He’s topped the bestseller list times without number and broken records in the publishing world all over the place. Two of his book series have made it into American films and television; the Alex Cross books featuring Morgan Freeman, and the Women’s Murder Club series. Also one of the Maximum books.
I would like to know how he does it and what I, as a writer, can learn from him.
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On the downside, he doesn’t have anything of consequence to say about the world as do, for instance, Stieg Larrsson, Henning Mankel or Donna Leon – all of whom are better writers in my opinion. Most of his characters are two dimensional, and the violence is often shocking.
But while you are actually reading your heartbeat rises and you become totally absorbed in the story. You don’t even see the holes in the plot until you’ve finished the book.
Is it because he’s published in many different genres? There’s some romance, some non-fiction, three sets of detective fiction, two series for children and a number of stand alones. Most of these books are written in collaboration with other people. Sometimes he’s written the first in a series, and then taken on a collaborator for the remainder. Sometimes he’s kept the character to himself. So he’s got a broad base for his readership.
It seems to me that he excels in the straightforward crime-cum-thriller league. His plots are ingenious, though his writing style doesn’t compare with the old time greats such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; with current American ‘greats’ such as Parker, Kellerman, Evanovich; or with the current crop of British writers who also delve into the dark side, such as P.D.James, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, and Val McDermid – or even with Dick Francis, whose characterisation is such a joy. The style of these latter named writers is so distinctive that you can stop reading to appreciate the odd sentence here and there, or put the book down to punch the air at some acute observation and say ‘Yes!’
Well, you can’t do that with Patterson’s prose. No.
So let’s take a look at his output.
He writes three sets of detective books for adults and my favourite concerns Detective Michael Bennett. He is the only one of Patterson’s heroes who is more than two-dimensional. He is a practicing Catholic, a negotiator for NYPD with ten children and a dying wife. Patterson works with Michael Ledwidge on this series.
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The WOMEN’S MURDER CLUB series seems to be one most people know about. It’s formula-written about a diverse group of women who band together to solve crimes. They are Lindsay Boxer (cop), wavering between two men; Yuki (DA) having a hard time in court and trouble finding a Good Man, Cindy (reporter) and Claire (pathologist; tubby, married, with children, who is about to produce her next baby) This series is paperbacks for the traveller, mostly written with either Andrew Gross or Maxine Paetro.
Patterson’s women are usually highly polished, botoxed trophy wives or hard-hitting career women in high heels, although he does bring in some well-observed low life as well. The only character who really comes alive for me in this series is Claire, and I didn’t find the sex scenes convincing, either.
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The third detective series – and the only one which James Patterson has written entirely by himself – is about ALEX CROSS, who is a widower, black, and a doctor.
I have a problem with this series, which may not be anything to trouble other people – may, in fact, be one of the main reasons for its popularity – because, although I am told that Alex Cross is a black man, I get no indication from the text that he is. As far as I can see, he thinks and acts exactly like any other well-educated man of a certain age. So far there are thirteen Alex Cross stories written by Patterson and two more co-written with Richard DiLallo.
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I will touch on some of the other books Patterson has written later, but I think we can begin to draw some conclusions about why he is so popular from considering the content of the thirty or so detective books.
The first thing that strikes me is that he thinks up interesting and ingenious plots which really hold the attention. He is a past master of the ‘What if . . .’ school of thought. His imagination is truly remarkable.
There are supposed to be only a few good plots in the whole world, and Patterson uses several which are particularly suited to the detective genre, such as the pursuit of justice and the struggle to defeat the monster. The hero or heroine is usually shown as being incorruptible and preferring to uncover the truth over making progress in his or her career.
The ability to produce a good plot is a gift. It can’t be taught. Either you have it, or you don’t. But what you do with your plot, once you’ve thought it up, is another matter. That’s where the writer’s craft comes in, and here I have to salute James Patterson because he really has done his homework.
Apparently he has made up his own rules for good writing and constantly checks back with them. I don’t know what all his rules are, but I do know that there are certain buttons you can press which will connect you, the writer, to the reader; certain technical tricks you can play to bring your dialogue alive, and to present your characters’ point of view. All of which Patterson does extremely well.
For instance, sometimes – not always – the hero or heroine has to experience loss of home or a threat to loved ones, in the quest for justice . . . and the threat to home and loved ones is, of course, a button which a writer can press to get the reader identifying with the protagonist.
Then, he can press the ‘family’ button. It is fairly common to give the protagonist a strong sense of justice, but Patterson goes so far as to allow some Christian comment. Quite a few of his protagonists pray in times of stress, while the Bennett family go to church and Michael’s grandfather is a priest. In the trade this is called having a Christian world view, and it works because the thirst for justice is hard-wired into human beings.
His heroes have family obligations. They may or may not have wives, but they have ‘significant others’ . . . this is pretty standard practice in modern American crime novels and I wish they’d allow it more often over here in the UK where we seem to read about nothing except dreary, lonely singles, continually disappointed in their search for love. Patterson’s heroes also have grandmothers or grandfathers, and both Michael Bennett and Alex Cross have children. Hurray!
Perhaps the lack of family connection is the reason I cannot warm to the Women’s Murder Club. Most of these women are knocking onto late thirties, and thinking about whether they should have children or not. It’s understandable why Patterson couldn’t allow himself to picture their family and home lives, because the books would then have been too lengthy to sell at the right price. But in my opinion, it makes for a lack of depth, and I wouldn’t willingly read any more about them.
Next point: there’s no swearing as such; ‘friggin’ being about the worst word he uses. This is a refreshing change from the school of thought which uses the ‘f’ word all the time in the interests of ‘reality’, and which is actually proved to turn off the library readership.
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A theme is different from a plot. A theme is usually some emotion suffered by the protagonist, the plot is the storyline. There are various themes which recur in Patterson’s books, such as grief and bereavement. For youngsters there is the familiar theme of the loss of a loved one and rites of passage, particularly in the children’s Maximum series which I’ll deal with later.
Now as to the sex button; yes, a high proportion of his readership require some sex and his protagonists do have sex, but he doesn’t wallow in it except when portraying baddies, who are usually sadistic monsters into various perversions which made me want to fan myself and reach for a glass of water.
Ditto the violence button; also required for this genre. Yes, violence is there – it pretty well has to be for a hard crime novel – but it’s kept to a minimum, or left to our imagination. We are not shown the most horrific deaths in detail – thank goodness. For instance although one victim is led into the forest to die, you don’t see her death, although the post mortem reports say she was tied to a tree and left to wild animals to finish off – probably while she is still alive.
The trend in crime fiction nowadays is for the violence to get nastier, and I do feel that he is going further into the more horrid reaches of torture and death as time goes on.
What other technical devices does he use? The first and most obvious one is very short chapters. I’m not entirely sure why he does this. Is it to make the reader think they are getting through the book faster, and thus raise the pulse rate? Sometimes there are three very short chapters in a row, all of which follow one continuous interview or action. So why so many breaks? It must work for him, or why do it?
One reason could be that he likes to tell his stories from different points of view. The constant switching of identity can lead to major problems for the reader, but he does it extremely well. Each time he introduces a new character, he gives you an insight into their background. There are highs in the murderers’ minds which you feel for yourself, and you also experience what is happening in the mind of the victim; who retain hope right till the last. Notable examples of this are when a victim is being chased or hunted. Sometimes they survive; most often not. But seeing the world through their eyes keeps you glued to the story.
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I must admit that I get through these books very quickly; I think two hours for the lightest. Is this a good thing or a bad? Do I recall much of the storylines afterwards? Could I bear to read yet another hard crime story by him? I think, probably not.
Which brings me to a real oddity Patterson has written with Martin Dugard, called THE MURDER OF KING TUT. Yes, King Tutankhamun. Now in this book Patterson gives us some details on his working life. After visiting an exhibition of King Tut’s memorabilia, he phoned his editor to see if there’d be any interest in a story about the boy king’s murder.
At that point in time, he was already writing a new Alex Cross novel, working on a Women’s Murder Club mystery, and nearing the finish of another Maximum Ride story. In fact, there were twenty-four half-completed manuscripts on the big desk in his office. Patterson assured his editor that the next Alex Cross would be delivered ahead of schedule, and got the go-ahead to do the story of the boy king. He hooked up with Marty Dugard, who did the actual research in London and Egypt while Patterson himself delved into everything he could find at his end.
In this book he details his working routine. He gets up at 5 am, writes and edits, then takes a break – golf or a movie – and then gets back down to work. He does this seven days a week. He says he has an ability – or possibly it’s a curse – to focus on several projects at once. Amazing!
So here perhaps is another pointer to his success. Hard work.
I referred earlier to his Rules for Writing. One is to check everything, down to how a bee sting feels. Another is To Be There, by which he means to make each chapter come alive for the reader, to place himself in the scene.
I must admit I enjoyed THE MURDER OF KING TUT, in which Patterson makes out a pretty good case for a conspiracy theory. I know it’s long been argued that it was the vizier or prime minister Aye who’d dunnit, but Patterson’s explanation holds water, too.
Another explanation for Patterson’s prolific output is his ability to write in cooperation with other people. So far I’ve counted twelve other writers over some fifty books, including Andrew Gross, Howard Rougham, Maxine Paetro and Michael Ledwige. How he manages this, I really don’t know. I wondered whether he might be like Edgar Wallace – who used to pay hack writers to come up with stories which he paid for, and sold under his own name. This type of publishing still exists; there are people who set up an overall concept for a series and ask writers to produce one or more of the outlined stories. For instance, I was asked if I’d like to write a story for a series about a ghost dog who protects the boy who used to be his master. A whole series was projected, to be written by maybe as many as three or four different hack writers. I declined, but others would have been delighted to have the work.
It may be that James Patterson does this, too, but what I suspect is that sometimes he collaborates on ideas brought to him by other writers with a particular story in mind. An example of this is TORN APART, the story of a Tourette’s syndrome boy called Cory, written with Hal Friedman, who’d been a friend of James Patterson’s for many years. This is non-fiction.
Then there’s his venture into the realms of romance with Gabrielle Charbonnet. I really enjoyed this. In fact, I think it’s the one I liked best of all his books, which probably says more about my soft centre than his. The book is called
SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY’S, and the strap line is: What if your imaginary friend was your one true love? The plot: Jane is a neglected seven-year-old. Her only friend is the imaginary, handsome, funny, thirty-something Michael. When he moves on, she is supposed to forget him but doesn’t. And when they meet again, he’s still thirty-something and she’s grown up . . . and love begins to change them both. This is a delightful tale with overtones of the Velveteen Rabbit; the idea being that the more you love someone – or are loved – the more real you become.
There are other stand alone romances, but I must move on to the phenomenal success of the Maximum series, which he seems to have written by himself. When he first got the idea of writing about a scientist making bird children, he wrote two books abut them for adults. Then he rethought and started writing more about these characters for the teens market. More to come, no doubt. Maximum, by the way, is the girl Max, the leader of the pack. She is female but has the characteristics of a leader and the empathy of a woman. The stories are much the same – saving the world from dastardly villains. The language is pure teens;
‘I was so badass. It was all I could do to not give a mwa hahaha!’
‘My mom’s such a witch.’
And so on. I think he does teen talk very well – or perhaps it’s what I think teen talk is? But this is all comic strip. Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters. Lots of action. Caricatures for characterisation. It works on its own level.
And who’s going to quibble when he’s so popular?
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So what have I learned from studying Patterson’s books? That there’s no substitute for hard work, and writing what the market demands. That there are rules which help to keep you on track. These are books written for a specific market, and they hit the spot. Suspend judgement, all ye who would mock at their shortcomings, and admire Patterson’s income.
In conclusion; Long live James Patterson – provided I never have to read one of his books again.
© Veronica Heley