Can James Patterson Teach You How To Write A Bestseller?
He famously doesn’t even write his own books.
The first and clearest lesson from James Patterson’s MasterClass on writing — a three-hour webinar that costs $90 — is that James Patterson is a nice guy. Dressed in a brown velvet blazer and navy blue t-shirt, with his New York-accented voice, James Patterson, or “Jim” as my fellow MasterClassers like to call him, emits warmth. He opens his class with a joke — “Hi, I’m Stephen King” — and then immediately explains exactly what this opening joke is supposed to mean. Still, you want to hang out with him. You want to drink with him. He has an untroubled manner.
You don’t exactly meet James Patterson, though. Instead you get to hear his ideas about writing — not the worst way to spend 180 minutes, but not enlightening or surprising to anyone who has thought about writing in a serious way. Which is a shame, because when a man who has sold somewhere around 250 million books says things like, “If you want to make money” — you want to know what’s on the other end of that sentence.
I agreed to take this MasterClass because I was hoping to tap into some of that James Patterson magic. I write thrillers. I’d like to sell a few million copies of my next book. Also, the Awl said they’d pay me to take it.
The course is broken up into twenty-two lessons. The lessons have titles like: PASSION + HABIT; RAW IDEAS; PLOT; RESEARCH. The format is simple: James Patterson is staring into the camera and talking in a seemingly unscripted way about his ideas on these subjects. He tells you things like, Plot is action happening to a character. Or, Moving the story forward is the most important thing.
Each lesson has its own page, with an embedded video on top and a comment section called “Lesson Discussion” below. The discussions, frankly, were a little heartbreaking. People asked things like, “Does anyone know a coroner I can talk to?” Nobody replied. Students made profiles. They had pictures of themselves. Some of the pictures looked like glamour shots, or author photos. It made me wonder if people were using the MasterClass to date. One of the student’s comments seemed polished in a corporate kind of way and I started to suspect he might be a plant from the James Patterson / MasterClass corporation. But when I opened another window and looked him up on Facebook — there he was, eating food in Florida. Was this class making me paranoid?
Another heartbreaking thing that the students do is paste random parts of their stories, without comment, into the lesson discussions. I get it. We want people to validate our writing. I followed suit and pasted the first paragraph of my new book. Sadly, nobody liked it, or commented. I refreshed the screen a few times — nothing.
One of the most persistent rumors about the writer James Patterson is that he isn’t actually a writer. People argue he’s just a franchise, that he employs people to do the writing for him, a work strategy that would, in theory, make it hard for him to teach the craft even in a webinar. He confronts these charges head on in one of the lessons: ON USING A CO-AUTHOR. We meet two of them on screen, a man and a woman, and they appear quite happy with the arrangement: James Patterson creates detailed outlines while they do the actual writing of the book. (Patterson is a huge fan of outlines, dedicating two different lesson videos on the subject.)
Personally, Patterson’s process doesn’t bother me. The fact that he doesn’t seem to know that most of us can’t afford to hire co-authors — that is a problem. In general, the discussions on craft found in these twenty-two lessons are shallow, but friendly. There were plenty of times where I found myself nodding my head, but there weren’t any times where I found myself saying, Huh, I’ve never thought of that before.
On EDITING, he says, “Write, write, write it again. I do nine, ten drafts.” Okay.
In the BUILD A CHAPTER lesson, he tells us that he writes, “Be there,” on top of his pages as he goes. A reminder to smell, and feel the scenes. I actually kind of like that.
Another decent line: “Pace will pay the electric bills.” As a thriller writer, I agree with that!
On making complicated villains: “Your reader is going to know your characters maybe better than they know their own wife.” Really? Okay. But how do we do it?
At another point, during the OUTLINE PART 2 section, I started zoning out a little. My eyes drifted over toward my cat. Mr. Patterson pulled me right back in by saying, “Once you have the outline, start writing dude, you’re ready.” It was that dude that woke me.
Perhaps the most disappointing moment came when — during his section on ENDING THE BOOK — he announced that he was about to give a big reveal. He promised he was about to tell us something “worth the price of admission.” I found myself sitting up in attention. This seemed like it was going to be good. We all struggle with endings. Instead, what he gave us was: “Write down every possible ending, and go through them and pick the most outrageous one that makes sense, and go with that one.” Wait, what?
I finished my three-hour MasterClass in two sittings. The class’s stated goal was to “set out to write a best-selling book.” But the actual experience of watching James Patterson riff brought up a different central question: Why is James Patterson so comfortable with himself?
That’s what this thing is really about, beginning with the idea of looking into a camera and talking unselfconsciously for three hours. That would make me crazy. But not him. To his credit, he can do it effortlessly. But it’s not just talking about writing that comes so easily: He tells us how writing is always fun for him. It’s always great! It’s play! We don’t hear about any struggles. There is no self-doubt. He even says he agreed to do this very class because he’d never done anything like it before. It seemed like a neat challenge.
The only sign of struggle we get is a story about seeing someone pick up his book in an airport and watching them set it back down. “Oh man,” he says. “What’d I do wrong?” He then flashes a defiant look at the camera. “Or what’d my book designer do wrong?” He never expresses any doubt about his own writing. And why should he? He has sold over 300 million books.
I liked when he talked about his personal life. He said he was most proud of his son, which made him seem like a great dad. He says he hugs his son, and kisses him everyday when they’re together.
At one point, he tells us that his grandfather used to say, “Jim, when you grow up, whether you become a surgeon, or the president, just remember you have to be singing on the way to work.” It isn’t difficult to picture James Patterson doing that. But is that what we really want from our novelists? Even our commercial ones? Should they be singing on their way to work? I don’t know that they should.
In this MasterClass, Patterson makes his biography seem like no time at all passed between his first book, The Thomas Berryman Number, which came out in 1976, to his breakout hit, Along Came a Spider, in 1993. He wrote five standalone books during that time. There was a six-year fallow period between Virgin (1980) and Black Market (1986).
What was he doing during those six years?
That’s what I’m curious about.