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).