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- Dan Brown's career took off in 2003, when his novel "The Da Vinci Code" became an international phenomenon.
- He wrote seven books and sold 250 million in total, making him one of the best-selling authors in the world.
- He attributes his success to trusting himself through ups and downs. He decided that if his best work was not well received, he would find another career plan.
Dan Brown is one of the most successful fiction writers in the world, with 250 million books sold. His career took off in 2003, when his novel, "The Da Vinci Code," became an international phenomenon, and each of his subsequent books were also hits.
Before reaching that level, however, he endured both a failed work as a musician and years of writing failures. He has a new series of MasterClass videos that explains his favorite writing ideas, but in addition to the technical lessons, Brown told Business Insider about an episode of our podcast "This Is Success" that he has been guided by overcoming the doubt.
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Edited transcript for clarity.
Dan Brown: When I was in college, I studied a lot of music and a lot of creative writing. When I graduated … I know I want to be creative in my life. Do I want to write music or do I want to write books? At that point, at age 22, I thought music would be a lot more fun. I moved to Los Angeles, and it's generous to say that I was a songwriter. I was a starving composer. I've been there for a couple of years, signed a record deal, and had a record that sold about a dozen copies, most of them to my mother.
I simultaneously wrote an article for an alumni magazine about what it was like to be a geek kid at the Phillips Exeter Academy, living in Hollywood among punk-rock musicians. A literary agent saw the article and called and said, "I love the way you write. I think you're a writer." I said, "No, no, actually, I'm a musician." A few years later, I actually had lunch with him. He said, "When you're ready to write, let me know."
About a year later, I woke up and decided that I was ready to write. He wrote a novel called "Digital Fortress". Sent to him. Now, I was infinitely failing in the music industry. This novel was chosen by the first New York publisher to read it, Tom Dunne, at St. Martin's Press. I thought, "Wow, writing books is easy." Of course the book came out and did nothing. It was an instant failure.
My first three books were, in fact, commercial failures, I think you would call them. I did not really sell many copies. It was not until "The Da Vinci Code" that I actually had some success. It is clear that the three previous novels, which had not been sold, continued to be sold, went to the top of the list of bestsellers. I had not changed a word. This is an important message for everyone: that some of those early-breaking ideas and products that you may miss may be active later in life. They may end up having an audience.
If & # 39; The Da Vinci Code & # 39; did not land, he would change his career
Graham Flanagan: You said you were struggling at first, and your first things that you wrote did not go well. There was a time when you were writing at the beginning and thought, "Maybe I tried, maybe I should move on to something else?"
Brown: Yes, there was. I wrote "The Da Vinci Code". I was finished. It had not yet been published. The gang left, the advanced reading copy. I took him to a park and sat with him and read it all day. Read everything from cover to cover. And I thought, if this book does not work, then I should not be a writer. Because to my taste, this is a great book. This is a book I would like to read. When you are a creative person, all you have to guide you is your own taste. I do not care if you're a painter, musician or writer. You have to create the work of art, the musical piece, the literature you like. So expect other people to share your taste. So when I read "The Da Vinci Code" and thought, "I guess that's exactly what I set out to do," if I had failed, I would have to assume that no one shares my taste, so it's impossible for me be a writer. I'll do something else.
Flanagan: So what happened? When did you realize that "The Da Vinci Code" was a success?
Brown: It was about six months before leaving. Orders were so high from Barnes and Noble. That was in the days of Borders and Barnes & Noble and all the independent bookstores. It was a very different market. There was a huge buzz among the booksellers saying, "We, as booksellers, love this novel. We know we can sell it to everyone who walks through the door."
Then Random House kept calling, "Wow, they just folded the order, tripled the order, quadrupled the order." And they actually put me on tour of the book four months before the book's release. They said, "We want you to find all the booksellers." I said, "I do not understand." They said, "They love your book, they just want to know you're not an idiot, just go and have dinner with them." I met all the CEOs and all the independent booksellers. It was very funny. That was in the days when we sold books to readers.
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Flanagan: So how did you handle success in the first week of this book for sale? It was like an instantaneous phenomenon. Just you as a person, who was starting out as a musician, fighting as a writer before this piece, then it happens. How do you process this?
Brown: Was difficult. I was very, very grateful, of course. You think that every day you will wake up and find out that everything was a dream. You pinch yourself saying, "Okay, this is really happening, yeah, that's what's going on." This is the number of books we sell today.
At some level, you kind of laugh and say, "Wow, how lucky I am!" It applies pressure, of course, because you have such a large audience. You want to make sure that what you create is worthy of your time, and makes you happy, and no one ever feels, like, "You know what, he's had some success, and now he's not even trying." I really do end up pushing harder now that I've had some success.
Flanagan: Why did "The Da Vinci Code" do so well? What was this connected with so many people?
Brown: Someone was lucky. It was timing. It was an unplanned timing. When I started this book, I wanted to write a book about religion. I grew up in a very religious home. I have always fought the battle between science and religion. I had some experiences that took me away from the church. And I wanted to write an alternate story of Jesus. What would it mean for Christianity if Jesus were not literally the Son of God? If he were a mortal prophet? I kind of felt, like, "Well, that's a good question to ask." Of course the book does not come – not everyone thought it was a great question. It has become very controversial. But it left, just by luck, at a point where many people were questioning the church. There was a lot of scandal. People were looking for a different voice. They were saying, "Wait a minute. If the church is not telling us the truth about it, maybe they are not telling us the truth about the story of Jesus too."
Now, I did not set out to convert anyone to my way of thinking. This is a story I told you that made sense to me. But it's a thriller. I believe that, but that's kind of irrelevant to my readers. If you want to believe, great; if you do not do it, it's a fun story. So it was the timing and I had an absolutely incredible editor. I've changed editors. I came here to Random House. And they read the first 100 pages of this novel, and even before I finished, they said, "We love it. We'll do everything we can to make this book popular." He just took off. It was a real thrill.
Flanagan: When that sparked controversy, how did you react?
Brown: You know what? That sounds naive, but I did not foresee any controversy. I grew up in a house that … encouraged questioning and, you know, I'll never forget. I grew up believing in Adam and Eve, and then I went to the Boston Science Museum and saw this exhibition on evolution, and I went up to my priest and said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Like, what story is true? "This priest said," Cool kids do not ask that question, "and I immediately set out for the world of science.
Flanagan: This really
Brown: This was a moment for me.
Flanagan: It lit a fire under you.
Brown: Yes, yes, because I thought, wait, I was taught nice boys to ask questions. Smart boys ask questions. You ask all your questions, and when I wrote "The Da Vinci Code," you literally asked a very simple question, not so aggressively. Just said, "Hey, what if that happened?" And people were very angry. I was shocked. It took me … I like to say that it took me a long time to get used to it. I do not have much time. I was on talk shows with people outside boycotting, you know, burning me in effigy. How was it, "Whoa – OK!" so I had to basically address the concerns in the way I tried to do everything with some integrity, and with some honesty, and essentially say, "Look, I did not set out to offend anyone." I set out to tell a story that did meaning to me, and I have no interest in knowing whether you believe in the Da Vinci Code narrative or not, more than you believed in the narrative of 20,000 Leagues Underwater. ; "
I mean, it's a story. For me, it makes more sense than what I learned in Sunday school. I think the reason why there was a lot of controversy makes sense to many people and because it is very popular. If that book had sold a thousand copies, no one would have boycotted it. The problem was that you knew that everyone in every church was reading and coming into your church saying, "Hey, wait a minute, I did not know that the Council of Nicaea did that. It was really disruptive to the church.
Learning to ignore the noise
Flanagan: What was the first professional decision you took after the success of "The Da Vinci Code," in which he decided, "This will be my next step"?
Brown: In a word, trust. You have to trust yourself, which means you have many people whispering in your ear, telling you the way forward, saying you're good, saying you're bad. You have reviewers saying, "This is the best book ever"; you have reviewers saying, "This is the worst book ever." You just made a lot of noise. This idea of sitting down to write his next book, I struggled for a few weeks. I would write a paragraph and say, "Well, now millions of people are going to read this. Is that good enough?" I would exclude. You become self-conscious. You become the beater standing on the batter's chest that is thinking about the mechanics of your swing. You become the singer who can not make the right sound because you are imagining how to move your vocal chords. The self-consciousness of any creative person, or I'm imagining any CEO working on instinct, self-awareness is not helpful. So for me, I was relying on my instinct, saying, "Wait a minute, just write the book you want to read." That's all you've ever done.these first four books, you sat down, and if you read the paragraph and You said, "Okay, I'm done." So go back to that mentality where you say, "Just write to you," because other people share your taste. " That was the first thing I did.
Flanagan: So you figured out a way to relieve the pressure.
Brown: You compartmentalize and realize that whatever you are doing is doing it for yourself. You are writing the book you would like to read, then waiting for others to share your taste. In my case, I knew people shared my taste. The worst thing I could do for my brand was to pursue what I thought they wanted. I know what they want. Is what I want. So do what you, as a leader, or artist, or whatever, you want to do.
Flanagan: The self-awareness of artists and writers in particular can create a lot of anxiety. You have seen many authors who had such blockbusters, such as Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger. You have already thought, "Okay, why do I need to try to overcome this? Why not just sit back and let the success of this book give me the life I want to have?
Brown: Well, the life I want to have is a creative life, so instead of saying, "I think I'm done. Now I can just take gin gimlets and look at the ocean." I thought, "Wow, now I have the means to travel the world and write about different places. I can meet fascinating people."
Yes, there was a lot of pressure, and there was some self-awareness along the way that became a confusing process. I navigated and I feel very, very happy to be able to continue being creative. For most creative people, the process has to be enough. You look at someone like John Grisham, one of the most successful authors in history. He writes one book a year. He does not need the money; he does not need the compliments. He just likes to tell a story. These are the people who are successful, the people who love what they do.
Flanagan: When you sit down to decide what your next project will be, which drives the decision to continue with the [“Da Vinci Code” hero Robert] Saga Langdon against doing something completely different?
Brown: Indeed, this has to do with the fact that Langdon, the character Langdon, can bring a new look into a world or a topic. With the origin of the novel, I really felt that Langdon needs to be played in the world of modern art. He does not know anything about it. It will be fun to watch him enter the Guggenheim and see a gelatin wheelbarrow in the spotlight and say, "I do not understand." As an academic. From this point of view, I felt that Langdon is the character. As I move on, I'm looking at new projects. It is very possible that my next book is an independent thriller in a totally different genre.
Passing on your best career lessons
Flanagan: What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your career?
Brown: Wow – there are many. But I find just a level of calm about what you do, just relying on your process, saying, "You've come this far." Put one foot in front of the other every morning. Focusing and just doing what you do. And you need to put the sales and keep doing it. Because the success that people have is often – these seeds are built 20 years before their success. And when I see creative people who get off the rails a little bit and try to say, "Oh, now I'm successful, I need to do something else." The answer is, "No, you do not know. What you did to get here is what you need to keep doing." And that, to me, was kind of the challenge of saying, "All these people are saying this and that, and there are all these distractions." The reality is that if you want to stay successful you need to realize that it is hard work. It's not necessarily about positioning your brand and doing it and doing it. It's about actually creating the product that people read, and immediately calling a friend and saying, "Have you read? You're going to love it." That's the challenge, to say in that mentality.
Flanagan: So, you have a lot of wisdom and experience that people are obviously paying for this MasterClass product. Why did you decide to take this class?
Brown: You know, my father is a teacher, my mother is a teacher. I think teaching is the noblest of all professions. I was a teacher. I love teaching. And I wanted to create a class full of details. Now, many students who write listen to ethereal advice: "Write what you know," "Be passionate," "Show, do not tell." It is all true, but it is not at all useful. And I really wanted to understand the details of telling a story. And this is a lesson that will help people write in their own voice. This will help them write the story they want to write. Or write a story that is yours. This is not about writing like me. Some people love the way I write; Some people hate the way I write. Is about narrative. And the most incredible thing about the story, when you distance yourself from it, you realize that every great story, be it an ancient myth or a literary fiction or a modern thriller or TV series in which you are addicted to Netflix. Whatever it is, all these stories have the same exact elements. It's like a car. There are all these different types of cars, but when you open the hood, you see the same things. Placed differently, modeled a little differently, but you do not have a car without a gas tank – at least until Tesla shows up. But I'm just saying that they all have the same elements. And that's what this MasterClass is. What are the elements of the narrative? If you're writing TV scripts, writing thrillers, writing literary fiction, it's all there. It's all the same thing. And if I had this MasterClass, I would be a better writer today because I would have had an advantage long ago to learn all those things I learned through trial and error through the process of just creating.
Flanagan: Has it always been all for you? Have you ever had this, the basis and grounds of the narrative in your bones that allowed you to create?
Brown: No. I had an appreciation of telling stories in my bones, but certainly not the knowledge of how to put them together. Much of this is trial and error. And much of that is reading, critical reading. A lot of it was early … All the writings of Joseph Campbell, this idea of the myth of the hero and the hero of a thousand faces. This idea that there really is only one story. And we say it over and over again. And it's not about what happens; is about as happens. And we always play: you see how Ian Fleming wrote James Bond, this incredibly successful series. And at the beginning of the whole James Bond, you say, "Well, there's a watch, a bomb will explode and he'll get the girl." Well, of course, he's going to save the world, he's going to get the girl. The question is how? So that's really what this class is talking about. How do you give the reader what it is they want in a way that they do not see coming?
Flanagan: What advice would you give to the young Brown, who had yet to find out, to find the right way to go, which would probably lead him to where you were fastest?
Brown: I think it's about trust. I think the creative process is full of hesitation. It is full of insecurity for all artists. And it's one thing when you can say, "Well, that person says I do not know what I'm doing." But those 37 million people say, "Yes, you do." Okay, you have to fall back. You say, "Well, I'm successful." At the beginning of your career, no matter what your business is, you do not have it. You can not if you have a business idea that many people say, "I do not understand". "But you really do," I think I would have told Dan Brown, "You understand." Just trust your gut. It will take you some time to build this business, to build an audience, to build an art. Do not worry so much, just get back to work. "
Flanagan: This is something that people can find out in detail if they have the MasterClass, but I just want to know about their process. Can you give me an overview of the order of operations, from design to research?
Flanagan: What about your writing process?
Brown: Yes. When I get to the point, after a book is released, there is usually a year when I do not write, when I'm reading a lot, promoting. I'm not in the process of writing, but I'm always looking for ideas. I'm traveling the world while promoting and kind of saying, "Well, that's a very interesting thing," you know, this underground, whatever it is in Iceland. It's kind of a double-edged sword, because I like to keep my topics a secret. So when I research, it used to be that I could go to a museum and talk to a curator and no one would care. Now, if I go to the Uffizi and want to talk to the curator about a particular painting, I need to know that there may be an article in the newspaper saying, "Brown was here looking at the next Botticelli." Thus, it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse game. It is very fun.
Then there comes a point where I decide, "OK, Dan, it's time to write another book." At that point, I usually have enough choices of what I call "worlds," where this is going to be defined, and I do not necessarily mean Paris. I could say, you know, brain surgery, or finances, you know, whatever it is, and I'll say, "Well, I want to write a thriller in the world of finance." Okay, well, I do not know much about finances, and I'm going to need to learn a lot, so I'm going to look for contacts and find someone who can take me to New York and show me how it all works out and gives some idea of some of the gray moral areas. So I'll immediately look for the character – you have to find someone who is a financial expert. Maybe you get a page from John Grisham's book, and it's like "The Firm." He's a young broker who walks in with the wrong people. Whatever.
You must immediately find the antagonist. The villain is even more important than the hero because the villain defines the action. If it were not for the villain, there would be no conflict. When you begin to populate this world with characters, you begin to create a plot. I usually create an ending first, which is almost invariably the hero conquering the villain, the good conquest of evil, morality about immorality, that kind of thing. I'm going to write a huge structure, usually about a hundred pages long for this novel. Once all this is done, you know, so it just comes … I hate to think of it as a grind, but it is. It's two or three years of waking up at 4 in the morning, walking to the other side of the house, where there is no internet, phone, nothing, sit at my desk and start putting words on the page. One in every 10 words works and stays, and, you know, for every page you read in the novel, I played 10 out. I got it wrong, got it wrong, got it wrong and finally got it right.
Flanagan: Since your books have been adapted into films that have been widely successful, how does this influence your writing process and your plot design and everything else? Are you thinking, "Oh, this could be cinematic"?
Brown: You know, I'm not really. I wrote books long before Tom Hanks was Robert Langdon. I'm very lucky to have Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon. He does an incredible job.
Flanagan: Is it who you imagined?
Brown: Do not.
Flanagan: Were there any actors you imagined?
Brown: There was no actor. He is a kind of conglomerate of many different people. I think in "Da Vinci Code" he is referred to as Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed, you know he is a teacher but handsome, and he is the guy you would like to be if you were in the academic world. You have to put a little of yourself into each hero. It is vicarious to live through a much better version of yourself, someone who is bolder, someone who is smarter. I had funny moments. Once a woman said, "Are you Robert Langdon?", And I gave my usual answer, "No, he's the guy I wish I could be, he's smarter, he's all that." She said, "Well, how can he be smarter because everything he says you had to think?" I had to point out that when Robert Langdon goes through a painting and just takes a look and gives a perfect 30 second soliloquy, it took me three days to write and research, so believe me, he's a lot smarter than me.
Flanagan: How do you measure success by yourself?
Brown: In the simplest terms, do I like what I do when I get up every morning? I wake up, excited to get to my desk, or whatever I'm doing that day? If the answer is yes, I feel good.
Flanagan: How about once you've delivered a book, a product – at this point do you care if it's successful?
Brown: Oh yes you do. You pretend not, but you care a lot, of course. I am very lucky. I have many fans who really allowed me to do what I love to live. I can afford to write. So there is a sense of obligation to make sure that what I write, they like. If they do, it makes me happy, and if they do not, I'm worried about that. I have been lucky so far that the books have been well received.
Flanagan: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours?
Brown: Be patient. To work continuously. There is no substitute for hard work, and the thing people forget is when they become insecure, and when they get frustrated, they stop working and you have to work at those times. You just said, "Well, this novel did not work. Let's try the next one. Whatever your business, be patient and do not let your impatience interfere with your process.
Flanagan: Well, we patiently await your next project. Thank you very much for your time.
Brown: It's my pleasure.
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