Before James Patterson became the Guinness World Record-holder as the author with the most No. 1 New York Times best-sellers (67), he was a struggling writer with a thick folder of rejection letters. Thirty-one publishers passed on his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, before Little, Brown and Company published it in 1976. The thriller, about a Nashville journalist tracking down an assassin, won the prestigious Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. Still, it sold only about 10,000 copies.
But his latest endeavour is particularly broad: teaching fiction to the masses.
Patterson, along with two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman and tennis phenomenon Serena Williams, is kicking off the highly produced online video service MasterClass, where you can learn from the world’s best. Acting tips from Rain Man? Tennis secrets from the winner of 20 Grand Slam singles titles? The secret to becoming the world’s best-selling author?
Four minutes into his second MasterClass lesson, titled “Passion + Habit”, he shares advice his grandfather once gave him: “‘Whether you become the President or a surgeon or you drive a truck, as I do, just remember that when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you gotta be singing. I do. I’m singing every day,” Patterson says in the video. “If it’s all pain, there’s something wrong.” Ah, shit, I think to myself.
But writing can be as agonising as it is exhilarating.
Patterson, who has been dubbed “the Henry Ford of books,” is revered as much as he is maligned for the rise of his brand. Highbrow literary types chastise him for churning out mediocre prose and cheap thrills and dis his stable of co-authors. Stephen King described him as a “terrible writer”. Critic Patrick Anderson called his second Alex Cross novel, Kiss the Girls, “sick, sexist, sadistic and subliterate.”
Yet Patterson’s success is staggering. Forbes puts his career earnings at US$700 million over the past decade.
Patterson calls his writing “colloquial storytelling,” and his MasterClass offers insights into his process, from killing off characters to working with co-authors and ensuring that readers know a book’s heroes and villains better than they know their own spouses. He also covers practical matters, such as how to get published and market your book. “I’m not setting out rules for people or telling them how to do it,” he says. “I’m just saying, ‘This is the way I do it, and some of these things may be helpful to you.'”
Patterson’s class is filled with snackable takeaways tailored to the aspiring writer, interesting to the avid reader and relevant to all creative types. Establishing a routine, he says, is paramount. He wrote Berryman between 5am and 7am while working at the international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. Now he writes seven days a week, always on a yellow legal pad. His assistant types up his drafts and prints them, triple-spaced, so Patterson has room to edit by hand.
When it comes to plot, he says, go for “a story, not necessarily a lot of pretty sentences.” If you get stuck, write “TBD” and move on. And always break the rules. Patterson’s books often include the first and third person. “People say that’s cheating,” he says. “Did Moses come down with that? Was that the 11th [commandment]?”
As he puts it, “Let’s face it, I’m not writing War And Peace. I’m not writing Ulysses. But I always try to do the best I can possibly do … You gotta aim for the stars with this stuff.”
– Canvas, Newsweek