Saturday, June 16, 2012

'Formula' fiction


What does this Magic Mike promotional picture have to do with formula fiction, you ask? Well, it's because there's also a formula at play here. No shirt + abs X 5= me first in line at the movies on Friday. You see? It was necessary. 


And now, a question I received recently from a lovely blog follower (who also just happens to be a great friend of mine!):

Here's a topic I would like to read about on your blog: what is your take on having a "formula" as a writer?

I think Jodi Picoult is a great writer; however, if I read one more of her books I will likely vomit. There is always a controversy (fine), a lawyer, a court case AND a side love story --- ugh!

Emily Giffen ALWAYS sets her books in NYC, at least one character is a lawyer, and another with a fat bank account. I enjoy the story but I can't say I always look forward to the next novel (which comes out soon btw!)

Seeing as you will likely write MORE fabulous books and your blog followers are writers as well, I want some answers!

Good question, P! Hmm. What is my opinion on this? And more importantly, how do I convey it tactfully?

I know! I’ll quote a bunch of other authors discussing the subject!


“Commercial fiction is often dismissed as formulaic. The authors—writing a book or more a year—are clearly just whipping them off, with no attention to quality. It’s true that there are those in every profession who are simply punching the clock—putting in time until they can retire. That applies to writing as well. Some have hit on the formula that works and they stick to it. They’re making a living and they’re happy. But in my experience, those writers are in the minority. Most of us are constantly stretching. We learn from reading and evaluating other novels. We take courses to improve our weaknesses. We seek out new critique partners and editors to help us grow. We may not aspire to write literary fiction, but we do aspire to write better fiction. We love what we do and hope to retain that passion for as long as possible, which means growing and changing as our careers progress.”

This.

And also a bit of this, from literary agent Sarah LaPolla :

“Big blockbuster novels are like big blockbuster movies - high concept plot, not a whole lot of character development, and maybe some sexy times. It's "entertainment for the masses," but is it bad? Not even a little bit…”

“Creating entertainment for the masses is still an art form, and being able to write commercially is a hard skill to acquire. Not all talented writers are able to hit all the right notes in their market the way a commercial writer can. A few of these Big Novels aren't well-written though. I won't pretend they are.”

A couple of smart ladies, those two. (God, I’m a lazy ass!)

So to answer my friend’s question more directly—no, I wouldn’t use a formula. But I also can’t really frown on someone as successful as Jodi Picoult or Emily Giffen who might. Firstly, because I’ve only read one Jodi Picoult novel and none of Giffen’s to be able to properly judge, and secondly because, hey, people are buying their books in droves so they’re obviously doing something right!

So, fellow authors: what’s your take on formula fiction? 




18 comments:

  1. How interesting. I've never thought about a fiction formula, even though I know a couple writers follow one. I'm with you, I'd rather not use a formula. I think that without one, you can surprise yourself by the end of the book you're writing.

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  2. I don't use a formula either. I get an idea, know how I want it to end, jot some in-between stuff, and go from there...that's my formula, haha.
    But my worlds are so different. There is not one guideline.

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    1. Sounds like me, Karla! My outlines are pretty sketchy :D

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  3. I don't use a formula really, although I've come to notice my last two WIPs (still on the backburner the both of them) deal with sisters. My first novel was an 'adult' fantasy (characters were 19 the same age I was when writing it) and my 2nd novel was a YA contemporary (basically the movie Heathers for book readers...not exactly of course but a similar vibe). I just got a new idea to write the YA version of Are You There God It's Me Margaret except a) for 17 year olds b) with a love triangle and c) in a Jewish private school (I went to one for almost all of my education). I don't really have a guidelines or formula except to write what I wanna write :)

    (Also speaking of commercial authors-I posted a review about Maggie Stiefvater's newest book:))

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    1. They sound fascinating, Rachel! Really!

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  4. Formulas can be frustrating for a reader. I know with Jodi Picoult the thing that gets me is that there is always some big twist. The first book of hers that I read I was wowed. Now, knowing there will be a twist, I can usually guess what it's going to be.
    As a writer, I don't have a formula. . .but maybe that's because I haven't written enough yet! It's hard to say. :)

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    1. I've heard that about her books, but like I said I've only read the one Jodi Picoult book. It was great! But yeah, I can see how it could be frustrating if you can guess at the endings.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  5. I'm not smart enough to use a formula. It would make writing a whole lot easier, but I'm famous for making things harder than they need to be. :-)

    Many people like the familiarly that a formula writer provides. They know what their getting. Each to their own. I raise my hat to all successful authors.

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    1. A series I have written, Birthstone Unicorns, could be described as following a formula in that all 12 stories contain a unicorn and a child in some sort of trouble - although the plots themselves are different. The series is aimed at a young and newly independent reader so I think a certain amount of confidence can be built from adding a familiar strand for this age group. However, I am not so keen on this idea for older children's fiction and adult books.I do prefer a bit of a surprise in my reading material and as a writer I don't want to become bored with my own work!

      If it's not too cliched, I guess you could say 'it's horses for courses,' people enjoy different things and as writers we need to provide that wide choice. I don't think there is one right way to do things.

      Interesting post and good to hear different opinions on this.

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    2. Oh, please, Amaleen! You, not smart? Pshh! But that's a great attitude to have re: successful authors. Couldn't agree more!


      Suzanne-I totally aree that for younger readers a bit of familiarity can be confidence building. Great point!

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  6. Thank you for posting my question! I am excited to read about the different perspectives.

    I agree that having a formula as a writer does not mean lesser quality, but personally, I do find it frustrating. It really depends on the gradient of the formula; sometimes it tends to dominate and make the entire plot very predictable (ie. Jodi Picoult). Other times, the formula deals with one aspect (ie, setting, character occupation) which just makes me roll my eyes. I would think one of the fun parts of being a writer is coming up with background details for the story.

    Overall, I think it depends on the use of the formula; however, it tends to take the fun out of reading for me.

    Thanks everyone!

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    1. You're so right, Paulina! For me, once I'm done writing one book, I really want to do something completely and totally different, explore stuff I haven't done before. It's a bit boring to write something too similar to what I've done already. But that's just me!

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  7. I haven't wrote enough yet to know whether or not I use a formula but I do think of a book in quarters with each quarter leading to a dramatic rise in stakes as per 'the snowflake guy's method'. Although he then goes on to make you plot out each scene and the panster in me just can't handle this level of organisation or planning - so I guess I'm an inbetweener!

    Am on a second WIP now and have noticed one theme emerging of dead Dads - I don't get on with my father at all so maybe this is my freudian subconscious trying to tell me something!

    I agree with the comments that all projects are totally different and the fun is finding your way through them to the end.

    But I respect all authors who've made it to the publishing elite - whatever works for you! And even if you have a formula i.e. Jodi Picoult with the twist endings - you still have to write a damn good book to make your reader's get that far...

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    1. HA! I tend to kill off parental figures too. I should see a therapist.

      And you're right--if a reader is picking up numerous of your books and reading all the way to the twist ending (s), you're doing something right!

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  8. I am not a huge fan of formula books...but like you wouldn't necessarily knock someone for going that route. I guess I hope to be able to develop a voice that is recognizable as mine exclusively while writing fresh fiction as much as possible...although I do think writers can get obsessed with certain themes/life experiences that continue to crop up in their work.

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    1. It does seeem that way, doesn't it? Re:obsession with certain themes. I'm pretty obsessed with hot boy romances, myself, and they do seem to enter into all my stories...

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  9. I love Jodi Picoult as well, but I started getting the same feel, too. There is also usually a character that has been molested, too, and it breaks my heart. I take breaks from her work, but I would still say she's one of my favorite authors.

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