Tuesday, January 26, 2010

James Patterson is a robot

A Leaf Blower reader (Daniel) sent me a NYT Magazine article about James Patterson’s preternatural publishing prowess (say that ten times fast). I recommend reading the article, although the journalist seems to have attended the Patterson school of prolificacy: it’s an absurdly long piece. A few high points: JP (and his team of coauthors) published nine new hardcover books in 2009 and is set to publish at least nine more in 2010. Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the U.S. was written by James Patterson (and his coauthors). He has the record for the most NYT bestsellers (51). He outsells John Grisham, Stephen King and Dan Brown combined. And instead of toilet paper, he uses pages from Harry Potter books. Okay, so I made that last part up.

I’m not a big fan of James Patterson’s books, but I’m a fan of James Patterson. He seems real to me; he knows who he is and what he’s doing. Of course, I often wish writers like him didn’t exist. They hoard the limited resources of the publishing industry, making it even harder for a new author to get published – and harder still for him to sell any books. But publishing is a business; I get that. If your job was to deliver consistent financial results to your shareholders, would you rather put a billion bucks into a machine guaranteed to return $1.1 billion, or would you rather throw dollars at a roulette wheel?

Patterson considers himself an entertainer first, and unlike many “literary authors” who write for themselves or the critics, he writes for one group: the readers. In the NYT article, the interviewer is surprised that JP would consider rewriting a book to appease readers. He explains: “If you’re writing ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ then you can sit back and go: ‘This is it, this is the book. This is high art. I’m the man, you’re not. The end.’ But I’m not the man, and this is not high art.”
In a world where even reality-show celebrities who've never accomplished anything take themselves way too seriously, this is indeed a refreshing view.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On the tip of my tongue

Last week, I pledged to give up Google (for my writing; I couldn't go an hour without it in my personal life) and instead use good ol' paper reference books. I had the obligatory dictionary and thesaurus, of course, but I also armed myself with these four indispensable writing references:

Random House Word Menu: A dictionary organized by subject matter instead of alphabetically. For example, if you were looking for a type of storm, you'd turn to "Chapter 3: The Earth," then "Weather and Natural Phenomena," sub-category "Storm," and there it is -- monsoon. This book was moderately helpful; probably would've gone Google if I could.

Flip Dictionary: On the surface, this reverse dictionary seems to be a shoe-in for the "most likely to be rendered obsolete by Google award." But after I got the hang of how to use it, I found tremendous value in this weighty book. It's most helpful if you have a phrase in your head, or a description, and you need a specific word. For example, under "country life, relating to," you'll find bucolic, pastoral, rural and rustic.

When writing, often what you really need is an idea, something you didn't know you were looking for. Say you want a synonym for "create." You might stumble across "creation becoming uncontrollable: Frankenstein's monster." Now that's an angle you hadn't thought of; it could take your piece in a whole new direction. And for certain categories, this book has these wonderful lists and groupings. For example, when I Google "cordials and liqueurs," after sorting through ads for BevMo, martini recipes and drunken forums, I still hadn't found anything near Flip Dictionary's tidy list of 50 spirits, from absinthe to Vandermint.

The Ultimate Visual Dictionary: A big, beautiful book that illustrates and labels everything from the dorsal scute of an Anklylosaurs to the touchpiece of a trombone.

The Describer's Dictionary: My favorite of the bunch. I can't even tell you how useful this is; you you have to see it for yourself. Let's say I want an interesting way to describe the color of a house. Go to the "color modifiers" section, and... well, is the paint "washed out" or is it "dazzling?" In my writing, I find it particularly hard to describe people's physical characteristics. Under "Eyes, having bulging or protruding," I find these gems: pop-eyed, banjo-eyed, prominent, protuberant, starting, exophthalmic, hyperthyroid, bug-eyed, proptosed, bulbous and goggle-eyed. I love it! I never would have thought of these on my own.

So, for the results of my experiment. I have to admit, it was agonizing to retrain myself not to open my web browser every time I wanted to look something up. I realized immediately that my skills for quickly locating a word alphabetically have been pushed to the same atrophied part of my cortex that used to remember phone numbers. But once I got used to it, a sort of grade school giddiness enveloped me, and it was -- dare I say -- fun.

The internet is just too vast when you're browsing for something specific; we need boundaries. On the web, you are likely to get distracted by something that's not useful-- like celebrity gossip. But when you're browsing through a book like the Ultimate Visual Dictionary, you discover treasures that are even better than what you were looking for. Say you're searching for an intriguing place to set the climactic scene of your novel. You're thinking of having it in a kayak. But when you thumb through the "Sea and Air" section, there it is in all its glossy glory: a medieval warship with each and every part intricately labeled, from the stemost to the main topgallant mast. Now find THAT on the internet.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What does it feel like?

In a previous post, I discussed the wonders and perils of the Internet when it comes to writing. On the positive side, you have unlimited information at your fingertips, just milliseconds away. On the negative, well, you have unlimited information at your fingertips. Sure, you can usually find what you're looking for, but you have to sift through countless dead ends, unreliable information, and all those pesky flashing advertisements. It takes tremendous fortitude to avoid getting distracted and taking your web surfing in a new direction. Because, believe me, when you're stuck, anything sounds better than writing.

A perfect example occurred yesterday. My book highlights the autoimmune disease lupus. Lupus patients can have seizures, so I wanted to Google "What does it feel like to have a seizure?" Google, being the helpful-cyborg-taking-over-the-world that it is, auto-populates a list with the most-searched items starting with your key phrase. So after I typed "what does it feel like," Google diligently pulled up a list of what it thought I might be looking for, based on the general population's most common searches. Its suggestions, in order of popularity:

What does it feel like...

to be fingered (seriously, #1)
to be high
to be eaten out
to be pregnant
to die
when your baby moves
when your water breaks
to get shot
to be drunk
to be in love

Pretty much covers all the bases. What was I looking for again?

I recently acquired four writer's reference books: Flip Dictionary, Visual Dictionary, Describer's Dictionary and Word Menu. Before the Internet, these books could literally change a writer's life. But even now, I'm finding that they save me time. It takes a little longer to uncover what you're looking for, but you don't have to sort through false information, browse insipid reader forums, or put on your horse blinders to avoid being distracted. You find what you need, and get back to your writing.

So this week I'm going to try an experiment. When I need to look up something while I'm writing, I'm going to try to shun Google and use these books exclusively. Next week, I'll explain more about how each reference book works -- and report the results of my experiment.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to continue reading about what it feels like to be shot, drunk and in love.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Double-blind Tattoos, Anyone?

Somehow, I've managed to go a year and a half without mentioning Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. It's just one of those things that aspiring authors like to pretend never happened, like Who Moved my Cheese. In case you've been living in a -- wait, they probably read it in caves, too -- Twilight is the vampire romance series that spawned (or re-birthed) an entire genre. Not to mention those ubiquitous movies (what did People magazine do before Robert and Kristen?).

It's scary enough that Meyer, who'd never even written a short story before she dreamed up Twilight, could start a worldwide phenomenon. But when fans start tattooing Twilight stuff on their bodies, it's downright frightening.