How Not To Be a "Formula" Writer

If Jack Kerouac tried today to submit his manuscript of On the Road, he would have a hard time getting it past many editors. Publishers are not as willing today to take risks. Jack likely would have had to self-publish, or find some tiny indie publisher who thought his story was worthy enough to give it a shot. 
There are many critics (whatever they are, whoever they are) who believe On the Road was not a well-written book. That it lacked discipline or convention. But my point is not whether On the Road was a great book. That’s debatable and subjective. There is no denying its impact, however. And no denying it was not the kind of book that had come before.

And so with this, I wonder, why do so many workshops, independent or publishing house editors want writers to stick to the formula, the long-held rules, the conventional tenets of writing? Stay with a certain approach, write like this. Are there art curators who tell painters they must create their work in a certain way, a particular form, or adhere to a conventional process, like every other painter. No, of course not. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” broke all the rules of conventional rock or pop on the radio. It had far too many verses. And it was too long. Six minutes and 13 seconds. The average length of a song on the radio at that time was under three minutes. Today, songwriters will tell you “Like a Roling Stone” may be the best pop/rock song ever written. 

Kerouac, like Dylan creating music, did not create the story of On the Road in the traditional way. He did not adhere to the “formula” writing that was expected. And of course, Kerouac is not the only writer to push away convention. I use his work only as one example of how many facilitators at workshops, MFA programs, and writing retreats ask participants to model a pattern. 
This is what I see and hear and read far too much:
1. Always start your story with action.
2. Show don’t tell. 
3. Write your story in a three-act structure. 
4. Build a crisis and come to a clear resolution. 
These “rules” of creative writing are all over the internet, in the workshop brochures, in the lesson plans of higher-ed programs, especially continuing-ed programs. The majority of the “tips” out there include these ideas. 

“Beware of advice. . .even this.” —Carl Sandburg
There is something to these so-called rules, there is truth in each one, to some extent. But what has happened, in my estimation, is that we are producing a lot work that is similar, the same, in a particular formula. Writing that is almost paint-by-number, writing that is put together with an instruction manual, as if Ikea were running a writing workshop. 
I do not write this as an expert, for there is no such thing. And it would help if we are reminded of this. There are masters of the craft, of storytelling, of literature, but “expert” implies that he/she has all the answers to your writing woes. They don’t. They won’t. Don’t expect them to. 
Certainly, as a reader, you may like a formula story, or a conventional structure, or like lots of dialogue or not, or wish the writer would stop “telling” so much and “show” more. (Whatever that means. There are so many schools of thought about what this actually means.) And ultimately, it is the reader who is the critic, the last reviewer. 
Some would argue that self-publishing has partly created this “formula” approach. So you want to be published? Do these four things. And some “real writers” believe literature has been dumbed-down because there are no longer strict gatekeepers. The music industry “experts” said the same thing when small labels began to sprout in the early days of Indie Rock. And of course, we have all read the stories of how many great writers of the past had once self-published: Zane Grey, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot. I could go on and on. 
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway
My base discipline is journalism. Broadcast, mainly. But my memoirs and fiction are part of my creative life. They fuel the energy. And in the end, I write for me. Yes, of course, I want to the reader to enjoy, to find connections: I want the story to resonate. But, and this may sound selfish, I first must satisfy myself. Many writers have said the same. And it might be that what satisfies me is not formula, is not of the conventional wisdom. This means, of course, that some may dislike my work. That’s okay. I accept. But I’ll take that over developing work that fits in a neat little box. 
“Style is to forget all styles.” —Jules Renard
I’ve been lucky enough to have publishers want my work. Are the Big Five scrambling for my manuscripts? No, they are not. But that, too, is okay. Would I want them to? Sure. But obtaining their acceptance is not why I write. 
So, if you want to abandon formula and find beauty in your words simply because they are yours, then forget, at least partially, what you have been “taught” and write what is resting on your soul and in your heart, and don’t look back. 
“And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion into your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. . .a work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity.” —Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

5 thoughts on “How Not To Be a "Formula" Writer

  1. A timeless post! And to think what a writer produces, using a formula approach, following all the rules, negates the very idea of a writer as an artist who produces a one-of-a-kind piece.


  2. You are so right on this. The best writers of our time, any time, have broken the rules we now see listed as “must dos” if you want to be published. I'm reading a forgotten classic, Niels Lynhe by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It was Marie Ranier Rilke's favorite novel. Yes, it is of a different time, but the first chapters of this book are nearly completely “telling” not “showing.” And you know what, I don't care! It's brilliantly told. Engaging. And that's one of those “rules” — show don't tell. Sometimes telling is just what is needed for the narrative. Thanks for reading my thoughts and commenting!


  3. Thank you, Jennifer. I hope that it resonate with a lot of writers who get swooped up in the mundane approach of “Five Things You Should Do to Get Published” advice that I think is dumbing down the art fo writing, the real creativity.


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