“The day, and it was a day, that writing started to be fun for me, the day things began to really click, was the day I stopped trying to write sentences and started writing stories.”
James Patterson is one of the most prolific writers in the world with over 400 million copies of his books sold. He is also the first person to sell 1 million e-books. In his memoir, he writes about his humble upbringing to becoming the world’s most successful writer. Patterson shares his writing regimen, his life as an advertising professional, golfing with presidents, worldview and thought process. He had always wanted to write the kind of novel that would be read and reread so many times that the binding breaks and the book literally fall apart – so he did.
I wanted to write the kind of novel that was read and reread so many times the binding broke and the book literally fell apart, pages scattered in the wind.
James Patterson by James Patterson is a great book on how one of the most successful writer of a generation does it. Patterson’s strategies include telling stories, outlining and collaborating with co-writers.
You’re lucky if you find something in life you like to do. Then it’s a miracle if somebody’ll pay you to do it.
My writing style is colloquial, which is the way we talk to one another, right? Some might disagree—some vehemently disagree—but I think colloquial storytelling is a valid form of expression. If you wrote down your favorite story to tell, there might not be any great sentences, but it still could be outstanding. Try it out. Write down a good story you tell friends—maybe starting with the line “Stop me if I’ve told you this one before” – and see how it looks on paper.
One thing that I’ve learned and taken to heart about writing books or even delivering a good speech is to tell stories. Story after story after story.
Writing Career started at Psychiatric Hospital
My writing career unofficially began at McLean Hospital, the psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was the summer of 1965 and I was eighteen. Fresh out of high school. I needed a job, any job, and McLean was hiring. I spent a good part of the next five years at this mental hospital. That’s where everything changed about how I saw the world and probably how I saw myself.
Spent free time reading
So I had a lot of free time. I started reading like a man possessed during those long, dark nights of other people’s souls.
Two or three times a week, I’d go the three miles or so into Cambridge and make the rounds of the secondhand bookstores. I especially loved tattered, dog-eared books. Books that had been well loved and showed it. The used books cost me a quarter, occasionally a buck, even for thick novels like The Sot-Weed Factor, The Golden Notebook, The Tin Drum.
At the time, I wasn’t interested in genre fiction, the kind of accessible stuff I write. I had no idea what books were on the New York Times bestseller lists. I was a full-blown, know-it-all literary snob—who didn’t really know what the hell he was talking about.
My ideas about how the world was supposed to work had been framed growing up in Newburgh, New York, and the somewhat parochial outer reaches of Orange County. As I read novel after novel, play after play, my view of what was possible in life began to change.
Read to Write
During the time I worked at McLean Hospital, I read everything (except bestsellers, God forbid) I could get my hands on. Then I started scribbling my own short stories, hundreds of them. That was the beginning of the end. I was now officially an addict. I wanted to write the kind of novel that was read and reread so many times the binding broke and the book literally fell apart, pages scattered in the wind. I’m still working on that one.
You’re slipping James – High Standards
I was always a good student, driven to be number one in, well, everything, but I’d get a ninety-seven on a test and my mom or dad would say, “How come you didn’t get a hundred? You’re slipping, James.”
The idea I had growing up—and I held on to it into my forties—was that my folks only cared about me as long as I was number one in my class. I don’t blame them, because I feel they were doing the best that they could. I think they honestly believed the next Great Depression was just around the corner, and they always clung to Careful. Careful. Go slow. Look both ways. Then look again. Your best isn’t good enough. You’re slipping, James.
My mom used to get rid of me and my sister Mary Ellen by packing us off to the movie theater for Saturday-afternoon double features. To this day, I go to the movies two or three times a week. It’s an astonishingly dumb habit. There aren’t two or three good movies in a given month. There are usually none. But still I go. Or I did until COVID shut down all the movie theaters.
Playing sports got me through the Newburgh years. Later in life, I took up the diabolical game of golf. I now have nine holes in one. The ninth came this year—on my birthday. A good friend told me that should be the opening line of this book. Obviously, I didn’t agree. But I was definitely tempted. As a kid, I played stickball, baseball, basketball, flag football. I was pretty good—of course, most guys say that, so, fine, let’s go to the highlight reel.
You play hard, you do your best, but in the end, have enough perspective to know it’s a game. If you’re a Yankees fan, you don’t actually hate Red Sox fans.
Keep Chopping Wood
To this day, I look at the world through the lens of a blue-collar kid who grew up in Newburgh. It’s a blessing. I think it’s why I’ve never been too full of myself, too impressed with bestseller lists. It’s probably why I’m kind of a working-class storyteller. I just keep chopping wood.
I remember this as if it happened just the other day. It was 1968, a brutal, heartbreaking, soul-searching year. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. Vietnam was on fire.
I think it was something about that confusing, terrifying time that got me thinking seriously about trying to be a writer, trying to get some truth out of my head and down on paper.
Nowadays, people ask me what they should do to become a writer. I usually tell them that if it’s meant to be, they won’t really have a choice. The writing just takes over everything. You think about writing all day, every day. And most important—you actually write.
I started writing two, sometimes three, short stories a week. Something about that early self-training seemed to work out. I think it’s still operating okay. Hey, if I can make my life story interesting, I can make just about any story line work.
“Life is like a football game, James. If you run really fast but you step out-of-bounds, well, the touchdown doesn’t count.”
Writing while working as Ad man
Meanwhile, I continued to work on my novels. I’d write early in the morning, every morning, I’d lock my office door at lunchtime and write for half an hour. I’d write on the plane during every business trip. I’d write pages at four in the morning, and I’d write again until midnight. I refused to give up myself.
I was in my mid-thirties when I became the youngest creative director ever at J.Walter New York.
Escape from new york
- 1996 : Four bestselling novels featuring Alex Cross
- After quitting : Stayed on the J.Walter Thompson BOD for a couple of years.
- Life is too short for board meeting
And that is precisely why I’ve refused to sit on any boards since I left Thompson. For me, life is too short for board meetings.
Patterson has written some non-fiction books such as Filthy Rich (Jeffrey Epstein), All American Murder (Aaron Hernandez), The House of Kennedy (The Kennedy Family), The Last Days of John Lennon (John Lennon) and the Defense Lawyer (Barry Slotnick) among others.
“So now I’m hooked on writing nonfiction. And I haven’t gone over five hundred pages yet. I just tell stories and I don’t even have to make anything up. Almost seems too easy.”
Encouraging kids to read
“Parents come up to me all the time and say, “I can’t get my kids reading.” I commiserate, then I tell them, “Hey, do you manage to get them to the dinner table? Do you allow them to track mud or snow onto your living-room carpet? Do you let them curse in church?”
Then make this a rule: We read in our house.
“When people bring up my practice of writing with coauthors, they usually aren’t thinking nice thoughts. Here’s the best defense I’ve come up with about cowriters.”
- Simon & Garfunkel
- Lennon & McCartney
- Lennon & McCartney & Harrison & Starr
- Gilbert & Sullivan
- Rodgers & Hammerstein
- “Woodward & Bernstein
- Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
- Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
- Stephen King & Peter Straub
- Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
- Joel & Ethan Coen
- Matt Stone & Trey Parker
- William Shakespeare & Christopher Marlowe & John Fletcher
“I could go on. My point is that collaborations are common and they often work beautifully. They obviously succeed big-time in film and music, and for me they’ve been a good way to tell a lot of stories. And trust me, I have a lot of stories to tell.”
The Five Balls
Let’s name them work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Somehow you’re keeping all those balls in the air. That’s not an easy thing to do.
Sound familiar? Sound a little like your life? Well, it definitely sounds like mine.
Hopefully, you come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will usually bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—are made of glass.
If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. It will never be the same.
“Once you understand that, maybe, just maybe, you’ll strive for more balance in your life.”
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.