Sunday, January 2, 2011


1. made according to a formula; composed of formulas: a formulaic plot.
2. being or constituting a formula: formulaic instructions.

A curly-haired colleague of mine was enrolled in a writing class at a local college. Early on in the semester, the instructor began to subtly patronize an oft-vilified, though proven-to-be commercially-successful genre. You know— the kind of stuff a fair contingent will always read no matter what the shape of the economy or what the latest hand-over-fist-inducing trend? Yes, friends, we’re talking about romance— or as I prefer to think of it, strong romantic elements in a more broadly-textured narrative. And as my esteemed colleague went on to describe the instructor’s disdain for allegedly tired plot lines, I shifted in my overstuffed, trendy coffeehouse seat.

At first, I couldn’t tell if I was shifting from indignation or from the heat of the fires I often feel stoked within when formulating a reply. The more she spoke, though, the more quickly I was able to deduce that it was a lovely combination of both. So the result, dear reader, has taken shape beneath my flying fingers and emerged as this Lincoln-Douglasesque rebuttal.

Curly-haired colleague confided that her instructor huffed in response regards a student’s attempt at penning yet another iteration of the favorite roast of intellectuals with a taste for highbrow writing— or, wait. People are calling it ‘literary,’ these days. Right? Or is the term, ‘upmarket?’ Difficult to keep track. Especially when you’re at your first conference and the panel of agents and editors seated before you— approximately six in number— as you float in a veritable sea of hopefuls who, like you, have worn down the whorls on their fingertips tapping out the (d)reams they will pitch later that day and you start to hear these exotic terms being bandied about.

I don’t handle category romance.

My clients are more in what you’d call the upmarket women’s fiction range.

I tend to favor more literary texts.

O—kay. So does this mean if my book has a fight scene and then a make-up scene involving heavy petting that you won’t take a look? Even if my characters use big words?

In any event, back to highbrow instructor. Curly-haired colleague goes on to tell me that her prof posed the following insufferable question to our fellow aspiring writer.

**Disclaimer: Subsequent snippets of dialogue are the product of my imagination reconstructing a scene at which I was not present. Any dissimilarity to actual events, people and places is deliberately embellished for the sake of dramatic effect though the kernel of historical— and relevant— information remains respectfully intact.**

‘Let me guess,’ highbrow instructor holds up a hand. ‘Your story starts off with a girl who can’t stand a guy but they get thrown into a situation where they’re forced to collaborate and, eventually— despite her best efforts to the contrary— she falls in love with him?’

Aspiring writer flicks at her scarf. ‘Er— yeah. Kinda.’

Highbrow instructor, eyes sharp with the gleam of an ex-romance writer who went on to pen a novel from the point of view of a perspicacious dog later hailed as a modestly-coruscating gem and a literary triumph (over whom? I’m always tempted to ask,) tosses out an expertly-timed scoff— though delivered tastefully and with a pitying, if arguably affected, grace.

So. Here was my thought after hearing the pre-emptive dismissal of aspiring writer’s kissy-kissy yarn: It sounds interesting.

Sue me! Her book sounds interesting. Never mind that my sympathies are— heavily— in aspiring writer’s camp. My point is, what is so terrible about writing a story that’s already been written? Yes, hi— there’s a reason these narratives are penned over and over, again. And yes, it’s true, there are some writers who are in it strictly for commercial gain since, ya know, everyone likes to eat and wear clothes and/or pay the mortgage or the rent. Hence, carefully measuring out a certain dosage of story elements, mixing them together in prescribed parts and watching them erupt in a reliable— if predictable— explosion is the way they roll. Then, if executed with a respect for the basic rules of style and grammar, they proceed to sell their thinly-veiled, fizzing concoctions and start all over again. And to those members of my tribe I say, ‘Power to ya’ and ‘Vaya con Dios.’

What’s hurtful, I believe, is when these formulaic plots arise not from the commercial writer’s handbook but from the deep spaces of your subconscious and, later, you’re called on it. When you write your stories without regard for What’s Been Done (or worse, What’s Not Done) and it turns out you have nothing original to say. All you have is your original voice with which to say it.

Well, friend, herein lies the rub.

The thing about originality versus templates proven to succeed— and therefore looked down upon by the refined members of the Pulitzer-collecting crowd— is that, amidst the roar of feedback and constructive criticism and trying to come out ahead with authenticity in what is, essentially, a marketplace, the highest calling is so lofty— so all-encompassing— that it almost seems the only way to nail it is to do so by mistake. It’s serendipity and timing and long hours in a vacuum invisibly honing your craft without the certainty that your words will ever see the light of the shelf under the mega-bookstore fluorescents— or the light of a portable screen— yes, but it’s also something far more primitive.

People want to read about a girl who meets a guy she can’t stand but is then thrown into a situation in which they have to get along and she falls in love with him for a very fundamental reason— and it ain’t formula.

It’s resonance.

It’s why Episode 4 endured for thirty years spawning an empire of product tie-ins that built Skywalker Ranch from nothing— and I’m still wearing the Millenium Falcon t-shirt to prove it— and why Episode 1 just sorta sucked. It isn’t formula that arises from your earnest, naked heart in the dark hours when the rest of the house is asleep and your characters are so painfully real it’s like all you’re doing is taking dictation.

It’s Jungian.

It’s the hero getting her call to adventure and being timid about responding at first but then, against all personal odds, grasping for the grail. It’s suffering in the process and meeting friends along the way, some of whom turn out to be enemies; and squaring away with villains on the high-stakes path toward the inmost cave, some of whom turn out to be allies or— better, yet, that most deliciously unsettling of archetypes— shapeshifters. It’s the drama of your protagonist discovering— in precisely the moment readers yearn for the master stroke of redemption— near-reptilian energies eye-for-an-eyeing-it within.

And that’s why people will read twice-told tales when the chips are down and when the chips are soaring, alike. Because, as writers, we have the honor of tapping into the guts of the human experience and reproducing some version of it in portable form— be it by gobbling up pulp resources or light-emitting diode ones. The makes and models may change but the journey stays the same. (And if you knew how much it cost my little, analog heart to type that assertion, you’d pat me on my little, analog head.)

Bottom line, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like the fact that you’ve got nothing new to say means you’ve got nothing to say, at all. You never know when the product of myths which have endured— and inspired— for millennia and your toddling imagination will mix it up with just the right amount of ala kazam and touch off the Next Big Thing.

Until next time, dear reader.


Credit where credit is due:


  1. Aurora-well stated. It always makes me sad when teachers can't get past their own bias. I know their job is to challenge students, but sometimes it feels like it goes to far.

    Thankfully, one of the first things I learned was to write what suited me. A good teacher I guess!

  2. That was one invigorating post of the most eloquent nature. First off, beautifully written. Second, thanks for the reminder that even if our stories are as old as time, they are still OURS. No one can see the world through my eyes and no one can tell a story exactly the same way. Writers already have so much going against them they don't need yet another person casting doubt or scorn on them.

    Thanks again

  3. Speechless. In a word - awesome! THANK You for writing this!

  4. Great post. Saying "formula's" or the "romance" genre is insignificant or repetitive is like complaining that love and desire are worn-out and should no longer be experienced!

  5. Kari Marie- I'm grateful that you had a proper mentor on your path to becoming the writer you are, today!

    Lisa- Thank you so very much for your kind words. I think typically when someone casts scorn on another's efforts, it rarely has to do with the recipient, herself. Constructive criticism, which is necessary and useful, comes from a different spirit, entirely. And I think as artists, we can recognize the difference if we're able to still ourselves sufficiently. You are so right when you say that no one can see the world through your eyes, so in whatever way you are 'feeding the lake,' I tip my hat to your bravery and vulnerability in answering the call to write.

    Julie- Warm, warm, warm and fuzzy. Your simple comment filled my heart to overflowing. Thank *you.*

    Syl- You hit the nail on the head, friend. Writing about love and desire is way challenging because it is such a complex, multi-faceted and- almost paradoxically- at once subjective and universal experience. But the only way to get any good at capturing that tidal force with any amount of justice is to just keep writing it. We learn to write only by doing so and, in the process, savor the moments through our characters. In any event, how fun is it to spend the day job on the trajectory of cupid's bow?

    Pretty darn fun. ;)

    Keep on keepin' on, out there.

  6. There's a reason why that professor is just that -- a professor. It's one thing to teach about what's been written and it's another to actually write it. He/she has probably never even attempted to write romance and therefore has no idea how difficult it can be to write. Even formulaic works take a lot of time and effort to write, and just because they aren't 'literary' doesn't mean they're not worth writing. Romance is the one genre that has undergone a huge explosion in an otherwise down market. People like their comfort food, even when it comes in the form of literature.

  7. Great post. Love it. We have to write what's inside us, what calls us. We have to write with honesty. If mainstream is what you respond to, then you will likely write mainstream. Nothing wrong with that no matter which genre you're in.

  8. I agree. Every plot has already been written but not by me or you. We each at our own voice to the world and how we see it.
    Great post.

  9. Mary Mary- very true about 'comfort food.'

    Lynda- I love what you've written. It is extremely timely for me, personally. Thank you.

    Clarissa- I think one of the bigger challenges for us as writers in today's marketplace is that when it comes to querying, plot summary = hook. Rarely does a terse summation of events do the entire work justice and yet this is how the entire work is often judged after languishing in an overworked agent's queue. Bit of a bummer, that.

  10. Excellent post! It's always funny to me that some creative writing professors are only interested in the work least likely to sell. :-)

  11. That's true, Rosslyn. But at least they have their Pulitzers ;)

    It is a curious phenomenon that happens in academia. I saw it, too, in the Department of Fine Arts in my university. The biggest insult was to have your work called an "illustration." I admit that when a professor told me this in front of all my classmates (at the tender age of 19) I was embarrassed.

    "It is not art if it doesn't have a meaning," the art eminence proclaimed.

    I wonder now how many of those "serious artists" support themselves with their art. I know a lot of illustrators do.

  12. First of all, a Happy New Year to my Sisters ad all our wonderful readers.
    As a former Lit Teacher I can tell you what we all knew and never aknowledged. Most Creative Writing, English and Lit teachers are failed novelists. It´s why they come up with such nonsense.

    Love and sex always sell. Love and sex are inmortal subjects. People might be starving under a bridge, but they still crave for juicy romantic tales.

    And , by the way, Sister Aurora, I wish they would excommunicate that distasteful creature: the Hook.

  13. Happy New Year, Violante! You make an excellent point about love and sex. I think, also, when life is full of tedium, challenges and heartbreak, tales that- whether by design or not- conform to the boy-meets-girl template with its infinite variations engage our imaginations as both authors and readers for a reason: Love rules!

    Rosslyn, thanks for reading and commenting. I have heard so many wonderful things about you and your writing from Lorena.

    And lastly, Lorena, thanks for another inspiring and stimulating conversation on craft over lunch. (And thanks for not allowing me to forget my boxed leftovers as I nearly always do.) Incidentally, I like the bit about the 'art eminence.' ;)

    Thank you, everyone, for taking a browse and sharing your thoughts. Remind me next time, I owe you all a penny.

  14. Everything's been said by others before me, but kudos on writing this post. I hate how I have to defend the romance genres from other people, esp other "writers" who just. don't. get. it.

  15. Well, Bluestocking, if there's sufficient interest come back and check out my 24 January post in a few weeks. I ain't through beatin' this drum, yet. :)

  16. Just to let you know, I have a blog award for you over at mine

  17. here here! I say again, here here <3

  18. Is it possible that, like me, you've got a copy of Joseph Campbell's tome somewhere on your bookshelf? ;-)

    I agree that in essence, the so-called 'formulas' come from long retrospective analysis of the way stories have been told for centuries (even millennia), and the key elements which make them up. There's a reason why our minds seem to organically come up with ideas which have been explored before. And why these same ideas keep on doing the job of entertaining through hundreds of different iterations.

    And yeah. I love romance.

    Keep the faith!

  19. Elle, you sound like Foghorn Leghorn, babe.

    Adina- Campbell and Vogler. :)


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