Craft Book Round-Up: Writing Popular Fiction by Dean Koontz

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. Dean Koontz wrote a craft book. Please let that statement sink fully into your consciousness, so that you’re prepared for the wild ride we’re about to embark on together.

Now, one thing I want to make clear from the start is that it is not the intention of this review to “bash” or otherwise diminish Mr. Koontz. On the contrary; he’s exactly the sort of person who should be writing a how-to book. Unlike some of the half-baked yahoos out there handing out writing advice, he has a specific talent, is demonstrably good at it, and can articulate his method with extreme clarity. It’s just that, given the nature of Koontz and his work, one needs to set certain expectations as to what is to be learned. Writing Popular Fiction does have some information about the process of putting together sentences and paragraphs, but its main concern is writing to a market. Meaning: understanding what the market wants, and how an author who actually wants to make a living from writing can focus themselves on producing the right kind of work to actually accomplish it.

That being said, there are a couple of twists involved that make this book especially fun to read. For one thing, it was published in 1974. There’s no mention of self-publishing (obviously), and lots of talk about subjects like whether or not it’s wise to use carbon paper in one’s typewriter (Koontz says yes). Essentially, the book is a time capsule from the wild world of publishing in the mid-1970s, and you’ll probably be amazed at how much has stayed the same even more than how much has changed.

The second twist element is Koontz himself; from the first page, where he admonishes the reader not to send him feedback saying he missed anything, he comes off as a man who has too many other things to be doing to put up with any of your bullshit. Even at such an early phase in his career, he’s clearly put in an astonishing amount of time in front of the typewriter, and he knows it. When he says something, he’s not gonna mince around with “maybes” or “shoulds.” Take his advice and reap the benefits, or don’t take it and end up penniless and ignored—just don’t ask him to repeat himself–he’s got too many other books to write.

(Well actually, that’s not entirely true. He did in fact repeat himself by writing another craft book. The second one, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, came out in 1982 and is more of a straightforward craft guide, and is therefore probably less interesting than this one. Which is convenient for me because I don’t have a copy of it.)

Writing Popular Fiction can be roughly divided into three sections of unequal length. The first chapter consists of a definition of category (or genre) fiction, and its differences from “mainstream” fiction (Koontz says: “For decades, college literature courses—caught up in the Realism and Naturalism which dominated American fiction until the early I960’s—have ignored the best craftsmen of category fiction, often concentrating on mainstream authors with far less talent.”). Koontz also gives the five elements which he feels are required in successful genre fiction: strong plot, a hero or heroine, clear motivation (“Any set of character motivations, when examined, fits into one of seven slots: love, curiosity, self-preservation, greed, self-discovery, duty, revenge.”), action and a colorful background. Few words are wasted here; you get some terse paragraphs describing each of the elements, but otherwise are mostly left to interpret them on your own. Still, although one might quibble over the details, it seems likely that at least trying to include all these things in a genre novel probably isn’t a bad idea.

Chapters 2-7, which make up the bulk of the book, are each devoted to a different genre (specifically: science fiction and fantasy, suspense, mysteries, Gothic-romance, westerns, and erotica; no young adult paranormal romance, young adult dystopian or urban fantasy to be found here). For each one, Koontz delivers a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of what is expected in a story of that genre, and what is considered cliché or “taboo.” As Koontz freely admits, his favorite genres are science fiction and suspense, and so it’s no surprise that these two chapters contain the most detail. The suspense chapter, especially, is incredibly insightful, though most of the others contain some useful tidbits as well (from “Westerns”: “The story of the lone cowpoke who rides onto a new ranch beset by troubles, reveals that the foreman is a crook, and wins the rancher’s daughter, is taboo. This is such a cliché that the regular Western reader would flinch the moment he recognized it.” Who knew?).

But for me, the enjoyment of reading some of this stuff transcended any mere notions of utility, and no chapter better exemplifies this than the one concerning “Gothic-romances” (excerpts follow):

With few exceptions, the Gothic-romance plot follows this skeleton: A young heroine, alone in the world and often an orphan, goes to an old and isolated house to take a new job as a secretary, governess, nurse, or traveling companion to a motherless child or older woman in a family of some financial means. Everyone in the house is a stranger to her. At the house, the heroine meets a cast of suspicious characters (servants, the master or lady of the house, usually one or two sons of the lady, neighbors) and soon finds herself plunged into some mystery…Concurrent with the development of this mystery plot is the growth of a romance between the heroine and one of the young men in the household or in the household of a neighbor; or between her and the master, if he is unmarried or a widower. Either this man is her only safe haven in the dark events of the story—or he is as much a suspect as any of the other characters. If he is the only character with whom she can have a romantic relationship, he should always turn out to be the good guy she wants to think he is, for the conclusion of a Gothic must always promise marriage or the development of genuine love between heroine and hero.

One taboo of the Gothic novel is the use of a Women’s Liberation type for your heroine. First of all, most of the readership would find her unsympathetic; they prefer heroines who are somewhat timid, delicate, emotional, and yet decidedly coltish about their sexuality, heroines who cry and tremble and like to be kissed and cuddled (but no more than cuddled!) by their menfolk.

Stories containing explicit or even implied sexual contact are especially taboo. A Gothic must contain no bedroom scenes, no petting, and not even any necking. When you describe your heroine, you will always indicate that she is pretty, but you must never discuss her figure or her sexuality. When she meets a man in the course of the story, she may evaluate him in the way any normal woman would evaluate a brother or a father figure, and she may even wonder what kind of husband he would make, though in a romantic and not a sexual sense…Not even the villain can have lustful thoughts. As one Gothic editor once told me, “The villain can want to beat her, torture her, and even kill her. But he mustn’t contemplate rape!”

I really can’t put into words how fucking amazing this chapter is, and what made it even better was that prior to reading it, I had never in my life even heard of a “Gothic-romance”. I mean, really, have you or anyone you know ever read one of these books? I tried to find some references to the genre online, and found out that Wikipedia does have a very short section on “New Gothic Romances,” noting: “very few books seem to be published using the term today.” What. A. Shame.

But anyway, back to the review: The last four chapters of Writing Popular Fiction revert to more conventional writing advice, delivered in the inimitable Koontz style of course. They include tips for generating ideas, such as free-associating the titles before considering the actual story elements (“Other stories and novels I’ve generated in this manner include A Werewolf Among Us, Dark of the Woods, Island of Shadows, Cold Terror, ‘To Behold the Sun’, ‘The Temple of Sorrow’, and ‘The Terrible Weapon.'”), and some genuinely good craft advice supported by well-written “before” and “after” examples.

There’s also this tidbit, the discussion of which could definitely become another blog post in itself:

…the writer who rewrites the same story again and again until he has it down pat is usually not so much a careful artist as he is a sloppy one. If he had trained himself to write as clean and sound a first draft as he could, he would not have needed to go over all that material again and again.

The danger of planning to do several drafts lies in the subconscious or unconscious attitude that, If I don’t get it right this time, it’s okay; I can work it out in a later draft. This encourages carelessness in your original word choices, phrasing, and plotting. The more things you write with this approach in mind, the sloppier you become until, finally, your first draft is so poorly done that no number of re-workings will make it click.

No financially successful, critically acclaimed writer I know has let himself get caught in the “fix it in a later draft” trap. Without fail, however, the hopeless amateur clings to this fallacious theory like a drowning man to the only rock in the lake.

I could go on, but I’ll stop and say that overall, this book is worth a read if you can get your hands on it. Even if you lack my weird sense of humor and don’t find the goofy 70’s-ness of it endlessly amusing, there is some info here that is useful today, given from a somewhat unique point of view. Just don’t run out and buy that carbon paper quite yet.

Note: this post is part of a series where I give (sort of) tongue-in-cheek reviews of some of my favorite and least-favorite craft books. The previous entry in the series was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

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