Writing Out of Our Comfort Zone

I’m in a writing group where we regularly give each other feedback on our novels-in-progress. In addition, we’ve been working our way through one of the classic books on craft, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. We’re now up to Chapter Four in the 10th edition, “The Flesh Made Word,” on indirect methods of character presentation. Whereas I found it easy to connect my own writing to Burroway’s preceding chapter in which she discusses how we reveal character directly through dialogue, appearance, action, and thought, this chapter had me flummoxed. It focused on using the “authorial voice” to describe a character, allowing the writer to efficiently provide a lot of information. Burroway explains: “The advantages of this indirect method are enormous, for its use leaves you as the author free to move in time and space; to know anything you choose to know, whether the character knows it or not; and godlike, to tell us what we are to feel.”

I wasn’t clear on how this applied to my own work. Like many young adult writers, I write in first person and try to get so close to my POV character that I see the world and every experience through her eyes. Writing in first person doesn’t have all of the advantages of an “authorial voice” that Burroway lists, but I do believe it helps readers build an emotional connection and closeness to the protagonist.

Not surprisingly, nearly all of Burroway’s examples were written in third person, a point of view I’m woefully inexperienced with. And this business of “authorial voice” is even more foreign to me. So, when our craft leader for this coming session, the wonderful writer Ellen Birkett Morris, assigned us to do one of the writing prompts at the end of the chapter, I felt really anxious and way out of my depth. Here’s Burroway’s prompt:

As author, create a crowd. Then pick two characters from it (or in it), show  them directly, and let us know from their dialogue how differently each  sees the event or experience. When you move back to the crowd, move back to the authorial voice. Make this switch several times.

Despite my initial resistance to doing this prompt, I ended up enjoying the challenge and even thought maybe I’d stumbled upon a kernel of something I could expand into a larger work. I was reminded again that writing is like a muscle that grows stronger with practice. Just as athletes find value in cross-training, we writers can, too. There really is value in writing out of our comfort zone, even when we sure don’t want to!

And, in case you’re interested, below is the rough draft of the scene I wrote. If you have any thoughts for me on how I might develop this, I’d love to hear them. (Of course, as a mystery writer, my first thought is always a dead body appearing, but I do realize there are plenty of other possibilities!)

Here goes:

With its high ceilings, smoked mirrors, and candelabras with fresh flower garlands strung between them, Burt Oliphant thought the ballroom he’d rented for Merilee’s reception looked splendid. He’d spared no expense for his only daughter’s wedding. And now, he was thoroughly enjoying playing host to more than 200 formally dressed guests, many from the bank and others from his country club, along with Merilee and Trevor’s twenty something friends. The crowd milled around sipping champagne, while the live band played a mix of old time standards and classic rock. The sit-down dinner wasn’t happening for another hour, and guests were not shy about helping themselves to the stuffed mushrooms and shrimp rollups carted around on silver trays by the all-male wait staff.

It hadn’t taken long for the attendees to separate themselves into their age-related cohorts. Merilee and Trevor’s friends gravitated to the area close to the bar, while older guests had moved to tables near the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden.

Kate Oliphant, Merilee’s cousin, had spent several minutes trying to engage in conversation with Merilee’s friends from her ballet company. It hadn’t gone well. The dancers talked incessantly about company gossip—who was bedding whom, who was up for the lead in the upcoming production of Giselle, and who was rumored to have a serious eating disorder.

Kate was not ordinarily adverse to gossip, but when you didn’t know the people involved and you were six feet tall and had to bend over to hear these ridiculously tiny girls talk in hushed tones, it wasn’t nearly as much fun.

So, after a while, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. She took a seat on the divan in the foyer and tried to distract herself by pulling out her phone and checking the scores for that day’s Big Ten games. She’d grown up in a basketball family. Her dad was a long time college coach, her older brother Bobby was now one of his assistants, and she’d just earned her master’s in sports administration after playing four years of college ball for Michigan State.

Basketball was how she’d met Trevor. He’d moved into the neighborhood when she was ten and he was twelve like her brother Bobby. He was just as crazy about basketball as she and Bobby were. When they weren’t at team practices, the three of them spent hours shooting baskets at the middle school playground, watching NBA games, and hanging out at the college practices run by Bobby and Kate’s dad. Not surprisingly, Trevor had also made a career in basketball and was now in his second year as the head coach at their old high school.

Kate wasn’t sure when she’d fallen in love with Trevor—probably the year she turned fourteen and he anointed himself her protector and additional big brother advisor on navigating high school. She’d always assumed one day he would realize she’d grown up and would notice her as more than his best friend’s little sister. After all, her friends told her she was striking—statuesque even. And she’d had her share of dates from guys in her class who were tall enough not to mind that she was six feet.

But Trevor was the one she’d always wanted. And as the years had gone by and neither one of them had entered a serious relationship with anyone else, she was ever hopeful that one day, they’d end up together. What she hadn’t counted on was his showing up at a family dinner where her visiting cousin Merilee, a petite, stunning ballet dancer, grabbed his attention and never let go.

Kate sighed and stood up. She moved to the mirror, gave herself a once over, and refreshed her lipstick before returning to the ballroom.

She was headed for the bar when her dad strode over to her, looking elegant and ever so distinguished in his tux. “Sweetie, I thought I’d lost you,” he said. “Is everything okay?”

“Sure. I was just freshening up a bit. I was straining my neck trying to talk to those little midget dancers.”

“Oh, come on. I bet they all wish they could be as tall and gorgeous as my girl.”

“Right, Dad.” Not.

Her father looked around and rubbed his hands. “Boy, my brother sure knows how to put on a wedding, don’t you think? What a party!”

“Yeah, if you like conspicuous consumption.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Honey, it’s not like you to be so snide. Merilee is Burt’s only daughter. Of course, he wanted to go all out.”

“Well, he’s done that all right.”

The band had just struck up their cover of the old Platters’ hit, My Prayer. The 40 plus folks drifted on to the dance floor, as did several younger couples.

“Come on, precious daughter of mine, let’s dance,” Kate’s dad said. He took her hand and pulled her on the dance floor.

Kate laid her head on her father’s shoulder and breathed in the familiar scent of his Old Spice aftershave. She tried not to think about what it would be like to slow dance with Trevor.

Her dad interrupted her reverie. “When you get married, I want to pull out all the stops, too. I’m going to consult with Burt and Emily. I want you to have a classy affair just like this.”

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Please don’t, Dad. This is such a colossal waste of money. Think of all the basketball camps for inner city kids we could sponsor with the money Uncle Burt and Aunt Emily have forked over for this wedding. What do you want to bet this thing cost at least $50,000?”

“At least, but give us old dads the opportunity to let our baby girls go out into the world in style.”

Gag me.

The song ended, and the band took a break. A gray-haired gentleman dressed in long tails rang a bell and announced that dinner would be served momentarily and guest should take their seats.

“Go on over and sit with the young people, honey,” Kate’s dad said.

Kate looked over at the knot of friends surrounding Merilee and Trevor. Trevor had his arm slung around Merilee who kept gazing up at him adoringly.

“Actually, I’d rather sit with you and Mom if you don’t mind.”

“Suit yourself, but weddings are a great place to meet ‘the One.’ Did I ever tell you how I met your mom?”

“Uh-huh.” Only about a thousand times.

Undeterred, he launched into his recollections of meeting “his bride-to-be” at the wedding of the college athletic director. “I took one look at your mother on the dance floor, and she was pure grace-in-motion. I told myself, ‘Randy, that’s the girl you’re going to marry.’”

They took their seats at a table filled with Uncle Burt’s co-workers from his bank and their spouses. Like the dancers Kate had tried to talk to earlier, they were deeply involved in shop talk and gossip from their workplace. Kate looked around for her mother and found her embracing the newlyweds.

Her father’s gaze followed hers. “Your mom can’t believe that Bobby’s best friend has married your cousin. I’ve always thought of Trevor as family, and now he really will be.”

“Yeah,” Kate said, trying to sound pleased. “I hope it works out for them. We’re a basketball family, Dad. I don’t think Merilee would know the difference between a zone and a man to man defense.”

He laughed. “Honey, the way Trevor looks at that girl, I don’t think he gives a flying fig about her basketball IQ. And anyway, she has you to teach her all about the game.”

“I can hardly wait,” Kate said.


Again, I’d love your feedback and ideas on how I might develop this.


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