Your Comfort Zone Sucks.

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Put these on. We’re going for a walk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so does mine. That’s why we’re abandoning it.

Every writer has a comfort zone. It’s that place where you know what you’re doing and can be reasonably sure of doing it with a certain amount of skill and grace. Of not embarrassing yourself. Nothing ever upsets you there. It’s a comfy place. Hence the very obvious name.

But it’s boring as shit there. And that’s exactly the word I mean. Because how much do you remember about your last trip to the toilet?*

There are things about writing that will make you uncomfortable. It’ll be different for everyone. Some people might not like depicting violence, others might be uneasy about writing about a divorce. Or sex. Drug use. Religion. Nudity. Racism. Depression. Or, I don’t know, a plague of weasels.** There is something out there that makes you cringe a little inside when you think about writing it. And, because of me, you’re thinking about it right now. What is it?

Got it in mind? Okay.

Now go write it.

Hang on, hang on. Put down that big hammer and hear me out. Whatever came to mind is something that provokes a very visceral reaction from you. It makes you angry, or sick, or sad, or embarrassed. It upsets you. (Sorry about that.)

But you can use that.

Try writing a scene with that thing in it. Yeah, it’ll be weird and awkward and uncomfortable. I know. Go check out my experience writing a sex scene for the first time. But you can do it if you try, and put all that weirdness on the page.

And, once you get it done, you might like the scene. Or you might hate it. Either one is okay. You don’t have to let anyone else see it, ever. You don’t have to do anything with it, though I’d encourage you not to delete it. But once you know you can access that sort of feeling, and make it come out onto the page, you can use it. You want to make your audience upset? Use something that upsets you, and pass it on to them like an especially itchy STD. Make them feel it the way you do.

Funny thing is, the same applies to writing happy things. It’s hard to make an audience feel happy about something unless you can somehow connect it to your own happiness and share that with them. But you rarely have to push to write that stuff. It’s the dirty parts, the bloody parts, the parts that make you cringe that you have to make yourself write. But once you do, you’ll open up a whole new set of tools for your writing. And in this job, you need all the tools you can get.

*Krys, you’re excused from this question. I read the post.

**Sneaky little bastards.

Make ‘Em Bleed

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I appreciate violence in a story. (Maybe not just in stories; all my favourite sports involve someone getting punched in the face.) It can add a raw, realistic element to a piece. Violence and action are the chili pepper in the story: they spice it up and make it interesting. But it has to be used right. Anyone who has ever had suicide wings knows that spicy does not equal flavour. Sometimes it just kills the taste of everything else. Blood in a story is the same: you have to use it to add something to the story, not just for the sake of having someone bleed.

In the piece I’m editing now, there’s a seriously violent character. I’ve gone through several different versions of how his scenes could go, ranging up and down on the blood scale. The first draft was pretty bad, but the first draft I let someone else see was toned down, because, honestly, the guy was starting to weird me out a little. But the current version has most of those scenes returning to their original, higher, level of violence. I read the drafts side by side, made a lot of notes, and decided the more violent level was the right one. And here’s why.

 1. It builds tension. The violent character (nicknamed Wild Card in the first draft) needs to be stopped before the worst can happen. And the best way to illustrate the worst is to show what he’s capable of. Then he’s not just some guy who needs to be stopped if it’s not too inconvenient. He’s a fucking terrible person who must be stopped at all costs, because if he’s not, something truly bad will happen. Something worse than what’s already happening.

2. It illustrates character. The violence shows what kind of person Wild Card is, and sets up conflicts between him and other characters, good and bad. Their reactions to what he does show what kind of people they are. Are they okay with it? Does it disgust them? Why? And what are they going to do about it?

3. It highlights vulnerability. Particularly useful in this case, because Wild Card’s victim is a character who, until quite recently, was very hard to hurt. Seeing a badass character in a situation where they’re scared and helpless creates intrigue, because they have to come up with a way to get through it that does not rely on their traditional strengths. They have to be clever about it, and there’s always a chance it won’t work. Invulnerable characters are not interesting; people who get bloodied up and then try to beat the shit out of the bad guy with a broken chair leg are.

4. It makes heroes. One of the main characters has an opportunity to be the hero here. But his hero cred will be seriously diluted if the threat isn’t real or dire enough. There must be a sense that he’s not only saving the day, but that the consequences of not saving it will be really fucking bad. There has to be danger, to him and the victim, or there’s nothing for the character to gain from acting. He could just wait it out.

This is what I came up with, at least with regard to this particular story. And I’m feeling good about it. Maybe not entirely comfortable, because I’ve never written this kind of violence before, but it’s working. At least for me. The characters…they probably feel differently.