James Patterson: “I’m an Okay Writer But a Very Good Storyteller”

James Patterson: “I’m an Okay Writer But a Very Good Storyteller”

One of my favorite things about this recent piece that James Patterson wrote for Fast Company Co.Create is how the NYPD Red 2 author owns his guilty-pleasure status. In laying out what makes a book “unputdownable,” he analyzes his own storytelling process and acknowledges what make his books beach reads: His refusal to adhere to realism, his penchant for super-short chapters, and more.

Patterson’s first piece of advice is to write stories the way that people tell them—keep the colloquialisms, but ditch the unnecessary details. “I try to leave out the parts people skip,” he explains, which is why you won’t find rambling descriptions of architecture or the weather patterns of a particular scene. “I think it’d be tragic if everybody wrote that way,” he adds. “But that’s my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I’m an okay writer, but a very good storyteller.”

This distinction, between storytelling and writing skill, is a debate waged on book blogs but not always addressed by published authors themselves. In 2009, Stephen King famously commented on the issue, calling out Patterson, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer as examples of both sides. Seeming to share Patterson’s self-assessment of his storytelling skills, King cited his overwhelming success and said, “People are attracted by the stories, by the pace.” Interestingly, when it came to the latter two authors, King established a firm distinction between the quality of their writing, yet acknowledged that Meyer had an undeniable hold over her readers (i.e., the mark of compelling storytelling).

Another hallmark of Patterson’s books is how his chapters are barely a few pages long, something that threw me the first few times I read his Alex Cross novels. I’d barely feel settled into a scene when—bam!—we were on to the next character’s POV. It turns out that Patterson borrowed the short chapters idea from Evan S. Connell Jr. and Jerzy Kosiński‘s books, because of how they briskly moved the action along.

The bestselling author’s reasoning behind his storytelling style is actually really obvious: “I try to pretend that there’s somebody across from me and I’m telling them a story and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished.” And in case you were wondering how aware guilty-pleasure authors are of their contemporaries, he calls out John Grisham‘s “really powerful hook[s].”

Oh, and he straight-up says that he doesn’t write realism: “Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing.” However, he does stick to super-detailed outlines, which are basically finished books in and of themselves. Love it.

Check out the whole piece at Co.Create for Patterson’s thoughts on who he’s actually writing for, and how often his endings change from the beginning of the draft to the end.



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