The Curse of Creativity

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Let me tell you a little secret, one I learned myself not too long ago. The key to success, apparently, is putting out a product that looks like everyone else’s. Heresy, you say?

First, I submit the mind-numbing post on Slate, Inside the Box. The article asserts that people are generally uncomfortable with those who think “outside the box.” Here’s an excerpt:

We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed.

It’s all a lie. This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it. Studies confirm what many creative people have suspected all along: People are biased against creative thinking, despite all of their insistence otherwise.

“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity.

Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.

Then there’s the article on The Book Designer, by C.S. Lakin. While the piece mostly explores whether or not platform is crucial to an author’s success, it also highlights the benefits of conforming. Read on…

Because although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books are a bit experimental and can’t be easily categorized. My books just weren’t selling much.

With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. But after I’d put out five novels as ebooks (and some also in print), and did extensive marketing and promotion (spending an outrageous amount of money on publicity, for example)—following to the letter all the sage advice I’d garnered on how to sell for success, nothing worked. My author friends were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or they would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat.

Then she tells us what she did to break out…

  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructedthe structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine.
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series.
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion. [NOTE: This was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in.]

And now, she’s selling 30 to 50 books a day. Coincidence? I think not.

The arguments against creativity are pretty damning. Before “The Hunger Games,” there was the dystopian “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, written in 1932. Before Harry Potter, there were wizarding novels by Ursula K. Le Guin and before that, waaaay before that, a man named George MacDonald wrote a book in 1858 called “Phantastes“–the first fantasy book ever. Tellingly, “Brave New World” was a critical, but not popular success when first published.  “Phantastes” got “some notice” (even inspiring CS Lewis) but MacDonald’s greatest success came with his realistic fiction. 

Now, let’s look at another man who pioneered not only the first science fiction book, but also the first detective story: Edgar Allan Poe. Even after the success of “The Unparalled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (science fiction) and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (detective story) in magazines of the day, Poe remained desperately poor for most of his life. It wasn’t until 1908–nearly 60 years after his death–that these works were collected into “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” and widely published to a large audience. People the world over recognized his genius; they just didn’t want to pay him a living wage to create it. Sad. Very sad.

So should the truly creative among us cease and desist? No, of course not. Just realize that some ideas take longer to embrace than others. Besides, I don’t believe creativity is something that can be turned off and on like a light switch. If you’re a mad genius, can you really live any other way? (P.S. – while I don’t consider myself a mad genius, my creativity definitely strays into the margins)

If you’re writing solid, middle-of-the-road genre books, thank your lucky stars that someone else took those first knocks to their career. And if you’re writing quirky cross-genre books that defy conventional logic, don’t worry too much about success. History dictates it will come after you’re dead.

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Wow. That was a heavy post. I promise my next one will be lighter, just in time for the holidays.

Anyone care to comment on the curse of creativity? Agree with me? Disagree? I welcome all comments.

Addendum: Ack! I completely forgot to mention that my middle grade novel, Doom & Gloom, is on sale now through Kindle Countdown. (thru Dec. 26)

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4 thoughts on “The Curse of Creativity

  1. Have been following CS Lakin’s post on the Book Designer blog. I like it. Good food for thought as is your post here. One of the Roosevelts is reputed to have said (I paraphrase) “..there’s the right thing, the wrong thing and nothing. The first two are better than the last…” I love this quote simply for the fact that right or wrong at least you are trying. Even if your effort is a bit polarizing (e.g. Lakin’s latest awesome post) it is something. It is her original effort, which is more than anyone else seems to have done. Whether readers agree or not, they can take something away from her effort. I think creativity is the same way. Like it or not, something you have not seen/heard/read before makes its mark on you and you walk away a different person. Not better or worse. Different. That bit of creativity has changed your perspective.

    I think the urge to conform and to reach out and make others fit as well, is as old as the hills. There are physical reasons for this having to do with how your eye picks out “nonconforming” objects in the physical world and a host of other more cultural reasons as well. But it all fits in with your thesis here. Creatives tend to stick out and much of the world wants to play “whack a mole” with those heads that stick up out of the hole.
    Our mortal coil continues to spin though, and creatives seem to continue popping up, so at least the gene pool seems to be holding its own 🙂

    • I absolutely love your whack-a-mole analogy. It’s so true! And yes, thankfully, creatives continue to thrive in the gene pool. If not for them, we wouldn’t have fire or the wheel. 🙂

      P.S. – I’m in awe of C S Lakin. I don’t think writing and making money should be mutually exclusive. But right now, for me, they still are!

  2. Thanks for posting about my blog post on The Book Designer. It’s spurred a lot of debate, and of course now I’m getting emails from writers asking me to tell them which subgenre to write in so they can get rich quick. Sheesh! I tried to be clear by saying I went on the assumption that due to supply and demand, some genres might seem to “sell themselves.” But that’s a slippery slope. I don’t know how much my success had to do with my optimizing my product page on Amazon to make sure all my categories and keywords played a part. And I’m sure they did. The first day I put the book up, without any sale (for about two weeks), because of the keywords, the book already came up in the top lists for those genres under new releases in the last 30 days. So that was all about keywords and not sales. But I worked hard to research that and make sure my product page was the best it could be as a selling tool.

    So, there are a lot of factors, but I do conclude genre makes a difference. And haven’t we known that all along? We all know authors who, for decades, have written romance because they know it sells. For me, I knew I had to write romance, but wasn’t sure which subgenre to try, so this was a good lead and I tried it.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Susanne. I really admire the analytical approach to book publishing you took, deconstructing and, in fact, “reverse engineering” a successful product. It proves that today’s writer must be both artist and business person.

      I, too, tried writing in a different genre as an experiment. But I made the mistake of putting a new spin on an accepted formula. Most readers want a “sure bet,” and the more we deviate from what’s expected, the more objections we must overcome to make a sale. (also true in trad publishing when pitching to editors) At this point, I’m thinking that the best time to experiment is when a writer’s large and loyal following is already in place.

      I’m not at all surprised by the “get rich quick” emails you’re receiving. Too funny!!!!

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