How Much Does Style Matter?

You may have heard of a fellow named Dan Brown. He’s written a few novels. He may break out soon. His latest,

Infeno, just hit with a 4 million hardcover first printing. So yeah, the kid may make some dough.

His writing style has been attacked and parodied, as in this from The Telegraph:

The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive…They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors.

So here is today’s Reader Friday question: How much does style matter? Dan Brown weaves the kind of story that people absolutely lap up on the beach or at Starbucks, or while listening to their iPods as they jog. Sure, his style is not going to win any awards, but so what? 

Or is there a what to consider? 

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But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

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Hanging Upside Down and Other Creative Moves

by James Scott Bell

Well, it is indeed Dan Brown week in the world of publishing, as our own Joe Moore and John Ramsey Miller have attested. And that’s a good thing. The business needs a shot in the arm. We need to see hardcovers flying off the shelves again. We need people sitting around Starbucks talking fiction, getting caught up in a story world.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the phenomenon of The Lost Symbol, as there was for The Da Vinci Code. But today I’d like to focus on another aspect of this event: the author himself.

This latest book was not easy for Mr. Brown. I mean, how do you follow a once-in-a-lifetime hit like TDVC? That book’s particular mix of vast religious conspiracy, symbology and fast paced action went spinning around on the wheel of fortune and hit the jackpot.

Brown cops to the pressure of following up. Regarding the long lag time between TDVC and The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown was quoted in the L.A. Times as follows:

“The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who’s had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, ‘This is what the character does,’ you say, ‘Wait, millions of people are going to read this.’ … You’re temporarily crippled….[later] The furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I’m just a guy who tells a story.”

Writers, attend to this. What happened to Dan Brown on a mega level happens to most writers who publish more than one book. A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they’re published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.

The truth is, writing fiction gets harder because we continue to raise the bar on ourselves. We do, that is, if we truly care about the craft. We know more about what we do with each book, and where we fall short. We hope we have a growing readership, and want to keep pleasing them, surprising them, delighting them with plot twists, great characters and a bit of stylistic flair.

But we can’t stroll down the aisle of “Plots R Us” and choose something fresh, right out of the box. (Although Erle Stanley Gardner was known to use a complex “plot wheel.” I guess he did okay. And, FWIW, Slate came up with its own plot generator for those truly desperate to cash in on the Dan Brown phenomenon). We are on a never ending quest for concepts, characters and plot. No matter how many books we’ve done, we keep aspiring to the next level.

Dan Brown reportedly deals with all this by using gravity shoes. He hangs upside down, letting the blood rush to his head. Bats use the same method. But there are other options.

Whenever you are wondering if you’ve got the stuff to be published (or, if published, to stay that way), let me offer a few helps.

1. Write. This is the most important thing of all. Get “black on white,” as Maupassant used to say. Even if you feel like pond scum as an artist, just start writing. If you can’t possibly face a page of your project, write a free form journal about something in your past. Begin with “I remember . . .” Pretty soon, you’ll feel like getting back to your novel.

2. Re-read. Pull out a favorite novel, one that really moved you. Read parts of it at random, or even the whole thing. Don’t worry about feeling even worse because you think you can’t write like that author. You’re not supposed to. You never can. But guess what? He can’t write like you, either.

3. Incubate. For half an hour think hard about your project, writing notes to yourself, asking questions. Back yourself into tight corners. Then put all that away for a day and do something else. Walk. Swim. Work your day job. Stuff will be bubbling in your “writer’s brain.” The next day, write.

4. Turn off your Internet browser for a whole day. By which I mean, of course, first read The Kill Zone, then turn off the Net and write. Forget emails, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or anybody else’s space. A bit of downtime from all the noise is good for focus.

Mental landmines abound for writers. The key is not to let any of them stop you from writing, even if you have to hang upside down to do it.

So how do you get yourself going when the going gets tough?

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The Dan Brown flagship

By Joe Moore

tls-brown The waiting is over. THE LOST SYMBOL by Dan Brown hit the store shelves yesterday. Love him or hate him, this is a big deal in the world of publishing.

First there was the long 6-year delay. Then the street talk that Brown would never write another book. Then the possible title: THE SOLOMON KEY. Then the revealing of the anticipated cover. And now the day has come. It’s here—all 5 million, first-print-run copies. Now the big questions are: Will it sell as many copies as THE DA VINCI CODE(80 million)? How long will it sit in the number one slot of every bestselling list on the planet? And is it as good as TDC and ANGELS AND DEMONS? Here are two advance reviews:

The Los Angeles Times calls it “. . . like any roller coaster – thrilling, entertaining and then it’s over.”

The New York Times calls it “sexy” and “impossible to put down.”

So what does this publication mean for us thriller authors? The way I see it, if all of us are ships in a naval battle group, THE LOST SYMBOL is the admiral’s flagship aircraft carrier pulling us in its wake, setting the course, and identifying the potential destination. When TDC came along, it created a whole new cottage industry of thrillers that contained secret societies, lost treasures, relics, scientific and religious conflicts, and other like-minded themes. I know that for me, it helped build interest in four of my novels. But in the bigger picture, it created a hunger. Just like Indiana Jones movies renewed an interest in the dark side of the 1930s-1950s, the Nazi, religious antiquity, and archaeology, Dan Brown and his books have continued to feed that hunger. A hunger that will potentially spill over to other books and writers. Because, once readers finish THE LOST SYMBOL, hopefully they’ll be hungry for more. The void must be filled.

Here’s an example from Library Journal where one of my books is mentioned.

I’m excited not only for Dan Brown, but for all thriller authors. This guy is shooting full-court 3-pointers, but the thriller team is ultimately the winner.

Do you plan on reading THE LOST SYMBOL? Do you consider it a thriller genre-boosting event or just another high profile novel by a famous writer?

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The King Is Back

Our guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Steve Berry. Steve’s books have been sold in 49 countries and 39 languages with over 8 million copies in print. His novels include The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, The Third Secret, The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, and his latest, The Charlemagne Pursuit. His next thriller, The Paris Vendetta, will be available December 2009. In addition to writing novels, Steve serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as co-president.

By Steve Berry

berry-steve2Over the past six years I’ve been asked countless times by the press, fans, and friends about The Da Vinci Code.  It’s a natural question since my stories are constantly compared to it.  Dan Brown even provided a wonderful blurb for my first novel, The Amber Room, (calling it “sexy, illuminating, and confident . . . my kind of thriller”).  I still like reading that comment from time to time.

Dan achieved what every writer dreams about.  He wrote a story that utterly captured the imagination.  One of those tales that rang with a sense of originality.  Remember all the press.  The hype.  The talk.  The buzz.  It was amazing.  People flocked into stores and bought The Da Vinci Code by the millions.  The result?  A guy who barely existed after his first three novels, was catapulted into a worldwide household name.  Eventually, non-fiction books, more fiction, television shows, games, memorabilia, a movie, you name it, and that book spawned it.

dan-brownBut that will not be Dan’s legacy.

Nope.

What he did is bigger than all that. 

Dan will be remembered for bringing a genre back to life. 

Here’s reality:  When the Cold War ended in 1990, the traditional, tried-and-true-good-old-fashioned-spy-thriller died.  By 1995 the genre was virtually gone.  By 2002 editors simply weren’t buying, and people weren’t reading, spy thrillers.  Sure, if you were Cussler, Follett, Ludlum, and Forsyth you were okay.  Those long standing audiences were fully developed and totally assured.  But if you were anyone else, especially a rookie trying to break in, times were tough.  During the 1990s my agent submitted 5 separate thrillers to New York houses.  They were rejected a total of 85 times.

Then, in March 2003, the world changed. 

That was when The Da Vinci Code was released. 

tdcFor the next 36 months The Da Vinci Code was either #1, 2, or 3 on The New York Times  bestseller list, mostly in the #1 slot.   On every other American bestseller list the story was the same, as was the case from around the world.  Few books can claim such a feat.  A genre that what was once called ‘spy thriller,’ re-emerged as the international suspense thriller, a blend of history, secrets, conspiracy, action, and adventure. 

Just exactly what I, and many others, happen to be writing.

Many of us received our chance to find an audience thanks to what Dan Brown and Doubleday did in releasing The Da Vinci Code.  Thrillers were hot once again.  Hundreds of new books appeared.  The resurrection led, in no small measure, in 2004, to the creation of International Thriller Writers, an organization now of over 1000 working thriller writers. 
Happy days were here again.

Every few years a book comes along that literally changes things.  Stephen King’s Carrie.  David Morrell’s First Blood.  Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.  John Grisham’s The Firm.  Those books fundamentally altered their genres.  They also opened up opportunities that, before them, did not exist for others.

The Da Vinci Code is such a book too.

I tell the story that every time I pass a copy I stop and bow.  Perhaps that’s an over-dramatization but, in my mind, I always utter a silent thanks.  Maybe I would have made it to print one day.  Maybe not.  All I know is that I did make it in 2003 thanks to Dan Brown, Doubleday, and The DaVinci Code.

In September, The Lost Symbol will be released.  This time Dan and Doubleday will not just resurrect a genre, they could well revive an industry.  Book sales have been decreasing over the past two years.  Print runs are down.  Re-orders are slow.  Backstock is disappearing.  Already, bookstores and booksellers are salivating at the prospects this fall offers.  People will, without question, return to the stores.  Books will be sold, and not just Dan’s.  The ripple affect will be huge.  Everyone’s bottom line will be positively affected.  This is precisely what the publishing industry needs.  The Lost Symbol will certainly debut at #1 and remain there for many months, if not years.  Already it is the single largest first printing in Random House history (5,000,000), but my guess is that number will increase before the fall. 

Welcome back, Dan.

For the past six years, many a prince has fought over your throne.  Several have laid claim, but none emerged to take your place.

Now they all must move aside.

The king is back.

May his reign be long and prosperous.

So what do you think? What effect will Dan Brown’s new thriller have on the publishing industry? Will it surpass The Da Vinci Code?

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Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

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It’s Smackdown Day and I need your vote!

By Joe Moore

It’s going to be a short post today because there’s little time to spare. Like any great thriller, the clock is ticking. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are in a death match with none other than Dan-da-Vinci-Code-Brown. And we’re determined to win.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Dan Brown. At least I like his books. megalithI’ve never actually met him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy you’d want to have a beer with. But today there’s something called the May Madness Thriller Author Smackdown over at a website/blog called Megalith. So a potential Brown-Sholes-Moore warm & fuzzy beer fest is not in the cards right now. This is serious smackdown stuff.

Each day of this month, the Megalith blog is matching up two thriller authors (or teams) to go head to head. The final round and championship will be on May 31. But today, we need your votes.

I mean, when you get right down to it, aside from a small difference of 80 million or so copies in sales, just like Dan’s, our thrillers have secret societies, ancient religious relics, angels and demons, globe-trotting heroes and villains, secret codes, seat-of-the-pants action, inside the Vatican cool stuff, creepy tunnels, dusty tombs, scary castles, and apocalyptic threats galore.

So call your family and friends, use names off headstones and the Chicago voter rolls—whatever it takes. Just get over to Megalith blog and vote. It’s a smackdown, and the future of the thriller world is in your hands.

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.

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How do you top the “Bestselling Novel of All Time?”

by Michelle Gagnon

A few days ago, I saw this announcement on Shelf Awareness:dan brown

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s long-anticipated follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will be published September 15 by Knopf Doubleday. A first printing of five million copies is planned for the book. The New York Times noted that “fans and the publisher have been waiting a long time for Mr. Brown to finish the new book. It was originally scheduled for a 2005 delivery. The Lost Symbol will again feature Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code.”

At long last, a little more than six years after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Brown is back. “Waiting a long time” is understating it a bit, don’t you think?

I remember first hearing about the next installment in the series shortly after DVC sales rocketed into the stratosphere. The story (last I heard) was to be set in Washington DC, involving the founding fathers and the Freemasons (can you just imagine the expression on Brown’s face when the film National Treasure came out?)

DVCAnd then the years passed…and as they did, to be honest, I started to feel for the guy.

Granted, he’s insanely wealthy and successful, one of those few among us who became a household name. He managed to write a thriller that captured the public imagination so completely, there are actually plaques mounted on famous Parisian landmarks rebutting some of the claims in the book (it’s fiction, people. Fiction). And sure, without ever penning another sentence he could still probably buy an island in Fiji every year without worrying about eating dog food in his dotage.

But just for a second, put all that aside. Imagine the pressure. Brown could not possibly have known how successful his book would become (sure, he probably hoped–let’s be honest, we all hope. In my dreams I’ve whiled away many an hour on Oprah’s couch). And when it became the bestselling novel of all time, spawning a torrent not just of similar thrillers but tie-in products and books, charter tours, specials on the History Channel, a film with a horribly miscast Tom Hanks wearing what appears to be an otter on his head…wow. Sure, he’s no longer under the same deadline pressure as the rest of us, his editor isn’t sending nasty emails asking where the draft is (although I’m guessing some fairly pleading/begging missives have passed between them). tom hands

But how do you follow up on that level of success? You know the critics are out there, sharpening their knives. The fans have huge expectations, and a significant number of them are bound to be disappointed. And with every passing year, those knives have just gotten sharper.

For the past few years I’ve envisioned Dan Brown holed up somewhere, naked and filthy à la Howard Hughes, pacing and muttering to himself while a laptop blinks relentlessly from a dark corner. Typing a chapter, erasing it the next day. Worrying over every plot twist, every word choice. After all, deep down nearly every writer is a bundle of insecurity; it’s impossible to have distance from your own work, and I’m guessing we’ve all had that, “this is the worst crap ever written” moment as we review our latest manuscript.

Would the stress be worth it?

Hell, yeah.

But come September 15th, I figure Brown will be sitting alone somewhere, drink in his hand, heart pounding, stomach churning, waiting for the verdict. And I’ll most likely be sitting somewhere else, responding to a chiding email about a missed deadline. And I’ll feel a little sorry for him. Then I’ll pick up a copy of The Lost Symbol, snort, and say, “Not nearly as good as his last book.”

On principle. You know.

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

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Missed Opportunities

Not too long ago I was watching a primetime television show, as I am wont to do. And lo and behold, there was a commercial for the next Stephen King novel. It contained all of the bells and whistles of a movie trailer, and made those book trailers put together by authors on their own dime (mine, for instance) look woefully inadequate in comparison.

Which got me thinking: what an enormous wasted opportunity. Now I’m far from a publishing expert. Despite years working as a freelance writer, book publishing is still relatively new and shiny to me. And perhaps because of that I can see when they’re dropping the ball.

After all, not to begrudge Stephen King these promotional efforts, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say his sales are probably consistently healthy. When Stephen King has a new book coming out, his die-hard fans will know about it months in advance. And it’s not like that’s a small following. In addition to the commercials, there were probably full page ads in major book review sections and magazines, special mailings to bookstores, co-op placement…which is all well and good. But since a major complaint in the industry is that there are fewer and fewer of these blockbuster authors to rely on these days, why not seize the opportunity to create more?

For example, what if part of the commercial was devoted to a relatively unknown author whose work is similar to King’s? Showcase both titles, so that once the fans have torn through King’s latest offering, when they’re still hungry for more, another book leaps into their mind. Perhaps even set up some sort of promotional marketing, a reduced price for the purchase of both titles. You let King’s fans know about his latest release, and hopefully you introduce them to someone new. Why not take advantage of a built-in readership and expand on it?

Sounds pretty basic, right? Especially since when a J.K. Rowling decides to hang up her hat, or Dan Brown takes years to produce his next runaway bestseller, publishers start reeling as their sales plummet. Compare it to a sports team: put all the money in your stars and lose depth. If Peyton Manning gets knocked out of the lineup, you’re in deep trouble. But build a solid stable of players behind those stars, you’ve still got a chance of making the playoffs, or generating solid sales.
(On a side note, I actually have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Dan Brown. Go ahead and laugh, but can you imagine the pressure that poor man is under, having to write a follow-up to Da Vinci Code, knowing that the critics are waiting with knives that grow sharper by the year? I
picture him locked away in a room somewhere a la Howard Hughes, naked and filthy and pacing. But maybe that’s just me).

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Build a team for the future, with a wide, solid base, not one that perches precariously on a few backs. But I’d love to hear what you think…

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