Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 14

The comfort zone is a dangerous place.  At best, it can be thought of as your area of competence.  You know you can handle things that are within the zone; they may take work, but your ability is equal to the challenge.  You’re humming along, happy and productive, getting your work done, the story written, making readers happy.

Sometimes, though, you think  “to tell that story properly, to really do it justice, I need to X.”  And “often, X” is something you aren’t sure you can do.  Something you haven’t tried.  A technique you haven’t learned, a topic totally out of your existing knowledge/experience base.  A leap out of your comfort zone, and into the wild haven’t-a-clue blue.

And, having once thought about X, you will never be able to unthink it.  You may choose not to follow through, but the what-if will always be there.  If I had tried, if I had stretched… would it have been a better story?  Would it have been The Story, the one where you level up into another class of writer, when you hit everything out of the ballpark, when you finally manage that grail of perfection, the story that does exactly what you’d hoped it would when you first thought of it, reaches people the way you’d intended, and lives on long after its first appearance in print?

So why wouldn’t you try?

Because, well, getting out of the comfort zone is hard.  And scary.  And the odds are far greater that you’ll fail horribly, that you won’t have the ability to get there, that you’ll have spent the time and effort and stress and gotten nothing.  And failure like that, in a word, sucks.

In more words: it scares the hell out of us, and starts us down the “I suck” death spiral.

So much easier to keep doing what we know we can do – which is often quite good indeed.  There is no shame in staying steady on the course, after all.  That’s what careers are made of.


The truth is that our brain/inspiration/muse rarely gives us a challenge without a reason.  We may not be ready to write that story yet, we may not have the chops to pull it off – but it’s the trying that teaches us.

Not a class, not reading someone else’s work (although those things certainly aid the process].  Not thinking about how you might do it, someday.

Get out of your comfort zone.  Stretch.  Possibly, yes, fail.  Next time, fail better.

You may never be able to complete the thought, achieve the story.  But everything you learn in the stretching isn’t abandoned by the road when you’re done: you pack it into your bags and bring it home with you.  And the next thing, the thing after that, you write?  May be the level-up you were looking for.


Coming up in Week 13:  Drinking [or just socializing] With Your Peers

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 14 — 8 Comments

  1. My first novel was a stretch novel. I got the idea for it, loved it, wanted to do it very, very much, and realized it was very complicated and difficult. How do you make a mentally ill person with multiple personalities into a likable protagonist? How do you tell an inner and outer story without losing the reader? How do you flip back from present to past effectively?

    Initially I decided the book was too difficult and I set it aside until I had grown as a writer and would be ready to handle the challenges. Then I said, “Wait a minute. When will I learn to do this? You’re just chicken the story is bigger than you are. Get moving!”

    So I got to work on it, and it was scary, and it was hard, and I eventually sold it IN THE COMPANY OF MIND as my first novel.


  2. My first published book was also a stretch. When I started it I thought I was writing category romance. I didn’t have the skills or experience to write a complex story with multiple subplots and many POVs. This was my therapy book after all and not intended for publication.

    I may not have had the skills to write that book when I started it, but by the time I had a completed draft I had a lot more of those skills. And since it’s still in print 17 years after it debuted I guess I learned a few things in the writing process. Still working on learning more 22 books later. Each one is a new challenge with its own rewards and suckage.

  3. If you find that you are unable to finish stories, sit down and read a stack of half-finished stories.

    The reason why you are failing — the X — may jump out and hit you over the head with a two-by-four. (And at worst, you will have wasted a few hours.)

  4. Mary – the X here isn’t so much about failing as it is about not being certain if you can do what X will require, which is a very different thing, mentally and emotionally…..

    The point of comfort zones is that they’re not bad – but a little danger on a regular basis, for a creative person, is better.

  5. The thing is that it’s very easy to lose interest in a story when you hit on something that’s difficult for you to do, and not even realize it — especially when you’re new to writing.

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