You Too Can Write a Best-Seller

Author James Patterson films a class for online learning platform MasterClass. MasterClass

Before James Patterson became the Guinness World Record holder as the author with the most No. 1 New York Times best-sellers (67!), he was a struggling writer with a thick folder of rejection letters. Thirty-one publishers passed on his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, before Little, Brown and Company published it in 1976. The thriller, about a Nashville journalist tracking down an assassin, won the prestigious Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. Still, it sold only about 10,000 copies.

Since then, Patterson has built an expansive, lucrative empire that spans thrillers, science fiction, romance, graphic novels and even children's books. More than 305 million copies of his works are in print worldwide, and according to BookScan, 1 out of every 26 hardcover fiction books sold in 2013 was written by him. This year, he'll publish 17 new hardcovers. When he's not writing novels, he's launching his children's imprint, jimmy patterson, and advocating for children's literacy (he donated over $1 million to independent bookstores with children's sections and gave $1.5 million to school libraries). But his latest endeavor is particularly broad: teaching fiction to the masses.

Patterson, along with two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman and tennis phenom Serena Williams, is kicking off the highly produced online video service MasterClass, where you can learn from the world's best. Acting tips from Rain Man? Tennis secrets from the winner of 20 Grand Slam singles titles? The secret to becoming the world's best-selling author? I signed up for the third option. For $90, you get lifetime access to each course; Patterson's includes 22 video lessons, a 40-page workbook and excerpts from some of his first drafts. Later this year, pop star Usher and photographer Annie Leibovitz will join the roster.

Patterson is the kind of guy who loves what he does so much that he declares, "I don't work for a living. I play for a living." In fact, one of the first things he tells me when we meet is that he's never looked at writing as a job. "A joke I'll make occasionally is, 'I don't have to sit there and interview James Patterson,'" he says with a laugh. "I don't have to do shit that I don't want to do." Four minutes into his second MasterClass lesson, titled "Passion + Habit," he shares advice his grandfather once gave him: "'Whether you become the president or a surgeon or you drive a truck, as I do, just remember that when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you gotta be singing. I do. I'm singing every day," Patterson says in the video. "If it's all pain, there's something wrong."

Ah, shit, I think to myself.

Years ago, a mentor, David Hajdu, told me a story that made me feel a whole lot better about the special kind of dread I occasionally feel when I write. Every time he begins a challenging writing project, especially one that means a lot to him, there comes a point when he wants to quit. "I am convinced that I'm incompetent and a fraud, and I can't remember why I decided to make my living at something so torturous," he said. "I think, I want to be a mailman and have a nice route and spend my days delivering things and greeting my friendly customers." Those aren't the words of a frustrated writer with half a dozen partially finished manuscripts in the drawer; Hajdu is an award-winning author and serious journalist. He loves his work, as I love mine. But writing can be as agonizing as it is exhilarating. When Hajdu acknowledged that distinction, I stopped feeling quite so bad about feeling bad—and decided I would continue occasionally dreaming about frosting cakes for the rest of my life.

When I tell Patterson about Hajdu's story, he replies, "Sounds like bullshit to me."

Patterson, who has been dubbed "the Henry Ford of books," is revered as much as he is maligned for the rise of his brand. Highbrow literary types chastise him for churning out mediocre prose and cheap thrills and dis his stable of co-authors. Stephen King described him as a "terrible writer." Critic Patrick Anderson called his second Alex Cross novel, Kiss the Girls, "sick, sexist, sadistic and subliterate."

Yet Patterson's success is staggering. Forbes puts his career earnings at $700 million over the past decade. "I just wish people would be a little more generous with…. It's just different kinds of ways to communicate," he tells me. "You could take the harshest critic in the world—some real snot—and ask them to write out the two or three stories they tell to other people that they know are really good stories. And then read the fuckers. And they'll find there probably aren't any good sentences, but they are really good stories."

Patterson calls his writing "colloquial storytelling," and his MasterClass offers insights into his process, from killing off characters to working with co-authors and ensuring that readers know a book's heroes and villains better than they know their own spouses. He also covers practical matters, such as how to get published and market your book. "I'm not setting out rules for people or telling them how to do it," he says. "I'm just saying, 'This is the way I do it, and some of these things may be helpful to you.'"

Patterson's class is filled with snackable takeaways tailored to the aspiring writer, interesting to the avid reader and relevant to all creative types. Establishing a routine, he says, is paramount. He wroteBerryman between 5 and 7 a.m. while working at the international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. Now he writes seven days a week, always on a yellow legal pad. His assistant types up his drafts and prints them, triple-spaced, so Patterson has room to edit by hand.

When it comes to plot, he says, go for "a story, not necessarily a lot of pretty sentences." If you get stuck, write "TBD" and move on. And always break the rules. Patterson's books often include the first and third person. "People say that's cheating," he says. "Did Moses come down with that? Was that the 11th [commandment]?"

In his first Michael Bennett book,Step on a Crack, readers meet Detective Bennett, a cop with 10 adopted children and a wife who's dying of cancer. Oh, and armed men just held up the state funeral of a former first lady—where Bennett was in charge. "This is insane," Patterson says. "A lot of writing professors would go, 'Don't do it. Don't write that story.' To me, that was a tremendous challenge in terms of, No, I can do this." (Some stories shouldn't be written, though. Patterson calls his second book, Season of the Machete, about a psychopathic couple wreaking havoc on a tropical island, a "horror show. I've asked them to stop printing it.")

My second "oh, shit" moment comes when Patterson holds up a blank legal pad, looks straight into the camera and says, "This is the enemy." He won't even start writing a book until he's done three to six outlines. "That will save a lot of heartache. If you can't write the outline, you probably can't write the book," he tells me. I immediately vow to never write an article without an outline. (Confession: I've gotten this far in the article without one and find myself wondering what would happen if I printed it, triple-spaced, and gave it to Patterson to edit.)

Still, Patterson is natural on camera and makes his class feel as if we're all hanging out at the local coffee shop. And why not? As he puts it, "Let's face it, I'm not writing War and Peace. I'm not writing Ulysses. But I always try to do the best I can possibly do…. You gotta aim for the stars with this stuff."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of #1 New York Times best-sellers Patterson has written. The correction number is 67.