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November 10, 2015

Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone --- Guest Post by Howard Shapiro


A lot of authors have “comfort zones” --- they only write for a particular age group, only craft dark dystopias or light-hearted romances, they live for fast-paced plots or “quiet novels” with richly developed characters.

Howard Shapiro’s comfort zone is graphic novels, but that didn’t prevent him from completely breaking the mold and writing a young adult biography: I WAS PICKED: The John Challis Story (November 10, 2015). Below, he talks about how the book came to be, and the challenges and victories that come with writing something that falls distinctly outside of your repertoire. Check it out, below, and be sure to pick up a copy of the book!




In the summer of 2009, I was in the midst of a terrible case of writers block.  I was partway through writing what would become my debut graphic novel, THE STEREOTYPICAL FREAKS, and I was stuck trying to write the pivotal character, Jacoby.  I theoretically knew what I wanted him to be like, but I couldn’t get him down on paper to my satisfaction. 

One day during lunch, when I was reading my hometown newspaper (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) online, I read a story about a 17-year-old kid from Freedom, PA named John Challis.  It was about how he got a base hit during his high school baseball game. Nothing special about that, you might think.  Only, John was wearing a heavy flak jacket for protection because he was carrying around a large tumor in his stomach.  He had terminal liver cancer and it was spreading throughout his body.  Sadly, John’s time was limited so getting this hit was a big deal.

Even more remarkable was what he said in the article; the strength and courage he showed was amazing.  He had the wisdom of someone double or triple his age and his attitude in the face of his insurmountable odds was incredibly inspiring.  He didn’t want or ask for pity, he just wanted to pass along his motto of C+B = L...Courage plus Belief equals Life.  That and “if I’m mad at anything in this, it’s that I’m not going to be able to have a son, I’m not going to be able to get married and have my own house.  Those are the things I’m mad about.  But not dying.”

At that point, I knew who I wanted the character of Jacoby to be like, and writing him became easy.

Later, I ended up meeting John’s father (I had sent him and the Foundation started in John’s memory, The Courage for Life Foundation, copies of THE STEREOTYPICAL FREAKS). We spoke about how he had been trying to get someone to write a book about John for a few years without any success.  He eventually asked me if I’d be interested in doing it and I was thrilled to take on the challenge!

Recently, the book, which we called I WAS PICKED: The John Challis Story, came out. My hope is that it reflects John’s courage and character and that it will enable his message, his story and, most importantly, his memory to live on.

Doing a biography was a new experience for me as I had done kids’ books, graphic novels and a middle grade novel over the years.  It seemed like an overwhelming task at the beginning, much like when professors passed out syllabi in college courses and I’d think, how in the world am I going to get all of this done? But slowly but surely it did get done, and it was a great learning experience for me.

I think every writer should try and do a project that is a million miles outside of their comfort zone.  Having accomplished this, I feel I can write any book now and I hope to continue to seek out new writing challenges. I know that if I can get through them, they will make me a better overall writer. Specifically a better graphic novel writer, which is my forte.

So, if you get a writing assignment professionally or in school and you don’t think you can get it done, instead of receding, attack it as best you can!  You’ll see afterward that not only were you able to succeed at something you may have not felt comfortable doing, but when you sit down and write your next story or article, you’ll be doing it as a better and more complete writer!