Open Letter to Publisher X
In today’s trend-oriented publishing climate, you need to either be the celebrity-of-the-moment or you need to have a bulletproof plan to plug into what’s hot, what’s guaranteed, what there’s already an audience for. And, sir/madam/etc., that you don’t already know my name from the tabloids should suggest that, while not infamous for killing or raping or stalking somebody, which is pretty much the standard for literary potential, I know, I have nevertheless, through a thorough though necessarily shallow study, come up with a story idea that’s less of a gamble than 99% of the publishing opportunities you probably have sitting on your desk right now.
I ask that, for the moment, you push all those other manuscripts to the side. So they’re timeless, are written in blood, are each suicide letters and love letters and elegies and histories and innovations? Surely that can’t matter. Like any good writer, I understand the more important business aspects of these ventures into words and stories, which is to say I’ve studied your list of writers, your ‘stable’ as it were, and am fairly certain I’m pitching this to the right person.
Are those dollar signs in your eyes? Imagine what it must have been like to be that editor who first found the manuscript of The Da Vinci Code on his or her (etc.) desk. When the phone rang ten or twenty minutes later, did that editor angle his or her head to it like it were an artifact from some other reality, you think? As if, so close to this next, inevitable step in the evolution of storytelling, the phone had become suddenly antique, or foreign?
I say to you now: Take inventory of the items on your desk. Remember this moment.
Among all the things The Da Vinci Code did right (prose, timing, controversy, marketing), the most important, perhaps, was that it subtly altered the reading experience: instead of engaging the audience’s emotional core, that resonance in us which hums about being ‘human,’ and what an odd thing that finally is, Da Vinci Code chose to engage both the readers’ guts and their heads. Which is to say it was both a visceral experience, like a roller-coaster, paced with ups and down and reversals and loops, and it was, if not quite New Yorker intellectual, nevertheless academically stimulating. Like, I would argue, a crossword. Which of course requires participation.
This is what Dan Brown gave us, finally: where some books reach up from the pages and ask the reader to replace this monster with our own, personal monsters, Da Vinci Code pulls us face first into the pages by our need to solve puzzles. Like those old stories about raccoon or monkey traps, where all you have to do is place a shiny object in a small hole, we wrap our brains around these puzzles, and refuse to let go. The effect of course is that we’re all stranded at the bookshelves, caught in this story, waiting for the publisher, for you, to come through, collect our souls. And that’s what it’s about, right?
So, what I propose here is to up the ante here. If Da Vinci Code was in fact analogous to a crossword — and let’s face it, while addictive, the crossword isn’t as popular as it once was — then what do we have that’s even more popular, more accessible?
You can’t walk into a bookstore or stand in front of a magazine rack or open a newspaper these days without being confronted with soduko. Where does it come from? Who knows. From the angels, perhaps. The celestials. And, while its American cousin the archaic ‘crossword’ serves to activate dormant areas of the brain, requiring the player to go not just one step for the right answer, but perhaps three or four steps into an abstract, always-conditional chain of reasoning, soduko makes no such demands. If the crossword can be said to be a waking exercise, then soduko, I think, could be called mental rest: it allows the player to essentially turn his/her/etc. brain off, and just coast on the hard logic of simple numbers. Instead of twenty-six options for each box, now, suddenly, there’s just nine. And there’s not even the threat of a ‘mind’ or ‘evil intent’ behind the puzzle anymore: soduko is machine generated, right? To look at it from a different angle, where there exists no computer program that can ‘solve’ crossword after crossword, as computers finally can’t have cultural intelligence or understand all the subtleties of language, even your old 386 machine in the basement could process its way through a soduko puzzle.
So, is the American public consciously deciding to be machines, to turn off, to become, in essence, zombies?
It doesn’t matter. As long as those zombies or robots or whatever still have wallets, I mean, and remember in some dim way where the bookstore is, or at least its URL.
So, my pitch: instead of attempting to clone Da Vinci Code‘s formula for success, its unprecedented domination of the marketplace, of the readership, I propose instead to one-up it. Instead of having an art-historian or symbologist adventure through a tangled plot of exotic locations and daisy-chain reasoning emblematic of the crossword, My Soduko Novel (working title) aims to have a slightly Aspergic elementary school teacher become embroiled in an escalating series of events which she barely scrapes through each time, by dint of her inborn and almost ‘mystical’ abilities with numbers. International intrigue? Sure. Sex and blood? So long as it’s PG-13, definitely. However, before you ask, no, I’m not suggesting we essentially lock Mrs. Lockheed (tentative name) in a Dungeon & Dragons-esque ‘campaign,’ such that she’s merely stumbling into room after room, each with a soduko-inspired keypad she has to solve in order to open the door. That would be keeping the soduko dramatic, instead of letting it, as Dan Brown masterfully did with the crossword logic, become thematic.
So, not only is the daring Mrs. Lockheed (who will of course have her own personal demons to battle — she has, after all, been living with Asperger’s, which I think should make the book that much more marketable, and difficult to give a bad review) lecturing her various and expendable sidekicks on the history and tradition not only of soduko but of ‘light’ number theory in general, she’s also, herself, something of a variable in a larger, possibly metaphysical game of soduko. The one that controls us all. But of course I can still take that another way, if market tests suggest the audience would rather keep the story at the personal level. If that’s the case, then it’ll be no problem to seed some dim soduko flashbacks throughout the novel, slowly revealing some traumatic event at the core of Mrs. Lockheed’s life — an event which, in all likelihood, will involve numbers and the death of some family member or close friend, itself suggesting that this Asperger’s which has allowed her to overcome all this international intrigue in proper, humorous fashion, is in fact a behavior she acquired as a result of that event. But then, and this is the tearjerker ending, instead of giving that up, alone in an airport at the end of the novel she’ll honor her father’s (or brother’s, etc) memory by taking a chair well away from the distracting crowds, and curling herself around another soduko game. Because, for her, it’s more than just numbers, it’s communion with something higher. A religious experience.
This is the point in the pitch where I of course ask if your phone has been ringing, or if you recognize your stapler, have become suspicious of your lamp. Or, your desk calendar — what are the days of the months, except some Roman soduko game, right? Numbers permeate our society at all levels, and the organization of those numbers is something we’re taught from diapers on. I propose that it’s time, finally, for the world of fiction to capitalize on that.
And, if we’re lucky, by the time advance copies are out, I may even have confessed to some crime I probably didn’t do. At the least I’ll have generated a background for myself that, while not identical with Mrs. Lockheed’s, will at least be suggestively congruent with it, thus satiating the public’s need for the ‘thread’ of reality woven through this story. I’ll become the non-fiction, I mean, by suggesting that, while not completely factual, this, My Soduko Novel (Tic Tac Toe?), it’s nevertheless modeled on real events.
Call it marketing if you want, but it’ll feel a lot more like timing, I suspect. Like all good things.
Anyway, I look forward to your call, provided you can still navigate the keypad of your phone without becoming overly fascinated with the numbers there. With the stories.
Thank you for your time,
‘Stephen Graham Jones’
Â©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006