Writer’s Desk: Don’t Embellish

It’s easy to write more than you need to. As we come up with stories, our minds quickly fill up with material (setting, mood, backstory, interesting tangents) and it is hard not to want to put it all down on the page.

You know who does not do that? James Patterson. He’s an expert plotter and an impeccable marketer (started out in advertising, you know) who knows how not to waste reader’s time.

Plenty of us can write short. But it’s not that simple. In his new memoir, Patterson provides a simple trick:

Patterson’s breakout thriller, “Along Came a Spider” (1993), began as a full-length outline of the plot, and then essentially stayed that way. “When I went back to start the novel itself,” Patterson recounts, “I realized that I had already written it.” The short chapters and one-sentence paragraphs that became his signature style, and that are often the object of critics’ scorn, struck him as the ideal way to keep the novel “bright and hot from beginning to end”…

If the outline is your story, why embellish? Maybe readers will really want to know what color the drapes were.

But it’s not likely.

Writer’s Corner: The Patterson Factory

James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.

thomasberryman-coverAll that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:

His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…

Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.

Readers’ Corner: Summer Books

Summer reading: Did you forget your Michael Crichton?
Summer reading: Did you forget your Michael Crichton?

What is it about summer that turns everyone’s expectations of art to slush? Think of it: “summer movie” implies something gargantuan in scope and pea-sized in intellect. Adam Sandler saves Earth from aliens by making stupid faces, say. The end of the school year comes with breathless anticipation of the first summer movie ruining the sub-woofers at your multiplex.

puck-bookwormIt’s the same thing with books. The lists of great summer or “beach” reads is an annual tradition for most of those publications that still bother covering books at all. It’s the usual fluff. A mystery about a woman who goes missing. A woman finds love in Tuscany. Another serial killer from James Patterson.

Speaking of summer reading, the Times asked a number of known novelists to opine on their planned books for the beach. Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) wins hands-down for honesty:

Whenever summer rolls around I begin to realize that I’m a complete and utter book snob. In relation to reading, I have absolutely no guilty pleasures at all. No graphic novels. No murder mysteries. No “milky-white thigh” stories. No fifty shades of anything.

ulyssesWhile you might take issue with him throwing all graphic novels in with “guilty pleasures,” how many of us would admit to the same thing? The society as a whole  is so anti-literate these days that those readers who just don’t see the point in reading junk are seen as being somehow out of touch. McCann again:

So, my guilty pleasures are my original pleasures. I read “Ulysses,” or at least a part of it, every summer for Bloomsday. It’s hardly a beach read, and I understand that Molly Bloom might not be very content with me, as a reader, carting sand into her bed, but that’s life. The great thing is that she has no say about it. Sorry, Molly, but you are in with the suntan lotion.

This summer I’m reading “Lolita” again. The book seems constantly split open with sunlight. I find it one of the funniest and most poignant books I have ever read. I suppose there’s a certain amount of guilty pleasure in the novel, especially if, like me, you’re even older than Humbert Humbert. Unveiling the book at your neighbor’s barbecue might raise a few eyebrows, but again that’s life, or rather literature.

lolita1(As an aside, not enough people realize that Lolita is a comedy. Tragic, to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless.)

There’s no reason to avoid trash entirely; every now and again you need a book that you can zip right through in two or three hours and toss aside; like a movie. But the implication that you must read something inane just because you’re at the beach or the weather is hot, feels like a strange and onerous cultural imposition.

None of that.