The first two commandments any serious novelist must follow are: Read a lot and write a lot. And of course, it’s important to read the genre in which you write. As an author who writes thrillers, I should be reading James Patterson, David Baldacci, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, and other similar novelists. Although I’ve really tried to “read a lot”, I don’t read nearly as much as I should. It’s not due to lack of effort or laziness on my part. How do I say this diplomatically? Well, it’s just that many of the bestselling thriller novels really suck. There, I’ve said it.
Now I don’t want to take cheap shots at the “masters” of thriller fiction, but hey, I simply call it like I see it. Let me offer one stunning example. David Baldacci has written over 17 novels, and each of them hit the New York Times Bestseller List. I’m currently reading First Family, Baldacci’s latest book. I’m 166 pages into the story and as I Iive and breathe, I’m struggling to continue. To his credit, the plot is compelling, he’s very good about leaving a cliff hanger at the end of each chapter, and he doesn’t overdue it with his descriptions.
But here’s the problem. The grammar, sentence structure, and awkward phrases he uses make this book seem like a tenth grade high school student wrote it. Seriously. One of the first rules a writer learns in Novel Writing 101 is to minimize passive voice. For example, instead of writing, “He was kissed by her”, write, “He kissed her.” It is the writer’s job to remove the dreaded “was” word whenever possible. Active verbs move the story forward.
Here’s a sentence from page 6 of First Family. “While it was true that the president of the United States was the world’s ultimate juggler of tasks, it was also a fact that the First Lady, traditionally, was no slouch in that department either.” Are you kidding me? How did this get past Baldacci’s editor? This is merely one of many examples of awkward sentence structure and overuse of the was word.
I am so distracted with a book written so poorly that I find it nearly impossible to engage myself in the story. Given the sales numbers, I cannot dispute Baldacci’s overwhelming success. But I sure wish he—and many other bestselling novelists—would dedicate as much effort to language as they do to plotting.