I just read Sylvia and Lori’s RT posts. It’s been a long week . . . so I am behind. :/ All I can say is: I am so blessed to have the MSW gals as friends.
My two cents on RT? This was my third RT conference. I went to Orlando in 2006 (loved it); Houston in 2007 (hated it); so this year, I went with slight apprehension. But I had a terrific time. The vibe was very good, I met with old and new friends, and the atmosphere was positive. I moderated two thriller panels, got to hear Dean Koontz, and the mystery “chix and dix” breakfast was a highlight. I sat next to Eden Bradley at the booksigning and learned all about Romance Trading Cards. I think I’m going to get some printed . . . but with a twist. You’ll just have to wait to find out what I have planned! (hee hee hee.)
I hung out a lot with the thriller writers, which isn’t a surprise since there are very few of us who go to RT. As a romantic thriller author, I straddle the fence and feel generally comfortable in both camps (or, on my bad days, like I fit in nowhere.) Fortunately at RT some of my favorite thriller writers were there, including Boyd Morrison who I met last year at Thrillerfest. (As an aside: Toni told me yesterday that she met Boyd at the first Thrillerfest, in Arizona. And I was thinking–wait! I hung out with Toni almost the entire conference! It was a small conference, too, so how did I miss meeting Boyd? Or maybe I did and forgot, which is my loss. Boyd is a good guy.)
While I was able to sit in on Dean Koontz’s Author Chat (which was a total blast–he is an amazing storyteller, both verbally and in writing), I missed his “Art of Writing” workshop because I was moderating a thriller panel on research. Woe is me! So I asked Boyd to write this blog and share with you (and me!) what he learned.
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When someone has sold 400 million novels and adds 17 million to that tally every year, you tend to listen when he shares his writing insights. Last week at the RT Booklovers Convention, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop given by the legendary Dean Koontz, an author so prolific that he has a library in his home with 6,000 editions in 38 languages of his own books.
So how does an author produce so many books? Mary Heaton Vorse said that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,” and no one follows that dictum better than Koontz. Six days a week he wakes at 6:00 to walk his dog and eat breakfast, and by 8:00 he is sitting in front of his eighteen-year-old computer, complete with CRT monitor and no Internet connection. For the next nine hours he writes with no outline, polishing a single page up to thirty times before going on to the next one. When he’s beginning a book, he can spend an entire day on two pages, accelerating to ten pages per day near the end, which results in a completed book every six months.
Repeat this process over the 45 years he’s been writing and you get over 90 novels, not to mention four books about writing and dozens of short stories, poetry collections, and children’s books. It’s no surprise to learn that Koontz doesn’t put much stock in writer’s block, which he thinks is just a manifestation of author self-doubt. That’s not to say he doesn’t see a value in a healthy dose of it; the authors he’s come across who lacked self-doubt generally weren’t any good.
But even as driven as he is, Koontz did experience a single episode of writer’s block when his beloved golden retriever, Trixie, passed away. For five weeks he couldn’t write at all, bereft at her death. It wasn’t until his editor suggested writing his next book as a tribute to Trixie that he was able to get back to work. Needless to say, the resulting book, The Darkest Evening of the Year, was a NY Times bestseller.
In fact it’s hard to remember that there was a time Koontz wasn’t a bestselling author. When he started out, he wrote across many genres, from science fiction to gothic romance, often under a pseudonym (nine in all). For the first fifteen years of his career, he couldn’t achieve a breakout success until he wrote a book called Whispers in 1980. His publisher printed only 5,000 hardcovers, but the paperback rights were acquired at auction, and it went on to sell over a million copies.
Apparently that wasn’t enough evidence for his publisher that he had a growing fan base, so they printed only 7,000 copies of his next book, Phantoms. Again, the paperback sold in huge numbers.
Koontz, who is not only a great writer but a savvy businessman, wrote his following book, Strangers, without a contract. When it was complete, he didn’t agree to sell it until he got a guaranteed minimum printing for the hardcover. If you ever hear an author tell you success is mainly about persistence, believe it. Strangers, Koontz’s first hardcover bestseller, was the 50th novel he wrote. He’s gone on to have 23 books hit number one on the NY Times bestseller list.
This drive to become a master in the thriller genre had a dark genesis. Koontz’s father was a violent alcoholic, going through 44 jobs in 34 years and earning so little that their four-room clapboard home lacked indoor plumbing. To cope with this abusive relationship, Koontz lost himself in stories, often reading by flashlight. Among his favorites were Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and John D. McDonald. (Years later Koontz was disappointed to learn that meeting his heroes at writers conferences wasn’t all he’d hoped it would be; while he loved Ray Bradbury, others he wouldn’t name were either rude to him because he was a newbie writer, they were falling down drunk, or they were hitting on his wife. Fortunately it seems times have changed, as the writers I’ve met at conferences are unfailingly friendly, supportive, and just plain nice, and many of those I’ve admired have become good friends of mine.)
Despite his love of storytelling, Koontz still needed a nudge from a mentor to set him on the path to writing. When he applied to college, he planned to major in history. A respected high school teacher was appalled to hear about his choice and cornered him in the hall one day, hammering home the message that Koontz had a talent for writing that he needed to develop. Without that encouragement, he might never have written such classics as Watchers, Lightning, and Dark Rivers of the Heart.
Today Koontz has a simple set of tools for researching his novels. He tends to do his research with good old-fashioned books instead of the Internet, and some of his essentials are a medical dictionary, a thesaurus, a book on trees and plants, and an entire shelf dedicated to architecture and antiques. When he can’t find what he needs in books, he has a well-stocked Rolodex of experts to call if he has a question about, say, a complicated cardiac procedure.
The reason he goes to such lengths to get the details right is because he believes in the power of specificity and economy. Instead of taking three pages to describe a room, he advises writers to find one or two details that not only set the scene but tell the reader something about the characters. In his novel The Good Guy a character notices a crouching tiger hidden along the edge of a silkscreen painting, not only showing the owner’s penchant for Asian art but also symbolizing the danger stalking the hero. Koontz’s readers love the unexpected in his books. It seemed appropriate then that the hotel fire alarm went off toward the end of his workshop. Although it turned out to be a false alarm, it was a fitting symbol of the talent for unpredictable twists that has earned Koontz millions of fans.
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In addition to being an all-around nice guy, Boyd Morrison is the author of three thrillers, including The Ark, of which James Rollins said, “Boyd Morrison’s novel, The Ark, is a stunning thriller with a premise as ingenious as it is flawlessly executed. Lightning-paced, chillingly real, here is a novel that will have you holding your breath until the last page is turned. One of the best debuts I’ve read this year.” His fourth book, The Catalyst, will be released on November 29th. You can read his full bio here (or check out his books!), but you should know that not only is Boyd an actor, a video game tester, and a mechanical engineer who used to work at NASA, he’s a Jeopardy! champion.
Because I got a personalized, signed Dean Koontz ODD THOMAS book, I’m giving away my unsigned, gently read copy to one lucky commenter — plus any book from my backlist and a copy of THE ARK by Boyd Morrison. Three books for one comment! I must be in a good mood tonight.
Let’s talk about anything . . . your favorite Koontz book (mine is Watchers), your favorite writer’s conference (mine is Thrillerfest 2006), or maybe a little bit of trivia about yourself . . . for me? When I was 16, I auditioned for Teen Jeopardy, passed the written test, but didn’t make it past the second cut. And when I was looking for a photo of Dean Koontz and Trixie, I came upon a little piece of trivia about him–he’s given over $5.5 million to Canine Companions for Independence.