Sunday, November 3, 2013

Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and NaNoWriMo

Imagine this:

You sit down to write The Novel. You know it’s there. You know you can do it. But you just need that little extra push, so you log onto your NaNo website and check your inbox to see if there’s a new pep talk waiting for you.

Imagine seeing the name James Patterson.

What pops into your mind?

Well, I can’t tell you what you thought, or might have thought, but what went through my head was  something along the lines of: “Whut?” followed by: “Has someone been dipping into Reverse Psychology again?” I think the words “in denial” could have easily applied to that situation, but as I read, the clouds dispersed and things became abundantly clear. No, I was not dreaming. No, this was not a joke. Yes, this was a legitimate, honest-to-goodness pep talk, complete with advise and the standard “nolite te bastardes carborundorum*” which is always a running sentiment this time of year.

At this point, you’re probably all: “Girl, are you dipping into Jung or something?” so let me give you some context.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, a venture that has been going on for more than a decade. The idea is writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, usually to get everyone who has a story in them to embrace their creativity together. It’s quite a lovely sentiment – artists are generally very protective of their ventures, courtesy of a meritocratic society that think you’re not worth the time of day until you have several honours under your belt. To have the freedom to sit down and write (because I’m doing this huge challenge), and do it in a supportive community (something which a lot of writers lack) is pretty amazing.

James Patterson holds a Guiness award for the most books on a NYT bestseller list. He’s got 60 books under his name, lots of awards, and presumably plays golf with Donald Trump. Among his titles are the Maximum Ride books, the Alex Cross novels, Cat and Mouse, etc. etc. etc. By all means, you can’t get a more successful pep-talker to help all those struggling writers (unless you get J. K. Rowling on board,) so I can understand why NaNo got him on board. There’s just one tiny problem, which is why I’m writing this in the first place.

James Patterson uses ghostwriters.

As in, he gives other people an outline of his book, lets them do the first draft, and then the two finish it together.

He claims it’s because he has too many ideas, so that’s why he needs some help getting them out. I don’t think he’s ever made literary greatness claims – the articles which I read describe his style as no-frills, straight-to-the-point thriller, and from what I’ve read (“The Angel Experiment”,) that’s definitely true.

Now, I can understand the feeling of having literally so many ideas, you can’t physical pay detailed attention to all of them. I’m also not averse to using formulistic plots and interchangeable archetypes to build a steady stream of novels. I’ve read my fair share of romance novels and I’m not ashamed that I turn to Nalini Singh and Jeanine Frost for a straightforward mystery/romance with sexy, sexy vampires, full of sexy, unashamed adverbs. (Purple prose: it’s like chocolate, but without the bodily drawbacks.) Literary merit is fine and all, but there’s a reason why those types of books aren’t sold on airports and train stations – sometimes, you just need a big, sinful slice of escapist cheesecake to get you through the day. And it doesn’t hurt if it has an attractive cover.

So this post isn’t about James Patterson as a writer of airport paperbacks. It’s not even about ghostwriting itself (because I don’t want to make assumptions about something I know nothing about.) No, this is about James Patterson in the context of NaNoWriMo, and whether it’s really appropriate for him to be preaching to the masses.

This is the fourth year I sign up to write a novel during the month of November. I’ve also done camp NaNo twice. I’ve read pep talks, both from those and from previous years, as well as articles on NaNoWriMo from writers, agents, participants, organisers. And, as is the case with anything that’s been around for more than a week, it has attracted some criticism?

Wanna guess what one of the more common complaints is?

That NaNo’s main philosophy – It doesn’t matter if it sucks, write those words! – encourages a quantity-over-quality mentality in writers, resulting in the fact that, come December 1st, agents across the world sit down for an inflicted NaNoRejMo. In other words, more meritocratic handwringing about the future of literature.

Over the years, people have tried to fight that image of NaNo. They emphasise the distinction between writing with your heart and editing with your head. They draw a distinction between a first draft and a published novel. There’s the “Now What?” series which the Office of Letters and Light (the organisers of NaNoWriMo) run to help participants after they hit their target.

And then there’s the fact that some participants may not even want to get published.

Yeah. You heard that right.

Maybe some people want to participate for the fun of it. Maybe they want to try it out to reconnect with their long-lost creative side. Maybe they do it just because. I was resolved not to sign up this year (coursework and job applications are sucking up my free time,) but I ended up doing it because I would be with a friend and we would support each other. To me, the community aspect of NaNo is the selling point for the venture – not the word count.

And this is why I think bringing James Patterson on board is problematic.

James Patterson is a strictly quantity-over-quality type of author. His plots have a straightforward formula, his characters – set. My experience with “The Angel Experiment” has slightly blurred in my brain, but luckily there’s my old GR review to remind me that it was a structural mess that gave me an emotional whiplash and a POV character I couldn’t stand. From what I’ve read on my friends’ reviews of the other books of that series, it’s not an isolated complaint.

And then there’s the ghostwriter thing, which, to be honest, I really don’t get, but that doesn’t stop me from calling bullshit on Patterson’s excuse. Nora Roberts, whose first novel was published way after Patterson’s debut, has written 209 romances (according to Wikipedia), and as far as I know, she does it by herself. And don’t you dare tell me it’s different, because romance novels are written by a template. The only difference between these two writers is the target gender of their books.

(And before someone accuses me of saying that because I’m a  girl and I read Nora Roberts so I must be biased, I’d like to point out that I don’t like all of her books. I don’t. The first one I read, “Blue Smoke”, contained several scenes that scarred me for life, and 2/4 of her Bride Quartet (yes, that does exist and yes, I have read it) were as poorly structured and badly motivated as “The Angel Experiment.” I’m as critical of my cheesecake as I am of my bread, I just don’t sit around talking about it because other people do it better already.)

So what’s the bottom line?

Patterson is a popular writer, so of course, having him endorse NaNo is a big deal. But his values, his very mode of writing and publishing, represents that image that NaNo-ers have tried to distance themselves from for so long. Getting that person on board is a very risky decision.

And I don’t get it.

I really, really don’t.

*Don’t let the bastards grind you down, courtesy of “Saving June.”

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