- Dan Brown’s career took off in 2003 when his novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” became an international phenomenon.
- He’s written seven books and sold 250 million in total, making him one of the world’s bestselling authors.
- He attributes his success to trusting himself, through both ups and downs. He decided if his best work wasn’t received well, he would find another career path.
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 have also been hits.
Before reaching that level, however, he endured both a failed stint as a musician and years of writing flops. He has a new MasterClass video series out that explains his favourite writing insights, but in addition to technical lessons, Brown told Business Insider for an episode of our podcast “This Is Success” that he’s been guided by overcoming self-doubt.
Listen to the full episode here:
Subscribe to “This is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or your favourite podcast app. Check out previous episodes with:
- Burger King CEO Daniel Schwartz
- Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal
- Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann
- GE, NBC exec Beth Comstock
Transcript edited for clarity.
Dan Brown: When I was in university, 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 22, I thought, well, music’s going to be much more fun. I moved out to Los Angeles, and it’s generous to say I was a songwriter. I was a starving songwriter. I was there for a couple of years, signed a record deal, and had a record come out that sold about a dozen copies, most of them to my mum.
I simultaneously wrote an article for an alumni magazine about what it was like to be sort of a preppy geeky kid from 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 couple of 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 I was ready to write. Wrote a novel called “Digital Fortress.” Sent it to him. Now, I had failed endlessly in the music industry. This novel was picked up by the first New York editor who read it, Tom Dunne over 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 guess you would call them. I really didn’t sell many copies. It was not until “The Da Vinci Code” came out that I had really any success at all. Of course, the previous three novels, which had not sold, went on to sell, went on to No. 1 on the best-seller list. I had not changed a word. That’s an important message to everybody: that some of these products and ideas that you have early in your career that may flop actually may be assets later in your life. They may end up having an audience.
If ‘The Da Vinci Code’ didn’t land, he was going to switch careers
Graham Flanagan: You said you struggled at first, and your first few things you wrote did not do well. Was there ever a point when you were writing early on that you thought, “Maybe I tried it, maybe I should pivot to something else?”
Brown: Yes, there was actually. I had written “The Da Vinci Code.” I had finished it. It had not been published yet. The galley came out, the advanced reading copy. I took it out to a park and sat down with it, and read it in a whole day. Read the whole thing from cover to cover. And thought, if this book doesn’t work, then I shouldn’t be a writer. Because to my taste, this is a terrific book. This is a book I would want to read. When you’re a creative person, all you have to guide you is your own taste. I don’t care whether you’re a painter, a musician, or a writer. You have to create the piece of art, the piece of music, the literature that you like. Then hope other people share your taste. So when I read “The Da Vinci Code” and thought, “I think this is exactly what I set out to do,” if it had failed, I would have to assume nobody shares my taste, so therefore it’s impossible for me to be a writer. I’ll go do something else.
Flanagan: So what happened? When did you realise “The Da Vinci Code” was a success?
Brown: It was about six months before it came out. The preorders were so high from Barnes and Noble. This was back in the days of Borders and Barnes & Noble and all the independent booksellers. It was a much different market. There was enormous buzz among booksellers saying, “We, as booksellers, love this novel. We know we can hand-sell it to everybody that walks in the door.”
So Random House kept calling, saying, “Wow, they just doubled their order, they tripled their order, they quadrupled their order.” And they actually put me on book tour four months before the book came out. They said, “We want you to go meet all the booksellers.” I said, “I don’t understand.” They said: “They love your book; they just want to know you’re not a jerk. Just go have dinner with them.” I met all the CEOs and all the independent booksellers. It was a lot of fun. That was in the days when we hand-sold books to readers.
Flanagan: So how did you process the success in the first week of that book going on sale? It was like an instant phenomenon. Just you as person, who’d been starting out as a musician, struggling as a writer before this piece, then this happens. How do you even process that?
Brown: It was difficult. I was very, very grateful, of course. You kind of think every day you’re going to wake up and find out it was all a dream. You pinch yourself saying: “OK, this is actually happening. Yes, this is what’s happening. This is how many books we sold today. I guess I’m going to go be on the following TV shows. The book has sold around the world.”
At some level, you just sort of laugh and say, “Wow, how lucky am I!” It applies pressure, of course, because you have such a big readership. You want to make sure that what you create is worthy of their time, and makes them happy, and nobody ever feels, like, “You know what, he had some success, and now he’s not even trying.” I actually end up trying harder now that I have had some success.
Flanagan: Why did “The Da Vinci Code” do so well? What was it that connected with so many people?
Brown: Some of it was luck. It was timing. It was unplanned timing. When I started that book, I wanted to write a book about religion. I grew up in a very religious household. I’d always struggled with the battle between science and religion. I’d had some experiences that had led me away from the church. And I wanted to write an alternative 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 sort of felt, like, “Well, that’s an OK question to ask.” Of course the book comes not – not everybody thought it was a great question to ask. It became very controversial. But it came out, just by luck, at a point when a lot of people were questioning the church. There’d been a lot of scandal. People were looking for a different voice. They were saying: “Wait a minute. If the church isn’t telling us the truth about this, maybe they’re not telling us the truth about the story of Jesus either.”
Now, I didn’t set out to convert anyone to my way of thinking. This is a story that I told that made sense to me. But it’s a thriller. I happen to believe it, but that’s sort of irrelevant with my readers. If you want to believe it, great; if you don’t, it’s a fun story. So, it was timing, and I had an absolutely amazing publisher. I changed publishers. I came here to Random House. And they read the first 100 pages of this novel, and before I had even finished it, they said: “We love this. We’re going to do everything we can to make this a popular book.” It just sort of took off. It was a real thrill.
Flanagan: When it did generate controversy, how did you react?
Brown: You know what? This will sound naive, but I didn’t anticipate any controversy. I grew up in a household that … encouraged questioning, and, you know, I’ll never forget. I grew up sort of believing in Adam and Eve, and then went to the Boston Museum of Science and saw this exhibit on evolution, and went to my priest and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Like, which story is true?” This priest said, “Nice boys don’t ask that question,” and I immediately sort of went off into the world of science.
Flanagan: That really –
Brown: That was a moment for me.
Flanagan: Lit a fire under you.
Brown: Yeah, it did, because I thought, wait, I was taught nice boys ask questions. Smart boys ask questions. You ask every question you have, and so when I wrote “The Da Vinci Code,” which literally asked a pretty simple question, not all that aggressively. It just said, “Hey, what if this happened?” And people were so angry. I was stunned. It took me … I like to say it took me a long time to get used to it. I didn’t have a long time. I was on talk shows with people outside boycotting, you know, burning me in effigy. It was, like, “Whoa – OK!” so, I had to basically address the concerns the way I’ve tried to do everything, with some integrity, and with some honesty, and essentially say: “Look, I didn’t set out to offend anyone. I set out to tell a story that made sense to me, and I have no vested interest in whether you believe the narrative of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or not, any more than you believed the narrative of ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.'”
I mean, it’s a story. To me, it makes more sense than what I learned in Sunday school. I think the reason there was so much controversy is it made sense to a lot of people, and because it was so popular. If that book had sold a thousand copies, nobody would have boycotted it. The problem was, you know everybody in every church was reading it, and going into their church saying: “Hey, wait a minute! I didn’t know that the Council of Nicea did this. Is that true?” It was really upsetting to the church.
Learning how to ignore the noise
Flanagan: What was the first professional decision you made after the success of “The Da Vinci Code,” where you decided, “This is going to be my next step”?
Brown: In a word, trust. You have to trust yourself, meaning that you have a lot of people whispering in your ear, telling you which way to go, telling you you’re good, telling you you’re bad. You’ve got reviewers saying, “This is the best book ever”; you’ve got reviewers saying, “This is the worst book ever.” You’ve just got a lot of noise. This idea of sitting down to write your next book, I struggled for a couple weeks. I would write a paragraph and say, “Well, now millions of people are going to read this. Is it good enough?” I would delete it. You become self-aware. You become the batter standing in the batter’s box who’s thinking of the mechanics of his or her swing. You become the singer who can’t make the right noise because you’re imagining how to move your vocal chords. Self-awareness for any creative person, or I’m imagining any CEO who’s working on gut, self-awareness is not helpful. So for me, it was trusting my gut, saying: “Wait a minute: Just write the book you want to read. That’s all you’ve ever been doing. These first four books, you’ve sat down, and if you read the paragraph and you liked it, you said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ So get back to that mindset where you say, ‘Just write for you.’ Because other people share your taste.” That was the first thing I did.
Flanagan: So you figured out a way to alleviate the pressure.
Brown: You compartmentalise and realise that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing for yourself. You are writing the book that you would want to read, then hoping other people share your taste. In my case, I knew at that point people shared my taste. The worst thing I could do for my brand was to chase what I thought they wanted. I know what they want. It’s what I want. So just do what you, as a leader, or an artist, or whatever it is, want to do.
Flanagan: The self-awareness of artists and writers in particular can create a lot of anxiety. You’ve seen a lot of authors who had these blockbusters, like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger. Did you ever think, “OK, why do I need to try and top this? Why not just sit back and let the success of this book give me the life that I want to have? Not try to wade in those waters anymore?”
Brown: Well, the life that I want to have is a creative life, so rather than saying: “I guess I’m done. Now I can just sort of sip 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 muddled process. I navigated that and feel very, very fortunate that I’m able to continue to be 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 a book a year. He doesn’t need the money; he doesn’t need the accolades. He just loves to tell a story. Those are the people that are successful, the people that love what they do.
Flanagan: When you sit down to decide what your next project is going to be, what drives the decision to continue with the [“Da Vinci Code” hero Robert] Langdon saga versus doing something completely different?
Brown: Really, it has to do with whether or not Langdon, the character Langdon, can bring a fresh look to a world or to a topic. With the novel origin, I really felt like Langdon needs to be thrown into the world of modern art. He knows nothing about it. This will be amusing to watch him walk into the Guggenheim and see a wheelbarrow full of Jell-O under a spotlight, and say, “I don’t get it.” As an academic. From that standpoint, I felt like Langdon is the character. As I go forward, I’m looking at new projects. It’s very possible my next book will be a stand-alone thriller in a totally different genre.
Passing on his best career lessons
Flanagan: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Brown:Wow – there are so many. But I think just a level of calmness about what you do, about just trusting your process, saying, “You got this far.” Putting one foot in front of the other every morning. Focusing and just doing what you do. And you need to put on the blinders and just keep doing that. Because the success that people have is often – those seeds are built 20 years before their success. And when I see creative people who go 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 don’t. What you did to get here is what you need to keep doing.” And that, for me, has been sort of the challenge to say, like, “All these people are saying this and that. And there are all these distractions.” The reality is, if you want to stay successful, you need to realise that it’s about hard work. It’s not about necessarily positioning your brand and doing this and doing that. It’s about actually creating the product that people read, and immediately call a friend and say: “Have you read? You’re going to love this.” That’s the challenge, to say in that mind-set.
Flanagan: So, you got a lot of wisdom and experience that people, obviously, they’re paying for through this MasterClass product. Why did you decide to do this class?
Brown: You know, my dad’s a teacher, my mum’s a teacher. I think teaching is the noblest of all professions. I’ve been a teacher. I love teaching. And I wanted to create a class that was full of specifics. Now, a lot of writing students hear ethereal advice: “Write what you know,” “Be passionate,” “Show, don’t tell.” It’s all true, but it’s not all that helpful. And I wanted to really get down to the nuts and bolts of what it is to tell a story. And this is a class that will help people write in their own voice. It will help them write the story they want to write. Or write a story that’s their own. This isn’t about how to write like me. Some people love the way I write; some people hate the way I write. It’s about storytelling. And the amazing thing about story, when you step back from it is, you realise that every great story, whether it is an ancient myth or literary fiction or a modern thriller or a TV series that you’re addicted to on Netflix. Whatever it is, these stories all have the same exact elements. It’s like a car. There’s all these different kinds of cars, but when you open the hood, you see the same stuff. Put together differently, modelled a little bit differently, but you don’t have a car without a gas tank – at least until Tesla came along. But I’m just saying, they all have the same elements. And that’s what this MasterClass is about. What are the elements of storytelling? Whether you’re writing scripts for TV, writing thrillers, writing literary fiction, it’s all there. It’s all the same thing. And if I’d had this MasterClass, I’d be a better writer today because I would have had a head start a long time ago, to learn all these things that I’ve learned through trial and error, through the process of just creating.
Flanagan: Was it always all there for you? Did you always just have that, the foundation and fundamentals of storytelling in your bones that allowed you to create?
Brown: No. I had an appreciation of storytelling in my bones, but certainly not the knowledge of how to put them together. A lot of that is trial and error. And a lot of that is reading, critical reading. A lot of that was early on … All the writings of Joseph Campbell, this idea of the hero myth, and the hero of a thousand faces. This idea that, there really is just one story. And we tell it over and over and over. And it’s not about what happens; it’s about how it happens. And, we always joke: You look at how Ian Fleming wrote James Bond, this amazingly successful series. And at the beginning of every James Bond, you say, “Well, there’s a ticking clock, a bomb’s going to go off, and is he going to 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 really is what this class talks about. How do you give the reader what it is they want in a way they don’t see coming?
Flanagan: What piece of advice would you give to the young Brown that had yet to really figure it out, figure out the correct path to be on, that probably would have gotten you to where you were faster?
Brown: I think it’s about trust. I think that the creative process is filled with hesitation. It’s filled with self-doubt for all artistic people. And it’s one thing when you’re successful to say, “Well, this person says that I don’t know what I’m doing.” But those 37 million people say, “Yes, you do.” OK, you have to that fall back on. You say, “Well, I’m pretty successful.” Early on in your career, no matter what your business is, you don’t have that. You can’t, if you’ve got a business idea that a lot of people say, “I don’t get it.” “But you really get it,” I think I would have told Dan Brown, “You get it. Just trust your gut. It’s going to take some time to build this business, to build an audience, to build a craft. Don’t worry quite so much. Just get back to work.”
Flanagan: This is something that people can find out about in detail if they take the MasterClass, but I just want to know about your process. Can you give me a bird’s-eye view of the order of operations from conception to research?
Flanagan: And your writing process?
Brown: Yeah. When I sort of get to the point, after a book has come out, there’s usually a year when I don’t write, when I’m just reading a lot, promoting. I’m just sort of not in the writing process, but I am always casting around for ideas. I’m travelling the world as I promote and sort of saying, “Well, that’s a pretty 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 secret. So when I research, it used to be that I could go to a museum and talk to a curator and nobody would care. Now, if I go to the Uffizi and want to talk to the curator about a specific painting, I need to know that there may be an article in the paper tomorrow saying, “Brown was here looking at the following Botticelli.” So it becomes a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. It’s a lot of fun.
So there will come a point when I sort of decide, “OK, Dan, it’s time to write another book.” By that point, I usually have enough choices of what I call “worlds,” where is this going to be set, and I don’t necessarily mean Paris. I might mean, you know, brain surgery, or finance, you know, whatever it is, and I’ll say, “Well, I want to write a thriller set in the world of finance.” OK, well, I don’t know a lot about finance, and I’m going to need to learn a lot, so I’m going to reach out to contacts and find somebody who can bring me down to New York and show me how it all works, and give a sense of some of the moral grey areas. Then I will immediately set out to find character – you have to find somebody who’s an expert in finance. Maybe you take a page from John Grisham’s book, and it’s like “The Firm.” It’s a young broker who gets in with the wrong people. Whatever it is.
You immediately need to find the antagonist. The villain is even more important than the hero, because the villain defines the action. If it weren’t for the villain there would be no conflict. As you start to populate this world with characters, you start to create a plot. I usually create a finale first, which is almost invariably the hero conquering the villain, good conquering evil, morality over immorality, those sorts of things. I will write an enormous structure, usually about a hundred pages long for this novel. Once all of that is done, you know, then just comes … I hate to think of it as a grind, but it is. It’s two or three years of getting up at 4 a.m., walking to the other end of the house where there’s no internet, no phone, no nothing, sitting down at my desk, and starting to put words on the page. One of every 10 words works and stays and, you know, for every one page you read in the novel, I threw 10 out. I get it wrong, get it wrong, get it wrong, and finally get it right.
Flanagan: Since your books have been adapted into films that have been widely successful, how does that influence your writing process and your conception of plot and everything? Are you thinking, “Oh, this could be cinematic”?
Brown: You know, I’m not really. I wrote books a long time before Tom Hanks was Robert Langdon. I’ve been very, very lucky to have Tom Hanks play Robert Langdon. He does an amazing job.
Flanagan: Is he who you envisioned?
Flanagan: Was there an actor you sort of envisioned?
Brown: There wasn’t an actor. He’s sort of a conglomerate of many, many, different people. I think in “Da Vinci Code” he’s referred to as Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed, sort of, you know he’s professorial, but handsome, and he’s sort of the guy you wish you could be if you’re in the world of academia. You’ve got to put a little of yourself in every hero. It’s vicarious living through a much better version of yourself, somebody who’s more daring, somebody who’s smarter. I’ve had funny moments. I had a woman once say, “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 this stuff.” She said, “Well, how can he be smarter, because everything he says you had to think of?” I had to point out that when Robert Langdon walks by a painting and just glances over and gives a perfect 30-second soliloquy, that took me three days to write and research, so trust me, he’s a lot smarter than I am.
Flanagan: How do you measure success for yourself?
Brown: In the simplest of terms, do I enjoy what I do when I get up every morning? Do I wake up, excited to get to my desk, or whatever it is I’m doing that day? If the answer’s yes, I feel successful.
Flanagan: What about once you’ve delivered a book, a product – at this point do you even care if it’s successful?
Brown: Oh, yes, you do. You pretend you don’t, but you care a lot, of course. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got a lot fans who’ve really enabled me to do what I love for a living. I’m able to afford to write. So there’s a feeling of obligation to make sure that what I write, they enjoy. If they do, it makes me happy, and if they don’t, I’m concerned about that. I’ve been fortunate so far that the books have been well received.
Flanagan: Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give someone who wants to have a career like yours?
Brown: To be patient. To continually work. There is no substitute for hard work, and the thing that people forget is when they get insecure, and when they get frustrated, that they stop working, and you have to work through those moments. You just say, “Well, this novel didn’t work. Let’s try the next one. Let’s try the next one.” Whatever business you’re in, to be patient, and to not let your impatience interfere with your process.
Flanagan: Well, we will patiently await your next project. Thank you so much for your time.
Brown: My pleasure.