Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly

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Can You Succeed in a Book Saturated Market?

Man sitting on a bookcase

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the third chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

While reading this chapter, I came across a section which I can’t get out of my head. Under the heading ‘The Infinite Paths of Innovation,’ Berkun discusses three stories of unlikely success: Flickr, 3M and Craigslist.

At the end he makes this remark:

Had you rounded up all of the great innovations experts and authors from these times, none of them would have predicted these outcomes. In all three cases, common sense would have dictated that the markets involved (photo software, office products, and classified ads) were highly saturated businesses with few opportunities. But now, looking back (as we learned in Chapter 2), it seems inevitable that these markets were ripe for change.

One could argue that the book market today is highly saturated. Each year millions more books are being published, and the new wave of self-publishing brought on by the digital age heralds an even bigger flood of authors putting out their wares.

So how can you stand out from the crowd? How can you succeed in the book-saturated world we live in today?

The purpose of Berkun’s chapter is to prove that there is no repeatable method to innovation. As he points out:

Successful innovations are highly unpredictable, even in the view of experts or the innovators themselves.

However, he provides information in this third chapter about the “patterns and frameworks that can be useful,” referring to them as “scaffolding” rather than “foundations.”

The chapter is full of interesting stuff. I suggest you read through it yourself.

I’m now going to take the three examples he sites and apply them specifically to writing.

Are You Willing to Change Direction?

The programming behind the photo-sharing website Flickr was originally developed for a online game called Game Neverending. At some point in the development, the programmers realised that the photo-sharing tool was a stronger business prospect than the game itself. So they put all their brain power into developing that aspect instead, and produced the Flickr we have today.

How does this apply to writing?

When writing a novel, are we so focused on our original vision that we’re not open to change? Sometimes the story may start out as one thing, but then in revision becomes something completely different – something stronger, more compelling, far better than the original. Are we willing to let it evolve into something different? Do we follow that new slant with as much passion and gusto as we did the first version?

As writers, we should always be looking for ways to make things better. If a novel isn’t working, can we break it down into a novela or a short story? If a short story is blossoming into a novel, are we happy to go along with it?

What if you write science fiction and couldn’t bear to set anything in the here and now? If the story you’re currently working on demands to be set in a different place and time, do you go with it? Or do you make it fit with what you’ve always written?

Continually look for the potential in your work. Cultivate your ideas, and allow them to interact. Be flexible with what you’re working on. Look for the power in your words and your work – it may come from areas you’re not expecting – then have the courage to pursue the new course. Often those sudden changes in direction are what lead to a fresh new perspective in your work…and an opening in the world of books.

Have You Created the Right Environment?

3M started out as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. In 1925 a lab assistant needed a tape that marked borders on car bodies. He experimented and came up with the masking tape 3M sells today. Realizing the potential for innovative ideas from their employees, 3M created a work environment which encouraged further experimentation and discovery.

Are you picky about where your ideas come from? Do you view some ideas as better than others because of what sparked them?

Do you surround yourself with interesting information? Do you read regularly and widely?

Do you allow yourself time to pursue different ideas and stories? Or are you always fixated on writing one particular thing?

If you always write prose, why not try poetry? If you always write romance, why not turn your hand to mysteries? If you always write fiction, why not change course and give non-fiction a go?

Set yourself up  in an environment where experimentation is encouraged and interesting failures are rewarded.

Do You Consider Your Readers?

Craig Newmark started by e-mailing information about local events to his friends. It soon grew into a website where people could post information. According to the Craigslist FAQ page, there are now more than 700 local craigslist sites in 70 countries.

Big Publishing has to take into consideration sales figures and main stream markets. Self-publishing, on the other hand, allows authors to provide for a niche market.

This leads to many more books, but if you play your cards right it allows you to capture the attention of a specific audience – a tribe. If you find ways to fill their interests and needs, you win yourself a fan base.

So instead of making your work generic in an attempt to appeal to everyone, why not write for a specific niche? Then package and market your work with that niche in mind. Far better to have a smaller number of loyal fans who will pounce on your next work, than a much larger group of readers who are pausing briefly to look at your work while on their way to the next popular book.

How Does This All Help?

The examples above show that to stand out from the crowd you need to:

  • Give free rein to ideas that produce interesting and unique content, and
  • Appeal to an audience (even if it’s a specific and small one).

So put yourself in different situations, be flexible and look for niche interests to fill.

What are your thoughts on this subject, and on the third chapter of The Myths of Innovation?

P.S. For the next four weeks, I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from these posts about Berkun’s book. To celebrate the release of Punch for Prompt, I’ll be posting four short stories based on Charlotte’s writing prompts. Stay tuned. It’s going to be fun!


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5 Attitudes That Lead to Success

People standing on different paths

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the third chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

This chapter dealt with the myth that there is a tried and true method for innovation.

The answer, in short, is there is no method to innovation – no way of reliably reproducing success or reducing the risks of failure.

In fact, failure (or the risk thereof) is an integral part of the process. Discoveries come about through experiments. An experiment, as Berkun points out,

has at least one unknown variable, and the experiment is to see how that variable, well, varies.

This naturally leads to unexpected results which, by their very definition, can be anything from the greatest thing since twist ties to an almighty flop.

The important thing to remember here is that failure is not the end to a brilliant career. In fact, Berkun reminds us:

There is no way to avoid all risks when doing new things…all the greatest innovators in history experienced more failures than successes.

Comforting, no?

Well, yes actually.

Realising that those who went before us also battled through failures, can make their successes feel more achievable. Remember, last week we discussed how history should be used to connect our struggles with those of people in the past. While history only seems to focus on the spectacular highs and colossal lows, it’s the ordinary failures and discoveries that led to most of the innovations we have today.

So, does that mean there’s no way to reproduce the ‘perfect environment’ for innovation?

Finding Paths to Innovation

Berkun points out that there are infinite paths to innovation, and while “there are no maps” to these paths, “there are attitudes that help.”

As I read through the five attitudes he mentions, I found them relating very easily to the writing life. What do you think?

Gain Self-Knowledge

Whenever we create, we are giving out a part of ourselves; be it our energy, our thoughts or our emotions. Our Creativity is an integral part of this process.

Berkun says:

Being aware of the environments or challenges that inspire the best results for your personality helps you make smart path choices.

Some literary examples of this that spring to mind are:

  • If you are able to map your most creative times of day, you can schedule your tasks to take best advantage of those times.
  • If you understand what boosts your Creativity, you can keep yourself moving forward in your writing projects.
  • If you acknowledge what parts of the writing life give you stress, you can find ways to manage that stress (or perhaps remove it).

Reward Interesting Failures

This one is my favourite. Berkun sums it up nicely:

Any mistake that teaches you, or someone who works with you, something previously unknowable without having done the experiment is a valuable lesson. And it’s this attitude that is consistent among all great inventors.

I love the term used here: previously unknowable.

We can read all the writing blogs and books we like but our personal writing challenges, and the best ways for us to overcome them, are unknowable until we physically sit down and start writing.

Once we start writing there will be failures. There will be ideas that morph as we put them to paper, stories with unexpected themes running through them, characters who take us in completely different directions. The true potential of these were unknowable until we got them onto the page and started massaging them into shape.

Even if the idea, story or character never actually makes it into the final draft, we have learned from the experience. And that is something to be rewarded.

If you viewed ‘failures’ as something to be rewarded, would you be less afraid of starting something new?

Be Intense, But Step Back

Most of us do our best work when we are intensely writing. But distance is equally important.

While we are intense, we are driven by passion for our work (or perhaps sheer determination to finish). We see the intricacies of what we are creating and feel the emotions we’re describing.

But at some point we have to step back so we gain the perspective that only distance can give. Seeing the whole picture, with a measure of detachment, shows up flaws or areas for improvement which we could never have found during our intense phase.

This is why it’s important to take a break from your writing, even putting a finished draft in the drawer for a period of time, to force the distance.

When you return to view your work, keep yourself open to the potential of change. Be willing to reconsider where your project could go. Be prepared to “hear the hard truths” and perhaps rethink your strategies. It takes courage, but the benefits are worth it.

Grow to Size

Most of us would love to produce a best selling book, or at least one which captured the imagining of a worldwide audience. But to manage that we need to start small. With words and sentences, questions and conundrums, plot and characters.

Berkun, referring to the fantasy of changing the world or revolutionising an industry, says:

Many world-changing ideas had humble beginnings and started with small questions like, “Can I make this better?” Use ego and ambition to fuel a progression of innovations and not distract you from the best opportunities, however ordinary, nearby.

The saying goes that there are only a finite number of plots in literature. If that’s the case, pick a plot and ask the question, “Can I make this better?” Start from a humble beginning, building your words and experience as you go.

Honour Circumstances and the Past

Whenever someone succeeds, there are often more elements in play than the person themselves. As Berkun says:

You can do everything right and fail, and do many things wrong and succeed.

Acknowledging the randomness of circumstances and the sacrifices of those who went before will keep us humble – and humility is one of the most important secrets to dealing with success and failure alike.

There is no way to guarantee creative success, but these five attitudes can put you in the best mindset for making it happen.


Chapter 3 is so packed full of interesting information that I ended up with two separate posts about it. This is the first. Next week I’ll post the second, dealing with how to succeed in a book-saturated market. Stay tuned!
What points did you especially like from chapter 3? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Is Hindsight Really 20/20?

Tourists in Rome

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the second chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

The second chapter of Berkun’s book deals with the myth that we understand the history of innovation. It has given me much to think about.

As writers, we are very connected to history. We research it. We recreate it in our minds and then in our words. We stand in awe of those that went before us. We form our words into articles and stories with the hope that they will transcend time and become part of history itself.

Our view of history is integral to our writing. But is it accurate?

For example, we assume that history is written in stone because, well, most of it literally is…isn’t it?

Using the examples of the Rosetta Stone and Gutenberg, Berkun highlights how our idea of history is coloured by the world we are surrounded by today.

He says:

[Gutenberg’s] influence, similar to the impact of the Rosetta Stone, owes as much to circumstances, world politics and chance as to his abilities as a printmaker.

So when we look back at history, are we really seeing with 20/20 vision? Or are there things altering our perceptions?

The Hues That Tint Our History

Whenever we come across a description of history, be it in a museum, book or the world around us, we need to keep the following in mind.

We Only See What Survived

Berkun uses the sample of walking through Rome today. There are various examples of masterful Roman buildings which have been standing for thousands of years.

But what we don’t see during these travels are all the buildings that are no longer standing; those which fell down or were torn down and then built over.

What survives today is a distilled version of history – the relics that stood the test of time.

As Berkun brings out:

History can’t give attention to what’s been lost, hidden or deliberately buried; it is mostly a telling of success, not the partial failures that enabled success.

History is Written by People (with Opinions)

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘history is written by the victors.’ Or, as Voltaire said:

History is the lie commonly agreed upon.

Even the most careful of historians will still be commentating on the things they have researched, witnessed or discovered. The slant of their words can be influenced by what interests them most about the subject and what connections they are looking to explain.

We cannot help but let our opinions colour how we read things and what we write.

Even our own memories of our personal history can become distorted by emotions, interconnecting events and the passing of time.

History is Usually a Boiled Down Version

The past is complicated – filled with people, events, customs, beliefs, languages and other elements either now long dead or irrevocably altered. It’s also littered with uncomfortable truths and confusing facts.

Think about the effort it takes for you to understand all the complications of just one person in your current life. Now imagine a history populated with billions of such people.

We can’t hold all of this complexity in our head, and so we look to historians to provide us the simplified version.

Our Concept of History is Coloured by Our Present

The Rosetta Stone and Gutenberg’s printing press are prime examples of how the present alters our perception of the past.

The Rosetta Stone has become such an instantly recognised object in our time, not because of what its makers originally intended it for (a message from a pharaoh to his people), but because of what it was used for when discovered in 1789 (as a key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics).

In the same way, today we hold Gutenberg up as the first to succeed with movable type in Europe. However, during his lifetime he wasn’t hailed as a hero, in fact he barely made ends meet.

The world we live in today adds a rose-coloured tint to our view of what came before. Our understanding of what resulted from history gives the past a feeling of inevitability – as if everyone back there recognised the future importance of people, objects and events as they happened.

How Should We View History?

It’s natural to feel wonder when we look back at the relics of a past empire or the first steps of an innovation. But, as Berkun says, we should view them as wonderous:

not because they’re magical, otherworldly things…Instead, we should be inspired because these artifacts connect our personal struggles, glories, fears, and passions with those of the people who made the things we’re so quick to put on a pedestal – that’s the true power of history.

Hold that thought in your mind for a minute. ‘These artifacts connect our personal struggles, glories, fears and passions with those of the people who made the things we’re so quick to put on a pedestal – that’s the true power of history.

A Writer’s View of History

How does all this apply to writing?

It’s easy for us to read classic works and be left in awe by great writers of the past. We may even go so far as to idolize them and their accomplishments. However, they dealt with the same fears and struggles, highs and lows, that we do.

Instead of using their words to set them apart from us, we should use them to see the similarities between what they faced back then and what we face today. We are continuing to carry the torch of words that the writers before us once held.

Our understanding of history is flawed, but that doesn’t make it worthless. There is still plenty to be learned, as long as we remember we are seeing the past through tinted lenses.

We ourselves are not divorced from history. In fact, we are making history right now. What are you doing with your piece of history?

Other people and things are also making history. Just think:

  • How would you recognise a modern day Gutenberg?  What would he be doing now?  What technologies would he be using that maybe you aren’t?
  • What would the modern day equivalent of the Rosetta Stone be?  Is there some writing medium that effectively blends cultures the way this stone did (albeit unwittingly)?
  • What are the writing equivalents of ‘Roman artifacts’ lying around today that date from just a hundred years ago?


Have you read the second chapter of The Myths of Innovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read it yet, let us know your thoughts on this post, especially the questions at the end.

P.S. Of course, this is only a very high level overview of what is contained in Scott Berkun’s book. If you found this content interesting, please get your own copy and start reading.


Where Do Ideas Come From?

A photograph of a dictionary page defining the term 'idea'

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the first chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

We all love stories of how ideas started – about that great moment when the solution to a problem just popped into existence as if a lightbulb had turned on above someone’s head.

But, as Scott Berkun brings out in his first chapter, entitled ‘The Myth of Epiphany’, stories of innovation are often either:

  • Over-simplifications of events (such as in the case of Archimedes and his ‘eureka’ moment) or
  • Fabrications created to sensationalize the event (as happened with Newton and the apple).

Yet we crave the romanticized stories of how these epiphanies came about, believing that ideas are all about being in the right place at the right time.

Well, prepare to have your bubble burst.

The Reality of Epiphanies

Epiphanies don’t just happen to a random passerby who knows little or nothing about the subject in question. Epiphanies come to people who have an in-depth knowledge of their subject. Often they’ve studied their subject for years before they happen upon their great ‘ah ha’ moment.


Berkun uses the illustration of a jigsaw puzzle and the elation of putting in the last piece.

The last piece of the puzzle is no more special than any other piece of the puzzle. You don’t know which one it will be until the very end. It’s special because of all the pieces that have gone before it.

As Berkun says:

Epiphany works the same way: it’s not the apple or the magic moment that matters much, it’s the work before and after.

There are two causes for the elation felt at the moment of epiphany:

  • The hours of work that went before, and
  • The surprise of ‘reaching the summit’.

When working on a jigsaw, we can see our progress. We know how many pieces are left before we finish – and we know for sure when we only have one more piece to go. However, when dealing with epiphanies, we usually don’t know when we’re holding the metaphorical last piece until the moment it clicks into place. It’s like we’ve been scaling a mountain and the clouds suddenly pull back to reveal the summit.

But you cannot reach the summit if you haven’t been scaling the mountain in the first place.

The Difference Between Epiphanies and Ideas

Before we go on further to learn where ideas come from, I would like to diverge on a personal tangent for a minute to define some terms.

When we refer to an epiphany, we think of the ultimate, life changing ‘ah ha’ moment which neatly provides the all encompassing solution to our problem (as happens at the end of every detective television show, right?). It’s followed by a snap of the fingers, a squeal of excitement and/or a dash down the streets of the city in your birthday suit screaming ‘I have found it!’

Ideas, on the other hand, come in many shapes and forms. While you could describe all epiphanies as ideas, not all ideas are epiphanies. Many of them are simple, small and may only fix part of a problem. However, you’re guaranteed to have far more small ideas than epiphanies in your lifetime.

Berkun makes a good point under the heading ‘Ideas never stand alone’ when he says:

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas.

Where do these ideas come from? And how does an epiphany come about?

So, Where Do Ideas Come From?

Drawing from my own experience, and from consideration of Berkun’s first chapter, here is my summary of how ideas (and occasional epiphanies) actually come about.

Step 1: Understand Your Subject (also known as Hard Work)

First of all you need to immerse yourself in your subject. Learn everything you can about it. See what other people have tried (their successes and failures). Learn about their ‘previously known’ ideas.

To truly provide a useful ‘innovation’ (defined by Berkun as ‘significant positive change’) you have to first understand what needs to be changed.

Step 2: Get Creative With Your Subject

Conduct experiments to learn more, specifically in areas other people may not have branched into before.

Look for connections, especially the unusual ones. See how what you are now learning links with what you already know. Find similarities between what you’re working on and other unrelated subjects – art, farming, biology, metal smelting etc.

These are all your puzzle pieces. The more you fit together, the closer you get to your last piece.

Step 3: Walk Away From Your Workspace

At some point you need to take a break. Walk away from your workbench, or notebook, or computer. Take a shower. Make a cup of coffee. Go for a walk. Switch off for the weekend. Leave on a holiday. Relax and think about something completely different.

Often the last piece of the puzzle will fall into place once you’ve stopped forcing it – thus the eureka moment in an unexpected place.

What happens next may not be what you call an ‘epiphany’. Maybe it’s a realisation of a connection or a possibility that will send you off in a new direction or drive you forward with new enthusiasm – a humble idea. These moments are just as good as, if not better than, an ‘epiphany’.


Epiphanies Are Not Essential

As Berkun points out:

Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany.

Everyone wants a ‘eureka’ moment, but those aren’t what actually matter in the long run. After all, an idea alone is seldom useful. It needs application, further hard work, before it can have it’s true impact on the world.

Berkun says:

To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.

Epiphany is not essential. Most things are created without them.

For example, Peter Drucker, in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says:

Successful entrepreneurs do not wait until “the Muse kisses them” and gives them a “bright idea”: they go to work.

The moral here is, don’t wait for an epiphany to find you. You cannot control when, how or even if an epiphany will strike.

Instead, start working. Find a subject you have a passion for. Learn it well. Experiment. Look for those moments when you find connections and are filled with new enthusiasm. Value those humble ideas and continue fitting them into your bigger jigsaw.

The world is not divided into those who have epiphanies and those who don’t. It’s divided into those who do the hard work and those who don’t. If you’re doing the work, you’re a success – with or without the epiphany.

Have you read the first chapter of The Myths of Innovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read it yet, let us know your thoughts on this post.

P.S. This post barely even scratches the surface of the insightful information in Berkun’s first chapter. I highly recommend you get your own copy and start reading.

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The Library: When Henry Caught Imaginitis

When Henry Caught ImaginitisContinuing with the theme of ‘childishness,’ our latest addition to The Library is a children’s picture book – When Henry Caught Imaginitis written and illustrated by Nick Bland.

Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print, but if you can find it in your local library I highly recommend taking a look – especially if you’re an adult.

It tells the story of Henry, a little boy who is far too practical for his own good, until one day he catches Imaginitis which throws his life into chaos. Gradually he discovers the joy of throwing practical considerations (like ‘never eat anything bigger than your head’) out the window and embracing his new found ability to imagine.

The detailed illustrations start out in monotone, and creep into colour as Henry’s imagination blossoms. It’s a beautiful reminder of what wonders we experienced as children, and what we wish we could recapture as adults.

In fact, if you’re in a ‘creative slump,’ children’s books do a wonderful job of raising the spirits and reminding you how thinking like a child brings many creative rewards.

Have you read any good children’s books lately?


The Library: Finding Neverland

What do you do on those days when inspiration lags and you just want to sit on the couch and stare?

Watching TV can reignite your inspiration, if you watch the right program or movie. What is the ‘right kind’?

One kind is ‘author biographies.’ They usually provide amusement, insight, understanding and, hopefully, an itch to recreate some of the wonder in your own life.

While I’m the first to admit that Hollywood alters facts to serve story, I’m talking about using biographies to find inspiration. If you want to find the truth of the matter, I suggest research.

But that’s a discussion for another time. Right now I’d like to add a movie to our Library. And the movie I choose today is: Finding Neverland.

Things I Have Learned from J. M. Barrie

Finding Neverland PosterFor those who haven’t seen this movie, it follows the story of how J. M. Barrie created the character Peter Pan. It starts with him witnessing the flop of his latest play. As he tries to find inspiration for a new play, he meets the Llewelyn Davies family. The four boys (actually five in real life) become J. M. Barrie’s new audience, and inspire him to write the play Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

I love this movie because it taught me several important things:

  • Keep writing. The idea wilderness strikes us all from time to time. But if you show up every day with your pen and paper, sooner or later inspiration will hit again. In the movie, J. M. Barrie is sitting in the park with his pen and paper when he meets the boys. If he had stayed at home and moped about his play’s failure, he would never have come across the catalyst for a whole new story. Whether you encounter that catalyst in the great outdoors, or just in the recesses of your head, make sure you’re there with pen and paper to capture it.
  • Fill people with joy, laughter and wonder. Sometimes we get so caught up in word counts, misplaced commas and character arcs that we forget the real reason we should be writing. Isn’t it to inspire others? Isn’t it to entertain? Isn’t it to describe a story that burns so bright inside us we just have to let it out? J. M. Barrie was passionate about his story, and he infected others with that excitement and passion. Shouldn’t we all aspire to that?
  • Dream big and innovate. J. M. Barrie didn’t just write a play, he crafted a world – a world which had to be built and filled with people who needed to be costumed. Someone needed to play a dog, and actors needed to learn how to fly. It even included a character played by a light. Then, on opening night he scattered orphans throughout the audience so their childish wonder and amusement could rub off on the adults. He used many different innovative methods to make his play as interesting and successful as it could be. So when you create, don’t just think in terms of words. Think of the possibilities around the words. What can you do to innovate? To dream bigger?
  • Be confident in your ideas. Many people doubted Peter Pan could be a success, especially those directly involved in its production. Pessimism is contagious and can destroy possibilities before you even try. J. M. Barrie had a gut feeling that his play would work, and he stuck to his guns. If you have the feeling that your idea is going to work, even if others around you are not so sure, then step up and be the driving force. Most ideas work because of the passion of the person behind them. So be confident. Be passionate. Drive your idea to success.
  • Dance with your dog. There are some days when you just need to dance with your dog. It’s good for you.

Have you seen Finding Neverland? Do you have any points you’d like to add to the list?

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The Library: The Pocket Muse Books

The Pocket Muse by Monica WoodI haven’t added to The Library for several months and I’m overflowing with books, movies and music to mention. Today I want to talk about one of my favourite books. If you are a creative writer, you must own this book.

It’s called The Pocket Muse, written by Monica Wood and published by Writers Digest Books.

I have read many books on writing but this one is the pick of the lot. It distills all the necessary wisdom into bite sized chunks, interspersed with writing prompts, gorgeous pictures and quotations. Wood covers an amazing variety of subjects, from prompts to get your writing started, through dealing with writer’s block, to finding an agent. Each new page is a delightful discovery, covered with hilarious and thought-provoking photographs, tasteful use of colour and intriguing designs. Just what Creativity needs to rejuvenate and start sparking again.

Along with the encouragement and eye candy, there is your fair share of “marching orders” regarding procrastination, writing routine and other areas where writers need frequent prompting. But Wood always makes sure she ends with a positive.

If you would like to read excerpts from this book, pop over to Monica Wood’s site.

My only complaint is, because the book is full of random snippets, it’s difficult to find the point you want a second time. I’ve spent ages flicking through the book trying to locate a quote or prompt I want to read again, cursing the fact I hadn’t put a marker in it – but then I love everything in the book so everything would be marked and I’d still be stuck.

The second volume The Pocket Muse Endless Inspiration is just as good. It contains more of everything that made the first book great, as well as extra information which completes the collection of writing wisdom.

In the immortal words of Goldilocks, these books are ‘not too big, not too small. Just right.’ If you haven’t bought, borrowed or secretly absconded with one yet, get cracking.


The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

I hadn’t intended to add to The Library so soon, but the book in question is on loan from the library (the actual local library) so I wanted to write this up before the book went back, rather than from memory later on.

A couple of months ago I was invited to an informal writers day organised by one of my friends. Each writer was to provide a short story of less than 2,500 words and a poem. Within an hour of the invitation I was batting around plots and characters for a short story. But the idea of producing a poem made the knees knock. I could count the number of poems I’d written on one hand. Poetry on command – was it possible?

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen FrySo I did what I always do when I’m worried about something – I went to the library. And there, in the writing section was the answer. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (published by Gotham Books). Or The Odeless Traveller as my grandmother calls it.

I am a Jeeves and Wooster addict, both of the books and the BBC series. I therefore have a soft spot for Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I grabbed the book, hurried home (after the proper borrowing procedures) and stuck it next to my bed where I could look at it confident in the knowledge I had a book to help me through…if I could pluck up the courage to open the cover. I’d looked inside once, seen the words enjambment, ceasura and pyrrhic substitutions far too close together and decided anything with double r followed by an h must be unpronounceable and therefore incomprehensible, like the poetry I was so afraid of.

It’s not that I dislike poetry. I have The Best of Ogden Nash displayed proudly on my bookshelf right next to my computer. I can name several favourite poems off the top of my head with barely any thought. I revel in Shakespeare and even indulge in a little free verse from time to time. But after a rather nasty run in with the poet Burns (who I find completely unintelligible) and a depressing afternoon reading a collection by Christina Rossetti, I found myself intimidated by the whole experience.

So, after I’d renewed The Ode Less Travelled at least once and realised the deadline for the writers day was fast approaching, I decided to read the Foreword.

By the third page I was pleasantly engrossed. Fry immediately acknowledges the cliched view of poetry writing (as an embarrassment to any sensible person who has the lapse in judgment to admit to it) and swiftly moves into reminding the reader of how many people take up painting, pottery, music and other hobbies simply for the fun of it, without expecting to be the next genius in the field. Even if we have no immediate talent for these things, there are ‘How To’ books, classes and shops selling all the accessories. There is jargon to learn and techniques to master. And most of all, there is fun to be had. So why not the same with poetry? Poetry also has jargon to learn and techniques to practice. And there’s plenty of fun and enjoyment to go round.

After such an inspiring foreword, poetry was now far less daunting.

The further I read into the book, the more appreciation I had for the poetry I’d read and the greater my understanding of what makes good poetry good – and therefore what makes my poetry weak. The simple concept of metre, which I had always found intimidating, suddenly made sense. I discovered iambic pentameter and began to tinker with stressed and unstressed syllables. Instead of these things being the gloomy and oppressive  realisations I had expected, they were illuminating and liberating. Fry described them in such endearing ways as to make them exciting. After the first chapter I already felt confident enough to take a crack at some of my own poetry.

Unfortunately, because of my delay in starting the book, I have not been able to finish it before it’s inevitable return to the library (the curse of procrastination). But the book served its purpose. I played with four different poems for the writers day, eventually finishing my favourite. On the day my simple submission received laughter and applause (from a very kind audience who probably would have applauded pretty much anything had it rhymed).

Thanks to Stephen Fry’s delightful book, I am far less intimidated by the concept of poetry. In fact, I may just write some more for the heck of it next time I feel the urge.

Why have I included this book in The Library? It’s a wonderful example of how a little knowledge can actually increase your ability to create. If nothing else, it’s an interesting walk through a subject, with a knowledgeable friend by your side teaching you the ropes and inserting amusing trivia in the process. If you feel the need to dabble in poetry or take the proverbial bull by the horns and declare yourself a poet, you need to read this book.

Update 24th February: Even the long suffering librarian could not renew my book any longer so The Ode Less Travelled has finally returned to its home on the public library shelf. Having read more of the book now (but still not having completed it), I would like to add a couple of points to my review. Swear words (including at least one f word which surprised me) are used in later parts of the book and I have since come across several poems used as exercise examples which readers may find inappropriate. Had I read them before I wrote the above, I would not have recommended the book in such glowing terms. Lesson learned; do not recommend something you have not completed. It is, however, an impressive book with very interesting explanations and has taught me much.


Introducing the Library

Apologies to my avid readers. All three of you. I’ve spent the past week either showing my cousin around the city or editing writing excerpts for an important application. Well, my application is in and my cousin has left so, hopefully, I’m now free to get back into blogging routine.

Shelves and shelves of booksAs a reward for your patience, I’d like to introduce a new category to this blog: The Library.

Basically this category will contain references to books, movies and music which I have found either stimulate Creativity, or help us to learn more about the creative process.

Our first candidate for The Library is a little unexpected. I know I didn’t expect it to be the first.

It is: The Complete Far Side.

My brother and I bought a copy of these whopper volumes for my parents’ wedding anniversary, and all four of us have been addicted to them ever since.  But then I’m always addicted to a Far Side book from the very first panel.

These volumes are even better than your everyday Far Side book, mainly because of the short essays by Gary Larson. He writes on a number of topics: his childhood, the quirks of  a comedian’s life, the unwritten rules of bedtime monsters, and the strong influence of Tarzan comics on his work.

The introduction by Jake Morrissey (Larson’s editor) provides insights into working with an extremely creative person. He mentions how he was struck by Larson’s willingness to be guided by his creativity. Flicking through these volumes you can see what he means.

If you can get your hands on these books, it’s well worth it. Touring the works and mind of a comedic and creative master provides insights, inspiration, and that wonderful realisation that he’s just a normal guy who wasn’t afraid to listen to his creativity, even when the ideas were strangely ridiculous. Isn’t that why we love his work so much?

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art.