The Formula

There’s no formula for writing a bestseller, I’ve heard it said. If there were, everyone would follow it. On its face, this seems like sound advice turned a bit inside out for effect. In other words, write what you want to write, since there’s no way to ever know for sure what will work. Yet I have always found this particular piece of advice, well intentioned as it is, cynical and depressing in its assumption—that everyone would be happier following a formula for success. Yes, it’s true, humans may look for that formula, but that does not mean they would be happier following it.

But perhaps I am too hasty. Perhaps, in fact, everyone should be looking for a formula for success. Because as I look at the bestseller list, it is not that I see one formula repeated over and over, what I see are a plethora of formulas. Michael Chabon seems to have arrived at a formula of sorts for his work, as has James Patterson and Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. This is not to say that all their work is formulaic, following a predictable pattern book after book (though that certainly happens), but that these writers have learned how to write the books they are best at writing.

I made that decision myself many years ago. I decided that my task was not to learn how to write novels but to learn how to write the novels that I want to write. In this way, no one person could ever teach me what I need to know. I now have my own set rules for what is a good Bill Kenower sentence, or a good Bill Kenower character, or a good Bill Kenower ending. I suppose I could teach these rules to someone else, but what would be the point? Plus the rules keep changing. What an infuriating teacher I would be.

So find your formula. And like all curious scientists, may your research never end.

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