The words 'comfort zone' are bandied around a lot these days. Self-development experts are always telling us to get out of it. I like the sound of a comfort zone and the images it evokes – I picture myself curled up on my couch surrounded by books, chocolate and coffee, with a large sign nearby announcing ‘Warning – Comfort Zone,’ so anyone approaching will know to leave me alone in my natural habitat.
What is a comfort zone?
When I Googled comfort zone, the first two explanations that appeared were:
· A situation where one feels safe or at ease
· A settled method of working that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results
The first sounds alluring, like being snuggled up inside while a fierce storm lashes your home, while the second has the disapproving tone of a teacher who knows you’ve just done the bare minimum of homework to get by.
I think there’s nothing wrong with being in your comfort zone, in the short term. However I do think it’s important to be constantly challenging yourself, as it’s the only way you learn and grow. Especially as you hit your sixties and beyond – it’s the only way to avoid the decline into cardigans, slippers and dinner at 5pm while watching Family Feud.
I am venturing hugely outside my comfort zone by doing my first skydive in February next year. More on that later. (I’m purposely not thinking about it at the moment –sometimes procrastination is the only way!)
Going outside your reading comfort zone
And I also think that as a reader, going outside your comfort zone is important too. We all have our favourite genres and authors that we veer towards and avoid any we think we might not enjoy, often without even giving them a try. For years I read mainly detective or crime novels, and had my favourite authors whose books I devoured voraciously – Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Robotham. Occasionally to break it up, I’d read some literary fiction (Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini) romantic comedy (Helen Fielding, Jilly Cooper) or lad lit, the male version of chick lit (Nick Hornby and Nick Earls).
But in only sticking to genres you’re familiar with, you miss out on some rewarding reading that can:
· broaden your horizons
· teach you new things
· increase your enjoyment and
· introduce you to a wider range of great authors
And who wouldn’t agree that the wider the choice of authors to read, the better?
To top it all off, there’s the excitement of discovering an author and finding out they’ve written a swag of books that can take you on a marathon reading adventure.
Reading widely is essential for authors
For authors it’s especially important to read widely, as reading is one of the main ways we learn how to write. I credit reading as being the single most significant activity that has improved my writing over the years, even more so than the dozens of workshops and seminars I’ve attended.
While I’m reading a book, one part of my mind is taking note of how it is written and what language the author is using to achieve certain effects. If I’m crying or laughing or biting my nails in suspense, I want to know how he or she does it. I do the same when I’m watching movies, as I explained in my blog post Taking The Guilt Out Of Guilty Pleasures.
‘Doesn’t that detract from the enjoyment of the book?’ a friend asked me. ‘Like studying a book at school and having to analyse it to bits so that you end up hating it.’
On the contrary, it increases my enjoyment of the book. I can enjoy it purely as a story, another world I can escape into for a few hours, but I can also appreciate on a deeper level the skill that’s gone into writing it. A lot of my learning from books I’ve read is subconscious and I’m not aware of what I’m taking in, but it lurks there waiting to manifest itself when I’m next writing. Sounds very pretentious, n’est-ce pas?
My new reading genre
Over the past few years I have broadened my reading to include autobiographies and memoirs, short story collections, self-development books, historical fiction and a larger variety of contemporary fiction. And recently I stepped out of my reading comfort zone and read my first fantasy novel. (If you don’t count The Lord of the Rings – everyone’s read that, or says they have).
Previously, fantasy novels had never appealed to me and I can’t even come up with a logical reason. Perhaps my mother was frightened by a dragon when she was pregnant with me. But even that doesn’t make sense because I loved reading fantasy as child. And it’s even more strange when you consider that two of the short stories in my e-book Comedy Shorts have a fantasy element.
It seemed that every fantasy book I looked at was full of dragons, witches, vampires or princes with weird names like V’darqz from the Kingdom of Wrthsfofff – conjured up, I suspect, by the author accidentally leaning on their keyboard. As I like an element of realism in my books (i.e. I like to imagine the story happening in real life) I didn’t think I could suspend this desire enough to be able to enjoy the world of fantasy.
Two new authors I’ve discovered
But I was wrong. I eased into fantasy by reading two comedy-fantasy novels, as comedy is a genre I write and enjoy. First I read Tom Holt’s The Good, The Bad and The Smug. It’s about goblin king Mordak, who discovers that someone is pumping gold into the human kingdom and threatening his rule. He sets out on a journey to find out what is going on, assisted by an elf with a background in journalism and a masters degree in smugness.
The characters are so well-written with all their quirks and foibles that they are thoroughly believable and there are plenty of twists and turns in the story. The book is based on the concept of a multiverse (multiple universes) and in these alternate worlds Holt brilliantly satirizes just about every aspect of modern society, from journalism and fashion to economics and politics.
The second book I read was Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job. Everyday guy Charlie Asher, after a series of bizarre events, discovers he’s been recruited to be a Merchant of Death. His job is to collect the souls of the dead and store them until they’re ready to be placed into a new body. If he fails to do it properly, ‘Darkness will cover the World and Chaos will reign.’
The story takes place in the real world with a mix of humans, mythical creatures and other Merchants of Death like Charlie, who’ve had supernatural powers thrust upon them. Like The Good, The Bad and The Smug, it’s full of eccentric characters, who are very engaging and believable. I’ve come to the conclusion that while authentic, fleshed-out characters are essential in any novel, they are even more so in fantasy, for the reader to be able to suspend their everyday beliefs to enter into the fantasy world.
The fact that death is the central theme of A Dirty Job adds a mystical ambiguity to the story – after all, none of us knows what happens after death, so there’s no reality to compare it to.
My Christmas Comfort Zone
Both books had laugh out loud moments and I highly recommend them. And – serendipity! – both authors have written lots of other books, so in a couple of weeks I’ll be on the couch binge-reading in my Christmas Comfort Zone, draped in tinsel with a sprig of holly behind my ear.
The next test will be reading a fantasy that’s not funny. If anyone can recommend one, or any other fantasy novel they’ve enjoyed, funny or not, I’d love you to comment in the comments box below.
Or have you also discovered an author in a genre you wouldn't normally read?
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.