Plots, Personal Inspiration, & Popular Fiction Writing
Part III – Making Popular Fiction
Book: “Writing Popular Fiction” by Dean Koontz (no digital version, hardback out of print)
Koontz starts out by telling you some simple facts. These match up (more or less) with DWSmith and others. They don’t fit the conventional wisdom of the high-selling Amazon non-fiction books in this area.
“Basically, there are two general kinds of modern fiction: category and “mainstream.” The first includes those stories we can easily apply labels to-science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, Gothic, Western, erotica-and is called category fiction chiefly for the convenience of publishers, editors, reviewers, and booksellers, who must categorize novels to differentiate areas of interest for potential readers. The second, mainstream fiction, is anything which does not comfortably fit into one of the above categories.”
Critics at literary magazines and educators have long looked down at category fiction (also called genre fiction.) Yet it sells better overall than mainstream. DWSmith calls them big (mainstream, bestsellers) and small (genre fiction) books. Smith said he had an agent who wanted to make him into a mainstream author, but he’d have to quit writing what he most enjoyed, which is genre fiction. He declined, as the reason he was successful was in following his own bliss.
Writing a book you enjoy will help the readers enjoy it. Readers buy your books and are your boss. So it pays to enjoy writing a great story.Someone telling you that you can “make more money” should be turned down flat every single time. You only earn money, and you do that by providing better value than any others around you.
“Since genre fiction is more widely read than mainstream, the writer’s market for category work is larger than for mainstream. Publishers, like any businessmen, operate within the law of supply and demand.”
Koontz’ book was written and produced for an earlier age where corporate (traditional) publishers were the gateways. With self-publishing (and analytics sites such as K-lytics.com) you can see that it’s worth more for you to seek the genres and categories where there is the greatest demand, then tweak your stories to fit in the chosen genre(s).
The note here, again, is to write what you most like reading. But read widely and see if your chosen genre is one that sells well.
That said, you can make decent income by writing in areas which are supposedly not selling well. Koontz points out that Westerns sell regularly, but seldom have a breakout book. Publishers usually would produce a small number of Westerns among all the books they produced that year, as they never lost money on Westerns.
“Once a writer has mastered a genre, he should be able to turn his hand to another category with at least some success. Both Gothic and erotic novels have strict frames which are surprisingly alike. Writing a science fiction novel, once you understand the ground rules, is not that much different from writing mystery novels. Adventure-suspense is, in many ways, quite similar to fantasy.
“Every writer has one or two kinds of stories he most enjoys reading and writing. I prefer suspense and science fiction, the first for its readability and no-nonsense prose, the second for its color and wealth of ideas. But there are times when publishers-especially paperback publishers whose buying trends are influenced by an unusually finicky market-are overstocked in a particular category and are not buying. Maybe Gothics are booming, and editors are buying heavily. But mysteries have currently lost favor with readers, forcing publishers to temporarily cut back on their monthly mystery issues. It happens. All the time. Of course, the Biggest Name Writers continue to sell their books despite an overall slump in their field, but the new or average writer can find himself locked out, with work he cannot sell. This is when you should be able to turn your energies into other fields and still earn enough to keep bread on the table.
“In other words, you should write so well, handle words so easily, that you can genuinely be called a ‘professional.'”
That said, Koontz then outlines the five points any author should master in order to write profitable genre fiction:
A Strong Plot
A Hero or Heroine
Clear, Believable Motivation
A Great Deal of Action
A Colorful Background
You’ll see in our earlier two part to this, that Koontz is still telling the same bone-structure that all stories, of any length, use:
He adds Action, and emphasizes that the motivation has to be believable.
(DWSmith notes that your writing style is necessary for trying to make your mark in literary fiction. Koontz doesn’t bother bringing that genre up.)
A Strong Plot
“In category fiction, there is no substitute for the age-old story formula: the hero (or heroine) has a serious problem; he attempts to solve it but plunges deeper into danger; his stumbling blocks, growing logically from his efforts to find a solution, become increasingly monumental; at last, forced by the harsh circumstances to learn something about himself or the world around him, to learn a Truth of which he was previously unaware, he solves his problem-or loses magnificently.
“Because it does require a formula, many writers mistakenly assume that category fiction is limited in scope and artistic merit. Not so. This same plot formula can be applied to any number of respected mainstream works, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.”
A Hero or Heroine
“The anti-hero has a place in category fiction-but only if he is presented as being admirable. His moral values may be the opposite of what we think of as “right,” so long as he is true to the values he has set for himself and so long as we can sympathize with him as a character. There is no room, however, for the loser, the weak-kneed or spineless hero. The name of the game is Escape. Your average reader wants to pick up your novel and be carried away from nagging spouse, overdue mortgage, and the morbid things he has seen on the television news that night. He wants to be entertained and to participate in somebody’s triumphs for a few brief hours. He does not especially want to share someone’s failures; there are enough failures in his
“A category novel, therefore, centers around a very colorful, strong central character, usually male but not necessarily so, usually a “good guy” but not necessarily so. The hero is permitted character flaws to give him a depth of personality, but he should eventually triumph over these.”
Clear, Believable Motivation
“The hero and the villain must have obvious objectives and goals: the winning of love or wealth, the preservation of life, etc. Of course, motivation is also essential in mainstream fiction, but it is often deep psychological motivation which the reader only sees through a distorted lens and must fathom for himself. Category fiction must never leave the reader in doubt about a character’s motivations. Good characterization is a requirement, but the story is not to be sacrificed for the sake of a character study that runs for pages at a time.
“Any set of character motivations, when examined, fits into one of seven slots: love, curiosity, self-preservation, greed, self-discovery, duty, revenge.
“Love. Such a universal emotion is adaptable to any genre, though a writer must be careful not to let cliché situations lead him into unbelievable character conflicts.
“Curiosity. Curiosity is often used as a character motivation in the mystery story, science fiction, fantasy, and the Gothic romance. We humans are curious creatures. Without curiosity, we might still be sitting in caves, scratching our fleas and eating raw meat. Curiosity is responsible for every discovery since man tamed fire, yet, as with love, it is not motive enough to sustain a character for a full novel. There is a point at which-after he has been beaten and threatened enough-a realistic character motivated only by curiosity will call it quits.
“Self-preservation. When we nose into affairs meant to be kept secret, we court emotional and physical disaster. A genre novel hero courts it more than most. His curiosity often propels him into a fight for his life, usually against the corrupt forces toward whom his inquisitiveness was first directed. A warning: Don’t force your character to endure such extended peaks of punishment that the reader’s suspension of disbelief is destroyed. In real life, a man will only endure so much pain and exhaustion before surrendering.
“Greed. This is usually not a hero’s motivation, though it can be if… the hero is a bandit. It is excellent motivation for antagonists if it is supplemented with other motives to keep it from seeming cartoon-like.
“Self-discovery. This is an acceptable motivation for a category hero, though the writer must not get bogged down in long paragraphs of character analysis and lose the storyline in the process. The hero should only uncover truths about himself through his reaction to plot developments, not through any long, detailed soul-searching.
“Duty. In Shakespeare’s day, duty was a valid motive for a writer’s characters but is now dated. The masses no longer blindly give their loyalty to king and state. It is not sufficient, for example, to establish that your detective or secret agent is investigating the case because it is his job. The reader finds little empathy or escape in the exploits of a man just doing his job. Your protagonist must have a reason for his actions aside from the fact he’s paid for them.
“Revenge. This was also a Shakespearean tool-Hamlet was motivated by revenge-but is also dated. In Shakespeare’s time, it was often necessary that a family revenge the murder of one of its own because little organized authority existed to handle such things. A novel set in the last sixty years, however, will deal with a social background in which society’s revenge has replaced the family’s revenge. Most people are content to allow established police and judicial systems to take care of their own revenge. If this is your motivation for a present-day hero, he must be one of three things: (1) mentally or emotionally unstable and blinded to rational procedure, (2) seeking revenge for some matter that does not fall under the jurisdiction of elected authority, (3) a member of a racial or occupational or religious minority who cannot expect justice at the hands of the regular officials.
“[H]ow do you decide which motivations best fit your characters and story? There is only one rule of thumb: no character should be motivated by something which is at odds with his basic personality.”
I’ve excerpted Koontz’ descriptions here and kept them as sparse as possible. Again, this is his opinion based on his own experiences as a writer. You will need to test these for yourself.
A nice series of films you can study to test these out would be the Die Hard series, with Bruce Willis. Another would be the Harry Potter series of books and movies.
All this in addition to reading what stories, genres, and authors have sold well in the last decade, comparing them to what is currently selling.
Skipping to the end of the book, we find some fascinating key data that aligns to others we have discovered.
Where to Get Ideas
Koontz derides plot wheels, and lists for story construction.
“…all of those devices one time on sale to help writers get ideas, are utterly useless for the serious fiction craftsman. Writing, after all, is an art as well as a craft, requiring emotional involvement on the artist’s part.”
Similarly, he says that newspaper clippings for human-interest stories are not enough by themselves.
“This doesn’t mean you must write only about what you have done yourself. Obviously, that would badly limit any writer. “Personal experiences” may include things that have happened to you, to friends, to others you’ve heard about; things you’ve learned from books, movies, television, radio, school, and other sources. Everyone is a witches’ cauldron of bubbling facts, ideas, images, and memories. You must learn to tap this magical brew and order the unconscious plots within it.”
Imagination, built on personal experiences and also those you have vicariously lived through other’s lives (such as relatives, and acquaintances) – which then you build through emotional involvement of your own.
It brings us back to making lists (like Bradbury) and collecting them into notebooks:
“For many reasons, you should keep a notebook full of ideas-mine is unorganized, chaotic but full of rich little bits written in at random-titles, scraps of dialogue and character sketches, so that you may return to these at a later date to get a sluggish imagination going again. But if you use the playing-with-exotic-titles game to get story ideas, you’ll find a notebook especially valuable.”
Koontz recommends playing with titles and also narrative hooks.
Making long lists of possible titles is a way to extract an idea. Also, comparing these with existing titles can show you what readers think is interesting. The key point is whether it drives your own inspiration to action.
Great opening lines as hooks can also be played with. You can do a study of opening lines through Internet research. Copy these and look at what works for them. Again, get enough of these, vary them for yourself, and get an inspiration for a whole story.
“Of course, most of your ideas will not be generated in any of the ways I’ve described, but will float unbidden from your subconscious. Only a team of psychiatrists could ever deduce what all contributed to these “spontaneous” ideas. Still, you can help these stories surface if you read, read, read. With every novel you read, thousands of facts, characters, and plot twists are stored in your subconscious, constantly interacting below the level of awareness. When they jell and rise, they are usually in an original arrangement that bears no resemblance to the books that inspired them. Also, you will often find a concept in another writer’s work which intrigues you, something he tossed away in a line or paragraph but which can become the whole center of your own novel. If you develop this idea into a story that does not resemble his, you are not guilty of plagiarism, but of literary feedback which is a source of story ideas for all writers.”
Other Pointers Abound
Koontz gives lengthy excerpts from his own and other’s work as examples. And lots of books mentioned. So his book is worth a (long) read just to get an overview of writing.
However, he could have come to the point much simpler and faster in most all cases.
There is a nice Q&A section at the back which tells a lot of data beginning authors should know or might want to. Much of this data has been replaced with the new model of the indie publisher.
The Prolific Writer
He does give some data about truly prolific authors.
Koontz himself works roughly 40-hour weeks, with 8 hour days. This is similar to Asimov’s schedule. Stephen King says in his “On Writing” that his schedule was to make 2,000 words daily, which was usually a couple of hours.
“Heinie Faust (under the pseudonym Max Brand) produced hundreds of Westerns in his career and sold millions of copies of his work, by writing only two hours a day. His secret was to write two hours every day, no matter what, and to produce fourteen pages in those two hours. Few writers have matched his prolific pace.”
At 250 words per page (an Amazon average for http://ift.tt/2Dt6cKg) 14 pages per day would amount to 3500 words or 1750 words per hour. Elsewhere, I’ve read that Faust would keep going until he made his 14 pages.
Rewriting and Revisions
“After selling my first three novels without changing a word of them, I began to find it difficult to sell anything more. An editor at Lancer Books, who has since become a good friend, took my fourth, fifth, and sixth science fiction novels, brutally criticized them, made me completely rewrite them, and bought the final versions. In the process of helping me make those books publishable, he taught me more about the craft of writing than any book or series of articles ever had.”
Buried in an earlier chapter (I missed it again, too) is this short essay on why you write, proof, and publish:
“Many writers are proud of the number of drafts they do on a novel. You’ll hear them say things like, “I did four complete manuscripts before I had it polished exactly as I wanted it.” Indeed, the writer who won’t settle for anything but the right word, who wants his prose to ring true and to read easily, is to be admired. But 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.
“When I sit down to begin a new novel, I type directly onto heavy bond paper, with carbon paper and second sheet attached. If a paragraph is not going well, I rip that set of papers out of the typewriter and begin the page again, but I never go on until that page is finalized and cleanly typed in finished copy.
“I waste a lot of paper.
“But I save a lot of time.
“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 reworkings 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.
“Disregarding this tendency for the multiple-draft writer to get careless with his work, there are other reasons why you should learn to write good first drafts and eliminate revision wherever feasible. First of all, your emotional involvement with the work can be the intangible quality that makes it exciting and marketable. If you must rework the story several times, you will lose that sense of excitement and, more often than not, create a finished piece that reflects your own ultimate boredom. Unless you have a firm grip on the structure of your story, you may begin to change things, in a rewrite, that do not need to be changed at all; reworking a story, you may begin to doubt all of it and alter it without logical reason. And, of course, a great deal of revision takes time from your new work.
“One familiar piece of advice given new writers is: “Put it aside for a couple of days or weeks and re-read it when you’ve cooled off.” At all costs, ignore this advice. It is true that, in the clinical mood that sometimes follows the completion of a work, you can see prose faults and correct them. More often, however, you are only giving yourself time to start doubting the story. Often, when you approach it again, you’re too critical, because you’ve lost the mood that generated it. When you’ve finished a piece, send it out straightaway and get to work on something new. You’re a professional. You have all the confidence in the world.”
This aligns to WDSmith’s approach, which in turn is based on Heinlein’s Rules, which he expanded into a book and a lecture series.
1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
In working this around, searching the Internet, the different views on these rules, one thing became clear: there are no rules.
Authors are individuals and have to work out their own systems. And will, regardless. Or they quit trying to write and simply keep their day job.
Writers improve by practice. That means writing a lot. Writers don’t improve by rewriting, but by writing new stuff. This doesn’t include editing, which any author does. Polishing is part of the original writing, as DWSmith covers. And he says that editing is in two camps, those who add and those who cut.
But it still editing, not taking a page and re-writing it. As above, Koontz had a mentor who forced him, as an editor, to rewrite his stories. This means he actually had a developmental editor.
Heinlein was a cutter. Stranger in a Strange Land was much, much longer before he published. And when he published to Saturday Evening Post, he had to cut half of a 12K story down to the maximum of 6K words they would accept. And he reportedly learned in all this.
When corporate publishers ruled the scene, they pushed the opposite, of padding out books to longer lengths.
Chris Fox does his editing by adding. But you don’t hear him talk about re-writing that first draft, just adding to it. Sure, he’s editing it. Sure, he (and DWSmith) send their work out for a line edit, to someone they trust.
My essays and my journey is to work out how to move from non-fiction to fiction writing.
Along this line, and early studies along these lines, showed up Geoff Shaw, who covers the point of simply getting stuff out on a regular basis. Simply. Directly.
And all these point to simply prolificly writing, and getting better by writing.
The naysayers have, in general, a vested interest in selling services. Freelance editors push editing. Writing coaches push their coaching.
If you go down the line of the most prolific authors, it shows that they wrote consistently and found a publisher who would push their work to the public. Corin Tellado is at the top of the Wikipedia list of prolific authors, having published some 5000 stories. When you look them up, you’ll find most of these were short stories and novellas. But she kept this up for decades and wrote between one and two per week for all that time.
The average author production on this list (where numbers are posted) is over 166 books during their lifetime.
And this goes into the essays I’ve published in “Still Feeding the Beast?” book.
The core point is that the authors who are successful write and publish a lot. They study their craft as a craft and constantly improve as they write. Every story is as good as it can be and they constantly improve with the next.
That is how bestsellers are made. Not the one-shot-wonders which occur in writing as well as music and film. The top creators create and publish tons of work. Tons.
And every new work is better than the ones before.
All I’m saying here is that Koontz, and Bradbury, and DWSmith, and Corin Tellado all point out is that you write and publish tons. You don’t have to re-write, you don’t have to publish to any length.
You do have to enjoy what you do. As you do it.
Prolific writers enjoy their life to the fullest. And they do it for decades. The more original work you are writing, the more you are going to enjoy your life. If you work for a year on an 80K novel, constantly re-writing, you won’t be as happy as if you wrote six 80K novels and published them in that same time.
You have my opinion on this. And my plan to continue.
See you up the line.[Update: Found this today:
“YOU WROTE TWO BOOKS ON WRITING POPULAR FICTION. IF YOU WERE TO WRITE ANOTHER TODAY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD BE DIFFERENT?
“Probably 99% of it. I was young when I wrote those books, and in the hubris of youth, I thought I knew so much. Later, I learned that after decades of dedicated work, I knew about 1% of what I had thought I knew back then. The learning never stops.”]
from The Great Fiction Writing Challenge – Living Sensical http://ift.tt/2Dt6f8U