Thursday, May 31, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Don't Blink by James Patterson

It's not often a book changes the way you think about writing.

I read a post on AgencyQueryConnect about Patterson's belief that writing one book a year was insufficient in today's fast-paced marketplace, and that he wrote one book a month. Huh? Wha?

One month of writing on a new project, and I'm just getting through my zero-draft, a piece of fiction which can only be understood in terms of a military training course, where a mocked-up city is assaulted by practicing warriors, but all the obstacles are plywood facades. I don't cook up any really good supporting characters, any really mind-bending ideas, until at least month three.

So I had to read a Patterson book. I had to know.

Don't Blink is an absolute revelation!

It was around page 250 that this book changed my life. I couldn't understand before then. No way, no context. No truth. Now my eyes are open.

People who watch Bridezillas and SpikeTV need something to read while they poop!

And every chapter here is somewhere between tinkle-length and the span of a satisfying bowel movement. (Although if you're approaching your impending evacuation with a wet compress for your forehead and at minimum seventy-five pages of Joyce's Ulysses, this is NOT the book for you.)

All hail King Patterson, the Henry Ford of fiction, he of 200+ million books served, the number that changes every time you drive past the sign (hell, the dust jacket said 180+ million, the blurb at the end 200+). I see now: this is the McDonald's of prose. It's no surprise that he would have franchised the brand (in this case, I suspect, 90% to 'co-writer' Howard Rougham).

The story is predictable, because what's promised is an experience that matches the photograph on the menu board. That's the whole idea. So everything is easy, safe, and reiterated frequently enough that you can refresh your memory as to what point in the plot you had gotten to that last time you locked the bathroom door. There is no subtlety allowed, and any writing error that might create a subtle moment is quickly corrected by the authors intrusion to explicitly explain the subtle thing that just happened. (At a funeral for a murdered man: "I was hoping that this was all just a dream. But no, it was a real as real gets, and it was also heartwrenchingly sad." A FUNERAL? HEARTWRENCHINGLY SAD? HOW CAN THIS BE?)

The authors' observations are assiduously non-original. New ideas would get in the way of easy reading. So instead, they offer retreads of others' creativity:

"playing Hollywood Hamlet... Rehab or not rehab? That is the question."

"A bathroom... a bathroom... my kingdom for a bathroom."

"Say it ain't so, Dwayne."

"Cue Paul McCartney and the Beatles: I'm not half the man I used to be."

Ummmm... Those are other people's thoughts, guys.

One character is described as looking just like Niles Crane from Frazier. Another like a slimmed-down version of Boris Yeltsin. Why create a character? Just pick one from TV. Your readers will feel more comfortable that way.

This is Reading for Dummies, the images and ideas carefully counted out like Chicken McNuggets in cardboard clamshells. I get the feeling that Patterson read through Rougham's synopsis, gave him the green light to write, and then mentioned: "now, if you have any great ideas that come up while you're writing this, Howard, that might make this an even better book, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DON'T USE THEM! SAVE THEM FOR THE NEXT ONE! WE'VE GOT A QUOTA HERE, BROTHER!"

After all, you only get six nuggets of chicken in a six piece meal.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Want dynamic prose? Stop listening!

There's a lot of advice out there about how to listen better to hone your craft: listen to the advice of other writers, listen to overheard conversations to get the feel and cadence of speech, read your manuscript out loud and listen to the prosody of the text. Guess what?

THAT'S ALL GOOD ADVICE! What -- you thought I was going to say otherwise? What am I, stupid?

The 'listening' I'm talking about is a different kind, a kind that I keep encountering in my own writing and a lot of the critiques that I do for others, the kind that waters down the impact of your story, and it's a trap that's easy to spring because it lurks within the process of living the story as you write it.

Take the following passage, taken verbatim from what I'm about to make up:

Kurt felt himself inching closer to the edge of the building, until he could see the tips of the toes of his shoes pierce the invisible wall that separated his life from his death, this ledge from that empty space. He was listening to the sound of the traffic below, distant honking horns and the squealing of tires, as it caromed its way up between the glass and concrete walls of the urban gorge. He heard the babble of the officer that was trying to tell him something about coming back closer, that it would all be okay if he only got himself back inside. He felt the beat of his heart, seeming like it would burst through the front of his chest, noticed the searing heat in his cheeks, the rush of flush color that accompanied the terror and freedom he felt over the decision he had just made: he decided that he was going to do it.

Okay, that was pretty easy to get down on the page. I just observed this imaginary Kurt fella, and started recording the details I could see in the thick of his situation, as accurately as I could report them. What did he feel? He felt this. What did he see? He saw that. What did he hear?

And so on.

The problem with that prose is that while I took full advantage of my character, my writing faculties and my imagination, I forgot the other element involved in the act of writing: reading. My reader has a job here, too, and that's to enter the world of my words and let them come alive. But instead of enhancing that experience, what I wrote above is hindering it, because I didn't trust the power of point-of-view.

From the very first word, 'Kurt', my reader is there on the ledge. I don't need to tick off an inventory of relationships Kurt has to the scene, what he sees, feels, etc. All that does is push my reader back, makes them a distant observer. When you burn your hand, you don't think 'I'm feeling my hand getting burnt', you think 'AHHH!'. If I want my reader to stay inside Kurt's skin, I've got to edit away anything that's about my authorial relationship to the scene, bring it right into the immediate. See if you can catch the variety of 'relational words' I'll be excising. Let's try again:

Kurt inched closer to the building's edge, until his toes pierced the invisible wall separating life from death, ledge from empty space. Below, honking horns and squeals of traffic caromed up between the urban gorge's glass and concrete. The officer babbled something about coming closer. It would be okay inside. Kurt's heart burst in his chest. His cheeks flushed red. Terror. Freedom. He was going to do it.

Okay, that's 160 words cut down to 73. In the first, you're observing Kurt in great detail, just like I did when I wrote it. In the second, you ARE Kurt.

You may also notice this is a great technique to employ when you're trying to figure out how to cut your 160K YA contemporary down to 73K.

So stop 'listening', 'noticing', 'hearing', 'feeling' -- and all the rest of them. And watch how your prose comes alive.

Any tricks of your own that you use to bring your readers closer to the action?