To date, Patterson has sold 300 million copies of 130 novels worldwide.
Previously a creative director for the massive ad agency J. Walter Thompson, Patterson published his first novel in 1976. Though he now writes across genres, he started in thrillers. Patterson puts the turn into page-turner — quickly paced plots with short chapters, crisp sentences, and a gruesome murder here and there.
To allow for his outsize output, Patterson has shifted from the standard method of publishing, where one author writes a given book. Instead, he treats his Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club, and other series the way a television writer might approach a new season of “The West Wing.” He’s worked with more than 20 co-authors, and, since 2002, he’s written only a reported 20% of his books by himself.
Thus his outrageously high productivity. He will publish 15 books this year alone. As the U.K.’s Telegraph reported, Patterson has had 4.7 published pages per working day since 1976.
We spoke with Patterson about how he writes and approaches his business. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
Business Insider: Your book sales show you’ve developed an ear for knowing what people want to read. How did you develop that?
James Patterson: I think to some extent it’s story, story, story. I’m a storyteller. That’s what a lot of people want out of books. I’m reading “Flash Boys.” Michael Lewis is a terrific storyteller. He has that ability to take something that could have been the driest, most boring goddamned thing, but he makes it dramatic. I think that’s a piece of it. People who have that ability to turn that situation into a compelling story. That’s one of the things.
With me, it’s a combination of pace and then trying to make sure that the characters I’m writing about hold people’s interest and they want to be involved with them.
Could you walk me through a typical workday for you?
I’m usually up 5:30-ish. I will write for an hour or so. Then quickly blast through the highlights of a few newspapers — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today. Frequently, then, I will go and walk the golf course for maybe an hour. I’m usually back here by 9:30 or so. Write until noon. Go to lunch with my wife. Come back and write some more. Occasionally, I’ll write later at night if I’m worried about something, or if there’s some inspiration and I need to deal with it a bit.
It’s pretty much seven days a week. Somebody said, you’re lucky if you find something you like to do and then it’s a miracle somebody will pay you to do it. That’s my situation. It’s not work for me. These are all stories that I’m really dying to tell.
What do you do when you sit down to write?
What will be sitting out will be wherever I am on a certain manuscript that I’m writing myself or a manuscript that I’m rewriting, one of the co-author-written things or an outline or two. There are usually at least three or four things … then I just decide which one am I going work on that day, or sometimes I’ll work on two or three in the same day.
What’s a good day’s writing look like for you?
For me it’s all rewriting. It’s layering. The writing keeps hopefully getting better. The dialogue gets sharper. My style is very colloquial. It’s the way we tell stories. It would be a disaster if everybody wrote the way I do. I don’t put in a ton of detail.
I used to live across the street from [former U.S. Army General] Alexander Haig. If I were telling you a story and went out to get the mail and there was Haig lying in the driveway, if I then for the next five minutes talked about the palm trees waving and the architecture of the house, you’d say, “What the f—? Stop! What’s the story with Haig?” I kind of write that way. I’m going to write about Haig in the driveway, and you’re only going to hear about the architecture if it really is relevant to the story I’m telling.
When you say that the writing and rewriting is a matter of “getting better,” what does getting better mean to you?
Emotionally, I just go, “This isn’t there yet. I’m not feeling it.” I’ll put “Be there” on a top of a chapter sometimes. I need to be in the scene. I need to have put enough detail in there where I’m seeing it, I’m certainly feeling it. The dialogue needs to be somewhat true. It needs to be moving the thing forward instead of marching in place.
I’d like to digress a bit and talk about the way you work with co-authors. Did your former life in advertising help shape this collaborative way of working?
There are a lot of things that are collaborative. You start wandering through Florence and Venice and start looking at these churches. They are all collaborations. You look at these ceilings and you see, like, nine painters.
TV scripts — 60 pages, two writers. Movie scripts — four writers. It’s a lot more prevalent than people think it is.
What’s the workflow of the collaboration look like?
The outline will be 60 to 80 pages. I then ask what they contribute, for a couple of reasons. One is, I want their ideas. Secondly, I want them invested, which is most important. With all the people I work with, they want to do this as well as they can do it. This is not hack work. There’s pride. They are into it emotionally.
I insist on seeing stuff every two or three weeks. With publishers, they say, “We’ll see in a year or so,” and they go, “Oh, this isn’t really what I was thinking of.” With me, it’s every couple of weeks, and I’ll get pages and I’ll talk — “This is going well, remember this, remember this. Hold it, we’re off the tracks. We got to stop it and figure out where this went.” Then we’ll talk about that, and then continue.
When do you feel like you’re doing your best work?
I’ll write a good chapter. I’ll write a good outline. My outlines, you read one of my 80-page outlines and you felt like you read a book. The story is all there. That’s very satisfying to me. I can make a breakthrough on an outline or on a direction or with something that was missing from the story. That is very satisfying. I can come up with a new idea. That’s probably the most joyful thing — to go,”You know, it would be very cool … “
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