Mystery writing, like most book genres, has certain conventions—structure that a writer violates at great peril. You can’t introduce a surprise, unknown character to solve a mystery. Romance novels are written about characters that ultimately get happy endings. Westerns seldom rely on any form of technology to advance the story unless it’s a race between a new fangled iron horse and the hero’s trusty sidekick real horse.
People often deride genre writing because of the conventions—claiming they render the writing effort as non-creative. I have always disagreed, often with a raised voice. Whoopee! P.D. James agrees with me.
“One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that the subtlety of characterization, a setting which comes alive for the reader, and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines—an octave and a sestet—and a strict rhyming sequence. “
What, you may ask, does all this talk of convention and formula have to do with the non-fiction writer? Everything, I think. What if you approached your next writing project with a formula in mind? You could develop a formula for each chapter. (Look for and page through Everything Counts! by Gary Ryan Blair.) You could have formula for a book and then replicated it many times over. (Chicken Soup any one?) I have developed a formula for every book I’ve written and believe they’re better for it. I know they were written faster because of it.
Hey, if it’s good enough for P.D. James…