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.

Different Methods For Writing

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

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

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

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

A Writer’s Heureka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Method

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

That’s not the deal here, folks. 

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

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

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

What are working on today?

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

In what phase of the work are you?

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

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

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

Method 1: Writing for a certain amount of time.

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

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

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

Method 2: Writing a certain amount of words.

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

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

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

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

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

Method 4: Take a wild card.

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

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

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

So, what will your method be?

Writing Lessons From Reading

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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!