Sixty Second Writing Tips: Dan Brown’s favourite kids book was mine too

Dan Brown was interviewed in Time magazine last week, revealing that one of his favourite books as a kid was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord in 2004. It's not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown's description.
I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord in 2004. It’s not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown’s description.

Mine too. And I’m prepared to bet it’s also one of yours.

Being fuelled as a kid by good literature – of which L’Engle’s book was archetypal – is one of the key ingredients of writing as an adult.

Brown also revealed that a good deal of planning goes into his books.

That’s pretty obvious to me on reading them. You couldn’t do what he does without it. He has the structure down pat – spot on. And planning’s essential even for writers who like to flow consciousness. I’ve been blogging about the need to plan, and have some more posts to come. Check ‘em out

But there’s a third ingredient. Style. And that, alas, is where Brown falls flat. His style isn’t just bad, it’s chokingly inept. Mind blowingly awful. So is some of his research.

The fact that his books still sell like hotcakes suggests two out of three ain’t bad, as the song goes. But still…one laments the possibilities.

Did any of you read L’Engle’s fabulous book? And what are your thoughts on Mr Brown?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


18 thoughts on “Sixty Second Writing Tips: Dan Brown’s favourite kids book was mine too

  1. Afraid I’ve never read any of L’Engle’s books. English is not my first language and I only really started reading English books in high school (when I was old enough that my mother would allow me to cycle to the public library), and there I went straight to guys like Wilbur Smith and Dale Brown (and Nancy Drew, but we don’t talk about that).

    I’m ambivalent on Dan Brown. Some books (Deception Point, Angels & Demons) I enjoy immensely while others are not so good. The Da Vinci Code (yes, I know) felt more like a lecture than a thriller at times, and with The Lost Symbol I’m pretty sure he was just milking the theology-meets-conspiracy cow that he uncovered with the previous novel. Held Inferno in my hand the other day and from the blurb it looks like it could be a good one, but I’ll probably wait for the paperback to arrive in a second-hand shop.

    1. L’Engle’s stuff is worth checking out, even as an adult I suspect! (Must re-read A Wrinkle In Time myself). I’ve read Dale Brown’s books – fun though a bit variable on the quality. The best one, I thought – and one I really enjoyed – was ‘Flight of the Old Dog’, with ‘Sky Masters’ coming a close second. Gripping and thoroughly authentic.

      Probably the best writer in that genre is Stephen Coonts – if you haven’t read him, do. His ‘Flight of the Intruder’ is thoroughly authentic, thoroughly top notch stuff. Also ‘The Intruders’, the sequel, and I very much enjoyed ‘Final Flight’. He’s very much what Tom Clancy should have been (much as Umberto Eco is what Dan Brown should have been… :-))

      I managed to read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by trapping myself on a long-haul aircraft with only that to read. Also read ‘Angels and Demons’ but I’ve avoided the rest of Brown’s ouvre, simply because it is so mind-bogglingly awful as a reading experience..

  2. I’ve not read L’Engle’s book but I must look it up. Thanks for the recommendation. I did however start to read The Da Vinci Code and gave up after a few chapters because it was so badly written. I have no idea how his books have become so famous. It’s OK I suppose to mess around with historical facts and geographical details if you are writing a fictional novel, but there is no excuse for plain bad writing!

    1. There certainly isn’t. I thought the execrable styling rather ruined the fact that he’d otherwise got the structure and dramatic tension pretty much spot on.

  3. As a child and a teenager I was an insatiable reader, easily reading a book a day. Initially I read romantic stories about the old Cape in my home language of Afrikaans. But when I went to an English high school I switched to English books. I loved stories of the old American outback by J.T. Edson and Louis L’Amour, and devoured anything by Wilbur Smith that I could find.
    The funny thing is, when I at the age of 26 submitted my first manuscript to a South African agent, she remarked that my writing style was very much like Wilbur Smith. Oops. At the time, I took heart from that, and decided that it must mean that I possess at least a glimmer of talent, if she could make the comparison.
    Later, when I learned more about the craft, I realized that what it actually meant was that I had not yet developed my own style. Now, nineteen years later, I like to think that I have developed my own unique style, because as much as I admire Wilbur Smith, I’d rather write like Niki Savage. After all, who wants to be a clone of somebody famous?
    My favorite book that left the biggest impression on me in my youth was ‘The Outsiders’ by S. E Hinton. As a teenager I must have read it ten times, and got something different from it every time.
    I have not read any books by Dan Brown, or any of the fifty shades books either. I try to avoid reading books by authors who have bad writing habits, lest they rub off on me. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

    1. Yes, it’s too easy for another author’s writing to intrude into your own style. As a learning writer, years ago, I was always heavily influenced by Asimov, whose clarity of writing was unbelievable, though he was inevitably open to the critique that he had ‘no style’. In the end, my own voice developed in a different stylistic direction, to the point where I can always spot when an editor’s fiddled with the words, because the rhythm’s changed from what I wrote.

  4. I confess, I have never read L’Engle’s book. Based on your recommendation, I will add it to my wish list. As for Mr. Brown, I am not a big fan of his books. I much prefer Steve Berry’s “The Amber Room” or “Alexandria Link” in that genre.

    1. Haven’t read those – must look out for them. Yes, Brown’s easily outstripped by others in the genre on many levels. I bow to his mastery of pace and the reader hook – but that, alas, doesn’t compensate. I just wish I had his sales figures… (sigh)…

  5. “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of my favorite books too, and I was amazed when I found out that it was rejected many times before it was finally published.

    I’ve read Dan Brown and like some of his books better than others. The attraction for me is his pacing, and the ability to tell a story in which I will suspend disbelief and let myself be swept up in the drama. When an author can do that, I stop seeing the style in which it is written and any research loop holes disappear. He might not be the best writer, but he knows how to tell a good story.

    1. I confess that my suspension of disbelief was blown in ‘Angels and Demons’ where his hero plunged 10,000 feet into the Tiber, sans parachute and slowed only by a fragment of helicopter windscreen. Water’s hard at speed – there was that sequence in ‘Mythbusters’… 🙂

      You’re right, Brown has total mastery of pace and the hook. He also picks topics that speak to the core of western values and controversies. The two together are a killer combination in the marketplace, but to me not in terms of what constitutes good literature or writing, alas…

      1. I have to admit I missed the 10,000 ft drop detail in Angels and Demons. I think my mind automatically changed the number to something more reasonable and kept going. That was near the end of the book where the pace was roaring at sound-breaking speed. 😉

        I agree that his knack for challenging values and playing up controversial topics is a large part of what pushes his books into the bestseller range.

  6. Just saw this on Twitter and thought I’d share it here:

    Dan Brown is the processed cheese of the literary world. I love processed cheese.— Jonathan Roxmouth (@JonathanRox) June 11, 2013

  7. So, I really love Brown’s books. I’ve read three of them so far, and I would definitely go back for more. Maybe that says more about me than him, but I often find myself wondering why so many people don’t seem to like him. It doesn’t bother me that he is disliked – he’s not my favorite author by far – but it is a bit confusing. I don’t find anything wrong with his style or research, but maybe that’s just because I’m a casual reader and don’t tend to pick up on some things that other more observant readers do. (And, FYI, I loved A Wrinkle In Time too!)

  8. I’ve read 3 Dan Brown novels. Angels & Demons, which I loved – I felt like it was tailor made just for me. I even design ambigrams! Then The DaVinci Code, which I enjoyed, and Deception Point, I think- the one with the huge spy computer… where I realized the plot is the same in all of them. I felt cheated and haven’t bothered with any others. His foreword/disclaimer about the characters and events being fiction but the facts, history and locations being accurate, I always took as part of the fiction – like The Blair Witch Project.

    Now, as for A Wrinkle in Time, I pestered the Children’s librarian for access to it (it was top shelf), and finally read it in 4th grade. I eventually read A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by high school, and did a couple of art projects based on elements of the stories in college. Recently, as a mid-40’s man, I read the entire Murry and Austin series (or kairos/chronos). That’s 11 of the best books you could ever spend time with.

    I’m pleased that Dan likes A Wrinkle in Time, and gave it the shout-out, but he may still be able to learn something from a critical re-read of l’Engle’s work and his own.

    1. I’ve read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’. They were OK – the writing was execrably incompetent, but Brown had the knack of being able to draw the reader structurally. I agree that it’s possible to overlook the more egregious lapses in his research as ‘part of the story’, but my take is that there’s a line one has to draw. When he starts making what are obvious errors about the basic geography of Paris – he conflated two railway stations, for instance – it starts to crumble the suspension of disbelief. At least for me.

      1. Ah! See, I didn’t know that. I guess for the casual reader, something like that wouldn’t be apparent. But if I had known Parisian geography well, I would have been put off too. That’s totally understandable.

        1. It’s what killed it for me. I suspect he hadn’t been to the Louvre when he wrote the Louvre scenes – the pyramid is actually the entrance and it’s got the reception desk underneath it, not the Holy Grail – and I’ve used the station he pivots the escape action out of, which he mixes up with another one about a kilometre away. It’s all a matter of balance, and while it might be possible to play ducks and drakes with the material he’s using to pivot the plot, the actual setting and scenery needed more authenticity than he gave it, from my perspective, to be credible.

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