Category Archives: Book reviews for writers

Just Possibly the “Next Big Thing” Novel

Make sure you’re buying the right story.

Sometimes publishers and their paid prognosticators (called PR agencies) get it right.  They call the next mega-selling, iconic novel before a single book has been sold.

And in doing so they, in effect, ordain it as such.  The chicken and the egg can’t tell each other apart. 

Buzz lights the fuse on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  At least when they are right.  Because all that pre-release hype jacks the rollout numbers, and that, in turn, ignites further reader and media interest and the book takes off from there.

It must be good, right?  Even me writing about it here will make some of you want to buy it on Day One.  Because it is, after all, The Next Big Thing.

People sometimes buy books like they place bets. 

They are playing the odds.  If you’ve ever bought a book by your favorite author without really knowing much about the story, then you’ve done it, too.

Such is the upside of having your name branded in the marketplace.

Of course, ultimately a book has to stand on its own, and that’s what nobody can predict with certainty.  And sometimes it doesn’t work. 

Many are the novels that came out to loud fanfare and quickly disappeared (like “Derailed” by James Seigal), leaving the author to console themselves with their pre-release million dollar movie-rights deal and a truckload of rationalization on their hands.  Never to be seen or heard from again.

The DaVinci Code was ordained, based on pre-release raves from the independent bookstore community, which has significant clout.  The first Harry Potter wasn’t ordained (it was rejected 12 times), but the next Potter novels certainly were.  Everything with an A-list author’s name on the cover is, to some extent, ordained.  When a John Grisham novel doesn’t show up on the bestseller list on Day One it’ll be a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Some major books don’t get the on-the-come royalty treatment.  They earn their way onto the bestseller lists – The Lovely Bones comes to mind.  Nobody had heard of Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections (and then his fame had as much to do with his hubris as his storytelling).

Go ahead, look at the NY Times fiction bestseller list and see how many names there you don’t recognize.  Maybe one.  Maybe none at all.  Success breeds success, and it’s an almost impossible circle to break into.  Unless your publisher, for whatever reason, ordains it.

Now that DaVinci, The Help and Harry Potter have had their respective runs, it’s time for a new cash cow to show up.  And apparently it has.  There’s a new J.K. Rowling in town, and she’s here to tell us all how it’s done.

Don’t listen.  Just read.

How it happened usually has nothing to do with, a) how good it is now that it’s published, and b) the viability of the author’s writing process. 

The novel is called Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, and it will be published by Doubleday in September, with an initial print run of over 100,000 hardcovers – huge by today’s whittled standards – and the usual compliment of full page magazine ads, tours, talk shows and sparkling reviews. 

It’s a debut novel, which is unusual, but also strategic.  Buzz has that added dimension when the name doesn’t roll off the tongue. 

And here’s a big surprise… it’s very Potteresque

That is, the magical world setting plays a huge role in what the publisher is betting will be the attraction.  As the name implies, this story unfolds in a circus in which two young magicians – sexual chemistry ensues – compete with each at the behest of their fathers. 

It’s Hogwarts in a tent.  It’s Water for Elephants with magic wands and puffs of smoke.

If you think Big Publishing will place their bet (as in, huge marketing dollars) on something completely different and unproven… that’s just not gonna happen.  Just ask Alice Sebold.  Just ask J.K. Rowling when 12 idiot editors told her to take a hike.

Of course, the cliché raves tell us Night Circus will be “better than The DaVinci Code and The Help, and it’s all because of the writing.  That and a few abracadabras and the proximity of forbidden romance.  It’s for adults, but appropriate to younger readers.

Isn’t that just perfect, in a business school sort of way.

Not saying the story or the setting is cliché – sounds kinda cool, actually – I haven’t read it.  I’m sure it’s terrific.  I’m just suggesting that we look closely at the hype to understand how you might position your story against market trends plays a role in how it may be received.  It’s a two-edged sword that can backfire on you – ask anyone who’s submitted a religious thriller in the last 10 years.

Like me.  More than a few readers said that was better than The DaVinci Code, too.

Beware the suddenly wise-waxing phenom.

I’m sure Ms. Morgenstern is a terrific writer, a certifiable prodigy about to turn proven literary genius. 

In fact, she sounds like one, and this is what’s dangerous here for newer writers. 

Because she’s a painter.  An artist.  She claims to write like she paints, by throwing colors at a canvas to see what happens.  To just “write and write and write and revise*” until, well, she has the next Big Thing on her hands.

Yeah, like that always works.

Remember when your kid learned to ride a bike?  They just rode and rode and rode and rode, until they got it.  And once the got it, they remained upright.

Score one for the pantsers, it really can work. 

And if it doesn’t result in the Next Big Thing, it certainly can lead one to an effective story.

But don’t be fooled.  This is like telling a young surgeon to just cut and cut and cut until they find that pesky lump that’s causing all the problems.

But wait, the resistant, validated pantser says.  That’s not a fair analogy. 

No?  This is commercial storytelling, not experimental art.  It’s craft.  It’s not finger painting, you’re not reinventing the form.  It’s more like those galleries in the mall, and you’re looking for the next dogs-playing-poker phenomenon.  There are standards in play – find the lump and cut it out without maiming the patient – and all the slashing in the world won’t change the effectiveness of the end result, nor is it required to achieve it.

Unless it’s a cadaver… and cadavers don’t get up and do book signings.

I promise you, old hands like – insert your favorite author here – don’t “write and write and write and then revise”… because they don’t have to.  They don’t need to.  They already know what the end-product – yeah, it’s a product – looks like when it works.  So even if they don’t plan it, they write toward it, and from the standards that define it.

That profile, that architecture, is available to all.  Or you can figure it out on your own, or maybe like Morgenstern, stumble upon it with the application of your innate genius self.

The reason this fortunate new author writes and writes and writes, and then – pay attention to the fact that she tossed this in –revises, is because she didn’t know better.  She wasn’t sure what she was writing relative to what it needed to look like at the end of the process.   And who knows how long that took.

And then, she didn’t know what to revise until she had written something and realized it could, and should, be different than it was when it was splashed all over the pages like a spilled jigsaw puzzle.

Writers who know their craft revise less because the first cut comes closer to what it should be.  That’s just flat-out true.  Bragging about doing it otherwise is… well, ironic.  The pre-release hype of Morgenstern’s novel has nothing at all to do with the efficiency – or the romantic suffering – of her process.

And as for effectiveness… well, even a cadaver can look good with the right make-up.  That’s what words are – make-up applied to a story to make it the best it can be. 

However we discover our stories is a good thing. 

No, it’s not cheating to know what you’re doing. 

Don’t be seduced by successful authors who claim that their story somehow emerged from a pile of random, directionless and criteria-ignorant writing.  The only thing that emerges from such a pile is, if you’re lucky, an awareness of what isn’t working, and what the story could become once you’ve cleaned up and reorganized the pile.

Either way.  Whatever works for you.   

I wish Ms. Morgenstern great success.  Sounds like it’s hers to lose, at this point.

But I’ll bet you money her next book is written from a different process.

(*from USA Today’s article by Carol Memmott and Brian Truitt)

Please see the previous post about my FREE eBOOK offer, and three newly republished novels that are not remotely Potteresque and were written from a plan.  A plan based on proven principles.  And yes, the critics loved ‘em.



Filed under Book reviews for writers

A Master Class in Crime Noir

We write.  Therefore we read.

Or at least we should.  Especially after we become acquainted with the technical nuts and bolts of story architecture… once you know this stuff you can’t help but see it at work within successful stories — both books and movies — in a way that jumps out at you.

And, serves as a model of what works.  No matter what your process, what works is always the goal.

The following review appeared this week in The Oregonian newspaper, used by permission.  The novel is, as the title suggests, an example worth studying.

We’re lucky that way.  We get to study and enjoy a good book at the same time.

“The Troubled Man,” By Henning Mankell… A Review by Larry Brooks

It’s good to be Swedish these days.  Especially if you’re an author of dark mystery thrillers. 

Such is the global fallout from a breakout series that dominates both the bestseller and box office charts, as fueled by the iconic Stieg Larson trilogy and their on-screen adaptations.  With all three sub-titled films being redone by U.S. writers and directors, this phenomenon will continue over the next few years, do doubt giving even more Swedish writers their shot at a hungry U.S.-based readership.

But in case you thought the current buzz about Swedish noir began and ended with the late Stieg Larson and his heroine with the Dragon Tattoo, this is about as true as the current equity in American mysteries belonging entirely to Michael Connelly, an assumption which might ruffle the feathers of writers like Dashiel Hammet, Ellery Queen or even Ross Macdonald.  Because like Connelly, Larson had his way paved by a Swedish literary institution, in this case one who continues to write what crime lit afficianados recognize to be among the finest the genre has ever produced.

His name is Henning Mankell, best known stateside for last year’s The Man From Beijing.  Mankell (the son-in-law of film legend Ingmar Bergman) and his quite Harry Bosch-like protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a global legend known not only for his multi-million selling novels and his father-in-law, but also for his work as a playwright, screenwriter, children’s author and philanthropist.

His newest novel, The Troubled Man, is the final chapter in the Wallander series, coming a decade after the latest of its nine predecessors.

Reading Mankell is a study in the marriage of characterization and the sub-text of plot.  The latter is a tasty resurrection of cold war intrigued based on a real-life government cover-up (not unlike what Nelson Demille tried to pull off in 2007’s Night Fall), complete with spies, cyanide pills, secrets taken to the grave by corrupt leaders and a hero who risks all because he has to know the truth to allow himself to view his diminishing career as having been meaningful.  Throw in a delayed mid-life crisis, a daughter with a mind of her own and the emerging sense of his own shuffling off to the pasture of a desk job, and you’ve got a story that rings deeper and hinges on personal stakes unlike most reads from this end of the shelf.

While the plot alone would compel a reader to forfeit a few early nights to experience this web of intrigue connecting in unexpected and satisfying ways, it is the voice of the author through his hero and the illumination of layers of life in a thankless profession that suck the reader into a delicious abyss of urgency battling with hopelessness, a rationalization of risk versus a reward already buried under a false headstone.

Mankell isn’t going away, he’s got more literary fight left in him than does his retiring hero, Wallander.  But if you want to catch the segue from one Henning Mankell era to the next, now is the time to hop on the Kurt Wallander train and lose yourself in a story that envelopes as it challenges.  And if you still aren’t sure who this guy is, just keep an eye on the best seller lists over the next few months, because you’re certain to see him there next to the title of this stellar work.

Larry Brooks’ latest book is “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” published in February by Writers Digest Books.


Filed under Book reviews for writers