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Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one?

Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't sell. Since it's riskier, a publisher would also say Bad: both might follow with But Maybe Good, when they've remembered that, actually, the most successful books do tend to be the ones which no one was sure would work (so too are the most unsuccessful ones, of course). Can you afford to take that risk with your writing time, if not your income? Can you afford not to, if your creative self is going to stay alive? What's a writer to do?

It can be astonishingly fruitful to force yourself outside your defaults: it leads to you writing things you'd never have written and it asks you to practice skills you've never worked with before. But what if your first tries are wonky ducks? Rent has to be paid, and writing time is in short supply for most of us. You need to think about where the Un-Comfort Zone is which you're thinking of travelling to.

A subject/setting/topic which you're not comfortable with: "uncomfortable" in that it's unfamiliar and you can't draw on detailed knowledge and experience. It's not "writing what you know" in the fundamental sense, and that means a leap of imagination.

Or are the actual places and events potentially distressing? There are obvious ones that most of us have to take a deep breath for - war, abused children, cruelty. (And I don't know about you, but some writers do seem to reach too easily for these, as lazy way of making a story matter) But we all, also, have our own particular triggers, both emotional and material. I do think that it's very hard to write a story which will really affect readers if you don't work with material which is potent for you, but that doesn't mean that you're morally obliged to work with your phobias. Something which is so much your nightmare that you'll keep pulling back and not letting your imagination go all the way: unconsciously you'll keep slipping into Fortunately-Unfortunately-But-Solved, because you need to dilute it. That's not going to work as well as something which you do feel brave enough to imagine fully. 

A genre which you don't read. This can be very exciting, if you're tackling it because it excites you, not from sheer cynicism because it will sell. Some of the best crime-writers of recent years - Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill - have come from non-crime, for example. And I recently wrote my first-ever horror story, for Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, a collection to celebrate the bicentenary of J S LeFanu which is published in August. I don't often read that kind of thing, and I had to read LeFanu with a very sharp eye to find a way my voice and with my writerly sensibility could be used to work with that kind of story.

A form or structure which you haven't worked with. Form so often follows function, and your new idea turns out to be taking a shape which you haven't made before. That's great, and of course it would be a mistake to force it back into something more familiar. But what if you can't handle it? Looking for others who've done it before should help you to think, but don't force yours into their structure: find the solution that's right for your story.

A technical thing you haven't done before. Again, each project makes new technical demands, and if you're away from your usual ground, that's going to be even more often the case. Some are relatively small, and just take a bit of practice, like running in the engine of a car. But what if you want to use an external narrator, with a moving point of view, when you've always written in a character's voice? All sorts of changes will flow from that big decision.

A process you haven't used before. If you're doing a writing course maybe you can't write the whole shitty first draft, because it's daft not to do some basic editing before you submit your work? Are you a polish-as-you-go writer, but you've only got till the baby's born to get this first draft finished, come what may? Writing out-of-order because you can't do the main chunk of research till next year? All of these changes may have surprising effects on how the draft comes out.

The obvious answer is not to land yourself in doing too many things you haven't done before, all at once. If you're working with too many new things it's horribly easy to lose your bearings and then your judgement about what's working and what isn't. But one new anti-default may lead to the other: decisions about topic lead to decisions about structure, tackling horrors needing a different kind of narrator. I don't have a simple answer. But here are a some thoughts:

  • Embrace the opportunity to learn to write what you don't know as if you do know it. As long as you're willing to put in the work on the imagining, the research, and the writing, so that you can make us believe you know it, this is one of the best and most fundamental ways of becoming a better writer.
  • Remember that stepping outside your comfort zone isn't a moral obligation, nor meritorious in itself. It's only worth doing if the story or your writerly growth, or your sales, will be the better for it.
  • If you think you need a new technique, step away from the draft and set yourself a little challenge of a separate short story, purely to practice it. Make your wonky ducks there, then come back to the book.
  • If you think you need a new form, read in and around successful books which do the kind of thing you're contemplating. Think about if and how they work. Then put them away, forget them, and work out your own way.
  • If you want to try a new genre, get to grips with the opportunities, boundaries and conventions of the genre by reading strategically, exploring the range of possibilities. What is it that makes travel writing work or not, or a detective story satisfy, or a literary novel transcend expectations?
  • If you're using a new process, stay alert to the ways in which it affects what you do. Can you exploit the good effects, and minimise the bad?
  • Finally, forgive yourself if the story comes out differently from how you suspect it would have on your old ground. If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. And you never know: the very fact that you're coming to this new, from outside, might mean it comes out better.