Are You Original?

TAKEAWAY: Breakthrough artists master a domain and then violate its rules in a quest for originality.

To say that the novels of the late Stieg Larsson have received both critical acclaim and strong sales would be supreme understatement. So what was the secret of the author of the author of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest?

For one, he was a rule-breaker.

A soon-to-be-released box set of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy includes among other items some emails between Larsson and his editor. Two were highlighted recently in The Wall Street Journal, and highlight his quest for originality. Here’s a taste:

In many respects I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels… I have tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels… I have also deliberately changed the sex roles.

Larsson’s books are popular in part because they provide surprises to readers familiar with genre convention. So does that mean that the key to success is to do everything the opposite of every creative who has come before you?

I would think not. Larsson could break the rules because he had mastered the rules.

Creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed three tiers of creative thinking. There’s the domain, the set of rules a professional learns. Then there’s the field, where those rules are practiced (in this case, fiction). Finally there’s the person, who masters the domain and commits to the field.

photo by rogiro via Creative Commons license

Take painting. Pablo Picasso invented cubism, but long before that he mastered the domain of illustration and painting and applied himself to his field.

Years ago I was fortunate enough to behold Guernica when it was housed in Madrid. Before being permitted to take in the massive painting, however, I was guided down a long hallway lined with pencil sketches.

Those studies showed Picasso didn’t just launch into cubist forms of say, a horse. Instead he began with a sketch of a lifelike horse, then transformed it over additional sketches into the final compelling image of a tortured beast.

Larsson, a professional writer long before he became a novelist, could break convention because he knew convention. Picasso still follows the domain of painting in Guernica, from composition to brush technique. He diverted from the norm in ways that amplified his message and made his art stand apart.

So by all means be original. Break rules, as novelist Michael Swanwick told me during my 35-state road trip interviewing creatives. But before you send off to an agent that romance novel in which the hero murders the heroine on the last page, make sure you have mastered the domain and field of fiction and the romance genre first.

And let me know when it’s published. I’d be curious to see how you pulled off that twist.

11 thoughts on “Are You Original?

  1. Pingback: Are You Original? | The Artist's Road « Oil Painting Boutique Blog

  2. Great post. I always tell my clients who send in their manuscripts for critique that there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules first before launching headlong into a ravine- without safety equipment.


  3. Next time you post something this meaty, consider a time other than Thanksgiving week, LOL. I totally missed this last fall, and it’s a great post.

    Often people think that in order to be creative, you have to produce something original out of thin air, and that ends up blocking them from creating anything.

    Using existing structures and processes and building on work that others have done gets the creative mind in action, and it’s only when it’s in action that new ideas come. As you work, questions come up. What if I changed this? How could I improve upon it? What’s another way to do it?

    This also seems relevant to your more recent post on the place of formal instruction in developing as an artist. Formal instruction teaches the rules and exposes you to mentors across time who may inspire you and model an approach that you can use as a springboard to something original.


    1. My bad! 🙂

      “Often people think that in order to be creative, you have to produce something original out of thin air, and that ends up blocking them from creating anything.”

      Great insight, well put. It makes me think of what I’ve read of inventors, where they say even the most transformative invention is really just a derivation of something before. I like to say the Internet is just a spiffy telegraph, transmitting data in code over long distances at fast speeds.

      Remembering that we’re just “standing on the shoulders of giants” reaching a wee bit higher can be easier than trying to have the reach of a giant alone.


  4. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week — 6/3/11 « The Artist's Road

  5. Pingback: Creativity and Originality « The Artist's Road

  6. Patrick, thanks for sending this out one more time. I enjoyed reading it and seeing people gazing at the Picasso. Also I’ve been wondering if I had anything new to give to my readers both of my short fiction, novels for kids, and my dog lover blog.

    Yes, “…standing on the shoulders of giants” fits well. I’m now literally turning dreams and nightmares into short fiction, realizing nobody dreams like I do then I write dreams in stories that dip into the surreal. My writers’ group just told me that my latest story rocked (with some suggestions for structure and clarity).

    Craft, skill, and knowledge matter.That’s why the advice to new writers is to read 1,000 books in your genre before writing one. And Mary Cole, Literary agent says, “Write a million words before you send me your first novel.”


  7. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week — 10/7/11 « The Artist's Road

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