460: Want to write the Great American Novel? … First, murder someone.

 Murder mysery scene Dreaming of writing that Great American Novel?
    Murder isn’t a bad first step. No kidding.
    This has become a key point in my talks about the turbulent transformation of media. I ask an audience: “Do you know what makes a bestseller?”
    I get various responses: “Great writing.” “A famous name.” “Oprah.” “A movie deal.”
    All of those answers are correct—all are connected with various bestsellers. But no one in my audiences ever mentions the central in-your-face truth about bestselling novels in America—

 Ten Commandments     CRIME!
    Our publisher John Hile has heard me give such talks. At one small gathering our college-age sons were sitting near us and looked skeptically at me as I made this point.
    John leaned over and whispered: “Just think of your Moms.”
    The chief book buyers in both of our households consume a steady stream of mysteries. My wife, Amy, even discovered that Bible scholar Marcus Borg is a lifelong fan of mystery novels—and she swaps newly found mystery writers with Marcus occasionally. In fact, I suspect Marcus schedules interviews with me (like this one, for instance) mainly so he and Amy, at the end, can swap their latest “finds.” (Marcus loves mysteries with strong central characters and either a historical or religious theme to the setting.)

James-Bond-Bible-Study Why is this important? I often meet with writers one on one, these days, listening to their book ideas—some of which are terrific in their exploration of spiritual themes.
    That’s why we just published Warren Petoskey’s “Dancing My Dream,” after a year of work to develop the book.
    That’s why, on Tuesday, I highly recommended Carol Tyler’s memoir about how WWII shaped her father’s view of the world—and shaped the next couple of generations of her family.
    That’s why on Wednesday we explored spiritual themes in TV dramas. (Think about the most popular series on television—and most are about …? Crime, that’s right.)
    That’s why we’re the publishers of the popular James Bond Bible Study.
    But I often ask writers, planning future books they hope to write: “Have you ever thought of writing a mystery?”
    I get skeptical chuckles.
    Sometimes, to make my point, I pull out a new catalog from some major publisher displaying upcoming books that the publisher hopes will hit the 100,000-copy “bestseller” threshold.

The Holy Bible Luis Miguel Rocha     Currently, I tote around Putnam’s really exciting-looking catalog for Fall 2009. Putnam now is part of Penguin, but historically this is the legendary publishing house associated with Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov and Kurt Vonnegut. So, flip open the Fall 2009 catalog and what do we find? Fifteen new books are crime novels—while only 6 novels cover the rest of the literary cosmos. In that mix of 21 novels, Putnam’s will publish several books with terrific spiritual themes (even a thriller, “The Holy Bullet,” involving the Vatican)—but the big, bold “CRIME” theme looms like a fleet of Mack trucks barreling down the freeway of American media.
    This shouldn’t surprise people of faith. We are several millennia into a love affair with tales of ultimate good and evil. The world’s all-time bestseller—The Bible—is also one of the world’s greatest collections of crime stories.
    Still skeptical?
    Well, to firmly nail this point to the wall, I counted titles this week in the New York Times Book Review. Of the 15 books listed as Hardback Fiction Bestsellers, 14 are crime stories. Most of them (12) involve typical murders (as opposed to other categories of crime). Four mysteries involve vampire-like creatures and one is a science-fiction crime tale. But, clearly crime dominates. Then, among the 20 books listed as Mass-Market Paperback Fiction Bestsellers, 14 are crime novels—all 14 of these involving murder as the central crime, although four rely on vampire-like creatures.

 Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass My point here for you? This is a huge business in America: Last year alone, book buyers forked over more than $24 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.
    So, if you’re one of the millions of Americans out there dreaming of writing a book someday, we strongly recommend that you:
    1.) Write about something close to your heart (something you know a lot about)
    2.) Explore spiritual themes (spiritual questions have fueled the furnace of great literature for thousands of years)
    3.) And, please—at least think about killing someone in the process?

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