In the late 1980s, Sandra Brown had a difficult decision to make. Brown was a successful romance author writing under three pseudonyms, as well as her own name, when her crossover thriller, “Slow Heat in Heaven,” landed on the New York Times best-seller list for five weeks.
“That five weeks changed my life,” Brown recalled. “My publisher said in order to grow my career, I could not write any genre romance. I had to get rid of my safety net.”
Leaving romance writing behind proved to be the right decision for Brown, who has written 68 New York Times best-sellers and has more than 80 million copies of her books in print. Her latest novel, “Sting,” which hit bookstores yesterday, is one of those thrillers that grabs your attention and keeps you reading late into the night.
Brown, speaking with City Pulse from her home in Texas, said “anything goes” in today’s publishing world, and authors no longer feel restrained to just one genre. Brown started as a romance writer, she said, because “that’s what people were buying at the time.” Romance writing was very lucrative, but Brown, who studied English at Texas Christian University and holds an honorary doctorate from the school, started looking for something else.
“It was great discipline writing romance,” she said, “but I had my eye on painting a larger canvas.”
To be fair, Brown hasn’t totally put her romance pedigree behind her. Her books still include sensual sex scenes and bad boys — like the protagonist in “Sting.”
“Everybody loves a bad boy,” she said. “I don’t want to write about an accountant. You want a flawed character, and you want redemption for them.”
Brown attributes her writing skills, in part, to the influence of her parents. Her mother was a storyteller, especially of fairy tales, while her father was an editorial writer for a newspaper.
“He had a deadline every day,” she said.
Brown’s books are characterized by numerous switchbacks and cliffhangers, which put readers on edge of their seat. Just when you think you know what comes next, you are left shaking your head. It is difficult to write in any details about Brown’s books without giving away some of those incredible switchbacks. “Sting” starts with a story of two hit men, but it evolves into a kidnapping/ extortion plot. There are plenty of surprises but no “cheap tricks,” Brown said.
Brown admits that she doesn’t know exactly where the book will go when she begins writing.
“I didn’t see the twists coming — they happen without my knowledge,” she said. “I’m not a writer who outlines everything. Once the story is written I lose interest.”
Instead, Brown writes an 8 to ten page synopsis — mostly for her publisher — and proceeds from there. While she mostly lets the story unfold on its own, there are some guideposts along the way.
“I know where there is going to be conflict,” she said. “And I know what I call the ‘aha moment’ is going to be. I know how the book ends, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there.”
This constant insecurity, the sense that anything could happen, is what Brown uses to pull readers in and keep their attention.
“I love scenes that represent, ‘What if this happens or that happens?’” she said. “I put a question on reader’s minds, and it hangs subconsciously there.”
Many authors have a ritual they go through before starting a new book. Some clean their office or repaint their writing room, while others retreat to a cabin in the woods. Brown has her own ritual. She re-reads “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler, before she starts a new book. Then she cleans her office, lights a scented candle and starts typing. Vogler’s book, Brown explained, distills writing into the basic elements of successful storytelling.
“It breaks it down into the classic myths of novel writing,” she said. “The hero, the shadow, the shapeshifter, the trickster — all the elements are there.”
Vogler’s book, which was originally written as a screenwriting primer, is based on the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s book, which outlines twelve stages of successful storytelling, helps Brown fill in the gaps in her basic story idea.
“A good writer never considers that they are quite there,” Brown said. “There is a constant striving.”
Sandra Brown presents “Sting”
7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 Ticketed event: Guaranteed seating tickets FREE with purchase of “Sting” at Eastwood Towne Center location; FREE standing-room-only tickets available in person at Eastwood Towne Center location or by phone Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location) 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495, schulerbooks.com