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On the rewards of not writing

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Mr. Patterson said he often worked with co-authors because he believed that he was more proficient at creating the storyline than at executing it. "I found that it is rare that you get a craftsman and an idea person in the same body," Mr. Patterson said. "With me, I struggle like crazy. I can do the craft at an acceptable level, but the ideas are what I like." He said the co-authors received a flat fee and, most often, credit on the book cover. -From The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2005


This guy Patterson has the right idea. You don't sell 50 jillion books sitting on your keister worrying about verbs and nuance. Your verb-and-nuance guys get interviewed in the book section. Creative guys get interviewed in the business section, talking about how they invest the $40 million a year they make not-writing books.

James Patterson has not-written 29 best-selling books in the last 30 years, but his not-writing pace is accelerating. This year alone he's had four novels on The Times' best seller list, all of them filled with what he calls "ruthless and shocking twists."

All the great ones worked like this:

Hemingway said to his agent, "I got an idea about a guy and a fish. Maybe an old ethnic guy. A pretty big fish. Get me somebody to flesh it out."

Fitzgerald said, "I'm thinking about a rich guy and a mysterious past, maybe one of those capture-the-soul-of-a-generation things, but with ruthless and shocking twists. Get me somebody who can type."

Jane Austen started it. Said to her agent, "Maybe a spunky girl and an arrogant guy. Sparks fly. Lots of witty dialogue. What do you think? Are you not excessively diverted? Get me someone who knows about grand balls and social class."

We writers are way too busy to actually write. Think of us as architects. You think Frank Lloyd Wright actually built Fallingwater? You think Frank Gehry bends stainless steel himself? All over the world there are carpenters and plumbers and typists, people who "do the craft," as Jimmy Patterson says. They kill time by teaching English lit or blogging until a Bigfoot creative guy calls up and says, "Yo. I got an idea. Start typing."

Typing up the words, that's nothing but commas and stuff. It's the yarn-spinning that's important. James Patterson says, "I spin yarns. I love it. I have a folder with several hundred ideas for stories. They just come and I say: `There's a story here.'"

Mark Twain, same way. Had a folder with a couple of hundred ideas. A kid, a raft, a river. A prince, a pauper. A jumping frog. You think he had time to write all those things himself? No, he was a yarn spinner.

Your Russians - your Tolstoys, your Dostoevskys - they did it, too. Only they didn't have folders. Russia was a poor country. They kept their yarns in their hats, which is how the stocking cap came to be invented. Then they hired collaborators, although they didn't call them "collaborators" because the czar would've had them shot.

Dickens kept his yarns in his shaving kit. Melville kept his in a sea bag. Historians later found his notebook, which contained his jottings: "Elephant???? No, whale. What color? Mauve????"

Writers are busy people. They have to meet with brokers, accountants, branding experts. They have to approve dust jacket blurbs. Think of them as heads of creative teams, not lonely figures hunched over keyboards searching for metaphors and similes.

According to The Times, James Patterson has been so successful that the Harvard Business School has used him as a case study in brand management. "In marketing that brand," it is reported, "he is ferociously competitive. He agreed to pay half the salary of a brand manager at Little, Brown & Co., his publisher, who does nothing but track the marketing and releases of Mr. Patterson's hardcover books to avoid conflicts with his paperbacks and new releases from other top authors."

Patterson is a perfectionist when it comes to not-writing. Once a co-author has finished his book, Patterson may ask him to polish it up, and then he himself takes on the job of rewriting, adding a few dozen ruthless and shocking twists. "They don't give awards for what I do," he said, although some people might consider $40 million a year a pretty good award.

Still, he is a little bugged. He doesn't think writers get enough credit. "The media has convinced itself that writers are not interesting to people," he complains, "and I am one of the top five best-selling writers in the United States."



Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at


(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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