If it’s art you can break all the rules and still succeed, just as you can keep all the rules and still fail.
If it’s art you can break all the rules and still succeed, just as you can keep all the rules and still fail.
On the right we have a manuscript. That’s a novel I finished about a month ago, a thoroughly written, re-written, and revised piece of work, about 80,000 words in length. I’m not saying it was easy work. Far from it. Writing is hard and revision is tougher, since it amounts to making the story better with fewer words. But the stack of pages on the left proved quite a bit harder. That’s the proposal.
A lot of people who are essential to the success of a novel only know the story through the proposal. A good proposal summarizes the novel and makes a case for why it ought to see print. There may be fewer pages but, until the book is on the shelves, the stack on the left is much weightier than the one on the right.
Remember, the book is 80,000 words long only after I ruthlessly cut everything that wasn’t essential. Now the proposal comes along and says, “Great, now tell the story again in just a hundred words.” As a matter of fact, my initial description, calculated to hook editors and readers alike, runs just 71 words. The longer summary, a more detailed condensation, is just 989. Cutting 80,000 words down to less than a thousand, or less than a hundred, isn’t really the challenge. The challenge is cutting them down to the right words.
Every book I’ve written after my first was contracted in advance. In other words, by the time I finished the manuscript, an editor was ready and waiting. The publication dates were already set. Over the years I came to dread the thought of writing another proposal, and was grateful not to have to. Despite the difficulty, though, I’ve enjoyed this process more than I imagined. It’s a testament, I suppose, to how much I love this story. I can’t share it with you here, not yet. But I look forward to the day …
I wore red corduroy pants to a conference several years ago. Of the thousands in attendance, I was the only one to get a name-check from on stage for sartorial reasons. Lesson? Red stands out. Last summer after visiting Filson headquarters in Seattle, I became obsessed with their classic American-made briefcases — but instead of choosing tan or olive drab like a sensible person, yours truly tracked down a limited edition in bright red. Sure, I have nicer briefcases. This one is very practical, though, and impossible to misplace. It gets more comments than any others, too (not always a good thing).
As a writer my tools are a mix of analog and digital. I like to keep them organized and always at hand. During some downtime during the revision of my latest novel, I hunted down the Delfonics organizer seen above. Which color to choose? Red, naturally. In addition to providing some protection for my tiny MacBook Air, the Delfonics recommended itself due to the pair of A4 pockets up front. One of them carries my constant companion, the Seven Seas Notebook from Nanami Paper (now residing in a skirting leather cover by Gfeller), and the other holds my Hobonichi Techo planner (also in a tan leather cover). The appeal of the organizer is being able to transfer the essentials from one bag to another. Sometimes bright red isn’t the order of the day.
In the middle of such a transfer, I snapped the ubiquitous “what’s in your bag” photo above. The biggest surprise was how color-coordinated everything looks, a study in tan leather and red canvas, with bits of green thrown in. Scary when you think about it (which clearly I do).
How can a novelist spend so many hours alone? Stephen Pressfield answers the question in The War of Art:
Not only do I not feel alone with my characters, they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life. If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise. In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us. That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it. As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity. These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us. They are us. Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves. It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us. They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends. Even the villains. Especially the villains.
In my case, because the real people in my life are so interesting, there’s probably some narcissism keeping me at my desk as well.
For awhile there I was blowing and going, updating the blog with something close to regularity. And then last October that changed and suddenly … crickets. That’s what happens with a novelist’s blog. Don’t take the silence the wrong way; it’s actually a positive sign. I dropped off the radar for the best of reasons: I was deep in a new writing project.
As of this week, the manuscript is finished, all 80,000 words (about 260 pages) of it. No, this isn’t the fourth Roland March novel. It’s something new. The few people who’ve read it say this is the best book I’ve ever written. That makes me happy.
I’ll share more about the new project soon. For now, it’s good to be back.
That feeling when you need to write something down and you don’t have a pen? I hate that. Problem is, I forget to take a pen with me all the time. The best solution is to have a pen so small and unobtrusive that carrying it around becomes second nature. After experimenting with several options, I decided on this Kaweco AL Sport. Lightweight and rugged, the AL Sport comes in a raw aluminum finish that scratches and scars easily — voila, instant patina. My only gripe was the nib, which I replaced with a flex nib from India.
When I have my briefcase with me, I always carry a few pens in a traditional leather pen case. My favorite is a green leather case from the Italian firm Pierotucci. While I’m always switching out which pens I carry, the Pilot Custom 823 is almost always in the mix. It’s my favorite everyday pen, because it holds plenty of ink, writes a clean, fine line, and has a somewhat springy nib.
Another favorite is the Edison Huron in green ebonite. The nib can be easily traded out for any #6 size Jowo nib. Right now I’m using a nice wet 1.1 mm stub, and the pen is filled with a new ink, Diamine Salamander.
The Edison, Kaweco and Pilot taken together represent the three main nib options available to fountain pen users: stub (a calligraphy-style italic line, narrower side-to-side than it is up-and-down), flex (variable line width depending on pressure), and round (in this case, a Japanese Fine which is the equivalent of a Western EF). When I’m writing cursive I prefer stubs … unless the Pilot is handy. Flexible nibs interest me, but because I don’t really know how to use them properly — the variable pressure thing is tricky — I don’t use them as much as I think I will.
Realistically, I don’t always have my briefcase handy and sometimes even the Kaweco feels too large, especially if my pockets are already filled with keys, wallet, pocket knife, etc., which is why this last ditch pen comes in handy:
Every Swiss Army Knife that comes with Plus scales includes a pressurized pen, and while they’re not exactly comfortable to write with, they’ll do in a pinch. I have several SAKs, but the pictured Compact is the easiest of the full-size ones to carry.
If there’s one thing worse than the feeling of needing a pen and not having one, it’s needing one, having plenty of small pens to carry, and still not having one — something that still happens to me all too often. “Can you sign this book?” someone asks, and I have to say, “Sure — can I borrow a pen?” But at least you know that I have good intentions.
Smythson sells something they call a manuscript book, an 8″ x 10″ leather-bound book presumably intended for writing manuscripts. When I write manuscripts by hand, I tend to use loose-leaf paper. Even so, I love the idea of using one of these bound manuscript books. Smythson prices are an obstacle, but so is the 8″ x 10″ size. I’d want something a little larger, which is why I was thrilled to discover this Leuchtturm Master Notebook in red.
The A4 size matches my loose-leaf Tomoe River paper, which means I can interleave those pages into this book without overlap. Like all Leuctturm notebooks, the Master has pre-numbered pages, and index, and other nifty archival features. The 100 gsm paper is of their fountain pen friendly variety (which I’ve mentioned before) — an earlier black Master notebook I tried wasn’t, and feathered a bit. They offer a slim version of the Master which would be ideal for my purposes, but I haven’t come across any in the wild. Finding the red cover was a fluke. After hunting online and coming up empty, I walked into my local emporium — Zandbroz Variety — and lo and behold, they had them. (They also stock vintage and modern fountain pens, inks, and a great curated selection of books. The place is well worth visiting if you’re ever in the vicinity.)
A big, bound A4 notebook tips the scales in terms of portability. It fits in the side pocket of my Filson briefcase … but just barely. Naturally, when open, it takes up plenty of space on the table, too. This is not a discreet means of writing by hand. I’m saving it for a new project, so I can’t tell yet whether the daydream will translate into reality.
Since I’ve described writing by hand and offered a primer on paper recently, I thought some context might be in order. How do pen and paper fit into the larger process of drafting a manuscript start to finish? Although I’m best known as a crime writer, every October I turn my hand to writing horror, inspired by the example of M. R. James’ spooky Christmas (!) tales. The latest one is “Slit Trench,” the story of a couple who buy a disused vineyard in hopes of bringing it back. The finished product is a typed, 20-page manuscript, but the story was begun by hand.
Years ago, some friends relocated to a rural setting, purchasing a house that had some peculiar quirks thanks to an eccentric (and frankly scary) former owner. After staying there, I always thought it would make a great setting for a horror story. Suppose the crazy former owner came back? That was the original germ for “Slit Trench.” The subject appealed to me because its the story of people going after a dream only to find there’s an underlying insecurity. Perhaps they would have been better off not dreaming at all.
Sometimes you know what to do with a story right away, sometimes it takes time. This one emerged a few weeks ago after a long dormancy. I walked past my upright desk, saw my blank pad, and started writing the words you see in the photograph. I had just refilled my pen earlier that day and was curious what the color would look like on paper. One thing led to another. By the time I finished the first page, I realized what was happening: the premise I’d been kicking around forever was becoming a story — and not a crime story, as I’d suspected, but a somewhat surreal work of horror.
I wrote six pages in total. Several days passed, then I decided to type the pages up, revising as I went. This is the benefit of working on paper: you can’t turn a handwritten manuscript in, so you’re forced to revise and redraft. That’s where the magic often happens. I managed to type about three and a half pages before the bug took over. When I was done, I had about fifteen typed pages, and an outline for the ending.
Then I realized over the weekend that I’d gotten it all wrong. The setting had to change, and so did the point-of-view. I’d been writing through one character’s eyes, and needed two. So I re-wrote again. This time I ended up with twenty-two pages and I was very pleased with the result.
Done? Not yet. I’m a big believer in the sound of writing, so I like to read my pages aloud and revise for the ear. I did this several times, changing and tightening the language. “Slit Trench” wasn’t finished until I’d read it through without wanting to change anything.
When I compare the finished manuscript to the first handwritten pages, the differences are significant. But I was surprised to see how much of the wording, how many turns of phrase ended up making the cut. The value of revision isn’t just that you catch your mistakes. Going through the manuscript over and over teaches you the essential story, shows you what can be cut and what must stay, and reveals the hidden depths. If you can’t bear re-reading the story over and over, it’s not good enough. If you fall in love with the words, then you know you’re done.
If you decide to write by hand, one of the pleasures of the process is using a fountain pen. Fountain pens write a more interesting line than your standard ballpoint or gel pen (practical as those are), and give you a much wider range of ink choices. You don’t have to press hard on the paper to leave an impression. Once you get the hang of the light touch, this can help reduce fatigue. The problem is, most paper for journaling and note taking isn’t fountain pen friendly. My beloved Moleskines and my fountain pens never get along. The wet ink feathers on the page, and bleeds through to the other side.
I’ve shown off one fountain pen friendly paper option already — Tomoe River – and now I’d like to share some more. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers most of the paper I use on a regular basis.
Starting at the high end, my favorite bound journals come from Smythson and R. L. Allan. The pricey Smythson journals include the legendary pale blue featherweight paper, while Allan paper is white and features very tight ruling (i.e., not a lot of space between lines). Both papers handle fountain pen ink well. Because the leather bindings are so nice, you might feel reluctant to write in the books. Overcome this feeling. Your thoughts are worth recording, and are certainly more valuable than a blank page however nice it may be. (NB: I’ve written more about the Allan Journal and the technology that is paper on Bible Design Blog.)
I use bound books for capturing and developing story ideas, and loose-leaf pages for drafting manuscripts. The nice thing about bound books is that your notes stay together in one place and are available to flip through later. As a writer, I’ve found keeping bound creative journals invaluable.
Two of the major brands of paper for fountain pen users are Clairefontaine and Rhodia. The Clairefontaine Triomphe pad works similarly to the Tomoe River pad I’ve written about already. A ruled page nests underneath the blank page so that you’re handwritten lines look neat and tidy. This paper is intended for correspondence, but I like using it for manuscripts, too. Wire-bound Rhodia pads come in various sizes and have become a staple for me as well. The paper is smooth and shiny, a pleasure to write on, and the pads are inexpensive enough that I never feel bad using and abusing them.
Rhodia also makes Moleskine-style hardbound notebooks that work well with fountain pens. The one in the photograph was purchased at Penchetta in Scotsdale, Arizona, and it came with a leather sleeve by Byron Design. I’m not a fan of the bright orange cover, so I like being able to hide it away in the sleeve. Fortunately, Rhodia now makes different colored covers, and I intend to avail myself of the option once this book is done.
While notebooks like this probably don’t need leather sleeves for protection, I’ve been a sucker for such things ever since I bought a Gfeller leather cover for my Moleskine journals. The leather adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. In some cases, it does serve a practical purpose: if you like to slip a thin staple-bound notebook into your pocket, a leather cover protects the binding without adding too much bulk.
This Field Notes journal, from the limited Traveling Salesman edition, now resides in a leather cover from Davis Leatherworks. It’s a simple cover made of Horween’s olive chromexcel leather. I have some boots made of this stuff, and like them so much I couldn’t pass up the chance to have a matching notebook cover. Unfortunately the standard Field Notes notebooks in craft paper aren’t very compatible with fountain pens. Even the nice paper used in their limited editions doesn’t always play well with wet ink. This particular one does, though, and I really like the light green paper with its ledger ruling.
My favorite inexpensive bound books are from the Japanese brand Apica. The styling harkens back to the old-fashioned schoolroom, and you can find them in a variety of sizes. Also nice: the Clairefontaine 1951 notebook, recently released to celebrate the company’s anniversary. I snapped up a few of these when they came out because, while I like Clairefontaine paper, I’m not usually a fan of the cover styling. These I liked, so I stocked up.
If you’re a Moleskine devotee looking to find a fountain pen-friendly alternative, my suggestion would be Leuchtturm. This German company makes a colorful variety of hardcover and softcover journals in the Moleskine genre, only the paper is good for fountain pens (look for the icon on the package confirming the paper is FP-friendly, since some of the older ones aren’t).
Needless to say, there are plenty of paper options to explore and obsess over. At the end of the day, pen and paper are simply a means to an end, but when you spend as much time as I do with the tools, you can’t help wanting them to function well. Finding the right combination saves you from having to pay attention to the tools as you work. They disappear, getting out of the way so you can focus on what you’re writing.
Writing manuscripts by hand has several practical advantages — no need to carry a laptop around, no risk of batteries going dead — but the one I’m most fond of is this: writing by hand forces a built-in revision stage, since I never manage to type up my pages without improving and tightening the prose. While I have no plans to ditch my computer, I find myself resorting to longhand more and more during early drafts. I have always taken notes by hand (the tech-assisted alternatives still seem too clunky to me) but I haven’t written out drafts like this in years.
To make the process practical for me required finding the right pen and the right paper. Sure, you can use anything that’s near to hand. For long sessions, though, it helps to find the tools that work best for you. The pen is a Pilot Custom 823 with a Fine nib. Japanese fine nibs are finer than European ones, and for my taste the finer the better. The advantage of writing with a fountain pen is that you don’t have to press down on the paper, which speeds up fatigue. You also get to choose from a myriad of ink colors. I’ve settled on Sailor Epinard, a nice dark green. The 823 holds a vast quantity of ink, which is nice when you’re writing a lot.
The paper I’m using is Japanese, too. It’s called Tomoe River, and among fountain pen users it is all the rage because of the way it handles ink. I like it because the paper is quite thin, almost like tracing paper, allowing me to place a ruled guide underneath. When you’re working, you have lines to keep your handwriting straight, but once the page is finished, the lines disappear.
I created the guide myself using Adobe InDesign, which allowed me to leave a lot of space between each line — manuscripts are traditionally double-spaced — and to create a wide margin on the left. This makes my pages easy to annotate. Notes go in the margin and edits fit between the lines.
I carry the A4 Tomoe River pad inside a translucent pad holder which secures with an elastic strap, Moleskine-style. Manuscript pages can be tucked into the flap pocket facing the pad or carried in a separate translucent folder. This keeps everything together, nice and tidy, ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice. The Tomoe River pad, pad holder, and much more besides are available at Nanami Paper. If you prefer to write in bound books, journal-style, some nice Tomoe River journals are available at Paper for Fountain Pens.
If you’re going to write by hand, it helps to choose the right paper. In addition to Tomoe River, I have a number of suggestions, which you’ll find here: “Choosing the Right Paper.”