Formulaic is a four-letter word.

At least I’ve never heard it spoken with positivity. Even before I’d heard the word, when I wrote magical adventure stories for my friends in seventh grade, I shirked patterns and motifs; I pushed boundaries and wrote a lot of crap, but it was all pretty original—as original as we can be after everything that’s been written before us.


This fear of formula and drive to be different kept me from taking too much writerly advice as a young artist. In college, avoiding the formulaic kept any craft book geared toward genre writers out of my hands. In grad school, the only writing books I read were dense tomes on rhetoric and what story meant, as opposed to how to tell a story. Even after I broke free of my strictly-literary chains, I slid books back on the shelf at the first mention of word-count limits, genre expectations, plot point placement, tropes… I viewed these guidelines as rules. What art had rules?


But stories are designed. They’re intended to take us someplace for whatever reason, from simple escape to learning something important about what it is to be human. All great art does this. I read a few terrific craft books like Self-Editing for Writers and Wired for Story, but still steered clear of books that gave advice on how to bring a story together. I could write stories. I’d put out some very good ones. I’d published over a dozen, some in respected journals. Of course I knew how to bring it all together. Yes, books are looooong. It’s easy to get sidetracked. I knew I was sometimes tangential, but I knew what my book was about. I didn’t need a formula. I did not need a map.


This summer, my manuscript was a finalist in the Sandy Writing Contest. I attended the Crested Butte conference with a niggling feeling. I’d done well in a contest or two before, had had numerous manuscript requests from agents and editors, and had other writers love my opening pages, synopsis, and premise. The end rocked. Still does. But the middle. I knew I had middle issues. Second act-itis, literally. Act two was swollen. When I received my next request from an agent, I decided to give the manuscript a good critical read. Nothing, I assured myself, was wrong with it that a week-long revision couldn’t fix.


As I read, however, that niggling feeling grew into a certainty: I’d been shopping a book that wasn’t ready. Every chapter from the one-quarter point to the three-quarter point read wrong to me, with problems ranging from inactive villains to murky character goals. Considering how to begin again, I felt overwhelmed.


One writer I met at the Crested Butte conference was Stuart Horwitz. His book, Blueprint Your Bestseller, sounded interesting, detailing a revision process that required printing your manuscript and actually cutting it to pieces, separating each of your scenes. His mantra was, “Ninety-nine good scenes in the right order.” Or one hundred and ten, whatever. He kept stressing that this process was a method, not a formula. After I took the time to think about this distinction, something clicked.


Many of the methods and processes I’d shunned over the years had nothing to do with conforming and everything to do with getting your story straight, something I needed urgently, and Horwitz’s book fell into my hands at exactly the right time. I decided to use the method in Blueprint Your Bestseller, which has you track your manuscript’s theme and major story components to keep you on point, while stressing fluidity rather than rigidity. This helped me keep my follow-the-directions gag reflex under control. I did cheat—I did not physically chop my manuscript up, but I did cut a lot and re-ordered most of what was left. I’m working on the revision, feeling fantastic about this book for the first time in, well, maybe ever. My theme, discovered via Horwitz’s method, is deeper, more meaningful, and yet simpler than I’d ever imagined.


So my point—and you probably already know this, but if you’re bull-headed about it like I am—not all processes for writing novels are formulaic, molding your story into a pattern, however loose. Many are methodical, giving you the tools to tell a great, meaningful story without any dots to follow or lines to stay inside. I still resist the formula. I have embraced the method.


We’ll see what ensues.


3 thoughts on “Formulaic is a four-letter word.

  1. I’ve resisted many things along the way, too. One is using prompts. Seemed stupid to me, but I’ve found it is a good method for writing flash, short stories, and enriching scenes. As for Stuart’s book, if I ever find it again, and if I ever feel like revising a novel, I’d be tempted to try it but somehow or other using Scrivener to do it.

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