The first time I sat down at my computer to start the draft of what would become Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink, I found my voice immediately. Past tense. First person. A female narrator who sounded, well, a lot like me. It wasn’t a conscious choice I made, like I’d debated the respective merits of different tenses and perspectives and voices, it just happened. And once I started, I barely stopped. It just flowed effortlessly, seemingly endlessly, like I was talking to a friend – and God knows I never run out of things to say. My fingers could barely keep up with my brain as I chronicled Libby’s adventures in Maine. And at the time, it never occurred to me that I’d write anything but female first-person in the past tense. After all, that was how all of the “chick lit” books I love were written – Bridget Jones, and Becky Bloomwood, and all of Jennifer Weiner’s heroines spoke to me just like I hoped my main characters would speak to my readers.
I’m a big believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s hard for me to let go of what’s comfortable. I wore a pair of pajama pants I’d purchased as a freshman at my college bookstore until they literally disintegrated around my ankles. (R.I.P., plaid PJ pants. Still miss you guys.) And I probably would never have stepped out of my comfort zone if it hadn’t been for a call from my agent.
An editor she had worked with at Scholastic was looking for someone to write a typical YA love story in the format of an oral history. I said yes, of course I would write sample chapters, of course I would write a proposal, because whenever I heard the words “YA love story,” I’m in. And then I began feverishly Googling what an oral history is.
According to Wikipedia, a source I shouldn’t use but almost always do, “oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews.” From what I could best tell, reading different examples of the genre, oral histories read like the transcripts of interviews that have been spliced together to tell the complete story of an event or particular time in history. (And may I recommend this fantastic oral history, if you’re curious?) So I set out to write my very own fictional oral history.
“You love writing dialogue,” everyone assured me. “This’ll be easy!” And it was. Sometimes. And sometimes it was the most frustrating thing I’d done since I’d been forced to take the math section of the SATs. There were still lines I’d written that I loved, still moments where I felt my characters voices easily ringing true, where every word felt right, but there were also times where I had to delete everything because none of it made sense, where I had to lose lines I loved because they didn’t work with the format, where I’d just stop and stare at my computer, trying to figure out where to go next and how I’d gotten where I was. I had to think, and plan, and problem-solve in a much more intense way than I ever had before. And when all of that coalesced into the finished product of It’s Not Me, It’s You, I couldn’t have been prouder.
I’m so glad working with a different format nudged me out of my comfort zone. I’ve now written a second book in the oral history format (The Date to Save out next September!), which was also fantastically fun and frustrating. But maybe even more importantly, writing these books pushed me to take risks and try different things. I’m working on a new project now that’s written in the third person and told from two different perspectives – one of which is male – something I never would have attempted before. Honestly, my only wish is that I’d started trying new things sooner. So I encourage you to leap outside of your comfort zone. Or maybe even just step one big toe outside of it. You might find it’s a lot more comfortable than you’d think.
Stephanie Kate Strohm is the author of YA novels Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink and Confederates Don’t Wear Couture, and The Taming of the Drew. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found baking delicious pies, knitting hideous scarves, and sneaking her dog, Lorelei, into shops all over Chicago. For more info, like Stephanie on facebook, follow her on twitter and check out her blog.