Tag Archives: James Patterson

Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

Source: Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

by Ben Blatt

The first literary mystery to be solved by numbers was a 150-year-old whodunit finally put to rest in 1963. Two statistics professors learned of the long-running debate over a dozen contested essays from The Federalist Papers, and they saw that they might succeed where historians had failed. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed to have written the same 12 essays, but who was right?

The answer lay in how each writer used hundreds of small words like but and what, which altogether formed a kind of literary fingerprint. The statisticians painstakingly cut up each essay and counted the words by hand—a process during which “a deep breath created a storm of confetti and a permanent enemy.” And by comparing hundreds of word frequencies, they came up with a clear answer after so many years of speculation: the contested essays were distinctly the work of James Madison.

Since 1963, similar methods have continued to yield major findings. Take, for instance, last year’s revelation that Shakespeare collaborated with Christopher Marlowe. And in the meantime, the technology involved has leapt from scissors and paper to computer and code, giving rise to a whole new field of study—the digital humanities.

In my new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I use simple data to whiz through hundreds of classics, bestsellers, and fan fiction novels to explore anew our favorite authors and how they write. I uncover everything from literary fingerprints and favorite words and tics, to the changing reading level of NYT bestsellers and how men and women write characters differently.

If you have a body of literature, stats can now serve as an x-ray. Here are a few fascinating examples from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve:

Writing Advice

There is a lot of writing advice out there. But it’s hard to test, and it’s often best to judge someone not by what they say but what they do. Novelists may tell their adoring fans to do one thing, but do they actually follow their own advice? With data, we can find out—looking at everything from the overuse of adverbs to Strunk and White’s advice against qualifiers like “very” or “pretty.”

One of my favorite examples comes from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, where Leonard offers the following rule about exclamation points: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” A writing rule in the form of a ratio is a blessing for a statistician, so I ran with it. Does Leonard practice what he preaches?

From a strict numerical view, no. Leonard wrote over 40 novels which totaled 3.4 million words. If he were to follow his own advice he should have been allowed only 102 exclamation points his entire career. In practice, he used 1,651—which is 16 times as many as he recommends.

But looking deeper, we find that Leonard did follow the spirit of his own rule. Below are 50 novelists, representing a range of classic authors and bestselling authors. Elmore Leonard beats out everyone.

And the picture gets even more interesting when we look at how Leonard’s use changes over time. The chart below shows the number of exclamation points that Leonard used in each one of his novels from the start of the career. He loved the exclamation point as a novice, but he slowly weaned off of it over time.

Interestingly, after he delivered his exclamation point rule in 10 Rules for Writing, his use decreased even further (the one exception was Leonard’s sole children’s novel). He may have been a zealot: no one I looked at uses exclamation points at a rate lower than two or three per 100,000. But Leonard practiced what he preached: he got closer to his magic ratio than any other writer, especially in his final stretch of novels.

He was also on to something. I parsed through thousands of amateur fan-fiction stories online and found they were not only enthusiastic about their story universes, but for exclamation points as well. The average published author relies on about 1/4th as many exclamation points as the average amateur writer.

How Cliché

The book world loves a good list: bestsellers, award winners, “best of the year” lists. But what other superlative lists are there to uncover out there in the literary world? In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I decided to ask: who uses the shortest sentences, the most adverbs, writes at the lowest grade level or relies on the most clichés?

I took all expressions mentioned in the 2013 book by Christine Ammer titled The Dictionary of Clichés. These are phrases like “fish out of water,” “dressed to kill,” and “not one’s cup of tea”—4,000 phrases in total. To my knowledge, Ammer’s book is the largest collection of English language clichés. I then scanned through the complete bibliographies of the same 50 authors mentioned above to see who used the most clichés.

The answer: James Patterson.

You’d expect some recency bias in the dictionary of clichés (Jane Austen’s characters, unfortunately, weren’t ever described as “dressed to kill”). So I also looked at every single book that ranked on Publishers Weekly’s bestselling books of the year since 2000. James Patterson can’t blame his time period alone. Even compared to his contemporaries in genre and time, Patterson comes in with five of the 10 most clichéd books. He’s clearly making it work, though. Of those PW lists, Patterson has 16 books, more titles than any other writer.

Start with a Bang

In response to a question on Twitter about her favorite first sentence in literature, novelist Margaret Atwood answered: Call me Ishmael. “Three words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?”

Atwood emphasized the brevity of the Moby-Dick opener, and she is similarly concise in her own work. I compared the median length of her opening sentence to that of the 50 authors in the exclamation point chart above. Only one author, Toni Morrison, beats her out.

Opening sentences are far from an exact science, but keeping them short and powerful by rule of thumb is a smart place to start. Drawing from a range of sources, I assembled a list of the consensus top 20 opening sentences in literature. And of that list, 60% of the openers are short when compared to the book’s average sentence length.

But when you look a much wider sample of literature, most authors in practice opt for long openers. In 69% of all of the books I looked at, the opening sentence is longer than the average sentence throughout the rest of the book. It might be that authors like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are on to something as they keep their openers “power-packed.”

Beach Weather

In one last example, let’s return to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. His first rule (#1!) is “Never open a book with weather.” Apparently Leonard had strong feelings about this trope, but anyone who’s ever heard too many plays on the old saw, “it was a dark and stormy night,” will know where he’s coming from.

Leonard again lives up to his own advice. But there’s one author who completely flouts it, and it’s an example I love.

Danielle Steel, known for selling hundreds of millions of books, should also be known for talking about the weather. She started her first book off “It was a gloriously sunny day and the call from Carson Advertising came at nine-fifteen.” She’s never looked back.

Nearly half her of introductions involve weather—mostly benign, positive weather (“perfect deliciously warm Saturday afternoons,” “perfect balmy May evening”, “absolutely perfect June day,” or simply: “The weather was magnificent.”). But like Patterson she has made her rule-breaking choice work. It’s a distinctive style that’s all her own—and it’s a quirk that at least this reader would never have been able to pin down without having been able to run the numbers first.

 

 

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Please read

James Patterson Would Like You to Read

By Troy Patterson

Source: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/james-patterson-would-like-you-to-read?mbid=rss

Author James Patterson would like you to read.

Author James Patterson would like you to read.

In the tradition of Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Heller, James Patterson drafted his early books by moonlight while holding a day job as an advertising copywriter. But none of those other guys ever won a Clio, much less rose to an executive suite at J. Walter Thompson, where the storytellers stoke mass desire on an industrial scale.

Patterson became the best-selling novelist of the twenty-first century on the strength of his superlative skills as an adman—his knack for the art of the sale, his gift for managing creative talent. Relying on a retinue of co-authors, he is the chief executive of an unsleeping pulp mill perpetually boosting capacity. He has placed nineteen books on the Times’ best-seller lists since January. He has three hundred and twenty-five million books in print and an annual income of something like ninety million dollars. He has a new pitch.

One recent afternoon, Patterson summoned this interviewer (no relation) to an expense-account joint in midtown. He inhabited his corner banquette with no airs, drank his Diet Coke with mild thirst, and spoke with a lot of Hudson Valley in his voice. Patterson was born sixty-nine years ago in Newburgh, New York—the town across from Beacon on the wrong side of the river—and his accent did something untranscribable when he mentioned his filing drawers. The drawers are in the home office at his winter palace, in Palm Beach. Very deep, they hold a hundred and seventeen fresh manuscripts, slender but all good to go.

Patterson has enticed Hachette Book Group to grant him reign over a new imprint called BookShots. Each volume runs twenty-five to thirty thousand words, or a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and fifty pages, or somewhere between one full “Double Indemnity” and two-thirds a “Gatsby.” Tolstoy is a full meal; Turgenev is a fabulous dessert; a BookShot is a bag of Funyuns. “We have this convention of the novel that you have to know everything about the frigging characters,” Patterson said. “Like: What? You know, a lot of people don’t know their spouses that well.”

Patterson “grew up being a little literary snob” who matured into knowing his limits. “At a certain point, it occurred to me I couldn’t write ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ but at that point I read ‘The Day of the Jackal.’ “ This he could maybe manage. He settled on a practical poetics: “Action reveals character even more than ‘bullshit, bullshit, bullshit’ in our heads.” BookShots is the natural extension of this philosophy. Why muck around with interiority? Why must a mass-market paperback aspire to the thickness of a foam travel pillow? Why not test the demand for low-commitment narratives priced at five dollars a hit? “I’m certainly not trying to break any new ground in terms of the structure of the novel,” Patterson said. “I just find that less seems to be more.”

One of the first BookShots—published this week, precisely a year after Patterson presented the concept—is “Cross Kill.” An installment of Patterson’s Alex Cross series, it is one of the few productions to flow from his solitary pen. Controlled prose, confirmed audience, a first printing of five hundred thousand copies, great. And Patterson plainly relishes collaborating with reporters on a true-crime horror show, titled “Filthy Rich,” about the highly affluent sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. But most often he farms out the word processing to co-authors, who receive detailed outlines and send back work that ranges in quality from vibrant schlock to hectic dreck. He’s also curating a BookShots Flames series for readers who crave to imagine the love shared by, say, an Appletini-tippling city gal and a rodeo cowboy named Tanner. “I came up with title for that one,” Patterson said. The title for that one is “Learning to Ride.”

When I asked what inspired BookShots, Patterson said, “I was kinda blocked,” using the word in an awesome caricature of the opposite of its usual sense. He published seventeen books in 2015. Only seventeen! With all his ideas and his infrastructure? With so many pots potentially boiling in his institutional kitchen?! Hachette is scheduled to published twenty-three BookShots in 2016, plus fifteen other Patterson titles. These numbers are open to upward revision.

“My hope is that it increases the habit of reading,” Patterson said. He is sincere in this goal, which aligns both with his philanthropic support of literacy and his personal gripes about the electorate’s analytic skills. “We have this country of nincompoops now.” It is discouraging, for instance, to see the populace swayed by political promises of mass deportations: “Like thirty million cops come to their homes and walk them across the Rio Grande? I mean, stop it already.” (I wondered if the author still golfs at the Trump course in West Palm. “Yeah, I do sometimes,” he said. “I go there to golf, not to vote.”) “You go to Sweden”—a country of ten million people—“and they have books that sell a million copies there. Gas stations sell books. It’s good for people.”

When I wondered about Patterson’s commercial hopes for the new project, he evaded the question quite suavely. “You know, I remember a long time ago—uh, who’s the ‘Star Wars’ guy?” George Lucas? “Yeah, I met him a really long time ago, and we were talking about his idea of success, and he said, ‘My thing is, I just keep pushing the rock up the steep hill, and as long as I feel like I keep going up the hill it’s good.’ You know, same thing.”

“You do what you can do,” Patterson said. “I’m not an empire builder.”

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Brother, can you spare a bookstore?

Patterson to Acquire Joseph-Beth Booksellers

Source: http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=2723#m31970

Author James Patterson is in “late stage negotiations” to purchase Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which operates five bookstores in Kentucky and Ohio. A source with direct knowledge of the talks told Shelf Awareness that Patterson, who has donated millions of dollars in recent years to independent bookstores, frontline booksellers and libraries, “caught the bookselling fever” and decided to become more actively involved in the retail side of the book trade. He plans to change the name to James-Beth Booksellers, honoring both its old and new incarnations.

James Patterson may soon be among a select number of authors who own a bookstore.

James Patterson may soon be among a select number of authors who own a bookstore.

According to the source, Patterson’s decision was in part inspired by other writers who have made the successful transition from bestselling author to indie bookstore owner–and gotten excellent press attention–including Jeff Kinney of An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass.; Ann Patchett of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.; Louise Erdrich of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Minn.; and Garrison Keillor of Common Good Books in St. Paul.

Patterson’s move into retail may also be influenced by his own personal book inventory, which includes more than 150 titles (most with co-writers), as well as the children’s imprint JIMMY Patterson and the recently announced BookShots, “a new line of short novels that cost less than $5 and can be read in a single sitting.” A James Patterson aisle is not out of the realm of possibility.

–Robert Gray

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