How to Create Great Things: Ruin the Romance

In this entry of my series on the creative process, I look at genre. If you create a story or work of any kind, undoubtedly you want it to find a home in the wild. You want your baby idea to grow up and have influence. It’s why you raise them! But for your story to live well on its own, you need to understand the critical aspect of market.

W hen I was in the early phases of writing Think Like a Five Year Old, I had a phone conversation with a book publishing professional that had a profound impact on me. I had called this professional, a long time writer and editor, to pitch an idea for a new book. She listened to me pontificate for a while and then asked me a question. She asked, What kind of book do you hope to write?

I think the question applies to anyone who creates something, so I’ll phrase it more broadly, like so:

What kind of work do you hope to create?

Is it a business book, she said? A self-help book? She named off some writers to give me a few paths to consider. Did I want to write like Jon Acuff, Rob Bell, Gary Chapman? Nothing she said sounded appealing. I wanted to be me!

I tried to cast a vision for my masterpiece, while accommodating her obviously ridiculous attempts to pigeon hole me into someone else’s style. I liked some aspects of each person, I said, but none of them were whom I wanted to be.

I had a book I wanted to write, and I knew it was about being creative, and I knew I wanted it to be “Christian living”, or a book about the life of Christian faith that would appeal to the “ trade”, or the general market, and not to a specific subset of Christian leaders like my earlier works had.

I was indignant at her gentle prodding. I recited my resume in my mind. I told myself I didn’t need to make myself fit into a mold. I didn’t realize that in my self-justification I was missing something important.

I mistakenly thought I could ignore genre.

Fortunately, amid my bumbling, I said something right, though I didn’t know it at the time. I said I liked Malcolm Gladwell a lot. (I was in a Gladwell phase and had read 4 straight books by him, along with several columns from his day job.)

She jumped on my off-hand statement. Ah! Gladwell meets Chapman. That could be interesting. For a moment, I sat dumbfounded and listened to the rush of unfilled air on the phone line. She suggested that before I draft a proposal for my idea, I do some research on Gladwell and Chapman.

My publishing friend taught me something important that day: She taught me to be precise about genre.

Here’s the thing: I thought I already knew this principle, but I didn’t. I had told myself I was doing it right, but really, I wanted to mix and match my writing, because I saw myself as thinking beyond a specific genre.

Genre is simply a way to understand your market intentions.

Author and editor Shawn Coyne defines genre as this:

A genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations.

Genre is vital to provide the necessary context for your audience to understand how to think about your work.

The problem is that we look at the big creators, the ones who transcend genre, like a Taylor Swift, and want to be like them. But that’s where they end up – they didn’t start there. They start within a specific genre.

My friend helped me to see something critical.

Genre isn’t limiting; it’s what helps you find your place.

It’s no different than a principle designers use when creating art. Designers want to be individual and artistic, but to quote an old friend, “there’s a reason such designers are called starving artists” – it’s because they are living in a market of one. If there’s no competition in the space your idea occupies, that’s a sure sign it’s not a great idea.

Whether you’re a writer, designer, scholar, engineer, entrepreneur, or whatever it is – if you create, you have to do it within a specific context to be successful. For your creative ideas to live beyond you, and hopefully play a part in changing the world, do this. What genre do you create in? You have to name this to be successful. Find your market, then within your market, find your unique voice.

This principle applies to writers, storytellers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and anyone who creates.

Here are 2 steps to find your market.

First, find your favorites.

If you’re a writer, what writers appeal to you? If a design, what are your favorite designers? If a preacher, what preachers? If a musician, what musicians? Make a collection of favorites and begin to follow everything they create.

Second, ruin the romance.

In other words, be willing to set aside your fandom. Enjoy your favorites, then break it down. Study what they do that is so appealing.

I never got to Gary Chapman, and I mean no disrespect to him. He is a fellow human, a great writer and speaker, and obviously a better brand builder than I am. But I never studied his work because I already know how to create a five part typology on an idea. I knew that I didn’t want to mimic his approach, which I categorized as Content Machine Who Makes Listicle Books For Easy Consumption And Maximum Seminar Sales.

Back to my friend’s question: What I wanted to learn how to do was tell a story like Malcolm Gladwell. I loved Gladwell’s thoughtful and respectful approach to story as a way to understand ideas. What if I could become a Galdwell for the life of faith? Thanks to my friend’s prodding, I decided to begin studying Gladwell’s work.

What I learned became the foundation for the structure of my book Think Like a Five Year Old. Next time I will break this down.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).