Dan Brown

No one who cares about literature would accuse Dan Brown of being a great writer. The info-dump dialogue, the unnecessary inner monologues, the lol-tastic punctuation that makes characters sound like William Shatner (“Doing … some hiking, Mr. President?”). My eighth grade English teacher would have sent Dan out into the hall to think about what he’d done.

But after giving the audiobook of The Lost Symbol a fair shot, I’d like to suggest that maybe we should give Dan a break.

See, I’ve written a book, and it was hard. Like, really hard. It left me with a newfound respect for anyone who can even finish writing a novel, let alone get it published. But that’s not why I’m picking Dan out of the crowd. See, for all our huffing and puffing about his prose, like it or not, there’s a reason Dan’s books are so popular. Here’s what I’m learning from reading them:

1. Building tension
It’s hard to build tension with finesse, and I wouldn’t say that Dan succeeds entirely. But he can describe something important– a room, a painting, a completely unknown object– without actually telling you why it’s so important. You just know that it is. And it’s so important, in fact, that as the tension builds before the reveal, you’re cursing the characters out loud and saying, “For fuck’s sake, just tell me what’s behind the goddamn door!” Dan frustrates you and makes you love it.

2. How to use flashbacks
I’m going to argue, flat-out, that Dan Brown is a master of flashbacks. As I neared the end of The Lost Symbol, I was shocked to realize that all of the “present” events happened in the span of twenty-four hours, yet I know all the pertinent backstories. I’d been flash-backed seven ways from Sunday, and I didn’t even notice.

3. Leaving readers feeling smarter than they were
Look, a lot of the connections Dan draws between historical events are conjecture at best and bullshit at worst. That’s called fiction. The flip side is that most of his origin stories and obscure facts are accurate (example: the statue of Moses in the Library of Congress does, in fact, have horns due to a mistranslation of Biblical text). His books leave readers feeling smarter at the end than they did at the start, and that’s one of the key reasons people love him.

4. Tying up loose ends
There’s a lot going on in Dan’s books, a lot of cogs in the machine. You know all the storylines are interconnected, but you’re not sure how until the end. And when it does happen, you can look back through all the twists and turns and see how everything fell neatly into place, usually without the use of any deus ex machina. This might sound easy to do. It’s not. That’s not to say that he doesn’t leave some loose ends or employ the use of convenient timing, but by and large, Dan’s books tend to be neatly woven.

Like I said, I’ll never argue that Dan Brown is a great writer. He’ll never deserve a place on the top shelf with Milton and Nabokov. But I will concede that I’m learning about these four points by listening to his audiobooks. And if nothing else, they’re keeping me sane during rush hour traffic.

What about you guys? Have you ever changed your opinion about a writer you previously disliked? What kinds of things have you learned from “trash” fiction?

19th Century Letters

This might be one of the most personal, revealing, embarrassing entries I’ve ever posted.

Once upon a time, I wrote a letter to an actor. He’s not super famous, and a lot of you wouldn’t recognize him on the street. But he’s someone I admire, and although you can’t know what a person is like until you’ve actually spent time with them, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. He makes me smile.

So on this night in particular, I was sad, but instead of letting myself turn destructive, I sat down and wrote a letter. This is it.


Dear ____,

Christ, I don’t know why I’m writing this. I haven’t written a letter to a celebrity since I was 14 and realized my fan mail to Bill Nye never actually made it to his desk. I’m sure this will be no different, but the truth is, that’s something of a comfort. I’m not proud of writing to an actor I admire because I’m too ashamed to admit to most people in real life that I’m depressed.

What makes this situation even sadder is that it’s not like I don’t have friends. I’m an adult by every standard that matters, yet I’m too cowardly to admit to anyone who’d recognize me in passing that I’m not sure I’ll make it through the winter. But that’s why people love celebrities, isn’t it? You don’t know us, and we don’t know you. We can build these enormous, impossible characters on a handful of moments captured in interviews and Twitter, and let ourselves forget that in all probability, you run the same risk of letting us down as the people we actually know. We can turn you into superheroes, and because we’ve never met, you rarely disappoint.

God, what an awful burden. I can’t imagine you’re not aware of it, and for whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to try and live up to the impossible.

I could go on for pages about why I’m depressed, but now that I’ve started writing, I realize that I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s happening, and I’m sad, and earlier tonight, I wrote a suicide note, but rather than signing it and nailing it to the door, I’m writing to you instead. I guess on a night like tonight, when there isn’t much else to celebrate, that’s enough.

I would rather tell you a story, since that’s what I do. I like to think that if you read this, you’d understand. Actors and writers have the same job, after all: we both spend our lives pretending to be other people. Writers are just shier about it.

I’ve never been the sort to do as I’m told. I don’t mean that I’m a bully or a thief; I just have a problem with unsatisfied curiosity. That’s why, when I was six, I dug a nine foot hole in the back yard, and when I was eleven, I burned my brother’s G.I. Joes. So eventually, when I decided common sense be damned and stared up at the sun, no one was surprised.

Now, the event itself isn’t as important as the long-term effects. Thankfully, I didn’t cause any permanent damage, but for a long time after, I saw an impression of the sun behind my eyelids whenever I closed my eyes. The darker the room, the brighter the light, and sometimes after the sunspot had faded, I’d close my eyes, tilt my head back, and face the sky. I’d watch sunlight creep in through my eyelids like shining, moth-eaten lace. I never opened my eyes again, but god, I wanted to.

Years later, one of my editors told me that the most important thing I could do as a writer was to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. What message did I want to send? What feelings did I want to evoke? When people thought of me as an author, what was the lingering impression I wanted them to have?

I want to create something so beautiful and profound, it’s agony to stare straight into it, and when the curtain drops, and the audience closes their eyes, they can still see it shining in the darkness.

Shine on.

Love,
Rian


He never wrote back, but he didn’t need to. I felt better just having written and sent the letter.