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.

***

How do you go about when realising an idea?

Working With Flow

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A few days ago, me and my partner got into a conversation about flow. You know flow, right? That highly enjoyable feeling of being completely absorbed and focused on one activity and everything else disappears around you?

What triggered the conversation about flow was something as simple as meal times in our household. Both me and my partner prefer routines because they make life easier and simpler as doing the same things every day in the same way requires less energy and thought compared with irregular sleeping rhythm and unplanned meals. But when flow comes into the picture and starts bossing around, me and my partner are somewhat different.

We both experience flow more or less regularly, and for me, interrupting my flow state when lunch hour is coming closer is no problem. I can stop writing then and there, maybe finish off the sentence but then save the thing and put my laptop to sleep. For my partner, however, nothing else seems to matter when he deep-dives into his thought processes and writing.

From time to time, this leads to conflicts. Most often, it’s me asking him to interrupt his flow for the sake of lunch, dinner, bedtime or any other routine we have – and it isn’t always with a happy agreement he stops writing.

But how to deal with this kind of issue? Is it completely wrong of me to ask someone to interrupt his or her flow in order to do something quite mundane? Isn’t flow like something sacred, something to value and appreciate and, most of all, not interrupt when it decides to pay a visit?

Or how are we supposed to work with the flow?

Many Can’t Afford It

Many dream of it, many seek for it – the mysterious feeling where time disappears and magic is created. But there aren’t too many who can afford to wait around for flow or for the inspiration to strike in order to work on their craft. There are of course some, but may it be painting, writing, composing or crafting, most creatives rely on every-day routines to get their work done. They learn to work with flow or without it.

For instance, in The War of Art Pressfield writes about Somerset Maugham who told a curious someone, that ”I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” And Daily Rituals by Mason Currey showed that most creatives in this world have relied on routines to get their work done.

But all who have experienced flow know that it is so much more wonderful to produce words, music or works of art when one is completely absorbed by the moment rather than relying on the everyday habit of working. Creating that comes as a result of a habit can be extremely painful at times, even forced and awful – wouldn’t one opt for creating in the state of flow rather than according the constructed routine?

And therefore, when the flow embraces us, should we for once forget about everything else and let it take over completely? For once, create in the happy, magical state of concentration where the words flow like a river and every brush of paint is perfect?

Or should we treat flow with a cold hand and say, ”Hey, you’re not here most of the time. Just because you decided to visit me today doesn’t mean I’m throwing all my routines away to adjust to your wishes”? Because what if we don’t embrace it and, instead, let it go – will it come back?

Can we afford not to take advantage of flow?

The Cutest Puppy

As I wrote in the beginning of the post, most of the time I have no trouble interrupting my flow to follow my regular routine. When I become fully focused on creating worlds and stories, I can enjoy it while it lasts and then break free from it when needed.

What I’ve noticed is that although I break free from it, the flow state comes back when the circumstances are right. For me, that is usually the moment when I have a few hours of unplanned time in front of me, there’s nothing on my to-do list and I get to return writing an enjoyable story.

So, for me flow is like a muscle, something one can train and work on in order to become better at reaching that state. Therefore, I don’t see flow as anything sacred, anything too special that one needs to discard everything when it appears.

I’d even like to think of flow as a cute little puppy you take home with you. It’s adorable, you love it and embrace it and its funny ways – but if you don’t stay in control and teach the puppy to behave from day one, it will chew your cables and furniture when you aren’t paying attention.

The flow is something greater than good, something to strive towards and embrace when it comes to you, but at the same time it shouldn’t be greeted with overly open arms. For me, it feels important to stay in control of the flow, to be able to embrace it but also to push it away when needed, in order to not feel empty when it leaves you again. Because flow is fickle and you can never really be sure when it decides to pay you a visit. Therefore, maybe one should live as if there was no flow and be pleasantly surprised when it does visit one’s creative mind?

***

What are your thoughts on flow and how to deal with it?

 

Writing In Good Company

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I’ve been quite cautious about my book project. For the past year, when someone has asked me how I am or what I’ve been up to, I’ve just told them about my thesis or, well, not told them much more than ”I’m fine, how have you been?”

There’s only a handful of people out there who know about Yellow Tails (if you don’t count Instagram and this blog, of course). You might wonder why I’ve kept quiet about it, and the answer is this: I believe in the idea of silent success.

Many people announce their 30-day detox from social media or from candy or from alcohol to their friends and family in order to keep them to their word. The silent success, however, is about starting, executing and finishing a project in silence, and telling about it first when you’re done.

There are at least two good things about keeping your success to yourself: 1) the pressure and expectations comes from you, and you only, and 2) you do not have to deal with the people who have difficulties being happy for other people’s happiness and development (something I have first hand experience on, unfortunately).

But silent success wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about today. Rather, I’d like to write about the opposite. Being successful – and telling about it.

(But only to a few)

The Happiness of Telling

Last Tuesday, a friend of mine called me. The last time we talked was a few years ago but in a few weeks we’ll actually be working together which why she called to ask a few questions about the up-coming work week. But those questions took only a few minutes. After that she asked how I was doing, what I had been up to for the past months. I told her about the thesis – and I told her I had written a book I was now editing.

And she was so excited for me!

The best part was that she told me she’s also a writer, that she’s been writing for years, but that it’s been only a thing, not a career or anything. For me, it didn’t matter. I was simply filled with some sort of calm happiness for knowing that I had a writing friend in the same city. We had a fun conversation comparing our writing routines and how we plot or not our stories.

It really is true that writing is a lonely job and that friends who write are golden. But I don’t think one realizes it before finding a true writing friend. For me, it happened last Tuesday, and I noticed how much I’ve desired for one.

Searching for Community

After I decided to take a longer break from Instagram, which was a few months ago, it’s been quiet on the writing community side of my life. On Instagram, there were so many writers, aspiring authors and writing coaches who were there every day to cheer you on and share the happiness and pain of being a writer. But as I’m not there anymore, I haven’t really been cheered on by so many.

However, as I’m not very excited about going back to Instagram and everything it entails, I’ve been thinking about what other options I have. A writing group? A writing forum? A writing course or an entire education?

I write this blog in English and write my Master’s thesis in Swedish. However, Finnish, which is my mother tongue, is the language I write my journal in and also, my fiction. Therefore, as I’m thinking about my options, I’m restricted by my language.

Finland is a small country with only 5.5 million people. This means, at least when compared to many other countries, that there are even less writing people and that the likelihood of me finding them is, well, small. Plus, that I have no idea where to start looking if I wish to hold on to my principle of silent success.

At the moment, attending a writing course or enrolling in University for another degree, this time in creative writing, isn’t an option. I’m busy with finishing my current degree and after that I have other plans.

That leaves me with writing forums. But I’ve been reluctant to return.

Considering a Comeback

There’s nothing wrong with writing forums – it’s just that I haven’t been on one since 2009 and hadn’t thought about going back. At the time, I wrote mostly fan fiction and was all about writing love stories between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, Susan Bones and Terry Boot, and Lily and James Potter. Today, however, I’m not returning too eagerly to fan fiction because it feels like I’ve outgrown it. Therefore, I didn’t even think I’d have any business on those forums again.

But the call from my friend had a curious timing. Her excitement, encouragement and support for my book project gave me a boost of energy and motivation, something I didn’t experience getting from Instagram. This made me think that maybe I could return to those good old forums – but publish something original instead.

As I’ve noticed a longing for a Finnish-speaking writing group, this thought seemed to get wings the moment I decided to give it some actual thought. Ten years ago, when I was publishing at least one story per week on these forums, I got a good deal of feedback and cheers from fellow Finnish writers. But today, as I’ve been writing Yellow Tails by myself without publishing it anywhere or having anyone read it (yet), I don’t know how other people see and feel about my writing. It could do me good to write something shorter, try out different styles and in that way, develop my writing skills.

I haven’t done a comeback yet. But I did go and check if my old username still worked – it did. So maybe I’ll start drafting something in the coming weeks. Nothing too big, no full-length novels, but maybe a short one, something like the Still Life Sundays I’ve been publishing here, and see where it takes me.

After all, I’d guess a writer never turns down some feedback and writerly support from other writers?

***

Where do you publish your writing?

Lessons With Murakami

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Some nine years ago I walked into a book store that had a sale on all sorts of books. That was still a time when I purchased books in the spur of the moment: if the title, synopsis and the writing style agreed with me (checked by reading a paragraph or two), I’d buy the book. That day I left the store with two books: one was a classic and the other one was a memoir – a genre I’m not very familiar with.

The memoir was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A thin book, 180 pages, published in 2008. The back cover promised personal essays on running, a sort of memoir written by the famous Japanese author.

At the time, I was desperately trying to find ways to integrate sports into my life and thought that maybe this book could inspire me to make running into a habit. So, I bought it. I hadn’t read Murakami before, but this felt like a simple, nice way to get to know him and his style of writing.

However, it wasn’t until this year, 2019, that I actually managed to read and finish that book. Funny enough, soon after purchasing the book a friend of mine asked if her friend could borrow it because he was writing a book essay about Murakami. I borrowed it as I hadn’t started reading it yet, with a promise to get it back in a few months.

I did get it back in a few months – nine years later. Because two months ago, I saw my friend again and got the book back.

I did get it back – and the timing was perfect.

The Ideal Timing

I don’t know if you know this – but you know how sometimes you read a book and think this was the perfect time to read this book? It could be the theme of the book that feels relevant to you at the moment, or maybe the hero of the story is pondering the same things that you are.

The book might have been waiting in your pile of books to be read but you just never got into reading it. But then something happens, you pick up that book again and boom – it’s a match, the mind is ready for the content because the timing is perfect.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was that kind of match.

It’s a short book with nine journal-like entries that Murakami wrote under the course of one year when he trains for one of his many marathons. In these essays, the author reflects on his journey as a runner – but also as a writer. Originally, I purchased the book because I wanted to find the motivation to run. However, as I read it now, nine years later, the book gave me new thoughts and perspectives on writing, not running.

Metaphors and Thoughts

Although the book is short, it’s nothing to binge on. The essays are not fictitious but based on Murakami’s life experiences and thoughts on these experiences, that fill the chapters with some sort of lessons on life. Taking these life lessons in and thinking about them takes time, and therefore I read one chapter here and one chapter there – twenty pages or so at a time.

The book is for the most part about running although Murakami does share some of his thoughts on writing as well. For instance, he describes the moment when he decided to write his first book (he was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game when the thought came to him) and the process of becoming a full-time writer.

But although most of the essays focus on him training for a marathon or a triathlon, many of his thoughts on running can be turned into metaphors about writing. One of these thoughts / metaphors is about consistency when it comes to training. Murakami writes:

”The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it.

– –

If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don’t have to work that hard anymore, and they lower their limits. Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible: if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work.” (p. 71)

When it comes to training and running, this excerpt presents a cold, hard and true fact. But it applies to writing as well: creativity is a muscle that needs constant training to produce desirable results. And when improving one’s craft, consistency is a key. During a typical week, I don’t take more than a day off from writing – and that is why it never gets too hard to sit down and get my writing done. It’s a process similar to Murakami’s marathon training, only for me, it’s about sitting on my butt in front of my computer.

Three Lessons I Took With Me

There are three things in What I Talk About What I Talk About Running that resonated with me particularly well:

1. ”Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

In the foreword, Murakami tells about an article he read where famous marathon runners revealed what special mantra goes through their heads while they run. One of them was ”Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” which means you have very little control over the hurt part of running, but it’s up to you to choose how much you wallow in it, how much pain you can take.

Writing can be seen as a marathon race, as well. It’s a process with as many feelings, emotional ups and downs, as during a 26.2 mile / 42,195 km run. Creating a novel from the first draft to being published contains inevitably some pain but how much you decide to invest thoughts and feelings in that pain is up to you.

2. Three most important qualities of a novelist: talent, focus and endurance.

This is something I hope to get back to later on this blog. Although I don’t fully agree with Murakami here, he does have a point. Talent is needed, some sort of knack or gift for the craft (although – what is talent, really?), to get good at producing quality.But talent is a fickle thing and isn’t really under our control – and this is where focus and endurance come into play. The ability to concentrate helps you to utilize that limited talent of yours, and endurance is what keeps you going and helps you finish those projects.

3. Sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut.

 

Taking time to ”stubbornly, rigorously, and very patiently tighten all the screws of each individual part” (p. 161), that is, to practice and improve ones craft day after day, piece by piece, can pay off big time.

Say that you’re editing a novel and want to make it better but don’t know how. You start a time-consuming project: you start by reading about plotting and structuring a story, then you move on to storytelling and how to write fluent dialogue. After that comes creating authentic characters and tweaking the details, creating an as-perfect-as-possible manuscript.

Reading all these things and applying them to your writing can take a huge chunk of your time and feel ridiculous, time-consuming, like nitpicking. Why do this, why invest all this time in learning details – why not just try rewriting the whole story instead? At least you would be writing.

But suddenly, the parts fall into place and you understand how all the small details create a bigger, well-functioning picture. You end up improving your craft by taking all that time to learn.

***

Have you read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? What in it resonated with you?

What Comes After ’The End’?

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Here you have the face of a very happy person – me. You see, I wrote a book. Or, rather, I finished writing the first draft of my first book and that, my friends, leads to a smile like the one on the photo.

On Monday 17th of December, 247 pages and 90,742 words later, I finished the epilogue of Yellow Tails. I wrote the words ’The End’ on the document, looked at them for a while and then erased them as they feel somewhat cheesy to me. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t finished the manuscript – because I have. In this photo, I have in front of me the finished first draft of my first book and I feel serene.

The First Feelings

On Monday, I knew I would finish the story that day so when it actually happened I wasn’t surprised, not in any way confused that I actually managed to come to the end of the story. Finishing felt like something very natural, like this was the way it’s supposed to feel. I walked to the bedroom to whisper to my partner (who was still quite asleep) ’I finished the story’ and felt the calmness wash over me.

But after those first feelings of calm, the emotion rollercoaster started moving. Encouraged by my partner, I decided to print out the book that same day so we walked to the university to print out all the 247 pages (I even made a time-lapse out of it). However, I didn’t only get my words printed out on paper: what I didn’t know was that my partner had actually made a cover for Yellow Tails! He creates digital art and had used his skills to make a book cover with the three main characters of Yellow Tails, balancing on a scale.

So, after printing out all the pages, he presented the cover to me and placed it on top the pile of papers that now was my book. Seeing that book cover on my first draft, my first book, made me burst into tears. The calmness I had felt up until that moment disappeared and instead I felt elated but also somehow relieved. I realized that I had actually come to an end of this phase of the project. Perhaps it was that book cover that actually made me realise what I’ve created and accomplished during the past ten months. Suddenly, Yellow Tails became real to me. Because it is one thing to have the title page written in Times New Roman – but to have a proper book cover to one’s draft makes it feel like an actual book.

How do I feel now, a few days later? Three things: 1) I’m happy for finishing the story without trying to rush to get to the end, 2) I’m proud for my perseverance, of what I’ve accomplished, and 3) most of all, I’m so glad for taking the time during these ten months to write my novel, pushing it forward 1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, and ending up with a first draft with a proper beginning and an ending.

So! I reached the end of my novel – what happens next?

The First Four Weeks

The book has been printed and it even has a cover. But for the next four weeks, I won’t be touching it. Or I will try not to touch it, at least. I haven’t really been able to keep myself from turning a random page and read a few sentences, enjoying my own writing and feeling amazed by what I’ve accomplished.

(However, as the story has been written over a period of ten months, I also notice some changes in my writing style when I compare the first fifty pages with the last fifty. But that isn’t anything to think of at the moment, that I will leave to the part about editing.)

I’ll pick up Yellow Tails in four weeks or so when I start editing it. But until then, I will let it rest, get some air, take it easy for a moment. And that is precisely what I’ve been planning to do myself as well.

These past four months have been tough on me as I’ve been juggling with several different projects at the same time. As my the first part of my thesis is finished and even Yellow Tails has reached its end, I finally feel like I can take a break from more or less everything that entails a deadline. Except Christmas, of course, which has a deadline of its own.

Instead of focusing on things that need to be done, I’ll focus on things I want to do. I’ll be ’sharpening the saw’, so to speak. Those things include dedicating time for some self-care: doing yoga, reading, writing my journal, listening to podcasts I’ve been postponing all Fall, even listen to music (I prefer to write, walk and work out in silence so I don’t listen to that much music). And of course, spend time with my partner and friends.

A Writer’s Buzz

But as a writer, I’m pretty sure I can’t keep my hands off writing or at least planning  something. Therefore, during these upcoming weeks I’ll probably spend a good deal of time preparing for what’s next on the Yellow Tails agenda: learning new things about writing and especially self-editing. What to focus on, how to get the most out of the first round of edits (do share your tips in the comments if you have some)? I’m already making a mental list of how to improve the characters of my story and try to figure out what a good editing pace is. I even wrote down a few thoughts on beta-reading and to whom I could give my story to read, although it will take a couple of months before entering that phase.

(So… I’m already planning and the four-week break has only begun.)

In addition to this, I’ll probably even start planning some new stories I wish to write and tell. During these past ten months, and especially this Fall, as I’ve been working on Yellow Tails, new ideas have come to my mind. Altogether four different stories, three of them traditional novels and the fourth a collection of short-stories with a specific theme. But which one will I choose? I guess I’ll find out sooner or later.

However, for now, I’ll be taking a Christmas break. Let the mind rest for a few days, focus on taking care of my body and mind, enjoy the fresh snow on the ground and make Christmas cards and presents instead of pushing myself to produce a good amount of daily words. Sharpening the saw can take one far – and we will see how far it’ll take me.

On the Importance of Reading

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When I was little, books were my go-to whenever I had time. It was the life before smartphones, before screens were used to communicate, see, read and like. Instead, the minutes and hours were used to doing other things, and I loved to spend my time in the world of fiction.

To demonstrate this, I have an excellent example from my childhood that describes my love for reading:

In the end of third grade, everyone in our class were instructed to guess how many books they would read during the Summer. Our teacher wrote everyone’s guess down, saying that she would check with us in the Fall how many books we actually had read and compare it to our guess.

While others guessed something between two and ten books (no one was allowed to say ’none’ or ’one’), I estimated in a clear voice that I would probably read thirty books that Summer. It was an honest guess, I was dead serious about the number. I remember the look on my teacher’s face: the kind but doubtful smile and how she said, in a friendly voice, that maybe ”we won’t write down thirty books, but maybe ten or twelve?”

I guess you can guess the end to this story. In Fall, when we returned to school after Summer, I declared with a proud voice that I had read 35 books that Summer.

(It felt like a victory. And although this was supposed to tell about my love for books, I guess this example also tells you about my determination and perseverance.)

Fast forward to this day, my love for books continues to thrive and even though I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to (will I ever?), I’ve still had a book in the process most of the time. Reading is also something I’m hoping to be able to hold on to for as long as I live – and if my eyes get bad, I hope I will have someone who reads to me or then I’ll opt for audiobooks.

For me, books have helped me escape this world and enter another. They have given me the possibility to see a life different from mine and learn to know new people. Today, reading books helps me become a better writer.

But this weekend I found out what kind of effect reading books as a child and a teenagers has had. In addition to offering an escape route, reading books (especially fiction) has had a huge impact on my personality and on how I see the world around me.

Let me tell you more about this.

Alluring, Delightful, Gorgeous

My secondary school Finnish teacher, author of three novels, wrote an article about teenagers’ reading capabilities. He talked a great deal about the problems: the short attention span that hinders them from reading longer texts about unfamiliar topics; problems with analytical reading skills; difficulties understanding words they come across less frequently and so on.

But my Finnish teacher also talked about the good things, telling about the many benefits of reading, which I’ll now share with you.

Did you know, that the amount of fiction we read as children and teenagers has a huge impact on our vocabulary, our fantasy and the ability to feel empathy? Reading helps improve ones perseverance: the long-term attention span, a skill many let rust in the winter rain. Reading increases the reader’s understanding that one cannot get everything at once: reading a book takes time, it requires effort if one wishes to know how the book ends.

A fiction-reading teenager can have a vocabulary of over 70,000 words while a teenager that doesn’t enjoy the world of books manages only about 15,000 (my mind gasped for air when I read this). This means that for someone there is only one word for beautiful while the other sees dozens of alternatives to it, from alluring to delightful, dazzling and pleasing. The world presents itself in a whole other way to the person who reads: it’s full of colors, different nuances, and the book worlds tickle the reader’s senses in different ways. For the non-reader the world is more black and white, simpler.

A person who reads has also better skills to empathize with other people. Because books let us in on other people’s minds, worlds, feelings and thoughts, readers are also more likely to understand other people better. Understanding helps us feel empathy and brings us humans closer to each other – something that social media doesn’t always manage to do.

Reading is so  i m p o r t a n t . It’s not just something a nagging teacher tells us to do just because. It really has an impact, and I am beyond happy today that I had the opportunity to read as much as I wanted when I was a kid.

However, lately I’ve been thinking more about what kind of books I read.

Finding Good Books as a Writer

For a writer, reading isn’t only about learning about other people, about seeing the world in colors, or only about improving one’s vocabulary. It’s also about finding my own voice, the style of writing, and helping to realize what kind of characters I like, what kind of plot twists intrigue me the most. Reading books will help me write better books.

As a child and a teenager, I just wanted to find books I liked: books with exciting characters, desperately romantic eternal triangles, books with adventure and dangers. I loved Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Alex Rider series, and the books of Enid Blyton, Astrid Lindgren and Marianne Curley. I could read them over and over again (and I did).

But today, I’ve become more selective. I’ve paid more attention to what I read. I try to find books by authors with a similar style to mine, books that swallow me into the story, and tried to learn from these books. But what I’ve found is that there isn’t actually that many books like that out there. Or, actually, there probably is – I just have trouble finding them.

I actually have trouble finding books that I like enough to read them from beginning to the end. Usually, I give them a few pages, most often 50 pages or so before deciding if the plot, the style of writing and the characters are interesting enough. I want to read good books, books that give me a feeling of satisfaction – or even better, make me feel energized and happy.

This year, I’ve opened probably more than twenty books only to return them to the library after reading a few pages. I’ve picked up both classics and modern literature, female and male authors and different genres, only to realize that I would simply suffer if I forced myself to read these books. I can’t help but wonder: am I being too picky? Too selective? Should a writer read any books as long as she’s reading or is there actually a guideline to what kind of books a writer should read?

And at the same time, I’m convinced that I don’t want to waste my time reading a book with only an okay plot or a boring style.  I want those well-written, capturing stories!

But how to find them? How to find good books to read?

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So please, readers: how do you choose what books to read? Any recommendations, book tips? And writers: do you think all books are worth reading, or only the ones that help you become a better writer?

 

Still Life Sunday: The Difference Between Two Minds

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20 The Difference Between Two Minds

Assignment: A young girl stands on a road that leads to the woods. With her she has only a backpack, on her a pair of hiking boots and in her hand, she clutches a first aid kit. It is up to you to write a beginning to her story, in 200–300 words.

Student Z:

The girl walks in the forest. It is green, the leaves are hanging from the trees and the path she walks on is wet. Somewhere, a bird sings but the girl can’t see it, as it’s hiding in-between the branches. She walks forward and comes to a lake. It is dark blue and silent. On the other side of the lake she can see a deer drinking the water. It’s a beautiful animal. But when the girl steps on a stick, it disappears into the forest in the blink of an eye.

The girl continues her walk, listening to the birds that sing in the woods. Somewhere she hears noises, maybe a rabbit hopping away, but doesn’t see anything. She starts singing to herself a song she heard on the radio. Suddenly, she stumbles on a root and falls. Her knee starts bleeding. Luckily, she has her first aid kit, which she now opens to find a band-aid. She needs two for the sore. After that, she stands up again and continues her walk. Her knee hurts but she tries to ignore it even though it doesn’t help. Finally, she gives up and turns around to walk back home.

Word count: 200

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Student W:

Sandra had tied her bronze colored hair into a bun so that her vision would stay clear through the journey. She held the first aid kit tightly in her hand, hoping it would help her when help was needed, and most important of all, keep her alive. As she took the first steps into the forest, Sandra could feel her senses sharpening: her eyes searched for anything unusual, her ears seemed to catch even the smallest cracks and rustling sounds. Even her nose seemed to catch smells that were new to her.

She could feel the nervousness in her stomach. It made her shiver, the thoughts of what was waiting for her. At the same time, she felt courageous, the strength of her body, her fixed mindset. She had promised her grandfather to find the little fox that had disappeared some days ago, and a promise was a promise. No matter how much she feared the forest, how disgusted she sometimes felt about the bugs or how she would have rather stayed at home reading a book – she had to keep her word.

The thing was, the fox wasn’t an ordinary fox. Sandra’s grandfather had a special connection with it, the brown-orange furry thing called Paw. Grandfather called Paw his spirit animal, although his family had always thought it to be some kind of joke. But Sandra had known his grandfather’s words to be true, when Paw had disappeared: her beloved, laughing and hugging grandfather had turned into a different person – a darker, grumpy, silent version of himself when he was separated from his beloved Paw. And that was why Sandra knew she had to find the fox, no matter how much she wanted to be somewhere else. She wanted her grandfather back.

And with this thought in mind she entered the forest, without looking back.

Word count: 306