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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Style, Fear and the Bias Against Creativity

by Ruth Harris

Style was once described as "looking like yourself on purpose." 

I don't know who said it but the words and the idea behind them always made sense to me. Certainly Barbra Streisand, Audrey Hepburn and Tilda Swinton are examples. So are Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. They don't look like anyone else and are instantly identifiable—and millions admire them and even want to copy them.

But what does style and looking like yourself on purpose have to do with writing?

Star hair cutter, Roger Thompson (he was Vidal Sassoon's first Artistic Director), told me that the dilemma is people are afraid to look like themselves. They come to the styling chair with a photo or a clipping and request a hair style like Jennifer Anniston’s, Beyonce’s or the model on that month’s Vogue cover.

Never mind that their own hair is super curly, stick straight or thick and wavy and will never work with the style they dream of unless a hairdresser equipped with curling iron, blow dryer, gel and hair spray is with them 24/7.

They fear owning their own hair, body, face when, in fact, the key to standing out and shining is to do exactly that.

So what does fear have to do with writing?

Stephen King has an answer to the question: “I’m convinced," he says, "that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation."
When you write, are you afraid of what critics/your Mom/a reviewer/your crit group will say? Do you feel pressured to prove to the world how smart you are and how brilliant your prose?
Do you shrink from ideas that seem too far out/too freaky/too scary/too ordinary/too done-to-death? You know what I mean: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. You don’t want to write that. Not again.
Or do you?  Never stopped lots of romance writers from making a lot of money, did it?
And you do know, don’t you, there there are maybe 7 basic plots?
Are you holding yourself back because you’re afraid? Of what? Of the nay-saying phantoms in your head? Of what “people” will say? Do you cringe from imagined hostile reviews?
Is your writing suffering because you’re afraid of what people you don’t even know much less care about are going to think?
Now you’re beginning to see what I’m getting at, aren’t you?
But, you say, if I let go, if I indulge my nuttiest, weirdest, furthest-out or done-a-million-times idea, people will laugh at me, sneer at me, think I’m crazy, call me untalented.
The fact is, you’re right. The fact is, they might even think of worse things to say.
The reason is that there’s a bias against creativity.
Only a few examples needed to make the point: Jackson Pollock was ridiculed and called “Jack the Dripper.” Picasso’s Cubist paintings were considered “shocking.”
Two experiments at the University of Pennsylvania involving more than 200 subjects discovered that people resist creative ideas because they challenge the status quo:
    People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practicaltried and true.
    Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
    Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.

So now what?

The obvious answer is that a writer must face his or her fears. Which we do anything to avoid. Booze is popular. So is chocolate. 

But an article I read a while ago about an in-demand sports psychologist gave me an idea for a different approach. 

Why not accentuate the positive? Why not conquer fear with confidence?

The psychologist’s theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter? This shrink’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete's weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths.

Writers can take the same approach: write what you’re good at. To bring the end of this post back to the beginning, as you polish what you’re already do well, you’ll will inevitably hone and define a style. It will be as individual as a fingerprint, as recognizable as Streisand, Tilda or Audrey and you will develop it by doing what you like best and by practicing what you’re already good at.

Ruth's hilarious new rom-com mystery-thriller, THE CHANEL CAPER  has just launched. Nora Ephron meets James Bond. Or is it the other way around? It's Chick Lit for chicks who weren’t born yesterday. The story is about the ups and downs of long-term relationships and addresses two of the most important questions of our time: 1) Is there sex after marriage? 2) Is sixty the new forty?

What about you, scriveners? Do you think there is a bias against creativity? At first I thought Ruth's title might be a little too provocative, but then I thought of all the times my own rom-com mystery-thrillers were dismissed with statements like "I've never heard of anybody doing that," or "You aren't allowed to mix genres" or a sneering, "well, that's different."  

But the big breakout books are indeed "different" and something "nobody's ever heard of doing." They succeed because the authors showcase what they're good at instead of trying to shoehorn themselves into existing stereotypes. Or they offer a completely different treatment of an old idea.

JK Rowling mixed the obsolete English boarding school story with magic. EL James mixed YA fanfic with very adult erotica.  Hugh Howey sold his sci-fi epic as a series of short episodes like a TV show instead of marketing a traditional novel.

Are you working on developing what you're good at instead of trying to conform to an existing norm? 

Have you ever had your creative ideas rejected by somebody who feared change? 

Or, like me, have you ever tried to write in copycat genres dictated by agents (like steampunk or apocalyptic dystopian) instead of the book you really want to write? (Yup. I failed dismally.)

Is there a book that's really "you" that you've been itching to write, but fearand other people's negativityhas been standing in your way?

For those of you who have faced your fears and written a "weird, unwieldy, unclassifiable" book, I found a contest for you in the Opportunity Alerts below.



1) FOR THE FEARLESS: The Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize comes from Black Balloon Publishing: "we champion the weird, the unwieldy, and the unclassifiable. We are battle-worn enemies of boredom and we’re looking for books that defy the rules." Prize is $5,000 and a Black Balloon Publishing book deal. They want a sample of your completed, novel-length manuscript. It's a two-tiered process, so make sure you follow the guidelines in the link above. Wait until April 1 to submit.

2) Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest. The prestigious literary journal Ploughshares runs a number of contests during the year. Winning or placing looks really good in a query. Plus there's a cash prize of $1000 in each category. This one is limited to writers who have not yet published. They're looking for poems and literary stories of up to 6000 words. Deadline is April 2.

3) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

4) New Literary Journal, The Puffin Review is looking for submissions of short fiction, (up to 3000 words) poetry and essays. They welcome new writers.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Very good point! I don't write Beautiful prose full of fluid poetry. That is definitely not my strength. So why kill myself trying to do something that's definitely a weakness? If I focus on my strengths, no one will notice the weaknesses. I'm good with that!

March 31, 2013 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Alex—Thanks. Your own point is excellent: if you focus on your strengths, no one will notice the weaknesses. Well stated!

Happy Easter!

March 31, 2013 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Susan Tuttle said...

I've been writing to my strengths for years. Almost every book I've written crosses genres. In fact, I wrote a paranormal suspense book years before it became a recognized sub-genre! Unfortunately, the rejections kept me from soldering on, so I can't take credit for "launching" that genre.

It takes a lot of courage and a very thick skin to push through all the criticism and rejection and ridicule and just be who you are. But since I've never been good at being "like everyone else" I've had no choice. Used to hate being me; now I love it. It's such a pleasure to sit down and write what I want the way I want to write it. And my readership is growing.

Thanks, Ruth, for encouraging all writers to do likewise. We'd all be happier being ourselves...

March 31, 2013 at 12:41 PM  
Blogger Phyllis Humphrey said...

Like Susan, I think I was ahead of my time because I kept getting rejected. I had to switch to "safe" romance novels to get a foot in the door. But now I can self-pub those earlier books and maybe find the readers who were waiting for them.

March 31, 2013 at 1:26 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Susan—Sounds like you *did* soldier through and the best news of all is that your readership is growing. Being yourself isn't always easy but when the reward is being yourself and loving it, it's well worth the set backs and down times.

Phyllis—There are many paths to success and getting that first foot thought the door is certainly one of them. It may well be that readers are waiting for those early books no publisher wanted—possibly because they didn't fall into what was popular at the time you submitted them.

March 31, 2013 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Christopher Champion said...

If we should work on our strengths, you should work on blog posts which inspire.

March 31, 2013 at 3:49 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Is sixty the new forty! Love you Ruth!

Love this post too. I've been writing non-sex Regency romance for the last year, and I think (hope) have finally started to see it pay off. I didn't realize there were so many people who didn't want sex in their romances. (Well, two reviewers, anyway, who said they appreciate the fact I don't write sex.)

I didn't want to be like everyone else, and I didn't want to have a Harlequin career, you know. So I wrote what isn't necessarily mainstream. Stuck to my own guns.

I really think in this day and new publishing age, you really can write whatever you want. I mean, if you don't believe in yourself, and your book, then who will.

Thanks Ruth, Thanks Anne.

March 31, 2013 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

We can only be a 2nd class copy, but we have a shot at being a first class us! :-)

March 31, 2013 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Christopher—Thank you for taking the time to comment. Sorry you didn't find the post inspiring but Tasmanian Leatherwood honey has long been one of my favorites and I'm delighted to have a reader from Tasmania.

Anne—You're another prime example of why the point of my post should be encouraging to writers. There are readers who like and expect sex in their romances but there are (many) others who don't want to read graphic sex. As you say, if you don't believe in yourself, who will?

March 31, 2013 at 4:48 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Roland--Bingo! Absolutely perfect! :-)

March 31, 2013 at 4:56 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--I think Christopher meant that YOUR strength is to be an inspiration. The way you are with this post. :-) I think everybody is finding it inspiring. It helped me make some decisions about my own work. Awesome post.

March 31, 2013 at 6:00 PM  
Blogger Kim (YA Asylum) said...

This is such an interesting post. I hadn't really thought about it like that until now. Sometimes I am afraid to indulge certain ideas, but I've recently learned to just go with it. The worse thing that could happen is someone tell me they don't like it. So far, my critique partners have been supportive.

I love the Stephen King quote. When I stopped to think about it, it seemed really true.

The study preformed at the University of Penn was interesting too. But it's not too surprising that the general population wouldn't want to challenge the status quo -- no one ever seems to want to in politics, even if it's not working well.

Great post, thanks for sharing!

March 31, 2013 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Christy Farmer said...

Ruth, you nailed it! I loved the hair salon analogy. Happy Easter!

March 31, 2013 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

I think we're trained from an early age to do what's acceptable, popular, and normal. The better we do it "their" way, the better grades we get.

And since writers are artists, we're surrounded by judges telling us what's successful and what's not. 99 creative ideas can be rejected while the 100th is lauded as the "next big thing." What makes that one magic? Who knows? I certainly don't.

This was a great post! :-)

March 31, 2013 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Thank you for your perspective. Interesting that you initially thought the title too provocative. Right there is the exact point I'm making: I'm coming at familiar themes with a different—unfamiliar—perspective and even you, an accomplished writer, was a bit put off at first.

The fact is that none of this stuff is easy and that's why it's rarely talked about and why it usually takes writers years to create quality work. We can't work unless we have built up confidence and fear is absolutely the enemy of confidence.

I suspect Christopher's comment lends itself to different interpretations because of its brevity.

Kim—Thank you. This post is a result of ideas I've been thinking about for a long time. It took me quite a while to pull the threads together. I hope this perspective will be of help to you and to other writers. After all, we all have to face these common fears in order to do our work.

Christy—Thanks! It seems to be human nature to want to be someone we're not—or even to have someone else's hair. I used the hair salon analogy because 1) it came from a hair dresser who worked with many, many women and saw them, literally, with their hair down 2) it seems to apply almost universally. I mean, who can't relate? :-)

Lexa—Thank you. You bring up a very good point: we are indeed brought up to conform and "fit in." Behaviors like that get us good grades and promotions at work but they are antithetical to the work of a writer or artist.

Ideas that "rock the boat" are not looked on kindly. They are unfamiliar and, therefore, threatening to the status quo. In some countries, going against the grain will get you thrown in prison—or worse. A writer can merely be rejected so we should count ourselves lucky!

Why one idea is "magic" and 99 others are left to languish on the scrap heap, is the question to which, so far, there is no answer. As William Goldman famously said about the movie business, "Nobody knows anything." Applies to publishing, too!

April 1, 2013 at 4:34 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

My newest project is my first YA and my first magical/realism. Both fun challenges that I just dove headfirst into. I didn't know what I was doing or where it was going, I just followed my creative instinct. I am pleased with the outcome and so happy I didn't second guess it all too much since it was so new to me. Thanks for the post. You and Anne can always be relied upon for wonderful insight and wisdom.

April 1, 2013 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Excellent, inspirational post, Ruth, it's so nice to hear that when one writes out of the norm (my case constantly), there's hope that someday somebody will notice...But it's hard to be perennially outside of every accepted genre! That's why I dreamt up Boomer Lit when I published my novel about a retiree-turned-artist A Hook in the Sky. You could argue that it's a book about an unraveling marriage (it's that too) but it really had something to do with facing the Third Act in our lives and I couldn't find any genre that fitted this!

But you know the story (first my setting up a thread for boomer novels in the Kindle Fora, next launching a Goodreads Group to discuss Boomer lit, we're over 320 members now after just 6 short months of its start!)

I do think caution is needed here: if you write outside of accepted parameters, you may well become a hailed master at a new genre like Rowling and her Harry Potter, but chances are much greater that you're going to fall flat on your face. I know because it's happened to me. Before A Hook in the Sky, I'd written a series that started out as a paranormal/historical set in Sicily (book 1) and ended as a techno-thriller with the protag battling the Sicilian mafia and violent Russian hackers (book 3). Well, that's a no-no: way out, people won't forgive you!

And now, I've just published (yesterday) a book that is together Boomer Lit and Science Fiction...I dread what's going to happen to that one! Called 2213:Forever Young, its a serial novel à la WOOL. So the form is ok, WOOL is the model to follow...But once again, a cross-genre?

Oh well, live dangerously, you only live once!

April 1, 2013 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Christine—Thank you for the kind words. Your ability to refrain from second guessing yourself allowed you the freedom to write as your creative instincts dictated. The result is that you were pleased with what you accomplished. A very rewarding outcome indeed!

Claude—Anyone who wants to be a writer needs to develop a high tolerance for frustration and disappointment. I think it's one of the reason there are so many writing "rules" floating around: something to hang on to is better—and much less scary—than taking a risk with a highly unpredictable end point.

2213:Forever Young sounds terrific. Hooks into a pretty universal wish for sure!

April 1, 2013 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Julie Luek said...

I am working my way through Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way and she cautions against letting our fear of creativity-- all the inner monsters-- hinder our expression too. I don't want to tell myself I can't write beautifully or smartly; I want to see the vision, make my mistakes and write what I hear.

April 1, 2013 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Padma Dewi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

April 1, 2013 at 8:58 PM  
Blogger Mel Kinnel said...

Gosh, Ruth, I really relate to your post. I do fear what "others" will think which has definitely held me back in seeking out critiques. I have been taking baby-steps towards getting over my fears because I know those steps are the only way I'll move forward.

April 1, 2013 at 9:08 PM  
Blogger Debra Eve | Later Bloomer said...

Excellent post! But after considering your examples, Ruth, I wonder --is the the bias toward creativity or is it toward innovation? There's a difference, but I'm not sure I can define it. We can create with being innovative, but can we innovate without being creative? I don't think so. Definitely some food for thought!

April 1, 2013 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Misha Gericke said...

Oh yeah it's so true.

I wrote a fantasy epic that deviated from the norm.

You know what I got? Tons and tons of rejections. Luckily an editor saw the story for what it is, but I definitely felt the bite of the bias against creativity.

April 2, 2013 at 3:27 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Thanks for bringing up Julia Cameron's book and her reference to the "inner monsters" we all must deal with. She, like Stephen King, and just about everyone engaged in creative activity, recognizes the beast and the necessity of taming it. Not easy but an essential part of the job!

Mel—Thanks! Baby steps seem a very sensible way of dealing with our fears. No need to traumatize ourselves as we take the necessary steps forward.

Debra—Interesting! I would imagine there's probably some overlap between creativity and innovation. Both involve seeing something old/existing in a new way.

Misha—Good for you! You stuck with your idea and, after lots of rejections, found someone who "got" it. Congratulations!

April 2, 2013 at 4:06 AM  
OpenID elegsabiff said...

I write in a genre that has been hugely popular but has, I'm told repeatedly, had its day - the cosy whodunnit (or whodunit, depending which spellcheck is in charge at the time). It is as far from excitingly new and different as can be imagined, and if I were but exciting and different I would face different challenges, but I like reading them and, it turns out, I like writing them. Blogs like yours are encouraging when public opinion isn't!

April 2, 2013 at 5:43 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Elegsa—There are lots of mystery readers who are looking for cosies. They do not want to read sex/gore/blood. A HUGE difference between epub and TradPub is that you can find your readers.

When I was publisher at Kensington, we tried cosies--we specifically wanted a line for those readers but despite our efforts they didn't sell well. Other publishers probably tried, too, & failed. That's why you hear discouraging reactions.

The problem is that print publishing needs to reach a wide market & can't find those exact readers. The upside is that you can target them directly in the ebook world.

April 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger Stella Notte said...

Thanx for such a great post...these were words I REALLY needed to hear....

April 2, 2013 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger Linda Gray said...

I struggle with exactly this type of reaction. Can't tell you how many agents have said to me: "Women's Suspense? There's no such thing." I say, "You know, the softer side of suspense with more personal growth embedded in the danger, and fewer things getting blown up." Then I usually get the 'uh, no' head shake.
I do believe that if the writing is good enough, the requirement for stereotypes is overcome. Last week, with that in mind, I decided to go back to rework a book I care about that got rejected several times a year ago.
Thanks so much for your post. Your experience in publishing combined with the insights in the post make me feel reinforced in my gut feeling that writing what you enjoy is just too much fun to leave it behind to try something else.

April 2, 2013 at 2:09 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Stella—Thank you so much for your comment. It's very encouraging because we send our ideas out into the world and have no idea if someone will respond or feel encouraged. So thank you again. Truly.

Linda—Pardon me, but who the f**k are these agents? They haven't heard of romantic suspense? They don't know that women are The Readers every publisher is looking for?

No wonder the system is broken. I am so glad to hear that you have gone back to rework a book you really care about. Revise, rewrite, put it out in the world and see what happens. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out there are readers who are looking for women's suspense.

April 2, 2013 at 4:37 PM  
Blogger Melanie Schulz said...

Actually my best writing comes when it's just me, not stopping myself.

April 4, 2013 at 12:01 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Melanie—How nice to be proven correct! Thank you! :-)

April 4, 2013 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger Henry Hallan said...

I didn't push through the tide of rejections. I flirted a little with the traditional routes then read some actual book contracts. After that I stopped looking -- although I hear that the contracts are getting worse.

I don't write in a clear genre and I don't particularly want to. I have a day-job that pays the bills. In the meantime I am doing my best to write the fiction that I would most like to read.

I suppose that what I take from this is that our writing should be influenced by our love of the craft, not by our desires for success, fame or riches.

Get rid of those desires and the problems described also go away.

April 5, 2013 at 1:02 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Henry—Thank you for your comment. Craft is essential but, once a writer learns craft, authenticity is what will make his/her work stand out.

April 5, 2013 at 4:25 AM  
Blogger Henry Hallan said...

@Ruth, I entirely agree with you. Authenticity comes from within us, from our inner voice.

The hazards to authenticity you describe come from the desire to please others, either markets or (perceived) gatekeepers controlling entry to those markets. They are external things that used to control writers, but don't control us any more.

One of the great things about the new publishing technologies is that we need to please those others far less. Anyone can be a writer now.

The only thing left is to be a good writer -- which, as you say, means polishing our strengths and realising the freedom we have to write and publish whatever we please.

April 6, 2013 at 1:57 AM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

Ruth, I think your advice to hone what your good at is excellent. Why struggle to write poetry if you're really good at prose? Why force yourself to write literary fiction if you excel at comedy romances? I accepted long ago that my style of writing is not the serious stuff that wins Pulitzers. And I'm okay with that. It's fun, it's entertaining, and it's well written (IMHO). So I keep working at it, hoping that someday it will find an audience.

April 6, 2013 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Meghan—Thank you for making my point even more succinctly than I did. Noel Coward excelled at writing light, fun entertainment. His work endures. Nothing wrong with that.

April 7, 2013 at 5:10 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Henry—Thanks for taking the time to follow up. I appreciate it!

April 7, 2013 at 6:56 AM  

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