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.


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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.


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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.

Why?

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’.

Why?

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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Read ‘The Myths of Innovation’ With Me!

Cover of Tips for Those Contemplating InsanityI’ve got two announcements to make.

The first is about my e-book ‘Tips for Those Contemplating Insanity.’

After the e-book giveaway in December, some of my readers came back with suggestions on how I could make the e-book better. With those in mind I spent a couple more weeks reworking it. I’m very happy with the results and I can’t wait to share then with you!

My plan is to release the book next week. If you would be interested in participating in the release, please let me know either by e-mail or in the comments below.

I’m already working on my next e-book which will be a guide to becoming a guilt- and stress-free writer. Exciting stuff!

Now, for my second announcement.

Cover of The Myths of Innovation by Scott BerkunI’ve started reading The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. It is a brilliant book. There are so many great points in it that a book review in a single post just wouldn’t do it justice. So I’m proposing a project we can all do together.

I plan to post my thoughts on the book every week, dealing with a chapter at a time. I encourage you to get yourself a copy and read along. I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments!

The book is only $8.99 for the Kindle version and $12.23 for the paperback on Amazon (non-affiliate links).

I plan to start not next week but the week after. It’s going to be great fun, so come along for the ride!