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She wrote what he said

James Patterson- photo from his Amazon author page. Such a long long list of works.

James Patterson- photo from his Amazon author page. Such a long long list of works.

Can you imagine writing with the world’s biggest-selling novelist? Taking his ideas and turning them into chapters – and then… gasp… he looks at those chapters and criticises them. He tells you exactly what you got right and wrong.

My knees shake at the very thought, but that’s what working with James Patterson is all about. Collaboration. Most of the books that come out with his name on the cover are collaborations. Some criticise him for it. Others think it’s great. And I learned because of it.

At the RWA (Australia) conference, I attended a session by Kathryn Fox. She worked with Patterson on one of the books in his Private series and gave us some insights into his processes, and why Patterson’s books sell in the millions.

Patterson himself has said he loves the ideas part of being a writer, coming up with characters and plots, but isn’t so fond of the business of putting words on paper – sentence after sentence until the end. So the collaboration process is that he comes up with the ideas, characters and plots, and then brings in another writer for the words.

Kathryn Fox, speaking at the RWA conference

Kathryn Fox, speaking at the RWA conference

Kathryn told us that the key to all this is the outline (which he writes himself). It may be 70 to 80 pages. Now, his paperbacks might be 350-450 pages. Give or take. So the outline is about 20% of the length of the final book. I’m a bit of a ‘write into the mist’ kinda girl. I don’t do detailed outlines. To me, an 80 page outline sounds like a lot of detail. And a lot of hard work. Kathryn says that Patterson can take weeks, months, to write that outline and get it absolutely right.

Kathryn told us that working with an outline makes life so much easier. The outline, she said, can stop you heading down the wrong path and wasting time on a plot strand that won’t work and later has to be removed or re-written. It’s going to save time in the structural edits phase. It’s the solution to writer’s block. There’s no excuse for not writing because you know exactly what has to come next.

That all sounds good – but for me, writing an outline that detailed would leave me thinking about the next book, rather than writing this one. Although, come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what James Patterson does.

Apparently, Patterson does then spend a lot of time reviewing and editing the words written by the other author. He puts his stamp on the book before it goes to press. Patterson says he enjoys working with other writers because of the exchange of ideas, but I’m guessing when there’s disagreement, his word is the final word. And that seems fair. It’s his name selling the books.

His stamp includes his trademark short chapters. Kathryn says his guideline is that no chapter should be longer than you could read while waiting at the traffic lights. I assume he is not recommending reading when driving, but I see what he means. His books are thrillers and race along… short chapters will help that. Kathryn told us that each chapter is a single scene and must have  a hook at both the start and end of the chapter. This is what will get the reader caught up in the story and keep them there. Who am I to argue with 250 million + books sold?

The book Kathryn wrote with Patterson. I am about to download and have a read.

The book Kathryn wrote with Patterson. I am about to download and have a read. It’s set, oddly enough, in Australia.

I found this session particularly interesting not just because I’d like to sell 200 million books (who wouldn’t) but also because I am currently working on a collaboration. Not, I hasten to add, with Mr Patterson. Although – if he was to ask…

My co-writer and I did not do an 80 page book outline – we had a spreadsheet and an outline that covered about two pages. We also have another spreadsheet with pretty colours to represent characters.

Neither of us is the ‘boss’ in this collaboration. We both contribute ideas. We both write sections. We can both edit the other’s words. This works for us because we are equal partners in this project. And we haven’t come to blows (yet).

Of course, we haven’t sold 200 million books. We haven’t sold this book (yet) – but we live in hope.

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Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild OneColorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild One
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