Valuable Lessons James Patterson Taught Me About Writing
By Renee Runge
If you’re a book fanatic like me, you’re likely at least familiar with James Patterson by name. Patterson is one of the world’s highest paid authors as well as an outspoken advocate and philanthropist for children’s literacy. He has even sponsored several college scholarships for those who wish to pursue teaching. Since 1976, he has published almost 150 books, ranging from children’s stories to adult mystery series.
I became obsessed with his work while in middle school; in particular, his Maximum Ride books, a young adult series about a pack of mutant teens and pre-teens on the run from the scientists who created them and want to destroy them. In fact, this was the first true young adult series I ever read, and therefore holds a very special place in my heart.
The books are packed with action as Max, the titular character, and her “flock” try to dodge their adversaries while trying to find out more about themselves and why they were created. Each of the characters has a unique personality and quirks that make them all the more lovable and keep readers engaged with their stories.
When you think about famous authors, where might you imagine that they live? New York City, Boston, or Los Angeles are a few places that instantly come to my mind. It just so happens that James Patterson and I both live in Palm Beach County, Florida, a fact that I knew and treasured from the start of my interest in his books. To think that one of my favorite authors lived so close by!
One day, almost four years after opening my first Patterson novel, I happened to see on the news that he would be hosting a book signing at a small bookstore in Palm Beach. It didn’t take much convincing to get my parents to agree to taking me there, as they knew how much I loved James Patterson.
After a short drive, we arrived at the bookstore to a small line of people waiting inside. Patterson was sitting only a few feet away from us in a chair, ready to sign copies of his novels. I took the opportunity to grab his most recently published novel at the time, Treasure Hunters, and ring it up at the store counter before taking my place in line.
When it was my turn to approach Patterson, I remember suddenly feeling so nervous and awkward, shaken by the magnitude of having this author that I admire so much right in front of me. We exchanged a few words, and I told him that I was a huge fan of his. He smiled a genuine, grateful smile, and my nerves went away. My mom got pictures of us together as well as pictures of him signing my book. As soon as it had started, my moment in line had passed, and my mom and I decided to walk around and browse the store a bit more before leaving.
The store gradually began to clear out and the line to meet Patterson shortened. Eventually, the already small crowd thinned down to just my mom and I hanging back in the bookstore. Patterson lingered, browsing the shelves as if he were any average customer, close to where we were also browsing. Soon, we were chatting.
I will always remember how James Patterson took so much time out of his day to make a connection with a fan. He spent about an extra half hour after the signing ended just talking to me about my school, what I liked to read, and what he was working on.
At this point, the book that had been advertised as the final Maximum Ride novel had just been released, so he asked if I was satisfied with the way it ended. When I hesitated, he said right away that he felt the same way; he didn’t end the series the way he wanted and he was thinking of writing another, and would I like that? Of course, I would. I was over the moon.
The most memorable part of the entire experience, though, was talking to Patterson about writing. A big dream of mine has always been to author a young adult or children’s series of my own, and I was standing in the presence of one of my biggest writing heroes. “How did you do it?” I asked him, “How can I do it?” His response was simpler than I ever could have expected.
James Patterson’s tip to become a great writer? “Write every single day.”
At first mention, this tip seems obvious. To some, the idea may appear incredibly overwhelming. However, this advice is easily applicable to writing a children’s book, as he does! Here are five things James Patterson taught me about writing that you can incorporate into your own work and musings.
What James Patterson taught me about writing
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1. Just write!
It really is that simple. Whether it’s a diary entry about your day, a grocery list, or a page of prose, Patterson insists that writing every day is the key to working yourself up to write more and more. Once you get in the habit, the words begin to flow with more ease every time you pick up a writing utensil.
If you’re concerned about keeping track of your new habit, creating a writing log can be helpful in making the transition to writing daily. Using a simple calendar template from the Internet, create boxes for each day of the month that you can check off once you’ve completed the daily writing exercise. A lot of people find that having a visual representation of their behavior keeps them motivated to keep up the habit.
2. Record everything.
Seriously, everything. Jot down your thoughts when you catch yourself thinking them. No idea is too small to add to your daily writing practice. You can even keep a running notebook of ideas that pop into your head.
As writers, we tend to overthink story development, wanting to have everything perfectly planned and in order before we have anything on the page. Dumping your thoughts out on paper will not only make you feel less overwhelmed about the way your book is coming together, but will also help you to keep more organized and visualize your process.
That way, you can clearly see how certain ideas came together so there’s no question later on about why you chose to go a particular route with your writing. This also helps you have ideas to come back to later on if you decide that what you’re doing isn’t working.
3. Don’t have a story idea yet? Find some prompts.
You don’t have to currently be planning on writing a book to utilize Patterson’s advice. Maybe you just want to get your gears turning in that direction and aren’t sure where to get inspiration.
Luckily, tons of people have been in the same boat. There are a plethora of books and websites out there that have pre-made writing prompts to help jumpstart you on the path towards coming up with your own writing ideas. Sometimes these prompts can be a setting, a character with certain attributes, or a sentence that you can complete and then continue to build on.
Using a premade prompt can spurn a surprising amount of original ideas. I took a creative writing course in college in which the professor would give us prompts every day to get us writing. During one class, he handed out vintage photographs to everyone and told us to write a paragraph in ten minutes based on what we saw.
4. Hold yourself accountable.
As suggested above, a writing log can be a great way to make sure that you’re practicing your daily writing. For some people, it takes a little more of a push. I’m that person, so I feel you.
Something that I’ve found helpful is setting up writing notifications for myself using Google Calendar. The reminders don’t disappear from my phone until I mark them as completed. This way, I don’t forget about writing for the day.
If you’re prone to cheating, try to find a friend who will partake in daily writing practice with you. Some people have writer’s groups that they attend on a regular basis, which can also become a great resource for making sure to keep the habit of daily writing. Having at least one person or a group of people with the same mentality works wonders for maintaining motivation towards a goal.
5. Keep consistent!
Consistency is the most important part of this tip. Without routine practice, how will you grow as a writer?
Along the way, you may get stuck somewhere. It happens to everyone. If your current writing routine isn’t doing it for you, don’t be afraid to swap to something else for a while. If you aren’t loving what you’re writing, it’s hard to be consistent about it. What’s going to keep you writing if you dread the project you’re working on? Nobody says you can’t come back to it later if inspiration finds you again.
That being said, if you miss a day of writing, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just pick up the pen when you feel like it again and go from there. It’s counterproductive to burn yourself out or get down about having too busy of a day to fit writing in somewhere. Make your best effort, but keep your mental health as the highest priority, of course.
I’ve kept James Patterson’s writing tip close since that day we met in 2013. While I can’t say that I’ve written every day of the last almost eight years, I can say that when I don’t write, Patterson’s words ring in my head. I’ve worked this habit into my life in small ways, though.
Despite circumstances as a very busy student preventing me from embarking on writing my own series just yet, before I have big papers due, I try to begin writing ideas down weeks in advance. Some days, my notes will just be a few words about points I want to make. Other days, I can write whole paragraphs, sometimes pages. Slowly, I can see my work turning into the skeleton of an essay before I sit down to write the entire paper.
It really is that easy. Thank you, James Patterson!