Why James Patterson is one of the top-selling authors in the world
One thing that made Invisible so special was that my copy was a gift from James Patterson himself. Now I can’t get a big head over this because Mr. Patterson also gave copies to about 300 of my fellow members of Mystery Writers of America who attended Sleuthfest 2015, the annual convention of the MWA, last February. Patterson was scheduled to give the keynote address. At the last minute, he had a family emergency which required him to cancel. So he sent 300 copies of his latest book to those of us who missed him, along with a letter which said, in part, “Your support means the world to me, and I would be thrilled to say thank you in person one day soon. Until then, I hope you’ll accept this book, Invisible, as a small token of my apology. Yours, J. Patterson”
Now, that’s a class act. Anyway, on to the book.
The opening paragraph grabbed me. “This time I know it. I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.” Then, Invisible goes on for 397 more pages of murders, clues, mysteries, and thrills, culminating with an edge-of-your-seat climax and an “Ohmigawd!” plot twist at the very end.
The story is told in first person by Emmy Dockery, who took leave from her job as an FBI researcher to solve her own sister’s murder. The only problem is that the authorities insist that her sister’s death by fire was an accident.
One of the many things I enjoyed about the book is the feminine voice of the narrator. Patterson and Ellis did a great job of writing from a woman’s point of view. From the catty remarks about another woman Emmy was jealous of, to describing her break-up with another of the main characters, I felt like a woman was narrating. My own books are written from the viewpoint of a male private investigator and former Special Forces soldier. I don’t think I could write from a woman’s viewpoint like that. But Patterson and Ellis succeed. Maybe that’s one reason Patterson has sold over 280 million books.
About three chapters into the book I noticed another subtle feature that I hadn’t seen before—Invisible is written in the present tense. Emmy Dockery’s narration occurs as she studies the evidence, investigates the clues, and interacts with the other characters. The present tense gives the immediacy of solving the mystery alongside the heroine. Take this pivotal scene where Emmy proves that the fire was no accident:
Lia Janus [FBI forensic pathologist] looks around the room and releases a heavy sigh…
“I’ve conducted more than a thousand autopsies…,” she says. “I’ve… seen everything, guys. It’s impossible to surprise me.”
“After examining the bodies of [two other victims], you can put me down as surprised,” she says.
I won’t give you the rest, because I don’t want to spoil the story.
Patterson and Ellis have another big winner in Invisible.
I attended sessions on the craft of writing, plotting, scene setting, and characterization, as well as marketing and promoting the author’s work. Best-selling author and former professor of writing, James W. Hall, led a humorous and informative session on Analyzing What Makes a Bestseller.
Our final speaker was best-selling humor writer Dave Barry, who told attendees lots of funny stories and related a few tidbits from his new book Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster)
Michael Sears presented “Start Write” At Sleuthfest 2015. It was a great session on how to write openings that grab the reader and pull them into the story. Mike said the opening paragraph should include five elements:
2. Characters—at least one strong character, but not necessarily the protagonist
5. Voice of the author
In a group exercise, Mike asked us to pick one of ten opening scenes and write an opening. I picked “Two men are sitting in a car. The window explodes from the impact of a bullet. One of the men slumps dead.”
Here’s what I wrote: “When the windshield shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike. It was too late for him to duck.”
I thought that was pretty good for a start. Then Hank Phillippi Ryan, an investigative reporter for WHDH-TV in Boston and an award-winning mystery writer in her own right, asked, “Where are they? What is the setting?”
So I added the setting. Now I had: “When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike. It was too late for him to duck.”
Better, right? Then Charlotte Levine Gruber asked, “Who was driving?”
Another addition. Now it read: “When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike, slumped in the driver seat. It was too late for him to duck.”
Even better. Then Charlotte asked, “Were they moving or sitting? Is the car going to crash?”
When I told the group that the two men were on a stakeout, Hank asked, “Why were they there? How long had they been there?”
Here’s the final version: “Jim Bob Willis hadn’t made a move since he had punched out the window of his broken-down mobile home with the barrel of his Remington 700 Varmint Rifle over an hour ago and threatened to kill himself. When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike, slumped in the driver seat. It was too late for him to duck.”
How important is a good opening to get you to read a book?
I just got back from attending SleuthFest 2014 at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort, Bonnet Creek, from February 27 to March 2, 2014, sponsored by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, of which I am proud to by a member.
The conference included four tracks of panels on the craft and business of writing, meals with keynote speakers, an agent or editor appointment, and much more. I attended the MWA University last year in Deerfield Beach and learned a lot. This year, I gained similarly from this conference.
I was also been selected to moderate a discussion with well-known mystery writer Ace Atkins about his book Wonderland.
SleuthFest is an annual event of the Florida Chapter of MWA.