September, 2009, was Dan Brown week in the world of publishing. That was when The Lost Symbol—Brown’s much-awaited follow-up to The Da Vinci Code (2003)—hit the bookstores.
The Lost Symbol was not easy for Mr. Brown to write. I mean, how do you follow a once-in-a-lifetime megahit like The Da Vinci Code? Brown copped to the pressure. Regarding the long lag time between the two novels, Brown said in an interview:
“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….[Then] 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.”
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 A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they’re published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.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. 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 we want to keep pleasing them, surprising them, delighting them with plot twists, great characters and a bit of stylistic flair.
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.
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). We are on a never ending quest for premises, characters and plot. No matter how many books we’ve done, we keep aspiring to the next level.
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. Stay away from the internet and social media for 8 hours. Think you can do it? It may be harder than you think! But what a needed respite for your creative mind.
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.
James Scott Bell
Resident Writing Coach
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on