Writers Wednesday War room—Is There A Formula for Writing Books?

First, what happened to the weekly War Room posting? And today isn’t Wednesday?

What happened was a combination of things, principally Hurricane Irma. It scrambled a lot of schedules and routines for those of us who live in Southwest Florida. Although we’re still dealing with roof repair issues, I’m happy to be able to return to the War Room even if today is Friday, not Wednesday.

Is there such a thing as formulaic writing? Yes. Do many writers use it? YES. Wikipedia defines formula fiction as literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. But it’s been said countless times by countless “experts” that there are no new plots, only variations on a theme. Other observations hold that it is “a type of fiction where multiple books or fictional works share many common elements, to the point of being ultimately predictable.” Also, that “formula fiction is a fixed set of characters.” But I would argue that any sequential series, as opposed to books in a stand-alone series such as the Jack Reacher books, utilizes many of the same characters in each successive novel. 

Sequential series in many genres probably require a certain degree of formula writing. For example, my Sleeping Dogs series intentionally involves some formulaic elements. The novels are sequential and involve a number of recurring characters such as the Sleeping Dogs, Cliff Levell, and Mitch Christie. Because a new reader may not begin with the first book in the series, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, it’s necessary to introduce the characters in each book. I try to accomplish this in a different manner each time. Also, an explanation of why the Dogs are a bit different genetically from you and me is required.

And then there is that “rule of good fiction” that says a novel should be written in three acts—a beginning, a middle, and an end. That truly is formulaic. My first book, The Quixotics, was probably a 3-act novel although I didn’t realize it, but all the books thus far in the Sleeping Dogs series have been in four or five acts, underscoring my belief that most rules for writing are bullshit. Your foremost obligation is to entertain the reader, not follow “rules for MFAs,” most of whom will never write a successful novel.

In most genres, a certain amount of formulaic writing is all but impossible to avoid. The critical aspect is to avoid writing the same novel each time, just moving your characters to a different local. Your readers will quickly catch on to that and abandon you.

Next: How do you actually start writing a novel?

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