Writing a book series can feel as if you’re recreating the same thing over and over. And if the series is successful, maybe that’s exactly what’s going on – that, to some extent, the author dips into a kind of magic formula as a basis for each new volume. If that’s true, is it a technique other writers could use?
The subject first cropped up for me when I saw the 2015, Jack Black movie ‘Goosebumps’ – a nice, homely, scare-fest for children and enthusiastic adults everywhere. Watching the film, I wondered about the books that inspired it, and specifically, their creator, RL Stine. While I was aware of Stine’s work, I’d never read any of the books, so I did a bit of research, thinking maybe I could tap into whatever magical blueprint he’d discovered, if in fact there was one. But more of that later.
Every so often some clever-clogs boffin comes up with a smart scheme to crack the novel-writing business, or to put it another way, a plan that’ll work for just about any book and make the whole write-a-bestseller thing that much easier.
Back in 2014, a group of scientists thought they’d discovered that very secret with an algorithm that could predict (with a fair degree of accuracy), whether a book would be a commercial success or not. Their results showed, amongst other things, that writers should stay away from all those pesky clichés and verbs. Well, okay, that’s obvious, but to be fair, those scientists were only able to ‘predict’ stuff with books that had already been successful.
So, is it possible to create a formula, plan, outline or whatever, that can work as a template?
Apparently, bestselling horror writer Stephen King used an outline for his book ‘The Dead Zone’, but with every other book, he avoids plotting like the plague. Instead, he simply takes a bunch of ideas and explores where they take him. Which is the pretty much the method I’ve been using myself (Cheers, Stevie).
Another writer, John Baldwin, came up with a 10-point formula for the thriller genre, which includes things like:
The hero has a team of experts behind him
Two or more of the team must die
If you get stuck with the plot, kill someone
One of sci-fi and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock’s creations was the influential anti-hero Elric. Moorcock later revealed the early Elric books were written quickly over a 3-10 day period, where he would regularly notch up 15,000 words a day! If this sort of regime doesn’t scare you off, check out his book ‘Death is No Obstacle’ which outlines his methodology in great detail.
But getting back to Goosebumps…
Considering the ‘Goosebumps’ books have sold more than 400 million copies, Mr Stine is obviously doing something right. Looking at a sample of his output, I calculated that a lot of them have a few things in common:
A scary title
A scary cover
An average word count of 40,000
An average of 20 chapters
Of course, there are other factors at work here too, but I didn’t want to get into an analysis of exactly what it is that makes the books work, so I started thinking about creating my own series of horror books for children and what that might involve.
First of all, I wanted to offset my other creative projects, so it has to be something I can write quickly, and since that’s one of the things I’m quite good at (as long as I’m feeling inspired), that’s a great start. Next, I decided instead of creating each book as a separate entity, I’d come up with a town and a bunch of characters who could inhabit my world. That way, I wouldn’t be starting from scratch every time. The only other thing I needed was a series title.
So I called the series Skeleton Cove Horror, came up with The Demon of Devilgate Drive for the first title, and created a nice array of characters to inhabit my scary town.
Book one was published in April 2017 and book two, The Curse of Calico Jack will be out shortly. With an average of 2,000 words per chapter, a total word count or 40,000, it feels like I’ve got my own special formula.
Except I haven’t really, because I’m still very much a seat-of-the-pants type of guy, so at the start of each book my inspiration begins and ends with the title. With no plot outline and no clue as to where I might take it, I’ve no idea how things are going to end. But with the help of a few basic guidelines to keep me on the straight and scary route, I reckon I might be onto a winner.
So, when they make the movie of the series, I think I’ll go for Christopher Walken as the bad guy. Or maybe Meryl Streep in Cruella DeVil mode…or…
NB A version of this post first appeared as a Guest Post on Vicki Goodwin’s blog, The Page Turner.