Sunday, October 19, 2014

Writing a Series -- Formulaic Writing

This week we'll take a look at Formulaic Writing. It's a little more detailed than an informal outline, (or even a formal one). There is a definite list of things that need to be taken into consideration. This kind of writing is usually reserved for certain genres (romance, cozy mystery, some sci-fi and YA). We're going to look at romance, because it's what I know.


Formulaic writing is a technique that is used to bang out manuscripts quickly. There are three acts (basic structure), the word count is generally not high (55 - 70K), and there are minimal characters. Harlequin, Zebra, and Kensington authors were famous (and some still are) for this kind of writing. The formula/outline is laid out like a map, and you just follow along. Basically it looks something like this --

(Remember we're writing romance)


Hero and heroine meet within the first 5 pages.
The goal of the main character is stated.
1st obstacle is shown for the MC to overcome
Sub-plot and secondary characters (if any) are introduced
1st climax (obstacle is overcome)
2nd obstacle is introduced


Goal is re-introduced
2nd obstacle is bigger than the first
Sub-plot and secondary characters are fleshed out
(especially if this is a series)
3rd obstacle is introduced
2nd climax (obstacle is overcome)


Goal is within reach
3rd obstacle is the hardest to overcome
3rd climax resolved
Sub-plots are resolved
Goal is reached

Now this is a very simple simple way to look at it. (I'm sure there are 1000 books on writing the 3-act structure for you to peruse.) Let's take a look at how I would plot a book for our friends from last week -- Susie and Bob


Susie and Bob meet at the hospital (Susie is a nurse at the hospital Bob is a firefighter) because of the huge fire that is started by the arsonist
Susie's goal is to get away from her wicked stepmother
Susie's obstacle is she doesn't have enough money because of school loans
Amy, Joe, Larry, and Abby are introduced (secondary characters)
Susie sells her car (1st obstacle overcome)
But she still doesn't have enough money to get her own place (2nd obstacle introduced)


Susie is desperate to get from under her wicked stepmother
She goes on a double date with Bob/ Amy and Joe
Amy doesn't like Joe, she likes Larry (Secondary characters and sup-plots fleshed out)
Wicked stepmother says she won't get any of her father's inheritance if she moves out (3rd obstacle introduced)
Susie has a giant yard sale to get more money (2nd obstacle overcome)


Susie has enough money to rent an apartment -- now she only has to find one (3rd obstacle hardest to overcome)
Amy and Larry get together (spin-off book 2)
Abby and Joe get together (spin-off book 3)
Bob asks Susie to marry him (3rd goal reached)
Denouement -- all goals are met, sub-plots (spin-offs) are tied up (Except for the arsonist who is our underlying problem throughout the series)

Okay, so I know this is a silly simple plot for a story, but that's what I came up with to show you how formulaic writing works.

I do not write like this. I have never used an outline (okay, truthfully, I tend to make up an outline once 2/3rds of the book is written so I can find my ending.) But for the most part, the characters tell me what they're doing. I don't force the writing because then I feel the book is forced. It has no flow. Other authors can do this kind of writing all day long and come up with greatness. We all have our own way of writing. There is no right or wrong. You just need to find what works best for you.


We all know writing is hard work, and if you have a job (and yes, Motherhood is a full-time job) we have to be creative with our time. I used to write for two hours every morning while my daughter was in pre-school. After supper I would edit what I wrote. Now that she's in school full-time, I have 6 hours in which to write every day. Believe me when I tell you, you cannot sit down and write for 6 hours at a stretch. (Unless you're extremely disciplined, have absolutely no distractions, and your characters are well-behaved.)

For the sake of argument, let's say you have 2 hours after supper to write every night M-F. On S/S you gain an extra hour so that's 3 each. That = 16 hours. Some people write fast (when it flows) others write slow (when it doesn't). Again for the sake of argument, let's say we can write 1000 words every night, and on the weekends you take the time to edit those pages and maybe write another 1000 words. That = 6000 words a week. If your goal is a 60K word manuscript, this should take 10 weeks to write. If we give ourselves two weeks for critique partners and beta readers to read and make corrections (and they can do it within those two weeks, and you're editing as you go) you should have a book ready to go in 3 months.

3 months per book = 4 books a year. Ta Da! Congratulations.

However, that is all in a perfect world. We all have lives, laundry, grocery, soccer games, sick kids, parents, work, distractions that keep us away from our writing. Don't be disheartened. We'll discuss what happens when the External Controls keep us from our goal. We'll also discuss the Publishing aspect to a series later on.

Now, I'd also like to say that some writers just write the first draft and then edit the whole thing when it's finished. I can't write that way. I have to edit as I go along. I write a chapter (or scene) and then the next day, I re-read it, and edit it so I can, not only move forward with the story, but keep my storyline in my head. (I am a certified pantster and do not use an outline. I have a "basic" idea of the story, but then the characters tell me what they want to do with it.)

Some writing gurus tell us we have to write every day. I'm not of that mind-set. I can't. Real Life is too complicated. However, when I do tell my family, "I'm writing" they know enough to leave me alone. If I can't get in writing time during the week, I make sure I try and meet my goals over the weekend.

If we remember our poster board from last week, you can have the formulas listed on them as well. Take in the BIG picture before you sit down to write the first page of the first book. See if you can figure out clearly all the plot points, the secondary characters, the obstacles, the climaxes before you begin. Set your writing schedule (but not in stone because things do change) and try and stick to it. It does help when you know you only have a certain time to write every day. It keeps you focused on the task at hand.

Formulaic writing can be a blessing or a curse. It all depends on YOU the author and how you want to write.

Next week, we'll dive a little bit more into research and settings. Hope to see you.

Anne Gallagher (c) 2014


  1. I could never be a formulaic writer... I think I'd get bored really quickly.

  2. This is good Anne. I'm writing romance and am polishing my ms for submission. I've already written the first chapter of a spin off as I've been advised to do a series. It does get a little easier once you know the formula!!

    I have to fit writing in with family needs, work etc but am pretty pleased at the amount I've carved out.

    Hope all goes well with you.



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