Monday, March 30, 2009

Harper Lee vs. James Patterson

This is my sixth day of being stuck in a house full of sick people—bad colds for my husband and me, pneumonia for my little girls. Nothing serious, thank goodness, just a lot of fevers and runny noses and cranky moods all around. And ramen noodles. Loads of them. Even though I’m sleep-deprived, I thought I’d attempt a post anyway, since it beats watching yet another kids’ movie. So forgive me if the following is a bit pointless—it’s the best I can conjure under the circumstances.

A few years ago, when I spoke with a group of high school students who had read my novel, one young man posed an interesting question: “If you had the choice of having the career of Harper Lee or James Patterson, which would you choose?”

It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer. On one hand we have Lee, whose only novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, so elegantly written yet politically powerful, has become a staple of the literary canon. On the other, we have the wildly popular and prolific Patterson, a mainstay of the bestseller lists. I can see the battle lines being drawn right now—literary writers for Lee and genre writers for Patterson. But let’s not kid ourselves. Every literary writer secretly hopes for popularity and every bestselling author yearns for respect. Unfortunately, the two intersect only for a very lucky few.

So, which is better—critical acclaim or popularity? In a way, it’s a moot question since both are largely out of one’s control. Getting reviewed at all (let alone getting a favorable review) is often a function of economics, taste, and dumb luck. Popularity is largely a function of timing and dumb luck, though an author with a great deal of savvy and excellent resources can affect this somewhat. Sustaining one’s critical acclaim or popularity over time is another story. Lee’s book remains one of the best American novels because it lives up to the hype. Patterson still reigns over the bestseller lists because he consistently delivers gripping stories. So while it’s easy to play the literary snob and say Lee, Patterson also deserves some respect.

The key to this question, for me, was the number of books each writer produced. Although I would love nothing more to create a work with lasting impact, the idea of writing only one novel in the course of a lifetime seems, well, a bit depressing to me. Creating a single masterpiece makes you a god forever, but it also leads a void, where everyone (including you) wonders what else you could have done.

So, to my surprise, my answer was Patterson. Not because I care about sales over quality, but because I want writing to be my lifelong career, and not just a brilliant spark that burns out too soon.

It’s funny, though. Even now, I keep asking myself if that was the right answer.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


John Cheever’s short story, “Reunion” is a marvel of economy. This story is so tight it squeaks. If you have twelve minutes to spare, check out The New Yorker podcast featuring Richard Ford reading this masterful story and the brief discussion that follows. Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, mentions in the podcast that even though the story is only around 1,000 words, it feels more like a 10,000 word story with 9,000 words left unspoken.

As writers, we are often so concerned with choosing the perfect words and not leaving anything out that the idea of shifting our focus to what can be left out really turns writing on its head. It’s often easier to say everything there is to be said instead of giving the reader a little empty space to piece things together on his own. Cheever reminds us that a story can be defined as much by the written as the unwritten. Empty space doesn’t have to be empty at all.

Space is important in all art forms. Sculptors consider ‘negative space’, or the area surrounding the piece, when they create. In music, the rests are nearly as important as the notes, working in tandem with the beat to create rhythm. Listen to reggae and you’ll know what I mean. In pop and rock, the beat falls on the one and three, whereas in reggae it falls on the two and four. This subtle shift creates space where there usually is none, giving the music an entirely different feel.

Space is crucial in the dramatic arts. Think about spoken dialogue and how the meaning of what is being said changes or is heightened by the use of pauses. When I think of pauses in acting, I immediately think of Christopher Walken in the classic watch scene from PULP FICTION. Notice how he uses space for both dramatic and comedic effect (warning--clip contains offensive language).

Deciding to put space into your writing is easy to do; executing it is another matter. There is danger in trimming too much, leaving the reader feeling confused or feeling that something crucial has been left out. If you’re unsure where to start, try the “10% Rule”—get your story as tight as you can, then trim another 10%. An even better way is to study the stories of masters, like Cheever. With your writer’s eye, pay attention to what has been left out.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Update on Pat

T.S. Eliot thought April was the cruelest month, but for many of us in Maine, it’s March. With January and February behind us, it seems as though we ought to be this close to Spring, but we really have another two or three months before there is any warmth or signs of growth. Ever the optimist, I keep thinking it will be different this year, and every year it drags on and on. I’ve spent many Easter Sundays wearing thick sweaters.

One way to battle the late winter blues is to reconnect with friends. To that end, I have contacted my old college buddy Patrick Robbins. For those of you who haven’t read my previous posts about Patrick, he’s a writer who finished grad school last year and spent the summer in an Airstream trailer writing a novel. The novel poured out of him in an adrenaline rush that left me envious. For his update, I thought I’d share with you what he wrote to our alumni magazine when they asked him what he was up to:

Patrick Robbins made under six thousand dollars last year, which should start putting a dent in his $55,000 worth of grad school bills. He is unemployed, as his last position, working the third shift in a warehouse, was only a seasonal one. His car, a 1997 Ford Escort, recently passed the 135,000 mile mark - and won't pass any others, as it failed inspection spectacularly. He can't get an agent to read his novel (or at least not the first 20 he asked). He would probably be living with his girlfriend, if he had one; as it is, once this housesitting gig is over, it looks like another summer staying with his parents. All of which serves to distract him from his prehypertension and slight weight gain, though the receding hairline is harder to miss…

While Pat was having a bad day when he wrote this, he assures me that he has his share of good days, too. He still hasn’t given up on his novel, and is currently waiting to hear back from two agents. He has eight stories in circulation. And best of all, he is now writing regularly as a pop culture blogger for I hope you’ll take a minute to check out his informative and always entertaining blog. I truly think he’s found his niche.