Pioneers and Giants

For this blog post I’m dividing the great writers into two categories–pioneers and giants.  I define pioneers as those who start a new genre of fiction by themselves, and giants as those who come along later and take an existing genre to new heights and greater popularity.

Here is a table listing a few literary genres and some of the pioneers and giants in each one:

Genre

Pioneers

Giants

Adventure Heliodorus, Homer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne
Comedy Aristophanes Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, William Shakespeare, R. L. Stine, Kurt Vonnegut
Crime Steen Steensen Blicher, Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie
Fantasy Homer Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien
Historical Chariton of Aphrodisias Pearl S. Buck, Ken Follett, Robert Graves, Eleanor Hibbert, James Michener, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ryotaro Shiba, Leo Tolstoy
Horror William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, R. L. Stine, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde
Mystery E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe Jiro Akagawa, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Kyotaro Nishimura, Edward Stratemeyer
Philosophical St. Augustine Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Soren Kierkegaard, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, Jean Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, Voltaire
Political Plato Edward Bellamy, Benjamin Disraeli, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas More, George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Gore Vidal
Romance Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Ann Radcliffe Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, Catherine Cookson, Janet Dailey, Eleanor Hibbert, Debbie Macomber, Stephenie Meyer, Nora Roberts, Denise Robins, Danielle Steel, Corín Tellado,
Satire Aristophanes Ambrose Bierce, Anthony Burgess, Candide, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut
Science fiction Jules Verne Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, H. G. Wells
Steampunk James Blaylock,  K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Thriller Homer, John Buchan Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean
Urban Robert Beck TN Baker, Kole Black, De’Nesha Diamond, K’wan Foye, J.Gail, Erick Gray, Shannon Holmes, Pamela M. Johnson, Solomon Jones, Mallori McNeal, Miasha, Meesha Mink, Jeff Rivera, Big Rob Ruiz, Sister Souljah, Vikki Stringer, Nikki Turner, Anthony Whyte

You can quibble with the names in the table and that’s fine; I don’t pretend that it’s 100% accurate or complete.  But as I look through the table a couple of things are apparent:

  • There are a lot of genres, and probably more for you to invent.  (I didn’t list all genres, or very many subgenres.)  There will be more pioneers.
  • Just because a genre is old (the pioneer long dead) doesn’t mean new, modern giants can’t emerge.  It’s never too late to be a giant.

In general, the pioneer lays down some of the rules for the genre and takes the first tentative steps within its boundaries.  The pioneer faces the difficulty of convincing a skeptical publisher to take a risk on a book that doesn’t fit in any known category.

But it is the giants who really explore the full extent of the genre and help to popularize it for more readers.

Perhaps one day you’ll be looked upon as a great author.  Which type will you be–a pioneer or a giant?  There’s glory in both.  Which would you rather be?  Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  Hoping to become one or the other, I’m–

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 18, 2011Permalink

Writing and the Outlier Theory

In a previous blog post, I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers: The Story of Success.  In it, he explored why some people seem to stand out as geniuses in their fields–what made them so good?  His conclusion was that success requires two things:  (1) Luck, and (2) 10,000 hours of practice.

There’s not much we can do about luck.  Gladwell suggested it was a matter of being born at the right time and being exposed to the right influences.  When it comes to luck, you either have it or you don’t.  If you have it, ride that wave, baby.  If you don’t, well, reconcile yourself to the fact that not all books sold are written by the greatest writers of all time.  And know this, too:  there’s no way of knowing in advance whether you are lucky.  Only time will tell.

Although we can’t alter our luck, we can do something about the 10,000 hours.  Well, not shorten it, I’m afraid.  But we can accomplish it.  We can devote ourselves to it.  If you spend 10,000 hours honing your skill at one thing, it’s highly likely you’ll become good at it.  Perhaps not great, but good.  And you may grow to enjoy that activity, such that the idea of the next 10,000 hours doesn’t frighten you, but thrills you.

Gladwell goes on to discuss what the 10,000 hours should consist of.  Many of those hours should be devoted to freeform play where failure has a low cost.  There should be a lot of experimentation and attempts at trying out different approaches without any external criticism.  Examples he gives in his book include hockey players, musicians, and computer pioneers.  But you can see how his theory applies to writers.

For writers, the 10,000 hours is spent mostly alone, writing.  The freeform play consists of many attempts at stories of different types, many drafts that get discarded, many early tales of poor quality.  The 10,000 hours should include some study as well–research into the mechanics of writing, research into how great writers plied their craft.

At this point you might be thinking of examples of great writers who didn’t have to spend 10,000 hours perfecting their skills.  Okay, there might be a handful.  And you might end up being one.  If so, great!  But do you really think you should assume that you’re going to be one of that very rare breed that achieves greatness without a lot of work?

Yes, I’ve done the math.  I know that if you can only devote three hours a day to writing, you won’t reach 10,000 hours for over nine years.  But for most of us, there’s just no way around that.  And you need to remember that much of those 10,000 hours are spent in enjoyable play.  It needn’t be all drudgery.

So those 10,000 hours won’t happen by themselves.  If you want to be an author, get moving.  The clock’s ticking and the calendar’s flipping.  Oh, and if you know some sure-fire shortcut, please send it to–

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 11, 2011Permalink

To Retrieve a Lost Muse

I’ve written quite a bit about my muse–that creative alter ego of mine–but I’ve not written much about yours.  You might be protesting, “But, Steve, I don’t have a muse.  I’m not a creative person.”  Well, it’s my contention that we all were born creative and that many of us taught ourselves to be uncreative over time.  However, we can teach ourselves to be creative again, regain the lost skill, and recover the abandoned muse.

Were we really all born creative?  Certainly we were born curious, and curiosity is an essential element of creativity.  When you watch a wide-awake baby who is by herself and not engaged with anybody else, that baby is looking around, curious about her environment.  She will make every effort to interact with it, to learn about it. She’ll reach and touch things, put things in her mouth, etc.  The interesting part is, she’s doing all this with a bold attitude and no fear of failure.  She will try anything.

Somewhere along the growing process, many of us learn to stop behaving that way.  We get burned by the environment too many times, or scolded or teased by others; we become afraid to try new and different things, instead preferring the safety of the commonplace and conventional.

Given such an ingrained lifetime pattern of avoiding creative thought, how can we get back to the bold, fearless approach we once had?  There is one place we can be curious and creative without getting burned by anyone or anything, and that’s our mind.  In the mind’s playground we can try anything, explore anything, see anything from any vantage, and no one will criticize us; nothing will hurt us.

One technique for building creativity makes use of this mental playground.  I learned this from my father many years ago.  He said when you have a problem, and when you have alone-time on your hands, (such as when you’re doing a drudgery task like driving or mowing the lawn or cleaning or doing laundry), you can try this method.  Just think of twenty possible solutions to the problem.  Don’t stop until you get to twenty.  Here’s the fun part–the solutions don’t have to be practical, or possible.  Each solution should be related in some way to the problem, but you are not allowed to self-criticize the solutions or reject them for being impossible or bizarre.  You’re not writing them down; this is all being done in your head.

You might be asking, “What’s the point of coming up with twenty solutions that won’t work?”  The point is that such creative play where there is freedom to imagine without fear will often generate a dumb solution that sparks a subsequent smart one, even an ingenious one.

Another way to build creativity is with the use of mind maps.  I’ll discuss that in a future blog post.

There are many more techniques you can use.  This site explains ways to solve problems by creating “distance” from the problem in either space or time.  This site provides sixteen specific methods, many of which involve shifting mental gears.  A new environment can stimulate a fresh idea.  This site gives you a list of ten creativity-building approaches that are a bit more general.

There’s an obvious parallel here with the problems of losing weight or becoming more fit. The only effective way to do those things is some combination of exercise and better diet.  The only way to regain lost creativity is to exercise it (through some of the techniques) and feed it a better diet (of stimulating environments as mentioned in the rest of the techniques).

Go ahead and try some of these methods. You’re more creative than you realize. That inquisitive child remains inside. Let it roam free in the playground of your mind.  Your long-abandoned muse will return. That’s a solid guarantee, provided by–

                                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 4, 2011Permalink