Think a Fiction Formula is a Bad Idea? Think Again…


Another year. Another NaNoWriMo win. Another story fail. Sound familiar?

I completed another NNWM this year, in spite of working full-time. That’s the good news. I can write enough each day to reach the goal of 50K words in 30 days. The bad news is, the story’s terrible. In fact, it’s not really a story. Yet. There may be something salvageable in there, just not right now as I’m tired with it. Bored, in fact. And if I’m bored with it, then for sure my readers (both of them) would be.

So I’m back to thinking about the process of story generation and execution. I now have a few months to get that part fixed (again) and look for a concept that’s big enough to work.

I began by looking around me at things that work. Not machines; business systems. After all, I want to be in the writing business. (If you simply want to write, then you need to go do that. Now.) That way, as soon as I make it to the Big Show in publishing I’ll be set for life. Right? Well, okay; maybe not.

Here’s what I found by looking around. Answer the following questions:

  • What do you call a business without a formula?
  • What do you call a football (baseball, soccer) coach without a formula?
  • What do you call a comedian without a formula?
  • What do you call a TV producer without a formula?
  • What do you call a (commercial) fiction writer without a formula?

Here’s what I came up with as answers:

  • Bankrupt.
  • Assistant.
  • Flop.
  • Hamburger flipper.
  • Broke.

You may have different observations, but you get the point.

Okay, let’s look at some successful ones and see if there are exceptions…

  • Businesses: McDonald’s; Apple; Samsung; Ford (add your favorites)
  • Coaches: Bill Belichick; Nick Saban; Jim Harbaugh; Pete Carroll; Arsene Wenger; Alex Ferguson; Jill Ellis (add your favorites)
  • Comedians: Seinfeld; Carlin; Pryor; Schumer; Hedberg; Gervais; Bruce; Martin; Dangerfield (add your favorites)
  • TV Producers: Matt Groening; Simon Fuller; Chuck Lorre; Norman Lear; Jerry Bruckheimer (you know what to do)
  • Authors: King; Patterson; Rowling; Brown; Dr. Seuss; Roberts; Meyer; Burroughs; Doyle; Heinlein; Clarke; Pratchett (and so on)

You might call it a system. Yes, I use the words synonymously here: System and Formula.  In any case, the more I looked, the more formulaic (systematic) all the winners appeared. I finally gave up looking for successful, non-formula instances. Try it yourself and see! Oh, I found a couple that on the surface appeared to be the exceptions. Digging deeper, however, and it was clear they had a way of approaching their work that was clearly systematic; simply well-hidden from the public. Comedians appear to be exceptions most often, because of the apparent spontaneity of their performances. Don’t fool yourself, most of what they do “spontaneously” is well-rehearsed.

Writing commercial fiction is one vocation where neophytes get the worst advice, sometimes. If I had it all to do over again (going back over 30 years now), I would have forced my first teachers to share insight into their formula. They may aver that they don’t have one, but if they’re any good (that is, making any money), they have a formula.

I’m not talking about routine. That’s how to tactically manage work flow. No, I’m talking about the “creative process.” More than ideas, as those can be generated at any time with little effort. How do they take their ideas and craft stories from them? That’s the magic I’m talking about.

My first teachers spent all the time on sharing in group and critiquing. Wrong approach! That works (and, I must say, only in a limited way) with folks who already understand story construction. Instead, the whole of each session should have been focused on formula, and in some cases, the refinement of story formula.

What about the great literature, you ask. Dig into the whole body of work for a great historical author or two and autopsy their plots and you’ll soon see that they each had their formula. Whether we’re talking Henry James or P. D. James, there’s a distinct formula. (Don’t get me started on the idea of “voice.” It’s not that either.) Unless they were a “one and done” comet across the literary sky, they all had their system.

Did it limit them? Hardly. Does a formula guarantee success? Not at all. Without a formula, though, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll join the pantheon of the greats. It’s much more likely you’ll be flipping hamburgers rather than writing…

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