James Patterson: Writing the “Unputdownable” Novel

James Patterson

James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author, doesn’t do a lot of interviews, so when he does, writers of commercial fiction pay attention. Even if you’re not a fan of Patterson’s fast-paced thrillers, his concise suggestions in the current “Fast Company” are worth reading.

James Patterson’s Rules

In shorthand form, here are James Patterson’s rules for writing suspense:

Write stories the way people tell them. Stated another way, “leave out the parts people skip.” (The late Elmore Leonard used to say the same thing.

Make reading the book an “experience.” Let the reader experience what the characters are experiencing.  Good advice,  and harder to accomplish than it may seem.

Keep your chapters short. Agreed. (I thought a short reply was in order).

The story doesn’t have to be realistic. Okay, here’s where I part ways with the billionaire author. I write legal thrillers, and for me, verisimilitude is essential. At the very least, the story must seem realistic.  In a murder trial, a spectator does not leap forward and confess, saving the day for the defendant.

Always outline the book before starting to write. Agreed. You will have fewer false starts and wrong turns.

Still, be open to changes during the writing. Agreed. My characters frequently point me in new, better directions.  (Occasionally, Jake Lassiter, my linebacker-turned-lawyer, threatens to punch me out if I don’t change his dialogue).

James Patterson book

Write with confidence. I’ll modify that a bit. Re-write with confidence. That’s when you’ll turn out your best material.

Know who you’re writing for and what they want. “People want to be glued to the page. They want suspense,” James Patterson writes. He advises the writer to plant a “hook” early, then reel the reader in. Agreed.

Critics don’t give James Patterson much respect, but nearly four decades ago, he won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel: “The Thomas Berryman Number.”    I don’t think  Patterson would be offended if I said he was a better storyteller than a writer. Hell, he’d probably agree. Bottom line: one out of every 17 novels purchased in the United States is written (or co-written) by Patterson, and according to Wikipedia:

“James Patterson has had 19 consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most bestselling hardcover fiction titles by a single author, a total of 76, which is also a Guinness World Record. In recent years his novels have sold more copies than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. His books have sold approximately 300 million copies worldwide.”

Commercial success isn’t everything, but writers of popular fiction might want to listen and learn from the most successful storyteller of all time. (The entire interview on “Fast Company” can be found here).

Paul Levine