Chapter One Hammer Nails and Wood

Basically, there are two general kinds of modern fiction: category and "mainstream." The first includes those stories we can easily apply labels to—science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, Gothic, Western, erotica—and is called category fiction chiefly for the convenience of publishers, editors, reviewers, and booksellers, who must categorize novels to differentiate areas of interest for potential readers. The second, mainstream fiction, is anything which does not comfortably fit into one of the above categories. Some mainstream writers include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, more recently, R. F. Delderfield (God Is an Englishman), Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn), and William Goldman (Boys and Girls Together, Soldier in the Rain).

For the new writer who has not yet chosen a creative area in which to work, category fiction (also called genre fiction) may seem to hold little appeal. For decades, college literature courses—caught up in the Realism and Naturalism which dominated American fiction until the early I960's—have ignored the best craftsmen of category fiction, often concentrating on mainstream authors with far less talent. The "better" critics in the many little literary magazines and the mass market reviewers from Time and Newsweek also have traditionally looked down their noses at category fiction. Recently, of course, the New York Times Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times has shown interest in genre writing, and many colleges have introduced courses on science fiction. Still, for the main part, critics and educators seem to think that immortality lies only with the mainstream novel, while all else is ephemeral.

This is not the case at all. Many writers who have gained some immortality, from Homer to Poe to Twain, have been category writers, men who knew how to tell a good story. Homer wrote adventure fantasy. Edgar Allen Poe wrote fantasies and mysteries. Mark Twain put most of his efforts into adventure-suspense and occasional fantasy. Undeniably, each of these men produced work that has more than a good story; but this only shows that there is no law that restricts meaning and relevance to the mainstream author. Today, for every reader who knows the mainstream author Henry James, a thousand know Twain and five thousand know Poe. The most-translated author of this century is Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is also the best-selling worldwide. Most of us would say that his stories are not what we would strive to create—too little characterization, too much melodrama—but we must admit that through Tarzan and John Carter and other characters, Burroughs has achieved that conditional immortality which is every writer's hope.

John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Daphne Du Maurier, Alistair MacLean, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Raymond Chandler are a few category writers whose works have not only sold millions of copies, but who have at last begun to receive the critics' praise. To be known and remembered, a writer's work must first be read, and it is a fact that the majority of readers will more willingly buy a well-told mystery, fast-paced suspense, or mind-boggling science fiction novel than a slice-of-life view of the Average Man. And they will do this on a continuing patronage basis. You can confirm this by looking at the best-seller list, which is nearly always 80% category fiction, or by studying Publisher's Weekly's yearly compilation of published titles, wherein the totals for category fiction regularly outstrip those for uncategorizable novels.

Since genre fiction is more widely read than mainstream, the writer's market for category work is larger than for mainstream. Publishers, like any businessmen, operate within the law of supply and demand.

The inexpensive paperback book has become the most rewarding form of publication for the average category writer. Though paperback distribution is inefficient and the major problem of the industry, good profits are possible because the total production costs of any paperback book average between eight and ten cents a copy, leaving a comfortable mark-up for publisher, distributor, and retailer, despite returns and inefficiency. Every year, for the past decade, the number of new paperback titles has increased. Most paperback fiction is category work; and about half are paperback originals, never before published in hard covers. This is, clearly, a rich field for the new writer.

This is not to imply that category fiction has a difficult time in clothbound book markets. Indeed, more than half the hardcover fiction published today is category fiction. While most mainstream novels do not break even, hardcover category novels—whether overtly labeled as genre fiction or labeled only by inference in the jacket copy—usually show at least a marginal profit from the first edition.

In the following chapters, we will examine the major categories of modern fiction. Once a writer has mastered a genre, he should be able to turn his hand to another category with at least some success. Both Gothic and erotic novels have strict frames which are surprisingly alike. Writing a science fiction novel, once you understand the ground rules, is not that much different from writing mystery novels. Adventure-suspense is, in many ways, quite similar to fantasy.

Every writer has one or two kinds of stories he most e-^-joys reading and writing. I prefer suspense and science fiction, the first for its readability and no-nonsense prose, the second for its color and wealth of ideas. But there are times when publishers—especially paperback publishers whose buying trends are influenced by an unusually finicky market—are overstocked in a particular category and are not buying. Maybe Gothics are booming, and editors are buying heavily. But mysteries have currently lost favor with readers, forcing publishers to temporarily cut back on their monthly mystery issues. It happens. All the time. Of course, the Biggest Name Writers continue to sell their books despite an overall slump in their field, but the new or average writer can find himself locked out, with work he cannot sell. This is when you should be able to turn your energies into other fields and still earn enough to keep bread on the table.

In other words, you should write so well, handle words so easily, that you can genuinely be called a "professional."

With that goal in mind, let's look, first, at what makes category fiction so different from mainstream. Basically, genre stories require five elements which don't always appear in mainstream work:

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