Constraints: the surprising secret for more powerful fiction.

I got my start writing category romance.  I have also done ghostwriting, and work-for-hire.  I’m not ashamed of any of those things. There are a number of reasons why I wound up writing each, not the least of which being my son enjoys things like food and a roof over his head. 

That said, I think that people who pan the “formulaic” quality of this kind of writing are missing the beauty and inherent creativity that the constraints create.

The Chopped Parallel.

Quick segue:  I am a huge fan of reality cooking competitions like Chopped.   I’m a foodie, and pretty competitive myself, so it rings a number of my entertainment bells.  The thing that always amazes me is the level of creativity that the contestants are able to bring to the challenges.

“Create a three-course meal… with only ingredients you’re able to find at a gas station convenience store.”

“Cook a Thanksgiving dinner… with only toaster ovens and microwaves.”

“Make the most decadent, sumptuous meal… with two hours to prep and ten dollars to spend.”

It’s insanity. 

Some of the chefs just dissolve into puddly little blops of tears and duck fat.  Others rise to the challenge, making incredible gourmet dishes out of Fiery Hot Cheetos and Spam with aplomb.

Writing under pressure.

In some cases, as in Chopped, the pressure is time.  As a category romance writer in the nineties, I was told in no uncertain terms that success within the house came with a certain productivity.  Go big — to the tune of three books a year — or go home. 

Other times, special projects would come up.  Due to the success of Westerns/Dystopians/Whatever, a continuity project comes up, and you’re invited if you can write fast and to “bible.”   An author implodes and there’s suddenly a hole in the production schedule — can you write a book in a month?

Suddenly, it’s NaNo with a possible paycheck.

With the rise of Kindle and the ebook revolution, that led to even more pressure, as rapid release strategy became a norm. Now, you were looking at releasing at least six books a year in some cases. The struggle, as they say, is real.

Writing within constraints.

If you’re writing romance, you need a happy ending.  In the majority of the cases, it’s boy meets girl, a force opposing love rears its ugly head, but we know how it has to end.

When writing mystery, someone’s gonna die.  Also, someone’s going to be guilty, and someone else is going to figure out the who and how.

With fantasy,  some sort of quest probably takes place.  A journey with a band of companions is often involved.  Magic, swords, and some kind of kingdom are also tried and true elements.

If you’re writing a classic Western, there’s probably a cowboy, sheriff, Marshall or similar involved, in a frontier American setting.  (I have yet to read a Western set in Paris, for example.)

Those that don’t know how traditional genre writing works assume that publishers hand out a template with your contract that says:  “by page fifty, we want the couple to have gone on their first date… we want them to have sex by page 174, and then have an awful misunderstanding by page 2o0 that gets resolved by page 232.”

But really, it’s more like the Chopped challenges. Yes, you’ve got parameters.  But there’s an amazing amount of leeway… and a lot of areas where you can take chances, reinterpret, and make things fresh. In this publishing era, in fact, you’ve got to. 


The final aspect:  the judges.

On Chopped, the contestants are grilled by a panel of experts. (No pun intended.)  In some cases, these are professional chefs themselves, but some are simply gourmands and aficionados. Pro or not, they are obsessed with food, highly opinionated, and very vocal.

For genre fiction writers, every  reader we have is an expert.  Most of them have been reading this particular genre for years — their whole adult reading lives, in most cases.  Don’t let their voracious appetite for fiction fool you: they are freaks when it comes to a good story.  They are obsessed, highly opinionated, and often very vocal.

Not every chef goes on Chopped.

Running the gauntlet of a reality cooking show is not necessary to succeed as a chef.  Still, they show that, under pressure and constraint, amazing things can happen.

Rather than judging “formulaic” fiction, I think that genre, too, can show that, under pressure and constraint, amazing stories can come to life. Look at how to reframe your assumptions about formulas, and make the difficulties of doing what’s been “done to death” into something fresh, innovative, and compelling!