Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tools of the Trade - pen, paper and places to write in

It's easy to get obsessed with the right tools for the job, a new computer, a new laptop, a new bit of software  and as you can see from my book trailer - I'm easily distracted by new software, the shiny baubles of the computer bound. Of course, all those toys provide wonderful reasons excuses to procrastinate.

In all honesty though, the most important tool for my trade is a notebook - a paper one - and a pen.

I don't go in for the expensive, fancy notebooks. They intimidate me, they're a bit too nice. I keep thinking that at this price, I better make every word count. That's not how I write. And that's why I go for supermarket cheap and fat, so that I can write a lot. I can write my way into a character, or into a scene. I can write stuff that sometimes won't survive beyond the notebook but had to be written because I had to know it, even if the reader maybe doesn't.

Now, I know I'm going to fill up quite a few of these little devils before I'm through and I don't want to be worrying about the expense. So they have to be fat enough that I can write freely, even if a fair bit of what goes in there never makes it into the final draft. And if really random stuff pops up, I turn them upside down and start writing notes and ideas at the other end.

My notebooks go everywhere with me, so they get beaten up and battered about. A notebook has to be small. It has to be tough and tiny enough to be able to travel with me, knocking about in the bottom of the bag, a pen tucked into the spiral binding, close at hand in case a line of dialogue appears that I realise is the way into a scene, or a plot twist or complication should suddenly clunk into place.

Cheap and cheerful for notebooks and the same goes with pens. I like the glidey ones that can race across the paper. When I can move the pen fast I feel like I have a better chance of keeping up with the writing going on inside the head. (Though I do often spend many frowning moments later trying to decipher my scrawl). I buy pens in bulk when the supermarket has them on special, no loyalty to any one brand, and then I try to make sure that I have them rattling around in all of the various bags I might leave the house with. I lose them regularly, so again, no fancy expensive pen for me.

I bought a half a dozen hard-backed notebooks a few years back but soon discovered that they're too heavy for carting about day to day. They have become the designated notebook that I use to record characters breakdowns and plot points for the novel; notes on events of the time period I'm working with; or bits of research I've done - all tabbed into different sections, with enough pages left either side to grow and add to them. I transfer these reference type bits and pieces that have occurred to me when I'm out and about from the travelling notebooks into this bible.

Once I've got a fair bit in the notebooks, I'll sit down and start to write on the computer. There's something very satisfying about dipping into these handwritten notes and then watching them grow, change and take on another life as they are transcribed into the binary world. It becomes a second draft right there and then. 

I've noticed that when I write directly onto the "screen" I'm much slower. I stop and tinker en route, fussing over word choice, fussing over sentence structure, all important of course but they do tend to stymie the flow. When I write on paper the story dominates, not the editing, the characters talk and think and feel and I tend to get out of their way. 

Then, sitting at the computer, notebook propped up on the messy desk, it is here, at the transcription stage, that the editor comes out and fiddles with the work, the first of a long series of sweeps over the material, brushing, polishing, snipping and embroidering. 

But, you want to know the very best thing about writing in a notebook with a pen?

Well, your office can be here:

A pen and your notebook and you can swim laps, plot and plan, then take up a position in the shade and watch the harbour go by in between filling up the pages.

Or you can remind yourself how good the Bún bò Huế at Dong Ba is, spattering your notebook with spots of red broth as you soak up atmosphere along with the noodles.

And of course you can always just go and walk, sit quietly, 

..... no phones, no email, no distractions of the household 

... and lose yourself in story.


  1. That is exactly how I write, too, although the pages of my notebook can be ripped out to be filed into categories later. I don't even touch a computer until the first draft is 100% complete.

    1. It's a great feeling to have a wad of words in the notebook, isn't it! Like a bank that you can make withdrawals from when it's time to go electronic.

      Now that I've discovered and fallen in love with Scrivener I find I can add things to a project from the notebook without succumbing to that sense of being overwhelmed by an endless length of blank word document.