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The Profile Dossier: James Patterson, the Best-Selling Author on the Planet
“Better readers are better thinkers.”
As the best-selling author in the world, James Patterson is a hit-maker. He knows how to capture a reader’s attention — and hold it — for hundreds of pages.
Patterson is as much a writer as he is a business. He has published more No. 1 New York Times bestsellers than any other author in history, and he’s sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. In 2010, he became the first author to sell one million ebooks. His net worth is estimated at roughly $560 million.
Here’s the kicker: He writes every single novel using a pen and pencil. “Thank God I don’t use a computer because then I’d really be prolific,” he jokes. It’s important to note that he doesn’t write every book himself. He uses what he calls “a collaborative approach.” This means he establishes the plot and characters in detail and then hires a writer to turn it into a full-length book.
The books themselves are binge-worthy. Patterson is known for thrillers with short chapters, simple prose, and lively plots. Among his most popular books are Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, and 1st to Die. Here’s how one reviewer summarizes the essence of a James Patterson novel: “A heck of a good story, full of surprises, and impossible to put down until the very end.”
Patterson began writing at an early age, but it wouldn’t be until later in life that he would consider himself a “writer.” In college, he worked at a mental hospital where he began jotting down ideas for stories. At age 29, he finished his first novel called The Thomas Berryman Number. It was turned down by 31 publishers.
But he kept writing. Sales of his early books were slow, but that’s partly because Patterson was dealing with something pretty tragic in his personal life. His longtime girlfriend Jane had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he became her caretaker. When she passed away, Patterson was heartbroken and crushed. “When you’re madly in love with somebody and they’re young and they die, you’re not good,” he says. “When Jane got sick, I cried every single day.”
After her passing, Patterson began making changes. He devoted himself to his work as a copywriter at an advertising agency, and he quickly rose through the ranks. In just a few years, he was promoted to CEO. (He came up with the ever-so-popular ad jingle, “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us Kid.”)
But his love for writing drew him back in, and he set a lofty goal: “I’m going to try to write a bestselling novel.” In 1993, he wrote Along Came a Spider, which became his breakout hit and spawned a franchise that skyrocketed his popularity. The rest is history.
“The miracle for me is that I still have the passion that I had when I started,” he says.
Here’s what we can learn from the world’s bestselling author about motivation, storytelling, and philanthropy.
On building a literary empire: Publishing is an inherently conservative business. Patterson repeatedly challenged industry convention, sometimes over the objections of his own publisher. Patterson tried to persuade his publisher that the best way to get the book Along Came a Spider on to best-seller lists was to advertise aggressively on television. In this 2010 profile, we see how Patterson used his background in advertising to promote his books to a larger audience.
On becoming James Patterson: Patterson’s hotly-anticipated memoir (comes out in June) chronicles his path to becoming one of the world’s most successful writers. From falling in love to falling in love with writing, Patterson shares his personal story about love, loss, and success.
On Patterson’s process: In this video, you’ll enter Patterson’s “inner sanctum” where he produces every single one of his books. He has drawers filled with folders of existing manuscripts that he’s working on — often multiple at the same time. Here’s how he manages his creativity without ever burning out.
On researching villains: In this Q&A, Patterson answers questions like, “What’s the largest number of books that you’ve actively worked on simultaneously?” and “Why did you make the decision to start writing young-adult literature?” But my favorite question is, “Where do you research your villains to find out so much about them?”
Don’t wait for inspiration to strike: Like many successful writers, Patterson doesn’t believe in the “muse.” He believes in discipline and consistency. When you’re first starting, he recommends making it a habit to sit down and write for an hour per day — even if it’s on the train, after dinner, or early in the morning. Fit it in wherever you can. “Do not sit there like, ‘Oh I don’t feel like it today. I don’t feel like it tomorrow,’” he says. “Feel like it! Do it! Force yourself.” It’s like any other habit — once it becomes a ritual, you don’t have to think about it so much. Your brain and body are conditioned to just do it.
Use ‘bisociation’ to boost creativity: How does Patterson come up with fresh, unconventional ideas for the stories in his books? Like many others I’ve featured in this newsletter (see Grant Achatz, Christopher Nolan, and Dominique Crenn), Patterson says ideas aren’t hard to come by because they are all around us. He subscribes to the philosophy of author Arthur Koestler who proposed a theory that any creative act is a ‘bisociation’ of two (or more) apparently incompatible frames of thought. In other words, ideas are formed when you make connections between two unrelated subjects. “Learn about a lot of things,” he says. “The more you know about, the more likely you are to combine things into an idea that’s striking.”
Research is key: Patterson believes that good research is the key to writing a successful novel — even if it’s sci-fi. By getting facts, locations, and details correct, it builds credibility with your readers. “If you get it wrong, you lose them,” he says. “They’ll go, ‘If this writer can’t keep his facts straight, how can I believe anything else in the story?’”
Use an outline to organize your thinking: An outline doesn’t have to be boring, but it’s a necessary document that will help organize your thinking. Patterson recommends jotting down rough ideas for scene after scene — as if you’re writing a movie — and then piecing them together like a puzzle. Just like your book, your outline will undergo numerous drafts until you get it right. With each version, Patterson recommends adding in more suspenseful moments, more twists, and more drama.
Make your reader invest in your book: The first line in a chapter is so important because it serves as the point in which the reader decides whether they want to invest their time or not. “You’re reaching out from that book, grabbing a hold of the reader, and sucking them right into your book — or not,” Patterson says. But how do you write a captivating first line? You need to get the reader interested immediately by giving away just enough information to make them intrigued and yearning to know more. For instance, Patterson’s first line in Private goes like this, “To the best of my understandably shaky recollection, the first time I died it went something like this.” In other words, your first sentence should make them want to read the second, and so on, and so on. “Suspense is all about questions the reader must, must, must have answered,” he says.
The ending should evoke emotion: Your ending should make the reader feel something. In the ending, Patterson says, is where you throw out the logic and inject emotion. Patterson recommends writing several alternate endings before you decide on the one you will use. “Write down absolutely anything that can happen. I don’t care how ridiculous,” he says. Then, pick the most outrageous one that still makes sense.
Philanthropy starts at home: You can donate money to charities all over the world, but Patterson says, philanthropy begins at home. When his son didn’t exhibit an interest in reading, he began writing books for young adults so that he could pique his son’s interest. From there, Patterson has donated more than one million books to students, focusing on some of the most under-resourced schools and youth programs in the country. To date, he has donated $7.25 million to school and classroom libraries throughout the United States, and $2.1 million to independent bookstores and employees. Find the problems you’re passionate about — and those usually start at home.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Better readers are better thinkers.”
“You see, one of the best things about reading is that you'll always have something to think about when you're not reading.”
“There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.”
“Don’t set out to write a good thriller. Set out to write a #1 thriller.”
“You're lucky if you find something you like to do, and it's a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it.”
“I never miss a good chance to shut up.”
“Your mind creates your reality. If you expect nothing, you open up the universe to give you options. If you expect the worst, you usually get it.”