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


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.