May 3, 2009

The Patterson Principle: Five Tips for Writing a Bestseller

James Patterson has learned the knack for writing bestsellers. In fact from his website, we learn he has had 19 consecutive hardcover #1 NYT bestsellers. He’s spent more than 150 weeks with one or more books on the USA Today list. One out of every 15 hardcover fiction titles sold in 2007 was authored or co authored by James Patterson.

Patterson’s rise to the top was no accident. If he could spare the time from producing four or five books a year, he might share these writing tips with us:

1. Read widely. An admitted “bookaholic,” Patterson has a voracious reading habit that ranges from Ibsen to Joan Didion, Crichton to Robert Parker, and Jane Austen to James Joyce. This allows him to produce books in almost any genre including mysteries, thrillers, romances, and fantasy. His enthusiasm for reading is evident in his sponsorship of the James Patterson PageTurner Awards which awards as much as $500,000 annually to schools, libraries, bookstores and other organizations that foster the joy of reading. ( and

2. Develop a voice. Paterson’s is lean and fast paced. He writes in short paragraphs of 1 to 4 sentences. His chapters are rarely more than 3 pages long, while his novel may have 150 of these short chapters. If readers of his romances such as Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas (which Patterson himself describes as a “treacly, overly sentimental love story”) are surprised by his sparse style, it hasn’t hurt his sales in this genre. Go to to read a few excerpts across genres. Patterson says his style developed from “just leaving a lot of stuff out” and finding it more interesting that way. He has stated that “words should not get in the way of the stories.”

3. Believe in your writing. Starting with Along Came a Spider in 1992, Patterson took over control of marketing and cover design expanding his publisher’s marketing plans with TV ads financed from his own pocket and redesigning the cover to the now iconic thriller look of a bold title against a dramatic colored background. A former advertising executive, he now designs all his covers and his marketing plan is featured in a Harvard Business School case study.

4. Don’t be afraid to collaborate. Eight of Patterson’s books have been written with co-authors including Peter de Jonge, Maxine Paetro, and Andrew Gross. Patterson believes he has more stories to tell than he has the time to tell them. His usual collaborative process is to create an outline and send it to a collaborator for a first draft. After discussions, at some point Patterson will take over and write successive drafts. With Patterson’s name above the title and the co-author’s below, co-written books sell as well as those written solo.

5. Ignore the critics. If the cliché “laughing all the way to the bank” had a poster boy, James Patterson might be that boy. Patterson’s books have earned him awards including the Edgar, the BCA Mystery Guild's Thriller of the Year, and the International Thriller of the Year award. His reviews frequently contain quotes such as “a ripsnorting, terrific read.” and “another whiz-bang, fast-paced novel.” But his books have also been put down as “not intellectually stimulating” and “dopey.” Patterson admits some of the criticism stings and that he is frustrated by a general lack of respect for successful genre writers. He says what he is doing is “not easy to do. If it was... a lot of people would do it.” But criticism does not inhibit Patterson from reaching his stated goal of being the “king of pageturners.” He said he read mainly literary fiction until he was an adult, but it was The Exorcist and The Day of the Jackal that served as examples of the kind of book he wanted to write. A few years later in 1976, Patterson published his own first novel. It had been rejected more than 2 dozen times.

I want to thank Anna for allowing me to share her blog space today. And I hope you will share a bit of the time you might use to read a James Patterson book to reading one of mine. Three were released this Spring: Listen With Your Heart, Haunts of the Heart, and Cast a Pale Shadow. Most likely nothing in them will remind you of James Patterson. You can learn more about them at

Thanks for stopping by. I'd love to hear about what you've learned about writing from one of your favorite writers.


unwriter said...

I've learned to write with my own voice. I write humor and it is all g rated. I'm not a best seller but I'm happy with what I write. If others don't like what I write I figure that is their problem. I quit listening to most critics. I have one however that offers sage advice and I listen closely.

Writing is fun.

Eliza Knight said...

I love James Patterson books! Great advice!

Tessy said...

Great post!!!!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Barbara, thanks for stopping by today. I love the article. Can I confess....or should I even confess....that I've never read Patterson! I have, however, seen a couple of his books in movie form. But you can't argue with a best selling author. I love his advice.

I have not been able to read as much lately as I used to, but I find when can read, it helps me write better, or at least gets me into the mode to write. Not exactly the advice you were looking for, but I do find reading my favorites helps me out with my own writing, whether it's the style or just making me think 'romance.'

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

James Patterson's work is on my shelves. My dh loves his stuff, so we both benefit.

Great post, good insights, lots of encouragement. You pack a punch!!

Katie Hines said...

Great interview. I LOVE to read James Patterson!

Emma Lai said...

Glad to know I'm not alone in never having read Patterson's work. Not quite my genre. However, I don't deny that he is an awesome author. Thanks for posting the five tips!

Anonymous said...

James Patterson is not only one of my favorite authors, but my husband, who is not a voracious reader, enjoys his books as well. Thanks for the insight.

Barbara Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barbara Scott said...

Just back for work. Thanks for all the comments. I hope you don't mind if I capsulize my responses here.

Unwriter: Developing your own voice is most of the battle. And being happy with what you write is most of the rest. Once writing becomes fun, you can battle back the dreaded writer's block without breaking a sweat.

Eliza, Tessy, Gwynlyn, Katie, and and Sandra: Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Anna: I must admit I hadn't read him either until someone passed me a copy of The Lake House. I thought it was the basis of the Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reaves movie. It was not.
I've been accused of being prejudiced against bestsellers since I will never write one. :-) But Patterson's voice is so different from mine. His reads are so fast and his chapters so short that they speed by and before you know it, you're hooked.

Emma: Have you read The Jester, Patterson's nod to historical romance?

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Barbara and Anna Kathryn,
Very interesting article. Gives one hope of hitting the best seller lists one day.

Rebecca J. Clark said...

I love James Patterson's books. I have a hard time reading in my own genre while writing my first drafts, so I tend to go for the Patterson-type books during that time.

I like/hate his short chapters, because if I'm reading late at night, the length makes it too easy to say, "Just one more chapter," over and over again.