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An Exacting Path to Success

By Dawn Ius

Sandra Brown has been called “exacting”—an apt description, perhaps, for the author of more than 80 novels, 70 of which have hit the New York Times bestseller list. She certainly won’t deny that she likes things a particular way.

“It’s my name on everything,” she says. “Nobody else’s name is in big white letters on the cover of the book. You can’t just mail it in.”

She’s not just referring to the words on the page—though her primary goal is always to entertain readers with the standard of writing excellence she’s earned over the past 35-ish years of her career. Brown is exacting in everything she does—from the plotting and drafting of each novel, through to revisions, and the ever-increasing demands of social media. Her readers are important to her—critical even—and so those tweets about her grandkids, and that Facebook image of her at the hair salon in foils are all planned and executed by her.

“Readers are looking for anything that humanizes the person on the back of the book,” she says. “And while I do have a helper and we outsource some of the more generic content, I know readers want to hear from me.”

Her efforts are rewarded. Brown’s fanbase is a powerhouse, propelling sales of her novels well past the 80 million mark worldwide and consistently pushing each new release onto international bestseller lists.

Brown’s latest novel—OUTFOX—is poised to enjoy the same success.

In it, we are introduced to rugged FBI agent Drex Easton, a man driven by his obsession to catch a serial conman known as Weston Graham. Over the past three decades, Graham has assumed countless identities and disguises to bilk unsuspecting wealthy women out of millions, leaving behind a string of broken hearts and unanswered questions.

Brown, middle, leaving for 2nd USO tour with fellow ITW members (left to right) Brad Taylor, Brad Meltzer, Kathleen Antrim, and Kathy Reichs.

But, as with all Brown’s stories, a romantic complication comes to light, this time in the form of Talia Shafer, a beautiful, intelligent businesswoman married to a man named Jasper Ford—a man Drex knows to be the most recent identity of Weston Graham.

If you’ve read Brown’s books before, you have a good sense of what’s coming—at least from the romantic sense—but in addition to Brown’s trademark twists and turns, she adds another layer to her work in OUTFOX: a more complex plot than her previous novels.

The idea was sparked by a news story Brown had seen about a conman who’d been caught after several years evading detection and she thought, “How would you go about catching someone like that?”

As it turns out, Brown needed to pit her hero against the conman, and create a game in which each was trying to “outfox” the other. And in the process, she had to also “con” the reader.

Brown recording her Christmas story “Believing” for Hachette Audio.

“Some of it came organically—I write the story directly from my head to my fingers as they’re typing,” she says, noting that she’s always been a “seat of your pants” kind of writer. “But I knew I couldn’t lie to the reader, so I had to build in some hints along the way. It was more complicated to keep it honest.”

Doing research helped.

While the process wasn’t as arduous as for last year’s bestseller, Tailspin—a page-turning story of romantic suspense about a sexy “freight dog” pilot—she dove into anything that helped her understand the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath, including every docudrama about Ted Bundy she could get her hands on.

Things were going well, until about page 250 of the manuscript, when Brown found herself on familiar ground: mired in self-doubt.

That’s not a typo.

“I sent the first 250 pages to my editor, and I had no idea what was going to come next,” she says. “I was at my desk, hands on my head, telling my husband ‘I can’t do it.’ And he said, ‘But you’ve done it 80 other times’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t do it again.’”

As it turns out, she could. As she has for every book before OUTFOX as well.

But, then, it’s no surprise since quitting isn’t in Brown’s DNA. Her father was an editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star Telegraph, and Brown grew up watching him take his brown-bag lunch to work and carve out a 500-word story from thin air every day. Her mother was an avid reader and cultivated a love of literature in her children.

Sandra Brown

“I’m a perfect genetic combination of hard work and imagination,” she says. “I have an appreciation for good work ethic. I learned early that if you want to succeed, it’s working hard and making it look easy.”

Brown knows all too well what “working hard” means. From the moment she decided that she wanted to be an author, she committed to her craft. She woke every day to get “ready for work” and to this day, spends several hours immersed in her current story. Though supportive of her children, she’s never been much of a joiner—more the soccer mom that stuck to sidelines than participated in bake sales—and admittedly missed out on some of her kids’ activities.

Bu that persistence, hard work, and yes, sacrifice, has paid off. Though still a self-proclaimed workaholic, Brown does take time to spend with her kids and grandchildren, including cheering on the Dallas Cowboys as a family and going on trips. For an author who sacrificed so much early in her career, these are just rewards.

She wouldn’t change it for anything—and it’s still the advice she’d share with any writer who wants to succeed.

“I have two questions for them,” she says. “How hard are you willing to work? And how much are you willing to sacrifice?”

For an example of what happens when the answers to those questions are firmly in mind, an author needs look no further than to Brown’s impressive career.


Dawn Ius
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