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 A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they’re published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.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 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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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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