Friday, February 12, 2010

Writing Lessons from James Patterson

You may love James Patterson's books. You may hate them. But you can't deny his success - if you measure success by sales.
  • He's published more New York Times best sellers than anyone: fifty one. Thirty five of them hit No. 1.
  • Last year, he sold 14 million books in 38 languages.
  • He publishes books at an astounding rate: 9 original books in 2009. He plans to publish at least 9 in 2010.
  • "Since 2006, Mr. Patterson has written one out of every 17 hardcover novels...bought in the United States."
Jonathan Mahler's recent New York Times article on Patterson (James Patterson Inc., 1-24-10) gave me some insights worth chewing on. Here are my takeaways:

1. Writing can be a team sport. Writing is popularly viewed as the lone venture of recluses who hole up in their basements, surfacing every 9 months or so to submit their finished products to their publishing houses and do their national book signing tour. Then it's back to the basement. But in reality, perhaps there are as many ways to write as there are writers.

Patterson's writing has evolved into a method that doesn't require him to write the entire book. He envisions the broad strokes of the story and writes a detailed outline that can run up to 50 pages, triple spaced. (He writes it in long hand on a legal pad and gives it to an assistant to type.) He then gives the outline to one of his five coauthors (each specializes in a particular series or genre), who writes chapters and hands them back to Patterson for revisions or rewrites.

The benefit of team writing is that members of the team can concentrate on what they do best, or what they like to do best. The task of writing a 250 page book requires a vision, a knack for telling a story, the ability to create interesting, likeable characters, structuring, titling, creating cool analogies, and piddling over grammatical minutia. Just because someone's bag of talents and interests doesn't include one or more of these skills shouldn't automatically preclude her from being a writer.

It's considered normal for a screenplay to involve a visionary, several writers, and input from a legion of people, including actors and pre-release audiences. Couldn't many authors benefit from such a team approach?

2. Take your marketing seriously. Most authors seem averse to personally marketing their books. To them, it almost seems morally repugnant - like bribing people to read something they should choose of their own volition. But read up on the business of writing and you'll discover that publishers these days insist that authors involve themselves in the selling of books. I'd suggest that Patterson's success is at least partly due to his personal involvement in marketing his books.

As a former ad executive, he's intimately involved with the design, publishing and advertising of his books. In his early years of writing, Patterson repeatedly challenged conventional industry practices in book marketing. It's quite possible that if he hadn't taken rather extraordinary measures in advertising those early books, he'd just be another writer today.

3. Keep improving. Of one of his early books, Patterson says, "That's an absolutely horrifying book.... I actually tell people not to read it."

4. It's tough to get a first novel published. Over a dozen publishers rejected Patterson's first manuscript. Once published, it won a prestigious Edgar Award. Everyone in the industry tells me it's much more difficult to get published now. So don't let rejection indicate to you that your writing sucks. All authors, except best-selling authors, get rejection after rejection.

5. Don't expect everyone to like your books. Stephen King has called Patterson "a terrible writer." A Washington Post reviewer called one of his works "subliterate." To which Patterson responds, "Thousands of people don't like what I do. Fortunately, millions do."

6. Story trumps sentences. In his early work, he obsessed over his sentences. Now he's more interested in stories than sentences. Mahler describes Patterson's writing as "light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences." Patterson says, "I don't believe in showing off. Showing off can get in the way of a good story." He writes short chapters and avoids "description, back story and scene setting whenever possible." He prefers to "hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details."

7. On writing what people want. "I have a saying. If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something."

8. On loving your work. Patterson's grandad once said to him, "Jim, I don't care what you do when you grow up. I don't care if you drive a truck like I do or if you become the president. Just remember that when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you've got to be singing." Patterson said, "Well, I am."

9. Understand the publishing industry's bias toward best-selling authors. Times have changed. The industry has changed. Before 1980, if you sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover, you had a "hit" book. Today, to be a blockbuster, it's gotta sell at least one million copies. How did this happen, and how does this affect authors?

When conglomerates consolidated the industry in the 1980's, they sought larger profits by pushing for bigger best-sellers. "Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. ... The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn't. And the blockbuster became even bigger."

My takeaways: 1) If you're already a best-selling author, the traditional publishing industry is a great way to go. They'll publish you, spend the money to market you, and pay to have your books displayed in the most prominent places in bookstores. 2) If you're not already a best-selling author, expect it to be very difficult to get published (or republished) with traditional publishers. If you do get published by them, they probably will do little to market your book. If you've gotta market the book yourself anyway, and have the time and motivation to consider the new tools of publishing, consider the self-publishing option.

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