Writing By Numbers

We all love a hero, don’t we? Well, I don’t. I don’t see the point. One of the reasons why I read very few novels is because they don’t interest me. They’re boring. They’re all the same. But so many people advise writers to read. Well, that’s great if you want to learn how to write by numbers.

There’s a contradiction in the world of published writing. Agents and editors are constantly asking and looking for ‘fresh voices’ or some variation of that. But common advice tells writers to stick to certain rules usually concerning structure and character. Deviate from these rules at your peril, they say, unless you’re a) famous and/or b) know what you’re doing.

One of the conventions that particularly annoys me is the old protagonist – antagonist format. Put in simple terms, goodies versus baddies. The goody, we are told should be flawed; the baddy should have a modicum of humanity. Follow this rule and the reader will be able to root for the central character.

Let me say something that some might disagree with. Bollocks to what the reader wants. It’s none of their business what the writer writes. If the reader wants a certain thing let them write it themselves. Readers come to the novel to see what the writer has to say on a certain theme, not to have their own idiosyncracies and foibles massaged. The author is not your private therapist there to make you feel better when your supply of kitten photographs dries up.

Ah, but if you don’t provide what the audience expects you’ll never sell any books. Okay, that’s a fair point. But unless you write romances, what are you talking about? If you’re so concerned about selling books write romances (still the best-selling genre), not fantasy or crime or YA or whatever. If you’ve made a conscious choice to write in the second and third best-selling genres you’ve got no business banging on about reaching the widest possible audience. You’re contradicting yourself.

Article after article tells us what to do to maximise sales. Perfectly valid when it comes to shifting units, but marketing and sales come after the book is written, not before. If you write to a formula to maximise your sales potential you’ll end up with an adequate story that ticks all the boxes, lifts when it should lift, drops when it should drop, with wholesome toothy heroes tortured by booze or a failed marriage, and villains with a facial tic and a penchant for waffling just before shooting the hero’s dog.

I’m sure there’s a market for it. A vast market. There’s also a vast market for mobile phone cases and painted wellingtons. Maybe you’re in the wrong business. There seem to be a lot of very good wellington salespeople writing novels these days. And I for one have no interest in what they’re writing.

What do you think? Should authors stick to the rules or strive to find a unique voice?

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18 thoughts on “Writing By Numbers

  1. I like to take it that the better rules are the ones you don’t break rather than the ones you’re meant to follow. It’s tied closely to my love of loopholes.

    As for unique voices, in defence of agents, I suppose they can’t know what they’re looking for until they find it, to be fair. I reckon I’m safe enough though. I don’t know anyone else who has a voice like a contralto squirrel who’s just found their nut cache taken over by bankruptcy officials.

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    1. Good point. (Very good point; wish I’d thought of it.) My grudge is not against grammatical rules, for example – except ‘so’ at the beginning of answers. Break those and no one knows what you’re on about. But yes, do this do that do the other (followed by the reward) big sales guaranteed.

      Agents might do well to take a Sir Humphrey approach to what they know. Know everything so that they can decided what they don’t need to know and then they can tell the rest of us. eg a unique voice will not be like . . . etc etc etc.

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  2. Couldn’t agree with you more. Every time I see an article about ‘how to make your hero more likeable’, or ‘how to create likeable characters’, I die a little inside. The only way to create a likeable character is to like your character as you write him or her. If you really want to court a broader audience, the best thing you can do is enjoy what you’re doing–that always comes through, and to great positive effect.

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    1. That’s very true. If you dislike your own characters how can you write honestly and with authenticity? To create a character by writing down a list of necessary qualities would be like building a Frankenstein monster. My advice for anyone who wants to create a more likeable character is give them the surname Walton and about twelve sisters and brothers. (Although I think that might have been done before.)

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  3. Let’s not forget that writing is an art. If we all followed all the rules, things would get pretty boring. As for agents, although I certainly don’t know how they think, I suspect it isn’t always what they say to writers as a group. If an agent spots a work that looks like it has potential to fill a niche or start a trend, I’ll bet they fling their rules aside and jump on it. Finally, real writers always write from inspiration, but think of all those artists (literary and otherwise) who died in obscurity and became famous posthumously. In art, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

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    1. I think Mervyn Peake died before his Gormenghast trilogy became popular. It’s one of the great injustices to see a work of art only appreciated posthumously.

      I suppose agents are the transition point where art meets commerce. To be honest I don’t envy their jobs!

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      1. The Gormenghast books (first two) are among my favourites. The phenomenon of obscure works becoming popular is mysterious and complex. As for agents, that’s a good way to describe them. I doubt it’s an easy job (but cant’ say I feel a lot of sympathy, having received my share of rejections). 🙂

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  4. Nothing wrong with stepping out on a leap of faith. Have a look at the film Fight Club. It is a film, but it is based on a book. The story is unconventional, yet in some strange and silly way, it make a lot of sense–even if it’s talking about anarchy. Great flow and unexpected turns makes the story unique.

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  5. Agents in particular ‘seem’ to be asking for unique, way-out, totally different novels, but when it comes down to what they really mean it’s different in the current fad meaning of different. The current fad is ‘diversity’, which is a euphemism for not white and not 100% physically perfect plus not being straight into the mix for good measure. As if having a handicapped or bisexual or Asian mc makes the same old story different. For ‘different’, read ‘same as every success story this year’.

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      1. I’ve been reading some of their wishlists and the eejity suggestions like ‘Why doesn’t someone rewrite Jane Eyre from the point of view of a vertically challenged swimmer from Samoa and set in a high school in Iowa?’ Can you imagine taking them up on it? Would they ever even read it? I’d like to think not…

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