James Scott Bell, author of Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) (Write Great Fiction), is always talking up how "great" Dean Koontz is and mentioned this book as being a big influence on his own career. Since I liked Bell's Plot & Structure so much, I read one Dean Koontz novel, Whispers. Let's just say it didn't do much for me. There were a few good suspense scenes, but it was too long, I didn't care about the opposites-attract romance, and it suffered from a ridiculous "shock" ending. I gave Whispers two and a half stars and vowed I wouldn't waste my time reading his other fiction. However, I decided to check this book out from my local library and thought it was OK. I was glad I didn't pay for it--not at the prices people are charging here, anyway.
1) Much of his advice is severely outdated, having been written in 1981, right after Koontz's first bestseller, Whispers, shot him onto mainstream bestseller lists;
2) There wasn't really much about the craft of writing that wasn't obvious (avoid "realistic" dialogue, avoid attributions other than "said" or "asked," use jumpcuts to do scene transitions, etc.). In fact, pretty much all of his actual advice here has been said better and more entertainingly by others in the years since this book came out. Newer writing gurus like James Scott Bell pack way more information into their books in a more laid back, casual style (see my recommended reading list, below);
3) Although Koontz certainly makes many good points and provides sound, intelligent advice, the rather dry, boring manner in which he delivers most of it had me struggling to get through this book. There is just not enough warmth or humor on display by current writing guru standards (see my recommendation list below).
1) Oddly for a book that is supposed to focus on writing bestselling mainstream novels, the thing that does stand out is the chapter on writing genre novels, specifically covering science fiction and mystery. Koontz provides a concise look at how to create believable alien races and futuristic settings along with a step by step checklist on mystery story structure and the essential components every mystery must have to be successful;
2) There are helpful, extremely detailed (clause by clause!) bits on ways not to get screwed by publishers in your contract negotiations that I haven't seen elsewhere, at least not to this degree. While some of this information may be outdated, the one thing that never changes is that the industry is out to screw you with their legalese mumbo-jumbo and creative accounting practices;
3) There is an excellent, in-depth reading list of Koontz's favorite bestselling authors and his favorite titles from each, telling you why they are so important to familiarize with--names like John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, etc.;
4) As for his advice on writing bestsellers, it's mostly talk about sticking to adventure, historical epics, and suspense and to avoid everything else. He provides plenty of examples and explains why they are hits, from Alistair Maclean (Guns of Navarone) to Arthur Hailey (Airport) to James Clavell (Shogun), etc. While this may have been true at the time, fantasy (Game of Thrones) and young adult (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) have proven other types of stories can be blockbusters too.
5) Misc. advice he gives along these lines of becoming a mainstream success are: Don't think of yourself as a "horror" writer or a "mystery" writer, but as a WRITER, period. Don't get pigeonholed as a mid-list hack who will write anything for money or you'll be fighting a long, uphill battle to get any industry respect when you do (hopefully) start producing quality novels. Don't waste your time writing short stories because they only pay a flat fee rather than a per book royalty, and don't give you the same level of recognition or prestige as novels (unless you have enough to fill up your own anthology).
I have no doubt this was an important work in its day and that it positively influenced a generation of writers, nor would I mind owning a copy, but How To Write Bestselling Fiction is simply not worth it at the current prices being asked ($69-175).
RECOMMENDED READING LIST:
My favorite writing gurus all employ a casual, conversational style and manage to cram their books full of useful advice on the craft. Besides James Scott Bell (referenced at the start of this review), try Jeff Gerke (The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors and Readers, and Set Your Novel Up For Success), Raymond Obstfeld (Fiction First Aid), and for screenplay help, Blake Synder (Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need), and Jeffrey Alan Schechter (My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch).