The Comfort Zone
It’s been a few months since I wrote a blog post. It’s been a busy summer so far and lots going on. Our family took a trip to the East Coast to do some historical sight-seeing (Federal Hall in New York, Weehawken in Jersey, Philadelphia, Gettsyburg, DC). We had a great time and one of the strangest things that happened was being recognized by a fan in New York City and taking a selfie with him. We drove all the places we went (except a few times we took Ubers or traveled in tour buses) and let me tell you, driving in Manhattan was outside my comfort zone.
So that’s the topic of my blog today. Not driving–being outside our comfort zones.
I’ll tell you, it’s not an enjoyable experience. That clenching in the chest. Added stress. Worry about what’s going to happen. I have a strong DNA chain of anxiety that runs through my family and see it in my kids as well. When I was a 4th grader, the school district shut down the elementary school near my house and we combined with another elementary school a lot farther away. That required learning a new school, leaving earlier to get there, new teachers and fellow students, and the change was really hard on me. At the beginning of that school year, my anxiety would flare so much that during the walk to school I’d turn around and run home crying. But we all have to face our fears sometimes, and I learned to adapt to the challenge and ended up loving my new school.
When I got my publishing contract with 47North, I experienced a different kind of anxiety. It was my dream come true, but I didn’t want to blow it. My normal routines of life had to alter because I needed to support my family with my day-job as well as meet the deadlines. I was outside my comfort zone again. But thankfully, I learned a lot and was able to leave the job at Intel (which, I’ll admit, I still sometimes have nightmares about working there and having a project due or a presentation to give and not remembering anything about what I’m supposed to be doing) in order to write full-time. Since then, I’ve written over thirty books and learned a thing or two about the industry and the craft.
But then, a little over a year ago, I had a dream. Sometimes my dreams can be a little like Mission Impossible films–very action packed and scary. We’d been on a vacation to Florida with the family and the dream had totally haunted me. When I woke up, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Sometimes my books have been inspired by dreams (the plot of The King’s Traitor, for example, came from a dream). The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it could become the plot to a book. Not an epic fantasy, like I was used to writing, but to a modern-day thriller.
My stomach began to churn. It would be fun to learn to write in another genre. But it was a risk too. What if my fans didn’t like it? What if it bombed? Or, as my editors pointed out, what if new doors to readers were opened because of it? I made the decision to give it a try. For several months, I immersed myself in many thrillers written by the masters. I didn’t want to copy anyone else’s style, but I wanted to make sure I knew the expectations readers had. It was also important that it still felt like a Jeff Wheeler book in terms of themes and beloved characters. It seemed a natural pivot, since my books are pretty intense anyway, right?
I signed a three-book deal with A-Pub and started writing the first novel last year. I only knew the plot for the first book. I imagined that I could figure out books 2 and 3 later. This was highly unusual for me, because I don’t write that way normally. I’m a plotter, not a pantser, for the most part. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I couldn’t envision out the future without seeing how the first one landed. Thankfully, as I neared the end, the plot of book 2 began to form in my mind.
I’ve just finished writing ‘The End’ of book 2. And now I have to figure out book 3 and where things will go. I’m out of my comfort zone yet again. But I’m hoping that trip to the East Coast will work its magic on the story and that the ideas I got during the trip will be able to come alive in this new series, which I hope to announce very soon in a separate blog post. The cover art is underway. Editing on book 1 is happening. And now that I’ve finished the rough draft of book 2, it’s time to read it through and see how I can turn the screws and make it even more intense for my new set of characters.
The only way we grow is by getting out of our comfort zones once in a while. But no one said it was easy!
-Jeff in Washington DC (July 2022) – pssst…it’s a clue