My first time with James…

About six months ago I signed up for the James Patterson Master Class on how to write a bestseller (I confess to not doing all of the homework assignments). I had just decided to write a novel based on one of my screenplays (65,000 words into the third draft, I’m still plugging away at it), and Patterson’s class seemed like a fun way to keep me inspired and to give me videos to watch when I felt blocked or just wanted to procrastinate.

I enjoyed the class. Mostly though, I enjoyed James Patterson, and after watching and re-watching many of the lessons, I came to regard him as a coach, and even–dare I say–a friend. I like his befuddled sense of humor, his positivity and message that you, yes, even YOU can write a bestseller and become rich like me. He’s cute! And nice! And he has a great laugh. I’d love to have drinks with him at the Algonquin sometime and really cut-up.

The polar opposite of the brooding and bitter artiste, Patterson appears to not give a damn what people think and is moreover tickled pink by his success; it’s infectious. Near the end of the series (and my burgeoning crush on him), I realized with a pang of guilt that I never actually read any of his 100 (could be more) bestsellers, so I set out to rectify that with a visit to my local library.

la–et–ADV–james–patterso
Isn’t he just adorable?

In the Mystery section (I love the little skull stickers on the spines) I found Violets are Blue, one in his series featuring the Alex Cross character he refers to a lot in the lessons. I learned somewhere in the book that he is a black man from D.C.; his wife was killed by an assassin, leaving him the difficult job of balancing detective work and family duties (his tough-old-bird grandmother helps with the kids).

The Master Class taught me a lot about formula, not to mention titles based on easily remembered childhood nursery rhymes. Main character’s inner conflict, check. Ditto for the bigger-than-life antagonist. Early in the book, Cross’s current wife(?) is murdered by his nefarious nemesis, The Mastermind, who then stalks him and his new quasi-love interest, a sassy police inspector, throughout the book. Cross struggles with his growing feelings for the new woman and his fear that she will be in put in harm’s way due to their involvement. Of course, she is, and while Cross is traveling the U.S. chasing vampire killers (vampires who kill), his nemesis is always in the shadows, closer than he thinks.The Mastermind’s identity is revealed at the end of the book (I won’t give it away) and he goes to prison, but somehow I think he’ll be back. Patterson taught me that series with cliffhangers equal good business sense.

At some point during the read I kept imagining Alex Cross looking like Morgan Freeman. Duh! He was in a movie version of Kiss the Girls, one of the first novels in the Cross series. I know I saw it, but it kind of slipped from my mind. A lot like this book.

Patterson devotes a lesson on how to negotiate the Hollywood deals that may fall into your lap once you write your bestseller, including an amusing anecdote of how a producer once paid him $250,000 to add detail to the script they already owned the rights to. With a twinkle in his eyes, Patterson implies this too could happen to you. Bring it!

But back to the book…

Violets Are Blue covers a lot of geographical ground as Cross inspects a slew of vampire occult murders all over the United States. The murders include bizarre scenes of biting with dental fangs, hanging victims upside down and draining their blood, and even trained tiger attacks! Cross’s search leads him to underground Gothy vampire clubs and secret cults and two sexy killer boys who wear leather jumpsuits. It’s a story I could probably sink my teeth into (no pun intended) except that for all its plot, there is no real substance. I am told that Cross feel guilty about the death of his wife, but none of the scenes in the book help me to feel it. The detective resisting romance because everyone I touch gets hurt is by now a tired, Chinatown cliché.

Sorry James. I really wanted to like it.

I recently read Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King’s foray into the detective novel, and it is clashingly different from Patterson’s in every way. King is all about characters and scenes, not so much about the plot. He admits in his excellent book On Writing that he doesn’t plot. This can lead to frustration sometimes for the reader—Where the hell is this going?—but he gets there eventually, and along the way you get to know his characters intimately. His killers especially will haunt your dreams. King is something of Patterson’s Mastermind. The two seem to be having a (goodnatured?) public feud. Patterson begins his Master Class with, “Hello, I am Stephen King.” King called him a terrible writer, but a successful one. Patterson recently pulled his title The Murder of Stephen King fearing someone might actually attempt pull a real-life Annie Wilkes.

Or is it just a good, old-fashioned publicity stunt? Patterson, who began his career in advertising, taught me that promotion is key.

I’m not a stranger to what Patterson refers to throughout his Master Class as commercial fiction. I enjoy the formulaic, but well-written McNally books by Lawrence Sanders; I’ve read all of them. But there was something so thin about the writing of Violets Are Blue that I could only skirt along the surface, reading it as if I were watching a detective show on TV that was in the background, only demanding half my attention. In his Master Class, Patterson puts a lot of emphasis on outlining and for a good reason. Most novice writers probably ignore this crucial step, preferring to dive right in, and then finding themselves stuck in a corner 20,000 words in. It’s good advice, and I’ve learned the value of a solid outline and plotting. But in Violets Are Blue I felt as if I were reading the outline. Even if he is aiming his work at a general audience, does the writing have to be so general? I don’t require Trollope-esque prose, but the simple subject/predicate construction grated on my nerves after the first of the 116 chapters.

And WTF is that about! Each chapter is about two pages long, some less. I appreciate the value of a quick bathroom read, but is this normal?

I didn’t learn enough about Cross or about what spawned the cat and mouse game The Mastermind is playing with him. Maybe if I read another book…Oh, so that’s how it works! I see Patterson and his twinkling eyes laughing all the way to the bank.

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