Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Here’s an exercise you might like to try:

Make a list of all the things you never want to write about.

Everyone’s list will be different, but I’d imagine that yours, like mine, could well include subjects like incest or child abuse, or it might be more personal: your divorce, or something you’ve done that you’ve never told a soul and that you’re ashamed of.

Done it?

OK, leave it for now. We’ll come back to that later.

This post is all about stepping out of your comfort zone. Because I’m coming to the conclusion that, if I want to write something really meaningful, that’s what I’m going to have to do.

The word ‘slight’ keeps cropping up, in regard to my stories. This is not good. It means ‘trivial, without strength or substance’. (I’m sure you knew that, I’m just making sure I do).

I was recently placed second in one of Writers’ Forum’s monthly competitions. Although she did qualify her comment, head judge Sue Moorcroft’s quote across the top of my story was, “Superficially slight, this glimpse into teenage life and love belies a mastery of the writer’s craft”. Yes, the second bit’s nice but what about this ‘superficially slight’? Hmmm

And then, on Monday, Woman Weekly’s assassin, Maureen Street, emailed me to reject a story which I’d rewritten at their request – but which they still didn’t like. Her summary of the story? ‘Too slight’! There it is again!

Now I know these are only two people’s opinions but they happen to coincide with my own thoughts about the subjects I tackle in my stories. They’re fine for the women’s magazines, on the whole because they don’t like anything too ‘rufty-tufty’. But when it comes to writing competitions, when you’re up against the big boys (and girls) and you need to take risks with your writing in order to stand out from the crowd, I feel like I’m way off the mark.

The winners of the Telegraph’s monthly short story competitions, for example, have included: a victim of the Holocaust returning to Germany for the first time since she fled as a child, a teacher confronted by an ex-convict pupil (and the story ends in a murder) and domestic violence and abuse in Africa.

Judge Louise Doughty commented on the last story, “The Merry Bells of Scotland”, by Atuki Turner, which you can read here that “for some readers, it may have been a trip out of the comfort zone, but reading stuff you wouldn’t normally write can show you ways you might stretch your own prose style. Prose style is a bit like Play-Doh: if you don’t play with it, it goes all hard.”

I thought that was a good analogy.

And here’s another quote, this time from writer Jonathan Franzen, that I like: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

OK, back to that list you’ve written. You remember, the one with all the things on it that you NEVER want to write about? Got it? Now pick one of the subjects on it.

And write.

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19 Responses to Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

  1. Maurice Sketchley says:

    I too have experienced the “slight” word. In my case it is sometimes accompanied by “unoriginal”. Perhaps it is just too easy to get into a habit of the sort of writing one is comfortable with. I always try to write for a particular audience of readers (or “market” to use a word I find a bit uncomfortable) but perhaps it really is a bit “samey”. I have started a list of subjects I really don’t want to write about…
    Maurice

  2. Prue says:

    I would prefer to try writing outside my zone of competence 🙂

    If those sort of horror stories which won the Telegraph competition are what’s needed to win, I question those doing the judging. No, really, there’s enough misery and horror around without people making it up. Let those who have experience tell their stories – if they want to.

    I’m definitely not going to write about any of the subjects on my list. They are there because I don’t want to read about them either. Writing for me is about doing something I want to do, not immersing myself in mental grime and slime.

    Let’s all try writing something different by all means – like that superb little story which won your competition. The more I think about it, the more I see in it, and the more masterly it becomes. And it makes me chuckle every time I think about it. Certainly not a ‘slight’ story in my opinion.

    • Prue – good for you, if that’s how you feel.Your comment reminded me of the Jane Austen quote, from Mansfield Park – “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.”     

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      • Prue says:

        😀 What a wonderful quote! I don’t remember that – I’ll have to go and read it again.

  3. Tracy Fells says:

    Hmm this resonated with me and I also feel similar to Prue. I recently tried reading the anthology of winners from last year’s Bridport competition and quickly became depressed. I didn’t want to read some of the stories as content was dark and simply nasty at times. I too have tried to write outside my comfort zone, but it’s hard to write material that you wouldn’t chose to read. In the end I think you have to remain true to your voice and if you are selling stories and getting shortlisted or higher on competitions then something is working. My hubby proof reads everything for me and clearly didn’t like my ‘dark phase’ – I penned an entry for the Woman’s Own summer comp and he returned it saying he was really pleased I’d returned to writing ‘characterful stories’ again.

    • Tracy Yes, I take your point. Actually, the story that won the very first Telegraph Short Story competition (ie: January’s), was exactly that – a character-ful and quite quirky story, which I could have seen quite easily taking its place in WWFS! But since then they seem to have gone for ‘darker’ themes (still well-written though but yes, they aren’t exactly cheery!)

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  4. I do believe you have to stretch the mind out of the comfort zone Helen, though I’m not keen. I won a book of crime stories from Emerald writers workshop, and it was surprising how dark situations were made funny. It helped me to have a bit of a go at something I would normally steer clear of. Trouble is, when I try to write dark, it ends up going either camp or carry on….

  5. This sounds like a good exercise but I’m not sure that darker themes are the way to go – I thought competition judges were crying out for stories that made them laugh. I think ‘funny’ stories can be the hardest to write and I never set out to make people laugh – so maybe that should be on my list of things to try.

    • Sally, I agree, I think funny stories can also work well in competitions (just see my recent random word flash fiction competition as a case in point! the winner was the only one that made me laugh). But it’s not that easy to do, is it?!

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  6. Helen M Smith says:

    Hi Helen,

    just read your story in Writers’ Forum and loved it. I can’t understand why she described it as “superficially slight”. Sometimes I wonder if they think about the comments they make. It is an excellent story and reminded me of my own teenage years. I hope you don’t mind if I use it in my creative writing class to illustrate showing not telling. I think my students will enjoy it as much as I did. Well done for winning. Best wishes,

    Helen M Smith

  7. wightrabbit says:

    Great post, excellent advice. Time to step it up a notch and ignore that internal censor!

  8. I LOVE the exercise Helen, thanks, will give it a go 🙂

    xx

  9. Prue says:

    Um, I wonder if I could say something else?
    I’m concerned that by writing something which will win a competition, I could be putting on someone else’s straightjacket, if you take my meaning?

    What I meant by writing outside my competence zone, rather than comfort zone, was challenging myself to take the ordinary, everyday things in life and give them a twist. That would mean the story would be sparkly and fresh while resonating because it would be understood and common to many.

    That’s what the story about the knitting seemed to do. The dark aspects of life do, I think, carry a degree of drama with them and cannot be deemed ‘slight’ because of what they are.

  10. Maggie May says:

    A fascinating blog and lots of very interesting feedback. Going out of my comfort zone would mean writing sensational stuff for the sake of it, and I couldn’t send it to the markets I’m aiming for. I think I’ve said it before that humour and originality would make my own writing better. It’s just knowing how to hit a slightly different angle so that it stands out from the rest. I keep reading and picking up tips and hopefully I’ll get there in the end.

  11. Crazy Water says:

    Hi. First time I’ve seen this blog and this is my first post. I’ve been writing short fiction as a hobby and entering competitions for the past few years. I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of shortlists and one win, and I say lucky because when I look at my own work so far, about 90% of it is playing it “safe”. I’ve totally connected to this post and a lot of comments in the responses, and while I wouldn’t necessarily write about something I don’t want to write about, I would say definitely stretch your boundaries. Step outside your comfort zone as long as you can handle writing about it.

  12. Kath says:

    Hi, I’d just like to echo what many other writers are saying here and that is I don’t want to write unpleasant stuff. I can write heavy stories but why when I’d rather inspire and uplift than degrade and depress. Many literary competition winning stories seem to be quite sickening (to me anyway) like Prue I would question the mindset of those doing the judging. I suppose it is like other forms of art where sometimes the most appalling things find their way into exhibitions and people wax lyrical about the artists ability to push back the boundaries. I think it is very sad. I loved the Jane Austen quote, from Mansfield Park – “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.” That’s exactly how I feel too. Good wishes KH

  13. Linda Lewis says:

    I found this discussion fascinating. I’ve noticed that winners of ‘prestigious’ comps are often on subjects many would prefer not to read about, or set in other countries. IMO competitions SHOULD be judged on the quality of the writing not the subject or setting but that’s not going to change the way things are.

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