imgresStepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone
(In order to learn a few lessons)

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”

— Oscar Wilde

After my agent lost interest in my crime novel City of Blades following a year of back and forth rewrites, it was time to try something else. Starting a new project can be daunting; my writing folder is overloaded with half-sketched ideas and uncooked outlines, just begging for my attention. And there’s no real order to it: I have crime novels, a detective series, a comedy script, novellas, horror stories, sweeping romance epics, and many more. I dabble in everything, and I’m a master of nothing. But amongst all the detritus, rather than going with my safe choice — another adult crime novel — I chose instead to step out of my comfort zone.

Earlier in our talks my agent had shown an interest in Young Adult novels (she had a number of ties to YA publishing houses) and felt I’d be good at writing one — possibly because my first crime novel was stocked with teenagers.

Anyway, once an idea began to blossom I decided to try it out, thinking it wouldn’t be too different than anything else I’d written. All I’d have to do was drop the word fuck and cut out all the violence, drug-taking and murder scenes and I’d be okay.

I figured I had nothing to lose — why not see how it went?


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” — Neale Donald Walsch


My first task was to instil routine and discipline to my writing. In my early years I used to finish a novel every twelve months or so, which is considered prolific in some quarters and lazy in others. Either way, if I intended to impress the agent who’d lost faith in me I needed to wow her, and the book had to be delivered within the year.

That was my thinking anyway. 

At no point did I worry about passion, or about whether the book or the plot needed time to breathe, I merely jumped in head first and hoped to swim. My plan was simple: I had to write every day, no matter what. It didn’t make a difference if I wrote a sentence or twenty pages. My only stipulation was that I couldn’t go to sleep unless I’d written something in the novel. And I didn’t once break that rule: I wrote every day.

In the end, I completed the novel (Crimson Sky) in the space of three months.

And it was a steaming pile of dog shit.


“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy


In all these years I’ve probably read about three Young Adult books.

To my small mind, a YA book was no different than an adult one, just slightly watered-down. I didn’t realise they had certain conventions and rules. Not once did I consider researching the field or reading the current top authors to understand the subject matter and how they put the message across. Instead I arrogantly blundered my way into their world, wearing a blindfold and hacking away at everything with a rusty machete — dogs, children, families. 

My story centred around schoolboy Oliver Crown, a nerdy Tin-Tin like wannabe journalist who vows to uncover the truth behind a murder committed on school grounds. The premise wasn’t groundbreaking but it had enough legs to stretch into a decent 70,000-word novel, as long as I properly cultivated the idea. Instead, desperate to produce a new novel and send it off to my agent, I rushed into it without thought, penning an essentially linear murder plot with not much in the way of depth or intelligence. In my ignorance I assumed Young Adult books didn’t require brains to their novels. I treated it like a conversation with a child: I spoke down to my audience. The main character was likeable, but everyone else was a cardboard cutout with no personality. The dialogue was okay but mawkish. The novel, in essence, lacked bite.

And I know why: I’d written the novel for the sake of it. Not because I connected with the plot or the characters; not because it was bursting inside of my head and I needed to let it free for fear it would eat my brain. I wrote it merely as a means to an end. And it reads that way — like a lifeless shitty project. I might as well have ghostwritten it.

Not only that, but I wrote the final showdown of the book when drunk, slamming away at the keys as fast as possible while downing shots with my friends. I couldn’t wait to finish it so we could go out and have fun and I could forget it ever existed. My mind wasn’t on the task at hand, but on the final line ahead. And in my drunkenness, I lost any kind of discipline with the story. The book ended with me killing the majority of the cast in a gruesome way, while at the same time uncovering a shocking paedophile subplot which for some reason I’d weaved into the narrative early on, once again forgetting it was a Young Adult novel.

Then, after finishing it, I sent it off to my agent without so much as a rewrite or a second draft. Predictably, she turned the book down and practically turned me away too.

But what did I expect? No one likes having flaming shit sent to their door.

Especially not literary agents. They read enough of it day-to-day.


“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” — Dan Stevens


However, the ordeal wasn’t a total loss. I look back on the whole fiasco as a learning process. Next time, if I try to step out of what I know I’ll be more aware of the pitfalls. For a start, I’ll read heavily within the genre I’m choosing — not to copy what’s already there, but to get an idea of the current conventions and trends, even if I plan to buck them. It’s important to know the rules, especially if you’re planning to break them.

Also, I learned a few tricks about disciplining myself with my writing schedule. Up until that point I’d been inconsistent for almost ten years. Some weeks I’d write thousands of words, other times I’d write ten words, or a page, or nothing. Some days I’d sit down at the computer, tell myself to write, and if I found enough excuses not to do it, then I wouldn’t. That was naïve. Anyone who’s ever had an office job knows that sitting in front of the screen isn’t enough to make you productive. You need to force yourself to work — whether it’s because your boss is breathing down your neck or because you have a deadline you need to fulfil. Either way, during the writing of this terrible YA novel I managed to sit down at my computer and write every day without fail.

And although my execution of the book was slipshod, I still wrote a novel in three months — which at the time was a record (I’ve since written an equally long novel in three weeks, and a much better one too). Regardless of anything else, I’d completed the project and was free to move on to something new. And in the future I’d know to plan ahead with my writing. Maybe jot down notes the day before, or outline the next chapter in advance, or just going into it with a clearer idea of what I’m doing. 

For so long I’d been convinced that I didn’t need a plot as long as I had the barebones outline. I figured in the end everything would fall into place, which sometimes it does; but sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t all be Stephen King, and it’s the reason why some of his books are amazing and some are just big colourful doorstoppers.

Anyway, my point is this: no finished project is a total failure.

It’s all a lesson for the future. And sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, even if it’s just so you know not to do that again.

So go back to your novel and finish it off. Even if you know it’s terrible.

I promise, if you keep hacking away at the weeds, eventually you’ll discover the house you’re looking for. The haunted one with all the dead bodies in the basement.

You just gotta keep working at it.


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Putting The Fun Back Into Boring Books

“Many books are longer than they seem. They have indeed no end. The boredom that they cause is truly absolute and infinite.” — Novalis 

Books can be tedious at times.

As someone who loves and values reading more than almost anything (other than my family), there are some books that feel like a chore to get through — novels that would be better suited as a doorstop, or being slipped under the wonky fourth leg on a table. For the most part, we can choose to either throw these books away, set them on fire, or pass them along to a friend (or an enemy) so we don’t have to suffer them any longer.

But what about a novel that’s part of a series? You can’t skip Book Three and expect to understand four and five — you’ll be missing out on vital information. You could give up on the series altogether, but after loving the first two books, why would you want to? Or what about a book someone’s bought you for Christmas or your birthday? It would be rude to toss their present aside after twenty pages, even if it is filled with terrible prose and unbelievable characters. Also, what about the times when your writer friends want you to read their latest self-published tome about aliens, pyramids and murder? Or when you need to finish a novel in time for your bi-weekly book club? Under those circumstances, you have to force yourself through the boredom.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can still have fun during the torture.

Here are a few ways to enliven your experience . . .


“I picked up one of the books and flipped through it. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading. But some books should come with warning labels: Caution: contains characters and plots guaranteed to induce sleepiness. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery after ingesting more than one chapter. Has been known to cause blindness, seizures and a terminal loathing of literature.” — Laurie Halse Anderson, Twisted. 


Notes

Whenever my wife buys me a book, she litters the pages with thoughtful handwritten notes. On page 19, I’ll stumble across a message that says, “Remember our last holiday? I love you,” or on page 36 she’ll write: “Knock knock, who’s there? Me. Keep reading,” or something else that’s cute to me and probably nauseating to anyone else. If you have a partner (or even a family member or good friend who doesn’t mind doing this), notes can be a great way to keep you pushing through those pages. It’s no longer about finishing the chapter to get closer to the end, but finishing to reach the next note. Also, these positive messages will make you feel good, which may trick your brain into thinking the novel is causing these happy feelings — meaning you end up liking it.

Try it out. If not for yourself, do it for someone else.

Fill their book with notes.

Just make sure you do it with their permission. If you end up scribbling all over their first edition Harry Potter, they may just end up throwing the book at your head.


“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

― G.K. Chesterton 


Rewards

When I don’t feel like doing something — such as writing, or breathing, or cleaning the dishes — I usually give myself an incentive: for every page of writing, I get to eat a cookie. If I complete the washing up, I can watch a film. If I continue to breathe all day long, I get to sleep. You can do the same with your reading tasks. Instead of expecting to gain some kind of pleasure from the boring words, you have to use the words as a path to your happiness. For every chapter you read, you get a reward. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant or ridiculous like a car, or a new dress. It can be something as simple as a snack, or a nap, or a TV show you’ve been meaning to watch.

By setting up your reading time as a task, you’ll be more inclined to finish it. You’ll know that if you can push your way through the next three pages, you can finally get around to starting season 2 of Orange Is The New Black or House of Cards maybe.

This again links pleasure (albeit delayed) to your reading experience. 


“Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?” 

Friedrich Nietzsche


Rewrite It

This one is aimed more at the writers among you, but it can be just as enjoyable for the non-writers too. If the book you’re reading is tiresome, why not try and rewrite it? Not fully — unless you want to invest a year of your life rewriting someone else’s material so you can then delete it, or get sued by the author — but a few scenes here and there. If you’re reading a series, you can pick out one of your favourite characters and write a short story about him or her. Or you can reimagine the scene in your own way. If you didn’t like how it went, this is your chance to change that. If a character you liked died, why not bring her back to life? Afterwards, you can post your fan fiction online for others to read. Or you can keep it to yourself.

But at least the book will seem better.

Well — your version anyway. Which is a start . . .


“The truth is that everyone is bored,

and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”

― Albert Camus


Anyway, that’s it for now.

I’m sure there are plenty more ways to make reading fun, so if you have any tricks of your own, let me know in the comments. Until then: keep pushing through.

You’ll finish that 900-page book eventually.


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