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September 26, 2009

Clea Simon Guest Blogs About Dan Brown

Dan Brown and That New Car Smell

by guest blogger Clea Simon     Go to fullsize image

I was talking the other day with a friend. Not about Dan Brown, but about writing – hang in, this gets to Mr. Brown in a moment. My friend was having problems. An essayist and potential fiction writer, who has worked for years as an editor, she’s having trouble writing. At first it was the usual stuff – kids, work, an ailing in-law. But right now, her life is rather peaceful. And still, the prose is just not flowing.

“I’m a perfectionist,” she told me. “It takes me forever to get through a first draft. It’s very frustrating.”

Now, I’m not a perfectionist – far from it – but I could sympathize. I recently sent back the page proofs of my next mystery, and I understand how hard it is to let go. Just when you think a page is perfect, you stop yourself. Perfect? How can that be?  Did I really mean to use the word “intrude”? Hadn’t I used “intrusive” three pages before? Wouldn’t that near repetition lull the reader to sleep? Shouldn’t I re-read the first 200 pages, just to make sure?

But I got over it. Deadlines are a great motivator, right up there with the fear of not making rent. And so I suggested some self-inflicted deadlines to my friend. Make yourself write for one hour every morning. Set word limits. Even tiny ones. I mean, come on, everyone can write 500 words a day, right?

“But I’d want them to be the right 500 words,” said my friend.  “If they’re not, I’ll cross them out.”

We went on and on for a while like this, analyzing the childhood issues that have influenced us both. Philosophizing on the greater meaning of life and creativity. Until finally, she seemed to feel calmer – and possibly even more productive. And I felt, well, I felt irked.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized why:

Everything she hasn’t written is perfect.  Nothing I have written is.

Writing – especially creative writing – is like driving a new car off the lot. Oh, when you first see that car, you love it. The upholstery glows with a soft luster. The paint is flawless. All the windows work. And the smell – that new car smell…  Is there anything like it? But the minute you sign the papers and drive that baby onto the street, its value plummets. Check the Blue Book and you’ll see – no matter how lightly worked, as soon as there is the slightest bit of grit in the tires not to mention a ding in the fender, that beautiful machine becomes a commonplace vehicle. Utilitarian. Ordinary. And it will never again have that new car smell.

But you can’t get anywhere if you don’t drive, right? So that’s what’s had me thinking of Dan Brown recently (see, I told you I’d get there). Dan Brown is thoroughly enough ensconced in the commercial stratosphere that it’s safe to knock him. And, hey, it’s easy to do: he’s not a great prose stylist, by any stretch of the imagination.  I mean, I’ll defend some of my colleagues whom I like personally, who are trying something new and maybe falling short. But Dan Brown?

And yet, I’ve read his works. A lot of them. When all the hoopla arose about The Da Vinci Code how many years ago, I picked up a copy. I remember hooting out loud – “Listen to this!” I’d yell over to my husband, before reading him some particularly lead-footed passage. “I don’t think anyone has slept yet in this book – and we’re three days into the action!”

But I didn’t put it down. I finished The Da Vinci Code late one night, and as soon as I could unglue my eyelids I picked up Angels and Demons, which I actually preferred. Another late night.  I moved from that to Deception Point and even tried The Digital Fortress, which, okay, I liked not so much.  But as much as I scoffed, I couldn’t stop reading. And soon I realized I was learning from Mr. Brown. Learning a lot that would help my then-fledgling fiction career. For starters, he really knows how to keep a plot moving. Yes, not letting your characters sleep will do that. But from Dan Brown, I learned the value of the cliffhanger. “Every chapter ends with some version of ‘And then he saw the gun,’” I told my husband. But by then, I was speaking with admiration.

Recently, I’ve gotten into some back and forths with other writers about the value of Dan Brown’s books, just looking at their efficacy as thrillers – as fun, escapist reading. Yes, he plots furiously. But, no, he didn’t invent this style of suspense, far from it. Ultimately, though, one of my colleagues nailed it.

“I admire Dan Brown,” she said, “because he does the job. He set out to write thrillers, and he does it. He writes.” 

                                  Go to fullsize image

Yes, he does. He works at this craft of ours. Maybe not with genius or art, but with an eye to entertain and to produce. He applies butt to seat, and he starts the ignition. I don’t know how easy this is for him, or how many revisions he labors over. I do know that none of his books are perfect. Maybe not even beautiful. But he gets the thing in gear and at some point, long before he was assured of 100,000 preprint orders, he dared to take it off the lot. Ultimately, that’s what a writer does, right? At any rate, those of us who are in love with that new car smell would do well to observe his actions, lest we be left in the dust.

So, will I read The Lost Symbol? I don’t know. I’m tempted, sure, but I need my sleep. I’ve got writing to do.

Clea Simon is the author of non-fiction books and two mystery series (the Theda Krakow series and Dulcie Schwatz series.) A former music critic, she also writes about relationships, feminism, and psychological issues for such publications as The New York Times, Ms magazine and Salon. Check out Probable Claws here and her new release, Shades of Grey right here.  Probable Claws


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The never sleeping thing got to me in the first book, too, Clea. And they were still in the museum at page 100, so I gave up on DaVinci. Not sure I can gear up for Lost Symbol. But--wow. It's hard to criticize a book that's getting readers into the stores! I hope he sells a zillion copies.

You, too, of course! Thanks for being our guest today!

I'll admit..I read Angels and Demons BEFORE the DaVinci Code and I thought A&D was much better. Better plot, better black moment, better twist in the plot. I've read his other books also. I have The Lost Symbol but the hubs is reading it right now.

I get involved in the story, the action..I don't really notice his clunky sentences UNLESS I set out to look for them.

I think many of his critics are jealous of his success. I know I am!

and I get the "want it to be perfect" concept. I call it analysis paralysis. I get paralyzed trying to find the PERFECT word (or phrase or description). But once I recognize what I'm doing, I'm actually able to move on.

Interesting blog.

I'm definitely jealous of Dan's success, Clea. I've turned out tons of bad writing, but no major movies, no international sales. Where did I go wrong?
Congratulations on your books, which I highly recommend to TLC readers.

I read THE LOST SYMBOL. It was an enjoyable thriller. I hate the Dan Brown bashing, not because I think he's a wonderful writer but because there is this snobbishness to it, a superiority. I'm just a reader but I've read a lot; I think a lot of authors think they're writing Shakespeare when they're really doing their own version of Dan Brown. And actually, I'm not looking for Shakespeare when I read most of the time -- I just want to be told a good story.
Your friend should read Julia Cameron's THE ARTIST'S WAY and do morning pages to get over the perfectionism and get the writing juices flowing.

Soooo....I spent last Spring meeting with a group of ladies weekly who all were very creative in different mediums to discuss The Artist Way by JC. Chapter by chapter we talked about blocks and blurts and how to deal with our special talents. It was very interesting to see how other people interact their ideas with others. And the tasks were sometimes very eye opening.
The main thing I think of, in my work anyways, is that you can only disappoint yourself. No matter what other people say you have to believe your end product was okay. Perfect? Not usually but good enough to make you happy...always!
Just saying.
Thanks for joining us today!

I used to belong to the "it has to be perfect" group until I realized that no matter how perfect I thought my story was, someone would suggest some changes (I think that's called editing). So, now I just try to get the words on paper and let my first reader give me the initial verdict (she's a hard one too and calls me on lots of stuff). Guess who gets thanked first when I finally get published :o)
I too think Angels & Demons was better than Da Vinci, but that could be because I barrelled through Da Vinci and took my time with A&D (hubby says the same though, and he never barrels through any book). Still, what other contemporary author, besides J K Rowling, can have readers salivating for the next installment for so long? And, there are a lot of writers who benefited from the wait. I might not have picked up Steve Berry's excellent series or or read Khoury's The Last Templar (not to mention Sharan Newman's well done history of the Templars from the non-fiction aisle) if not for Brown. Whether you pan him or not, his take on hidden symbols within religion jumpstarted some new authors (in my opinion of course). Chuck is busy reading The Doomsday Key by Rollins right now, and has a Cork O'Connor mystery after that, so he'll get Lost Symbol for Christmas (even though it's already in a bag in the closet).
I'll probably read it on my breaks at work.
Happy Saturday all...and if you think about college football at all (and aren't a Buckeye), root for the Illini. They'll need all the help they can get. Meanwhile, Go Penn State!

Good blog, Clea,

I am also one of those writers paralyzed by perfection syndrome. I am in that state right now, having written only two words all week: CHAPTER ONE. (Argh!) But I have learned that you have to force yourself to just write and that the most important thing is FINISHING that damn first draft. Even if it's butt-ugly.

Rewriting is where you worry about perfection. Maybe this is just me, but until I have seen the whole, it is impossible for me to make it better.

I tell this to every person in every workshop I have taught: The first draft is written with the heart. But the second, third, fifth, tenth...those are written with the head. That's where a book becomes a book. But you have to first FINISH the darn thing.

This might sound harsh, but I think some writers who claim to be "perfectionists" are really cowards. If they never finish the book, they never have to submit it to public scrutiny. If no one ever sees it, there can be no chance of rejection.

ps. For the record, I kind of enjoyed The DaVinci Code...

Happy Saturday everyone and thanks for chiming in!
PK - I think "The Artist's Way" is a great book, but I'm not sure it will help my friend. I think she has permanent "analysis paralysis" (thanks for that phrase, ArkansasCyndi).

When I find myself getting caught up in that, I try to recall these words of wisdom from the great pub rocker Nick Lowe: "Bash it out now, tart it up later!" (Yup,he's the guy who wrote "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding." Smart guy.)

Literary snobbery... what can you do? If I could write great masterpieces, I would. But I write what I read and that means trying to create something entertaining. Nope, haven't hit Dan Brown's level yet, but I do try to let my characters sleep, at least.

Which...and I forgot to ask this before...brings up another question for Mr. Brown...when do they go to the bathroom? This bothers me only when I stop to think about it, but even James Bond has to use the WC sometimes!
Great blog (also forgot to say that)!

How nice to see so many people using The Artist's Way. I just discovered there's an online version--and it's free. Check it out: http://www.theartistsway.com/

Did everybody but me know she was once married to Martin Scorsese?

Great post--I think that feeilng that it has to be perfect can stop us in our tracks. By the way, your post made me want to order your new book, which I have just done!

Scorsese? I didn't know that. Learn something new ... and thanks forl. Maryann, I never thought about that. ANd it's a pity, because so many plot points can turn on someone having to take a quick break.

My husband calls me a composer because I sweat so much over every word. I don't really get good and flowing until shortly before deadline anyway, so I can't imagine writing a book on deadline. I'd be stuck on the dedication until a week before it was due.

I haven't read any of Dan Brown's stuff, but I did read The Celestine Prophecy ages ago. My husband received it as a gift for his birthday from a flaky friend who likely used it as fantasy fodder, considering how he praised it. I thought it was one of the worst books I'd ever read and wondered if an editor had even looked at it. Clearly a copy editor never had. What tripe, what drivel, what poorly crafted bunk. I don't mean the philosophy of it all – people can believe what they want to believe, and that's fine, and as an adventure story, that was also fine. It's just that it was so awkwardly written. And it was a best-seller. What do I know?

Amy, I'm with you. I volunteered at The Braille Institute for 13 years, doing audiobooks, whatever was requested, but the only book that made my ears curl, style-wise, was The Celestine Prophesy. I had no problem with the concept, philosophy, story -- but the writing? There is no accounting for taste.

Clea, you are right on the money and have inspired me today! The only thing is, six years between books? Although I expect he was probably busy, with sudden celebrity-hood, a lawsuit in the UK,and investing his fortune (hard work!)

OMG, the things I learn at TLC! Thanks for blogging, Clea--so glad you and others here are so transparent about the writing process and obstacles thereof. Nancy, I never knew Julia was married to Martin Scorsese--for years I've been making the glaring error of saying her ex was James (I AM king of the world!) Cameron. Sorry James, Julia, Martin!

Hey Amy - maybe the success of the Celestine Prophecies can help you get moving. Reading your comment reminded me that sometimes, when I can't get writing, I'd used to go to the bookstore and look at all the crap out there. That would help me work up a head of steam ("I can write better than THAT on a bad day!") and I'd go home and start writing. In fact, maybe I'm due for a bad-book work-up now. Beats worrying about how my friend's unwritten book is better than what I'm working on, anyway!

Doing versus pontificating - it's not just writers who wrestle with it. I started a business five years ago. As you say, "fear of not making rent" (child support and mortgage payments in my case) was a great motivator. Despite years of corporate experience, starting a little business on my own was scary. It meant "leaving the lot", giving up on having a perfect business model and plan and instead, trying to start to hustling up some customers and revenue.

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