Back in 2000, Dan Brown changed my life.
I have a Masters in Theology from the University of Oxford and religion, art history, architecture and spirituality are just some of my obsessions. Up until 2000, I thought that the only option to be a successful author in that arena was to follow in the footsteps of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
But then Dan Brown made the religious thriller mainstream and commercial and it now has a great niche all of its own, with Steve Berry, James Rollins, Scott Mariani and others writing in the genre. There are now so many options for readers like me who devour these types of books and I mainline them (since I don't have a TV, I read a LOT!).
So when I wanted to write a fast-paced thriller series based on themes that I love, Dan Brown was definitely one of my influences and my ARKANE books were born. I even wrote short stories for Kobo's Descent, a contest to promote the launch of Inferno, so great was my fan-dom. So I am a Brown lover from way-back, a super-fan, one of those readers that writers want to attract.
But I just finished reading Inferno, Dan Brown's latest book, and instead of reviewing it, I wanted to share my lessons learned as an author.
No spoilers, I promise.
(1) Write what you love and don't get trapped into expectations
Inferno might satisfy the expectations of the publisher, and some fans for another Langdon book. But in reading it, I felt like Dan Brown did not have a fun time writing it, and in fact, he would rather be writing techno-thrillers.
The most interesting bits were about transhumanism and genetic modification as well as population control (which I also used as my bad guy's motivation in Prophecy.) Fascinating topics and I also like his strong female characters (who are far more 3-dimensional than Langdon).
But I think that perhaps Dan needs to stop writing the Langdon series and write something that really turns him on. And as a reader I want to see what he does with a techno-thriller.
Smash through people's criticisms, why don't you, Dan? Please.
You don't need the money so write something that's fun for you. Anything that takes you that long and isn't literary fiction can't have been enjoyable to write.
As authors, it's important that we love what we write and don't box ourselves into a genre that becomes a burden.
Sure, this is a business and you know I'm commercially minded, but I also want to do this as my passion as well as my income. Trying different things is part of the beauty of being a writer. So have a go at a short story in another genre, or a novella, and see how it feels. If you start feeling dry on a project, maybe it's time to switch it up a little.
(2) Book title, marketing and theme need to resonate
I've just read Dante's Inferno in order to write the Sin series, so I know the book pretty well. It's fresh in my mind, and Brown's Inferno doesn't even scratch the surface.
Instead of delving into the world of Dante's Inferno – the book – he has delved into Florence, Dante's home town, with the death mask a key artefact and a few cantos used as clues. But I was looking forward to the resonance of language and dark themes of Dante's Inferno and instead, got a travel guide to Florence and some other European cities. The marketing and hype has all been about Dante's Inferno, but as a hard-core reader of this genre and supporting works, I was disappointed that the book didn't match that.
As writers, it is our responsibility to ensure that the experience of the reader lives up to the expectations of the packaging. Book cover and title are critical in this aspect and it is why authors like Polly Courtney have split with publishers over issues of covers that don't match the book.
(3) Don't confuse the reader
I was confused a lot as Brown's Inferno jumped out of the action into flashback or detailed physical description or directions through the maze of Florence backstreets. Then one of the twists later in the book REALLY confused me and I needed to read back to various points, and then I found continuity issues that annoyed me.
As a reader, I don't want to be jolted from the fictive dream, and as writers, we have a responsibility to make sure the story hangs together.
Most of the professional writers I know use 5-8 beta-readers as well as editors and proof-readers. That's my process too, and my next book Desecration has already had 7 different people critique it and give me feedback as readers and editors. Now it's off to another round of reading, and another round of improvement.
With all the secrecy around Inferno, I can't help but wonder how many beta-readers read the book before it went to press. It's just confusing, even for someone like me who is an uber-geek in matters esoteric.
Am I still a fan of Dan Brown?
There were other issues with the book, and I'm sure you've read the usual criticism of Brown's writing style.
As someone who loved Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and has defended Dan Brown a lot, I feel disappointed with Inferno. But as a writer, I think it teaches us a lot, and my opinion means little in this world, so I'm embracing my lessons learned on this occasion.
As a reader, I will buy another Dan Brown novel, but Dan, if you're listening, I hope it's a techno-thriller next time.
What do you learn from books by other authors? Do you find as a reader that you are more critical because you're a writer? And does it help your own writing?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below (but please, no spoilers on the plot in case people want to read it).