WANNABE NOVELISTS: JUGGLING AD CAREER AND URGE TO WRITE; CAN YOU BE NEXT JIM PATTERSON? YEARS OF 5 A.M. WRITING SESSIONS

By Published on .

In our business, the Writing Gremlin bites hard. He pounces on your shoulder at the oddest times, often while you're slaving away on your office computer. He tends to jump copywriters, account people, marketing mavens and anybody else who does some writing -- any writing -- on their day job. It could be ads, brochures, white papers, meeting reports or even just e-mails. The Gremlin tugs at your earlobe and whispers hoarsely: "Y'know, if you got up a little earlier, you could also 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 Gremlin's call -- and prove the little critter right -- is 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 agency's worldwide creative director. Yet during all those years he got up at 5 a.m. every morning to turn out novels before leaving for work.

To his credit are such landmark campaigns as "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now?" . . . "Some people just know how to fly" . . . and "Nupe it." And, as those campaigns succeeded, so did Jim's books.

With his twelfth novel, "When the Wind Blows," recently No. 1 on best-seller lists, Patterson has become a major 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 positive -- I'd already accomplished something that day."

Did writing novels make him a better creative director? "I think so," he said. "For one thing, I didn't feel I had to compete with the creative people who worked for me."

And did his novels benefit from his advertising training? "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 I'm telling them a story -- and I don't 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 household names."

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 not. We don't 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 campaign -- a first for the publisher -- creating a lot of buzz in the buzz-driven publishing trade. Booksellers became more aware of "Spider." And the novel went on to become Patterson's first best-seller. (Stay tuned: It will soon be produced as a feature film starring Morgan Freeman.)

Wanting to learn more about how authors (and their gremlins) can get marketed, I called Patterson's literary agent, Richard Pine, a deft marketing guy himself.

"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 Patterson's spot ran," Pine said, "television was a dirty word in the industry. But that six-market TV campaign worked. Suddenly Little Brown thought TV was fabulous. It also 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 novel -- and they like it -- there 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 day -- a schedule that allows him to complete two novels a year. And he has an enthusiastic take on life as an almost full-time novelist: "It's quite an honor," he said, "to write books -- and make a living out of it. It's a very joyful experience for me."

So -- quick now -- check your right shoulder. Is there something green, with yellow eyes sitting there? Yes?

Well, maybe you should heed its call.

Mr. Emmerling, chairman-chief creative officer, Emmerling Post, New York

In this article:
Most Popular