Thursday, January 28, 2010

Patterson on Writing


“I have a saying,” Patterson told [the interviewer]. “If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”

I know James Patterson has as many detractors and critics as he does fans. Well, maybe not quite as many detractors as fans. :)

You can say what you like about his writing (or that of the co-authors he hires to write for and with him), but the man sells some books. And I do respect sales. You really can’t argue with money as an indicator of reader popularity.

According to the New York Times article from Sunday (which I’ve taken the block quote from, above), Nielson’s Bookscan reported that Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown’s sales combined in recent years don’t match Patterson’s sales or income.

He has 51 New York Times bestsellers. Thirty-five of those books went all the way to the top spot.

So we’ve established that he’s an extremely popular and successful author. He gets repeat business from readers—some read everything that he puts out.

How does he do it? And—do we want to do it?

I’ll admit that I’m not a Patterson reader. My son reads his YA books, but his other lines are just too graphic for me (I’m a sensitive soul.) I’ve read probably one or two of his books, and it was a while back.

I read the New York Times article with a lot of interest. Several times in the story, it referenced Patterson’s populist appeal—an appeal he carefully planned. He thinks of himself as both an entertainer and a proponent of reading…reading for the masses. He aims to write books that will even pull in non-readers.

The Times says this about his style:

His books all share stylistic similarities. They are light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.”

And this:

“…his books are accessible and engaging. “A brand is just a connection between something and a bunch of people,” Patterson told me. “Crest toothpaste: I always used it, it tastes O.K., so I don’t have any particular reason to switch. Here the connection is that James Patterson writes books that bubble along with heroes I can get interested in. That’s it.”

Basically, Patterson analyzes what readers want. What pulls them into a story? What makes them buy books? What makes them repeat readers?

He’s decided that his readers want a fast-paced book with short chapters, lots of action, and less setting and description. This formula is definitely working for him.

There’s no way that I could write books like James Patterson. But I found his approach very interesting—he writes what his readers want.

As a genre writer (low-to-midlist), I definitely want to tap in to what readers want. My editors want me to write what readers want, too—that is, after all, what sells books. Most often, what cozy mystery readers like to read is what I like to read: quirky, interesting characters, a twisty plot, a few red herrings chucked in.

But this article made me really sit down and assess—am I delivering what readers want?

I know there are many writers who write primarily to please themselves and they hope that their novel will please readers, too. There are some who probably wouldn’t want to sacrifice their vision for a book in favor of a populist appeal….they may even view that as selling out. This is likely the case with most literary fiction.

Unfortunately, it’s harder for books to get to the shelves if readership is uncertain.

The last thing the world needs is a bunch of James Patterson wannabes on the shelves.

But each genre has its avid readers. What do readers in your genre want? Is delivering their wants a priority of yours? Should it be…or is it too much of a sacrifice?


Hope y’all will drop by guest will be Terry Odell , kicking us off my series on the writing process with her post, titled “Plotting? Moi?”

And…feel like some corn pudding? It’s Simple Southern Side day at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen!