Smitherd’s break-out 2012 novel The Stone Man. The first disregards the typos, missing words and other stylistic howlers…
And the other, does not.
I’ll therefore leave the latter for later, so you can stop reading if you think it unfair to criticise the editing of a self-published author. I’m still undecided as to whether it’s acceptable – at the fourth published version, no less – to still contain mistakes of this quantity.
But let’s say polish and quality don’t matter. Let’s say a story should be measured only on its characters, its immersive writing, its pacing and its emotional impact. How well does it do on the story-telling front?
(Note: contains some spoilers.)
A rock and a hard race
The Stone Man recounts, through transcribed audio recordings, two men’s encounters with a mysterious, unstoppable alien automaton: a giant man-shaped monster made of stone that ploughs directly towards its target, destroying everything in its unalterable path as it hunts its human prey, apparently randomly selected for harvesting.
Through quirks of the brain, the protagonist Andy, a journalist with Asperger’s, and his companion Paul, who has recovered from brain damage after a car accident, discover they can intercept signals emitted from the invaders, allowing them to ascertain their targets and see through their eyes. This information becomes invaluable to the military and thrusts the pair into the media limelight.
It’s a good premise – an indomitable, unthinking monster hunts its prey as mankind desperately seeks ways to halt the destruction – but there’s a huge amount of filler that does nothing for the story. With a healthy edit, it would have made a killer short story, but as it is, we’re treated to a chapter of media training, another in bullet points of uninteresting chronological tedium (bullet points!) and paragraph upon paragraph of immaterial and mundane detail.
For example: the protagonist at one point spends three pages explaining how he gets hold of a motorbike, complete with his bike-owning history, his licences held, how he contacts a bike owners’ Facebook forum that he’s a member of, descriptions of his friend Dan’s three bikes, and how Dan rides one of them to Andy, with his wife following in the family Hyundai. The parenthesis in this extract is astonishing in its utterly uninteresting inclusion:
“Forty-five minutes later (more than enough time to sort out temporary insurance online via my phone) Dan rode up to the McDonald’s car park on the bike…”
Who cares where he got insurance, or how, or even that he got it or not?! It has ZERO IMPORTANCE. Just steal a bike, for God’s sake, or have your character still own one, or anything.
Not only is it a dull way for the character to acquire a bike, it’s also rather out of character. Andy has Asperger’s and (in his own words) “generally avoid[s] conversation with strangers full stop”, and his “circle of friends has always been small and selective” – yet here we find he has reached out to Facebook for friends interested in bikes… actively seeking out conversation with strangers and pushing his circle of friends out to the internet.
Similarly, the chapters between Stone Man visitations – whether that be military debriefs or Andy’s media career in bullet points – is inconsequential and begging to be cut. I mean – bullet points! If it’s not interesting enough to put into a scene, why am I reading it?
In the flesh
So, the pacing is flawed, fluffed up to reach the size of a novel; but are the characters fleshed out and relatable?
Well, yes and no. Andy’s agency is strong – he wants to break the big story – but his Asperger’s is inconsistent and more a plot device than a characterisation.
Meanwhile, Paul is fairly consistent, though his northern accent – initially so accentuated in word-choice and syntax – soon fades. He’s also a bit stereotypically “ruddy northern”, but it’s not distracting. There’s not a lot to get excited about though.
Then there’s Brigadier Straub, the military envoy in charge of nullifying the alien threat. By Smitherd’s own admission, Straub is only female because his beta readers felt the story lacked female characters, so, while she is well drawn and consistent, the number of times we’re reminded of her stern professionalism smacks of overkill. It feels Smitherd is trying to convince himself such a woman might exist, rather than simply introducing her and letting her actions denote her personality (a bit of telling rather than showing).
Indeed, he says in his acknowledgements he Googled “highest ranking female officer in the British army” and found a Brigadier, but why not promote your fictional character – she’s not real; this is fiction, after all. I mean, Britain did in real life: the promotion of Susan Ridge to Major General in 2015 trumps his Brigadier (yes, I can Google too). And wouldn’t the highest possible rank be employed to counter an extra-terrestrial threat?
Bump the woman up, man! It won’t harm the believability of your alien invasion book to have a woman hold a position beyond precedent. 24 had a female president, and no one was saying “I don’t like this story; it’s portrayal of women in roles of power is unrealistic and an affront to my gender bias”.
Unfortunately, the excessive detail and extended periods of trite dialogue detract from the book’s emotional impact. The novel’s resolution is so uncompromisingly boring, simply because it takes 300 pages to reach. And yet, it has the hallmarks of being genuinely haunting, were it punched out in 20,000 words.
Not to mention the demise of the main character, which occurs “off camera” and with little to no affect on the story, other than to leave the slog to the finish line with the markedly more drab sidekick Paul.
The Stone Man isn’t awful – indeed, largely favourable reviews insist otherwise. The story is decent, if at times absurd (eg: catatonic victims recite DNA sequences in our Latin alphabet, though the signal comes from outer space, where presumably the alphabet isn’t taught at Stone Man school), but much of my dislike stems from the quality of the final product. It’s not clean enough to send to agents, let alone publishers; yet here it is, in all its mistake-riddled ignominy.
So, in bullet points, here’s the kinds of mistakes and narrative inelegance one is forced to endure:
- Incorrect words / word-order:
- “reached the doorstep, and knocked in the door”
- Although we’d only seen ever him in rant mode”
- Redundant words/poor use of vocabulary:
- “muttered, quietly” (how else might one mutter?)
- “almost immediately” (might “imminently” be better?)
- Mixed metaphors:
- “having my head in the hangman’s noose and thinking that I’d seen someone coming towards me, carrying a pair of scissors” (what will scissors do to a rope?)
- “once that thought had arrived, it grew infected roots” (either go down the infection motif, or down the weed-roots one)
- Failed alliteration
- “my usual routines of films and floating/swimming, feeling more and more restless” (no doubt, Smitherd added in “/swimming” because “floating” is an awkward synonym that nevertheless continues the F alliteration)
- Repeated expressions
- “someone’s face appearing in my mind’s eye”
- “and in my mind’s eye I saw the Stone Man walking on the map”
- Overcomplicated sentences/overuse of gerunds:
- “It occurred to me in that moment that Paul didn’t yet know I was a reporter – not wanting to lie, yet not wanting to make Paul doubt my motives, I’d just said I was a writer when I was giving him my backstory, and he hadn’t pursued it further – and seemed to think I was here purely motivated by the mystery, in a Richard-Dreyfuss-Close-Encounters kind of way.”
- Loooooooooong woooooooooooorddddss
- “LEAVE ME ALOOOOONNNEE!!! YOU SHOULDN’T BEEEEEEEE HEEEEERE!!”
The character that uttered that last one will forever in my head be played by Pierce Brosnan.
So, by all means, disregard this grumpy sub-editor’s review in favour of the droves of Goodreads and Amazon critics who loved it. In fact: buy it, read it, and let me know what you thought, for the simple sake of discussion. I’d love to hear from you.
And Luke? I don’t expect you to take the advice of an unpublished author, considering your success and prolificacy, but if you’re not already doing so, invest in an editor – your ideas are more than worth the outlay.