Monday 1 June 2015

A Guide to Stepping Out of Your Creative Comfort Zone

STOP PRESS! Nick has just won the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for his work in Stew Magazine

A note from Candy: Slushpile readers no doubt are marvelling at the sudden rise of activity here on our previously somnambulant blog. Yes, dear reader, we're trying to liven up this unreliable blog (we only blogged 11 times last year). How to do this? Why, find someone more reliable than us to blog of course!

Ladies and gents, please welcome the latest member of Notes from the Slushpile,
Nick Cross!

Nick is a winner of the Undiscovered Voices and has written short stories for Stew Magazine. He also blogs (somewhat reliably) on Who Ate My Brain and much more reliably for Words & Pictures, SCBWI's online magazine, for which he is Blog Network Co-ordinator. Here is his first Slushie appearance.
Welcome, Nick!

Thanks, Candy - it's an honour to join the team. My favourite slushie is blue raspberry flavour, but I'll try not to get brain freeze as I launch into my debut post:

Appearing at the Cannes Film Festival last month to promote his 50th movie, Woody Allen briefly discussed the TV series he’s making for Amazon Prime Video. Although he’s no stranger to angst, Woody seemed to be genuinely worried that he’d got in over his head this time – he described the decision to take the commission as a “catastrophic mistake” and predicted the show would be a “cosmic embarrassment.”

(photo by Colin Swan)
Seventy-nine-year-old Allen is famously technophobic – he still uses a typewriter for all his scripts and only adopted the use of stereo sound for his films in 2007 (some 70 years after the rest of the movie industry). He didn’t know who Amazon was until very recently and admits to not understanding how streaming video works. The odds would seem to be stacked against him.

And yet, I’m going to make a wild prediction:
I think that these six half hour TV episodes will be the best thing that Woody Allen has written or directed in years

For too long, Woody Allen has been trapped in a comfortable creative prison of his own making. With no apparent trouble securing funding, he churns out one underwhelming film per year, then moves onto the next without pausing for breath. Occasionally (such as with 2013's Blue Jasmine) he comes up with something halfway interesting, but most of the time it feels like he's rehashing his greatest hits.

It’s my belief that art made entirely within an artist’s comfort zone is at best familiar, and at worst deeply mediocre. In order to achieve something new and surprising, we need to perch on the edge of our comfort zone and work from there. This is not something I’m very good at myself – I prefer the familiarity of routine and writing about subjects that come easily to hand. So, I hope the following activities will give both you and me (and possibly Woody Allen) a nudge in the right direction.

1. Write What You Hate
A great way to stretch yourself is to pick a style or genre that you dislike and try to make it yours. For instance, in the days before Game of Thrones conquered television, I used to hate high fantasy stories. I hated the massive books, the pages of maps at the front and the predictable storylines about lunkheaded male heroes, magical jewels and dragons. So, for my first Stew Magazine short story Princess of Dirt, I felt compelled to find a new feminist angle on the traditional fantasy narrative and subvert as many of the reader’s expectations as I could.

(illustration by Jayde Perkin)

2. Don’t be Afraid to Upset People
The aforementioned Princess of Dirt had a horrifying ending that stretched the reader’s sympathies to breaking point. It upset a lot of people (including my own children), but from an artistic point of view, I’m glad I did it. More recently, I’ve written children's stories about such cheery subjects as child labour, Armageddon and Ebola, and I’ve just finished one about immigration and bigotry that won’t be a big hit with UKIP supporters.

Many writers are, like I once was, far too eager to please. They want readers, other writers and - most especially - agents and publishers to love everything they do. So they bend towards the market, edit out the uncomfortable and change things that were fine to start with.

I had a weird experience recently when I was unexpectedly introduced to an agent. She asked me what I was working on and, despite being caught off-guard, I managed to give her a fairly good pitch for my book. Unlike some of my other work, it’s a pretty uncontroversial middle-grade humour novel. To my surprise, a look of genuine disgust passed over her face. I had a moment of crisis, followed by sudden clarity – it didn’t matter if this woman didn’t like the idea behind my book, because there were plenty of others who would.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Upset Yourself
The strongest writing comes from the things you feel strongest about. Sometimes, these are positive emotions, but they can also be your darkest memories or fears. When you reach down into the dark places, yet also exercise control in your writing, you can make some amazingly powerful things happen.

4. Change Your Technique
Stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t just about challenging what you do, but also how you do it. If you’re a plotter, try pantsing. If you normally fly by the seat of your pants, try plotting whole sections before you write. It will feel wrong - like putting your trousers on backwards – but you may gain a whole new technique for your writer’s toolbox.

(photo by Per Erik Strandberg)

5. Change Your Audience
Some writers are very eclectic about the kinds of age group and genre they write for, while others find one that suits them and stick with it. I’m definitely in the latter group and find myself drawn to middle grade fiction. I will tell myself that this is because I variously find: picture and early chapter books too restrictive, YA too angsty and adult fiction too pretentious. But these broad rationalisations are also keeping me firmly in my 9-12 comfort zone.

Writing for a different audience requires research, different stylistic choices and lots of trial and error. But who’s to say it wouldn’t also be fun, or lead to an entirely different writing career?

6. Make Catastrophic Mistakes
OK, so I’m channelling Woody Allen with the wording of this one. And obviously, you can’t plan to make a mistake. “Nobody ever set out to make a bad movie” as the film industry mantra goes. But you can plan for how you’ll cope when things go horribly wrong with your writing and how you’ll learn from that.

To quote another mantra, this time from the technology startup sector: “Fail early. Fail often.”

7. Keep Pushing Through to the Other Side
I write blog posts all the time, but this has been a particularly tough one. Yet, I’ve kept going and we’re nearly at the end (I promise!) It’s hard to acknowledge that you need to change, especially when it seems that you’ve only just become comfortable in your writing. It’s even harder to push that change through, while confronting the things that scare you. To achieve all this, you'll need flexibility, drive, bravery and tenacity. Luckily, these are also the same attributes that are needed to make it as a professional writer!

Don’t feel that you have to change everything at once, or move so far out of your comfort zone that you don’t know which way is up. Like Woody Allen, maybe all you need is the right challenge to push you into the unknown.


Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.

His latest short story Hacking History can be found in issue 8 of Stew Magazine.


  1. You are so right Nick. Great post. And great t-shirt!

  2. Very inspirational! I'm definitely still in my “Fail early. Fail often” phase but hopefully success will in fact come soon :)

  3. I think I get more afraid to upset people, the more I learn about social media ... love your post. Thank you for joining us, very excited to see what you'll be writing on Notes from the Slushpile in future!

    1. Yes, I'm pretty careful on social media too. But in fictional form I feel more able to address the issues that matter to me. I think it helps that I'm not attacking anyone directly, even if it is a thinly-fictionalised version of someone! I also find metaphor and genre to be very helpful tools, and a lot of my short stories are speculative fiction, where I'm commenting on current events through the prism of an imagined future.

  4. Great points, always love your posts, keep them coming!

  5. Interesting and thought (and possibly action) provoking. Thanks, Nick!

  6. "Don’t feel that you have to change everything at once, or move so far out of your comfort zone that you don’t know which way is up. Like Woody Allen, maybe all you need is the right challenge to push you into the unknown." I know I've already commented but I re-read the post and just wanted to highlight this point. Change is the key to those of us who find themselves running into the same obstacles over and over again. Hmm gives me an idea for a blog post. Thanks, Nick!

  7. Lovely post Nick and loved the toolbox. That's what I tell students in my workshops I'm offering them - not a prescriptive 'How to Write' list. Great stuff - keep blogging.


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