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.
Dean Koontz’s how-to book, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, came with more than a few recommendations. It’s a hard book to find. I had to use inter-library loan and I got the notice that it was available for pickup about halfway between Texas and Georgia. It of course went to the top of my list of things to tackle when I got back from DragonCon, because nothing makes you want to read something faster than a due date and a no renewal option.
The perceived value of this book was further enhanced by how much it seems to be in demand thirty-seven years after it was published. No, that’s not a typo. This little gem was published in 1981.
It’s got some of the most interesting chapter titles I’ve ever seen. For example:
Chapter 3: The Changing Marketplace. I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.
It made me laugh out loud. Wow, were epistolary Gothic espionage novels ever a thing? And on Mars in the 17th century no less? Guess I better cross THAT project off my list.
Interesting things I learned from today’s reading:
The demands of the average reader. There are eight of them. Very useful.
Why villains are easier to write than heroes. This explains so much about some of the awful stuff I’ve read where there is no heroic figure, so guess I’ll still with my initial bias to write heroic figures.
Favorite quote of the day:
…academe’s kiss is the kiss of death… its embrace is an assurance of eventual, total, lasting obscurity.
Yup, I knew this one. Still made me go “Right, on.” It’s nice when Koontz agrees with me.
How and why category fiction suffers declines in popularity. In some ways it’s so obvious it should not need to be said, but it did. Keyword is “quality.”
Why novels will never be replaced by movies or series. I think his reasoning is sound thirty-seven years later, so he was onto something. If you don’t agree, I suggest you try to novelize just the first fifteen minutes of your favorite movie. After you’ve taken down the description and the dialogue, make sure you add in the important stuff like evoking the emotions you felt when you first saw it.
What makes a well-written story. Words like “complex” and “extensively researched” and “thematically ambitious” were used.
Elements of a classic plot and why it’s NOT a formula, but a proven pattern that’s flexible and satisfying. Seems at odds with the above, but it’s not.
How to handle the opening of a story that requires that many characters be introduced and the story background be established before the story problem can take the stage. To be honest, I was getting a little worried up until I got to this one, because of his emphasis on starting with a crisis. Every single example he gave (where it started with a crisis) bored me to tears and I was beginning to think, maybe this is not a book for me after all. You have to share some basic theories of fiction to find usefulness in a how-to book.
And that’s just the first hundred or so pages, so, I’d say, a good start cause I’m still interested in what he has to say.
August turned out to be a busy month. Far busier than I had expected.
On August 17th, I found out that my story for Tom Kratman‘s upcoming Carreraverse anthology (Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation) made the cover. Call me whacky, but the donkeys are my favorite. When I was researching mule trains for “Bellona’s Gift” (my story) I learned that mule trains actually consist of a bell mare (who leads the train, because all mules have a horse as a mother and will instinctively follow her), the mules, and a donkey. Unlike mules, donkeys stand and fight. They are the equine version of a guard dog and I just couldn’t resist having one, not just for the sake of realism, but because any animal with strong protective instincts has a special place in my heart.
Also on the cover, several elements from the Carreraverse–a trixie chasing a moonbat, and progressivines. What a fun universe to play in. It was such a great honor to be included.
It was an even greater honor–and shock–to find out that I will be making my Baen debut with my name on the cover. I found this out at the Baen Roadshow at DragonCon. Even with a photographic evidence (snapped in haste) it’s still hard to believe. Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation is set for release in August 2019.
Shortly after releasing Promethea Invicta I got a request for an audiobook version of it. One of my writer friends (and a great sci-fi author), Karl K. Gallagher, who had recorded his own audiobooks, was kind enough to point me in the right direction. I devoured Making Tracks: A Writer’s Guide to Audiobooks (and How to Produce Them): Second Edition in a day and started experimenting with Audacity (software) via some YouTube tutorials. I found out that the best place to read was my closet.
And you guys thoughts that writers just wrote, didn’t you? I wish that were true. We wear many hats. Thinking back, I had to learn how to do layouts for my manuscripts, write ad copy, sales copy, blurbs, and use several platforms to sell my books. So there are definitely times when marketing eats up a lot of your precious writing time. Then there’s self-promotion and the introvert’s kryptonite–networking.
On August 28th, a wonderful writer’s milestone happened: I got another rejection for my novelette-length female space samurai story, called Featherlight. The reason this is a milestone is because I didn’t even blink. In fact, I’d even forgotten I’d sent it out or where. Rather than feel disappointed, I was looking at it as an opportunity to expand it past the constraints of most pro-rate magazines which tend to limit the word count to between 15K and 17K words.
Then as I was preparing for DragonCon I found out that eight outfits was nowhere near enough and packed another. Or two. This was my very first DragonCon and while I had a vague idea for what it was, it turned out to be far more intense. Only 80K people. No problem. My goal for next year is to attend as a pro.
Several other wonderful things happened at DragonCon, but I can’t yet tell you what they were. Not yet.
Which brings me back to why you might want to subscribe to my newsletter. First, I won’t flood your inbox with a ton of useless stuff, just relevant updates, maybe 2-3 times a month. Second, the social media platform I’m most active on, Facebook, suppresses content. Just because you’ve liked my author page on Facebook, doesn’t mean that you’ll see the latest updates in a timely manner or at all, since Facebook makes its money selling ads. If you only occasionally use Facebook, chances are you’ll miss my posts. So, opt-in to my newsletter (it’s really easy; just fill in the newsletter opt-in in the upper left hand corner). To quote a memorable movie line, “It’s the only way to be sure.”
If you use Twitter, follow me @HouseDobromil. It’s the Twitter version of my author page. The newsletter is better, trust me.
Esteemed space lawyer and fellow sci-fi writer, Laura Montgomery, reverse-lawyers (i.e. reverse engineers) the realities and legalities of launching vehicles into space on her blog.
Her excellent review of Promethea Invicta looks at the real world path set up by Congress. A path that, like so many Congressional acts, delegates the actual rule-making and regulation to other entities, such as the Secretary of Transportation. Ultimately, it’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that issues the needed licenses and permits.
Her Ground Based Space Matters Blog is an excellent resource for anyone that wants to learn more about private space activity, the FAA, NASA, and associated agencies.
The multi-talented Ms. Montgomery also writes excellent sci-fi. Her latest release, called Like A Continental Soldier, (Book 3 of the Waking Late series) just came out. Take a look at her author page and check out her other works.
I’m very excited to announce that my hard sci-fi novella, Promethea Invicta, is out.
The Sovereign Republic of Texas of 2071 is no longer part of what used to be the United States. But it is still bound by the treaties it inherited, including the Outer Space Treaty.
Theia Rhodos is ready to free humanity from the shackles that keep lunar resources out of her reach. She’s done taking “no” for an answer and she’s ready to sacrifice everything.
And her enemies are ready to let her.
Everything in life has a cost. And a price.
Available as from your favorite book seller, as well as through libraries (via Overdrive and Bibliotheca).
Well, it’s official. I’m very excited to announce that I will be attending FenCon XV. Schedule forthcoming, and many thanks to William Ledbetter, the science track director, for the invitation. I’m also working on getting a new publication out in early September just in time for this event.
What is FenCon? Who’ll be there? Why should I go?
Answers below. Hope to see you there!
Join us September 21-23, 2018 at the Westin DFW Airpport. See the hotel link for reservations and directions.
2018 marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Join us as we celebrate 200 years of classic and modern SF! Of course, we’ll have panel programming, concerts, hands-on workshops, and more! All the good stuff that makes FenCon theTexas destination convention!
Oh, and did we mention SCIENCE? You can’t put the “S” in “SF” without it! Oh you could try, but would it be as much fun as FenCon?
Advance memberships are on sale now!
FenCon XV Guests of Honor
Blogger, Powered by Robots, had some interesting things to say about voices, writing, and To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity.
I decided to write about this because I’ve gotten a hold of a review copy of the To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity anthology edited by Sirius Métier and published by Superversive Press. It was published digitally about two weeks ago (as I write this) and seems to be doing pretty well, both relative to its Amazon reviews (five so far, and all five star ratings) and in terms of sales.
One thing the twitterati forgot about when they were raking male authors over the coals, was the intended audience of the story being written.
Read the rest, and his follow up posts based on each story, here.
As promised, in honor of Father’s Day, To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity is live. If you pre-ordered, your eBook is available for download now.
Whether you like science fiction, fantasy, military sci-fi, historical, or contemporary, adventure, humor, interesting characters, or even thought pieces, this anthology has a story for you.
My story, “Cooper” is a tribute to Jeff Cooper, one of the iconic, real-life figures associated with the M1911 and the 45ACP. This story was inspired not just by the idea of a sentient/sapient gun. I also found inspiration in The Wizard of Oz, in the fact that the Tin Man had in him, what he was so desperately seeking–a heart. Like the Tin Man, my protagonist is in search of something he thinks he’s lost.
Scott Bell‘s gritty cop story, “Earning It” explores the meaning of valor and honor. A writer with a unique voice, Scott balances out the grittiness with his trademark humor.
J Trevor Robinson‘s “Let the Chips Fall Where They May” doesn’t give us the “gentlemen thieves” of the typical pop-culture casino heist story. Inspired by his own father, it is instead the story of a commander, a role model, and a father responsible for the lives of so many others.
William C. Burns answers the question “So, what are wizards doing in the 21st century?” in his fantasy, “The Heaven Beasts.”
Michael W. Herbert, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, wrote two stories for this anthology, both based on real life events–one about dealing with rape, and another about defending a gay shipmate. I’m particularly fond of the way he handled both of these controversial subjects. As Michael says, “A mature man does not always know what to do, but he will do what he can to help.”
Richard Paolinelli gives us a dystopian story, “The Last Hunt.” Unlike so many other zombie stories, this one is about one man’s devotion to his duty and his country.
If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, I think you’ll really enjoy Ann Margaret Lewis‘s “The Affair of Miss Finney.” Holmes pursued many dark crimes, but Doyle never addressed the crime of rape. So, how would Holmes deal with the worst crime a woman can suffer?
In “For Man or Beast,” award-winning science fiction author Brad R. Torgersen, plunges us into a story about a future, untamed frontier where we discover that it is about being men and women that makes us essential not just to each other, but to civilization.
In “Bring the Pain,” veteran and writer T. L. “Tom” Knighton, delights and entertains us with a story about a guy who is, quite literally, a tank.
In “The Messenger” Lloyd Behm II makes us cheer for an aging green beret who keeps his oaths, even in a post-apocalyptic world where the US no longer exists.
Marina Fontaine‘s “Picture Imperfect” is set in the near-future dystopia of her Chasing Freedom novel. Her hero is forced to choose between protecting his family and complying with a system that provides him with comfort and power.
Jon Del Arroz‘s military sci-fi adventure, “Compassion,” shows us that we must continue to fight the good fight, to fight for what is right.
Newcomer Jamie Ibson‘s story, “Priorities” takes us into the world of the school resource officer, the cops that investigate offenses involving students and schools.
No speculative fiction anthology would be complete a werewolf story, right? Julie Frost‘s “Man-Made Hell” mixes science-fiction and the supernatural, giving us a character who embodies virtus (the manly virtues) no matter his form.
I’ve been a reader for far longer than I’ve been a writer. Not once, during my most voracious phase as a reader, during those summers spent at the library, did I go, “Hmm, I want to read a book by a/an [insert identity group] writer.”
What I was looking for, was escapism, entertainment. A good story, well told. Interesting characters. Interesting milieu. Romance. Adventure.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I spent a lot of time discussing books with my fellow geeks–and to be honest, if you want to get all PC about it, they were a diverse lot. When it came to reading, they wanted the same things I did.
I didn’t need to have a woman as the protagonist in order to identify with a character. I didn’t need that character to be of the same national origin or race either. Why? Because well-crafted characters (and stories) transcend all those things.
I don’t have to be bisexual for Friday Jones to be one of my favorite of Heinlein’s characters. I don’t have to be a gay sadist to love Augustus (one of the minor characters in R. M. Meluch’s wonderful space opera series, Tour of the Merrimack (6 Book Series)).
Believe it or not, I didn’t pick up my first Honor Harrington novel because it had a woman on the cover–shocker, I know!
I don’t go out seeking stories with protagonists of Romanian, or Hungarian, or Greek, or Italian descent. I don’t seek out stories written by immigrants. Or women. Or any of the “identities” or associations some people would love to pin on me.
That’s one of the reasons I am proud that my short story “Cooper” is part of To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity. You see, there was no requirement that you be a man to submit a story. Or that the story even be from a man’s perspective.
Marina Fontaine, one of my co-authors, put it best, when she wrote:
We were going to give them good stories.
Stories about men as heroes and role models, fathers and mentors, hardened warriors and even fantastic creatures. Men who are interesting, capable and worthy. Characters whom you’d want to meet, to spend time with, to learn from, and whose stories will stay with you after the reading is over.
And just like that, the authors’ gender became irrelevant.
The rest of her excellent article on how this anthology came to be can be read here. Give it a look. And buy the book. See what can happen, when stories are about Story [rather than the author’s identity].