Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Stretch Your (Writing) Comfort Zone

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Don't forget - today's the last day to get your entries turned in for the "I've never been the type" contest. When the contest is over, it'll be a few days before the finalists are listed, and then another few days or week until the winners are announced. And I do my best to get results email to everyone as quick as I can.

A writer emailed me to say, "Sometimes my stories feel like they have kind of a similar... theme? plot? I'm not sure how to explain it but I don't know if it's just me or it really is kind of repetitive. What would you do if that happened to you?"

Well, this has happened to me. Late in my teens, I realized that all my main characters in all my stories were basically me, with some improvements. Me but funnier, me with better hair, me but smarter. The results were stories that read flat, that lacked oomph.

When I realized that I'd basically been writing the same character over and over, I decided to try being intentionally different with my main character. The result was the creation of Skylar Hoyt in what became my debut novel, Me, Just Different. (Ha, irony!)

View the book on Amazon
I wasn't so worried about making Skylar look different than me (though, obviously, she does.) My biggest concern was making Skylar different in her core. I wanted her reactions to problems, her view of the world, and her values to all be completely different from mine.

The result, even from the first draft was a book that had a BIGGER feel to it. A, "This is going to be the book that gets me published" kind of feel. (Even still it needed massive rewrites and a couple of book surgeries before it was publishable. But there was a quality in this manuscript that made me willing to do that, when I hadn't been willing before.)

I thought it was going to be hard to write from the perspective of someone so different from me, but instead the writing felt fun, liberating, and exciting. My experience with writing Skylar in The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series has encouraged me to continue pushing myself out of my writing comfort zone.



If you're wanting to brainstorm beyond your typical characters, plots, settings, or themes, I would make two columns. On the left, I would make a list of what you typically do. My list would have looked like this:

My main characters are always:
Quiet
Shy
Smart
Witty
Insecure
Friendly

And then I would make a list of opposite traits, just to see what it sparks. This was tricky with Skylar, because of course a loud, outgoing, dumb, slow-witted, confident, mean person would not make for a good main character. But that list of opposites did help me come up with ideas. Skylar isn't dumb, but she's not a fan of school and is a solid C student. She's confident, but only in how she looks. Her insecurities lie in who she is in her heart. And Skylar's mistrust of others often makes her seem cold or unfriendly.

What about plots? All writers have plot devices they tend to fall back on. Consider making a list of yours, then add to it as you discover them.

 In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, I originally had Ellie having these weird visions at times, but then decided that was way too close to the dreams Skylar has throughout Out with the In Crowd. So dreams/visions are apparently a pet plot device of mine.

Jill Williamson shared in a post a few weeks ago about how a reader pointed out to her that she always has a girl sweep in and save her male main characters from their troubles.

Just knowing about your pet plot devices will help you avoid recreating them in every manuscript you write.

Now, themes are a bit trickier because we write about what's close to our heart. Honestly, I think if you work hard to create different characters, put them in different places, and have different things happen to them, the theme will take care of itself. But I'm in the camp of writers who doesn't plan out her themes, who figures them out as she writes the first draft.

Here are a few other thoughts I have on how to expand what you write:

Seek out new life experiences.
Experience stories in all genres. Watch movies and read books you wouldn't naturally choose.
Try writing a story in a different genre, even just a short story.

Have you ever purposefully written something different? How did it go?



40 comments:

  1. This is just what I needed! I noticed a couple days ago how a lot of the time my main characters are similar in personality. I also realised in many of my ideas, like Jill, the girl saves the guy. Gah! In my last WIP they sort of save each other, but in my next prokject it's definitely the girl saving the guy, even though its supposed to be the guy helping the girl, lol. Thanks for the post, Stephanie! :)

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Hannah!

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    2. This is very helpful for me as well I am writing a book but I need to start over and revise it more and bring more character to my character if you know what I mean.

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  2. ooooohhh...

    i love this post!!! i try to think outside of 'me'. but most of my main characters always end up having something to do with talking. My main character in the book i am currently writing, Carla Jane, stammers around all grils except for her new best friend. But her best friend speaks out to everyone. it's hard, especially for me to think of character traits. and this helps a lot!! ;]

    thx mrs. stephanie!!!!


    abrielle lindsay
    http://thebooksbooksbookblog.blogspot.com/

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    1. Oh, how interesting! It's funny the common threads we can find. I'm glad you found this post helpful, Abrielle!

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    2. :] yes, it is funny!! i'm sooooo glad i found ur blog!!! ;] it's sooooooo helpful!!!


      abrielle lindsay

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  3. Thank you so much, this post is awesome!! My characters are all fairly similar, in voice and act... they're quite sarcastic and witty, and if they're not, I feel like they're bland... and they're all good at the same things (usually what I'm good at.) So far I haven't stolen from my own plots, but this post is great and I'm going to try it as soon as I can! :)

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  4. I've actually been thinking about this topic a lot lately! I was outlining and I realized "Uh, I have the same subplot every time" which felt kinda embarrassing, so I took it out. And all of my main characters tend to be bitter, but sassy.
    So for my new novel, I've got two sisters that I like to think break my usual troupes... One is hardworking and dutiful, the other is perceptive and rebellious.
    Now that I think back to the books I read was I was sixteen, SO many of the authors I would read wrote the same idea over again, just with slight differences. :/ Probably why I don't read those authors anymore! In fact, one reason why I'm liking Kasie West is because so far, her books are both similar in that they both have romance, but other than that, totally different!

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I've abandoned authors for that same reason, Allison. And it's one of the reasons I have such a high respect for Stephen King. He could sell a million copies of anything he wrote, but he remains dedicated to his craft, and his books - particularly his recent ones - are so different from each other.

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  5. Er, hehe, *conscience speaking right now*. Yep, I'm afraid I use way too much of my own personality. But it's funny, because my story is telling itself in a way I think I wouldn't act, and I didn't plot that! I like it, though. For example: One of my characters has land in the hospital this morning, and it wasn't until I wrote the scene that I came up with that idea.
    But in a next project, I should choose an extrovert, talkative person. Than I'm sure it's not about me ;-)

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    1. I can relate to that, Arende. My character Ellie from The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet is very similar to me, yet she still makes choices I wouldn't. We get to be more daring in fiction, I suppose :)

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  6. Thanks for the post! I think my characters are all similar, but I try not to keep writing the same character. It is really cool to write from the perspective of someone totally different. It makes you think a different way, and I love that.

    For me, writing differently has gone pretty well. My MC in my current WIP is a mid-twenties guy, so that's different. At the writing camp I went to, I wrote differently automatically, using third POV instead of first. I also got to try new genres there, like horror, for short stories, which was cool.

    Thanks for the awesome post, Stephanie!

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  7. I think the reason why most of my characters come out so alike is because when I finish with one in a certain project i don't want to ever really leave them, :P. I'm definitely going to use your tips when I start a new story with new characters.

    As for purposely writing something different, yes I have! It was probably the best decision ever. I was super wary of fantasy because it seems that fantasy will always be a direct hit or miss. I wrote it anyway though because I remembered a quote that said about if there's a story you want to read, but it doesn't exist, write it. I think it turned out all right. I mean I'm not a published author with adoring fans and movies based off of my book, but I've been working on the same story for about a year and I'm still as in love with it as when I started.

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    1. That's wonderful, Leah. I'm glad the risk has been worth it. Adoring fans will be right around the corner :)

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  8. I am very guilty of writing my characters so that they are very similar to how I am. . . Thanks for the ideas and the encouragement!

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  9. I totally needed this post right now. My current WIP is different from everything I've ever written. It's out of my genre and my preferred POV. I'm looking forward to it and all, but it's been pretty difficult so far.

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    1. I'm glad the timing of this post was so good, Ashley!

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  10. All of my stories were about shy, don't-fit-in kind of girls. In my WIP, however, Destiny is a very no-nonsense, I'm-in-charge person. My story is easier to write, more fun to write. Because she's not me. Yay!
    Oh, and everybody meet my sister. She decided yesterday she likes writing after all.

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    1. Hannah ElizabethJuly 29, 2013 at 1:15 PM

      Hi everybody I am a writer as of yesterday! I am currently writing my first story and I am really excited about i! Yay!

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    2. Hi Hannah! Catsi e-mailed me about you. Yay for you on your first story! I wish I had known about GTW when I wrote my first one. It would've helped so much.

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  11. Most of my main characters are who I wish I would be if I ever got trapped in a book, which is nothing like who I really am. I need to try something else... maybe a character that's more like me! :)

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    1. What a wonderful description of your characters, Katelyn! I like that.

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    2. ooooooohhhh.... this is a GREAT IDEA!!! I AM TRYYYYYING!!!! Thx Katelyn!!!


      ~abrielle lindsay~
      http://thebooksbooksbookblog.blogspot.com/

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  12. Perfect timing for this post! I've been noticing some weird anti-similiarities (much more extreme than just differences) between my last books, Anomaly, and my current one, Guy Fulton Burslough. Milo, of Anomaly, is serious, angry, totally afraid of emotions, and kind of a poser. But Guy Fulton Burslough is friendly, emotional, and totally oblivious to the idea that non-genuine people even exist. I also reversed my issue from Anomaly of always having the same characters in the same location. In Guy's story, most of the other characters never appear at the same time, and every scene is practically in another state. I do catch similarities between those and my other novels though. I have a thing for male characters who are super gruff and ignore emotions. :/ One seems to appear in every project of mine. I make them all unique and complex as I can, of course, but that trait is often central.
    Whoo, sorry for the long-winded comment. Thank you for the post!

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  13. Great post. As usual. ;) My earliest characters (written when I was a tween) all tended to be very bland and very me. Then I think I over-corrected. So far I'm happy with my current protagonist. She's more introverted and organized than I am, but I also gave her a few of my own traits and so far people have been saying she feels more real as a result. Finding that balance is so tricky!

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  14. In one of my very first stories my MC, Glory is like me, shy and insecure, then she can be really feisty and stubborn. But I kind of intended her to be like me, because that's what I knew and I figured it would come across as more believable because her feelings are more how I feel.

    Presently, I try to make all of my characters as different from each other as possible, although, I've realized I like a lot of my female MC's to be tough, confident and won't back down from anything. So, yeah they're basically the people I imagine myself to be in all of my daydreams. Yes, I tend to daydream a lot, I guess it just comes with being a writer. : )

    (MJ)

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  15. I find that in most of my pieces, my characters are really like me and have similar interests and talents. A bit repeditive and boring, don't you think? So, I am going to try out what you did with Skylar [I love her name, btw! So cool!]. I am going to try and make my character in my WIP novel the opposite of me. That means someone tall, shy, sporty, and who can't sing to save her life. Not sure how well it's going to work, but it's sure worth a try! Thanks for the post, you made up my mind on this subject. :)

    A few questions, though; if you make your main character the opposite of you, what about the other supporting characters? Is it hard to write them when your MC is so different from what you're used to? What about writing characters for a totally different novel or series? Is it be difficult to write them somewhere in-between like you and the opposite of you?
    Haha, hope all that makes sense. :)

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  16. I'm definitely making lists and trying this out (plus, I like lists). My pet plot devices are usually my male MCs stutter or don't talk at all (very nice on the ears) and my MCs always have a food obsession. Cake. Peanuts. M&Ms. I (obviously) don't, so that's okay. ;)

    I find that my MCs are never very much like me. Sometimes, they're like how "I would like to be". I'm only just about to write a book with a character who's shy and socially awkward like me. So far, everyone's been the life of the party. *shrugs* I'm STILL making this list.

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  17. Oh muffins. All my characters are me. Me, but orphaned. Me, but braver and tougher. Me, but actually thinks poodles have a purpose. Me, but doesn't eat every 15 minutes. ::Facepalm of conviction::

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  18. Thank you so much for writing this! It was exactly what I needed to hear/read. No wonder my story seems so flat right now... I need to make my character different. She's totally me except for that she's and orphan and she's not supposed to be good at making friends. I think my plot is sort of unique, but I think that your idea of making it something that you normally wouldn't will work perfectly. It needs a little excitement right now. (-:

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  19. I've realized when reading my drafts and stuff that all my main characters are so like me. Me but a little more witty, me but a little more romantic, me but a little more naughty or snarky (not that I'm not, I just don't let my snarkyness full out, I give my characters the privilage) But I guess I could try to turn them a little more off the path of me and see what happens.

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  20. Just last week my friend dared me to write a short about a homeschooled 'goth' girl. (I am soooooo bad about accepting dares... so obviously I accepted. With gusto XD) Anywho, my word limit was 3000, which was an exercise in itself, but I LOVED the result! It was a totally different genre and subject then I would have approached on my own, and it was surprisingly easy! Now I want to accept more short story dares, and I'm going to turn that short into a whole book!

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  21. I'm always open to new book reads... but its really difficult sometimes because I really have no interest in reading a lot of novel genres outside of fantasy fic unless they really catch my attention and don't let go until I finish them.

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  22. My book is Realistic fiction the parts that are real are the time, place and actual events. Events and characters that really took place in history. The parts thats fiction is the main character, on the outside she's totally different from me but her core of her character is me. I did that on purpose to make it more real so even the character thoughts, emotions and memories are mine. So if you scratched the surface on my character you would actually be reading a real event in my life just disguised in a different time place and setting. But I do see the bad side of all of this since my character is me then she's less of her own individual character to better fit the time period she lives in. Thats why I read your advice and it does help.very much so thank you.
    My other problem with my character disguised as myself is that the events in my life my seem fictional but are real. Like getting lost in the rainforest or surviving two encounters with lions. I don't seem to live through problems normal teens live through thats why my character is me.

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  23. Great post! Sorry I'm commenting really late: I was at camp when this got posted. There is a novel that I haven't officially started yet but still love in which the main character basically IS me, but cooler. xD I'm goimg to take your advice on how to change her up a little bit. In my current WIP, though, my MC is quite out of my comfort zone. He's a guy, which is hard because I'm a girl who doezn't quite get how male brains function. He's also the total opposite of me at my core. He's a lot of fun to write, though.

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