[GQ talks to James Patterson. I’ve never been a fan of his writing, but I admire him about coming clean about how he manages the writing machine that is the James Patterson brand. SB SM]
“My grandmother said, ‘Hungry dogs run faster,’” says the 75-year-old. “I’ve always been a hungry dog.”
BY CLAY SKIPPER
January 3, 2023
For “Routine Excellence,” GQ asks creative, successful people about the practices, habits, and routines that get them through their day.
James Patterson has written so many books that he’s long forgotten the number he hit during his most prolific single year. “I don’t know the most, but right now I believe I have 31 active projects,” says the 75-year-old over the phone, from his house about an hour north of New York City. “Lately, we’ve been doing eight to 10 fiction, one or two non-fiction, and then anywhere from three to five kids or young adult books.” The latest, out next week, is The House of Wolves, a collaboration with Mike Lupica.
Mind you, Patterson didn’t start publishing in earnest until after he’d finished a decades long career at J. Walter Thompson, an advertising firm. Though his productivity is due in large part to a stable of co-writers that he works with, it’s also a result of a daily routine that includes about eleven hours of reading and writing, one hour of golf, and many chats with his wife Susan. Here, he explains how he can re-work a draft of a novel in half an hour, how co-writing works, and why he prefers funerals to weddings.
GQ: So how do you keep all of those projects straight?
James Patterson: I don’t have a problem with it. When I worked in advertising [at J. Walter Thompson]—and I’ve been clean for over 25 years now, so don’t hold that against me—I ran Thompson New York, I ran Thompson USA, and I was also a worldwide creative director, so there were an awful lot of things to juggle. I don’t even think about it anymore. It is a habit. And I don’t work for a living, I play for a living. There’s almost nothing that I do that I don’t enjoy doing. I remember when Dolly Parton and I got together [to work on the novel Run, Rose, Run], one of the things we talked about is, we don’t want to do any projects where at the end we say we’re really sorry we did the project. In other words, we think that there’s a high upside.
How many hours a day would you say that you… Well, I was going to say “work,” but I guess I’ll say “play” instead?
I do what I do seven days a week. I’ll usually get up at 5:30 and work for an hour. Then, frequently, I will go out and hit a golf ball. They let me onto most of the courses I belong to very early, which is nice. If I come at 6:00, they say, “Go ahead.” I’ll go around for an hour, an hour and a half. Then I’m back here by 8:00, and then I’ll work till 6:00. I’ll take a couple breaks if I need them, which I usually do. And obviously, what that [day] results in is more books than my publisher wants. That’s why I started doing non-fiction, because they said, “Okay, yeah, we can handle one or two non-fiction.”
How do you come up with all your different ideas?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s a sickness. I’m going to donate my brain to science and they can check it out and figure it out. I don’t know what it is. I have a folder in my office here, and it has a clever title: “Ideas.” It’s about nine inches thick, and on every page, there could be anywhere from one to 10 or 11 ideas. Every once in a while when I’m thinking about writing another book, I’ll start looking through it and maybe jotting down six or seven of the things that are in there. Just thinking, can I turn that into a story? Every once in a while, there’s something that’s been in there for a long time, and, all of a sudden, I know how to tell a story around it. If you can write beginnings and ends, you can make a nice living as a writer. If you write middles, you win Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes and stuff. But with beginnings and ends, you’re going to do okay.
So this 8:00 to 6:00 routine—
With breaks, with breaks. I’m very lucky because my wife and I, we love each other. We love hanging together. In my autobiography, I write, and this is true, every night, we go to sleep holding hands. And one of my comedic lines about her, which is also true, is, “If Sue ever leaves me, I’m going with her.” That’s another habit, another routine, but it’s a really good one. We are best friends, we love to talk to one another, and people who get together who don’t like to talk to together, that really makes it difficult. It’s just like, “You know, you’re really pretty….” That’s not enough.
During your daily routine, how much of that is spent writing, and how much is spent looking at other things that your co-authors have written?
Well, it could be anything. Pretty much every day I’ll get stuff to read. In terms of the routine that we follow with the co-writers, in 95 percent of the cases I will write a 50- to 70- page outline. I then encourage the co-writer to contribute, because I want the contributions and I want them emotionally involved, which is important. If they’re just going to do a workman-like job, I don’t really want them. I want to see pages every couple of weeks, unlike publishers who say, go ahead, and then a year later go, this isn’t what I was looking for. But with every couple of weeks, I can say, “Wonderful”—which I love to say—”you’re the best, this is terrific, best pages ever.” Or I might say, “We’re going sideways here. We’ve lost the pace. This is not the tone of voice of a Women’s Murder Club story,” or, “We’re not buying this part,” or, “These three chapters seem flat.” It’s so much easier to deal with 30 pages than it is to deal with 400 pages.
When you’re writing, are you writing longhand?
I write longhand, and then once I’ve typed one draft, my assistant gives me back pages which are triple-spaced, and I’ll write between the lines. I’ll cross off whatever I don’t like anymore, add new stuff. And then I’ll do the next draft in an hour, or half an hour, where all I do is to alter the new stuff. I don’t want to read the whole thing again, I’m assuming what I left is fine. So, I can do another draft in half an hour, usually. Let’s say it’s 40 pages, and let’s say I’ve added seven pages of additions. I can go over that and rewrite it. I’ll do two polishes with what’s there. But I don’t go over the whole thing again. Whatever I didn’t mess with it, I don’t mess with. And then, if I do another draft, I’ll do a draft on the whole thing.
What’s something you know about discipline now that you wish you’d known earlier?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always been pretty disciplined.
Where do you think that comes from?
I wanted to get out of my hometown, so I figured I needed to do well in school, and I did. But I never liked school. I always found it kind of boring. So, my thing was, okay, how do I do this well and really quickly? How can I really be efficient? Because I don’t like this. I don’t like what we’re reading in Catholic school. I don’t like the exercises. When I started thinking about being a reader, I was working [as a psych aide] at McLean Hospital [in Massachusetts], working my way through college. I worked a lot of night shifts, and I started reading like crazy. But it wasn’t the kind of thing that I was forced to read in high school. It was Our Lady of the Flowers and One Hundred Years of Solitude, more serious stuff. I knew I needed to catch up because I hadn’t read nearly enough in high school. So I taught myself how to speed read. I don’t remember exactly, but I could read like 120 pages an hour. So, I’ve always been good at: OK, what’s the most efficient way to do this and still have fun with it?
What’s a lesson or a piece of advice you find yourself coming back to often?
My grandmother said, “Hungry dogs run faster.” I’ve always been a hungry dog. There’s different reasons people are driven. I’m driven by the passion of doing it well, as opposed to pleasing my father or avoiding punishment or whatever, which is why some people are driven. Fortunately, I don’t have that as a driving force. Mine is just wanting to do it as well as I can do it—up to a point. That’s another notion for me, that perfection is the enemy of progress. You just keep polishing and polishing, and you never get anything done.
Do you see a tension between efficiency and creativity?
No, I don’t. I just have so many ideas for books and stories. That always comes easily. I remember the first time Dolly and I got together, she said, “I’ve written thousands of country songs. I could write one standing on my head. Want to see?”
So, similarly, I don’t have to work on creativity, it’s just there, it’s very natural. And I’m very lucky because there are a lot of people who don’t have that. The efficiency helps to keep it fun. I have certain ways to get past things that block writers. If I’m doing a manuscript and I’m not getting a chapter, I’ll just think, “I’ll get it next time.” I’ll literally write that: “Next pass.” I just move on. That kills writers sometimes: they can’t get that chapter, and three months later, they’re still trying to get it. I always say, “No, go ahead. This will lock in. Get it with your next draft.” Occasionally, I’ll go back and I’ll go, “How do I work around getting rid of that chapter, if I really can’t solve it? How do I turn that chapter into three paragraphs?”
It reminds me of the hungry dog idea a little bit. Just keep moving.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And keep doing it. I have no interest in retiring. You don’t retire from play. Why would you? I will stop doing it when I feel I can’t do it.