Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sleeping With the Enemy: Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Amy Christine Parker, @amychristinepar

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I'm delighted to welcome Amy Christine Parker back to the lecture hall today, to share a story that ought to help writers who are struggling with a book that wants to kill them. Just about every writer I know (myself included) has faced this at some point, and Amy has some great advice on dealing with it--as well as preparing for it.

Amy is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novel, GATED, a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a nominee for the 2016 Sequoyah Award as well as its sequel, ASTRAY, which was released in August 2014. Currently Amy is working on her third book for Penguin Random House Children’s Books, SMASH and GRAB, which is scheduled to release in May 2016 and ORPHAN CITY for Adaptive Studios releasing late 2016. She writes full-time from her home near Tampa, Florida, where she lives with her husband, their two daughters, and one ridiculously fat cat.

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Take it away Amy...

Admit it. For a second there, before I put the qualifier on the end of that title, you almost thought I was going to confess to something dishy, didn’t you? Well, in a way…I am. As a writer, this past year has been without a doubt one of my hardest. I have never doubted myself more. Here’s why.

I landed a new book deal for a book proposal that I came up with, but that ended up being waaaay out of my comfort zone.Those that know me best know that I love the Walking Dead with a fiery passion. And that Gillian Flynn, Stephen King, and Joe Hill are my go to authors to read. Basically, I’m a murder, mayhem, psychological distress kind of girl.

If my television shows, leisure reading, or my own characters are involved in or dealing with any of those three things at any given time, for the majority of their time…well, I’m a happy camper. GATED and ASTRAY hit my sweet spot just about right. Crazy cult leader? Check. Creepy cult song? Check. Murder and mayhem? Check and check. I’m not saying both books didn’t have challenges, but overall they were smack in the middle of my comfort zone.

But this new book, not so much. It needed to have a strong romantic plotline and it had to be full of intrigue, but not dark. At its heart this new book had to be about a girl and a boy falling for each other while separately they each targeted the same bank to rob. Duplicity meets Beverly Hills 90210 meets Ocean’s Eleven. In short a kind of romance and I am SO not into that. I’m the kind of girl who would laugh uncomfortably, squirm, and avert my eyes if a guy ever serenaded me. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks made me want to break out in hives.

So here I was with a book idea I felt strongly could be good and an editor/publishing house who liked it enough to agree…and I didn’t have the first clue how to pull it off.

I’d outlined it without incident, but sitting down to get the actual plot on the page was intensely hard. I would write a sentence, delete it, write another, delete it. Finally, I would get a scene down only to read it and realize that it wasn’t right and start over.

In total I wrote more than five different versions of the first chapter before I felt like I got it (mostly) right. It was so hard that had I not signed a contract to finish it, I would have probably given up and gone on to something murder filled because Lord knows the moment I embarked on the project I had one tempting book idea after another, all of them batting their eyes at me and singsonging: “Yoohoo, write me. There’ll be mur-ders.”

I had to rewrite the entire novel three times start to finish. I cried a zillion frustrated tears. I had late night panic attacks wondering if this would be the book that did me in. I complained to friends and family. I complained to strangers. I spent an entire year being absolutely terrified that because I had left my comfort zone I was going to fail miserably.

And you know what? I did.

I failed at scenes. I failed at the romantic bits. I failed at character development. The first draft was AWFUL! There were giant holes missing everywhere and the two main characters felt wooden and disconnected. It was only minimally cohesive.

Draft two wasn’t much better, but over time I began to see that they weren’t a waste of time even if they felt like it. While I was writing those drafts and failing miserably, something amazing started to happen. I stretched. I grew. I changed as a writer. I developed skills I didn’t have before. I bought books on craft that spoke to the issues I was having. I read books from authors who successfully pulled off what I was trying to do. Romance writers have skills, people. I mean mad, serious skills. Full RESPECT, yo.

I’m not saying that I ever got to the point where this book became easy, but I did get to the point where I started to like what I saw on the page and be proud of it. I was in there—the way I was in my other books—just a new, romancey version of myself—not the next Nicholas Sparks, but a long way from my previous no serenade self. And when it came time to start another book—one that was in my zone—my writing was stronger overall. Leaving my comfort zone opened me up to coming at things from a fresh vantage point, one that I would’ve never found had I not done something different.

Stretching isn’t easy, but I promise you that it is beneficial. So how do you do it? Here are some ways:

1. If you only ever write novels, try flash fiction or vice versa.

2. List your three least favorite genres to read/write and try to write something in one of them.

3. If you only ever write stories, try writing poetry or song lyrics.

4. Switch up your process. If you write fast first drafts, try slowing down and writing a scene then revising it or vice versa.

5. Figure out what makes you emotionally uncomfortable and write about it. Try to be as honest at conveying those emotions as you can.

6. Read outside your usual genre, trying an author you think you won’t like. Make a list of what you believe others might like about their work. Examine how you would’ve approached their story differently. Try writing a scene in their style.

The point is to make yourself squirm. Be uncomfortable. Fail, then finish anyway. You’ll be surprised at how much it helps you grow.

About Astray

Her life was based on a lie.

Lyla Hamilton almost died escaping the Community. In her new life, the outsiders call the Community a cult. They don’t understand how easy it was to believe. How good it felt to belong. “Normal” life—high school and dating—is harder than Lyla expected.

Who should she love? Who should she hate?

The Community is willing to do terrible things to bring her back to the fold. The members are still preaching Pioneer’s twisted message that the end of the world is near. Pulled in two directions and unsure which way to turn, Lyla risks everything to follow her heart, but can she uncover the Community’s plan before it’s too late?

Lyla’s escape was only the beginning.

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  1. This is a great post. I decided last year to try my hand at every different genre. My background was comedy/family humor, so I went for Paranormal first, then Sci Fi thriller, then a romantic comedy. I'm now on a fantasy and horror may be next.

    One nice thing is, we get better at writing when we keep writing, but also there are elements of a romance in an adventure story, and there are comedic moments in a thriller. (I tell everybody to think of Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park. Yes, it was a scary movie but we all laughed a lot, too!) Star Wars had a side story of romance; so did Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Stretching those muscles - or building them, really, makes the other stuff better.

    1. Comedy is something I have yet to branch out to, but I want to. Couldn't agree more with the idea that bits and pieces of one genre can be used in others. And Jeff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park was amazing, loved that character.

  2. Great post. I love doing flash fiction (even as a novelist, it's a bonus for writing tight scenes), and surprised myself: I'm GOOD at it. Had to weather some flash fiction snobs who don't write longer stuff, but hey, #HatersGonnaHate, right?

    Song lyrics, meh . . . not my thing (and it reads that way, but trying half-a$$ed beats not trying at all). But I read poetry to refill my imagery chest, and it is a great tool. Reading Westerns wasn't my thing, either, but how well Cowboys and Aliens and the TV adaptation of Lonesome Dove was done (I thought), definitely was the push needed to look into that genre. Lonesome Dove is now in my writer's arsenal.

    As for very unsettling: I drafted two scenes involving two suicides, both witnessed by my main character. I couldn't eat or sleep for two days after, knowing this was what I had to do and what he had to weather to be a stronger person. But it did leave me wondering: if this is what it's like to play God, He can keep that job!

    Agree 100% writing outside your usual zones works the creative muscles you thought you never had. Retrains your brain for better things, too. No wonder Einstein played violin to unkink a tangle in his math equations. Thank you, again, for a fantastic post.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post, and yeah, song lyrics are not something I excel at either, but I love the idea that like poetry it's all about impact and economy as well as rhythm. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oh Lord, do I feel your pain. Been there, done, that, still working on it. Best of luck to you and say a prayer for me. :-)

    1. Prayer said for both of us! I'm almost out of the tunnel which is awesome since it's been a solid year or so of hard core struggle, angst, and worry. Hope you get through soon too!

  4. Awesome post. I'm going through this right now. I'm trying to write a romance... and most romances in my stories don't end well. But I'm trying to bridge that gap by writing in a world I'm comfortable with.

    May or may not work, but I'm glad to see where someone else tried and succeeded. :-)

    (And if this double-posts, my apologies. I've been having a hard time posting comments to Blogger).

    1. Glad you liked the post and boy is it nice to know I'm not the only struggler out there!

  5. Great post,

    im currently in the planning stages of a new piece of work, I tend to write medieval fantasy/gothic fluffy horror if that's even a genre haha.. My stories tend to end up vampire/werewolf romance twilight esk ..

    this time I really want it to be all just bit darker... vampires kill! They are not fluffy misunderstood creatures.

    Even though im sticking with the gothic fantasy theme I want it to go more along the lines of a classic 'fantasy adventure' just with an unlikely 'hero'.

    I want the vampire lead to be a relatable character but without hiding the fact that this character kills to eat, kills to survive and sometimes just kills because she's having a bad day and the puppy needed to have it's head torn off.

    I'm struggling with the combat, I'm not historically very good at writing action. which is why my stories despite wanting to have the action/horror my vampires tend to end up too fluffy and cuddly.

    This project is causing me all sorts of pain, I have the ideas but I'm struggling on the follow though, I've chucked out about 4 drafts of the prologue so far because the action/suspense just isn't the way I need it to be to set the theme for the rest of the book.

    It's so hard not to be overly critical when your not comfortable/confident with what your writing.