Why Authors Shouldn’t Try to Think Outside the Box

Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.

We often hear this concept expressed as "thinking outside the box."

Authors, perhaps even more than other creative groups, feel the stress to be "truly creative." To avoid cliches. To add stunning plot twists. To do what has never been done before. And yet that is all extremely misleading because the best creativity comes, not from thinking outside of the bounds of what's been done before, but instead by how well those bounds are set. 

September saw the launch of CreativeMornings/Raleigh, my local chapter of CreativeMornings. So far I've attended every one of the three monthly talks our branch has hosted. The talks are an opportunity to get together with other creative folks, drink free coffee, eat a free breakfast and listen to a free lecture from someone on the leading edge of their field (which is always somehow linked back to creativity). And over the last three months I noticed there was one theme that jumped out at me again and again: the creative individual's need for limits if (s)he is to truly be creative.

Creatives Need Clear Vision & Loose Structure

September's speaker was Aly Khalifa, who talked about his own journey as a creative professional. Head of a Raleigh-based design firm, he is deeply involved in numerous aspects of the Raleigh creative culture and he talked about how he immerses himself in what he labeled "an inventive culture."

He explained that in order to create the best solution you have to talk to someone who really understands the problem, because it is only when you really understand what you're trying to solve that you can do something truly new. Understanding the problem lets you establish a clear vision of what your solution should look like, a framework that the solution should fit within.

... Because All Creative People Suffer From Self Doubt

Then in October we heard from Wyeth Johnson of Epic Games and he focused on creative leadership.  He really brought the importance of creative bounds home. He explained that within every creative person is a certain percentage of self loathing and doubt (sound familiar?). When they are given a creative problem with no bounds there are an infinite number of possible solutions, which allows that self loathing and doubt to consume them and prevent them from creating the best solution. He said that good creative leaders set bounds for their employees so that they can eliminate that self loathing and get to the work of producing. "Creative people will always do something unexpected with the box," he explained.

But With the Right Limits Creatives Can Accomplish The Dream

Finally, at November's CreativeMornings/Raleigh event we heard from the founders of Raleigh Denim (now simply called "Raleigh") about what the word creative truly means to them. Victor Lytvinenko and his wife Sarah talked about the big dreams that led them to found their company, which hand-makes jeans here in the US of A.

They wanted to change the fashion industry, but the only way to accomplish that dream was by setting limits. They limited their fashion line to just jeans, because they needed a very specific market if they were to have any chance of breaking in. Today they've been twice featured in New York at Fashion Week and have evolved from the two of them stitching jeans in their own apartment to a "factory" where the jeans are still hand-made pair-by-pair, have opened two retail stores and, best of all, have reached a place where they've begun to see their end goals come true.

How Authors Set Creative Bounds

Authors rarely think of their books as solving a problem, but the truth is that that is exactly what they're doing. Readers buy books for a reason — generally because they either want to be entertained or because they want to be informed. It's important for authors to acknowledge that. It shouldn't determine what an author writes; but rather once an author knows what genre they're writing in they should keep in mind the problem that genre solves.

In either case, they don't necessary want something that breaks the mold; sure, they want the book to keep a reader's interest, but if it's a romance the readers still want the two main characters to wind up together. If it's a mystery, they want it to be solved. If it's a crime novel, they want the perpetrator to be caught and the good guys to come out on top.

If the book is non-fiction, then readers want factual information that is explained simply in a format they can understand.  That level of understanding will be different for different audiences (are you writing for a general audience? A technical one? Industry professionals?) but the end-goal doesn't change. They want to be able to trust that information, for the author to have established a sense of expertise, and they want to know more when they reach the last page than they did before they read the first.

As an author, what creative bounds are true for your genre? What bounds do you set yourself within the world you create? Share it in the comments. 

Profile image for Melissa Breau

My name is Melissa Breau & I’m a Raleigh-based tea-drinker and dog aficionado. If you’re local, let me know—I’d love to grab a drink.

By day, I’m a keyboard junkie, and (shameless plug) craft killer marketing content for small business owners far and wide.

By night (and sometimes on the weekend) I help out at several nonprofits, teach my dog new tricks, and try to spend as much time outside in the sunshine as I can.

Before joining the world of marketing I spent several years at various publishing companies in NYC, including both magazine publishers and book publishers. I also earned my Masters in Publishing from Pace University.

Want to chat? Find me on twitter or drop me a line via my website.

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