Formula writing is OK sometimes. Here’s why.

A lot of writers do this thing where they write a plot and it’s really successful.  So they take the core idea and write another book with the same plot, and then they publish it and it’s really successful again.  And again.  And again.  This is called formula writing.

“Creatives” look down on formula writing.

It’s not hard to understand why.  After all, the whole point of writing a book is to show off your creative side.  If you write and rewrite and republish the same story over and over you’re not being creative.  Right?

Well, actually, formula writing can help you foster that creative side if you do it right.  Here’s how.

Step one: What’s your formula?

You need to have a formula first.  This one isn’t too hard: any book requires a little planning before you write it.  Sit down and think: what genre am I comfortable with? Do I want to write a fantasy novel? Sci-fi? Crime?

What formulas already exist for that genre? What do I want to stay away from? What do I want to use?

What character archetypes exist in this genre? What do I want to stay away from? What do I want to use?

How can I put this together uniquely, in my own way? Do I kill off the main character? Do I leave a crime unsolved? Do I end every novel, no matter the genre, in a sudden apocalyptic crash and doom the world to darkness, rendering the plot completely pointless?

Get the sketch of your plot down.  Write out skeleton biographies for the characters.  And then put it aside.  Copy it to a new piece of paper, if you write it longhand; save it as a new file, if you use a computer.  Make sure you keep that plot sketch separate and pure.  That’s your formula. It’s going to create a ton of stories for you.

Step two: Write the first book. Or story.  Or blog post.

In that new document, on that new page, whatever: flesh it out.  Write out full biographies for the characters.  Flesh out every little action and re-action in your plot.  And then, when you have it planned out, write it.

This is what I’m currently doing for NaNoWriMo.  I know, I know: it’s not until November.  But I want to see if this could work, so I’m planning out my formula in advance.  I’m getting an idea for the characters, for the plot and the plot holes and all that stuff that I get caught up on when I’m actually writing the book. This way, it doesn’t hold me back. I can just sit and write. What a concept.

In a way– unconsciously– this is exactly how I handle blog posts, too.  My formula probably looks something like this:

Opening paragraph: introduce problem.

P. 2: first step to dealing with problem.

P. 3: second step to dealing with problem/second problem.

P. 4: if problem has solution, write it here/if not, explain why that sucks.

P. 5: why does it matter?

(optional: question at the end of the blog post.)

I then pick a topic, sit down with that basic idea in my head, and write.  Sometimes I give myself a few days before I read it over.  Sometimes I don’t, and it just publishes as a first draft.  So far it’s working out OK for me.

Step three: Write the second book. Or story. Or blog post.

This is where people start feeling uncomfortable.  Once you’ve written the first book, and it’s done or published or sitting forever in your hard drive, you let it sit.  And you pick up that first document, make a new copy, and do the process all over again.

You put in different characters this time. Or maybe you don’t; maybe it’s a sequel. But you give them different challenges.  You up the stakes, or you change the setting.  Something’s different.  Ask yourself: what makes this readable again? What is going to make the readers of the first book going to want to read the second? How can you change the formula a little, just to screw with their expectations?

What keeps people coming back?

Paragraph five: Why does it matter?

Here’s the benefit: it keeps you writing and it keeps you thinking.

When you’re training to run long distances, you don’t just train for cardio.  Even if you can’t bring yourself to run an extra mile, you walk it: you get yourself used to going that distance even if you’re not doing it the way you want to.  And when you’re writing, you do the same thing.  One of the biggest challenges I face as a writer is resisting the urge to leave something unfinished.  I come up with great ideas and write a third of a novel in a blaze of inspiration and glory, and then hit a plot hole or a tangle I can’t get them out of in real-time and leave a third of a masterpiece to collect dust.

When you have a formula, you don’t do that. You have something you can write into steadily, working toward a goal.  And once you’ve done it once, you learn from it: what worked, what didn’t work, what you changed along the way.  You get yourself used to writing a full-length book even if it’s not the beautiful novel you wanted to write, because when you get an idea for that perfect book you know what the hell you’re doing.

So this is what I’m doing for NaNo: writing out my plot, my characters, all that shit beforehand.  I’ll flesh it out in October.  And then I’m writing my 2000 words a day to my own benefit.  Just writing.  Which is the point of the whole month: you write without editing.  It’s a lot easier when you know where you’re going.

The question at the end of the blog post…

So what’s your formula? What shows up in your books and stories time and time again? How do you make sure you finish your projects?


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