Formula vs. Creativity


The business of writing is a finicky one. Whether you’re a novelist, a screenwriter, a blogger, a journalist, or any other kind of writer, you are usually judged by your first success. I suppose this is the same with any creative arts (some friends of mine who made a highly successful horror film found it impossible to get a comedy made because how could horror filmmakers do something funny?). This isn’t a problem I’ve had–yet. However, as I was going over a number of screenplays that I’ve written that I am considering adapting as novels, I realized that they exist in a wide range of genres. So the question is which one do I choose as my first novel, given that everything else that comes after will be judged by it? Will I create expectations that I won’t be able to fulfill?

One reason I love the writings of Stephen King so much is that they are varied. No two books of his are the same, even if they are in the same series. Sure, he’s known as the Master of Horror (or King of Horror if you prefer), but he also writes fantasy, suspense, crime thrillers, and occasionally flat-out dramas among others (he even wrote a musical play!). Sure, horrific elements tend to permeate his non-horror books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is writing outside of what is expected of him. And even within the horror genre, his stories are vastly different: vampires, plagues, rabid dogs, curses, haunted houses, vehicles that come to life, alternate dimensions, aliens…the list goes on.

I used to love reading books by Dean Koontz, but stopped when so many of them started blending together. He had a formula, and while plot specifics differed from novel to novel, the same basic framework held. And it grew tiresome. I’ve seen the same from James Patterson, he of the 2-page chapters intended for the attention deficit among us. Now, I may be unfair to both of these writers–after all, they are both highly successful and have rabid fans. Also, Koontz has changed up his formula somewhat in recent years (and even Patterson has ventured into the YA market). The problem is that they, like so many other authors, have become brands. And with brands comes expectations from both the public and their publishers. Diverge from those expectations and you lose your market. That is one reason why King wrote several non-King-like novels under the name Richard Bachman, because he wanted the stories published but not under the brand that he was becoming (and to see if they’d actually sell without his name attached).

Is being a brand bad? Not if it pays the bills. As a character in my short film “Ice Blue” states, even John Steinbeck wrote screenplays, and it was purely for the money. If you chose to go into writing as a business, then you need to follow the needs of the business. It’s a job. Sometimes jobs don’t allow creative diversions and sometimes you do what you don’t want to do for the paycheck.

However, writing is not paying my bills right now. So expect (at some point in the future at least) to have a wide variety of stories from me. I have the luxury (if you can call it that) of having flexibility in my writing for now. Maybe one will hit, or maybe not. I guess I’ll have to deal with the problem of fan expectation when the time comes.