All the Little Breadcrumbs

So, I finished Along Came a Spider, which I enjoyed very much. It wasn't my favorite book ever, but it was by no means the Hacksville one might have expected after hearing how other mystery writers talk about James Patterson.

One of the things that really makes it work is the trail of tension Patterson lays out for us. I don't just mean that the scenes are tense, I mean that whenever they aren't, there's a little bead of tension drawing us forward, making us read just a few more pages.

One example is when the protagonist, Alex Cross, begins his relationship with the love interest, Jezzie Flanagan. They swim in a hotel pool, chat, and begin to get to know each other. It's not uninteresting, but neither is it particularly tension-fraught.

But the reader already knows that when Alex gets up the next morning, he's going directly to the ransom payoff. So if you think you can put down the book during that pool scene, think again.

This happens over and over again in the book, turning it into something you're not too unlikely to read in one go. It may be an event we know is coming up, like the ransom payoff, the trial, or the hypnosis of the kidnapper. Or it may be an unanswered question: "What did she see that freaked her out?"; "Is someone working with the kidnapper?"; "What's his long term plan?" Patterson lets us know that there are things worth knowing, which he isn't telling yet.

And for me, at least, that's enough to keep the pages turning.

James Patterson, Come on Down

I've decided that, much as I want to, I simply can't read exclusively research materials while I'm working on my book. I tried to do it, but that's just not how I roll. I'm going to have to read some fiction.

So I decided to mix in some Breakout Novels: books that were such a sensation that they rocketed the author to a spot on the bestseller list and a place in the common consciousness. And the one I've started with is... wait for it... Along Came A Spider, by James Patterson.

A bit of background here: when I attended a mystery writers' conference a couple years back, the words "James Patterson" were pretty much synonymous with "hack." They also worked their way into a number of pithy comments said with a raised eyebrow and a superior air, as in, "Sure... if you're James Patterson!" "Maybe... to James Patterson!" or the less common, "That's what James Patterson said!"

You get the idea. Now, a big reason for all this drama is that Patterson's prose... well, it ain't too good. And writers care about prose. We have to. But it shouldn't surprise any of us that readers often care more about other things, such as character and plot.

(The other reason I suspect is that Patterson is, in fact, wildly successful, far beyond most writer's wildest dreams. (And unfortunately we writers aren't above a little professional jealousy (especially when the person we're jealous of seems demonstrably worse than us (like Audrey Niffenger.))))

So I went into this book expecting, you know, not to be blown away by the writing. But just looking to identify that spark that made so many readers cleave to Patterson, that has made him a bestselling writer for the past sixteen years.

And I think it's the stakes. Quite simply, on every page we have gut-wrenching stakes. Children kidnapped, then killed, lawmen murdered. Patterson isn't afraid to turn up the heat. And those high stakes whisk me right along, so quickly that, on page 173, I hardly notice the poor prose anymore. I just want to find out what happens.

Is it the most exciting book I've ever read? No, not really. But the stakes are high, and that's what keeps me glued to it.

(These stakes are actually a little too high for me. I want to live in a world where great dangers are weathered successfully; a world where kids don't die. So this may be my last James Patterson for a while.)