Prompt: Puzzled

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

June 7, 2010 -- 4:19 p.m.

I enjoyed my trip to the sand dunes with my family. I wish we could do something as fun every week. I think I'll be picking sand out of my shoes for the next decade.

So I just finished Da Vinci Code, which I had never read before. I read it so I could see what the fuss was all about. Spoilers abound in the post because, you know, it's like...old news.

I wasn't a fan. I'm glad the book brought more people to the bookstore than who normally would come, but I didn't like it. It was a little slow for a thriller. Give me the short, soft stylings of Lee Child any day of the week. That man can do more with the phrase "he said nothing" than any other author can do with a paragraph of emotive description (including myself.)

However, I'm not going to criticize it, because writers living in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and you can't really argue with success.

Other authors have used "the right blood" concept, even if I haven't seen it linked with the holy grail except in fringe literature. It seems odd that the "importance of blood" fantasy trope occasionally migrates over to popular literature. Another book I read that involved blood had a quest to find a descendant of Hitler. Then they found his little granddaughter, who was about 8 or so, and the heroine shot her on sight because she had Hitler's charisma. And the hero was absolutely okay with murdering a child because she had the same blood as her father. I may be wrong about the age, but even if she was a young adult, she still hadn't done anything yet. I think she was in the middle of saying how evil her grandfather was when the heroine shot her, too.

My attempts to figure out what that book's name was led me to all sorts of interesting information, including a web site that says Angela Merkel is Hitler's daughter via artificial insemination. The evidence: A doctor of Hilter's was allegedly carrying around a vial of his sperm around Eastern Germany about the time Angela Merkel was conceived. Also, they share the same birthday.

Wow, who knew I was Jesse Jackson's illegitimate daughter? After all, we were both born on Oct. 8.

I wonder sometimes why people demonize politicians with really ridiculous arguments when ordinary arguments will do. I remember receiving all sorts of crack email during the last presidential election telling me Obama was the anti-Christ signalling the end of days. Well, I'm still waiting for that apocalypse.

Did I ever tell you I saw a PBS special on the 2012 Aztec calendar thing, and one professor talked about email he had received from a mother asking if she should poison her children in 2011 so they wouldn't have to suffer it? WHY ARE PEOPLE SO INSANE!

But back to the Da Vinci Code: I was amused that, when the book won a plagerism settlement, the judge added codes to his opinion. I'm not sure an American judge would have gotten away with being that flippant. Unless they're Scalia. His dissents are so fun to read, even if I rarely agree with them.

What can writers learn from Da Vinci Code's popularity:

• I did admire Dan Brown's penchant for research, even if not all of it was accurate. The way he planted enough facts that sounded plausible in the beginning of the book made the later leaps of logic feel more solid.

• He placed strategic hooks to draw readers on. He had a mystery pulling at the reader in every chapter, and he added another layer on it every time. If I wasn't always absolutely enthralled, I could at least see that it was meant to be enthralling. Red herrings also abounded. I was absolutely sure the French inspector dude was "the teacher."

• Any press is good press. The controversy surrounding it probably spiked interest in the book. I was amused when I read the Catholic web site debunking the Da Vinci Code because it says, "Its publisher, Doubleday, released it with much fanfare in March 2003 and heavily promoted it. As a result, it debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and has remained on it since..." Which implies readers had nothing to do with its popularity. I bet publishers wish they had the power to create a Da Vinci Code level seller with every book. But the publicity surrounding it, both at its launch and later, did, undoubtedly, help.

• Sometimes an unusual theme or wacky theory can be really powerful, if it makes good watercooler chat. I often think that it's very difficult to create a completely original work because at least one person has done anything you ever tried to do already. Well, I have never seen a thriller based around the descendents of Christ, holy grail and goddess-worship symbology before. I would never have expected to see those elements in a best-selling book. I'm not sure picking a loony, delicious gossip-worthy theory and structuring a book around it could actually work again, but who knows?

But the bottom line is this: people like puzzles. The same people who do the cryptograms, crosswords and sudokus in the newspaper read a lot of books. If your book doesn't have a good element of mystery in it, you're missing out on a chance to entrance the reader. Every time you can add a puzzle--even if it's something small, like the evil character's motivation--you make it that much harder to put your book down.

Title: Puzzled
Genre: None
Type: Whatever

Pick an element: character, setting, world-building detail, plot, etc. and add a puzzle. It can be anything--a puzzle about a character's true identity. A word anagram that will give away the final location of that magical McGuffin. A cryptic sentence left in a mad scientist's diary. The bad guy's motivation. See if you can withhold something until the end, and drop enough clues to leave the reader guessing and hungry for more.

What makes an interesting puzzle to you? Do you like word games? Number mazes? Whatever you do like, see if you can combine it with some other element in your book to make a good mystery. Little or big, both can be useful.


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