James Patterson is an Evil Genius

FACT: For every 17 hardcovers sold in the US, one of them is a James Patterson novel.
FACT: James Patterson has published an average of 4.5 novels per year since 1995.
FACT: He is the second best-paid author in the world.

But have you read any of his books? The prose is awful. The villains cartoonish. If an unknown author tried to break into publishing with stories like these, they'd be kicked out on the street.

Or would they? It's true that a lot of the reason Patterson novels sell is because they're, well, Patterson novels. But a brand like that -- even a very big one -- can only carry a crappy product so far. I submit that if James Patterson wasn't doing something right, people would stop buying his books. As Nathan Bransford once said, "Every popular book is popular for a reason."

And I think I understand now. The last book of his I read suffered from everything above: lame villains, deus-ex-machina climaxes, prose that looked like he just wrote what he thought as he thought it. Bugged the heck out of me, and yet I read the whole thing. Why?

I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't understand all of how he did this, but here are some things I noticed that worked:
  • Short Chapters. Very short, like 2-3 pages. What this does is it makes the reader less afraid to read just one more (I can always put it down after the next one, after all). It's a cheap trick, but it works.
  • Effective Chapters. The chapters were short, but something happened or was revealed or was cliff-hanged in every single one.
  • Mystery. In spite of myself, I wanted to know who the villain really was and why they did what they did. Patterson sets up the mystery from the start and gives you little crumbs of information all along the way. Just enough to keep you interested.
  • Plot Twists. I haven't read a Patterson novel yet that didn't have some wacky, heart-wrenching plot twist at the end. Imagine if the Scooby-Doo gang solved the mystery and got Old Man Jenkins sent to jail, then Daphne kills Velma and reveals that she's been the mastermind behind everything. That's the kind of twist I'm talking about. And dangit if it doesn't make me want to read the next novel.

It's not cheating. It's the "What happens next?" factor. It's what makes the reader turn the page, perhaps even against their better judgment. I don't care if you write fantasy or romance or literary or academic textbooks -- you can learn from this. (Although textbooks may have a problem with the plot twists).

12 comments:

Matthew Rush said...

I completely agree. I've read one of his Alex Cross novels, and it was ...

I think this comes down to storytelling versus writing. Sometimes a great story is all it takes.

Dave said...

It's just like the harry potter novels.

Adam Heine said...

@Matthew: James Patterson said something like that himself: "I am not a great prose stylist. I'm a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do."

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I haven't read any Patterson (I suppose I should remedy that), but what you describe sounds like the appeal that YA has for many adult readers - zippy plots, short(er) chapters. I can see the appeal in an era where leisurely reading is isn't considered cool.

I also agree with the idea that storytelling is virtually everything these days. I'm still deciding whether this is a good thing or not.

Adam Heine said...

The YA I've read is better than the Patterson I've read. Just saying ;-)

fairyhedgehog said...

You make good points. Sadly, I'm better at writing than I am at storytelling but I suppose I can learn. Perhaps.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Did you know he doesn't actually write his own novels anymore? He comes up with the idea and ghostwriters do the writing. That's how he's able to put out so many per year ... Hmmm, so how can we learn from that one? :)

Amy

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, Amy, I've heard that. He makes a ton of money by doing as little work as possible. I consider it part of his evil genius, but I figured it didn't apply to us unpubbeds ;-)

jjdebenedictis said...

In a lot of blockbuster books, I've noted the writing style is often very clean and simple--unpoetic and unadorned. Stephen King's style is like that; so is Suzannah Collins'. The Da Vinci Code is that way. Twilight is too (except when Edward is being described; then it gets vividly purple.)

It sounds like Mr. Patterson's (ghostwriter's) writing is very basic also.

That deceptive simplicity drives me a little buggy because it makes it all look so easy.

The truth is, what these authors are doing isn't easy. The language is just a vehicle for the book's true strength--its storytelling--and the writing itself is as invisible as possible to not distract from that strength.

Adam Heine said...

That's true, JJ. And I don't mind clean and simple (I write it myself). What bugs me prose-wise is the massive telling instead of showing and the As You Know Bob dialog. Patterson's novels aren't the worst I've seen, but they're lower than the average.

crazymixedupgirl said...

Can you just imagine a textbook with a plot twist? Science --> science fiction! WAY COOLER.

Emmet said...

what a difference a 'T' makes
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hamilton-Paterson