Saturday, September 12, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 1

I’m the first to admit that I’m a writing book junkie. I have two shelves of craft books, ranging from Lawrence Block’s “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” to McKee’s “Story” to the Writers Digest “Elements of Fiction” series. I have another shelf of more technical references where I put my dictionaries and grammar books and thesauri. I’m not even going to count the half shelf of crime reference books or the assorted “this sounds interesting, I wonder if I could work it into a novel someday” books I’ve collected.

I’m also a writing class junkie. I’ve attended multiple classes on how to plot. I’ve taken three of Margie Lawson’s classes on emotion and editing. I’ve taken two of Holly Lisle’s Big Classes.

Last year, when I noticed my expenditures for books and classes far outpaced my income from actual writing, I declared a moratorium on buying any more books or taking any more classes. I realized that I had reached the point where I already knew what was going to be in them, even if the author or teacher had some new, clever term for the basics of how to write. I told myself that I didn’t need more classes or more books. I needed to write more.

And then this ad popped up on Facebook.

The junkie who had thought she’d given up her habit clicked. After all, it was JAMES PATTERSON. Surely if he was giving a class, there must be something worthwhile in it. But he would probably be charging $500 for it, an amount way out of my price range. Five hundred dollars seems to be the new course price for the secret of how to sell a gazillion books, so I figured Patterson’s class would be at least that much.

Imagine my surprise when it was only $90.

Not cheap, and certainly more than the price of another class I’d been eying for several months now. I was wrapping up “A Game of Murder” and told myself I’d reevaluate once the book was published.

Then I went to a Sisters in Crime meeting and one of the members was raving about the Patterson class. She’d just started it, but it was wonderful. Hmmm…

Book published, I took another look at the class. I contacted the member and asked her if she still liked the class as much as she had in the beginning. She admitted she’d not kept up with it, other things had distracted her, but she was going to get back to it. I looked for reviews of the class, but all I could find were a couple by published authors who had gotten to take the class for free in return for a review. Not necessarily impartial sources.

Then my friend hit me with an offer I couldn’t refuse. She had a discount code that, for a limited time, put the price of the class closer to the other class I was considering. I bought it.

Since I had so much trouble finding information about this class, and since I want to try to do a fair evaluation of it for myself—if nothing more than as a reminder to stop taking classes—I’ve decided to do a weekly blog on the lessons and if I’ve learned anything from them. No, I will not be posting the content of the course. That belongs to Mr. Patterson and the owners of the website. But I will speak in generalities about how useful I’m finding the lessons.

Confession: I’m not sure I ever read a James Patterson book before I started considering whether or not to take this class. I pretty much labeled Patterson a hack, someone who was primarily an advertising agency success and used what he knew about advertising to sell a lot of sub-par books.

Reevaluation: The most surprising thing so far has been Patterson talking about how he wanted to be a writer, and that was the focus of his college days. He worked for an advertising agency because he had to eat. As he says in one of the videos, “I’ve been clean now for twenty years.” My opinion of him rose considerably after learning this. I’ve also read two of his books and, while not great literature, I finished them. Heck, I’m ready to read another one.

So, after all of that, finally on to the lessons of Week 1:

The lessons are a series of short videos with James Patterson talking informally to you about writing. From the cutting and changes of wardrobe, it’s obvious these were done in multiple sessions over a period of time and then organized into lessons. They’re not bad, but I did notice a couple of times how something was abruptly cut. There’s also a Workbook which gives a little more information about the topic and an assignment. This is supplemented by a forum on the class website and a private Facebook group.

The first lesson is an introduction, under three minutes, in which Patterson discusses what you can expect from the class. He’s building enthusiasm in this one.

The second lesson is titled “Passion + Habit.” And that’s what it’s about. Patterson tells several anecdotes about his own career, and they show us that he’s really no different than most writers. On habit, I’ll relate my own story. Almost three years ago, I really wanted to retire and write mystery novels. I’d been writing off and on for a while and felt that if only I had enough time, I could be a successful writer. But I knew how easy it was to spend hours thinking about writing and reading about writing and talking about writing instead of, you know, actually writing. So I made a deal with myself. I agreed that I could retire early if I completed and published my first book.

I knew if I was ever to reach my goal, I’d have to write on a regular basis. I’m not the kind who can scribble on my lunch hour. I tried writing at night after a full day at work, but I was too worn out to keep that up. After having dinner and watching the news, I’d find myself dozing in front of the television instead of going to my computer and writing. Even if I forced myself to the computer, I didn’t make a whole lot of progress.

So I did the unthinkable. I set my alarm for 5:00 AM so I could write before work. Now, I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a morning person. Getting up early went totally against my natural biorhythms. But I’d already failed at alternative times. If I really wanted to be a writer, I’d have to get up and write. And, for six months, that’s what I did. I formed the habit.

Lesson three is Raw Ideas. Every working writer jokes about being asked where they get their ideas. It’s a joke because most writers have more ideas than they’ll ever have time to put in books. The trick is in recognizing them. (No, Patterson doesn’t say this in the video.) Orson Scott Card taught me to play the “What If?” game. You take a fact or a concept and start asking “What if?” Simple examples: What if faster than light travel were really possible? What if your cat really was out to get you? What if there really were a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? What if it was fool’s gold?

Betty Webb gave a talk at a Sisters in Crime meeting a few years back. She handed out pages from the newspaper at random. Some people got news articles. I got a page full of advertising. You were supposed to come up with a story idea based on something on the page you got. My first reaction was it wasn’t fair that other people got actual stories to work with. Then I stopped whining and came up with an idea. Because, if you’re a writer, you come up with ideas.

The homework is to come up with three ideas.

Plot is the fourth lesson. Patterson talks about turning your idea into a plot. No new concepts here as far as I can see.

The homework is to take one of the three ideas you came up with and develop it into a plot. The difference between an idea and a plot is the way the idea affects a character or characters. My plots are always about how a person is affected by a change in circumstances. In a murder mystery, that’s usually because someone is killed. But that raises a bunch of questions, the biggest of which is why were they killed? Or, if the main character is the primary suspect, why are they the suspect, and how can they prove they didn’t do it? This makes the homework difficult to complete, since Creating Characters is the ninth lesson.

So, what do I think so far? For a minor course—minor being defined by minimal dollar amount spent, not content—I think that if I learn one thing from it, the course was worth it. I’d put the Patterson course a notch above this, and, counting the realization that Patterson always wanted to be a writer, I’ve learned two things. Neither of them is earthshaking, so the jury’s still out. I’ll let you know how I’m doing next week.
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