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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).
Tonette dela Luna says
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Have a great day!
David Lafferty says
Thank you for your post. Having published a book on Dante’s Inferno and being immersed in the Commedia for the past five years, I looked forward to a fun read. I’m halfway through Inferno now and am pretty disappointed. The Dante facts are legit, but I agree it doesn’t sound like he really enjoyed the writing. Although I had some issues with Da Vinci Code, it was fun and filled with great puzzles. Inferno feels more like an action movie treatment interspersed with factoids. Sadly Inferno makes Da Vinci Code look like an intellectual tour-de-force. I can only imagine what Eco could do with Dante…sigh.
Leslie Miller says
Wow. I’m really starting to feel quite badly for Dan Brown… it must be sad and disappointing to read all the tepid, sad and disappointed reviews from fans. Do you think he is being pressured by his publisher to keep writing Langdon?
Deception Point was fantastic. Hope he gets back to that juicy writing again.
I like your comments about having fun writing. That you felt this was tedious for him. I think many authors of serials hit that point. I know one of my favorite mystery writers did. But I wonder if sometimes its just that particular story is a stretch. Because sometimes later works do work out for them.
Jerry B. Jenkins says
Good stuff, Joanna. I learned the same and did the same. “I, Saul” releases in August from Worthy Publishing. And one of my Left Behind titles was “Desecration.” Eager to see yours.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Jerry – wow! I’m thrilled you’ve left a comment as the Left Behind series was something I started to read years ago. I’m not a Christian but I loved the theological aspect of the books and the thriller pacing. Awesome franchise 🙂 Desecration IS a good word … good job titles are not copyright! Thanks again.
It was so good to read a review by someone who is a fan, but can still be blatantly honest about how she found the book…even if it was a negative experience. I also appreciate the reasons you have given. While your review didn’t leave me inspired to read “Inferno”, it has evoked a desire to re-read “Angels and Demons”! Always good to get a good take on these books before going out and spending time and money on something I probably wouldn’t enjoy. For all those who feel the same way, another great source of info on books, authors and narrations, is Elaine’s radio show, The Book Report (bookreportradio.com). You can listen to archived shows online, and I find the excerpts from the audio books hugely helpful in my call to read or not read! I am often surprised by the author interviews – I guess preconceived ideas can get in the way of good judgement.
As for writing being fun, I’ve experienced more blocks by having to write to topic instead of what I want to be writing about, that I sometimes even get to the point where I strike a blank on what I wanted to write about. Our minds are exceptional when we allow them to follow their strain of creativity.
Well done on having the integrity to write an honest review! 🙂
You mentioned that Dan Brown’s Inferno “doesn’t even scratch the surface.” It’s an interesting point. His books are, usually, more focused on investigations of historical events. If he would have dived deeper into “Inferno,” his book would’ve become philosophical, and considering how difficult it is for people to think, his novels might not have become that popular.
I hope I managed to get my point across (English is not my first language 🙂 ). Great post!
I think you make a good point Andrii, and heaven knows I only know one language, but I would have used the word tedious when one is reading for enjoyment and then begins to feel as though it is a text book. I, for one, prefer to escape into a book, and it can be a heavy topic, but written well.
I didn’t finish Inferno.
This is a very useful post. As someone who writes or edits a lot as part of work, it is becoming difficult to purely enjoy a book. I think that subconsciously I am evaluating some aspect or the other of what I read.
I loved DaVinci code but didn’t like Angels and Demons much. His techno thrillers were also Ok. For me, no Dan Brown book has had as much of an impact as Da Vinci code, maybe because it was the first book of its kind that I read.
I am sure your observations will be helpful to both new and established writers.
So disappointed in Dan brown’s Inferno. Reading your thoughts about writing what you love, made me feel normal as I am struggling in this book. I have never not finished a book I was reading, even if I didn’t like it, but I am ready to throw in the towel after completing chapter 48. Do not wish to state why I don’t like it because it is my opinion, and would never want to spoil a book for someone else.
Shahzad Ahmed says
I have been a die hard fan of Dan Brown. I have read Da Vinci Code and Angel and Demon and now I have read 1/3rd of The Inferno and I believe its not upto his previous two books.
I feel a bit heavy doses of art history and Italian architecture.
Ariel Rodrigo says
Wow! The experience for me was literally the opposite. I wasn’t expecting much from Inferno since I loved the first 2 novels with Robert and also even The Lost Symbol. Thought Dan would ran out of creativity or something and that the book wouldn’t be that good but I was completely impressed! I had a great time reading it and got to learn a lot. It went way beyond my expectations and it definitely was a good experience for me. The the ending was also good, didn’t think it was disappointing like some people say. Well, those are just my thoughts. It depends on the reader, I guess.
Hi, I just read your review, and I thought it was quite an interesting insight. Personally, I loved Inferno because of the many science references made, and how there were plot twists I didn’t expect at every turn. Now that you mentioned it, it does seem as though Dan Brown was struggling to write this book, with the many paragraphs of description thrown in (my personal favourite way to lengthen a manuscript). Nevertheless, I do not think it any less of a great novel, because as some commenter previously mentioned, the Robert Langdon series primarily focuses on symbolism in the art world, and how lunatics make use of these symbols to hide a message or to gain inexplicable power for themselves. Just my views on this, but I do agree that it is an excellent lesson to the rest of us authors.