H Is for Handwriting

My handwriting sucks. Here’s a sample:

This is why I do nearly all my first-drafting in longhand: because I can’t read my own writing unless I slow way down and focus on each word.

It took me a while to figure out why I’d sometimes get so blocked — paralyzed! — when I did nearly all my writing on the computer. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, or maybe it’s because I’m a recovering perfectionist who has occasional slips, but sometimes I’d stare at those crystal-clear words on the screen and think, No, that’s not right, and then get stuck trying to fix it instead of moving on.

Eventually I figured out that the best way to break through these blocks was to grab a pad of paper and a pen and get away from the computer. At the top of the paper I’d writing something like “I can’t write this scene because . . .”

And out would flow whatever I needed to know, and eventually the scene itself.

This was also a handy way of getting to know characters better. Whatever I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad wasn’t part of The Manuscript. I loosened up. No pressure. I could write anything I wanted.

My messy handwriting was an asset. What the internal editor couldn’t read, she couldn’t edit. Without the internal editor looking over my shoulder, I could write write write, not expecting anything to be perfect, knowing that there would be a second or third or fourth draft to get it just right.

So why wait till I got stuck to bring out the pen and paper? Why not start out that way?

I tried it. It worked. It’s still working. I do most of my first-drafting in longhand.

Pretty soon, however, the scrawl of a ballpoint pen across lined yellow paper was looking rather dull. I started acquiring fountain pens and bottles of different colored ink. I’ve currently got about a dozen of each. It’s a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t live without them.

The bonus is that ink blottings on paper towels are really pretty. I use them as coasters for my tea mugs and my beer steins. They make me happy.

ink blot

 

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Listen to Those Blocks

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Ever notice how most of the stuff you learn about writing is stuff you already know?

I’m not talking primarily about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and all the nuts-and-bolts basics. I’m talking about the “how to keep going” part.

Last winter the novel I was working on, The Squatters’ Speakeasy, wasn’t coalescing or developing any momentum. I wouldn’t say I was blocked exactly, but the writing sure got sludgy. I procrastinated a lot before I sat down to write, and fidgeted a lot when I got there.

I also started this blog, and wrote an essay about a controversial statue that was in the news at the time. As I blogged back in April, in “Course Correction”:

 When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

Procrastination was trying to tell me something. Finally I got the message. I put Squatters aside. About a year before I’d written a scene about a dog named Wolfie, a kid named Glory, and Shannon, a character from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. It didn’t fit in Squatters, so I put it aside. Now I pulled it back onto my lap and had another look. My imagination woke up.

Long story short: This blog now has more than a thousand followers. The novel, working title: Wolfie, passed the 50,000-word mark three days ago.

Here comes the bit about how writers keep learning what we already know.

Or, to put it in a slightly less flattering light: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” However, for some strange reason, it’s always easier to catch your friends doing the same thing over and over again than it is to realize that you’re up to your old tricks again.

Who, me?

Short version: My other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, was wilting. Running out of steam. I was thinking of wrapping it up, or at least putting it in the indefinite deep freeze. At the same time, there were so many things I wanted to write about that I was thinking of starting another blog.

Sheesh. When I type that, it looks so obvious. I really must have been nuts or in denial or just plain dense not to see that I could do the writing I wanted to do in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories.

If you’re curious about the longer version, you can read it here.

Writers talk about writer’s blocks and procrastination all the time. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with both. Many of us have had long-term relationships with one or the other. We dread them, we hate them, we do endless rituals to keep them at bay.

I’m here to remind you — because I know you know this already — that often the blocks and the procrastination are trying to tell you something. Sometimes the back-seat driver is right: Either you’ve missed a turn or you’ve taken one you didn’t want.

The road you want is the one that keeps your pen moving across the paper or your fingers on the keyboard.

Creative blocks, rearranged

Creative blocks, rearranged

Word Count: Zero

If you’re currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, you might want to put off reading this post till the middle of next month. If you aren’t, or if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, read on.

OTOH, if you are in the throes of NaNoWriMo, what are you doing here in the first place? Maybe you should stick around.

Here’s the shocking truth: I didn’t write any words this morning. Well, OK, I scribbled some words on pages of notes that had already been scribbled on, but really — I didn’t write any words this morning.

My chair

I’ve blogged about how I don’t measure my progress or a day’s success by the number of words I’ve written. This is true. All the same, writing no words is a little scary, especially when I want to have a few pages to take to my writers’ group meeting on Sunday night. Right now I’ve got nothing.

What I did this morning was sit in my writing chair for an hour and a quarter. To my right, three candles were burning. (Usually it’s just two. This morning I needed all three.) To my left, eight pens were at the ready. My laptop was on the floor, still asleep.

A few days ago, Wolfie, my novel in progress, came to a crossroad. Shannon, my protagonist, had just made a big decision — the one it took lots of red ink to get to. She had no idea what happened next.

Neither did I. This was a problem.

Since I’ve got some experience in community theater, when writing fiction I tend to see myself as the stage manager. My characters move around on the stage. I write down what they do and say. Once in a while, I need to prompt one actor, or summon another who’s lollygagging backstage. Then they take over and I go back to transcribing.

Not this time. This time they were standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do.

I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was how to get my cast of characters moving in a direction that would bring it — or something like it — to pass. I was staring at a big logjam on the river. Nothing was moving.

Little heap of wood

Little heap of wood

I sat in my chair, reread my notes, scribbled some words here and there.

The logjam in my head morphed into a big pile of cut and split logs, like the ones the wood guy would dump in my yard during the years I was heating with a wood stove.

Being a writer and thus wise in the ways of procrastination, I got it. Anne Lamott nailed it in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. How do you accomplish a huge project whose boundaries you can’t see, whose completion you can’t imagine? Bird by bird. Word by word. Or, in my case, log by log.

Once I realized that I had to start somewhere, it didn’t really matter where I started. Pick a log, any log.

Turned out I’d known all along what log to start with. After the events that had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours (novel time), the next move was clearly Shannon’s. Well, now it was clearly Shannon’s move. I’d known all along that Shannon had to make a couple of phone calls, but the Internal Editor assured me that this wasn’t enough. How could a couple of phone calls break up that humongous logjam?

Travvy on a mission

Travvy on a mission

By this time it was 8:30 a.m. Time to get out of the chair and go walking with Travvy, my canine companion, on whom Wolfie is based. As I pulled on my socks and hiking shoes, donned vest and cap, and put Travvy’s walking harness on, Shannon was making her phone calls — and lo, the rest of her day lay like a path in front of me, leading toward the plotwise thicket that I knew was up ahead.

Word count: zero, but a breakthrough day nonetheless.

Counting words obviously works for some writers, at least some of the time. For me, the secret is usually to sit down for at least an hour and don’t fidget. I’m writing even if I’m not writing, as long as I’m not balancing my checkbook, answering email, playing on Facebook, or brushing the dog.

Go to the chair. Sit. Rustle papers, scribble words, focus on the work. If the path doesn’t open up today, do the same thing tomorrow.

 

20141121 woodpile 1

 

Blank Paper

I do most of my first-drafting in longhand. In pen and ink. It works for me. I’ve even blogged about it.

My fleet of fountain pens

My fleet of fountain pens

It does present certain challenges, however. The near-illegibility of my handwriting I’ve managed to turn into an asset: what the internal editor can’t read, she can’t second-guess and mess with.

Most commercially available paper, I discovered, can’t stand up to fountain pen-and-ink. Yellow pads, notebook paper, the bond paper I feed to my laser printer and my inkjet: they’re all so thin that what I wrote on one side made an impression on the other.

This might not be a deal-breaker for some people, but I’m cheap. I want to write on both sides.

I was also looking for a way to organize my handwritten pages. Browsing at a office-supply chain store, I found these cool notebooks. They were looseleaf, sort of, but instead of two or three big metal rings, they had eleven little plastic ones. You could add pages, remove pages, or move pages around.

I bought one notebook and the filler paper to go with it. Wonder of wonders, I could write in fountain pen on both sides of the paper, and the words all stayed on their own side.

I was hooked. Now I’ve got three notebooks: a blue one for Wolfie, the novel in progress; a red one for Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel on the back burner; and a brown one for everything else.

Wolfie has been eating up paper like nobody’s business. I scavenged paper from the red and the brown notebooks to put in the blue one. Then there was no more to scavenge. I was almost out of paper.

paperI hesitated. Blank paper is a challenge. Am I going to keep writing? Yeah, I thought. I am.

How much paper should I order? This was harder. Like I said, I’m cheap. I hate to spend money on stuff I don’t use. Sooner or later any blank paper left untouched on the shelf would be making faces at me and going “Nyah nyah, nyah nyah.”

I ordered five packets, 50 sheets to a packet — 500 sides of fountain-pen-friendly paper. And some section dividers to go with them.

Blank paper is faith in the future.

Ready to write

Notebooks with section dividers and sticky notes

Flashbacks Happen

A flashback is a trip back in time. The story leaves the main narrative line to tell a tale that happened before the narrative began. Flashbacks come in handy in both fiction and nonfiction, but they can be confusing to the reader. An excess of them may mean that the author couldn’t figure out more graceful ways to incorporate bits of backstory into the narrative.

This is an area where editors and guinea pigs (also known as second readers) can be helpful, but I digress: This post isn’t about flashbacks in a finished work. This is about the kind of flashback that happens when you’re in the throes of first-drafting.

The fictional Wolfie is based on the very real Travvy. He wooed at the deer, but the deer wouldn't move.

The fictional Wolfie is based on the very real Travvy. He wooed at the deer, but the deer wouldn’t move.

The other day I was cruising along in Wolfie, the novel in progress, when my mind started to wander. The scene up ahead looked boring. I didn’t want to write it. In it my protagonist, Shannon, and her sixth-grade protégée, Glory, run a temperament test on Wolfie, the Alaskan malamute they’ve rescued from getting shot. One option was to describe the test step by step. I yawned just thinking about it. I’m writing a novel, not a dog-training manual.

Much as I love to write scenes in order, I’ve learned that it’s OK to skip over or skirt the scenes that just aren’t happening. So I sent Glory home to look after her little brother, Matt, while their parents are otherwise occupied.

So the next morning my trusty Pelikan was laying down line after line of brown ink on the page. It wasn’t terribly interesting — sibling interactions that probably won’t survive the first draft — but I had this idea that Glory might try to temperament-test her brother and that sounded like fun. They were out in the driveway. Glory had set up some plastic cones. Matt was pedaling his racing car  around them. Then Matt decides he wants to play on the swing set. He leaves his pedal car in the middle of the driveway. Glory reminds him — with more than a dash of big-sister exasperation — that it has to be put away. Matt scowls —

— and Glory is thrown back a couple of hours, to Shannon’s living room, where she and Shannon are temperament-testing Wolfie.

Oh my. The brown ink flowing out of my Pelikan created A Scene. It did everything I want a scene to do: show my characters in (inter)action, move the plot forward, and turn the heat up — raise the stakes, if you will, for the characters, for future readers, and of course for me. It didn’t sound a bit like a dog-training manual.

I write my first drafts in longhand because my handwriting is barely legible and my zealous Internal Editor can’t fuss at what she can’t read. My writers’ group meets every Sunday night, and since my fellow writers can’t read my handwriting either, I’m typing this first draft into Word as I go along. I edit lightly while I type, but I don’t second-guess myself about the big stuff; I do make notes about things to consider when I launch into serious rewrite. This typescript isn’t really a second draft. I think of it as version 1.5.

In Wolfie 1.5, however, that serendipitous scene will appear in Shannon’s living room, not in Glory’s driveway. Wolfie will be there. Little brother won’t.

Why didn’t that scene show up in its chronological order? Damned if I know. Writing is full of mysteries, and like the songwriter Iris DeMent, I’m content to “let the mystery be.” (Great song, by the way. Take a break and Google it.) Some scenes don’t show up in order. They show up when they’re ready. All you have to do is keep your hand moving across the page, or your fingers on the keyboard.

 

Like Driving

As a kid I’d ride in the passenger’s seat and watch my mother’s hands on the steering wheel. They were always moving. How did she know when to move her hands? Driving, I thought, must be very difficult.

After I’d been behind the wheel myself a few times, I began to get it: You don’t move your hands on the wheel. The wheel moves your hands. Your hands respond to the road, the car, and what your eyes and other senses tell them.

True, your hands turn the wheel when you want to go left or right, but if you hold your hands still when you’re going down the road, you’ll probably start drifting to one side or the other.

In the last two months I’ve copyedited two demanding nonfiction manuscripts. One was 900 pages long, the other about 550. Yesterday morning I sent the second of the two off to its publisher.

I probably made thousands of editorial decisions for each of those books. Many were easy: insert a comma, remove a comma, correct the spelling of a misspelled word. If you stopped me in the middle of such insertions and deletions, I could explain without hesitation what I was doing and why I was doing it.

With many others, the explanation would take a moment or two. Here I changed “in a small number of instances” to “in a few instances.” Why? Because “instances” was more important than “number,” and we had no idea what that “small number” was. There I deleted “kind of” from “This kind of semi-prosperity.” My author was overly fond of “a number of,” “this kind of,” and “a sort of.” Sometimes they served a purpose. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I work, I make such decisions so quickly it feels as though the manuscript is telling me what to do. I just know. But an awful lot of experience goes into that knowing. That’s why, in retrospect, I can usually explain what I’ve done.

stetIt’s also why sometimes I’ll slam on the brakes a page or two after I’ve made one of those apparently instinctive changes, then go back and stet the author’s version. (“Stet” means “let it stand.” If a writer doesn’t agree with an editor’s change, she can stet the original.) While I’m editing along, evidently I’m also evaluating my editing. How do I do it? Damned if I know.

When I learned to drive, I was conscious of all the steps that went into making a smooth stop just a foot or two behind the car in front. Until I learned to judge distances, and to trust my judgment, I’d leave several feet between my bumper and the other car’s. It also took a while to learn to coordinate clutch and accelerator, especially on inclines. (I learned on a standard and that’s what I still drive.)

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

Of course I also learned the rules of the road, not just the written-down ones likely to be on the test but also the informal ones, like it’s usually safe to go five or so miles an hour over the speed limit and if an oncoming car flashes its headlights at you there’s a speed trap up ahead. If the vehicle ahead of you is poking along at ten mph under the speed limit, it may be looking for a crossroad, so be prepared for a sudden and unsignaled turn.

Editing works the same way. So does writing. So does every other skill I can think of. You learn the rules and conventions, they become second nature, then you start to improvise. If you leave the paved road, you don’t have to obey the traffic laws, but you better know know what your vehicle can handle and how to read the terrain. Otherwise you might wind up in a ditch, or worse.

Get Me Rewrite

Many writers hate rewriting. I love it. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Breaking trail is exhausting. (We’ve had a lot of snow this winter. My dog and I have broken a lot of trail. We’re both tired when we get home.)

Rewriting is more like pruning branches, tossing rocks out of the path, and notching trees to mark a trail. Even when it means rerouting a trail to avoid a fallen tree, I’d rather be rewriting than breaking trail.

For now I’m lumping editing and revising in with rewriting, even though they aren’t exactly the same thing. Rewriting means “messing with your first draft.” It can include anything from minor tweaks to a total overhaul.

If you hate rewriting, why should you do it? Good question. Maybe a better question is when should you do it? Not everything needs to be rewritten. Journal entries don’t. Freewriting exercises don’t. Most personal correspondence doesn’t — which is not to say that you shouldn’t reread the letter before you seal the envelope or the email before you hit Send. You should.

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan nailed one of the whys with these much-quoted and -misquoted lines:

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

When you rewrite, you focus on your intended audience. That can be your boss, your publisher, your teacher, your writers’ group, your legion of fans — whoever you want your writing to reach. My audience includes myself. Yours probably does too. (I just learned from a Richard Nordquist column that Sheridan wrote “vile,” not “curst,” but I sort of like “curst” better.)

At the moment I’m taking a break from Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress, to work on an essay about The Sleepwalker, a statue whose temporary installation at Wellesley College is causing much discussion at Wellesley and elsewhere. No one’s waiting for this essay. I have no deadline and no length limit. I’m writing it because the placement of the statue raises several issues that have fascinated me for a long time, like risk and feminism and the purpose of art.

I’m writing primarily to clarify my own thinking, though if I can inspire other people to consider these issues from different angles, that’s more than OK with me. This purpose is what guides me as I rewrite.

Here’s what the beginning of the first draft looked like:

statue ms

After 13 pages, I figured I had enough good raw material to proceed to the next draft. So I typed my handwritten pages into Word (Word 2010 on a Windows 7 laptop, for those who are wondering). The first two paragraphs look like this:

statue screenshot

The words are almost the same, but they look different, don’t they? Seeing those nice crisp letters, words, and paragraphs triggers my internal editor. At this point, I welcome her on board.

This draft is 21 pages long — considerably longer than its predecessor. At this stage the essay is still expanding. A phrase might trigger an elaboration or a detour: I go with it, not worrying about how it’s going to fit into the final version. At the same time, the internal editor is noting that a paragraph toward the end might be more effective near the beginning, and that I’ve discussed the same point in three different places — could they be consolidated?

Now I’m working on the third draft. My internal editor is having a field day. Word’s various features come in very, very handy. Internal editor is making comments for the writer to consider. She’s highlighting key phrases and sentences that will help structure the next draft. She’s also making additions and deletions, always with changes tracked. Nothing’s set in stone at this point. The writer likes how it looks.

statue screenshot 2

Longhand

By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.