How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Two

Yesterday I chewed through another seventy or so pages in Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction and ended up taking a lot of notes.

Some of the stuff I already knew, like the fact that it’s a helluva lot easier to break the unwritten and often unknown rules (and yes, they are rules, folks, not pirate code) of writing when you’re someone who has proven they can write effective within the standards, than some unproven unknown who has convinced himself that because Stephen King or GRR Martin did this, so can he.

There was some good advice on writing story complications and the acknowledgement that readers are willing to forgive a favorite author for one or two or even three badly written books, but their indulgence is not without limit.

The section on plot solutions was interesting and of far more help to plotters than pantsers. If you’re a plotter, I think you’ll find this section very useful. If you’re a pantser, there are still a few useful things on pacing the ending and writing a satisfying resolution.

One of the more interesting sections for me was the one on plotting for mainstream audiences (as opposed to category/genre ones). It was interesting because when he explained the difference between a mainstream story and category fiction, I had to re-read the section three times to make sure I read what I read. It did cast some light on my own writing, one that I’m still struggling to process. The gist of it is that a mainstream story (regardless of the genre it’s going to be put in) treats elements of story such as plot, characterization, background and theme, quite differently than category fiction. Neither is better than the other, except it is. The mainstream novel transcends genre and appeals to the mainstream, i.e. sells more copies.

Like I said, I’m still chewing that one over. This is why:

According to Koontz, science fiction authors concentrate on plot and action at the expense of all the other elements of good fiction. Now, do keep in mind that this book was published in 1981 and may have been written years earlier. [I don’t know if back then it took three years to bring something like this from manuscript to publication or if it took less time because it was Koontz; so let’s just assume it was written around 1980].

Since I’m primarily a science fiction writer, this section was of particular interest to me. Koontz goes on to say that in category science fiction characters are chess pieces used to advance the plot or mouth pieces to explain various scientific theories. And I don’t disagree. I have seen this far too often, especially in older works, and still see it in newer ones, especially those pegged as “hard” science fiction. It IS one of the reasons I moved away from that sub-genre, because if I wanted to read a technical manual, I’m perfectly capable of doing that. It’s one of the reasons Asimov never appealed to me, and even some of Clarke’s works left a bad taste in my mouth, especially after science became my work. I transitioned to being the kind of reader that read fiction for entertainment rather than to learn science because I was already drowning in science. College does that. And I don’t think I ever emerged from that phase. I wonder how many of my science-fiction reading cohorts have undergone the same transition.

Back to the elements of science fiction. One crucial element is a sense of wonder. Think exotic backgrounds such as alien worlds. Koontz says that this element often distracts from solid characterization and keeps a thematic structure from being integrated into the story. Again he’s talking about category sci-fi. I point this out because I can just hear you guys going, “But, but, what about …”

“What about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.” [see, I filled in my own objection there]. What a coincidence! Koontz goes on to list it as one of the truly successful science fiction novels that gave us memorable, well-rounded characters. By “truly successful” he’s talking about a category sci-fi novel that appealed to mainstream audiences. Stranger in a Strange Land won the Hugo in 1962, back when that accolade meant that a book was commercially successful. Whether Heinlein or Stranger is to your taste or not, the point is that mainstream-quality characterization efforts paid off and took the book out of the category/genre ghetto and put it into the mainstream.

In Chapter 5 Koontz goes over the difference between plot and action as well as how to handle pacing and make non-action scenes fascinating. I found this far more useful than the trite “advice” of “omit the boring parts” which I think does absolutely nothing helpful. No one sets out to write a boring part–they set out to write a part that requires the delivery of information or the setup for something else. A book written with no downtime (what some call the boring parts) for the reader never gives a reader a chance to catch his breath and desensitizes him to the tension. It’s an exhausting read. To keep your reader from becoming exhausted, you alternate between scenes of high tension and scenes of low tension.

Chapter 6 covers the five traits that heroes need. One of those is imperfections, but there are wrong and right ways to handle those so that the character remains likable. The most interesting part of this chapter for me was the assertion that while a category/genre novel can get away with either a hero or a heroine, a mainstream novel should always have both. This goes against absolutely everything I’ve been told about writing, i.e. that your novel is always about one person (except in a romance where it’s about a couple). Koontz is NOT saying that every book should be a romance. He is saying that there should be a strong co-lead (not a sidekick or minor character or “team” member; a co-lead; now do you see why I’m still chewing on this one?)

While I found Chapter 7 (Believable characters) interesting because it had some essential elements, I skimmed a lot of it because I don’t do character sketches ahead of time. If you use this technique the list of questions to ask yourself about your characters might be very useful to you.

I skidded to a stop in Chapter 8 (Plausability). When Koontz says “plausibility” he’s talking about the need for high quality characterization as well as the ability to set a scene and unobtrusively integrate background material. You’ll be interested to know that most rejections stem from lack of character motivation rather than plot, so the discussion on motivation really piqued my interest and it should pique yours too. He goes into how to work the primary motivations of love, curiosity, self-preservation, and greed. The motivation of self-discovery is reserved for the “Literary” novel. That is, if the primary motivation is self-discovery, you have “Literature.”

There are far more details than what I’m summarizing here, so if you really want to grasp any of the concepts I mention at this surface level, I encourage you to read the book for yourself. I’m sure you’ll get far more from it that way and you’ll probably get different things from it than I did.

The motivation that caused me the greatest distress was duty. According to Koontz, modern readers have little to empathize with here, so duty should be a secondary motivation only, not a primary one. What a sad statement on the state of the world, then and (if still true) now.  I ran a poll in two Facebook groups and that target audience overwhelmingly disagreed. This was much to my relief, but still a source of distress for anyone aiming to make it big in the mainstream market since no exception was made for either historical or speculative fiction (as this chapter did not focus on category/genre) . Have things changed since 1981? Since the “me” generation?  It was interesting to see the debate unfold in the poll’s comments. Thank you to everyone that participated in my polls, especially for the comments, and a thank you to the group moderators for allowing me to post there.

While there was a lot in Koontz’s notions that I personally disagreed with (my worldview allows for both honor and duty as primary motivators even in today’s world) I pulled a lot of useful information on craft and technique from these chapters.

Koontz’s last motivation is revenge and he reserves it for villains.  He does address historical and speculative genres in a round-about way here, mainly through the opinion that most people today rely on the police/courts and that (with few exceptions) it’s hard to accept anyone but police/judges as the sole servants of justice. I think this is why I see revenge as a motivator for a hero mostly in fantasy, alternate history, historical or speculative settings.

I would be remiss in omitting a bit of writerly advice that everyone should consider: Know Your Audience. Because if you’re going to sell them on a concept they are not ready to accept (like the fact that the police/judges are not the sole arbiters of justice) then you have a different (and more difficult) world-building task on your hands than if you take the easy route.



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