Writing Out of the Comfort Zone

I consider my writing comfort zone to be chapter books in a series. This is not surprising to me.

Ever since I was little, I have enjoyed series books. Nancy Drew was my first love. I read The Secret of the Old Clock #1, and was hooked. An elementary school teacher actually had to call home and request that I read something else for my book reports.

DannyDunnAndTheAutomaticHouseSo, I started on Danny Dunn. I took these all out from the library. I loved the way they looked lining the shelves, and carefully went through the stack until I had devoured every one.

9780525672005_custom-44cb5f65b516c86eeb86d60940b1e9aab21d1a04-s6-c30Encyclopedia Brown was my next obsession. As you can imagine, I started at Book 1 and solved each mystery one at a time until I had read them all.

As an adult, I also enjoy series books; Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Dresden Files, The Codex Alera, Hunger Games, Narnia, and I could go on and on and on.

So, it would stand to reason that when I started writing, I wrote with series potential in mind. Chapter books in a series were my first love, so why not write them?

Recently, I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone, and turn, what I thought were perfectly good chapter books, into one middle grade novel.

First reactions…

2716ea7Cry.

Oh, what could be so wrong with them staying chapter books? Oh, my world is over, there’s no way! It cannot be done!

angry-babyGet angry.

Why should I have to change what I think works perfectly well, into something else entirely. It goes against my natural inclinations! You mean it won’t be a series anymore? Oh, you think so, huh?

keep-calm-and-get-a-grip-18Get a grip.

Fine. Maybe I will try to consider what this story might look like as a middle grade. And, I suppose I could add, oh, 30,000 words no problem. I do have these extra 10,000 words just hanging around that were supposed to be Book 2…

 

But what do I write?

Amazingly enough, once I decided to get a grip, and figure out how I could weave together several stories I considered chapter books into one middle grade novel, something amazing happened. It all fell into place. My main characters’ overarching objectives became very clear. I created a new character to bridge everything together, and challenge my main character, push him, annoy him, even more. All of a sudden, the backstory that I had been musing about became, not only useful, but central to how the story played out!

My chapter book went from 9,000 words to 27,000 of a middle grade in two weeks. I’m pretty sure I still have at least 15,000 to go before I start revising.

I’ve learned, with quite a bit of wrestling, that once I stepped out of my comfort zone, something else was there. Will it take more time and more revision? Yes. Did I think it was ready, and now I know that it isn’t? Yes. Will it be worth it in the end? Oh, yes indeed.

Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and found something surprising there?

 

17 comments

  1. Alison, I can’t wait to read your MG! I find all of your stories creative and wildly fun to read. I’m planning on trying a MG soon…I’m impressed that you did so much in so little time.

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  2. Hooray Alison! So glad you stepped up to the challenge, I knew you were up to it. Looking forward to reading a draft when it’s ready!
    Your post comes at a perfect time for me. As you know, I jumped out of the comfort zone a few years ago to change careers and get my MFA in 2D animation… just now stepping out a little further to write more stories to go along with my illustrating.

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  3. In my first creative writing class in college, my teacher challenged us to declare to the class something we were afraid to write about. I said a sex scene. And then I went and wrote a sex scene just for the challenge of it. (And I thought I was going to throw up at that critique!) The experience stuck with me, though. Now I want to write about all the things that scare me.

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  4. Alison, just have to share that my first love in books was also Nancy Drew. Oh, the joy of getting a new book! I think I haven’t stepped out of my comfort zone by writing in a different genre yet, but I’ve challenged myself to write shorter and shorter picture books. Where I push out of my comfort zone has been with promotion and in person visits. As uncomfortable as any growth feels while going through it, I’m always glad I pushed myself when it’s all done.

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  5. Good for you, Allison. Bravery is a wonderful thing.
    Sometimes I think I’m not allowed a comfort zone! Years ago I was a single parent with three kids and supporting us all by writing and illustrating books for young readers, articles for children’s magazines and art for educational materials. Then steel sculpture for awhile – I really didn’t see that coming. Now writing YA and sometimes MG. Life is about adapting and taking advantage of your passions, right? Life would be boring if it was predictable. Good luck with each of your future forays outside of your comfort zone!

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  6. Yes. Actually just about everytime I go to a critique group I have to separate myself from my ‘baby’. But this happened in a BIG way after I launched my book review blog. On a picture book written about 15 years ago, all the back of mind nigglings came forward and I knew exactly what to do! Amazing! Now the rhyme is write and the story is much deeper and richer and ‘moving’ (in rhythm & rhyme). All the work of setting up the blog was worth it. Susan at Books4theCuriousChild.com

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  7. For me it’s not so much an issue with a comfort zone for genre and age level. But I’ve had a long journey going from pantser to semi-plotter. It’s more fun for me to pants my way through a story. When I was writing 7000-word chapter books for a series, that wasn’t such a big deal because they were relatively short, with one main plot and maybe a secondary subplot. But tracking all the threads of a YA novel is an entirely different story. It just doesn’t work without planning ahead. I’ve ended up on tangents or with subplots that are far too strong to co-exist with the main story and have to be set aside for later books. So learning to PLOT rather than pants has definitely been an exercise in working outside my comfort zone. I’m getting more comfortable with it!

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    1. Marianne,
      Do you know what’s funny? This post started out as musings on being a panster vs. plotter. I too am usually a pantser. I also have a tendency to write myself into a corner and not know how to get out. At the nescbwi conference, I attended a workshop about “writing in reverse”, knowing the last thing that happens first, and working backwards from there. That’s essentially what I did with this story. There is something nice about having the plot worked out and let the story evolve with some boundaries, and using what I had already written to support it. And your YA novel is awesome, so stepping out of your comfort zone is working too!

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      1. That is funny! I’ll try writing in reverse on the next book. I’ll try a LOT of things on the next book that I didn’t on this one. Thanks for the kudos on my YA novel. It’s way too long, but I’ll be going to Nancy Werlin’s workshop in June to get some tips on revising it down. And you know I LOVE your wild and crazy story ideas!

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  8. I used to be really into the Encyclopedia Brown books. And while I know I am dating myself, I used to watch filmstrips of EB in the children’s room of my local library.

    As for writing out of my comfort zone, that is a frequent occurrence. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I am often assigned projects that are challenging to me — in terms of topics (vampires, assassin bugs, a biography of Moses) and also reading levels. But that’s what’s so great about writing for kids — We always learn something new. Now if only I could share some of that knowledge at a fabulous cocktail party…

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    1. Alicia, I agree with the cocktail party… but I love learning something new and sharing it with my students. I had someone ask me one day, “Ms. Potoma, how do you know all of these things?” and I said, “just because I’m not in school anymore, doesn’t mean I stop learning.” And it’s true. I should follow my own advice more often! 8>)

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