Thursday, January 19, 2012

Using a Cleaver to Create

Reading a 2006 Time feature on James Patterson, this week I discovered a fascinating passage:

His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers, had yet to be fulfilled. First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It’s an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. “It was a little bit of an accident,” he says. “I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I’d done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There’s something interesting here. And that’s where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out.” (March 12, 2006, “James Patterson: The Man Who Can’t Miss” by Lev Grossman)

A few weeks back, I wrote of Elmore Leonard’s rules, including #10: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Like most writers, my craft is my obsession. I am constantly assessing what I do and how I do it, always with the intention of producing better fiction. And, at 41, I feel like I am just coming into my own (hell, in baseball years, I’d be no older than 27!).

This brings me back to the Patterson quote above. We all over-write. And we do so for two reasons. One is innocent, an effort to help our readers. It’s a confidence issue by which we wonder if we have said what we intended to say. Self-doubt creeps in, and drives us to say whatever it was again, only differently. The second reason is not so innocent. Ego drives it. And I raise my hand and step forward here. It is very simple, actually. Because no other writer in history has ever described something the way you have done so (and you know what I’m talking about here—something compelling or absolutely crucial to your plot, like the color of wallpaper) you are compelled to do so. No, actually, your description of the wallpaper is so brilliant you are bound by artistic duty to share your genius. So you leave the yellow flowers on the wallpaper in your scene.

As I said, this isn’t about pointing fingers. This is about confessing my sins. For instance, right now, I’m looking at a manuscript I wrote five years ago. I started reading it the other day, sat back, and asked myself how I could make it more cinematic. The result has been adding dialogue and cutting narration and detail (and I mean two-handed swings with a machete). It’s an interesting process and one of realization. I’ve always prided myself on eliminating what doesn’t need to be there. But this is different. Now I’m challenging myself to tell the vast majority of the story through dialogue, which creates space for the reader to climb into my text and move around in there, playing a part in my telling of the story.

Hemingway said, “Be willing to kill your darlings.” A lot of my darlings have been lopped off, staggered, and fell face down and crumpled in my wastebasket. But I’m left with a better story.
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In other news, Reed Farrel Coleman visited this week. I taught his novel Innocent Monster in my mystery literature elective. My students had great questions, and Reed had fascinating answers.

7 comments:

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Hannah Dennison said...

This is a great post! I know I overwrite ...

Rick Blechta said...

You know, John, I find Patterson’s books (I’ve only read two) a little too spare with the prose. Sure it ramps up the action to leave most of the description out, but for me, small bursts of this type of information allows the story to relax a bit before it charges ahead with the next action scene. An entire novel of action gets just as tiring after a while as a novel with entirely too much flowery prose. I think Patterson goes too far.

Regardless, his novels sell very well indeed, so I’m probably wrong, but for me I choose to not read them because of this – and some other reasons.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, I agree with you. I find Patterson a little too lean. Even though I haven't read any of his books in while, once I start it's not easy to put him down. I'm fascinated by his ability to turn a whole plot with a one word, one sentence paragraph.

Donis Casey said...

There's nothing harder than trusting your reader to understand what you mean without your having to explain it to him. In fact, sometimes he understands it better than the author.