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.


Rosy Thornton said...

Rod, I was sure there was going to be a hidden message in your formula... I thought I was maybe getting close to it at the end there with 'p..s ..f'!

Great post - entertaining as ever!

Roderic Vincent said...

A lamentable omission I know, Rosy. Last night, when I wrote this I didn't have time to craft it into a cunningly concealed acronym. Answers on a postcard/SW comment?

Administrator said...

Great post, Rod, and really makes you think about which elements are important in the books you like to read.

So... What do you reckon the formula for a light beach read is?:)

E = MC + P + PN + BH

(PN=Pina Colada, BH= Beach Hunk)


Essie Fox said...

Wonderful, Rod!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

What you say about the Big Idea is soooo true. It's one of the - apparent - necessities, and yet the thought of it does tend to swallow up all creativity. I s'pose it makes your writing into a product - a ready-made, convenience package - rather than a process. Great post.

Caroline Green said...

By God, man, you're a genius!

My maths always was terrible though, which may be why I still languish on the slush pile?

I especially loved this line:

'In other words O is for original. It gets a capital letter because it’s an open mouth waiting to swallow all my inspiration.'

Brilliant post, Rod.

Gillian McDade said...

What a great post, Rod! You are a fountain of knowledge :) AND a Samuel Beckett and Joyce fan. Glad to see Murphy get a mention!

Very entertaining :)

Old Kitty said...


This is for those suffering from dyscalculia like myself and struggle to decipher the gorgeous formula as founded by Roderic Vincent.

220g of Ideas (plain or self raising)
150g of Originality (room temperature is best)
150g of Research (may be found in Libraries)
200 fl ml of Pure Luck
A pinch of Hope
A dash of Optimism
A squeeze of Endurance

Method: Whisk everything in a bowl of perspiration. This is best baked on a low heat and over time. It's done when an agent goes "ping".


Take care

Fionnuala said...

Fab post as always Rod. Had me reeling and made me giggle - James Joyce doesn't do that!
I too am at that awful third book point and feel struck down by that inability to find the NEXT BOG IDEA - having read your post today - I'm going to just omit that part of the equation and write.

Administrator said...

Great recipe, Old Kitty!

Fionnuala said...

Obviously I meant to type 'next BIG idea'...:)

Anonymous said...

I think you left L (luck) and t(subscript r) (Time(right)) out of your equation. i.e. I think if you wrote Madame Bovary or the Dice Man now they would flop, unless you were very very lucky. Other than that - good blog as usual :-)

Geraldine Ryan said...

I loved this post, Rod - but I'm with Kitty. I understood the recipe far more easily!

Anonymous said...

Love this post! Also that Murphy gets to be the best book ever written :)

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Emma Darwin said...

Great post, Rod - made me laugh!

On the big idea, I think it doesn't matter if you don't start off with it, because, yes, I agree, it can be absolutely paralysing, or stultifying, or just boring. One option is to keep your ears open for the squeak of something which might be a theme (which there's bound to be because each of us has his/her own defaults and obsessions), and then bring it out there and everywhere else you can find.

Though I think there is a huge appetite in many readers, if not you, for information - whether it's the details of guns and tanks and the politico-military structures of Uzbekistan, or What Happened to the Princes in the Tower...

DT said...

By Gad, sir, I think you've got it! Now I see it before me, I can't understand why my last three novels have remained on the merry-go-round.

Your letters spell out COMPEL FISH (though not in that order, obviously), which explains why the CODFATHER was such a great book.

Roderic Vincent said...

Compel fish would be perfect for me, a poker player. Fish is the word for poor players and we want to compel them to keep on playing.

DT said...

Are there sliding scales for the fish?

Incidentally, the captcha word was deffarse, which seems remarkably un-PC!