Saturday, January 3, 2015

It's Okay to be Formulaic

Merry New Year!

I want you to read this article by Kameron Hurley. I want you to read it especially if you are at a point in your journey where your ideas, focus, and creative skills have gained more precision but it feels like you're starting each new piece with a hammer and chisel and you don't know why. If you are more confident about what you can do as a writer, but you are not as consistent and productive as you would like to be from one piece to the next, I want you to read this article.

Spoilers: you're not necessarily doing it wrong. You just need more practice doing it right.

I know you know that. I knew I knew that, until I read the article:
I’ve started a lot more books and stories than I’ve finished, and this is a problem. Why? Surely, when a concept or story isn’t working, you should stop while you’re ahead, right?

"Right!" I say. Not exactly, she says:
The thing folks don’t realize is that learning how to write a piece of work requires you to actively practice how to write the whole thing. Writing five hundred great beginnings will not make you a great novelist.

I knew I knew that. "Tell me something I don't know." She did. A bunch of things. Mainly, I did not know it was okay to be a little formulaic.

It is okay to be a little formulaic.

There is a lot of pressure in literature to be original and fresh, and in the speculative fiction genre that can get to be as arduous as reinventing that wheel. Especially for a short fiction writer in today's market. Even just looking through your own body of work you can feel like you need to do something drastically different each and every time to stay relevant. If you're constantly thinking about what you could be doing differently, you're not really thinking about, much less nailing down, what you did right the last time.

Hurley calls it understanding the form. I understand it as having a formula. Go ahead and read the article. You'll see what I mean, when she talks about her work in corporate writing, how many novels she had to write before her first sold, and how many she wrote after the first that were very similar to the first, until she had that formula down pat and and was ready to move on to a new one.

It is okay to be a little formulaic.

When you have a formula that works,  it is not always necessary to change it up drastically or abandon it straight away, even when you aren't doing anything wrong, and especially before you've had a chance to understand what you did well, how, and why. Got a new idea for a story? Go back and see if you're trying to accomplish something you've done before, see if the circumstances and events map, and if they do, use all your previous hard work to your advantage. You can plug in new values for every factor and variable--characters, world, goal, conflict--and execute it again, over and over, until your results are as reliable and consistent as your creativty demands.

I'm not just talking in broad strokes of beginning-middle-end, goal-conflict-disaster, a fantasy story, a novella, a Heinleinian story. I'm talking fine grain stuff you won't see by emulating someone else's formula. I'm talking about your own recipe for success. I'm talking about knowing why you made the creative decisions you did, what you cut or kept and how that worked or didn't, story elements you'd like to replicate and others you'd like to avoid. What happens when you pull it all together with just the right details in just the right way. It's not magic. It's a formula, and it is okay use it more than once. That is how you practice doing it right.

If you only do it twice, I can attest the process becomes familiar, becomes easier, becomes more efficient and effective. The very last piece I wrote in 2014 was to test Hurley's article. Having a formula to work from was the difference between knowing what I was doing and doing what I knew. I wrote faster and smarter and with more confidence that I would not only finish in a timely manner but I would end up with the story I wanted.

That is how you practice doing it right, over and over, until it seems like you can produce a certain kind of story effortlessly. It really is okay to be formulaic. From what I've seen, the majority of the stories on the market are just that, and to great success, including many by our favorite authors. I knew I knew that. Hurley's article crystallized it.


  1. I will check out Hurley's article, but reading your take on it, and how to apply it to your own work, has been insightful. I feel like the advice most applies to pieces that I've always wanted to become a series, but that's just my brain still fighting the idea that a formula can work across different, unrelated pieces.

    1. Yes, so far I've only tested it on pre-existing world and follow-up stories, but that's mostly because I have always done wildly different things with each story so there's not a lot of similarities in my bibliography to draw from one story to another. Except in pre-existing worlds. I elaborate a bit more in my 2015 goal post.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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