The European edition of TIME has a short piece titled "Five Easy Steps to a Best Seller" that takes up "tips" about writing a hit novel from Dan Brown's written testimony for the special "The Code Goes to Court" case in London. The tips, along with my thoughts:
1. Be disciplined. "My routine begins at around 4 a.m. every morning, when there are no distractions," says Brown, who also breaks every hour for "push-ups, sit-ups and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood (and ideas) flowing."
In other words, be flexible — especially in how you use your sources. And in how much credit you give to them. And consider using some flexibility in how you describe your research. And don't be afraid to flex the truth, so that you can use the word "FACT" to apply to things that aren't actually factual (such as the Priory of Sion being a "real organization" that was founded "in 1099"). Push over some facts. Sit on some history. Stretch the truth.
2. Pick a "big idea" with a gray area. "The first step is to select a theme that [you] find particularly intriguing � The ideal topic has no clear right and wrong, no definite good and evil, and makes for great debate." In this case, the provocative "Jesus was married" conspiracy theory might have created too much debate.
No, no, no. Not a "big idea," but a big target, namely the Catholic Church. Don't let the complex reality of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox? Who are they? Protestants? I think I've heard of them. Don't even ask about the Ancient Oriental Churches) get in the way of mentioning the dreaded Vatican every two or three sentences. And be sure to that there are definite goods (goddess worship and Harvard symbologists) and evils (the Vatican, the Catholic Church, Opus Dei). Be clear how right your protagonist is and how wrong the dreaded Vatican is. Hammer on it. Don't relent. Pound away. And, if you're lucky, many readers won't notice that you haven't a clue about any of these "big ideas" or big targets.
3. Location, location, location. Brown initially wanted to stage a Masonic romp in Nova Scotia, but it lacked sufficient drama. Instead, a 1998 personal tour of a concealed passageway beneath the Vatican — "used by early Popes to escape in event of enemy attack" — inspired Brown to opt for Old Europe.
Pick big locations and then describe them incorrectly. Pretend to know a thing or three about Paris and London, but take comfort in the knowledge that some readers don't know the Louvre from a chapel from a Swiss bank — nor do they care. They are into the "big idea" of bashing Christianity — and anxiously awaiting the moment when Langdon and Sophie gaze into each other eyes and whisper sweet nothings about nothing at all.
4. Keep chapters snappy. "I have a short attention span," Brown told a packed courtroom, "and I write short chapters for that reason." (Chapter 27 is only 1½ pages long.)
A nice technique for conveying a sense of movement and action when nothing is happening — which is exactly what happens (or doesn't happen) for much of the novel. Also, find relief in the knowledge that readers also have short attention spans. For instance, have your characters breathlessly explain how incredible it is that Jesus has descendants, but don't explain why this has any meaning since you've already explained that Jesus is a mortal prophet. Period. End of story (so why care about him any further?) I guess that's what happens when you don't read the entire Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
5. Marry well. Not only did Blythe Brown secure her husband's first book deal, she also did much of the work behind The Da Vinci Code. "She was reading entire books, highlighting exciting ideas and urging me to read the material myself," admits Brown, who sometimes found the extent of her research "frustrating."
Marry well. Have your wife do the real work. Then point the finger at her when asked tough questions. Sure, it undermines your credentials as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, but it beats answering tough questions. Such as: "When did you read Holy Blood, Holy Grail?"