Reading With An E-Reader

IMG_2458_2

At the end of last year, I published a blog post where I listed all the books I read in 2019. It was a year of not-very-good reading, but for the last months one could definitely see an upswing in my reading habits.

It was because I decided to invest in an e-reader.

I’ve had it for more than a month now, as I purchased it at the end of November, and have had the time to try it out. And the great news is, the e-reader has truly changed my way of reading. I thought it to be interesting to share my insights about the gadget with you, as maybe some of you have wondered about buying one!

So – let’s get into it. I’ll begin with the technical stuff and then we can get into the interesting things: the good aspects and the one fault it has.

My Choice of E-Reader

My e-reader is Kobo Forma that comes with a comfortable 8’’ display and a design that lets you flip through the pages with either using the screen or pushing the two buttons on the side of the display. It’s extremely lightweight and comfortable to hold in hand, and the display is friendly for the eyes even at night time as it does not flicker and has an adjustable color temperature. The battery lasts for a few weeks if I read actively 1-2 hours every day and recharges in just a couple of hours.

The choice was not quickly made. After making the decision to buy an e-reader, I put down a couple of days and several hours to research the different options and what kind of reader would suit me best. Apparently, the best producers of e-readers on the current market are Kobo and Kindle.

The price differences and the technical aspects between Kobo and Kindle are few but there was one thing that made me change my mind from Kindle to Kobo. 

The reason why I wanted to buy an e-reader was to get easier access to books in Finnish and Swedish, something you can barely find in Australia and New Zealand. As I was looking into the e-books that are sold in Finland, I noticed that most of them are in EPUB format. This turned out to be the decisive factor for me and the reason why I chose a Kobo over Kindle. With Kindle, that supports mainly MOBI, you get access to a large variety of English books, while Kobo supports EPUB, and the latter is definitely more popular in Finland and other Nordic countries (and you also get a large variety of books in English).

Kobo Forma is, in my opinion, quite expensive comparing to other models, costing approximately 300 euros. But I decided to give it a go and try one of the best e-readers that are currently on the market to see if I would like it – and there I definitely did the right thing.

The Good About The E-Reader

After purchasing the reader at the end of November, I’ve read five books and are currently more than halfway through two others. For me, the e-reader has been more than anything a game-changer for my reading habits.

I think it is for two reasons. 

First, the e-reader opens up a world of books to me. Previously, I’ve found it challenging to find good or interesting books to read, but somehow, having an e-reader has opened up a world-wide library of books. I now have more than thirty books on my to-be-read list – and I think having an e-reader has something to do with it. E-books tend to be more affordable, they are easy to download and you can have them on your reader in no time. The threshold to buy a book is lower when you get to preview the book prior to purchase, and it feels easier to let a book go when it’s ”only” on your e-reader. 

The second reason is that the e-reader allows me to change the font, the marginals and line spacing on the pages. Suddenly, reading such books as Stephen King’s It or other heavier novels becomes easier and more fun when you’re not forced to read it in small print with too many lines tightly fitted on a page.

In this way, the e-reader makes reading classics and longer novels an easier challenge. And in addition to that, it’s nice to try out reading with different fonts and see what works best for you. The big surprise has been to realize how much I enjoy reading with the OpenDyslexic font that has been designed for people with dyslexia.

It took a while to get used to reading on a display rather than an actual book and my focus tended to shift a bit in the beginning, but in a few days I already found it easier to read for longer times and was able to focus even better after a week of reading.

I was afraid that my eagerness to pick up the e-reader to read would fade within a few weeks after purchasing it. You know, the fun excitement of getting a new gadget tends to wear off after getting used to it – but it didn’t happen with my reader. Sure, some of the early excitement has vanished, but it hasn’t had an effect on my reading hours. Every day, I feel motivated to pick up the reader to continue on the books I’m reading at the moment and on a good day, I get 2-3 hours of reading done.

So – a great purchase, right? But there’s one thing that I consider to be a fault in this whole e-reader thing. It hasn’t got to do with the Kobo Forma itself, but with what it stands for.

The One Big Bad Thing

Books are great. They are awesome. They are entertaining, informative, provoking, even life-changing. The people who write these books are masters of the craft and relentless in their work – they are the people who have gone through the whole writing process, the ups and downs, edits and rejections. I have immense respect for them (especially if I like their books), and because of this I would like to support them.

E-books, however, don’t really support writers.

In a way, they do, but not in the same was as buying an actual copy or borrowing from library does. I checked into the whole deal, how it is in Finland (especially when I wish to read mostly books in Finnish on my e-reader) and found out that writers aren’t compensated for e-books and audiobooks in the same way as they are for physical books.

In Finland, a writer gets royalties for his or her work when signing a book contract and publishing a book (approximately 3 euros per hardcover). They also get approximately 25 cents for every time a book is borrowed from the library (so if four people borrow the book, the writer gets 1 euro).

But for e-books or audiobooks purchased or borrowed, the writers get no additional compensation. So, although I’m supporting Finnish literature by purchasing and reading it, I’m only barely supporting the writers themselves. And that is a major drawback of using an e-reader to read e-books.

Luckily, there are a few things I still can do to support the writers: by buying their book, whether it’s an actual copy or in digital format, I show there’s interest for their work and thus make them a little bit more attractive for publishers. The other thing I can do for them is that I can always review their work and tell about their books to others. Word-of-mouth can be extremely efficient and result in way more than just three euros for purchasing their hardcover in a book shop!

Final Thoughts On Digital Reading

The shift from analog to digital reading has made me a more active reader. It has also encouraged me to pick up more challenging, heavier books and helped me get back to good reading routines. In the long run, all this reading will help me develop as a writer and develop my world view.

I’m happy with my investment and don’t honestly think I could have done any better – in my current situation, an e-reader is the best way for me to keep on reading fiction in many different languages and it helps me get my hands on all kinds of literature wherever I am. Thus far, it has been worth every penny I paid for it and I hope to have many great reading moments with it in the future.

However, it does make me think about the authors and how they aren’t getting compensated for the e-books that are being sold. Luckily, there are ways to support the writers in other ways that, for the time being, help me calm my conscience. In the future, I hope to be able to support the writers in some other ways, but for now, showing interest for their works and putting out a good word for them will have to be enough.

***

Have you tried reading with an e-reader? Would you even consider shifting from analog reading to digital?

Writing Lessons From Reading

vlcsnap-2019-12-27-14h53m24s094

It is good to read books. 

They broaden your perspective by showing how different but still similar the people living on this Earth are. It broadens your perspective. Reading also improves your vocabulary, fantasy and helps you feel empathy towards other people. Books test your attention span, your patience and analytical skills. You learn new things, even new skills by reading books.

But for a writer, books are even more helpful than that. Reading books can help you find your own voice and learn what you like and don’t like in books. Last year, I wrote about the importance of reading and how I had trouble finding good books. Now, I have changed my perspective a little and I’m reading books even if they weren’t that good

It seems like there’s much to learn from less appealing literature as well. One can even see it as a mood-booster – reading a book you don’t like and thinking to yourself I certainly wouldn’t describe my character like that. This, of course, should be balanced with very good writing to have something to aim for to keep on developing your writing skills.

So today, referencing to my book list from 2019 I published last week, I will tell you what I’ve learned this year about my preferences in writing… by reading.

Creating Good Characters

Some of the books I read last year had many characters in them. One of them was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another was Victor Dixen’s Ascension. But how the characters were presented and when made the books very different experiences.

I like books that have only a few characters in them or where the many characters are presented slowly, one by one, instead of presenting them all in the process of 15 to 20 pages.

In The Goldfinch, the characters come along very slowly (partly because of the length of the book) as the main characters life takes him to new places and to new people. For me, it felt like I got to know one character before being introduced to another and it helped me create an understanding for them.

In Ascension, however, there are more than ten characters presented almost at once. It’s when the six girls and boys are starting their journey into space and are supposed to start speed-dating. Although I really enjoyed the book, I had so much trouble getting to know the characters – only the main character we get to meet alone during the first few chapters becomes a bit more important compared to the others who I don’t really care about. When presenting characters like this, all in one, for me they lose their value. I barely care about what happens to them – and that’s a bad thing for the book.

In addition to this, for me, characters become good when they get some depth. This doesn’t happen when the character’s looks are described to me in detail from hair color to weird toe nails (especially if they don’t have an effect on the plot) – it happens when I’m allowed to follow along the character’s thought processes and opinions, when I learn to know his or her personality and how the character interacts with other people. I’m looking for the depth, to really get to know the person. This, I believe, happens in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and in a way, also in Ready Player One

Action Heavy? Too Heavy.

The other thing I have learned from reading books this year is that an action heavy plot gives very little to the reader. I refer to my experiences with The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner which is three books of almost only action.

When watching an action movie or even something like The Lord of the Rings, there is a balance between action scenes and calmer scenes. By balancing the tempo, the viewer or reader gets to pause for a moment, breath out and relax all the nerves that have been tingling and excited for the past few pages or minutes. After some calm it’s easier to get excited for the action again.

However, if the whole movie is only action from beginning to end, we never have the time to reflect on what’s happening – and neither do the characters.

In Maze Runner, the page-after-page action, that kept on going from halfway of the first book until the epilogue in the third, didn’t leave any room for character development. This way, one never learnt to feel anything for the characters who died along the way. Sure, there were scenes where the main character was wondering about his past or his motivations but if I haven’t learnt to know the character, why should I care? 

Action scenes are a good way to keep up the tempo and make things happen plotwise but if that’s the only thing that happens in the book, it kind of turns against itself. Is action still action if that’s the only thing that ever happens in the book? I definitely enjoy good action scenes and understand their value, but I don’t think they are an absolutely necessary part of a novel.

One other thing when it comes to plot is that I’m okay with not-so-happy-endings. Sure, I don’t like miserable, gritty endings but I don’t like overly happy-happy-joy-joy kind of endings either. There is a silver lining to every cloud but that’s it: there’s the silver lining and there’s the cloud. The Fountainhead like The Goldfinch were excellent examples of this kind of endings while Eleanor Oliphant was too happy for me – and in that way, unrealistic.

Some Personal Preferences

The last thing I’ll get into detail about in this post is the other stuff that comes with writing a novel. Things like the length of chapters, third-person or first-person point-of-view and present versus past tense. These things might not make a difference if the book is good and the style goes well with the author’s choices but they are still things to consider.

This year, I read books that had either very short chapters or very long chapters. The Fountainhead and The Goldfinch had probably the longest chapters while Ascension, Maze Runner Trilogy and One of Us Is Lying had very short chapters. You can find the pattern: YA books tend to have shorter chapters while books for adults seem to be able to take the time and space for theirs. And who knows, maybe it’s even a question about attention spans?

Short chapters are good page-turners. They make reading the next chapter very easy – I mean, it’s just a couple of pages more. Or like in One of Us Is Lying, the chapters were ten pages or so but the point of view changed twice in every chapter. These are good things, especially if the reader gets bored easily or has trouble finding reading routines – but in the long run, I think this can turn against the novel. Too short chapters make the reading experience more… halting instead of creating long, beautiful waves of scenes. You never seem to get into the events before the chapter is already over – if you know what I mean?

Then again very long chapters can become too long and exhausting to take on. I for instance, am a reader who doesn’t like to leave a chapter halfway. But if the chapter is over 30 pages long, I might opt to not read another chapter before I have the time to get through a long chapter like that. That’s not optimal either.

Looking at things this way, I think I prefer best long chapters that are divided into parts. At the moment, I’m reading Stephen King’s It, a book that has very long chapters – but they are divided into 3-12 scenes depending on the length of the chapter. That way, we get to those long chapters with depth, character development and even some action but it doesn’t become exhausting to read them because you can always pause before the next scene begins.

When it comes to writing in past or present tense or in first person or third person, I really have no preference when it comes to reading. I like them all if they are done well. However, I do find that I personally like to write in present tense rather than past and in third person if it feels natural, more “right”. It’s just something I’ve noticed when writing: how I feel like I’m more in the moment, in the midst of action, when writing in present tense.

These are things that come from experience, both in reading and writing and is up to oneself to reflect upon.

Read and Learn Even More

This year, this is what I learnt from the books I read. Much about characters and character development, about the value of action scenes and the pros and cons about long versus short chapters. What I will learn from the books I read in 2020, I’m eager to find out. Maybe in a year from now, I’ll tell you what I learnt this upcoming year?

As I wrote last week, in 2020 I aim to read more of all sorts of books. Different genres, different authors, different settings. I’ll try to read through books that don’t please me as much as I’d like and try my best to learn from them. However, to balance those books I’ll also read some good books just to keep myself developing and strengthening my writerly skills. We’ll see where I end up in twelve months!

Until next post, I wish that you, dear reader, have had a relaxing Christmas and have a Happy New Year!

What I Read In 2019

IMG_0596_2

With only two weeks left of this year, I thought it would be nice to catch up on what I’ve been reading this year. It’s good to do some kinds of recaps of the year – there’s so much we can accomplish in one year but we tend to forget that. This reading list is a reminder to me that I did manage to read some books – and maybe it will benefit you as well, if you find something new to add to your TBR pile for 2020?

This year was a very inconsistent year when it comes to reading. 

In the beginning of the year, I was able to hold on to a reading routine as I had some good, inviting books to read. Then at some point I just couldn’t seem to find anything interesting and my reading routines halted for a while. During our trip in Southeast Asia, from July to September, I barely read anything. I only had one book with me but it wasn’t an easy one to read.

Back To My Reading Routines

However, things started to look up when we were driving our car on the east coast of Australia. At a camping site, I noticed a man reading a book behind a table filled with novels. He was selling them for two dollars per book and I couldn’t resist a look. I found two books and ka-ching! I was back to my reading routines.

The other improvement to my reading happened when we arrived to New Zealand. After a few weeks and some honest thinking and looking into reviews and product information, I decided to purchase an e-book reader. After 2-3 weeks of using it, I can honestly say that this was my best purchase in a while! In only a few weeks, I’ve managed to read three books already and I still feel motivated to pick up my eReader every evening.

So, through the ups and downs of it all, I managed to read nineteen books in total in 2019. That makes it approximately one and a half books per month – which is surprisingly good considering everything! 

As this post tends to get information heavy, I think it’s best to just dive into my what-I-read-list from this year! As last year, I have marked the books that I really enjoyed with an asterisk (*).

From Tartt to Rand and King

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History (1992)
The Goldfinch (2013) *

I started the year with reading an old favorite of mine: The Secret History. This was the fourth time reading it and it was nice to be back with the characters and once again marvel at Tartt’s style of writing. I really love the atmosphere in the book, and the psychology and complexity of the characters. However, surprisingly, in the end, I wasn’t as excited about the book as I had been previously. Time changes our reading habits and preferences, I think.

Then again The Goldfinch was excellent. It was awful and cruel in the same way as Tartt’s debut but I just loved the setting, the main character and how I got to experience his life journey with him. I don’t think I’ll ever read it again as it tended to be quite distressing, but still, I really enjoyed it. 

Haruki Murakami: What I Think About When I Think About Running (2007)

This book I’ve written about on the blog as well. Even though it didn’t end up as one of my favorites of the year, it has stayed in my thoughts. Every once in a while, I find myself thinking about the strengths of a writer Murakami writes about (talent, focus, endurance) or how to find your style as a writer. A good book about writing (and running), for sure! 

Beth Ravis: Paper Hearts Volume 1: Some Writing Advice (2015)

This book about writing was a good and easy but informational read! Ravis explains so many things so well in so few pages. Although I’m familiar with much of what she writes about, this book was still a fresh reminder of some aspects of writing. She also presents different story/plot structures that can help you plan your plot (that is, if you are a plotter).

Victor Dixen: Ascension (2015)

I came across this book while browsing through the YA section of my local library. Something about the name and cover made me pick up the book and the short summary in the back sounded promising: speed dating in space. Although I do think there were too many characters to be presented in such a short while and the plot development was inconsistent in pace, this turned out to be a fun page-turner I really enjoyed reading.

Tove Jansson:
Pappan och havet / Moominpappa at Sea (1965) *
Taikurin hattu / Finn Family Moomintroll or The Magician’s Hat (1948),
Vaarallinen juhannus / Moominsummer Madness (1954)
Taikatalvi / Moominland Midwinter (1957) *

When I went sailing this Summer, I noted my friends had Moominpappa at Sea in their small bookshelf on the sailboat. I had been thinking about reading Moomin for a while now as I thought Jansson’s (who was a Swedish-speaking Finn) books were written with the same idea in mind I have for Yellow Tails: funny, odd characters presenting more serious thoughts and truths about life. After Moominpappa at Sea, I continued to read many of the others from the Moomin-series. Of these, my favourites were Moominpappa at Sea and Moominland Midwinter. Both of them had a darker tone while still portraying the moomins in their silly everyday activities. These books I’ll return to in the future, for sure!

James Dashner: The Maze Runner Trilogy
The Maze Runner (2009)
The Scorch Trials (2010)
The Death Cure (2011)

Honestly, I did not like this book trilogy to the slightest. The books are, for sure, page-turners, all three of them but oh my, how they are filled with action and only action. I decided to read them because my younger sister had talked about them a great deal, and when I spotted the first book on the book desk at the camping site, it was easy to decide this was a great time to read Dashner’s bestselling series.

I’d say the first one is the best one – after that everything just gets chaotic. You never get to know the characters probably and they lack depth. For me, it didn’t really deliver life lessons to its readers. However, Dashner has managed to create an action-packed story that many youngsters have found appealing – the fact that these books get them to read is good. I just wasn’t very impressed with the trilogy.

Gavin Extence: The Universe Versus Alex Woods (2013)

I bought this book for one dollar at a charity shop. The title was fun and after reading a few pages I decided I would give this book a go. It reminded me of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and the main character definitely had some Don Tillmanish going on there. However, even though the book was a fun read and even educational, I found it hard to fall in love with it. There was just something missing, maybe between the characters or in the plot itself. 

Stephen King: On Writing (2000) *

I spotted this book on the bookshelf of our hosts in New Zealand and decided that I could and I would read it during the week we were staying there. Although I had to rush through it, I loved it. It was fun, informational and really critical to some aspects of living and writing which I enjoyed because King expresses ideas and thoughts that not everyone has the courage to bring forward. This one is definitely a book I’ll remember for a long time.

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (2017)

Another book I found at another host’s bookshelf in New Zealand and knew this was the time I would give the popular book a go. I had been thinking about buying it a couple of times and always left it at the store but now I got to read it – for free! 

The first 150 pages were really enjoyable and proper page-turners. There was something similar, again, to The Rosie Project and Alex Woods, but halfway through, the book kind of lost its tempo. It felt like the problems that were presented in the beginning of the book got solved too easily which for me wasn’t believable. This is most likely an enjoyable book for many but for me, it was too… straightforward. 

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead (1943) *

This ended up being the only audiobook I listened to this year. But it was a long one – 32 hours / 753 pages. It’s also a book one does not read as a light evening read. It’s filled with ugly truths, unhappy fates and awful trouble people can cause on each other. But it’s also a wonderful book with a complex plot, even more complex characters and it celebrates the wonder of creating and staying true to your passion. 

I loved this book, although it was a huge struggle to get through. I would like to read it again at some point, most likely from my eReader where I can adjust the font size and line spacing. This is definitely one of my favourite books even though it wasn’t my favorite read (and there’s a difference).

Ernest Cline: Ready Player One (2011) *

I saw the movie earlier this year and really liked the idea behind it, so I gave the book a go. Even though they had changed a lot of the plot for the movie (to their advantage, I’d say), I had so much fun reading this book. It was entertaining and a proper page-turner – and it didn’t matter that I mostly had no clue about the computer games the characters were talking about or playing.

What I really liked about the book was that the author didn’t make his characters too easy to like. They all have their weaknesses, their ugly sides, and I had a hard time liking these characters. I really respect an author who has the guts to give their characters truly ugly personality traits – it feels real.

Karen McManus: One of Us Is Lying (2017)

I just finished this YA book this week. It’s okay, probably a good book for a typical young adult because it deals a lot with challenges youngsters have – but for me they were too stereotypical and their problems weren’t that interesting to me because they lacked timelessness. I kept on reading it, however, because I wanted to know the ending. Therefore, in that way, the book had a good mystery going on there.

19 + 2

In addition to these nineteen books, I have two pieces of fiction that I’ve been reading but didn’t make it to the list:

SenLinYu: Manacled (2018–2019)

This was a fan fiction story I read during the Summer and Fall. I wouldn’t maybe include it here otherwise but the story was, in total, 350,256 words. If it would have been printed out as a novel, it would’ve been a heavy book to read. The story was great, filled with good writing and great plot twists – and that’s why I think it deserves a place on my reading list.

Andre Aciman: Call Me By Your Name (2007)

The book I have carried with me from Finland to Southeast Asia to Australia and to New Zealand… without getting even halfway. There are so many things I like about this book but it’s something I can read only in short snippets. The language is too beautiful, I just can’t read it as an evening read. It has to be read with time and thought. 

I think I’ll hold on to this book a bit longer and see if I get through it. To think a book can be too good to be read!

A Short Summary

I read some good books this year. My reading list was quite YA heavy and I read many books from the same authors but maybe it was okay – for me, it was most important to keep on reading all sorts of books, whether they were all the same genre or not. And I got to read books from a long period of time: the oldest was from 1943 and the newest 2017!

But for next year, especially with my new eReader in hand, I’ll try to challenge myself more and try different genres from several different authors. I also hope to read more in Finnish. I already have a long list of books I look forward to reading during 2020! I also hope to be able to keep on with my reading routine, between 30 to 60 minutes every night. 

But now, it is time for me to round up this book list review / blog post and let you pick something for your TBR 2020 pile. Was there any books on this list you’ve read yourself and especially liked or didn’t like? Or did you find some interesting book to read during Christmas or next year?

Help for Heroes – Or How To Realise an Idea

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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?

Lessons With Murakami

murakami_1

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?