Monday, January 9, 2012

Handmade stories

Once, I wrote all my stories by hand.

It was a matter of necessity; for some reason, I couldn’t think straight while staring at a computer screen, and couldn’t compose at a keyboard. I had to work out my stories with a pen, on paper, before I did anything else. I needed the smell of paper and ink, the scratch of a point along pale blue lines, the nervous fingering of pages if I was going to write anything of value. (All of my old notebooks have slightly dingy edges where I’ve riffled the pages over and over in order to think.)

I made three different attempts to learn touch-typing before I began using my notebooks for practice. Keying in my handwritten words, something finally clicked, and now I can type far faster than I can hand-write.

And now it’s the other way around. I have to compose at a keyboard because I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the sentences flying through my brain; typing is as close as I can come to thinking speed, because I don’t have to form the letters. Perhaps someday I’ll have to use dictation software and write at a speaking pace, although at the moment I can’t seem to compose out loud, and anyway I don’t live in a place that takes kindly to hearing me talk for hours on end.

But when I’m busy, or stressed, or unable to carve out that lovely hour or two to hammer out a chapter, I go back to the old methods. I carry around a notebook and a pen, and jot down sentences and paragraphs as they occur to me. Quite a lot of The Novel is getting written this way, just because it’s being sandwiched between other things … and also because it just seems to suit The Novel better. There’s something handmade about the story, and not just because a key plot point involves the hand-copying of contraband books.

I realized this recently when I noticed I had nearly filled up the spiral journal in which I’ve been keeping my notes on The Novel … and remembered that I had seen a duplicate of that journal on the clearance rack at Barnes and Noble months ago, and impulsively bought it as a backup. I dug it out of a box with surprising speed; I knew exactly where it was, as if it had been waiting for me. Normally it only takes me one notebook to make a novel, but this one’s taking two, because so much of it is turning out to be handwritten. And some nervous little part of my brain realized last summer that I was running out of pages, and that I would desperately need more. I’m not usually that prescient; this story has really moved in and colonized my brain.

There’s something different about this story—something tactile about it. I’m used to characters murmuring in my ear, but these voices have funny harmonies to them that remind me of my feeble attempts to play the guitar, so much so that I can almost feel the strings against my fingers. I’m currently working on a chapter in which the two main characters are trapped in a cave for several hours during a storm, with nothing to do but talk to each other; little bits of the scene often come to me as I’m settling into bed at night, and for a moment I can almost feel the body heat of whichever character is speaking, as if they were sitting next to me. I feel like I’ve left my fingerprints all over the characters and the world, even though it’s the most involved fictional world I’ve ever created, and the characters are the most vivid people I’ve ever written—the most not-me, in other words. And so perhaps it’s no surprise that I feel the need to have that pen back in my hands. The edges of my notebook pages are getting dingy.

They say handmade is best. I can’t wait to see how The Novel will turn out …


  1. J.K. Rowling would do the same thing, write everything out beforehand.

  2. What kind of notebooks do you like to use?

  3. Spiral, about the size of a trade paperback book (6x9, 8x5, etc.). I prefer hardcover to soft, and I prefer college rule to wide, but for some reason I always end up having to choose between hard covers and college rule. Basically, anything that's serviceable and durable and not too expensive.

    I use a lot of the bargain journals from Barnes & Noble because they're cheap, they have heavy covers, and the colorful designs let me tell from a distance which project I'm picking up. This is a real boon, as I tend to work on two or three projects at once.

    The journal I'm using for The Novel is this one:

  4. I'm not a particularly big fan of butterflies, but I'll use almost anything that's not too girly or ridiculous-looking, and I saw the bright blue color and got an idea for a plot point, so this was an easy sale for B&N.

  5. If anyone cares, the weird stuff under the journals in the picture is my carpet, not my desk or anything else. It has been pointed out to me that most of the people I know don't have weird mutant blue berber carpet on their floors, so I should probably explain that my desk is not blue. I do regularly lie on my floor to write (when it's visible), and I have a soft green-and-brown throw rug that I lie on, but it doesn't photograph well.