Judy Blume and Leaving Your Comfort Zone
Here's a storytelling lesson you can learn from the author of the Fudge Series.
On my short list of all-time favorite authors, the first name on the list was Judy Blume. I read “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” while I was in the fourth grade, and the book spoke precisely to what I was going through and how I was feeling at the time. And yes, I do find it noteworthy that a black, lower-class, inner-city kid in Michigan could identify with a suburban, upper middle class white kid in New York. Some experiences are universal, and that is what Judy managed to tap into with Fourth Grade nothing and its follow-up books: Sheila the Great and the Fudge series. Nevermind that the books are hilarious in their own right. Blume had endeared herself to me through her children's books, but I was surprised to find out years later that she had also written books for adults that had nothing to do with the pains of growing up – well, not in the immediate sense that she did with her children's books, at least. As of this writing, I still haven't read any of her adult books because the subject matters of the book haven't gripped me, but I put that on my personal preferences for the types of stories I like to read more than her acumen as a writer. I'm still a Judy Blume fan despite that. But I was impressed at how she was able to switch lanes from writing children's books and eventually YA books to more adult fare, and I find that ability to leave her comfort zone and try something new inspiring.
If you’ve looked at the body of my writing work, I think it would be hard to pigeonhole me into any particular genre of fiction. I’ve written comic books, Young Adult novels, Business Melodrama, Science Fiction and Survival Horror. My most recent book is a literary love story, and I wrote a crime satire novel that will never see print. And right now I’m seeking representation for three recently finished manuscripts: a high fantasy epic, a treasure-hunting neo noir, and a weird sci-fi/war/sports hybrid. I never gave much thought into what motivates me to switch genres and styles of storytelling. I could say I just go where the story takes me, but that would be too simple.
Truth be told, every story I’ve written has been a challenge to myself in some way, shape or form. I get inspired by books I read, TV shows I watch and movies and video games I enjoy. And these stories inspire me to tell my own. I often ask myself “wouldn’t it be cool if I could write XXX kind of story?” and being the impulsive guy I am, it doesn’t take me long to hash out some ideas for that genre and style.
For the neo noir (Working title “Needle of the Southside”), it started off as a prequel to an epic urban high fantasy series I was planning. But as I was writing it, I didn’t really know how the story was going to get from its beginning to the point where my saga started. I’m usually a big “plot” guy, and I’ll spend a lot of time outlining the plot points and twists, creating a roadmap for where I want the story to go. But this time, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time pre-planning my story, and I really just wanted to start writing. So that’s exactly what I did. I only had a handful of vague plot points in mind when I started writing this story. I had two or three events I wanted to build up to, and I had a general idea of how I wanted it to end, but I left myself completely open with this story. I just created some characters, created a world for those characters to inhabit, and put the central character in a dire predicament. I then just followed that character around in this setting, observing his actions, getting inside his head to find out what he’s thinking and feeling as he does what he does, and writing everything down. This style of storytelling is counter-intuitive to every other book I’ve written, and it was uncharted territory for me. It was kind of scary. But it was also thrilling to be “winging it” and basically making the story up as I go along. And I turned out great; “Needle of the Southside” may be my strongest story yet, and I already have a ton of material in motion to take a similar journey in its follow-up book.
I believe one of the best ways to truly improve as a storyteller it to challenge yourself and step out of your comfort zone. Even successful writers (actually, ESPECIALLY successful writers) can get complacent and fall into a rut, telling the same types of stories in the same style over and over again. This is why Stephen King will take a break from writing horror to write stories like The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Dark Tower and The Stand. Or why Isaac Asimov put the hard science fiction aside every once in a while to write short stories about a pocket-sized demon that grants monkey's paw-styled wishes. It gives one a chance to freshen up, and learn new things about ones self as a writer and storyteller.
So my challenge to you is simple. Try something different. If you’re used to writing modern fantasy (especially if your Vampires glitter and your Werewolves are emo), take a stab at writing a crime story. If rustic heartland romances are your thing, take a shot at writing a political thriller. If you write historical fiction, then maybe you can shift from the past to the future and write some hard Science Fiction. And you can even stretch your muscles stylistically, like switching from the female protagonists you always write to a male one, or switching from Third person to First person (or the even bigger challenge of Second person), or switching from writing in past tense to present tense. In doing so you might broaden your horizons and discover some new things about your voice that you never knew you had before.
You don’t even have to commit to a whole book of it if you don’t want to. Maybe just a short story, or a simple scene just to see what it would feel like and read like in your new style or genre. And whatever you don’t finish you could just put in your writer’s vault for future idea mining. This would be a great way to improve your storytelling ability. Give it a try, and I'd love to hear about your results in the comments section for this article.
Hey! If you like this article or it inspires you to create, please subscribe! I post new articles every Monday, and next week, I'll be talking about one of my all-time favorite movies: Mel Brooks' Spaceballs.