Formulaic writing

When you are a publisher, you have several choices. All these choice touch two main spots:

  1. Money — Earning it. Breaking even. Making a profit.
  2. Portfolio — Writers. Levels of quality. Who do you represent? What do you strive for? Where is your specific love and niche?


When you sell any product, you will get in touch with branding at some point. Branding is simply put:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What are you trying to sell to me?
  3. Why would I care?

If you are able to answer these three questions, you have made step 1 to Branding.


A formula — in writing — is like a recipe. “How to build an apple-pie. Ingredients [list of ingredients]. Step 1–”

Each formula you will find in mainstream publishing and mainstream movies is tested through time. It is dissected, re-tested, recycled and improved to deliver something that appeals and works for the public at large.

It allows even for mediocre work to be “worth reading”. It includes elements like cliff-hangers and things like “promise and delivery” “story arcs” and “beginning, middle, end” where events are happening in specific order so that — when the audience is consuming it — the story will land and will be effective.

It has specific rules to build up towards a specific event, to build up tension and emotion. It involves timing.

Things you know sell easier

The reason for formulated work is: it is easier to sell. When I can choose between two movies and one is “??? no clue what I can expect” and the other is: “explosions, car chases, running” I probably choose the second. Because I know I will have a bigger chance to be entertained in the way I expect it.

Selling and publishing as a business

Publishing is a business. So if I can use formula’s as a means of selling more books and have people BUY more books, I will go after that.

To have noble intentions and publish books and authors of worth and value is nice, but if that leads to my financial downfall, I rather do something more secure.

When you look at the most successful books and authors, these are not the ones “deserving it” from an eastetic point of view. The authors that sell most are the ones who follow a specific formula. Go to any supermarket and pick up the books they sell there. THERE you have the authors making a living from their work. In general the print runs about 100.000 to 200.000 copies per title.

Go to any bookstore selling works of quality and pick up any book. THERE you have the suffering writers, hardly able to make a living from their work. Happy if they sell more than 2000 books.

Quality is not a selling-point. “This is really a good book. Deep. It gave me a lot of insights on the meaning of life.” “But does it have chases?” “No.” “Is anything exiting happening inside?” “No.” Then what happens?” “People sit around a table and talk about life and death.” “Talk? The entire book?” “Yes.” “Does anyone struggle or die?” “No.” “Not interested.”

“A gripping tale” might be a selling point, but still not enough. “This is about a salamander.” “Is it gripping?” “Yes. If you are into salamanders.” “How can that be gripping?” “Salamanders struggle or die in it.” “Sorry.”

Unique books are a problem. Unique stories are a problem. Diversity can be the death of a publisher UNLESS that diversity is the formula the publisher uses as their base starting point.

Majority and Niches

Mass-media publications, including formulaic work, are usually exclusive to a lot of subgroups and sub cultures.

When a publisher, a film maker, an artist produces work for that ONE specific niche, consistently, the author, the publisher, the filmmaker will become like a brand.

“XYZ made a new movie.” “What is it about?” “No idea.” “Who cares. Let’s go!”

To become a brand in niche-markets, one of the tricks is to make diversity itself your formula. together with a specific consistency in what you do or write or publish.

Because most publications cater the majority, there is a great gap in work for sub-groups. In SF these gaps are many if you know how and where to find them. A hint:

Most SF/Fantasy books are written by white, heterosexual male writers from either the United States of America or Britain and in many cases situated in America or some place in outer space. Most works published are “easy reading” material and with either adults or children in the lead role. Exiting stories with exiting adventures.

PRESTO! A flood of niche-markets unfold.

Addressing the forgotten

Everyone wants to read about themselves. If I find a SF book stating: “with a Chinese Dutch so and so sexual bla bla bla in the lead role — Europe, Netherlands — exiting story” I probably want to read that book. Because most books I can find and read are NOT about me.

The forgotten. Books with gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, asexual, whatever-sexual, non-british, non-white, non human characters in the lead. Deeply literary works or packed in adventure. Whatever you like to do. Exploration of other forms of humanity, other places, other cultures than the American/British. Other settings than Euopean middle ages (Fantasy) or American sprawls (hard, urban SF).

Some niches become mainstream. For instance “Young Adult”. Suddenly publishers notice they overlooked an entire group of people with money: the “Young Adults” and that these people buy books.

PRESTO! A new main genre is invented. Just collect writers, make existing writers move into that direction, assure you follow specific conventions and BLAM! you are selling books.

Formula writing is a good thing

Fomrula writing is sometimes considered to be “bad”. If and when I have a lot of poohaa about myself I will probably tell you I spit on formula’s. The moment you start repeating yourself or let yourself be “inspired” by others, you are already using formula’s. The way you build your scenes: a formula.

What is important here is not: “OMG! I am using a formula” (sees career as “seriously serious writer” collapse into mediocrity). What is important is HOW you use those formula’s. HOW you are using a specific genre. HOW you are expressing yourself. And more importantly WHAT you are expressing.

I like formula’s. I like the formula’s of pulp, where you push your reader from page to page with yet another exiting event and yet another cliffhanger. I like them, because the stuff I want to write about is complex and nuanced. Without a using a formula, my story will sound like white noise to you. My story will bore and confuse you. Without a formula you will look at me after reading and say: “I have no clue what this story was about. I completely lost it after page 3.”

Formula’s are like the engine and the car and the road on which you drive yourself to new destinations. They are means to tell your story and make the impact you intend to make.

–if you know what you are doing

There is a difference between “using formula’s” and “becoming repetitive and predictable”. You can use formula’s TO AVOID predictability. Like with food, the number of formula’s are infinite. Bake everyday the same cake and you become boring. Back a different cake each day and you become exiting. Change recipe from time to time and people become curious. Change recipe each day and people will start hating you as “that one awesome thing, you no longer offer.”

Somewhere there is a balance that is defined by you and your goals. Like within a bakery you can choose to use six different recipes for bread and offer six different cakes. Like specialists you can choose to only have three fixed recipes each day and offer three new things of each each day, each week or each months.

Formula’s help sell. They help create a solid base. They help create predictable outcomes and predicable responses to your stories. (Liked it, hated you. cared me shitless. Made me laugh.)


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