You need a place whose purpose is reflection

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Sometimes you have to step back before you can see. Social media’s moment-to-moment timeline of distraction and outrage stimulates and perhaps even informs. But information is a far cry from knowledge. Staying on top of late-breaking cultural developments, weighing in on the issues and non-issues of the hour, while it may be a use of time, isn’t an especially useful use. I’m not a doom-and-gloom prognosticator, and this is no jeremiad. Access to information is good and online interactions are real interactions — problematic, sure, but no more so than any other kind. For perspective, though, and to do creative work that is more than timely, I have to step back. I leave the laptop for the library.

The library is small and of my own making. This is where I go to be alone and to think. The books make no demands. They don’t start playing if I happen to glance at them the way videos on Facebook do. They are here to be read, and they make worthy companions, too, happy to pass the time in silence. Old friends content in my company, they never act out for attention.

You need a place whose purpose is reflection, where time means little and nothing is vital that wasn’t vital a hundred years ago or even a thousand. Then you can step back. Then you can see. When you leave you will not have wasted a single second, and the perspective you gain makes things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before. You need a place like this. If you don’t have one, create it.

 

Writing a novel is easier than writing about a novel. Here’s the reason …

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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 …

Everyday Carry: It’s easy to get obsessed with the tools

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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).

I’m not alone

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.

When a writer goes off the grid

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.

You Can Take (Pens) With You

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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.

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When closed, the Kaweco AL Sport is small enough for the pocket.

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The raw aluminum finish spells patina. Sadly, the AL Sport runs on cartridges unless you can find a converter small enough. As you can see in the photo, the Indian flex nib doesn’t quite fit the Kaweco feed. Still, it writes reasonably well.

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.

EdisonPilotPierrotucciThe 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.

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Stub (left), Flex (center), and Round (right)

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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Manuscript Book

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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.

RedLeuchtturm3The 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.

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From Draft to Done: Development of a Manuscript

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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.

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On the left, my original handwritten manuscript. On the right, the completed story, considerably revised. Some of the original made it into the final copy, though you won’t see much overlap here.

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.