Paper Wolfie

Draft #2

Draft #2 is printed on mostly on the back of other writers’ drafts. The green pages are leftover flyers from the Spirituals Choir I sing in. Note the long comment on the right. Those are notes for draft #3.

Yesterday I printed out draft #2 of Wolfie, the novel in progress. At long last I’m ready to embark on draft #3.

I’ve been edging toward this point since early June, ever more slowly, it seems. One of Zeno’s paradoxes has been much in mind — you know, the one that says you will never reach the wall you’re walking toward because first you’ll be halfway there, then you’ll be three-quarters of the way there, then you’ll be seven-eighths of the way there, and so on.

Logic or no logic, math or no math, if you keep walking sooner or later your nose is going to collide with the wall. Work or no work, heat or no heat, I kept writing and I did get to the scene at the end of draft #2.

Which is not the scene that ends the novel. I’ve got two or three or maybe four scenes to go before I get there. I’m standing at the brink of a narrow but deep chasm. Between the tendrils of mist wafting by I can glimpse what’s happening over there but I can’t see it clearly. I need to find myself another crossing point or build myself a bridge.

That’s draft #3. Draft #3 is a daunting prospect because several threads have been growing through the cracks of draft #2 and who knows how they’ll weave together or what else will want to change in the process? Draft #2 is going to tell me all this as I reread it and the many notes I’ve jotted to myself on the journey, some on the computer file, some in my notebooks.

But draft #2 didn’t start talking till I’d printed it out.

A week or so I was reminded of how important the visible, tangible weight of a manuscript can be.  I’d written a scene (in longhand) from one perspective, then stalled. What next? I wondered. So I wrote the scene again from another perspective — an omniscient overview that I haven’t used anywhere else in the book — and what next flowed out of my pen as fluidly as — well, as fluidly as the black cherry ink I was writing in.

I typed both versions into Word, intending to weave them together but wound up staring at the screen with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. Brain freeze. The two versions glared at each other like strangers who don’t want to dance. So I printed them out, and while I read them, page by page, pen in hand (loaded with fiery red-orange ink), they began moving together: this sentence here and that paragraph there and you don’t need this little bit at all . . .

Getting eight or ten pages to dance together isn’t such a big deal. Now I’ve got 466. One of my mantras has long been “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” Draft #2, it’s up to you.

Thanks to writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon, whose recent post about cutting and pasting in her Weaver’s Knot blog helped inspire this one.

Simplify: A Key to Revision

Here’s a wonderful quote that arrived this morning from the Business in Rhyme blog:

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

— Hans Hofmann

I don’t know about you, but my early drafts sprawl. I’m currently working on a nonfiction piece that’s supposed to weigh in at 800–1,200 words. It’s currently at least 3,000 words and counting. (Since I do my first-drafting in longhand, I’ve no idea how many words there are. This is one reason I do my first-drafting in longhand.) Once I figure out what I want to say (in nonfiction) or what the real story is (in fiction), I can start cutting back.

This quote aptly describes what I’m doing when I’m line-editing my own work or someone else’s: clearing away the excess so the “necessary may speak.” I’m not much of a gardener, but I often describe this as pruning or weeding. Often the excess was necessary to help you get to where you’re going, but once you get there it’s not necessary any more and it may get in the way.

What’s “necessary”? That’s up to you, of course. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find that when you step back from a work in progress — when you come back to it after a week or two or three away — some words and phrases and whole sentences will no longer seem as necessary as they once did. A good editor or astute second reader can come in very handy here.

Writing poetry, especially poetry in traditional forms, taught me to make every word count, and to recognize words that weren’t carrying their weight. Writing prose with length limits has done likewise. But I’ve also learned that the words that get cut from the final draft were necessary to help me get there, so I’m happy to let the words sprawl across page after page until I run out of steam.

Every Damn Day

From the third week in March I’ve been swamped with work. April was already looking busy when I was offered a proofread about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I’m going to turn that down? No way. So what if the text was almost 600 pages long, with another 100 pages of notes.

No matter how you look at it, editing and proofreading are time-intensive. You’ve got to put in the hours, and you can’t add more hours to the day. If you’re anything like me, you can’t devote all your waking hours to reading as closely as a copyeditor or proofreader has to read. Nowhere close. The brain gets tired. The eyes glaze over. The body needs to get up and move.

As March gave way to April, I wasn’t sure I could meet all these deadlines, some of which were firm, others of which were flexible, none of which were “whenever.” So I decided to give over my writing time to editing.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

I’m a morning person. I write best in the morning, usually from 7 or 7:30 to 9 or 9:30. Then Travvy, my malamute roommate, and I go for an hour-long walk. I do a fair amount of writing-related mulling on these walks. Ideas, insights, and solutions to plot snags pop into my head the way they usually don’t when I’m sitting at the keyboard.

So Monday morning I gave over my writing time to proofreading. After Travvy and I got back from our walk, I checked email, played a little on Facebook, then got back to work. I did the same on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday. While out walking with Trav, I noticed that when it wasn’t just enjoying the sunshine or whining about the rain, my mind was occupied with one or another of my various editing projects. A plot snag was approaching in Wolfie, the novel in progress, but my mind was not interested in mulling about that.

By Wednesday afternoon I knew I was in trouble. The plot snag was looming larger and larger, so large and so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine the short transition scene that leads into the one where the snag had to be resolved. I couldn’t even imagine imagining that short transition scene.

In short order I regressed from I can’t figure this out to I’ll never figure this out to I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew here and who needs this stupid novel anyway?

This was drowning out the little voice in my head repeating two of my main mantras: “The way out is through” and “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

What I was having, in other words, was yet another crisis of faith.

By Thursday it had gotten so bad that I was sure I’d have nothing to take to writers’ group on Sunday. This reminded me that what I’d taken to writers’ group last Sunday was really good. It was also the culmination of an extended sequence that had taken several weeks to finish and worn me out in the process.

Aha, I thought. Maybe the well is just temporarily dry.

Right. It does happen, but you don’t know if the well’s been replenished unless you drop your bucket into it. For me this means picking up a pen and moving my hand across sheets of paper, but I wasn’t doing this because I was editing or proofreading during my best writing time.

So this morning I took pen in hand, fully ready to start with “I can’t write this scene because . . . ,” but instead there was my protagonist, sitting on her front step in the twilight, accompanied by her two dogs, thinking about the momentous conversation she’d just had with her estranged sister.

Writing every damn day really is the answer. My faith wobbles if I don’t.

This is what came out of the pen this morning, and two and a half more just like it.

ms page 3

In Marilyn’s Kitchen

Word came last Friday that an old friend had passed. Years ago Marilyn had left Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, to return to her native Canada. She was a phone person; I’m not. I’m an email person; she wasn’t. Communication between us was sporadic, but we did manage to touch base at least once a year.

Marilyn was a retired teacher, and if anyone ever had a richer, more adventurous retirement I can hardly imagine it. She was a master of the fiber arts, spinning and weaving. She loathed Canadian winters and would usually spend the winter months in a warmer place, often in Central or South America, or in Goa, on the west coast of India. She’d come back with fabric ideas and stories about the people she met.

Marilyn was multi-talented. Along with spinning and weaving, she wrote wonderfully, sang in the same chorus I did, and made the world’s best chocolate chip cookies. She also had a genius for bringing together people who wouldn’t have connected otherwise. I was lucky enough to be one of them. She roped me into a group of women who gathered, usually in Marilyn’s kitchen but occasionally elsewhere, to write and share our writing.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn's weaving, ca. February 1995. That's me standing by.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn’s weaving, ca. February 1995. That’s me standing by.

A fire might be burning in the fireplace. Coffee was ready on the counter, a plate of chocolate cookies on the table, and not infrequently we’d have a nip of Black Bush on the side. My half-malamute dog Rhodry sometimes came along. Once when he was a puppy I forgot to keep an eye on him while we were writing. A thump from the living room brought us all out of our seats: little Rhodry had managed to get himself tangled up in one of Marilyn’s looms. I almost panicked, but Marilyn didn’t: she methodically disentangled the puppy from the precious weaving. Nothing was damaged. Then she insisted on recreating the scene so we could get a picture.

I’m an editor by trade and a writer by avocation, but I was hooked on computers by then. I typed on a keyboard and my words appeared on a screen. In Marilyn’s kitchen we wrote in longhand, in pen or pencil on yellow pads of paper. One of us would choose a word or a key phrase, set the timer for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, and say “Go.” And we’d write write write till the timer went off.

Then we’d read what we’d written aloud to each other. No one had to read what she’d written, but we nearly always did. And what we wrote was amazing, sometimes startling, often beautiful or wry or laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes all of it at once.

No one was more amazed than I. I’d fallen into the common writerly trap of thinking that writing was synonymous with suffering and angst, and especially that it was inevitably solitary. In Marilyn’s kitchen I learned otherwise. I learned that if I let myself go, I could cover two pages with words in 15 minutes or less, and that there would always be images and insights and whole anecdotes that I could then build on.

While working on my first novel somewhat later, I discovered that the surefire cure for writer’s block was to take pen and paper in hand and leave the computer behind. Later still, with first novel mostly done and me sinking into the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression, I did Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook from beginning to end. Morning pages reminded me of the power of writing in longhand, and I’ve been doing most of my first-drafting that way ever since.

But the revelation first came in Marilyn’s kitchen, and another one too: that writing doesn’t always have to be a solitary struggle. Writing together can be exhilarating, and a reminder of what richness can pour from the pens of those who don’t consider themselves writers.

Enough Notebooks

My regular writing time is from 7 to 9 a.m. I’m one of those insufferable people who’s wide awake and functional as soon as my eyes are fully open, and I don’t need coffee to do it. (I drink strong black tea with milk, no sugar, but only when I’m awake.) This morning I was a little late getting started because I’m reading an excellent book: Dorothy West’s The Wedding. I knocked off 20 minutes early because my longhand drafts and notes for Wolfie, the novel in progress, no longer fit in their notebook, and my other two notebooks are otherwise occupied.

Clearly a visit to the Staples website was in order.

Now the strict constructionists among you will not allow that the purchase of writing-related supplies constitutes “writing” for the purpose of “writing time,” and you may be right. However, being a writer, I can rationalize anything, and the pages spilling out of my notebook were messing up my head.

Dear readers, I ordered.

The Staples website is not as sensibly organized as it might be, so it took more than 20 minutes to find everything, even though I knew what I was looking for.

Some of the current pen collection

Some of the current pen collection

I do nearly all my first-drafting and most of my note-taking in longhand. On paper. Cut, Copy, and Paste don’t work on paper, but I still need to move things around, insert new pages between old ones, and (ideally) find some dimly remembered bit when it needs to be found. In my world folders do best in file cabinets, not lying around on desks and tables. I wanted notebooks. Three-ring binders might have worked, but I write with fountain pens and real ink-bottle ink and most punched or punchable paper can’t handle it.

Well, it can, but the ink often comes through to the other side, which means I can’t write on both sides of the paper. I am frugal, I am cheap. This wouldn’t do.

So a few years ago I spotted an ingenious notebook system in the Levenger catalogue. The Levenger catalogue is high-class porn for writer types, but it’s on the pricey side. Being frugal and cheap, I wasn’t willing to shell out for a system I didn’t know would work for me.

Open notebook with pocket divider

Open notebook with pocket divider. No, I could not live without Post-it notes.

Then I  encountered something very similar at Staples, the Home Depot of office supplies. The price was reasonable enough to take a chance on. I splurged. The system, which Staples calls “ARC,” quickly became indispensable.

At left you can see what the notebooks look like. The binding comprises 11 plastic rings. The rings don’t open; the paper is punched with 11 holes, each one open so it can fit over the ring. Pages can be moved, singly or in chunks, from one place to another.

A custom 11-hole punch is available, so you can punch holes in any paper you like, but the paper that comes with the system is, wonder of wonders, sturdy enough for my fountain pens to write on both sides. And sturdy enough to be moved here and there several times.

So this morning I ordered three more notebooks — one with a leather cover (like the brown one in the photo) and two with polyvinyl (like the rose one) — and more dividers, some with pockets, some without.

Blank paper,” I wrote last fall, “is faith in the future.” Enough notebooks, perhaps, is faith that what’s been written will be worth retrieving. Either way, I can’t wait for my order to get here.

 

Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

On to Draft 2!

This past weekend I took a very deep breath and started draft 2 of Wolfie, my novel in progress.

The time had come.

I like to take a break between drafts. The longer the work, the longer the break, which means that with a novel or a long essay it can be a few weeks. This time I didn’t exactly take the break: the break took me. In late January I suspended work on the novel to focus my attention on a long, challenging editing job with an impending deadline. That deadline met, I turned to a review assignment whose deadine was also impending. I’d read the book and been thinking about it for weeks, but now I had to write the review. (For some thoughts about reviewing see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy.”)

Wolfie was never far from my mind. To push on with the first draft or to start the second? That was the question.

Draft 1 wasn’t complete. The Word file stood at 227 pages, almost 55,000 words, with a dozen or so handwritten pages yet to be transcribed. I had a pretty good idea of where things were headed. I probably could have forged on through climax to conclusion and then started the second draft . . .

The trouble was, a couple of significant plot threads have only come clear during the writing. One is hinted at in draft 1 but only sketchily developed. The other comes as a backstory dump in the handwritten pages I haven’t transcribed yet. It needs to start much earlier and be woven into the story.

Over the last year I’ve been taking Wolfie installments to my Sunday night writers’ group. This is a first for me. Usually I don’t let anything out in public until it’s in second or third draft — when I’ve gone as far as I can on my own and need some outside eyes. With Wolfie, though, the weekly deadline and my group’s encouragement have kept me going.

So — should I push on and bring the final chapters one by one to the group, explaining that the backstory to this or that wasn’t set up yet and they’d have to wait for the second draft to understand what was going on? I didn’t like that idea at all. I want the writing to stand on its own.

Maybe more important, I don’t really know how those last chapters are going to unfold. It’s going to depend in part on what my characters do and say in the parts I haven’t written yet, and I won’t know that until I’ve written them.

So I opened draft1.doc and saved it as draft2.doc.

old chap 1

Then I deleted Chapter One. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. The tall man is still in the story, but he doesn’t live in that house anymore. He’s no longer a viewpoint character either.

So far, so good. For me revision is usually about 80 percent cutting and rearranging what’s already there. Chapter Two from draft 1 is now Chapter One in draft 2.

new chap 1

My recollection was that this chapter didn’t need much work. It does a pretty good job of introducing one of the two viewpoint characters: Glory, a sixth-grade girl. What I’d forgotten was that somewhere along the way I’d shifted Glory’s sections from past tense to present, but her introduction is still in past tense.

And I’m still not 100 percent sure that present tense is the way to go. Rather than rewrite it now, I made a note in the margin. The muses haven’t given me a clear answer on that one yet.

For the new Chapter Two, I’ve gone back to writing in longhand. The story itself isn’t going to change much, but I need a new way into it — a way that hints at some of the things I didn’t know when I wrote it the first time. What this means is that with Wolfie second-drafting is going to look more like first-drafting than it usually does. It’s going to involve plenty of exploring, digging, and otherwise adding new stuff — writing, in other words.

Travvy

Travvy, on whom Wolfie’s title character is based, takes a break from digging in the snow.

For me, editing is relatively easy. The writing tells me what has to be done, and I do it.

Writing is more like breaking trail through two feet of snow. My dog and I have done a lot of that lately. It’s exhausting, and it takes longer to get anywhere than it does when we’re walking on good old dirt.

But second-drafting already seems less daunting than starting from scratch. This time around my characters are helping — some of them more than others, of course — and so is the story. If I listen carefully, I can hear what’s not being said. I can visualize the scenes that need to be there that aren’t there yet.

My writing will teach me what I need to know if only I keep writing.

My New Pens

So earlier this month one of my most favorite fountain pens died. I think I killed it: twisted the piston fill too hard. It jammed. When I tried to unjam it, something broke.

pens & blotter All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, and I couldn’t fix my pen either.

Hope didn’t spring eternal, but it did froth and bubble for a while. I Googled “Pelikan pen repair” — the broken pen was a Pelikan 200 — and corresponded with an authorized Pelikan pen repair outfit.

My injured pen, it seemed, could not be easily or cheaply fixed.

I faced the music, or bit the bullet, and consigned my dear trusty amber Pelikan 200 demonstrator model to the wastebasket.

Sniff.

Now, as I’ve written several times before, I have more fountain pens than any girl — even one who does all her first-drafting in longhand — needs. This was still true. I had eight pens filled with various colors of ink and ready to go. I only have two hands, and of the two only one can write legibly. The goddess Durga might make use of eight pens simultaneously, but not me.

But late one night, when desire was strong and inhibition weak, I wandered toward eBay, whence most of my pens have come. A “Christmas model” Pelikan 200 was up for bids, the price was reasonable, and the auction closed within the hour. “Christmas model” did not mean garish. The cap was translucent red, the body translucent green, but you have to hold them up to the light to see the color clearly.

I have given myself away. The eBay screen did not tell me this. I learned it later.

To make a long story short, I bid, and bid again, and bid yet again. The closing price wasn’t quite as reasonable as it had been when I logged on, but it was still pretty good. The pen was mine. (It’s the top one in the photo. See what I mean? It’s not garish at all. It’s currently filled with green ink.)

Well, there’s something about eBay that’s just a little bit compelling. Once upon a time a friend gave me a scratch ticket as a birthday present. I got totally hooked. I lost less than ten bucks before I realized I was in over my head and got out of the pool. I checked out other Pelikan 200 auctions that were closing in the next day or so. I put a couple of them on my watch list.

An email reminded me the next day that one of the auctions had only an hour to go. A-OK. I was working away on my laptop. I opened my browser, went to eBay, and found the auction.

Another long story short: I snagged it, at an even better price. It’s the bottom one in the photo. It’s filled with the plum-colored ink that you can see on the blotter. I’d never used this particular plum-colored ink before. It seems to have been waiting for this particular pen.

Now, of course, I’m haunting the Fahrney’s website for new ink colors.

And so it goes.

Frugal is good. I’m frugal to a fault. But self-denial gets old if you’ve living on a shoestring, and it has its way of bursting into extravagance when least expected. Deny yourself ice cream and pretty soon you’ll be able to think of nothing else.

My theory is that the occasional self-indulgence makes living on a shoestring not only bearable but fun. Every once in a while it’s OK to act as if price is no object, even if it is.

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage

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