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Pep Talk from Dean Koontz

photo of Dean Koontz

Dear Writer,

So you’re three years old. You want to stick a fork in an electric outlet. Your mom says, “You can’t do that.” Or you’re eight, you’ve made wings out of two feather dusters, and you want to jump off the roof. Your dad says, “That’ll never work.”

Throughout life, we endure negativity from family, friends, associates—and from opinionated strangers we sometimes want to strangle; however, some of it is worth considering.

When we set out to write novels, the amount of negativity is daunting. I receive letters from new writers who despair because everyone says they can never do it. Curiously, they assume I received nothing but encouragement. The truth is different, and I find that sharing it helps writers deal with the naysayers.

My second literary agent was a great guy. We became friends. He did good things for my career. Then he began to decline one book pitch after another: “I can’t market this. You’re pitching bestsellers, but you’ll never be a bestseller. You’ll always be a mid-list writer.” I was 29 years old and couldn’t accept that I’d already peaked. We remained friends, but I changed agents.

When Whispers sold only 6,000 hardcover in 1980, but a million paperbacks a year later, I expected better hardcover treatment. Instead, the publisher, a savvy woman who had much success, said, “You’ll always be a bestseller in paperback now, but you’ll never be a hardcover bestseller.” My next book, Phantoms, received only a 5,000-copy hardcover printing with no ad budget.

When Strangers hit the hardcover list in 1986 and Watchers in 1987, there was no negativism. But when I delivered Lightning, my publisher said it broke so many rules of commercial fiction that it would be a failure. She didn’t want to publish it “for seven years,” until after I had other bestsellers and could “get away with it.” I insisted Lightning be published in 1988, and it rose to number 3 on the list.

In 1989, following Lightning, when Midnight became my first number one, the publisher said, “Great news. You’ll debut at number one.” Before I could express delight, she said, “Don’t expect this to happen again. It’s a fluke. You don’t write the kind of books that can be number one.”

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We had four more number ones in a row. Each time I was told it would never happen again. WTF? I was having success, but I was being treated as if I was repeatedly sticking a fork in an electrical outlet. I eventually moved to Bantam Books, where I have been ever since.

One of the hardest things a writer needs to do is learn to tell the difference between worthwhile criticism and mere naysaying. Here are a few ways to tell the difference.

  1. Worthwhile criticism will be highly specific; naysaying will be a broad kind of negativism.
  2. Worthwhile criticism of specific detail will be delivered in a helpful tone; naysaying will have a snarky edge to it.
  3. Worthwhile criticism comes from people who have a deep experience of fiction—writing it, editing it, marketing it; naysaying comes from people who have done none of that.

To get on with your career, don’t waste time responding to the naysayers. Don’t dwell on what they’ve said. Stay true to your vision. Instead of letting their negativism get you down and slow you down, adopt an ‘oh-yeah?’ attitude and double your effort; move faster into the future. The world is full of people who say it can’t be done. If everyone listened to them, we’d still live in caves—and there would be no such thing as books.


Visit Dean's website or learn more about his books.

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