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Eschew the Formulaic: Avoid the Predictable!

Monday, 9 March 2015

At last, a truly mind-numbingly obscure title – something that all editors will immediately recognise and delete, forthwith. The thing is, that writing has its rules and only very rarely will unfettered streams-of-consciousness actually make good books. The obvious exceptions are Proust and my personal favourite, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. Others would claim Joyce: what about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake? Quite. I read the first, just; but the second was too much: got to page 8, I think – then headed for the pub. But the point I’m trying to make is that all authors must follow quite well-established rules if they are to keep their readers’ attention. And the first rule of all is: edit. If in doubt, leave it out. You can always add it later, should it prove to be vital.

Editorial rules are one thing, but formulaic plots are another. And if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s picking-up a second book by an author, only to discover that it’s an ill-disguised clone of the first. It would be invidious to mention examples, but I’m afraid dozens spring to mind. By and large literary-type authors – the Virginia Woolfs and D.H. Lawrences of this world – manage to avoid the pitfalls of formulae because their plots closely reflect the realities we all try to cope with in our lives: managing emotions, relationships, trauma, love and loss. The plots are certainly important, but they have to be balanced against the credibility of the characters and the way they all interact as the book progresses. These are complex, difficult books to write, which is why I would never venture down that particular street. It’s also why I’d never make it as a literary critic.

So where does that leave so-called ‘genre’ fiction? And how does one define such writing? Grahame Greene considered some of his books as mere money-spinners, I think he called them his ‘entertainments’. But today, I don’t think his readers would be quite so willing to dismiss so many good books (eg Our Man in Havana, The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear etc.) in such an off-hand fashion. And besides, none of them are formulaic, in the in-your-face way, that so many modern titles are. No, for me, ‘genre’ fiction is plot-led. It’s a simple as that. And it doesn’t make it any worse or somehow inferior to the more high-falutin’ general literature.

Of course the simple reason why genre fiction authors fall into the trap of becoming formulaic is the need to earn a living. Personally, I think some of the later Sherlock Holmes stories after his unfortunate, if miraculous, return from the Reichenbach Falls are less than gripping. But Conan Doyle needed the cash and, besides, his huge numbers of readers were clamouring for more. Under those circumstances, I’m sure I’d have happily dragged my half-devoured hero out of a bath of ravenous maggots, if I had to. The other incentive is the dreaded Three Book Agreement, which agents and publishers love to arrange and which authors greet warmly – until it comes to the fateful Book 3, at which point, tired and jaded, they nearly always reach for the formula.

So why am I saying this? How do formulaic plots affect the adventures of Alan Cadbury? The answer, I hope, is not much. Sure, some of the old characters make a return from The Lifers Club. I don’t want to give too much away, but The Way, The Truth and The Dead re-features DCI Richard Lane and Alan’s brother Grahame, not to mention their respective wives (he adds in a throw-away fashion calculated to annoy his own wife and most modern women). The Fens feature too, but as I explained in my last Shed post, this time we’re in the black or peat Fens, around Ely.

But my point about an underlying formula still stands. I hate them, both to read, and to write. Frankly, I’d run a mile from any three-book agreement, even if anyone were bonkers enough to offer me one. I’ve no wish voluntarily to climb aboard a treadmill. I write because I love writing; over the past two decades it has become a part of me and something, too, which I cannot do without. But that doesn’t mean I’ll write any old formulaic rubbish, either. And anyhow, surely that’s why God created blogs? They’re for writers to use when the urge hits them. I can remember being told by the school nurse that I should ‘Never resist the call to stool’: that way lay a lifetime of constipation and knotted bowels. And I’ve always heeded that sound advice in all the walks of my life. So I treat blogs like bogs – somewhere to evacuate, should I hear the call to create. (Incidentally, my wife thinks that simile is HORRIBLE!)

The second Alan Cadbury book is one that I’ve had in the back of my mind for some time. It’s less action-packed than Lifers’ Club, which I’m afraid some people won’t like. Too bad. It features an Alan Cadbury that won’t be so familiar: he’s deeply involved with a live television excavation. The archaeology is also more convoluted and complex than in Lifers. In some respects it’s a slightly more grown-up book: people’s motives are complex and often conflicting, as happens so often in real life.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve also got quite a clear idea of where Alan will be heading in his third adventure, which is completely different again, from the other two. And his destination may surprise a few people, myself included.

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