Wannabe novelists: Juggling ad career and urge to write
Can you be the next Jim Patterson? Years of 5 A.M. writing sessions
By John Emmerling
June 14, 1999
In our business, the Writing Gremlin bites hard. He pounces on your shoulder at the oddest times, often while youre slaving away on your office computer. He tends to jump copywriters, account people, marketing mavens and just about anybody who does some writingany writingon their day job. It could be ads, brochures, white papers, meeting reports or even just e-mails. The Gremlin tugs at your ear lobe and whispers hoarsely: "Yknow, if you got up a little earlier, you could be writing a novel
I know five advertising people now working on books in their spare time. It is seductive work. It is a change of pace. And it can lead to fame and fortune.
Authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Heller both were in advertising while writing novels on the side. (In a 1983 Advertising Age article about his novel "Catch-22," Heller said he "loved his jobs in advertising" and that "the energy of the advertising business sustained his writing.")
WRITING AT 5 A.M.
Perhaps the latest adperson to heed the Gremlins call-and prove the little critter rightis Jim Patterson. Jim began his ad career in 1971 as a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson Co. Over the next 25 years, he rose to become the agencys worldwide creative director. Yet during all those years, he got up at 5AM every morning to turn out novels before leaving for work.
To his credit are such landmark campaigns as "Arent you hungry for Burger King now?"
"Some people just know how to fly"
and "Nupe it." And, as those campaigns succeeded, so did Jims books.
With his twelfth novel, When The Wind Blows, recently No. 1 on bestseller lists, Patterson has become a big time author. Though now practically a full-time novelist, Jim still keeps an office at JWT and does some consulting. I telephoned him recently to ask how advertising had mixed with his new line of work.
"Writing novels," he said, "was my hobby, pleasure and escape. I always came to work feeling positiveId already accomplished something that day."
Did writing novels make him a better creative director? "I think so," he said. "For one thing, I didnt feel I had to compete with the creative people who worked for me."
And did his novels benefit from his advertising skills? "Advertising made me aware of the audience," he explained. "I write novels as if there were a person sitting across from me at the desk and Im telling them a storyand I dont want them to get up for a bathroom break."
Does Jim think publishers are good at turning authors into high-volume brands?
"Except for their really big authors," he noted, "too many publishers try to milk their authors, rather than grow them into brands."
CREATING A BUZZ
He illustrated the point: "Several years ago, I asked my publisher, Little Brown & Co. to consider doing a TV campaign for my latest novel, Along Came a Spider. Their answer was: Absolutely notwe dont do that. So I used my own money to produce a low-budget TV spot featuring an animated spider, then screened the spot for my reluctant publisher"
"Oh, we like that!" they said.
Little Brown ran the TV campaigna first for the publisherand it created buzz in the buzz-driven publishing trade. Booksellers became more aware of "Spider." And the novel went on to become Pattersons first bestseller. (Stay tuned: It will soon be produced as a film starring Morgan Freeman.)
Wanting to learn more about how authors (and their gremlins) can get marketed, I called Pattersons literary agent, Richard Pine, a deft marketing guy himself. I asked him how authors were generally regarded.
"Publishers typically treat authors like children," he told me. "They say to the author: We will tell you who you are: we will define your audience for you."
BIAS AGAINST ADVERTISING
Pine explained that Jim Patterson, unlike many authors, has been able to leverage his marketing expertise to break through the traditional bias against advertising.
"Before Jim Pattersons spot ran," Pine said, "television was a dirty word in the industry. But that six-market TV campaign workedsuddenly Little Brown thought TV was fabulous. It learned that a broadcast spot can sell more than one book to a customer. After all, if the TV ad intrigues someone to buy their first Patterson noveland they like itthere are a bunch of earlier Patterson brand novels they can buy as well."
The Writing Gremlin must surely be proud of his success with Patterson. Jim now sleeps in until 6:30 a.m. He writes for about 4 hours a daya schedule that allows him to complete two novels a year. And he has an enthusiastic take on life as an almost full-time novelist: "Its quite an honor," he said, "to write booksand make a living out of it. Its a very joyful experience for me."
Soquick nowcheck your right shoulder. Is there something green, with yellow eyes sitting there? Yes?
Well, maybe you should heed its call.
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