Monday, June 4, 2012

Prosaic Formulaic

I just finished reading this article, and I enjoyed it. Go check it out. I'll wait.


Amusing, isn't it? So many people writing How-To's for writing best-sellers and cracking the formula... and not a single one of them has actually written a smash-hit novel. One of them, Donald Maass, is a very successful agent - but not, to my knowledge, a particularly successful writer.

I'm not a statistics guru, but I believe one of the major failings of those experiments, which the author of the article referred to, is known to as 'selection bias' (Don't quote me on that). They picked only the best-sellers and located very general (in fact, too general - I'll come back to that) common traits.

They did not, however, locate these same traits in the books that didn't make it big. I love the description of Baldwin's grand flop (The Eleventh Plague). Could there be a more telling example? The authors studied the 'formula,' collaborated with the 'experts,' and even managed to convince the agents, editors, and big-wigs at the publishing houses that they had a sure-fire success, netting them a seven-figure advance...

... and Plague didn't even crack the NYT bestseller list, let alone become a runaway success.

I do have some theories as to why they so expertly fooled (if it can be called that) the pros of the industry, but I'll leave those for another post. Suffice to say that the most concerted research-driven attempt to find the formula was a huge failure.

How can I say it was a failure when it earned the authors a cool million each?

Because it is likely that the publishing house lost a lot of money on that investment. Whether or not Baldwin went on to publish anything else (a quick Google search reveals that he did), he did not impress the readers. He fooled the false prophets of the industry, and thus made money off them, but he did not actually write a book that millions of people loved.

All leading, of course, to the obvious conclusion: There is no formula. Just write your damn story.

As a final bit of fun, I looked at the ten elements that Baldwin apparently cooked up, quoted here for convenience:
1. The hero is an expert.
2. The villain is an expert.
3. You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the villain.
4. The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him, etc.
5. Two or more on the team must fall in love.
6. Two or more on the team must die.
7. The villain must turn his attentions from his initial goal to the team.
8. The villain and the hero must live to do battle again in the sequel.
9. All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group: i.e., never say that the bomb exploded and 15,000 people were killed. Start with "Jamie and Suzy were walking in the park with their grandmother when the earth opened up."
10. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.
My first novel has all of these to some extent. It lacks 5 almost entirely - but you could make a case for a weak instance. 10 sorta happened. 9 sorta happens. All the rest are slam dunks. I looked over some notes for other books I have outlined, begun, or conceived the general storyline for - yep, these ten are found to a large extend in them too.

Seems like writing the formula for a best-seller is a lot like writing someone's horoscope...

Thus, and let me repeat this for emphasis:

There is no formula. Just write your damn story.

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