A to Z for Indie Authors is a collection of posts containing tips, resources, inspiration and cautionary tales alike for indie authors old and new. Click here to see all posts.
When we write, it’s important to have a distraction-free, comfortable environment from which to manage the creative process. For myself, I prefer to throw a song up on YouTube and enable the autoplay functionality, ensuring a unique playlist nearly every time. More often than not, it provides just enough background radiation to help gestate my creativity, and sometimes it caused inspiration to come on like a mutated, giant green monster attacking New York City. I tend to avoid snacks during this period, because even a momentary distraction can rob me of my flow, although I do tend to keep myself hydrated and warm.
More importantly, I log off of Skype, turn off my Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and email notifications and attempt to focus entirely on the task at hand: Banging out an impressive word count. On a good day, I can write upwards of four thousand words in a single sitting. On the worse days, I still manage to put down at least a few hundred. But there’s one thing that I believe, as a writer, is far more important than having a suitable comfort zone while writing.
And that is to get out of it as much as humanly possible.
When writing, whether it’s a persuasive argument, fantastical fiction or technical details, we rely heavily on our own life experiences. We recall the times when we felt low, when we rode high. We can call upon all of our life experiences to write believable and relatable characters. This is exceedingly difficult to do when there are basic human experiences that we, during the course of our lives, lack.
I was an introverted straight-edge as a teen. I kept my nose clean, didn’t think about touching alcohol or tobacco, and kept a very tight-knight, but small group of friends. However, when I turned twenty, that all fell apart. There were times when I had passed out drunk in a stranger’s bathroom. There were other times when I got into fist fights over stupid arguments. I flirted with girls way out of my league with mixed results. I experimented with a wide array of hallucinogenic and euphoric drugs, crashed parties I wasn’t invited to, fooled around with complete strangers, disappeared into the woods with gun-toting rednecks, sat at a nightclub owner’s table, got hired by said nightclub owner as a bouncer for about a year, and one time I even found myself as the lone straight male playing drinking games with about twelve single ladies.
The point being is that all of those events were far outside of my normal comfort zone, but the experiences I had, both positive and negative, showed me parts of the world I had never seen or imagined. Most of them took place well before I wrote my first novel, but in the writing of said novel, I called upon all of those experience. The fights I’d been in taught me about the experience of the fighter. How it feels to be in that moment, squaring off against an opponent. The empty satisfaction of winning, and the crushed spirit that comes with losing. How hard it is to think clearly and concisely, and the reliance on little more than instinct. How your thoughts and emotions interacted when being struck, and while striking another. Everything, every last experience, no matter how dangerous, how pathetic, or how strong it felt, contributed to the whole.
This is by no means a suggestion to put on a slinky red dress or your best douchebag v-neck and show up at your nearest night club, looking to fight, fornicate or favor the porcelain god. But it is a call to consider it. Consider, for a moment, what the world looks like from the perspective of the villain. Until you’ve become a villain in a certain sense, it’s difficult to picture.
Too often I see the villain in a story written as a stereotype. I’ve even made the mistake myself. He hates the world so much that he punishes not only the protagonists, but those on his own side for vague missteps,
This does not guarantee job security for the henchmen.
But villains tend to take on one of two forms in the real world– the ideological villain, who justifies performing inhumane acts against innocent people not for himself, but for what he assumes is for the good of humanity. Hitler, for example, could fall under this category. When we look at Hitler’s youth, we see an image of a very plain man, unremarkable in nearly every way, who later went on to become one of the major symbols of twentieth century evil. The other type of villain is the nihilist, full of rage and resentment, wanting to extract pain upon the world that has hurt him so much. For this example, take a look at the Columbine shooters. When we look at the shooters, we see an image of two young men stained with such a profound hatred of the world around them that they resort to violence merely for the sake of harming people.
The point is not that you should become a villain, but by getting out of your comfort zone, you can begin to face new challenges you may never have experienced. As writers, we either write from experience, or what we think others experience, normally interpreted from our perceptions of historical figures, or how the villains in our favorite story are painted. The reality, as I found out, is often far different.
Take a look at the writing of renowned Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. He had a rough youth after his father died, leaving his family in poverty. He was arrested for abetting in a robbery, later joined the Air Force and became a journalist. What put him on the map, however, was his 1967 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. While he wrote the book, he didn’t rely on pre-existing writing on the topic to inform his writing. Rather, he spent that time riding and partying with the very people he wrote about. Eventually, he ended up on the wrong side of the gang’s spirits, and received a savage beating when the bikers perceived that he was exploiting them for personal gain, and demanded a cut of the proceeds. Nonetheless, it prompted a long career of similar stories, eventually culminating in a feature film starring Johnny Depp based on his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I’m by no means suggesting you go out and party with outlaw bikers in order to improve your writing. After all, Thompson already did that for you, and his work does a good job of giving you a sense of what it’s like. But there are things you can learn, as I did when I partied with bikers, that can’t be learned from reading text on a page. Some things, some experiences can only be learned the hard way. And every event, good or bad, opens your perception to new experiences.
Ultimately, how you choose to manage your comfort zone is entirely up to you. Where the line gets drawn is going to change from person to person. But challenging your own limits, while it comes with certain dangers, will always give you new experiences to draw on as a writer. And that, to me, is worth its weight in gold.