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.
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.