When you co-write a thriller novel with James Patterson, certain rules apply.
Rule No. 1 for collaborating with the world's best-selling 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's 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," is being published this month by Little, Brown. "Jim is the smartest story person -- the quickest read, 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 best sellers) has to be doing something right.
"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 criticize Jim, but I'm an ambitious guy, and I always believed that I could be a big, best-selling 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?' "
Patterson bristles at criticism of his collaborative process, which some have suggested amounts to an assembly line in which the supervisor is minimally involved -- "the factory and all that crap," says the 65-year-old author.
"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's satisfied.
His partnership with Sullivan on the "Private" books -- including "Private No Prisoners," to be published later this 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, Mont. "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."
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."