May 13, 2010

STRANGERS From the Author

I was not fully sane when I wrote STRANGERS. Some psychologists would argue that a person is either sane or not, that there aren’t degrees of sanity. They would say that a person who otherwise acts sane but exhibits a few peculiar or even irrational actions might better be called an eccentric; certain Freudians might prefer the more serious medical term screwball, while Jungian psychologists might insist on twinkie. But while writing STRANGERS, I wasn’t merely an eccentric or a screwball, or a twinkie, or even a Sara Lee pound cake; I was in fact not fully sane.

Please understand: While not fully sane, neither was I insane. I never took an axe to my neighbor, although on numerous occasions he gave me good reason to dismember him, Cuisinart the pieces, and pour his remains into a Jell-O mold shaped like a jackass. I never bought a creepy old motel, never dressed up as my mother, and never stabbed unsuspecting guests while they showered–or while they brushed their teeth, for that matter. My writing had not at that time found an audience of considerable size; therefore, I didn’t possess the financial capital to acquire commercial real estate, creepy or otherwise. I never for a moment thought I was Napoleon–either the former French emperor or the delicious pastry. I never insisted to anyone that the world is flat, although I had my suspicions, and I never stuck a feather in my hat and called it macaroni.

In the matter of STRANGERS, the two proofs of my departure from a state of full and sunny sanity are these:

First, I wrote it on speculation. This means that I wrote it without having a contract, without any assurance that it would sell to a publisher.

All new writers begin this way, of course, but after selling a book or two, or five, they discover that publishers will trust them enough to give them contracts for novels based on sample chapters and/or outlines, and will pay a portion of the advance on signing of the contract, which gives writers living money while they create works of lasting genius or works to make their dear mothers weep in despair, or possibly both. Some writers budget this money wisely, to make it last through the writing of the book, while others blow it immediately on alcohol, drugs, trips to Las Vegas, cool hats, exotic snakes, recreational lobotomies, huge teddy bears, ice sculptures, attempts to ingratiate themselves with members of the performing Osmond family, on more alcohol, on antique spoons, contemporary spoons, spoons of the future, spoons from alternate realities, collectible celebrity spoons, forks, on still more alcohol, on women named Lola, on men named Fabio, on people of uncertain gender named Sassy, on reviving the dead, on murder-for-hire contracts to dispose of inconvenient loved ones, on alcohol, on costly short-term liver rentals, on gimcracks, geegaws, baubles, bangles, frippery, frillery, atomic-powered frillery…. Really, there is no end to the number of things on which irresponsible writers will squander their money; but whether the writer is penny-wise or a reckless spendthrift, if he has a signed contract and delivers a book at least somewhat resembling the one described in the contract, he knows during the writing that he will be paid yet more money and that his work will eventually appear in bookstores–and that the manuscript will not instead lie moldering in a drawer.

Prior to writing STRANGERS, I had written many novels that had been contracted in advance, and some had been paperback bestsellers, which was gratifying; however, my publisher and my agent were largely of the opinion that my books didn’t have quite the right stuff to be hardcover bestsellers. Though no one could explain to me what “right stuff” was missing, this preconception ensured that my books had small hardcover printings (my largest first printing at that time: 7,000 copies of Whispers) and no advertising support. Frustrated to the point that I was gnawing on my office furniture, depressed by the resulting shabbiness of my work space, racking up dental bills, afraid of developing a serious addiction to either varnish or nylon twill upholstery, I decided that selling books based on samples and outlines was a grave mistake.

After drawing a contract, the publisher and editor had a year or eighteen months to think about the outline, to build expectations of what sort of book it would be, to create this glorious gleaming image of the book in their heads. Consequently, when the script was at last delivered, and when it was inevitably different from their idea of what the book was going to be, their enthusiasm sagged. The novel might not be inadequate in any way, might even be immeasurably better than the con-job story that had been tricked up in an outline to cage a contract, might be written with passion and narrative energy, but the very fact that it didn’t match expectations was a mark against it; its lovely difference doomed it.

Not in a state of full sanity, I planned to write a novel on spec even though a contract was offered. I dreamed of writing a book that would be big in narrative scope and theme, that would be stuffed with interesting characters, that would rivet the reader with twists and turns and mystery and wonder, that would be THE BEST DAMN BOOK EVER WRITTEN. Yes, of course, that is an absurd goal, overweening ambition of the most deplorably weening sort, especially as The Little Train Who Could had already been published and had established a literary pinnacle that no mortal writer will ever achieve again. Nevertheless, writing is so hard–even if at times filled with joy–that it doesn’t make much sense to set out to write a mediocre book or even a reasonably good book. Besides, each time you set out to write the best damn book ever written, and each time that you inevitably fail to write it, you automatically motivate yourself to do better the next time, to get closer to the grail. Anyway, my intention was to deliver a story that would so surprise and delight a publisher that guarantees of a bestseller-size hardcover printing and an equivalent advertising budget would be obtainable in the contract.

When I began STRANGERS, I had enough money in the bank to live for six or eight months, which was the length of time I expected that I would need to write an approximately 500-page manuscript. This was madness. Money never lasts as long as it ought to, and books can seldom be finished when you expect. Six months later, working 60-hour weeks, having amassed 450 manuscript pages, I realized that I hadn’t yet reached the midpoint of the novel. I had begun writing without an outline, without plot notes, with the identities of my two main characters vaguely fixed in mind, and otherwise with only a situation and certain themes that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. This plunge-off-the-cliff approach was enormously liberating and inspired creative exuberance. My male and female leads came alive for me, and soon I had a cast of twelve major characters in a story of far greater complexity than anything I had tackled before. Instead of six months, I required eleven months and three weeks to complete the novel. Somehow my wife, Gerda, stretched the money, somehow we found double the window of time I thought I could afford to write unpaid. I’m sure we experienced moments when finances were shaky, but I don’t remember any; all I remember is the thrill I felt as the novel came together better day by day, taking on a life of its own, sweeping me into a narrative tornado so that I seemed to be not the creator but a full participant in the storm.

When I delivered STRANGERS, the publisher reacted as I hoped. The script was read on a weekend; Monday we received an offer 2.5 times larger than the amount I had been paid for my previous book. Furthermore, guarantees were made as to print run and advertising budget. I accepted. I celebrated. I bought an antique spoon.

Now to the incontrovertible second proof of my departure from full sanity. Because STRANGERS was so long, and because the length would add typesetting, paper, and shipping costs to the publication budget, I was offered an additional six-figure amount that would be payable only if I could cut the manuscript by thirty percent. This bonus, after taxes, was enough to cover our living expenses for two years–which is a tempting amount of freedom. (It would also have allowed me to order a custom-crafted Jell-O mold in the shape of a jackass; that neighbor was still begging to be Cuisinarted.) After a year of working for nothing, a sane person would have accepted this offer at once. I demurred, explaining that I was so close to the book that I couldn’t see where such drastic cuts could be accommodated. The publisher graciously acknowledged that she, too, was not entirely sure how this goal could be achieved, and that she found each of the large cast of characters to be essential–making it impossible to trim pages by trimming the cast. She assured me, nevertheless, that the new editor being assigned to me would show me how to slim down the book without damaging it.

The editor was Alan Williams. Charming, intelligent, witty, he came to STRANGERS with years of experience editing both literary and popular fiction, including many bestsellers. After working six weeks on the manuscript, Alan sent me his line notes, plus his suggested cuts. To trim the manuscript by 30%, I would have needed to lose three hundred pages (as it was 960). Alan’s total suggested cuts amounted to just five pages. He had found the characters, story lines, and even the descriptive passages so intertwined narratively and thematically that he didn’t feel he could snip anything without unraveling the book. But to tweak me, he wrote: “You will see here and there a suggestion for the deletion of a line, sometimes as much as a paragraph, totaling about five pages. With these examples as your guide, I’m sure you’ll find another 295 pages in short order.” I thought he was serious, until I phoned him in a state of high anxiety and heard his laughter.

I cut STRANGERS by only ten pages, and I never earned that additional six-figure sum; however, this failure to behave in an entirely sane and responsible manner eventually paid off. For one thing, I ended up with the book I wanted, as it had been given to me. Its warts are warts that either I love or I can live with; I don’t have to look at it and wince with regret over lost characters, missing scenes. Furthermore, STRANGERS became my first hardcover bestseller, was well received by critics, and was translated into virtually all languages except Erdu (but we’re still hopeful that some Erduian publisher will see the light). I have never since given a publisher an outline or sample chapter in order to make a deal; we contract for three novels of an unknown nature. When I deliver a book, the publisher discovers what it’s about. Likewise, I have begun every book since STRANGERS by leaping off that cliff, with little more than a situation, a character or two, and a core theme.

In an annotated bibliography in The Dean Koontz Companion, a book about my work, the bibliographer writes of STRANGERS: “Though the novel deals with as many issues and themes as it does characters, it is primarily an exploration of the nature of friendship in all its permutations…” This is correct, but STRANGERS also deals with the themes of love, redemption, hope, and transcendence with which my books are concerned–and with which I am obsessed–to this day.

In short, I’m still a little crazy after all these years, and all of you readers who have supported my writing have enabled me in this pleasant madness. Thank you, and thank God you’re out there.

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