How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Five

This is the last installment in my review of Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction.

It is interesting to note Koontz’s fervent advice not to allow yourself to be labeled as the writer of any specific genre, i.e. a science-fiction writer or a mystery writer. Instead, go for the label of “writer.”

Just because we start out writing in our favorite genre does not mean that we will remain there, or be successful at it. We might find greater success in a different genre. How did we start this? Wasn’t it with epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century? I can see his point.

Nevertheless, Koontz spends an entire chapter (the twelfth) on two genres (science fiction and mystery) and how to write them well. I will tell you up front,  I skipped the section on writing mysteries, but I’m sure it’s as packed with good information as the part on science fiction.

The main focus was on bringing aliens to life, i.e. how to write them so that they are not (a) cardboard or (b) humans with spots painted on them. It is one of the best written pieces on the subject that I have seen, and best of all, Koontz provides us with great examples. I would recommend his book for this section alone.

The takeaway, for creating aliens as well as alien milieus, was the same: you need lots of specific details to make them believable. It is, by far, the hardest aspect of writing science fiction because you must not only come up with the details, but they must mesh and they must be believable. You must have the skill to create suspension of disbelief and maintain it throughout.

Within science-fiction, there are a number of genres, most of which Koontz does not deal with by name, but rather indirectly, via a discussion between writing near-future vs far-future stories. It would be of no surprise to any sci-fi writer that writing near-future is far harder than writing about the far future. The former requires extensive research and a skill for extrapolation, while the latter is more speculative and relies more on imagination. Whether you choose one or the other, the key to success lies in making it cohesive. If something stands out as a red flag, you must world-build to a sufficient degree to sell the red flag to an editor.

Chapter 13 deals with pitfalls and how to avoid them. Rather than summarize them, I’ll focus on the takeaway since it’s one that I rarely see emphasized: “a writer is only in competition with himself.”

There is also a short, somewhat useful section on overcoming writer’s block, but nothing that one couldn’t find via an internet search.

I skimmed Chapter 14 (Selling) because I think most of it is out of date. When it comes to selling, pretty much any of the books below are a far better investment of your time and money:

Chapter 15 consists mainly of a list of best-sellers deemed worthy of study. Like the chapter on selling, it has not aged well, but may be of use to some.

I hope you found these entries as educational as I did. I think that in order to be a successful writer one must continue learning. And it’s particularly difficult when it comes to writing, because so many think that stringing sentences and paragraphs together somehow automatically turns into fiction that will sell.

We can watch someone cook and get a fair idea of what’s involved. We can follow a recipe. But do we ever get to watch someone write? I argue that we cannot.

Even if one were to perch on a writer’s shoulder and watch them work, one would not be privy to what’s going on in the writer’s mind, what thoughts led them there. I think that writers think about writing all the time (even if only subconsciously). We spend a great deal of time inside our own heads before we are ready to sit down and type or put pen to paper. Therefore, even a keen observation of the “writing” process would miss out on all the essentials that went into getting the writer to the point where they sit down and start typing. Perhaps if the writer started giving the observer a running commentary, we might be able to witness the process of creation, but even that would be marred by the commentary itself, for if the writer is explaining to you why he chose one word over another, he is no longer creating.

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