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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Genre Writing and Formulas


Many new authors assume that only romance writing is formulaic. This is not true. Almost all genre writing is formulaic. Indeed, it must be. Not because authors are at a loss to sustain originality but because unless genre fiction adheres closely to its own conventions, readers will often regard the work as unsuccessful.

This rule applies to movies too. Unless a big budget movie contains the usual genre conventions, it will invariably do badly at the box office. However, if the standard conventions are systematically dealt with in the movie-making process, the final result will almost always do well. So entrenched are we as a species in our desire, our need, for formulaic writing in books, movies, and episodic TV, that we inevitably regard writing that does not exactly fulfill our pre-conceived expectations as somehow lacking.

I use this inescapable fact of life as a starting point for my genre-writing courses. While there is undoubtedly a formula for the ideal plot or story, there is another crucial element that is harder to quantify. That is the particular variety of factors that come together to make one author successful and another, not.

I’ve read thousands of books by the great and good, and many by the not-so-talented. What I’ve noticed most keenly is that successful writers adhere relentlessly to formulas - or at least their often predictably endowed protagonists follow the same heroic journeys. I am forced to conclude, therefore, that the closer a wannabe author works to the established genre conventions, the more likely will be his or her success. 

This is good news for the aspiring author. Learn the rules to get the jewels.

It also explains why, in the traditional publishing world, the practice of book-doctoring is so prevalent. The heavyweight legacy publishers know what people want, and they want the same but different. They want the same formula, template-driven stories, and heroic, archetypal characters presented with different, often fresher, voices. This is also an important consideration for those writers trying to self-publish on Amazon and Kindle.

Different is not necessarily good.

Even from self-published authors, readers want genre fiction they recognize and stories they feel comfortable inhabiting. Take a quick look at the latest bestselling independent authors and you will see this phenomenon in action. It is not original ideas and new approaches that attract legions of fans. No, it is total adherence to genre specifications that are already known to have a market that sell the most.   

To many wannabe authors, this is counter-intuitive.

We’re told ceaselessly that originality is vitally important, crucial to a new artist’s success. But even just a cursory glance at what sells in books, film, music, even paintings, sculptures, and fashion, proves this idea is totally false, every time. People rarely respond to true originality favorably. Mostly, people find originality unnerving, even disturbing. People require the same old thing ad infinitum. But what they do want is for something to seem different the first time they come across it. This is why a new character, a new personality, a new actor, or a model, or a pop star, can appear to offer something fresh, never before seen. Whereas, in fact, what they’re actually presenting is merely another slant on something that people have demonstrated they already want.

Here lies the key to originality when it comes to writing fiction:

It’s not in the idea. It’s in its execution.

And what makes your story more compelling than anyone else’s?

Not the idea. Not the story, or the plot, or even the genre.

There is only one key difference that anyone is interested in, and that is…

YOU.

Originality is in the way you tell the story, as long as you supply all the genre specifications to prove you know exactly what you’re doing within the context of the conventions people expect, want, need, require, let’s face it, demand, before you may be acknowledged as worthy of serious praise or even consideration by the masses.

This is why you often have to write to formulas and templates, with all their easily recognizable components, in order to compete successfully within the genre writing market. And, increasingly, in order to guarantee some sort of success with Amazon, even in the legacy publishing world, you need to keep writing as many novel-length stories as you can, to the same formulaic specifications.

Recently I made a quick calculation of how many novels the average author needed to write in order to become successful, as far as financially self-sufficient and able to sustain a career. The average number was fifteen books. Only the top few household names have ever achieved respect and substantial sales with just five books. The majority of mid-list authors have to wait until their style and vision become popular over the very long term. Picking up a following is clearly, for most, an exercise in extreme patience.

Sure, some authors get lucky. You hear about half a dozen or so of them a year. But most working writers just plod along until their fan base is significant enough to create bestsellers for their subsequent books. Or, more likely, each subsequent book adds extra credibility to their first. It’s a well-attested phenomenon that an author’s first book will end up selling better than later ones, even when later ones sell truckloads. Interest in later books can lead to and force the sale of the first book to bestseller status. This too is good news for the struggling author. If your first book doesn’t sell well initially, keep writing more of the same, and one day that first effort may well outsell all of your later books.

Pleasant thought?

I hope so.

The good news, of course, is that releasing your own books on Amazon is nowadays often a quicker route to author success than spending five to fifteen years trying to get a New York agent and struggling to find a low-paying niche with a traditional publisher. Plus, you don’t have to live off meager advances until you hit the big time or give away 94% of your earnings to people who stand between you and your fans. 

My feeling is that, when it comes to achieving author success, there are five key principles at play:

1. The writer’s love of his/her genre.
2. The willingness to absorb, articulate, and develop the genre conventions.
3. The author’s courage to be him/herself within that genre.
4. Visibility - via self-publishing or by being in bookstores.
5. Persistence - the ability to stick at it, no matter what.

Of course, there is a luck factor too. But, I believe writers often create their own luck by sticking to the above five principles. Contrary to what most online success advocates preach, I do not believe that Internet social marketing is the final answer. Authors have a way of finding their own fans, as is evidenced by the fact that many, many writers manage to become successful and popular by simply being read - and letting word of mouth do the rest. 

Indeed, it could be argued that the average new author’s penchant for social media blitzing might be giving independent authorship a bad name! Being popular on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t generate substantial book sales. Only writing good books can do that.

Keep Writing!

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The Easy Way to Write

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