Kecia Bal won the first James Patterson MasterClass Co-Author Competition. Her proposed topic and outline for a book she hoped to write with the world’s best-selling author was chosen by the man himself. In June 2016 she received a fateful call from James Patterson telling her that out of the thousands of submissions, hers was the best and she’d have the opportunity to bring that idea to life working side-by-side with the foremost writer in the thriller genre. Together they wrote and published The Dolls, an imaginative and compelling entry in James Patterson’s BookShots series of bite-sized thrillers that clock in around 150 pages. Below is my interview with Bal, who was kind enough to share her thoughts on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You won a contest to write a book with James Patterson, which is incredible. This opportunity was only open to those that were enrolled in his MasterClass. What made you want to take the class?
I was hoping to learn one thing to make my non-fiction more interesting and then it grew into something wonderful that I couldn’t have expected.
You were a reporter prior to this. How did you get into writing? Did you study journalism in school?
Yes, I went to school and studied journalism. But I was one of those students that had no idea what I wanted to do. I had an adviser that helped sign me up for a reporting class. And, from day one, I loved interviewing people. I loved the pressure and the rush of putting together a story. I loved it from the beginning and I seemed to gain some traction with it. My first job was with the Tribune-Review and I was 19 writing stories for them. If you’re 19 and you have an A-1 story, it feels amazing! It was the right thing, so I stuck with it for 10 or 12 years. I was doing newspaper work and magazine stuff on the side, as often as I could.
I hadn’t done fiction since I was a child. I’m a single Mom with two little kids. I had made no time for it, although I always wanted to. Every writer secretly dreams about writing a hit book one day. But I hadn’t been pursuing that. When I saw that James Patterson was offering this class, I thought of it as a way to improve my non-fiction writing. Clearly, he’s doing something right. And, oddly enough, I learned about the class because I was reading a blog post that was critical of James Patterson, saying “he’s a commercial fiction writer.” I read that and thought that James Patterson is clearly doing something that’s getting people hooked, and that’s what I want to do with my writing, no matter what kind of writing it is. I thought there had to be something I could learn from it. So, I thought about taking the class but I was crazy busy with work. Then I read about the contest to co-author a book with him. I thought that sounded great, so I registered and took the class. I did all of this in the middle of the night.
Then, with the contest, I started thinking about what idea I wanted to pitch. I had the benefit of going into it not worrying about what anyone would think because no one would see this and it was a long shot. That fear was gone, and the parameters were loose – it just had to be a thriller. However, I was under the constraint of time. I just had a couple weeks to pull it together. I didn’t have time to tweak and perfect something. I just had to pick an idea and go with it. I worked on it in the middle of the night and on weekends. I was writing a lot of tech stories at the time, so I thought I’d focus on that and artificial intelligence. I was thinking about whether or not you can program a computer to have positive traits without it acquiring negative ones. And I also wondered if it would inevitably pick up different human characteristics – the capacity for anger, envy and murder. All these ideas were swirling around in my head and I was wondering what I could write that would be different enough to get his attention amidst thousands of entries. Then it hit me: artificially intelligent sex dolls. That’s juicy and different. What if a company was trying to develop these? I thought it made for a lot of interesting places to go. Also, you could have hackers. I thought it made for a lot of weird motivations and villains. So, I decided to go with this idea and run with it.
What were the next steps once you had your idea?
I had to create a summary and a sample chapter, all of which were new to me. But I did the best I could and shipped it off. I hoped that I’d get selected, but I didn’t expect to get the call.
And you won a cash prize too, right?
Yes, I believe they gave me $5,000 for winning the competition.
Other authors I’ve spoken with that have written with James Patterson have told me that they don’t communicate with him directly. They simply write the books in chunks and submit them to James Patterson’s editor, who then sends what they wrote to Patterson to edit. Then, through his editor, he sends back any feedback or changes. Your situation was unique because you had more direct contact with James Patterson. You did promotional appearances with him after winning the contest and even got to go to his house in Florida. What was it like having all of these great experiences as a result of winning the contest?
It was great! It was intimidating. I remember seeing the phone ring and thinking it was his number. I was trying to calm myself down. (laughs) It was great because he’s always about the work. The first time I met him was in the green room of The Today Show. I’m nervous and star-struck and he said, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you. Now, let’s talk about the outline.” He went immediately to the work, which was wonderful. And the kinds of things he’d tell me while working on my book with him was the same as what he said in his class: “Are we moving the characters forward? Are we moving the story forward?” He was great to work with, down-to-Earth, and he was always focused on how to make the book better. You have a great photo with James Patterson where you’re working with him in his office in Florida. What was that like?
MasterClass organized that as a way to announce the next competition. So, I got to go down. He was very kind, and him and his wife took me out to lunch afterward. It was great to get the chance to sit down and talk with him about how all of it went. He was very kind.
You won the contest in June 2016 and already had an outline for the book in place. How long did it take to complete the book after you won?
It took about three or four months, which is what we were going for.
So, what was it like working with James Patterson on the book during this timeframe?
We were always trying to find ways to add surprises throughout the story. He’s also big on outlining, which is fantastic. But he also takes the time to pause in the middle so we could ask ourselves, OK, what else could go wrong in this story? What other surprises could we throw in? I’d draft pages of content, submit them and he’d reach out to me directly so we could work through fine-tuning the story.
That’s great that he was so hands-on with you. Other co-authors I’ve spoken with have told me that they didn’t have direct contact with James Patterson when working with him on a book. They had to go through his editor. However, it sounds like you had the opportunity to work with him directly, which is wonderful. You had the chance to be mentored by Patterson because of this unique dynamic.
I don’t know yet, and I don’t know that I could say. I was just thrilled that we could get this one together. My hope is to be able to write more with him.
Are you working on any other books?
Yes. As a result of this opportunity, an offer was presented to me to work on a non-fiction book. I’m working with a researcher on why humans form loyal relationships and how we choose those relationships.
It sounds like you’re now a full-time author, correct?
Yeah, which is amazing. Two years ago this wouldn’t have seemed possible to me. It would have been terrifying. My editor at the newspaper gave me two months off to work on the book with Patterson. And when that book was done, this researcher reached out to me about working on this new book together full-time. So, it all worked out great! It’s my full-time thing now.