Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.

4 comments on “Taking Risks

  1. This is a really interesting point, in that even very successful writers can be pigeon-holed and become stuck with one series when they would rather stretch their wings and explore new ideas.

    For example, C. J. Cherryh lives in my town and she has said that DAW won’t buy anything else from her but Foreigner books. She has turned to self-publishing, like many of us. Initially, she was buying back rights to her back list and bringing those into print again, but now is producing her new books independently.

    You can also think of authors like David Weber, who my husband read faithfully. The last few Honor books, my husband said he was frustrated because they were stretched out to make more books. Weber eventually ended that series, but you can imagine that his editors really protested against this.

    • There’s an interesting underlying idea here that’s a challenge to address. It strikes me that editors want writers to keep writing the same series because they perceive the readers to be risk-averse. Of course, big publishers have lots of sales data, so they’re probably right. All I can suggest to counter that is that as a reader, there can be a lot of rewards to trying to new writers and seeing what they do. I also think its fun to see my favorite writers try different things. For instance, I love Gini Koch’s “Alien” series about a woman caught up with aliens trying to do good on Earth. I also love her space pirates and she’s written some amazing steampunk. Of course, in her case, she’s had to change to new pseudonyms to work in those other areas — but still I don’t feel risk-averse because I know when Gini tells me a story it’s going to be a rollicking good time whatever the subject.

      • It’s kind of like in debate, when you can’t prove a negative or that something didn’t happen. Sales figures tell you what DID sell well and where the sales were made. They can’t tell you what MIGHT sell that is yet unwritten.

        I guess it’s on authors (and agents, if we have one) to stick to our guns and try the new ideas. If you write a great MS, and your editor can hold it in their hands, then they’re in a better position to advocate with the sales force.

        Of course, that assumes the author can afford to write things on speculation vs. things they know they can get a contract for.

      • I think it’s also on readers to try new things. The more different kinds of things you try, the more you grow. Of course, marketers (including publishers) invest a lot of effort in getting you to stick with their brand. In the case of publishing that “brand” is often author X writing the Y series (and maybe a few similar authors writing a few similar series for the more voracious readers).

        Of course, you can always pitch new ideas to editors who are open to hearing them and sell novels based on a synopsis and an outline. That does mitigate some of the time it would take to devote to a full manuscript. Still, it all gets back to the original point of the post. It means the author and/or editor have to not fear the risk for the potential of the reward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.