Dare to say it out loud

Helga’s Post #50:

A milestone of sorts: 50 posts. Almost the size of a novel (Not quite up to par with Joe’s 53, though)

A few days ago I went to the local library to pick up one of the books from the 5Writers reading list, 1st to Die by James Patterson. There must have been triple the patrons from a month ago, indicating that summer is officially a memory. With days so much shorter now, people are settling down indoors and reach for their favorite books.

September is one of my favorite months. Farmer’s markets are at their best. From the varied shapes and colours of squashes, to crisp Braeburn apples, Concord grapes and the incomparable heirloom tomatoes, all beg to be taken home to my kitchen. And they are. Which means I had to put my writing aside for just a bit to process all that bounty. My food processor and blender work overtime to produce basil pesto, Mexican corn chowder, Butternut squash soup and a few more. After all that is put away in the freezer, it’s time to collect my prize.

My just reward at the end of a productive day is soaking my tired limbs in a deep bubble bath, an interesting book in hand and a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc in easy reach. I can’t think of too many other things that beat that. So I immersed myself in the fragrant bubbles and started reading the aforementioned 1st to Die.

Like most writers, I am reading books as much for entertainment as for analysis. What is it about the characters that I like or dislike, how is the structure working, what about POV? Does my own writing follow a similar pattern?

So I started to compare 1st to Die with all the advice about writing that’s been drilled into me for years at workshops, seminars and from how-to books. And I was more than a little surprised and shocked at how Patterson did something so completely different from what I had been taught. In fact, it nearly spoiled my bubble bath. Here’s what I mean:

Patterson used no less than six different POV’s. The protagonist’s in 1st person POV, the others in 3rd person. The book starts in the POV of the first murder victims, and moves on to that of the main character’s, then to the murderer and on to a reporter and after that to the Medical Examiner, and the second murder victims. And that’s only by page 105.

Hmm. I always thought to use Point of View sparsely, maybe two in a book, no more.

The second thing that struck me was Patterson’s use of an obvious character development trick normally seen in newbie writers: make your readers ‘like’ your protagonist because you feel sorry for her. So what does he do? He gives Lindsay Boxer, the homicide inspector, a rare, life-threatening blood disease (which by the way doesn’t exist). Why does he have to do that? We know she will survive it, because it’s written in ‘her’ POV, therefore, the reader knows she will not die. Plus, this is the first of a series of books featuring Lindsay Boxer, so we KNOW she is not going to die. Cheap trick that fell flat.

There are many more problems with this book. The female characters are not credible; they are clichés and wooden. How original is it that a black woman (the only person of colour) ends sentences with ‘Honey’? Patterson has a complete lack of understanding of how women think and act. He portrays them as smart, but they miss just about every clue. And then there’s the atrocious dialogue. (Like ‘Marshmallow Dialogue’, a James Scott Bell term). That’s not how women speak. If any of our 5Writers group were to submit writing like this to the others for critique, we’d get dinged!

So, where’s the moral of this post? There isn’t one, unless you make one up. I for one will be more careful spending precious hours reading poorly constructed and badly written novels. If any of our 5Writers group or many other unpublished writers would submit this manuscript to an agent or publisher, I am pretty sure it would be rejected. I will go out on a limb for saying this: I am proud of the quality of our group’s writing, which in my opinion is far better than Mr. Patterson’s in 1st to Die. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d hired a ghostwriter, because some of his other books, like the early Alex Cross novels, are far more creative and entertaining than this one. But if your name is as well established as Mr. Patterson’s, most things you write will sell millions upon millions of copies. (As a matter of records, Mr. Patterson has sold more novels than that of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. He is the single most selling author of 63 hardcover titles).

I realize that many readers might love this novel. And that’s great. It would be a boring world if we’d all agree on the quality of a book. One reason I wrote about this novel is to show that even world-famous authors don’t always write great books. And by extension, it demonstrates just how much most of us newbies actually know about the craft of writing, and that we produce some damned good stuff – even when compared to powerhouse authors. The trick is to get that first book published. And the next. And a few after that. Once that’s done, go back and dig out that dusty manuscript from the attic and submit it.

It too will sell millions. Guaranteed.

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A critic’s view

6 thoughts on “Dare to say it out loud

  1. I loved Patterson’s early books and then I got to ‘Beach House’ and was very disappointed. Since then my interest in his books has lessened. His talents combine his imagination and his writing. After reading several of his books I realized the ones that fell short were co-authored with an assortment of other writers. He might have provided the ideas, but the writing was no longer his and it had been his voice that originally caught my attention.

    I suspect he is a victim of his own success in that it has to be nearly impossible to churn out best-selling quality several times a year. I suspect some of his later successes are based more on his reputation than the quality of writing. But that’s just my opinion. 1st to Die isn’t a recent release, though, so maybe I should give it a try.

    • I think you nailed it, Carol, about Patterson’s co-authoring. It’s impossible to write consistently good books at the pace that his novels have been published. Those co-written books lack his trademark ‘voice’ that I liked so much in his earlier work, and I definitely missed it in 1st to Die. It’s sad for his readers that he chose quantity at the expense of quality. Then again, maybe the publishers made the choice for him. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Helga, thanks for daring to say the unsayable. Not all bestselling authors’ works deserve to be admired. Even authors who have proven themselves. Hey, we can’t always do our very best work every time. But my cynical side says, “where was the editor, where was the publisher?” I hate to think that they are willing to churn out “Patterson product” for the sole reason that they know it will sell, regardless of whether it’s up to his standards and could tarnish his reputation (and theirs). I had a similar experience recently with an Evanovich title. Not that I’m a huge fan, but I acknowledge that she has a winning formula. Then I read one of her “between the numbers” books, and it was, sorry to say, just plain awful. Such is the commercial publishing business, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s lost its way. Let’s hope not!

    • ‘It’s not personal. It’s just business’, as Trump would say ad nauseam. But eventually these things have a way of catching up, as they did with ‘the Donald’ (his companies Filed for Bankruptcy 4 Times). Publishers HAVE to add new titles every so often to avoid getting stale. I hope at least, for all of us unpublished – and yes, talented – writers.

  3. That double standard for what already successful writers can do and new writers can’t is irritating. If it’s “bad” writing for me to do it, then it should be “bad” writing for anyone, no matter how many previous books they’ve sold.

    I’d rather a favorite author pen fewer books of higher quality than churn out two or more a year that repeatedly miss the mark. Then again, maybe the lure of more money or the pressure from editors is too much….

    • Such is the publishing industry. While we writers look at at it quite differently, publishers first and foremost look at the bottom line. They have to. Much less risky to publish yet another Patterson title than take a chance with a new author, even if the latter is so much better. But there is hope for new writers too in that publishers have to find some new talent once in a while to renew themselves and stay in business. If they don’t, the competition may snap up your and my manuscripts!

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