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The Formula for Success

There’s a publishing company that uses algorithms to calculate the number of elements and probability of success for book manuscripts. Now as a capitalist my support is strong for ethical endeavors that up the odds and accelerate the speed of generating profit. And winning recipes and formulae have been applied in literature composition for millennia. The Iliad and The Odyssey rely on the repetition of visual cues and cycles of conflicts, journeys, and returns to keep listeners (originally) and readers engaged.

Other storytelling templates and tropes endure: the three-act structure; the poor, innocent ingénue and the wealthy, jaded older man; star-crossed lovers; the love triangle; the mistaken identity and many other popular storylines. But how can a mathematical formula calculate the unquantifiable x-factor that makes Room by Emma Donoghue an international bestseller adapted into a critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie when other novels about traumatized, yet triumphant young mothers and children fail to thrive in the marketplace?

A formula that dissects word counts between story elements and eye blinks per certain phrases may chart patterns of similarities among bestsellers; it also establishes predictability when universally applied. Some predictability in fiction is expected and appreciated by readers—like a happily-ever-after ending from conventional romance authors. At the same time, surprising twists and turns along the way to that HEA earn praise. Just read reviews for Beverley Jenkins, Sherry Thomas, and Linda Howard.

An author’s variations and improvisations on established themes in new contexts and from different viewpoints combine to distinguish the traits of a unique voice clearly identifiable among the cacophony of hacks, copycats, imitators, and posers. Adele’s voice is clearly distinguished from Denyce Graves’s voice, which is distinctly different from Renee Fleming’s; all sound heavenly.

Development of a writer’s voice shares aspects of the process for developing a singer’s voice. Power, range, and depth get explored. Personal experiences shape, guide, and influence. Emotion infuses.

Writers have institutionalized formulae in M.F.A. writing programs, prestigious literary awards, and literary events. Singers have social media platforms, competition shows, and radio airplay. Even with these multiple paths to public exposure for hard-working, talented artists, there are no 100% guarantees for marketplace success. So using evolving technologies in data collection and consumer psychology makes sense.

My concern is that over-usage of meta-data in shaping and evaluating manuscripts will make cranking out soul-less copies of essentially the same characters, same vocabulary, same conflicts, same resolutions, same everything else with only superficial variations across content the norm for publishers who are businesspeople scrambling to profit in this scary new world of expanded competition among traditional, self-, indie, and hybrid publishing models.

When every other title has the word “Girl” in it (even though the main female character is actually a grown woman), and the descriptors this man, awkward, amazing, something real, raw, girl parts, emotional walls, and processing keep appearing with increasing frequency across genres, titles, and authors in mainstream women’s fiction, they seem like flags warning of a disturbing level of content homogenization.

Books that deviate from established formulae in surprising ways through clever imagination with respect for readers’ intelligence instead of flimsy gimmicks or literary stunts earn loyal fans while expanding the marketplace for content from people who write and for people who read.

Shouldn’t a formula in fiction inspire a drive toward greater creativity, not a rigid template of mandatory elements in predetermined configurations? 


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