James Patterson MasterClass Week 3

Saturday, September 26, 2015
I’m starting to see why my friend didn’t continue with the lessons. When I started—and I suppose this was true of my friend as well—I was eager to get to the “good stuff.” I figured all the introductory material would soon be expanded with details and pithy secrets and methodology. With Week 3 completed, it’s becoming obvious that there aren’t going to be any details or secrets revealed.

The first Week 3 lesson is Writer’s Block. According to Robert B. Parker, it was Elmore Leonard who said, “Writer’s block is just another word for lazy.” I heard him say this at a book signing in Massachusetts and, having heard it and the explanation, I’ve thoroughly believed it to be true ever since.

I’ve hung out with writers for a long time, and I’ve heard several complain about having writer’s block as if it was mononucleosis or some other physical disease that takes a long time to recover from. One person told me they’d had writer’s block for three years. And they were serious. They were looking for sympathy. My thought (which I didn’t say out loud) was if they hadn’t written anything in three years, they weren’t a writer. They were a wannabe.

Because writers write.

If you’re stuck on a story, the best way to get over it is to write something. Anything. Or take a walk and then write something. Or color in your coloring book and then write something.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling with planning my next novel. I was faced, not with a blank piece of paper, but a brand new Scrivener project, because that’s the way I write. I put in three index cards—the beginning of my outline—and realized I had no idea what else happened. I did not call it writer’s block. I called it “resistance.” That’s what Steven Pressfield calls it in “The War of Art.” It appears that all writers, including very successful ones, face this resistance.

It wasn’t until I discovered NaNoWriMo that I learned to overcome resistance and just write. During NaNo, the object is to write 50,000 in thirty days. Not good words. Not even words that necessarily make sense. Just 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words every day. When the pressure to write The Great American Novel is taken off and the object is to have fun, it’s easy to write 50,000 words in a month.

James Patterson says something similar. (Remember, I’m not going to quote his lessons because he owns them, not me.) This lesson also includes a lot about his writing practice: how he writes, when he writes, etc. It’s interesting and, if you think you have or have had writer’s block, it’s probably useful. I had Elmore Leonard via Robert B. Parker.

Oh. And the logjam broke this week after I went for a walk and realized what my problem was. A series of ideas came to me, which I wrote down when I got home. I woke up this morning and couldn’t wait to get back to my new novel.

The second lesson, Lesson 9 in the course, is on creating characters. This is the best lesson so far because it includes details and lots of examples from Patterson’s own work. He talks about making characters interesting and, anticipating your question of what makes them interesting, asks what makes people interesting in real life. He does segments on the hero, the villain, and secondary characters. He also talks about creating characters who are real not only to the readers, but to you as the author. It reminded me of a story J.K. Rowling told about leaving her writing room in tears one day. When her husband asked what was wrong, she replied it was because she’d just killed off a character she loved. My opinion is, if you don’t cry at least once while writing your book, you’re not invested enough in your characters.

The third lesson of this week is entitled “First Lines.” I tend to tune out on discussions about first lines because I think much too much emphasis has been put on them. Are they important? Yes. Are they as important as some people think they are? I don’t think so.

I think part of this depends on genre. If you’re writing thrillers, like Patterson, yes, your readers are expecting a first line that sucks them right into the conflict of the novel. If you’re writing historical fiction or women’s fiction, not so much. Those readers are more patient. They’ll give you a page or two to catch their interest. Cozy mysteries, which I write, tend to be in the middle somewhere.

The rest of the lesson is more about drawing the reader in and how much effort he puts into first lines and the first chapter. Again, I have a problem with this. It goes back to entering contests where you usually submit just the first chapter or first three chapters. Writers spend months—years—polishing and rewriting those so the judges will give them high scores. But so many novels peter out after that because the author doesn’t put the same level of effort into the middle and the ending that they did toward polishing that first line. I’d rather have a bang-up ending than the perfect first line.

Now, that’s not to say you should bore the reader. I have a quote hanging on the wall of my office that says, “Stories are driven by tension, not events.” Steven James said that. It’s much too easy to get into the “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened” mode of storytelling. Those are events. If they don’t have tension, if they don’t have emotion, if there aren’t some kind of stakes involved, no one cares what happens.

And so ends week three. Week four has four lessons. I’m curious as to what they will bring.

James Patterson MasterClass Week 2

Saturday, September 19, 2015
The second week starts with a lesson on Research. Again, nothing terribly new in this video. One part is about interviewing people for their expertise in an area. He doesn’t talk about how to locate these people or approach them, probably because all he has to do is send off an email or pick up the phone—or, more likely at this point, have his assistant do this.

The second topic is locations. He recommends actually walking the locations you’ll use in your books, making notes about what strikes you. I concur, if at all possible. Years ago, a writer friend asked me if I could answer questions about Tucson for her because she couldn’t come here to see it herself. Of course I said yes. I was relatively new to the area, so I had to ask other people I knew for help. After I read one of her books, I realized the limitation of this technique. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you don’t ask about it. She had a glaring inaccuracy, describing something as if it were like the area where she lives. She assumed it would be like that, so didn’t know she should verify her assumption.

Of course, if you’re writing about first century Jerusalem, there’s not much chance of walking that location. Or twenty-fifth century Ganymede. But, as Patterson says, there is the Internet.

One of the bonuses of doing research, whether it be by interviewing people or walking around a city or clicking through the Internet, or, as in my case this morning, picking up one of the reference books you’ve collected, is that things you learn will give you ideas for your story. It goes back to that you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know thing. Chances are if you discover an interesting, new fact, your readers will find that interesting, too.

If it advances the story.

Beware the dreaded infodump, which is what it’s called when the author puts in all this stuff she learned doing research that has nothing to do with deepening character or advancing the plot.

That’s the end of the lesson on research.

And now a whole mass of writers will desert this blog (and probably never sign up for Patterson’s class) because he spends the next two lessons on Outlines. No other topic in this course gets two lessons. If you’re a pantser, you’re going to throw up your hands at this point.

I’m a plotter. Because I think a writer should take the time to figure out which method works better for them, I think you should try both ways. If you never try it, how do you know it won’t work?

So I’ve tried writing into the mist, a.k.a. pantsing, a few times. I’ve found that success is 50-50 for me when I write without an outline. Sometimes absolutely amazing stuff happens, unexpected stuff, fun stuff, that I doubt I would have come up with had I written an outline in advance. And sometimes I get several thousand words in and have no freakin’ idea where to go from there.

There’s something comforting about having a plan. You sit at your desk in the morning, look at your outline, and know exactly where to begin writing. You can set word count goals because you won’t have to spend time staring out the window trying to figure out what happens next or what clue to plant in this scene or why your sleuth suspects a certain character of being the murderer.

That doesn’t mean nothing unexpected happens as you write. The muse doesn’t work that way. Especially if you’re doing NaNoWriMo and freewheeling it a bit to get your 1667 words that day because you realize you’re going to come up short of 50,000 and there’s no time to sit back and rework your outline. But I think you have to beware the rabbit trails. It’s too easy to wander off the path you’ve set for yourself with no way to get back.

I had one of those muse bombs pop up two years ago, and I went with it, because it didn’t actually change the story I was telling. It happened way at the end, and I figured I could edit it out during revision if necessary. But I decided I liked it, and it became an important part of the plot of the next year’s NaNo novel.

Obviously, Patterson believes in outlining. In fact, for him writing the outline is the most creative part of the writing process. He writes multiple drafts, over a period of weeks, of his outline, in more detail than I’ve ever considered doing. I imagine this makes writing with co-writers a whole lot easier.

One thing I have to bring up this week because it’s important to know: Patterson does not go into details in these videos. I suppose that’s part of them being a “Master Class.” They’re more a discussion of how he works than how to do things.

For example, in discussing Plot in Week One, he never mentions the different plot structures such as the three-act structure, the four-act structure, the hero’s journey, the W Plot, or any of the other various ways of plotting a novel. He either assumes you’ve learned about this somewhere else or doesn’t think it’s necessary to know about it.

His lessons on the Outline are similar. He talks about scenes and twists and arcs, but he doesn’t talk about ways to develop them. The workbook for the class includes the entire outline for one of his novels, so you can read through that and analyze the structure, but it would be helpful if he explained how to weave in subplots and similar techniques.

Which leaves me in a quandary. I was starting to think of this as a beginner’s class, but the assumptions and/or omissions in each lesson make me think beginners wouldn’t quite fit either. I suppose I’ll have to wait a few more weeks before deciding.

James Patterson MasterClass Week 1

Saturday, September 12, 2015
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.

Play Time!

Saturday, September 05, 2015
I’m sure I’ve talked about how severely left-brained I am, but in case you didn’t read those posts, or have forgotten what I said, I’ll do a short recap here. The left side of the brain is primarily responsible for thinking and logic; the right side is the creative side, the part of the brain where dreams come from. I was employed as a computer programmer before I retired. A very left-brained occupation. Writing requires using more of the right brain.

My left brain has been very happy for the past two months as I edited and formatted and set up “A Game of Murder” on Amazon. I’ve created Facebook posts and tweeted and participated in a Facebook event to promote this latest book. Even as I did this, my right brain was crying, “What about me?”

So, throughout this process, I promised my right brain that once I was done with launching the book, I’d give her a new toy.

In case you hadn’t heard, adult coloring books are all the rage. Mostly Books, the local independent book store that carries my mysteries, even has a monthly coloring night. You bring—or buy—your own coloring book, and they supply the colored pencils, gel pens, and markers, as well as a space and company to do this activity. I decided the new toy would be a coloring book and colored pencils.

In my left-brained fashioned, I spent a lot of time browsing the coloring books on Amazon, reading reviews, looking at photos of the pictures inside. Of course, I wound up with one called Creative Cats. There was no avoiding it. Just as, given a choice between two articles of clothing or two book covers or two coffee mugs, it’s a fair bet I’ll choose the blue one, choosing which kind of pictures I wanted to color inevitably led to the one with cats.

Then I had to decide what to color the pictures with. More research. In this case, I had to balance cost against utility. It was very tempting to buy both colored pencils and gel pens. Even after I decided to only buy pencils this time, there were 36 packs, 48 packs, even an assortment of 150 colors! Reminding myself that I often start projects like this but don’t keep them up, and that eight Crayola crayons had been sufficient for my eight-year-old self, I decided on the 24 pack of Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils.

Now that I’ve started coloring for an hour in the morning, I’ve been surprised by what stands out most to me: the colors!

I’ve realized that I spend most of of my time in a colorless world. I type in black letters on a white screen. I read on my Kindle PaperWhite or on a sepia-toned screen on my iPad Mini. Or a book, which again is black letters on cream-colored paper.

Although greener now than usual, the view outside my window has limited color. It’s a desert. It’s mostly brown, except for when the cactus bloom in the spring. I get very excited when an Arizona cardinal perches in one of the trees, even though Arizona cardinals are a duller red than the Eastern kind.

There’s a section in the right side of my brain that’s sucking in the colors through my eyes and lighting up with glee. I’m trying out the different pencils, seeing how the colors look on the page, experimenting with which ones go together and which ones clash. It’s creativity of a different sort than the kind I use for writing stories. It’s helping me transition from all those left-brained tasks to the very right-brained task of creating a new story.

Doing this over the past few days has brought back memories of sitting on the stoop on hot summer afternoons, sharing a coloring book and crayons with a girlfriend. She’d color the picture on the left-hand page while I colored the one on the right. Or vice versa. I vaguely remember intense discussions on who would color which picture before we started. Then we’d work on our “masterpieces” side-by-side, in silence, until we finished those and had to decide what pictures to color next.

This kind of play is necessary for me. Creativity is a messy activity. You have to be free to think of the most outrageous things in order to come up with something new. So, while I organize my notes and take another class and put together a project plan, I’m also coloring in my coloring book. It’s play time.
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