Craft, Novel, Writing

Formula Writing

In certain genres, some successful authors appear to write to a formula. Certain, some, appear … could that sentence be any vaguer? But it also contains the word successful, though success can also be interpreted in many ways. In this case, I mean those authors sell a lot of books.


Part of our goal as authors is to create fans of our work, readers who anticipate and buy our next books. So I imagine those successful authors who write to a formula are not selling each of their books to a new and separate set of readers. No, they have fans who buy all of their books and happily read them.

I’ve heard it said that some of these books are so formulaic that little more than the character names and the locations are changed. I expect that’s exaggeration, but I’m not going to waste my time searching for such books to find out. That’s not the kind of formula I’m seeking for my own writing, anyway.

The basic structure that most novels adhere to is a sort of formula. That structure is intuitive to many writers. Not to me. Knowing that I’m going to have to push, pull, squeeze, or stretch the story I’m writing into that 3-act (or whatever) structure haunts me during the first draft.

I probably shouldn’t be thinking about structure during first drafting, but I can’t help it. I haven’t even settled on an estimated word count for the WIP I’m currently working on. Will it be a novella or novel? That’s one of the reasons I love writing in Scrivener. I go ahead and write the disconnected scenes when they come to me and keep them in a designated folder. When I reach the point where they fit in, I’ll drag them into place.

But I write soooo slowly. I follow a few indie publishing blogs and forums and most of the authors hoping to establish their name (build a fan base), talk about releasing new books every six months—or less. I’ve been working steadily on this WIP for four months and have only 35,000 words written. At that rate, figuring in the writing, editing, revising time, I’ll be lucky to have this book completed in ten months. Add to that a couple of months to prepare for publishing and my start to finish schedule is one year.

I have no ‘day job’ or children under my care, so I can’t complain that I don’t have enough time to write. I do have a health problem that sets me back, but usually only for a day or three at a time. So why am I not more productive?

That’s why I’m wondering about formulas. But I think confidence in my storytelling ability is the formula I’m seeking. If I had that, I’d spend less time stuttering and stammering along in getting that first draft done. And I guess that confidence only comes with time and experience. Which means, I should get back to work. Now.

I wish for all you writers a river of words this week. For you non-writers, I wish for you a week full of whatever you need most.


15 thoughts on “Formula Writing”

  1. I’m always fond of saying that the real trick to writing is figuring out how to take something that already exists and make it seem like it’s new. I’m also a big fan of just telling the story how you feel it should be told. Trying to stick to a formula can sometimes help, but it can also be a detriment if the story is trying to be something else. All the rules in those formulas or suggestions are pretty much just guidelines, anyway. If the story wants to be told in standard three-act fashion, so be it. If it wants to be told jumping all around, let it be. I always have been more of a pantser than a plotter, though.

    I’m a slow writer, too. I am striving for a book a year, but we’ll see how that goes. I’m always astonished by how some people can just pop out books like it’s nothing, but I know I need to take more time if I want it to be the best book it can be. Ultimately, quality is much better than quantity. Just write as the story is wanting to be written. Have confidence in yourself AND the story.

    Good luck~


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment,LS. 🙂 Part of my problem is that I’m a natural pantser trying to think like a plotter. Like I said, I wish the 3-act structure was intuitive to me, then I could just write and the story would come out “right” in the first draft. 🙂

      Good luck on your one-year plan.


  2. I agree with the post above- quality is more important than quantity. Some authors can produce fast and still output a quality book, but most can’t. If you’re doing what you know works for you, then you’re doing your best. And in the self-publishing journey you can always adjust as you go.


  3. I think the only ‘right’ is the one that makes your words wrap themselves round someone’s brain and drag them into your story. Structure is important if you don’t want to confuse people or give them false leads (setting things up to look like a whodunit when you’re writing more of a whydunit) but beyond that, it seems to me it’s about you and creating a safe place, a confidence, in your way of holding the reader, that makes it feel worth getting involved.


    1. I like your thinking, Suzanne. 🙂 How to achieve pulling the reader in depends on your genre, doesn’t it? I think, part of my problem is not being settled firmly in a genre. I’m still experimenting. I’m stalling with this WIP, for instance, because I’m realizing I have options: rom-com or serious WF? And in either, what level of “heat” do I want? Quite possibly, I’m just a little too far over the edge into crazy to be successful at this writing thing.


      1. I think being a little over the edge is a prerequisite for being a writer – if you can’t see round the corners and into the cracks that other people miss, how are you going to give them something new?


  4. I’m on my twelfth book now, and somewhere along the lines of writing all of those books, I came up with my own “formula”, I guess. Or maybe it’s more of a structure guide. It’s a worksheet I use to outline, and it helps me immensely, but it’s also made in a fluid manner, so things can change anywhere along the way and it’s not too big of a deal. It took a long time to come up with this.

    I just finished reading a book by a favorite author last weekend, and I found myself disappointed the entire way through the book. I think it had to do with the fact that it was very, very formulaic, and I saw right through it, and it annoyed the heck out of me. I was sad. I kept wishing it would turn in a direction that would surprise me, but it didn’t. It made me realize how important it is for me and my own writing to stick with a plan, but not a formula. I think all good stories will follow similar structures and rules, but that doesn’t mean they have to feel formulaic.


    1. You’re one of my inspirations, Michelle. 🙂 I see how many books you’ve written and I know you have a child and other obligations on your time, too.

      Actually, my current WIP is the first book I tried to sketch an outline for, but that’s not turning out so well. I’ve just reached what should be mid-point, but I have more story I want to tell first. So if nothing else, I’m going to have to revise my anticipated word count.

      No, I don’t want my books to be truly formulaic. And I have too many story ideas that don’t fit firmly into a genre, so I’d have a hard time developing a “formula”. Even standard novel structure feels confining. This last year, since I’ve had structure so much on my mind, I’ve noticed how easily I can spot that 3-act thing as I’m reading. By noting my progress through the book, I find myself predicting the first plot point, midpoint, dark moment, etc. I wish I could turn off the editor as I read.


  5. Following the traditional story structure can be a pain in the behind, let me tell you!!! I’ve found that the more I dwell on how the story is supposed to play out, the less I actually get done. What I try to do is focus on individual scenes, and then eventually string them together into a coherent plot, changing events as necessary to bring it all together 🙂

    One other thing, if I might suggest? If you’re not already part of one, join a critique group. They’re crazy helpful. I ran a plot by them last night for a new story I’m working on, and their feedback was invaluable. I knew there was something wrong with the third act, but I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was — until someone finally pointed out that I had totally veered away from what the story is supposed to be about. So join a critique group if you’re not in one already. And happy writing!!!


    1. A pain in the behind, indeed, Michelle. 🙂 Until this story, I just wrote the story as it came to me and didn’t think about structure. But this time I tried to plan the story and it’s killing the flow. And now I’m struggling to turn that editor off.

      I miss having a critique group. I’ve been through three, the last one was the best, but we disbanded last year. I wanted to write a lot this year, so I didn’t think I could afford the time to exchange critique on a regular basis, but I may have to do it. I’m glad you have a group you value.

      Happy writing to you too!


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