Thursday, 11 February 2010
The formula for success
Shh, or however you spell that sibilant sound: it always looks wrong on the page, or the screen for that matter. Like tsk tsk. That never looks right, does it? But now I’ve wandered off track. What I want to say is, hush! I’ve finally cracked it. Snuffling away in my bookshelves, I happened upon the secret formula for success in writing. Simple and easy to use. Oh, joy!
I’m only going to share it with you, nobody else, so please promise to keep it strictly secret.
The main criterion for enjoyment of the books I love is a unique and memorable main character. That means the original formula has to be:
E = mc2
Does anyone know how to do a superscript in html?
E is entertainment value and mc is the main character.
That's why I love Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Steppenwolf, Auto da Fe, Herzog, and lots of stories with wonderful, eternal characters. They become part of your world, more lifelike than most of the people you meet in that hazy unreal place outside books.
But I suppose there are other rewards a good novel should provide. We need a formula that squeezes out Murphy by Sam Beckett as the best book ever written. The characters are marvellous, it’s true: the tortured Neary, fawning Tinklepenny, endlessly desirable Celia and, of course, poor old Murphy himself. But there’s more, there's the language and, most of all, Murphy is funny.
That gives us l for the use of language, to my taste the next most important factor after the characters. Since my favourite books are usually funny, h is for humour and gets a double weighting too. I suppose we have to include the story, don't we? I’m told agents and publishers like there to be one. Reluctantly, p is for plot. Next, let’s not forget that some people like to lose themselves in exotic parts (s is setting). Grahame Greene’s, The Heart of the Matter, or A Burnt Out Case, or The Power and the Glory, all delight partly for their evocation of far-away. Oh, and Gormenghast has to have a mention here too.
For some people, the chance to learn stuff is what draws them into the bookshop. So, f is for facts. After dredging my head for five minutes I can’t think of a single example of a book where learning new information has been important to my enjoyment. Help me out here, perhaps it features more prominently in your bastardisation of the formula. For me, f is going to have a tiny part to play.
To summarise where we’ve got to, it looks as if E = 3l + 2h + mc2 + p + s + (f/2)
What else? Well, the block that stands before me all day long is the terrifying requirement for a big idea. I keep starting on my third novel and then can’t build up the momentum to finish. I’ve hooked onto the notion that, in today’s non-reading, non-book-buying, “we just can’t see enough of a market for this,” publishing world, what I need is a BIG IDEA. Something truly original. That’s frightening enough to silt up anyone’s pen. In other words O is for original. It gets a capital letter because it’s an open mouth waiting to swallow all my inspiration. Examples of books that score high on O are Luke Reinhart’s, The Dice Man, or The Curious Incident, or . . . God knows, I’m stumped.
I’ve already said I don’t read to learn facts, but I do like a novel full of big themes or insights into the human condition, a book that opens my eyes. That means we have to have i for ideas (the novel of ideas).
So the final formula is E = (3l + 2h +mc2 + p + s + (f/2))Oi
Simple – just apply that to your writing and you have a guaranteed blockbuster, classic, best-selling, masterpiece. All you have to do now is write it.