Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pen and Ink

I talk a lot here about my process of writing. Partially because I'm still early career, and so I'm still figuring out exactly what my process is (or at least what it is right now), and partially as a way of sharing those experiences with other people starting out in the field - writing can feel less lonely when you have proof that you're not the only one who can get multiple rejection letters in a week, or who has days where it seems like the only words you write are the wrong ones. And usually when I talk about process, I talk about how I survive those things, and then pick up my pen the next day.

But since it has been a question very frequently asked of late, today I am going to talk about the fact that when I say "pick up my pen the next day" I mean that literally.

Yes, gentle reader, I write by hand. Preferably onto a moleskine notebook (soft cover, largest size, unlined) very nearly always with a fountain pen (I have a couple of different kinds, and since I have minuscule handwriting, fine nib.) I write my first drafts by hand - even of my dissertation and my other academic writing. When it comes time to revise, I print out a copy, and make my revisions by hand.

Why, in this age of technological ease and the wonder of Scrivener do I do this? I do it for the only reason a writer ought to adhere to any part of her process: this is what works best for me.

Writing by hand helps me think - I hear the characters' voices better, and I have a better feel for the shape of the story. I cannot explain why this is, I only know that it is true. In fact, the very few (seriously, count on one hand and have fingers left over few) times I have ever drafted onto the computer have been stories or scenes that I knew I'd back down from writing if I thought about them too much in the initial draft.

I use a fountain pen generally because I like the feel of the physical act of writing with one, and because I have a weird thing about using particular colors of ink for particular projects. Fountain pens offer the greatest variety of colors (I particularly love J. Herbin ink) and when I'm using a regular pen I like the Sakura gelly rolls for the same reasons - I like the feel of writing with it, and there's a good range of colors.

First drafts (what I tend to call draft zero) go in notebooks, and only on one side of the page - I leave the opposite blank in case I need to insert text, or so I have a place to stick the post its on which I write notes to myself about things I need to think about or change when I revise. The writing doesn't go into the computer until I have a complete draft (short story) or until I've changed enough of what I've written that I need to reorganize and check in with my story before I can move forward (usually about 1/3 of the way into the zero draft of a novel). Then I revise on the print outs.

Usually when I talk about handwriting, I get the "wouldn't it be easier to just do it on the computer the first time?" question, quickly followed by "how do you save your data?" Well, no, it wouldn't be easier, not for me, to compose on the computer. I've tried, particularly after the shoulder injury that meant choosing between my fencing career and my writing one. And the transfer between notebook and computer also serves as my first edit, so I'm not really adding an extra step for myself. As for saving data, well, yes, if my house catches on fire before I get the story out of the notebook and into the computer, then I have some problems. But otherwise, it's pretty safe.

And I'll close like I always do: my process is mine. It works for me. If it didn't, I would change it, because the how I write is much less important than the actually getting the words on the page. 


  1. I've tried to write longhand a few times, but it never works out. I agree with what you said, though: it works for you, so you do it. If it ever stops working for you, you won't do it anymore. Very wise. :)

  2. **applause**

    Depending on what I'm writing, I have different processes. Some articles and essays just flow out better on the computer, others I have to create chaotic mind maps to sort out my thoughts, or the words don't come out if I don't write it out by hand.

    For stories, I often write it out by hand. A pad of a particular lined paper from a general office supply store, and either a needle tip pen from Japan or pilot hi-techpoint pen, or maybe a pencil. With one novel, I have to write it out in comic form, because that's the only way I can visually keep track of everything.

    But generally, yes, I also write it out by hand. I get around the whole losing story in fire problem by typing in the pages every 10-20 pages, editing sometimes as I go, and then going through and editing afterwards. As I write and edit, I'll put brackets over things I think need to be changed, but can't quite think of how yet.

    And I do this for the same reason. This is my process. It works for me.

  3. I'm one of those "in book first, on computer later" writers -- not for academical work for some reason, which I like to word vomit out as fast as I can (sorry, professors of mine) -- and I do it for reasons similar to yours. One of the main reasons, though, is because my brain moves so fast that I love the idea of keeping up with it with my hands. There's a more personal connection with the words and the thoughts when I write them out, whereas computer screens make me feel a bit too distanced from the work. Though I do also like to write one chapter out by hand and then type it up, or I write bits of a chapter and type it into the document along the way. It's sort of like a refining process.

    I also have a fondness for gel pens and pretty, colorful inks. They're so fun and it brings out my inner 8 year old, who had such a fondness for pretty things despite being a total tomboy.

    Lastly, I just might have to bandersnatch the idea of keeping the other side of the page blank -- I've never done that before but it makes complete sense. Hope you don't mind the working process theft.

  4. Whenever I have hard parts in a writing project, I always wind up working through them longhand. But I am waaaay too sloppy to go without lines! I need the confinement to think, I guess. ;)

  5. Glad to see that I'm not the only process junkie out there - I like to see all the ways in which people choose to create.

    And Krist., anyone who can verb bandersnatch can steal anything they like.

  6. As a positive side effect, this is going to be absolutely awesome for your the most ravenous of your fans when you're wildly rich and famous...what cooler one-of-a-kind collectible could there be in author fandom than a first draft in shiny colors? :)

  7. That is a thought both flattering - "someone might want *my* first drafts" - and terrifying - "someone might want my *first* drafts."