Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A portrait of Dean Koontz as a young man

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Sooner or later, one comes to the painful realization that most books on writing are useless. Most are either written by unknowns, whose advice obviously needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt; critics or teachers who lack practical experience; or famous novelists whose instruction is colored by the irreproducible circumstances of their own good fortune. Success in fiction hinges on so many factors, many of them out of the writer’s hands, that trusting what, say, Janet Evanovich has to say about craft is like chasing performance in investment funds: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What we really need is a book written years ago by a struggling author, in which he laid down some rules on how to write and described as honestly as possible his own methods—only to become famous and acclaimed after the book’s release by following his own advice. And as a matter of fact, this book exists.

Earlier this week, in my review of In Time, I briefly mentioned Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which is one of the four or five most useful books on practical storytelling I’ve ever seen. The book has many virtues, but its most interesting quality is completely accidental. Koontz wrote the book in 1972, when he was only twenty-six, and best known as a productive author of short category novels. Within a few years, he’d be famous. Part of the fascination of this book, then, is its candid snapshot of the real work habits of a writer who was about to embark upon one of the successful careers in modern popular fiction. It’s very rare for an author of writing guides to go on to genuine fame—the only other one who comes to mind is J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a number of screenwriting manuals before creating Babylon 5—so unlike most books on writing, the advice here has been tested, in real time, in the best possible way.

So what does the book tell us? Koontz starts by laying down the basic elements of all genre fiction—a strong plot, a protagonist with believable motivation, a colorful background, and a great deal of action—and then details the requirements of specific genres. Some of the information here is badly dated, especially the chapters on Gothic romance and erotica, but the sections on science fiction and fantasy, suspense, and mystery are still among the best I’ve found. The chapter on science fiction, in particular, is crammed with useful advice, and I still think about Koontz’s section on the tools of suspense (the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event) whenever I start a new writing project. Koontz winds up with a few chapters on practicalities, most of which lean heavily on Scott Meredith’s classic Writing to Sell, but which also provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a category writer at the time. Whenever I feel pressured by my current schedule, which basically calls for a novel a year, I remember what Koontz says about productivity:

If you can produce only one or two category novels a year—especially science fiction, Gothics, mysteries, and fantasies—you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door—and you without a stone to throw…Even if you are prolific enough to produce and sell eight or ten novels a year, your income may hold steady at $20,000 a year, which is comfortable but by no means enough to classify you as a nouveau riche.

Obviously, things have changed a lot in the past forty years, but part of the book’s appeal lies in its evocation of a time in which category writers like Koontz, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block could make a good living on the midlist. Nine years later, after he became famous, Koontz addressed the changing state of publishing in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, and while this book has its merits as well, it lacks some of the charm of the earlier work. In addition to its considerable practical value, Writing Popular Fiction is one of the best portraits we have of a young genre novelist working at an exciting, if exhausting, time, and I’ve tried to recapture some of that excitement in my own writing life. As I’ve mentioned before, I picked up my copy at a church book sale in my early teens, and it’s been a constant companion ever since. These days, you can find it online for around twenty bucks, and it’s well worth the price. If nothing else, it certainly worked for its author.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

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