The Power of the Swarm and 12x12 Picture Book Writers

© 2013  Sylvia Liu

A year ago, I wrote about the benefits of Julie Hedlund's 12x12 Picture Book Challenge (write 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months). In December, I wrote about how my creative communities, including 12x12 and my amazing critique group, did so much to advance my writing and illustrating.

Then I read a book that cemented my thoughts about these creative experiences. In SWARM INTELLIGENCE: WHAT NATURE TEACHES US ABOUT SHAPING CREATIVE LEADERSHIP, James Haywood Rolling, Jr. argues that creativity is the engine for human progress, but there is no such thing as complete individual creativity. Instead, when conditions are right, the collective creativity of society surges forward and allows individual creativity to flourish.

This is why so many of the world's artistic and literary geniuses came out of creative communities that nurtured talent (for example, Shakespeare in the Elizabethan era, Louis Armstrong in the Harlem Renaissance, Degas & Renoir in Montmartre in the 1880s).

So what are the ideal conditions for nurturing this creativity and how does a picture book challenge fit into this? Rolling turns to swarm behavior in nature as a guide. Swarm behavior occurs when vast numbers of individuals, acting in their own best interests, also end up acting in the collective's best interest. Think bees deciding where to build a nest, wildebeests running from predators, or a flock of starlings turning directions on a dime.

© 2013 Sylvia Liu
Rolling identifies four laws of successful swarm behavior which can be applied to human creativity (which is different from pathological behavior like groupthink or mass hysteria). I will apply them to 12 x 12 and my critique group.

1. Law of succession  

The individual members of a swarm chase after those immediately ahead of them, resulting in new and changing leaders. In creative terms, this means chasing after the new ideas and techniques, the mentors that inspire, and the leaders of the field, to become an innovator, mentor, and leader in turn.

For me, 12x12 includes a group of outstanding picture book leaders who inspire and mentor everyone else and have pushed me to step up and be more active. In my critique group, my friends got agents, published work online and in anthologies, started websites (check out Kidlit411), and created courses. All of this activity spurred me to improve my own work.

2. Law of Separation

Individuals separate themselves from those who are too close for comfort, which allows room for everyone to move forward. In creative terms, it means separating from the crowd to do something different and transformational.

In 12x12, we all have the same goal of writing publishable picture books. But everyone finds their own voice and way to do it that is true to themselves and that separates themselves from the crowd. Each member of my critique group has found an individual way to shine.

3. Law of Alignment 

Individuals align themselves with those in the crowd with whom they are most comfortable, which creates a group average that allows the entire group to move forward. Creatively, this means finding a cohort of like minded creatives who together develop an artistic movement.

12x12 consists of people who are serious about developing their picture book writing careers. Surrounding ourselves with those who support us unconditionally and who provide resources and help brings the whole group average up to a higher standard.

4.  Law of Cohesion 

The individual members cohere with those around them, so the entire group arrives at a goal at the same time. Creatively, the destination can be as small as a group of kids building an ad hoc dam of a stream, or as large as a personal computer revolution.

Again, surrounding yourself with others who are seriously pursuing their writing goals will spur you to do the same. What is so special about 12x12 is that even though it is made up of hundreds of writers, we all genuinely care about each other and support each one's successes. In the past two years, I have seen so many success stories and general progress.

What do you think? Is this just a strained academic exercise? Or is there something to it?

Whatever you call it, being a part of a vibrant community of picture book writers was absolutely instrumental in my own picture book writing journey. I recently won the Lee and Low New Voices Award, which will result in a published picture book, and I know I couldn't have done it without 12x12 or my critique group.

P.S.  There's still time to sign up for this year's 12x12 challenge. If you're interested in writing picture books, check out Julie Hedlund's 12x12 challenge. It's a paid program with various levels. The highest level members have a chance to submit their manuscripts to agents each month, bypassing the slush pile. Registration closes at the end of February. Everyone gets the benefit of the vibrant community of writers through an online forum and Facebook page and chances to win prizes each month.

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