First Reactions to My First Chapter

Oh man – there’s nothing more awfully exhilarating and nerve-wrecking than waiting for reactions on something you’ve created, right?

Maybe it’s a speech you give in front of an audience or a painting you’ve done, or it can be the first chapter of the manuscript you’re writing for real. Whatever it is, it’s crazy scary to let people see it, hear it, feel it – and comment on it.

But I did just that.

The Secret Word Society

When I came back to Finland from our trip, I was asked to join a writing club called The Secret Word Society. It was a writing friend from the writing forum who, together with six others, had put together the club just a month earlier.

I said yes, of course I want to join! We managed to meet with the group face-to-face once before the pandemic broke out, all the proper meeting places were closed and social distancing was recommended. That one time was so great, the people were so nice and friendly and we had a great time talking about writing, reading and creating. I was really looking forward to meeting these people again.

Luckily, even the pandemic can’t stop us and we’ve continued our meetings twice a month through Zoom since the end of March, and it’s been awesome.

Every month we have a different writing theme one can choose to use if one wants to, everything from a specific genre to everyone writing a story with the same title or getting inspired by a certain number or a word.

It’s been great fun to challenge myself as a writer and lately, I’ve been writing more original stories than fan fiction.

Our theme last time was the big one: the first chapter of a manuscript.

So, I posted the first 1,700 words of Yellow Tails on our Google Drive and tried to relax, waiting for Saturday. I did everything but relax: I was terrified, excited, nervous and somehow exhilarated, everything at the same time.

Finally, Saturday came.

Feedback from Five Readers

In The Secret Word Society meetings, every feedback round starts with the author’s note on the story, how the writing process was and if there’s something specific she’d like to get feedback on. Everyone gets approximately three minutes to give general comments, feelings and notes on the story. After that, we discuss the story as a group for about 15-20 minutes.

With my story, the first chapter of Yellow Tails where the main character wakes up in a random house without any memories of how she got there and then finds a huge, yellow cat in the living room, I was looking forward to hearing how the first pages felt to the readers. Were they eager to read more, how did they feel about the two out of three characters presented in this chapter?

It’s said that the first five pages are some of the most important pages in a book because they hook the reader’s interest. It was this hook I was wondering about, if it existed in the story.

And I think I’ve got it. At least a little. Maybe not a huge fork lifting kind of hook, but more like a little hook that gets caught in your little finger, creating a little jerking movement that pulls you back to the story.

Because: I was happy to see glad, slightly amused reactions to my story when we started talking about it. The five members who were joining the meeting last Saturday liked the characters, their quirky behavior and personality. They were curious about the mystery that was presented and interested to read the second chapter. YAY!

In addition to that, I got some good, more practical feedback on how to develop the chapter a bit further: adding a few questions the protagonist can ask to make her confusion more realistic and giving a tiny hint about the mystery that will get the big story moving in the coming chapters. As a result of the discussion, I also decided to change one of the character’s names that goes better with the Finnish language.

The most exciting thing was to hear how the readers perceived the story: how many of those five got the secret idea of what actually happens in the story, or what the story is about. And get this: two out of five was on the right track, just on the basis of the first chapter! I was so happy to hear this because if 40 percent of the readers get the idea behind the story, it’s a huge win.

So, What’s Next?

The great thing with The Secret Word Society is that it boosts my writing confidence and helps me stay motivated about writing. With and because of them, I write at least one story every month even though everything else would end up in the bin. Their feedback make my stories better and me a better writer.

Last Saturday’s meeting came at the best of moments, because I was having a great deal of doubt regarding Yellow Tails. I was getting closer to my first 10,000 word mark and wondering if the story was worth writing at all. Luckily, the feedback helped me feel better about it and ever since Saturday I’ve felt more motivated to develop and continue the story.

I don’t think I’ll be showing other chapters to the group unless they specifically ask to or something unexpected happens, because I’m already in chapter seven and going back to discuss chapter two few months after writing it feels like stalling the story.

Instead, I’ll keep on writing so that I’ll finish the story and will then reach out to a few test readers so I can send them half or the whole story later this year for reading and commenting.

However, I’m so very happy I decided to show my writing friends the first chapter, despite how terrifying it was. Instead, it was the perfect decision in my state of doubt and The Secret Word Society cheered me on in the best possible way.

So, to sum it up: if you have a chance to join a writing club, with face-to-face meetings or online, join. You won’t regret it, writer.

Experiencing As the Opposite of Writing

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After writing last week’s troubled blog post about my writing-not-writing situation, two quotes came to my mind.

Somehow, it seems, my brain thought it was time for me to do some changes so it picked these quotes from the long shelves of thoughts and memories, giving me a perspective on my current writing situation.

Funny enough – the quotes have made a difference.

Let’s just dive in and start with the first one. The quote is by Benjamin Franklin and goes like this:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

If you have read my posts from the previous two weeks, you know I’m longing for writing something worth reading. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past year and half, writing almost daily – fiction, journal entries, blog posts. It’s what I know and love.

But now, as Mr. Franklin/my brain conveniently reminded me of, I’m doing something worth writing.

Or am I – really?

Learning About Prioritizing

Because –

I wonder if one can travel great lengths without actually doing anything worth writing about. Just linger, wander, pass curious details and interesting human beings without really seeing them and taking in their existence – and if I’ve done just that.

You see –

During these past months of travel, I’ve been looking for opportunities to write and been disappointed when day after day I haven’t had the possibility to do so. I’ve been having many negative thoughts of what I should be doing and what I’m not and, to be honest, it has consumed me and my energy.

And as I’ve been in this gravel pit of negativity, I wonder if I’ve actually given myself the chance to enjoy and experience, to take the days as they come.

However, the thing to realize here is that in the mode of experiencing, to write or not write becomes more like a side product of that mode. You have to be willing to ease on the writing part of being a traveling writer and focus more on experiencing.

But I haven’t let that happen.

I’ve kept writing as my main mode, my first priority, and that just may have hindered me from it’s opposite – experiencing.

Experience Requires Patience

This is where I’d like to introduce the second quote my brain reminded me of. It’s from a film called Stuck In Love I saw earlier this year (a movie recommendation for those looking for films about writing – it’s not a super awesome movie but it’s about writing and that’s the best thing about it).

A writer is the sum of her experiences.

When I was little, I read a fantasy book called The Prophecy of the Gems by Flavia Bujor. It was Bujor’s first (and only) book but the thing that made it cool was that she was only 14 years old at the time. I was amazed by her young age and, as I already at that point had my dreams of becoming a published author, thought I could do the same.

But the thing is, it is very hard to write about themes such as love, loss, freedom and loneliness if one has never experienced those things. No matter how much I would have wanted to write a publishable book at the age of 9, I don’t think I could’ve done it because I didn’t have enough experience of the topics that make books feel real.

Becoming experienced in this thing we call life takes time and waiting out time takes patience. And during that time you shouldn’t just sit and wait but experience, instead.

And even then, you’re not done.

Even though I feel I’m somewhat more experienced than I was at the time I read Bujor’s debut and could put together a realistic novel, at the same time I realize I’m not done experiencing.

There’s so much more to learn about life’s quirks that I haven’t gotten to yet.

I believe one of those quirks has been presented to me during these last couple of days.

The Lesson To Learn

I don’t think it’s too late for me to switch my focus and re-organize my priorities. Even though writing is one of the most meaningful things in my life, I can let it rest for a while – that doesn’t mean I will never get back to my writing routines and never become a published author.

I just have to be patient, give time to this period in my life. Remember that experiences give me something to write about.

And even though I’ve been obsessed about writing-not-writing, I think I’ve squeezed in some experiences and observations:

I have used my senses in the desert landscape of Northern Australia: seen the drought, felt the heat and sweat in the small of my back. I’ve heard the wind rustle through the dry hay, smelled the smoke coming from forest fires, tasted the refreshing water after a hike.

During the long days of driving, I’ve had time to listen to audiobooks and in the evenings, listened to audiobooks or read fiction. Thought about my own works of fiction, the characters and what makes a book feel real.

I’ve had time to think of who I am as a person and as a writer, thought about what life’s meaning really is about and if it’s necessary to find something that feels meaningful or if the meaningfulness of things already exists there or here, I just can’t see it yet.

So I’m already on a good path here – I just need to be patient and forgive myself for not writing.

It won’t be an easy switch to just ”forget” about writing and only write when the opportunity presents itself. And I need to be careful not to put too much weight on experiencing and instead just take the experiences as they come.

This road trip might be about learning to enjoy, to experience without stressing out about experiencing, and write when the opportunity presents itself – but not force myself to do anything.

If I learn that, I might have an experience on my hands really worth writing about.

Unsuited For Travel

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For so many years already, backpacking has been something many dream of.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just leave everything behind and live from your backpack for months while traveling around the world? Be free from the ordinary life you’ve learned to know, let the days melt together and forget the meaning of Fridays and weekends?

There are so many who would love to do that. Who love to backpack, travel to foreign, exotic countries, sleep in hostels, spend days sitting on buses and trains, do things you wouldn’t or couldn’t do back home.

But there are also people who do not have a need for that backpacker life.

After more than two months of travel, I’ve realized I’m one of those people. Those, who do not get the thrill of visiting new cities and towns, who don’t get excited from the freedom of spending their days doing whatever they want.

While traveling in Southeast Asia, we had all our belongings neatly packed in our backpacks. We were constantly moving around, from hostels to homestays to Airbnb apartments. Every three or four nights we would pack our things and get going, take the bus to another city to settle down there for a few days. We would explore the city for a few days before packing up everything again and moving on.

That’s how we traveled in three different countries. For me, it was exhausting.

An Introvert On A Holiday

As I only see people loving this lifestyle we’ve tried for two months now, I’ve been trying to figure out why I seem to feel different about backpacking. Why am I not enjoying it like everyone else? Am I not a backpacker, am I not able to adapt to this kind of lifestyle?

One explanation to my discomfort could be my personality.

First of all, I have a tendency to try to please other people. When a people-pleaser like me, who tends to believe the best in people and give almost everyone benefit of the doubt, is forced to say no and know locals are only after a money… It’s uncomfortable. It is exhausting to constantly shake your head, or worse, ignore the seller.

And for the second, I’m an introvert. While I enjoy meeting new people, to play cards, drink beer, go on hikes with people I’ve never seen before, I also need to balance out that social life with some privacy, my own time and space. Otherwise, I’ll drain my energy.

But as being social is one of the essential parts of backpacking, I tend to feel guilty for taking time off people, shut the door to the room or the curtain to my bed. Somehow I feel like I’m doing it wrong – backpacking. And still, I know I need that time for myself.

Backpacking is a balancing act for an introverted person. It can get tough, exhausting, even frustrating at times, compared to an extrovert who doesn’t seem to have any problems chilling with people around the clock.

However, at the same time I know being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t do certain things. You can be an introvert and a backpacker at the same time – you just have to be selfish enough to take the time for yourself.

Which makes me think there is something else that explains my unsuitability for travel.

Freedom, Sex, Distraction

It feels like many backpackers come to Southeast Asia for freedom.

It’s the kind of freedom you see in their behavior: how they drive scooters without helmets on, how they drink rice wine and have random sex with random people in shared dormitories, how they spend their money how they wish without needing to think about the consequences.

Many travel to Asia to escape something and to get something they can’t get at home: the freedom, the sex, the careless attitude. The also get the kind of attention they don’t get in the western world: the friendliness of the locals, the attention they give you when they want to sell you something.

It’s attractive.

And they have a great time in Asia because their money actually has more value here. They get the benefits they would like to have back home without having to dress up, drive a fancy car, behaving according the etiquette and social norms and have huge amounts of savings and investments.

But even more than the freedom and sex, they get a distraction. In the chaos of Asia they momentarily lose themselves, their former goals and dreams or the lack of them. For a while, they don’t need to think about the future, their career plans, the expectations they are expected to meet. It’s liberating to backpack, to be free.

However, what I’ve realized is that I have no need for that kind of freedom – and that, reader, is liberating.

I’ve realized that I have things going on already that I like and enjoy. I already have my plans and dreams for the future, I already know what my own expectations for myself are. Therefore, I have no need to escape the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that come from not knowing what one wants to do with his or her life.

This comes from the fact that I’ve already discovered the thing I can see myself doing the rest of my life: writing. Writing both fact and fiction allows me the escape and the freedom many seek in backpacking, and I’m comfortable to do it wherever I feel at home.

(Where that place is, is still bit of a question mark but I do believe there is a place where I’ll feel comfortable enough to actually stay.)

The Realization

Realizing this, the difference between me and 80% of the people we’ve met on our trip, has helped me get away from those guilty feelings of introverted behavior and the thoughts of am I doing this wrong when I’m not enjoying it?

I get tired of constantly moving around, of constantly meeting new people and getting excited about things that mostly have to do with the freedom of an exotic, foreign country. Part of it can be explained by my personality, my biology, but it’s also about the fact that I don’t get the thrill of backpacking because I already find it somewhere else.

It’s nice to know this. At the same time, it took two months in Southeast Asia to realize it – and I can’t yet say if the trip was worth it. But here I am, aware of what is important to me and what is not.

And that is very liberating.

The Trouble With Tourism

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For a developing country, dealing with increasing tourism can be an extreme challenge.

After exploring Southeast Asia for a few months, we’ve seen this with our own eyes and through our own experience. Already in Malaysia, but especially in Vietnam, we could see what kind of a weight tourism puts on a country’s infrastructure. And it’s not pretty.

During the past ten years, the tourism in Vietnam has grown from 4,25 million to 15,5 million tourists. Generally, increasing tourism is seen as something positive. When more people visit a country, they bring in more money – and they, with their money, create more opportunities.

The Vietnamese have taken advantage of these opportunities. However, from what we’ve seen, the opportunities come with a cost – especially if you don’t know how to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.

Easy Money

As the amount of tourists visiting a country increases, it becomes very attractive to take a job that has to do with tourism. Driving a taxi, running a homestay or other forms of accommodation, organizing trips and courses, running a restaurant… There’s a lot to choose from.

And those who don’t have the money needed for the investments to drive a taxi or run a homestay or a restaurant, can get money from the tourists by selling smaller items such as fans, scarfs or sunglasses; selling fruit or drinks; or posing for a photo together with a foreigner.

The possibilities seem endless and the money easy – and that makes business in tourism so attractive. However, as there are such easy money sources available, it can become too tempting to get a little bit of extra income while you’re already at it.

That’s what we call haggling (or scamming), something that characterizes many of the Southeast Asian countries.

It can be seen as an opportunity – but it really is not. Not, at least, in the long run.

Short-Term Success

Haggling and tricking tourists for money is so attractive because Vietnam as a country has been poor for a very long time. Many of the locals who haggle are living their life on a day-to-day basis because they don’t know what life brings them the next day, if they even live that long. Therefore, what they gain today, they spend today.

That’s why haggling seems like a good idea for the locals – it gives you the possibility to spend more money today than you did yesterday.

Seen that way, it makes sense. However, when you look at haggling from another perspective, you can see that it only brings you short-term success and is actually more harmful in the long run.

The benefit of having fixed prices with your products is that it allows you to take a peek into the future. If you sell ten t-shirts, all for the price of one dollar, you know you’ll have ten dollars when you’ve sold all ten shirts. And if you, in a month, sell one hundred shirts, you’ll have one hundred dollars. In a year, if you sell one hundred shirts every month, you make 1200 dollar – and that allows you to ask yourself the question:

What do you want to do with that money?

But if you have 100 shirts that you end up selling them for 100 different prices – how much money will you have? Can you do anything extra with it? Is is worth saving the money from todays sales if you don’t know how much you will get for your shirts tomorrow?

Haggling only brings you success in the near future. However, if you’re playing the long game, you are not doing a favor for yourself.

Developing Harmful Behavior

The Vietnamese are not in any way stupid – they know that Westerners have money and that for us, their products and services are cheap. We can afford the price they ask even if they’d ask us a bit more. But that’s where things start to go downhill.

In a taxi, the drivers have taxi meters that tick in an incredible speed and that mean you end up paying four or five times more than the actual cost would have been. In a restaurant, there is one menu for tourists with fixed prices and another for Vietnamese without prices. Somewhere else there are sudden extra costs for something or someone comes up claiming there is a parking fee for motorbikes. And if you need to haggle for the product you want, a tourist will certainly pay a higher price than a local.

It almost becomes worth it to play dirty – but how does that affect your personality, your ethics? In the long run, haggling doesn’t make you a good, trustworthy person. When you’ve lied once, it’s easier to lie again. When you’ve successfully tricked someone, your likely to trick again.

Haggling isn’t sustainable – but it’s too tempting to ignore.

The Bad Loop

Although haggling maybe gives the locals the thrill of debating and is part of their culture, it’s actually more harmful than beneficial for the locals.

It’s not a sustainable way of doing business because it doesn’t build for a better future – or for a better personality. However, that is the only way of business the locals know and because they know it, they can also use it to their benefit when it comes to tourists.

Tourism invites the locals to keep up their harmful behavior. It keeps them in the short-term loop instead of helping them to look longer into the future and help them develop better ways of securing their income.

If the locals would give up haggling and tricking and settle for fixed prices, they could end up with more time and energy – two of the resources needed for making more money. But they can’t see that because they’ve learned to see only the opportunities right in front of them – the opportunities growing tourism gives them.

Vietnam has developed into a lower-middle income country, which means that tricking for money shouldn’t be as necessary than it was before. As their GNP is growing and the average income is on the rise, there shouldn’t be a need for haggling and tricking.

However, it takes a long time to change behavior.

And tourism, for sure, is not helping with this.

 

Thoughts on Graduating

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I will be graduating in a few weeks.

When I get my Master’s Degree, it means that the eighteen consecutive years of my education come to an end. The journey started when I was seven years old and ends when I turn 25.

It feels weird to know that, in the future, I will be doing something completely different after such a long time of doing exams, completing reading lists and writing essays. It feels liberating, for sure, but also weird.

A new chapter is beginning. But what kind of chapter?

Six Years of Political Science

The first nine years of schooling are compulsory in Finland. After those years one can continue to high school or vocational school and after that, if one prefers, get a degree at a university or a vocational university. Both are optional but the majority decides to keep studying until they have a degree in something. Partly because it’s highly valued in the society and everyone is encouraged to get a degree, and partly because the education is free and most often of high quality.

I, too, have taken the opportunity to get a degree at a university in Finland.

My studies at the university have taken six years – but what exactly have those years entailed? Intensive studying at a library, a cup of coffee every afternoon to keep those caffeine levels high, feverish essay-writing a few hours before the deadline? Yes, sometimes. But even more than that.

Of those six years, four months were spent abroad studying Political Science and Sociology in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. After that, I did a six-month internship at an organization. One year was spent in another city up North studying Journalism for a full year, followed by another internship at the local radio station.

During this time, I have taken up responsibilities such as being the chief editor for a magazine and been involved in different courses and trainings.

However, I’ve gained so much more than just a degree during these past six years.

Knowledge of Value

In addition to the life-changing event of meeting my partner during my studies through a friend, I’ve also developed as a person during these past years. Much of the progress has been recorded on this blog.

When I started at the university, I was depressed and only had a few routines to keep me going. I wasn’t a healthy eater, didn’t enjoy physical training that much and had difficulties getting friends at school. Looking back at that person now, six years later, I barely recognize myself. I went through a few years of therapy where I learned why I act the way I do (a development that has continued even after that), and during the past couple of years I’ve really learned to eat healthy and enjoy physical exercise.

I’ve also gained a new perspective on my life and learned to question and redefine my own values. I have a better understanding of what I want to do with my life, what and who I want to be. I discovered the pleasure of writing again after six long years of not writing.

I’m quite certain of the fact that even though these six years result in a diploma valued by the society, my personal development, and the knowledge and perspective on life and values I’ve gained are far more valuable than finishing a degree.

A bold thing to say, perhaps, but for me, it is the truth. I don’t quite know what I’ll do with a diploma – but I do know what I want to do with my life.

A New Phase

As this chapter in my life, the chapter of education, is coming to an end, I’ve been thinking about the things I’m leaving behind but also the new ones I am gaining.

Around me, I see many fellow students feeling reluctant to leave the life of a student – and for a reason. I’m leaving behind the freedom of being a student where one gets to decide when and where one studies and what courses. I’m letting go the monthly subsidies the state offers to students. And I’m letting go the daily discounted lunches and dinners with friends at student cafés.

All these things have been wonderful and I understand why many are unwilling to speed up their graduation, but I believe there is so much more to life than this comfortable, easy way of living.

Graduating will give me a different kind of freedom than the one of a student. It will also come with different kind of responsibilities. It will give me a bit more independence and a wider view on life outside the secure walls of the academic world. By graduating I am opening the world and finding out the different opportunities it has to offer.

There will be questions, there will be a harsher reality waiting for me, but I believe I’m ready for it.