Dan Brown’s guide to writing a bestseller

He may not have won the adulation of book critics or grammarians, who catalogue the stylistic infelicities that crowd every page of his novels, who decry his “curiously ill-chosen clichés” and “mangled idioms”, but every new book Dan Brown sends out attracts the phrases “page-turner” and “bestseller” like a magnet.

The shelf-busting force of his works remains a mystery even to the 50-year-old American author; he hazards that it’s the constant reading and writing, from his first “novel” at the age of five, lovingly transcribed and stapled together by his mother, through all the Hardy Boys he devoured in his childhood, all the Shakespeare and Steinbeck he relished at school, right to the dog-eared paperback  he found abandoned on a dock in Tahiti while on vacation 20 years ago. “It was a Sidney Sheldon,” Brown recalls. “It had lots of twists and turns. I thought, wow, that’s exciting. Maybe I can write something like that!”

The rest, of course, is multimillion-dollar publishing history. More than 200 million copies of his six novels have been sold, and Hollywood has optioned half his oeuvre. Can this kind of success be replicated? Quite possibly, says Brown (we’re not used to this kind of modesty in our bestest-selling authors) — as he shares his blueprint.

Don’t “write what you know”

“Professors constantly told me to ‘write what I know’. My problem is that I live on a prep school campus, and I don’t have a particularly exciting life,” says Brown, the son of a mathematics professor whose writing career extended to  textbooks. A better idea, then, is: “Write what you want to know. I wanted to write about what I’m interested in. And in [The Da Vinci Code’s] case, it was Mary Magdalene, Jesus, the Last Supper and the Holy Grail. I just went out and educated myself about them, and the passion and excitement, as I learned, translated into the book.” 

Put in six hours every day

With all the ceremonies of self-promotion, it’s easy to forget that being a writer is, for the most part, a very lonely slog at your desk. Brown’s ascetic schedule gets him to his desk at 4.00 am, seven days a week, for six hours straight. He tries to make things interesting with charged breaks spent doing furious sit-ups and stretches or putting on gravity boots and hanging upside down. Really regular stuff.

Shut out the world (including the dog)

The perfect writing environment, for Brown, is a stimulus-free cell dreamed up by one of his villains. “I have a place I go to, where there’s no internet, no phone, only a desk, computer, and refrigerator,” he says. “There’s a window, but I pull down the shades, so I don’t know what time of day it is. I don’t want to see the sun come up, and say, ‘Hey, it’s pretty out, maybe I’ll go out for a walk’, or ‘Hey, there’s the dog, maybe I’ll go play with him.’” The internet, of course, is the opposite of blinders. “Pull the airport card out of your computer!” he says and adds, “You’re trying to create a world out of your mind and you can’t do that if you have constant interruptions.” Also, feckless browsing is not “research”. “There comes a point,” Brown notes, “when ‘research’ becomes procrastination.”

Imitate your idols

Like Brown and his totemic Sidney Sheldon, it can be instructive to take apart an idol’s work. “Structure and pace are very important in a thriller,” says Brown. “What really helps create pace is to have, at the heart of your novel, two enormous forces in conflict, and have your hero, ideally, getting crushed in the middle. In the case of Inferno, these forces were overpopulation, genetic engineering and Dante, and they’re all crashing in while Langdon’s trying to find his way out.” There’s another trick Brown learned from his first Sidney Sheldon: “Sheldon uses parallel plot lines very well, which instantly create tension. If you have a scene in Mumbai and then a scene in Los Angeles, the reader will know they’re connected since they’re in the same book. The reader thinks: ‘How are these two things related?’” 

Silas Da Vinci Code Dan brown

Start with gruesome murder

Many of Brown’s books begin with someone being pursued and/or killed. “A shocking opening scene works because one job of a thriller is to catch you quickly,” says Brown. “If I haven’t caught you by the third page, I haven’t done my job. Also, it’s a promise to the reader. If I show you a scary villain like Silas (The Da Vinci Code) or Mal’akh (The Lost Symbol) staring, covered in tattoos, I’m telling my readers: ‘Get ready! This guy’s coming back!’”

Plan to shock and awe

A thriller doesn’t plod along; it progresses in leaps and jerks, with every second chapter ending on  a cliffhanger. This is all part of the Dan Brown Code. “There should be surprises,” he says. “The reader should turn that page and say, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see that coming!’ The experience he wants to give his readers is primarily one of wanting, more than anything — more than sleep, food, and normal functioning — to turn the page.

Go somewhere exotic

Brown is a huge admirer of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, which features lots of exciting foreign settings. “I love the sense of location,” says Brown. “You get a glimpse of the Paris underworld, which none of us has seen or even imagine exists.” The best way to  do this, says Brown, is to travel as much as possible, and to take detailed notes on whatever you experience: “You have to create an exquisite sense of place which appeals to all of your reader’s senses, including what it smells like, the feeling of the air on your skin, the voices of people…” 

Create a morally ambiguous villain

“The ideal villain is doing the wrong thing for the right reason,” Brown says. “My villain in Inferno, Bertrand Zobrist, for example, has some ideas on how to fix overpopulation. He wants to do the right thing, but the way he wants to do it is terrifying and dangerous. You’re horrified but you say, ‘You know, it’s a serious problem, so he has a point.’”

angels demons film

Make superheroes out of ordinary people

Heroism, like charity, starts at home. “I like heroes who are normal people just like us,” says Brown. That’s why he thinks Ludlum’s Bourne, who’s plunged in a series of dangerous adventures after a bout of amnesia, is one of the finest fictional heroes ever created: “That poor guy, you’re witnessing him rediscover himself in real time. So you feel like the hero.” It’s also why he made his hero, Robert Langdon, a college professor. “He’s no kung-fu expert or superhero,”  says Brown. “He has to use his brain, not a gun or magic forces to get out of a situation. So people connect with him. They think: ‘That could be me!’”

Be kind, rewrite

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that writing is not about writing,” says Brown. “It’s about rewriting and editing. For every one page you read in The Da Vinci Code, I wrote 10 that didn’t work. The trick is to know when you didn’t get it right, to throw it out, and keep throwing it out, until you read what you’ve written and say: ‘Bingo!’” If you’re Dan Brown, you’ll probably have eager takers for even your worst trite, but don’t give in. “Readers deserve more,” he says. “Writing is time-consuming and hard, and lots of trial and error. The Lost Symbol took six years for me to write, and this wasn’t me picking away at it slowly, but working every single day.”  

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