The Comfort Zone

castle-391435_1920The eleventh issue of page seventeen is starting to take form, slowly but surely.

But I wouldn’t be a head editor of a collection without airing some gripe from the process, would I? As blasé as it is, there is something that occurred to me while reading some of the page seventeen submissions – something that I’d like to highlight here.

For all the writers reading this – whether you’re short story writers or poets – it might even be an exercise of sorts. Look back on the most recent additions to your folio of work – say, the last year or two worth. Have a quick read-through, and consider what each piece is about. Look at the plot, the characters used, the settings, the consistent style and the use of wordplay.

How many of those qualities are near-identical across the majority of your pieces? And, moreover, did you know those patterns existed in your work?

A writer’s comfort zone is a sacred place. It’s the type of content that comes most naturally, and resonates with the writer’s own emotions and state of mind most clearly.

When reviewing the short stories and poems submitted to page seventeen, I noticed the work of writers I have read before, as well as multiple submissions by a single author, that stuck a note of familiarity in its content. I obviously can’t be too specific, but in these cases where I could compare several works from the same author, I often noticed that they would:

  • Use a wordplay gimmick in almost exactly the same way across two or more works.
  • Write a story with a noticeably similar premise or centrepiece scene – a domestic dispute, an awkward encounter, etc – which doesn’t separate itself enough from previous embodiments.
  • Replicate a previous piece’s use of structure, style or themes, based on its success in the past.

It should be stressed that none of these works are bad. Some of them are great. And if it’s the approach or style that got you published in the past, of course it makes sense to stick to a winning formula. But unfortunately, the diminishing returns are inevitable. And if I noticed the patterns, then other readers (and editors) will notice them as well – if they haven’t already.

Does this sound like you? Then remember that, technically, you’re not doing anything wrong. But your growth as a writer will be stymied if you don’t take some risks in your work. If it seems like your last batch of work was all about domestic turmoil, or featured essentially the same lead character with cosmetic changes, then make an effort to break that rut. If it seems that your current work is being modelled off a previous success, you can still work with a winning formula but don’t allow your work to regress into a folio full of echoes.

If you’re not sure how to start edging out of your comfort zone, one straightforward way is the game of ‘Wikipedia Roulette’. Set a limit – maybe 5 article jumps – and use the ‘random article’ function on Wikipedia. Then you have to use one of the articles within that set limit as a basis for character, theme or setting in a new story or poem. Alternatively, you might seek out magazines or competitions with set themes outside your normal modus operandi, and use that as a challenge as well as a unique publishing opportunity.

Everyone has patterns and habits that they fall into, often without realising it. It may not be damaging the quality of your work, but unchecked these patterns may drag your new work down until it is a shade of the freshness and originality that made your earlier work engaging in the first place.

Whether you’ve identified these patterns in your work or not, the sentiment is the same: your strongest pattern should be the tendency to broaden your horizons with genres, settings and characters that fall outside your comfort zone. (And workshop all of it – even the hokey attempt at romance. There’s no point pushing your boundaries if you don’t learn anything from the experience.) Not every resulting work will be a success, but they will all contribute to your learning process as a writer.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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