The most important creative lesson I’ve learned so far, by Deb Katie

When I give publishing advice, I often include at least one bulletpoint that emphasizes the importance of collaboration. This is due to a job I had about seven years ago that taught me more about collaboration than anything before or since.

I was an assistant at a production company that developed programming for children. I was hired to assist the general manager of the office, but in a six-person company, you find yourself wearing many hats. As time passed, I was promoted to Development Associate. Someone else was hired to answer the phones and I got invited into the conference room for the development meetings. We had a new VP of development, and a slate of show ideas to work on.

I learned so much from being part of that team and attending those meetings.

First and foremost, I learned that formulating a creative idea is not like forming a perfect ball of clay. It’s more like pushing a boulder up a hillside full of obstacles. The ball of clay must be protected and held sacred, away from the hands of other people. The boulder just needs to get up the hill, and whether that means somebody pushes alongside you, or runs ahead and helps clear debris from your path, or calls to you to show you an easier route, the idea is the same: ideas can flourish with more than one creative force.

During these meetings, which lasted hours and hours and were exhausting and exhilarating, we discussed everything from characters to plotlines. We used the term “stupid chip” as a sort of “poker chip” for contributions we were unsure of–“I’m going to throw out a stupid chip–what if the mother is an alien?”

The environment was completely open, completely honest, completely collaborative, and completely safe. Everyone had the interests of the project in mind, and even if an idea was completely batted down, it wasn’t because it was a dumb or bad idea–it was just not the right one at the right moment.

I learned from these meetings that if you invest yourself in something, you earn the right to critique it honestly. And I learned that taking and applying criticism is often the easiest and fastest way to make something better.

I also learned, by going back a few years later and reading pitches that I absolutely poured myself into, that I would have sworn at the time were perfect and finished (we pushed the boulder up the hill and it arrived at the top a perfect clay sphere!), that nothing is finished. You will always look back at your previous work and see room for improvement.

So by opening yourself up to that criticism in the moment, you can make changes that will strengthen and maybe even help to sell your work, and save yourself the fun of looking back on it years later and wondering why you didn’t recognize what was staring you in the face.

I’m not saying you need to take critique from every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street, or you need to subjugate what you think for what someone else thinks. I’m just saying that after you spend enough time listening to what other people have to say and really taking the time to envision things from another perspective, your work will grow.

If you are a writer looking to sell your book, you must prepare yourself for the honest opinions of the other very important players in the process–your agent. Your editor. Even the sales and marketing people may weigh in on certain aspects.

And a funny thing happens when you regularly practive hearing and digesting other people’s opinions about your work–the sting goes away. That ouchie “She doesn’t like my writing!” becomes, “She really has a point about the character here.” I learned that it’s fine to pick and choose from suggestions, but if you respect someone and you really–really really–don’t see where they’re coming from, you’d better step back and take another look with fresher eyes.

Don’t go into the process prepared to bow down. You, the writer, are still a very important cog in the machine.

Just go into it prepared to listen. Because you are not the ONLY cog in the machine. A one-cogged machine probably wouldn’t get the job done very efficiently.

This is what I learned from my development team–trust, investment, honesty, and consideration.

So, DE, RH, AD, and KH… thank you. You were the mentors who taught me to collaborate.

~ Katie Alender

19 thoughts on “The most important creative lesson I’ve learned so far, by Deb Katie

  1. So interesting, Katie. I’ve often wondered how my own experiences working with a crew on a film set might have helped me write my novels, and you’ve given me some great insights.

    I just have one question. Did you make the mother an alien?

  2. Wow, that sounds like a wonderful work environment. I am envious. For a while now, I’ve wanted to be a TV writer. It’s because I want to be exactly in the environment you’ve described: tossing ideas around with other creative folks, no holds barred, throwing out the stupid chip now and then to see where it goes, and coming up with something wonderful at the end. Writing by yourself is great, but it can be so lonely.

  3. This is great, Katie. I especially love the idea of the stupid chip. One of the ways I’ve learned to use comments and criticism–even when I think it can’t possibly work–is to say to myself, “Okay, I’m not going to do it this way, but if I did, how would it work?” The suggestion often starts to make sense then.

  4. So true, Katie! I LOVE the stupid chip concept. How many great, innovative ideas have never seen the light of day because someone thought they were too stupid to say out loud?

    Judy, I do the same thing. Even if it sounds completely crazy, I sort of walk myself mentally through the process of using that idea. That way I know even if I ultimately reject it, I’ve given it serious thought.

    Also, if someone makes a suggestion that’s totally off the wall and I hate it, I often ask the critiquer WHY they made that suggestion, what problem they were trying to fix. And often I can come up with a different idea to fix it that works for me, AND addresses the original problem. Win-win!

  5. Meredith, for the past five years I’ve worked more in production than development (well, my end of the production world is pretty writing-intensive), and if I hadn’t come into it knowing what I learned all those years ago, I would probably have learned many of the same lessons at my current job. As for the mother being an alien… you know, I think she was. Not an alien but a bad guy!

    Eve, that part of development is great, no question. I loved the freedom to be so creative. Unfortunately, development is often heartbreaking, because you put so much of yourself into an idea, and if it doesn’t sell, you shelf it. And a huge majority of ideas don’t sell.

    Judy, how I love my stupid chip! And I love your take on criticism. I think the important thing is to remember that maybe the critic isn’t 100% right, but if they had an issue, then I’m not 100% right, either! (And I must say I found my editor to be, oh, 98% right, LOL.)

    Kristina, try it in your own work! You’ll get so much use out of it (that’s a universal you… not saying you have a lot of stupid-chip ideas). 😉 And I like your process, as well! I’m going to have to steal these techniques from you and Judy… collaborating at its best! Ha ha ha.

  6. You’re very welcome, Annie! Of course, the solitary part is crucial, too, but there’s a lot more out there on that topic than on the collaborative stuff.

  7. You were open-minded and mature enough to make the most of that experience, Katie…not everyone is. As for the “stupid chips,” it may be so for that moment but some of those need to be remembered for their future brilliance!

  8. I’m just curious as to when an author gets to dish out some criticism to the agent, or editor, or publisher. Does that ever happen? Does one have to wait until they’re a J.K. Rowling before one can critique another person’s professional acumen? It just seems that the author is always, always taking the brunt of the criticism, and not the other way around. They are, after all, the writers. They’re the one’s coming up with the story and expending all this creative energy. If there is no writer, there is no editor. You can’t honestly tell me that every single agent and editor is without fault. The law of averages suggests that there are going to be agents and editors at the bottom of the scale, right? It only stands to reason that at some point an author needs to stand up for their story, if what they see is just not jiving. I realize that it’s probably my naivety doing most of the ranting, and that I should probably get published first before spouting off, but don’t editors know editing, and agents know… agenting? I mean, after all, if you can’t write a book, get into editing, or represent someone who can, right?

    Someone slap some sense into me if I’m totally off base, okay? Thank you. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Writing the Truth: What does it Mean to Write Truthfully? « Creative Writing Courses

  10. JPK, I would just like to say that I think Katie’s point is that the people who edit your book are on the same team as you. They also want to make it the best book they can. They’re not out to get you. On the contrary. So, usually, when they have changes they want you make, it’s for good reason. At least, in my experience. I’ve never felt that my editor or agent was just pulling rank or making suggestions as a power trip or anything. I’m ALWAYS grateful for their feedback and rely on it!

  11. Jason, there is absolutely no way anyone in the process is without fault.

    I’d say that the writing, rather than the writer, bears the brunt of the criticism. And at the end of the day, that’s the purpose of the whole process–to make the writing into the best work it can be. Never ever ever in my process of revising did I feel that I was being criticized. I never actually even felt that my writing was being criticized–I just felt that my attention was being called to some issues that could use a little more TLC or a second look.

    The question of good vs. bad agents and editors is actually separate from an author standing up for his or her work. In the first place, what makes an agent or editor “bad” may have little to do with his or her relationship to the writing. In the second place, even people who are not always right can be right sometimes.

    And on the other side of the question, you could have the best editor in the world and still respectfully disagree with their input. At the end of the day, the author’s choice is what ends up in the book. Mind you, throwing off a point that’s really important to your editor may cost you a future relationship with that person, but that’s the nature of the game. The revisions process is a back and forth, not a set of orders from on high. I was always free to go back to my editor with questions or discussion. And as an author, if you can’t defend a choice in a convincing manner, it may just be the wrong choice.

    As for agents and editors doing what they do because they can’t write–I would never say that. It would be a generality, and while I couldn’t say it’s never true, I would never say it’s common or even typical–because the truth is, there’s no way to know. Some agents and editors don’t want to write. Just like in Hollywood, some people want to be cinematographers or film editors instead of directors. (And there is also a very specific skill set involved in having story sense that doesn’t always translate to a well-written book–think of those gorgeously-written books that put you to sleep two chapters in.)

    It’s all pieces of the same pie, and it all has the same end goal.

    In publishing, it’s all hands on deck. As Tiffany says, we’re all rowing the boat in the same direction. Just because I designed the boat doesn’t mean I can get to shore by myself.

  12. Well put, Katie and Tiffany. I figured I was wrong. I guess paranoia is starting to set in as I creep closer to submitting material for the first time ever. “Killing you Darlings” is a tough thing to do… Thanks for putting up with my ignorance. 🙂

  13. JPK, Good luck with your submission and congratulations on having a manuscript ready to go. You just have to take everything with a grain of salt in this business and be willing to be flexible. Good luck again!

  14. Jason, the industry often seems scary and combative from the outside. You know my wish for you is that you see it from the inside! Good luck with your submissions… and don’t retire that blog! Inquiring minds need to know what the dilly-o is.

  15. I’m finding that I like getting critiqued, as long as its constructive and not just their opinion also it’s better coming someone reputable. Listening to others view points help to make your work better. Of course there are circumstances where you have to filter.

  16. Rebbie, the only bad part is having to explain what a stupid chip is. But it is an invaluable concept once it’s established! 😉

    Patti, getting a good, thoughtful critique is like being sore after a hard workout! It’s a good hurt, because you know it makes things better.

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