So you can read my books

Monday, November 18, 2013

DEAN KOONTZ talks to NaNoWriMo

{Photo courtesy Steve Z Photography:

{This post based on two excellent interviews by STRANGE HORIZONS and NOVEL ROCKETS.

Go to these links for much more revelations and tips}: 

Stan Getz was doing an evocative version of  "Skylark" as Dean Koontz sat opposite me at Meilori's.

Thanks for agreeing to come here and talk to those who have decided to do NaNoWriMo.

I've read that you will rewrite a page until it's right before moving on, sometimes redoing a draft thirty or forty times. This must make for a slow process. Approximately how long does it take you to write one novel?

I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day.

On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad.

And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions.

A month--perhaps 22 to 25 work days--goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that's a good thing.

Because I don't do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character.

I have a low boredom threshold, and in part I suspect I fell into this method of working in order to keep myself mystified about the direction of the piece--and therefore entertained. A very long novel, like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE can take a year. A book like THE GOOD GUY, six months.

What kinds of things are you doing during that time:
Writing? Plotting? Rewriting? Outlining? Character development?

I sit down at my desk about 7:30 [a.m.], or 8:30 if it's my turn to walk the dog—9:00 if I also have to polish the alligator—

and I'm there until dinner, because I rarely eat lunch.

When I need an excuse to avoid taking out the garbage, I usually claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, because deadlines aren't a sufficient excuse to deflect Gerda. Why she buys the evil-aliens story, I don't know, but she's never called me on it.


I never outline. For me, fiction is character driven, not plot driven, so I start with one or two interesting characters and a brief premise—and then leap off the narrative cliff. On the way down, like a circus clown, I'm desperately opening a series of ever larger umbrellas, hoping to slow my speed of descent and land on both feet.

Character development?

That isn't something I do as a separate task. I don't cobble up lists of a character's favorite foods, habits, preferences in clothing, political attitudes, favorite game shows, or his excuses for not taking out the garbage.

That's all useless.

If characters come alive, they do so by virtue of their actions, their decisions and choices, and it's in the writing that they assume dimension, not in some portrait or capsule biography written prior to launching the book.

Though I was once a Freudian writer, showing how every character's traumatic past shaped the person he became, I have in the '90s become virulently anti-Freudian because I believe it's all bunk, and dangerous bunk to boot.

Freudian-colored writing—which is 99 percent of all fiction in this century—

reduces every character to a victim on some level; and the writer who either consciously or unconsciously uses Freudian dogma to explain his characters' motivations

is reducing the mysterious complexity of the human mind to a monkey-simple cause-and-effect mechanism. Dickens's characters were not given depth by mechanistic psychological analyses of their childhoods;

Freud hadn't yet started to infect the world, and Dickens defined his characters by their actions, by their decisions and choices and attitudes. Some critics won't get what I'm doing, because they're conditioned to looking for certain devices and techniques as signs that characterization is taking place—but, happily, most have not only caught on to it but have supported it as more natural and, ultimately, deeper reaching.
As for plotting . . .

well, this is also something that resolves itself in the process of writing, not in an outline. If I keep the characters moving, keep them thinking and feeling, the plot will evolve as I go. An outline always felt unnatural to me,

and I stopped using one when I began Strangers. Before that, I created outlines, but the books never followed them anyway.

Rewriting is also not a separate task for me. I don't bang out a book, or even a chapter, and then go back to revise it.

I rework every sentence before moving to the next, and then rework every paragraph before moving to the next, and then revise each page twenty, thirty, fifty times before moving on to the next.

When I reach the end of a chapter—which has by that time been revised exhaustively—I then print it out and pencil it three or four times, because I see things on the printout that I don't see on the screen.

By the time I reach the end of the book, every line in it has received so much attention that there's nothing to go back and revise—unless the editor spots a problem that, on reflection, I agree needs to be addressed.

I've sometimes described this method of writing a novel as being similar to the way coral reefs are formed from the accreted skeletons of marine polyps—

though I must admit I've never polled any polyps to see if they agree. Some writers have wondered how I maintain spontaneity when working in this fashion, but it's no problem at all, because you get so intimately involved with the fine details of the story

 that it remains eternally fresh to you on a lot of levels rather than just on the level of plot.

I'm sure all those polyps feel spontaneous and full of life as they form colonies, reproduce, and finally die in the service of creating underwater tourist attractions and providing the raw material for junk jewelry and dust-catching paperweights.

Do you think a new novelist should take the route you did and write some easier to place genre fiction to get their foot in the door or begin with the type of fiction they hope always to write?

Out of the gate, run with what you most love. Starting in a genre--if you don't expect always to stay there--will label you, and the labor needed to strip off a publisher's label, once it has been applied, is Herculean. I know because I've had to reinvent myself more than once.

{Just look at his private library and his 18 year old computer}


  1. I love this post! I rarely (read: never) read about someone with a process similar to mine. Koontz is definitely the exception.

    "Because I don't do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character."

    This is exactly the way I work. For me, outlines are useless and my characters aren't born of bios or physical descriptions, but of action on the page.

    What is it about finding out we're not the only one who does something a certain way that make us feel so much better about ourselves?

    Thank you for posting this.

    VR Barkowski

  2. I used to work in a similar fashion but it took me too long to finish a book. Now I try to dash out that first draft and then fix it.

  3. Compared to Koontz, I do it all wrong. Of course, I don't have all day to work on a book either.

  4. VR:
    I, too, use that method. Sometimes as I mull over a page from yesterday, the clouds part, the muse shines down, and a startling plot twist appears -- in fact, it just happened minutes ago.

    When we discover that an author who sells well does it as we do, we feel vindicated. See? My way isn't so odd!

    I remember TERRY & THE PIRATES -- I was always drawn to the Dragon Lady. Now, I have McCord married to the ultimate Dragon Lady -- why would such polar opposites marry, how could they maintain such a marriage -- those questions have me reflecting each page of DEATH IN THE HOUSE OF LIFE.

    I think Mr. Koontz's method works for me -- and you. I am so glad his book on how to write genre fiction survived my fire.

    I am glad that way works for you. But many find that fixing the first draft means nearly writing a whole new book! No saving time that way!

    There is no ONE right way -- only the way that creates for you the book that you are happy with. :-)

  5. I write much as Koontz writes, not being able to leave a sentence alone. I usually find the problems when I read the draft paragraphs to Ideal Reader ( a la S. King's method).

    Reading out loud helps me immensely, even if I'm just reading it myself. It reveals flow, stumbling words, etc.

    I like individualists who think for themselves!