I’ve read 15 or 16 novels by Dean Koontz, and some of them were pretty damn good, including “Intensity,” “Watchers,” “Whispers” and “Night Chills.” For a while in my twenties, I haunted used bookstores for copies of the paperbacks published under his many pseudonyms.
In my opinion, however, the best book he’s written is one that’s long out of print and never mentioned in the “Also by” list of his recent best-sellers. It’s “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction,” published by Writer’s Digest Books in 1981.
That might sound like an over-reaching title, especially considering that Koontz was far from a household name when he published his manifesto. But time has certainly proved him right. He publishes two hardcovers a year and achieves terrific sales. By some accounts he’s now America’s No. 1 thriller writer.
I found a used copy of “Best-Selling Fiction” in Berkeley nearly 25 years ago, and since then it has informed many of my views of what popular fiction is and should be. I still drag it out from time to remind myself of some of Koontz’s advice. I also wish I had taken better care of my copy, as dealers are now asking upwards of $800 for one in mint condition.
I obviously can’t reprint huge chunks of “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction,” but I’ll highlight some of the points that made the biggest impression on me. If you don’t want to pay a small fortune for a complete copy, well, see what inter-library loan can do for you.
1. Immediately plunge your hero or heroine into terrible trouble.
I think this is the No. 1 lesson I took away from the book. In real life, I tend to shy away from conflict, but that’s the absolutely worst thing you can do in fiction. Koontz writes about the importance of threatening your protagonist with terrible trouble in the very first pages of the manuscript:
If you fail to interest and entertain the reader right from the start, you will surely lose him long before the end of the first chapter.
He goes on to give several examples from classic literature and from his own early novels.
2. Don’t make it easy on your hero.
Koontz discusses the 7,500-word action scene that opens his novel “Whispers” and shows how he achieved maximum impact with it. He writes:
In its structure, each action scene should be a microcosmic representation of the larger structural pattern of the novel itself… Hit your hero with startling and/or frightening complications, one after the other. Be tough on him. If you keep those words in mind, your action scenes will be well-rounded, exciting and satisfyingly long.
3. Complications must never arise because of a character’s stupidity.
Yeah, but you have to play fair while being tough. If the hero’s an idiot, you can’t care about his fate.
4. Read, read, read.
Koontz provides commentary on nearly 100 pre-1980 writers who exemplify his notion of a best-selling author. I’ve always be an omnivorous reader, but there were a plenty of people on his list whose work I had not explored thoroughly in 1983, from Richard Condon to Cornell Woolrich to Richard Stark.
5. People have vastly different ideas of what’s funny.
This is not a lesson I learned from “Best-Selling Fiction.” Rather, it is one that has become painfully obvious to me from reading Koontz’s recent books. Over the years, he’s taken to injecting more “comedy” into his novels, creating off-kilter characters who indulge in allegedly humorous banter and wacky hijinx.
Sorry, but I wish he’d cut it out. When it comes to funny, Koontz and I are on entirely different wavelengths. I sit there with an expression on my face that could win me the Buster Keaton Lookalike Contest. Just give me the escalating tension and dispense with the shtick, OK, Dean?