Different Methods For Writing

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The past couple of weeks have been good writing weeks for me. I have found the flow, the groove of writing. I believe it is a result of me reflecting on my writing process and me as a writer. It has had to do with how I write.

The thing is, a writer can write 100 or 100,000 words and not develop if one does not reflect. It is like a constant self-check, skimming through thoughts that go through one’s head, catching those flimmering emotions that one feels in the pit of their stomach (dread) or chest (everything from joy to fear to anger).

Quite often that feeling of dread, fear, disappointment or even anger can come from the fact that you, the writer, haven’t been able to put down the words. You might have a daily, weekly or monthly word goal and every day you don’t work towards that goal makes you lag behind. 

It’s not a nice feeling, for sure. It certainly does not help you get back on the saddle the next day. But I have some suggestions for you – some ideas that might help you get to your word goals regardless of how you feel. Interested?

A Writer’s Heureka

When I got back to writing in February 2018, I had a simple goal of writing 30 minutes per day. It was usually in the morning before heading to the University. I wrote what I wanted, self-reflections or short-story ideas. In a week or two, the idea of Yellow Tails started to find its way to the pages.

During that time in my life, studies at university and working for radio, 30 minutes per day was enough for me. I felt satisfied for whatever words I put down. It was enough that I was writing.

But then I quit my job and had suddenly days upon days of nothing planned and I could write. I changed my daily writing goal from 30 minutes per day to 1,000 words a day. It took me longer, maybe an hour, to get to my goal. After that, I was usually exhausted, done for the day. 

All the way until the last pages of Yellow Tails in December 2018, I wrote 1,000 words per day.

After that, in 2019, my writing got less foreseeable with the fan fiction and all the short stories. It wasn’t any more about a certain amount of time or a certain amount of words – it was more of writing until the story was done, going by feeling. Sometimes it took days, sometimes only one.

But now, since December, I have been wondering again, how many words per day should I write? What would be enough? I kept thinking about something between 1,000 or 2,000 – but it was supposed to be fixed. You know, 1,500 and no less or precisely 2,000 because that’s the way I am. 

And I kept thinking about this back and forth while definitely not managing to reach this daily fixed goal which led to confusion and disappointment. But then I realized that I can change up my writing routine every single day if I wanted to. Who cares how I write those words as long as I find pleasure in writing?

So I started trying out different things: word crawls, a 20-minute writing session, a 100-words-at-a-time approach – and suddenly I was having both fun with my writing and I was reaching good word amounts every day! Gone were the days of personal frustration for not getting enough writing done or doing it with a grumpy face.

And that’s the thing I will tell you about right now: how to have fun and write.

Finding the Method

I know, it’s not groundbreaking in any way. It’s pretty simple, really. But I believe we writers tend to get held up by our beliefs and self-made rules that a good writer writes 2,000 words per day like Stephen King. 

That’s not the deal here, folks. 

You don’t need to write 2,000 words to be a good writer. You need to write XX amount of words to feel good about your writing and that can be different from one day to another. It is also key to have fun while writing. So, how do you do it?

The best way for you to get your words down today so that you’ll feel satisfied with the work of the day is to reflect on how you feel that day when you sit down at your writing desk. And to do that, there are a few different things to figure out. 

(But before you go on, just let me say this: if you feel motivated about your WIP, go for it, write already! But if you don’t, then keep on reading.)

What are working on today?

Are you writing flash-fiction? A short story, a one-shot? A novel, perhaps? It’s important to know since different stories and story formats have different needs. So, with that in mind, the next question, then.

In what phase of the work are you?

Do you know where to continue from last time? Or is there a troublesome, grubbly, muddy mid-section plot catastrophe waiting for you? 

You got the answers? Good, go on to the next section.

Depending on your work in progress and if you know what’s coming next, there are a few different methods to get going with your writing and getting those words down.

Method 1: Writing for a certain amount of time.

For short stories and novels. This method is for you who knows what scene comes next but finds it gruesome to get going.

Try putting on a timer, either on your phone or online. You can start by 10 minutes, or even just five if that feels like a good start. When those minutes are up, take a break, put on a new timer and start working again.

And if this doesn’t feel motivating or get your fingers running on that keyboard, try instead giving yourself a time limit. Decide for, say, 15 minutes and if you still feel unmotivated – maybe today isn’t your day? Rachael Stephen talks about meeting your muse at a bus stop: the method is to try writing for 20 minutes and if you muse hasn’t met you by then, you can close your computer for the day and be happy that at least you wrote for 20 minutes time.

Method 2: Writing a certain amount of words.

For flash fiction, short stories and novels. This method is for you who is uncertain of what scene comes next.

Instead of working against time, give yourself a word goal you try to reach. This way you don’t end up only thinking about the next scene for ten minutes without ever writing a word. 

If you’re feeling extremely unmotivated, start with 100 words. Anyone can put together that scrawny little amount! Then try another 100. Or 250. And take a break. Always, remember to stand up, stretch, drink some water and/or go to the toilet before getting back to work. Taking a break might even help you figure out what the next step in your story is.

Method 3: Writing a certain amount of words during a certain amount of time.

For short stories and novels. Also known as a word sprint. If you know what’s next and want to challenge yourself, try writing either as many words in a certain amount of time or, for instance, 500 words in 15 minutes or 1,000 words in 45 minutes or 400 in ten minutes. After a session, take a break.

Method 4: Take a wild card.

Are you feeling undecided about how many words or how long you should write? Would you like to give your faith to the hands of chance? I have a few options for you: check the clock and take the last three digits of it as your word count for the next session (right now, I would have to write 914 words). Alternatively, you can take the three last digits of your current word count and write as many words as it says. Or roll a die and multiply the number by a hundred. Or simply write to nearest thousand.

And without you even noticing it, the words are starting to fill the pages. Don’t be afraid to switch things up – you might end up having more fun trying out a different writing method. Start out with a five minute timer, then roll a die, try to write 450 words in fifteen minutes and lastly, round up to the next thousand. Believe me, it’s going to be fun! Because that’s what writing is supposed to be, FUN!

Again, this is nothing groundbreaking, right? But I think we all sometimes need a reminder that it’s more than okay to switch things up and try a different way of writing that might suddenly result in 500; 1,000 or 2,000 words more than you expected.

So, what will your method be?

My Brief Career As A Plotter

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A few months ago at a hostel in Malaysia, I got an idea for a fan fiction story. A longer story with action, adventure and a hint of mystery, starring the characters I had been writing about for a while now.

Because the idea was for a longer story (more than 20,000 words) than the ones that I’ve previously written (around 5,000), I decided it was time to write down a basic plot line following the hero’s journey.

Earlier this year, I read a book from Beth Ravis called Paper Hearts that goes through the basics of writing a book. There, Ravis shows her method for plotting called ‘chart structure’ that has four acts, all divided into four parts. As this was the structure I felt comfortable with, I planned my plot line following the chart.

This was a new thing for me as I had never planned this carefully before starting the actual writing process. And I loved writing down the plot – it was fun to know what was going to happen and have a feeling of coherence. This, I thought, was the way to get rid of those plot holes and inconsistencies!

Following the chart method was really almost like writing a very short story, and I really liked the ideas I had. I believed I had a good plot on the way.

The False Cure

When I started writing the story, at first everything went pretty well. I let the words come and wrote them down, writing the first four chapters. However, every night when I was thinking about the text, I realized some small inconsistencies or things that needed to be added in as foreshadowing for future events.

Slowly, as I wrote, the inconsistencies started adding up, it didn’t feel like I was foreshadowing enough – 

I mean, did I even know how to write an adventurous mystery? 

– and I wondered if I was wasting my time continuing to write the story when it felt like I was just making the editing process more painful with every scene that I wrote.

I realized I needed to plan way better than the chart structure. A better, more detailed plot line, not only for the main plot line but for the side plots, as well. It should and it would help me out, both in writing and editing the story.

So I opened a new Word-file, made a chart with four columns (one for the different acts according to the chart structure and three for the different plot lines) and started writing out the scenes more carefully, tracking the plot lines side by side.

It felt like I was doing the right thing. I was ensuring I was getting to know my story and my characters. Scene by scene, I was minimizing my work load in the editing part of writing.

I deleted the fourth chapter and started writing it from scratch. I edited a big part of the first chapter and was still unsure if it was right. I added some more foreshadowing to the second chapter and wondered if the third chapter was needed at all because maybe there wasn’t enough happening?

While thinking of all these things, what I didn’t realize at first was that I wasn’t writing the story anymore.

I was so focused on thinking about what was right or wrong with the first four chapters and how could I make everything as right as possible in the future, that I totally left the story file stand alone on my desktop. I didn’t touch it, I simply couldn’t, as long as I didn’t have a proper full outline for all my plots.

And I realized that somehow, all that plotting and planning took out all the fun of writing the actual story.

My Two Sides

But why? Isn’t planning and plotting supposed to be the way to a more coherent, intriguing story? Like the writer of a murder mystery writer who knows from the beginning who the murderer is and can therefore create false trails for the reader to follow? Why couldn’t I do it?

The weird thing is, when it comes to writing, I’ve always considered myself as a plantser. I write down a loose idea or a beginning of a plot line that might have an ending and then I start writing. I don’t put down too much time to plan the characters or the world, but let them build themselves while I write.

Then again, when it comes to life outside of writing, I’ve always been a planner. If you’ve read more of my blog posts, you know that I enjoy being organized, managing my time and goals. I love writing lists, having things tidy and structured according to the alphabet or a numerical value.

I thought it would be easy to implement my organizational skills to my writing – but the truth has proven to be almost the opposite.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed in myself because it felt like what I had thought was a definite step on the development path for me as a writer turned out to be a total bust. 

But then, as some quotes happened to change my perspective some weeks ago, a passage in a book helped me see my plantsing in a better light.

What book, you may ask, by whom?

Well, no other than On Writing by Stephen King.

The Return of the Plantser

According to my quick analysis, Stephen King is somewhere in between a pantser and plantser. His stories start with an idea of what if… and from there, after some thinking, he starts writing. He lets the characters do their thing and the story tells itself. King, as a writer, is only there to put pen to paper, like an archeologist is there to uncover a fossil.

This passage in the book (pp. 163-165) woke me up from my decision to become a plotter and made me think of the plantser-plotter dilemma from a different perspective.

If all this time I had had fun writing without really knowing what was going to happen, why was I taking that fun away from myself? And if I have been writing good stories without plotting everything down to a detail, why change?

And after thinking about King’s words for a day or two, I decided to let go of plotting and resume to my plantsing. Some people are planners, some people are not – and the key is to know what kind of writer you are and play your strengths.

I believe I am a hard core plantser.

So, in the future, a basic plot line will do or I’ll only come up with the starting scene and let the story take me anywhere from there. Yes, it might lead to more work on the editing side, at least at first. But maybe I will be learning while I’m writing and for every new draft there will be fewer inconsistencies and enough foreshadowing? 

It is, at least, something to aim for.

A Traveling Writer

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Before I get into traveling and writing, an announcement: this blog celebrated its one-year birthday on Monday! Yay! Thank you, reader, for being here – it does mean a lot.

But now – let’s start the second year of blogging!

As we sold most of our things in June and packed the rest in four boxes and two backpacks, for the past month, I have been a writer without a desk. Or, at least I’ve been a writer without my usual desk – the white, steady desk of perfect height on which I wrote the last 30,000 words of Yellow Tails and my very first NC-17 fanfic, among many other things.

For the past three weeks, I have been a writer and a traveler.

But you know what? It hasn’t been that bad being a traveling writer. This was something I kept writing about in my journal every now and then for a few months before the Great Departure, wondering how I would keep on writing without my usual routines. Would I be able to keep on editing Yellow Tails? How about writing fan fiction I’ve enjoyed so much – could I still write and be active on that writing forum I decided to return to?

A Prolific Sailor

The first two weeks that were spent on a sailboat were the first test for me to try out being a writer while traveling. Sailing is usually the type of activity that keeps one continuously active – you’re steering, adjusting the sails, cooking food (which is a challenge on a rocking sailboat), navigating, fixing things or just focusing on the sea around you. There isn’t much time for anything else.

I was prepared for writing only in the evenings, maybe squeezing out a few hundred words on some current writing project. However, this sailing trip was somewhat different. The weather was almost always against us – most days the wind was too strong or from the wrong direction which meant that half of our time on the boat was spent in harbors waiting for calmer seas.

For the traveling (or the sailing) writer, this was excellent news.

I was surprisingly prolific during those harbor days! I started publishing a short (around 2,000 words) series of fan fiction on a writing forum and wrote about 3,000 words on a new one. In addition to that, I wrote a blog post and an article for a sailing magazine.

Although we were four people crammed in a small space, the wind kept howling in the mast and the boat was continuously rocking because of the waves, I managed to be creative and efficient in my writing. I did just fine.

An Hour A Day

This experience calmed my worries about the travels we have ahead of us. Many trips are filled with activities that begin early in the morning and end in the evening, keeping the traveler active 12 hours a day. We, however, won’t be in a haste while we travel – we plan on taking the time we need. This means that I can squeeze in at least an hour of writing time in the morning (maybe in a nice café?) or maybe an hour in the evening, depending on the day.

Of course, every day cannot be a writing day because of traveling from one place to another or because of something else – but at least I know I will have some writing time almost every day. This makes me happy because it means I’ll be able to keep my passion alive and my mind calm.

I hope to be able to make another update on being traveling writer in a month or two, just to tell you how traveling goes together with something that feels like the opposite of traveling (although, now when I think about it – I will be traveling both physically and mentally because isn’t writing always like taking a trip somewhere in your mind?).

On Sunday, me and my partner fly to Bangkok, Thailand. It will be a 15-hour flight and I plan on taking my laptop with me on the plane – I’ve never written fiction on a plane (only some academic notes for my studies) so we’ll see how that works out!

A Writerly Update

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Some ten months ago, I remember writing how sad it was not to be able to be a full-time writer after being one during the summer months. The reason for it was simple: in September, I was forced to start dedicating my afternoons for research on digital volunteerism and crisis communication instead of writing more of Yellow Tails or blog posts.

Of course, I did switch those writing hours in the afternoon for the big thesis project, so it was for ’my own good’ – but still, it didn’t feel right.

Fast-forward to ten months later and this Thursday, I can now declare myself a full-time writer again. Hooray! As the thesis has been accepted and the university has confirmed that I will be graduating, I can dedicate my days to writing again.

And I can assure you that is precisely what I have been doing.

A Writer’s Day

I start my day with clearing my head from the thoughts that swirl around in my mind by writing my journal. In that way, I have a clean slate and can dedicate my energy to my character’s ideas, thoughts and feelings, and write those on the page instead of getting influenced by my own personal thoughts.

After writing my journal entry, I eat breakfast, make some coffee and open my computer. Mondays are usually the day when I write the blog post of the week. On other mornings from Tuesday to Friday or, in best case scenario, Saturday, I focus on one of my creative fiction projects. One of them is my dear Yellow Tails (which I’ve finally started re-writing, super excited to share you some details later!) and the other one is a lengthy fan fiction story I’ve been working on for the past month.

In the afternoon, I try to keep on writing but this time on the one I didn’t work on in the morning. Usually, in the afternoons, it’s the fan fiction project I work on because I tend to choose to give my mornings, i.e. my best writing time, to Yellow Tails.

And, as the evening comes, I tend to dedicate some time to reading other writers’ fan fiction stories and comment on them, giving them some feedback on their writing. This way, I’m taking in some new stories, other styles of writing and at the same time, improving my own writing skills by looking at what makes writing good.

Love for Every Moment

As you can see, most of my daily hours go to writing. I don’t know how many words I manage to write per day, maybe everything between 1,500 and 3,000 which isn’t that much – but still, it keeps me busy all day long.

And I love every single minute of it. I just don’t get tired of it! When I’m not writing the fan fiction project, my mind is going back to the story, wanting to keep on plotting, and when I’m not writing Yellow Tails I’m almost longing to return to my own, self-created characters and wanting to tell their story (again, yes, but only this time better).

My writerly days and the love and the continuing thirst I have for them make me feel two things: one is this weird feeling of knowing that for so many years, I was willing to consider writing as only a hobby or even something I used to do when I was little but not any more.

How wrong was I? Because the other feeling I have is pure happiness and some kind of serenity for the fact that, in a way, I have returned to my childhood dream and my roots by becoming a full-time writer.

And that is something not just any job can give.

A Friendly Reminder from Tolkien

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Every time we open the first page of an unfamiliar book or sit down to watch a new movie, we are indirectly changing our own lives. How, we do not know quite yet, but it’s certain that something will happen.

I believe that is one of the reasons why we enjoy watching films, reading books or listening to music. We are changing our lives in some ways, tweaking it little by little into a more colorful, broader view on life and ourselves.

We might gain a new perspective on life, on the world history or on a value we hold dear or knew nothing of. We learn how other people think, feel and react to different things and where their reactions take them. We become more empathetic.

In addition to that, we are reminded of what in our lives is good, what to keep, value and respect.

For me, such an experience was seeing the film Tolkien.

I didn’t know what to expect after seeing only a short teaser trailer about the film, so I just went to the movie theatre with my two sisters, sat down and opened my mind.

The film had many beautiful scenes in it and in my opinion, the film crew succeeded in depicting Tolkien’s fantasy, to explain where he found inspiration and ideas to the stories of Middle Earth.

However, the most important and valuable thing I got out of the film was two friendly reminders.

The first one was about the courage writing requires. Taking action, taking the risk to abandon many other things to be able to write and write quite seriously, to aim to become a published author – it takes courage.

It is so important for a writer to take his or her writing seriously, to believe in them and in the fact that there’s currency in my creativity. 

According to the film, without his wife Edith, Tolkien might not have begun writing The Hobbit. I wonder how the fictional world of books would look like today if Tolkien’s stories wouldn’t have seen daylight.

And that was the other reminder: how important it is for a writer (or any person, for that matter) to be surrounded by a supporting network. People or even just a person who has belief in my work, words and imagination, and who don’t think my eventual success would come on their expense.

As we walked out of the movie theater with my sisters who were talking about Tolkien’s life and how they enjoyed the non-chronological order of the scenes, I had my thoughts on what the movie told about writing and what thoughts I took with me:

The beauty of words and the meaning they can give to people.

How lucky I am to be able to write daily both fact and fiction.

And, most of all,

How incredibly lucky I am to have a partner who encourages me to write and get my writing published, to cheer me on and be happy on my behalf when I succeed.

He got a kiss when I got home.

Why Fan Fiction Could Be Good For You

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During 2007 and 2011 I wrote over one hundred fan fiction short stories that I published on a Finnish writing forum. The stories I wrote were a way for me to stay a bit longer in the beloved world of Harry Potter after the books had been released, but it was also an opportunity to try writing alternative histories, throw the characters into new sorts of adventures or make them go through something I myself had experienced.

The active years I spent there helped me develop as a writer as I read several hundred, if not up to a thousand, good pieces of fan fiction and got feedback for my own stories as well. Also, I loved finding a community that shared the same passion for the fandom and for writing.

A bit over a month ago, I wrote about my wish for finding good writing company. I was feeling reluctant to return to the same writing forum and start writing fan fiction again as it felt like I had outgrown it, but after some thinking and browsing through the familiar forum I noticed an HP short story idea starting to form inside my mind. Something I thought would be worth publishing.

So, after an eight-year-long break, I decided to make a comeback. And it was nice to return.

Developing as a Writer

During the past few months of my fierce and stressful thesis-writing, I’ve had Yellow Tails resting on the shelf (quite literally, it’s on the highest shelf of my wardrobe). I didn’t want to have two big projects going on at the same time because I was certain I couldn’t give them both the high quality energy they deserved, so I opted for one of the two.

Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to keep my mind off fiction writing. A writer needs to keep on writing and therefore, instead of writing novels, I’ve been putting my creative energy into something where the stakes are a bit lower: fan fiction.

I’ve spent the past months reading some great works, both one-shots and longer, and I’ve practiced giving feedback to writers on their stories. I have also written and published a short story with four parts (1,000 words each), and at the moment, I’m working on another story that will have five parts. Small things – but things, nonetheless.

Ten years ago, when I was a newbie in fan fiction, I used to write fan fiction almost on a daily basis and as soon as I was done with a piece, I would usually publish it right away and eagerly wait for some feedback.

Today, however, I have become more tolerant with my work. I give it the time it needs after the story is done before I start editing it and read it through several times before publishing it. I focus more on the reader’s experience and try to make the story as easy to read as possible.

Things I don’t think I even considered ten years ago.

What I wasn’t expecting upon my returning is that, as time has gone by, I notice how much I’ve developed as a writer.

The Many Benefits of Fan Fiction

In the same way as I see my own progress, I’ve also noticed the many things how writing fan fiction can help probably anyone develop as a writer.

Back in the days writing fan fiction was only something I did for fun. Today, as I see writing almost as a science, I’m making a comeback to the writing forum with a clear aim and for a purpose: to become a better writer.

So, these are the pros with fan fiction I believe will improve my writing skills:

  1. Just like reading books helps one to develop as a writer, so does reading fan fiction. There are so many great works online! By reading all those short stories and novels, one can learn a great deal about writing. It also helps to realize what makes fan fiction good – and what does not, something one can probably translate to writing original stories as well.
  2. When the world and the characters are familiar, it is easier to develop your plotting skills and focus on creating an intriguing storyline. There isn’t the same kind of pressure in writing fan fiction as there is in writing something original: when half of it is already there, you can direct your focus on the things that need it the most.
  3. However, just because the world and the characters are familiar doesn’t mean you get to be sloppy with them. It’s a fine challenge to try writing about the world and the characters everybody already know as authentically as possible. The world needs to feel real and the character’s actions must seem realistic, in-character. This way, writing fan fiction helps a writer to find ways to think about the characters and the world on another level: what are the qualities of this character, how does he or she think or feel in this kind of situation? How does the world actually work, what would be a suitable explanation for this thing that is happening? (A good example is an HP fan fiction work called Manacled (K18 / NC-17!) that I’m reading at the moment: the characters and the world feel so authentic I’m amazed by the writer’s skills.)
  4. At least on the writing forum I’m active at, there are several different writing challenges anyone can join. For instance, there’s a challenge where writers are invited to write fan fiction about forced marriages. Another challenge offers the opportunity for the writer to write a story where one uses their knowledge of a certain topic, e.g. Biology or Political Science, in the story. In this way, the writing forums offer new ideas to write about and an opportunity to try writing something completely different.
  5. One of the best things about writing fan fiction is that the stakes aren’t that high. The audience can be demanding but no one will banish you from the forums if you write something less intriguing. You are writing and publishing on that forum for one reason: to develop as a writer. Therefore, it is also an opportunity to try one’s wings on new genres or writing from an odd character’s point of view. (I’ve done this more now than before: the story I wrote and published in early April was written from an 11-year-old boy’s view, something I’ve never done before, and the story I’m now writing has some detailed sex scenes in it. I’m really walking on strange land here.)

The only downside about fan fiction writing I can come up with is that it can become very addictive to write fan fiction only because it is easier than writing something of your own. After a while, writing something original can become too daunting, and that is a thing to be aware of.

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Have you written fan fiction / are you writing right now / could you consider writing?

Help for Heroes – Or How To Realise an Idea

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I was standing on the platform waiting for a train to take me to another city. A woman in her thirties walked past me. Her style and the way she walked, proudly, made me think she was an advocate for something. She was wearing a black hoodie with a text written in white on it that said Help for Heroes.

Still with minutes left to kill before the train would arrive, my mind started thinking about the words it had seen. Help for Heroes sounded exciting and immediately a thought, an idea, started forming inside my head. What if there was a person in the world who would not be a superhero herself but would come to the aid of superheroes – in a way, she would be the superhero of the superheroes?

How would the story look?

For instance, would the hero of this story, the helper of the superheroes, have an office where she would sit on one side of the table and Hulk on the other, the green giant holding back tears because the puppies were just so cute so he got distracted and that’s why he failed to save the world? And the helper would tell Hulk that ”Hey, puppies are your soft spot, Hulk, and you just have to learn to be okay with it. It’s unnecessary to keep putting energy on wondering how the hell the puppies ended up in the warehouse in the first place. More important is to discuss how you can deal with your weakness and make it into a strength.”

In that moment, I got into the wonderful wheel of spinning on ideas. It’s a great feeling and for me, it’s one of the best things about writing – coming up with ideas, creating more ideas around them and creating a new world of everything that is exciting. But then I got hit by a wall – a wall I’d like to call too mainstream. While standing on the train platform, I saw the whole Help for Heroes enterprise build in front of me – the movies, the comics, the miniature toy figurines. And that made me realize that my idea was so identical to so many of the superhero movies and books that are published today – and in that moment, the idea lost its appeal.

And that made me think of this: if I wanted to make the idea wonderful and unique, I’d have to find a way to use the idea in an unexpected way. But how does one realise an idea without it becoming a copy of everything that already exists? How to make an idea unique?

Learning from Others

This question of realising ideas has been boosted by the literature I’ve come across during the past month. I decided to alter my reading list and switch from adult books to young adult literature. So, in the library, I walked to the young adult section and picked out books with a catchy name and an interesting back cover.

I like YA as a genre; the books tend to be hopeful with a valuable lesson to learn and the characters can be great role models for young readers (and why not for older readers as well). But the best part, what I noticed while browsing the shelves, was that the ideas for YA don’t seem to have any limits. I mean, speed dating in space? I’m in! People having nine lives instead of one? I want to know more! The ideas are daring and awesome – and I was intrigued to see how the idea would take form in the story.

However, as fun and even a bit crazy these ideas are, when I started reading the books I noticed how the idea only takes the book so far. These novels were built on a good idea but had such weaknesses that exhausted the power of that idea: there were too many characters or they were too weak; there were too many subplots that didn’t seem be important for the main plot; the storyline was foreseeable which made it boring and so on.

It feels like many books are built on a great idea – but the execution doesn’t do justice to that idea (or vice versa but that’s another topic). So, how to write a story that presents the idea in the best possible light?

Make It Your Own

As there are certain ingredients needed to bake a cake, so are there for writing a novel. The story gains a good deal of structure when it follows the classic story structure of a hero’s journey. A story needs a set of characters and some subplots to engage the reader and create feelings of excitement or sympathy for the characters.

But a writer needs to find a way to make the novel stand out from all the other novels that are written. It is said that every story is unique because no one will write the story in exactly the same way as you do. And it’s true. But on top of the things already mentioned, the idea that gives life to a new novel needs to be realised in a way that will leave people, in some way or the other, amazed and surprised.

How to do that? I don’t know – but I can guess. This is what I’ve come up with:

  1. Don’t get too excited creating tens of characters and subplots for the story just because they give a fun twist to it or show new sides of the idea. Instead, focus on crafting a strong storyline that thrives on the idea without becoming too much of everything.
  2. Don’t cut the corners while crafting the storyline, i.e. don’t settle for the typical, foreseeable story structure most of us have learned to recognize. Instead, try to analyze the story structure points in a new way, in your way. Can a mentor be something else than a person? Can ’the darkest moment’ be interpreted in a different way?
  3. Think about the idea through your own values or the life lessons and experiences you’ve gained. What values or lessons do you want to pass forward to the reader through the story you’re writing? For instance, in Yellow Tails I’m trying to show the reader the difficulty of change – something I’ve learned first hand. This will make the story even more unique because it becomes more like you.

So, sure, your story needs structure, characters and subplots to work and realise an idea – but do a favor for yourself: don’t cut the corners while working on your idea. Do the analytic work. Kill your darlings. And make the idea work for you; make it your own.

To come back to that moment on the train station: although the primary idea for Help for Heroes feels very mainstream, I’m certain that I can find the twist that makes the story more complex, unforeseeable and, most of all, unique. But to manage that I need to be willing to do the thinking work it requires. We’ll see where it will take me.

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How do you go about when realising an idea?