Michael Adams – who has a couple of books to his name – pays for an online “MasterClass” with blockbuster writer James Patterson.
Facebook suggested we meet. Then Google ads agreed. Me, struggling novelist, and James Patterson, the world’s richest storyteller, should get together in his MasterClass, where he’d reveal how I, too, might become a bestselling brand name.
If there’s one thing we writers love, it’s reading about how other authors work. I’m no different, having amassed a tidy library of hooks about the craft. For me, Stephen King’s On Writing is the gold standard of practical advice. But Patterson promises something new – hours of direct-to-camera advice, backed up with PDF lecture notes, an online community of other students and even the chance to submit video questions to the man himself.
MasterClass, which launched in May and was the creation of US tech entrepreneurs David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen, is trying to position itself at the pinnacle of the massive online learning industry by recruiting the most famous names in their fields to teach.
In addition to Patterson, they’ve got Dustin Hoffman teaching acting, Serena Williams on tennis and will soon have Christina Aguilera waxing lyrical about singing and Annie Leibovitz sharing shutter secrets. Access to these giants costs $US90 each and you get forever excess to the course.
Having laid down my fee, I sit back for most of a day with Patterson. “Hi, I’m Stephen King,” is his first line. “What I’m doing in those four words is letting you know this is going to be irreverent and fun and a little jokey at times.”
That opening is as surprising as Patterson’s appearance. For some mason, I envisage him as a lionine type, steely of eye and square of jaw as he robotically punches out the clichés and counts the cash. Instead, Patterson, 68, is an avuncular chap with blinking blue eyes, a thin covering of pewter hair, a rambling style and an impressive range of chambray shirts.
“I hope that people who take this course will pick up a lot of tricks of the trade,” he says of the MasterClass’s 22 video chapters, which cover everything from raw ideas and plotting to the more Patterson-esque issues of managing co-authors and dealing with Hollywood offers. He’s also refreshingly candid about his type of commercial fiction, which nowadays involves employing co-authors to pump out as many as 18 novels a year and pull down a massive $89m in royalties.
“Let’s face it, I’m not writing War and Peace. But I always try to do the best I ran possibly do.”
Routine and passion are key Patterson writes seven days a week, rising early, breaking up the day with golf, lunch with his wife and TV at night. “I still have the passion I had when I started,” he says. That start was hack in 1976, with his debut crime novel The Thomas Berryman Number, which garnered modest sales after being rejected by 31 different publishers. His breakthrough, Along Came A Spider, didn’t some along for another 20 years.
There’s a lot of his former profession as ad man in Patterson’s MasterClass, with epigrammatic chapter sub-headings (“Create Conflict”, “Build In Surprises’) sometimes fleshed out only vaguely (“Leave out all the parts that readers are going to skim.”). One thing that sticks with me is that Patterson writes “Be There” on the top of chapters. It’s a reminder to himself to immerse himself in what his characters are going through. Critics would disagree, but it works for his audience. As an author whose books have sold maybe 15,000 copies, I’d be an idiot not to heed the blurbs of a bloke with more than 300 million sales.
Patterson does go into mom detail on his passions. The chapter on research is familiar but good. His long take on outlines, though, are worth the price of admission. “The outline is the most creative of all the disciplines – that’s where your imagination is going crazy,” he says. Patterson can spend weeks crafting and redrafting 80-page outlines. His chapter on Endings is shorter but mom surprising. To spoil what he says would be ironic, suffice to say that Patterson suggests something I’ve never considered in all my reading. I’ll be giving it a go.
Will Patterson’s course turn me – or you – into a bestselling author? Probably not. But his MasterClass will make you a better writer, if only by a bit.