When you co-write a thriller novel with James Patterson, certain rules apply. Rule No 1 for collaborating with the world’s bestselling author: Chapters must be short, with detailed descriptions, flashbacks or other digressions strictly forbidden.

Rule No 2: The villains, who tend to drive the plots, must be at least as interesting and believable as the heroes, if not significantly more so. Rule No 3: If any disagreement arises, it is Patterson who has the last word literally and otherwise.

“He’s the boss, and I have no problem with that,” says Mark Sullivan, 54, who has co-written three novels in Patterson’s globe-trotting “Private” series about the intrepid agents of a high-tech investigative firm with offices in various world capitals.

The next book in the series, “Private Berlin”, has been recently published by Little, Brown. “Jim is the smartest story person — the quickest reader, the most insightful critic — I’ve ever been involved with.

He has an amazing ability to see flaws in stories, or to come up with a way to take the story to a whole new level. He doesn’t say much, but the stuff he says is just spot-on. I tell my wife, ‘It’s like going to study with Yoda.’”

Besides, Sullivan reasons, a writer who has sold 275 million books (including a world record 53 No 1 bestsellers) has to be doing something right, even if the critics who wax rhapsodic over Lee Child, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane don’t always agree.

“He knows more about the publishing business than anybody I’ve ever known,” says Sullivan, a former investigative reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune who has written eight novels on his own, including 2012’s “Rogue”.

“There are people who criticise Jim, but I’m an ambitious guy, and I always believed that I could be a big, bestselling writer. I’ve had spurts of that, but not what I wanted. To use the analogy of tennis, I always wanted to play Centre Court at Wimbledon, and one day the world’s top-ranked doubles player called and said, ‘You want to play at Centre Court?’”

In a phone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, 65-year-old Patterson bristles at criticism of his collaborative process, which some have suggested amounts to an assembly line in which the supervisor is minimally involved.

“When people actually come up in my office and wander around here, looking at 40 manuscripts lying around, they see that it’s an artist’s studio, and all this stuff about it being a factory goes by the wayside. They see how involved I am in these things, and what a maniac I am. ... If it’s a factory, it’s a factory where everything is hand-tooled.”

In most of his collaborations with about a dozen authors, Patterson says he begins the process by making a detailed outline of around 70 pages. After that, the collaborator sets about producing a draft, sending him pages about every two weeks for feedback.

Finally, Patterson takes over, producing one to five new drafts until he is satisfied. His partnership with Sullivan on the “Private” books, including “Private No Prisoners”, published last year is a bit unusual.

Unlike most of the co-writers, Sullivan participated substantially in crafting the outlines; in the case of “Private Berlin”, he largely wrote the outline under his mentor’s watchful eye.

“Mark is great to work with — very bright, very reasonable — and he works very hard,” Patterson says. “He gets in there and chops wood, and I really like that. I don’t like to work with lazy writers. That’s one of the problems I have with working with writers in Hollywood. Oh, man, they just want to have lunches and stuff! That’s not true of all the writers out there, but there’s just so many who want to worry about stuff forever rather than just sit down and write the damn thing.”

That isn’t to say that the Patterson-Sullivan collaboration has been an entirely bump-free ride.

“He trusts me, and I’m flattered by that, but he has saved me multiple times from my own excess or my own lack of insight,” Sullivan says by phone from his home in Bozeman, Montana. “At certain times when I’ve really been on, Jim’s turned me loose. He’ll say, ‘This is the story we envisioned run, and just keep running with it.’ Other times, he’s had to step in and say, ‘This isn’t going to fly we’ve got to go back and look at the outline again before this gets too far afield.’ Or there’ll be something missing about the characters, usually the villains.”

Ah, the villains. “That’s sometimes difficult for the co-writers to get a grasp on,” Patterson says. “There’s a tendency not to make the villains as flesh-and-blood as the other characters. There’s a tendency to caricature, and to me, even if the villains are doing outlandish things, I want to feel them as human beings. Otherwise it’s not as satisfying a read.”

In “Private Games”, for example, the obsessed, delusional villain needed to be humanised, at least to a point. This is a man who early in the novel favourably compares himself to “supermen” such as Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln “and Adolf Hitler” before cutting a man’s throat “with such force that his head comes free of his neck all the way to his spine”.

It is a weak spot for Sullivan, as he freely admits. “I met lots of criminals as a reporter, and talked to many of them, but to understand them? I really have to work hard to do that, in a way that I don’t have to work to understand heroes. I get heroes. But I’m not a criminal, and I don’t have that sort of background that leads you to criminality. But as Jim will tell you, the villain has to be the equal or the better of the good guy for the story to work.”

In “Private Berlin”, the primary villain “originally didn’t have the kind of deep background that he eventually acquired”, Sullivan says. “To drive this kind of book, he has to be a phenomenal villain, but he wasn’t as fascinating as we wanted him to be, and Jim kept pounding that issue, kept pushing me to figure out more and more about him. When I started writing him down and putting him on paper, it was really hard, because I had to get into the mind of a guy who’s a brutal torturer and murderer. But it’s what had to happen.”

Perhaps the biggest adjustment that any new co-author has to deal with is Patterson’s insistence — some would say at the cost of literary values — on brief, streamlined chapters with a minimum of descriptive prose.

“I’m always looking for pace,” he says unapologetically. “I always want to make sure that the book is moving along.” This emphasis, which has become the author’s trademark, started many years ago when he stopped to re-read pages of an early draft of 1988’s “The Midnight Club”.

“I’d been planning to go back and flesh the book out a lot, but I realised that I kind of liked it without an overabundance of detail, which was a convention of a lot of fiction,” Patterson recalls. “It was much more the way we tell stories colloquially: We just put in enough to keep the story moving, to keep people from walking away from us in the middle of a sentence. And I kind of adopted that as my style, using just enough detail to put you in the place or allow you to see the scene, convey the information that needs to be conveyed, and that’s it.”

Although Patterson didn’t give Sullivan “a straight formula”, as the latter puts it, there was a clear mandate for short chapters that typically consist of a single scene.

“The idea is to cut as close to the rising action of every scene, every chapter,” Sullivan says. “When you do that, and you’re thinking of chapters as scenes, with a definite goal and purpose, the chapters tend to be shorter. It’s true that the chapters in my books tend to be longer, but I’m collaborating with Jim, and that’s his style.

“But I’ve talked to a lot people about Jim’s books over the years, and that’s one of the things they love about them. People are harried these days even diehard readers don’t have the time they want and they can work their way through one of these books in a way you couldn’t if you were picking up an 800-page epic saga.”

Get in and get out, in other words. Then make your way straight to the bank.

–Washington Post

Nance is a freelance writer.