Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Writer's Tool Kit

John Scalzi is having some trouble wrapping his mind around the idea that some writers might not prefer to do their work on one of them newfangled word-processing computator thingies, like what they have down to the corner Circuit City:

So, writers: Can you honestly imagine trying to write a full-length book or novel (we're talking 60,000+ words) without a computer? Or, for those of you alive and publishing in the terrifying days before computers, can you imagine going back to that? I'm simply curious.

Well, yes, actually, I can imagine it. In fact, I've done it. (With the important caveat here that I am as yet unpublished, unless doing The Promised King myself as a blog-based serial novel -- read it today! -- counts as being published, which it most obviously does not. Shameless plug over.)

Virtually all of the short fiction I've written in the last four years has been done first in longhand, as were the very first drafts of The Promised King. As proof, here's what the original manuscript to The Promised King, Book Two: The Finest Deed looks like:

Those pages aren't numbered, so I don't know how many there are, but that's at least a third of a ream of blue paper (I use colored paper because it's less harsh on the eyes), and since I'm now converting that manuscript into a typed one, I guesstimate that the word count there is in the ballpark of 150,000 to 200,000 words.

I'm sure I've discussed my reasons for writing longhand here before, but I'm too lazy just now to dig through my archives to find that post or posts, so here are my reasons, once again:

1. I like pens. This is big. If you like certain things, you'll invent reasons to use them. For most people, pens are just items of utility -- you carry one to jot down notes on Post-its, or to sign checks, or to scrawl the phone number of the woman with whom you had a good time upon the bathroom wall. But for some people, pens themselves are pretty cool -- not those crappy Bic or Papermate things, but fine pens. For me, my weakness is the fountain pen. There's just something inherently cool about a fountain pen to me. It feels like the natural evolution of writing instrument, from sticks dipped in pigment for cave walls to quills on parchment to glass dip pens to steel dip pens to fountain pens.

2. I've always had trouble with my fingers being able to type faster than my brain is able to come up with words. Most writers tend toward the reverse problem, I know, but for me it was very real. (Although, to paraphrase Monty Python, "I got better".) I would type along, producing crap, because I wasn't able to produce good material at the same rate that I was able to type it. I've made substantial inroads into defeating this particular problem in the last year, but it still crops up for me now and then.

3. Writing longhand is a good way to get around what I call "Desk Jockey by day, Writer by night" Syndrome. This is when a person who loves writing has the unfortunate luck to work a full-time day job that also involves sitting in front of a computer the whole day. I can safely vouch that after spending eight hours at my telesales job, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was sit down at another computer for my "second job". Writing longhand, frequently on a cushioned lap desk in my comfy armchair, made writing at night a lot more palatable.

4. I just like the tactile sensation of writing on paper -- the sound of the pen scratching the page, the feel of the paper on the wooden desk, et cetera. I even like the lighting, coming from the desk lamp and a couple of candles, as opposed to the omnipresent backlight of a computer monitor.

Now, writing longhand is undoubtedly of less use to someone who is producing work on a deadline, and I almost never write non-fiction -- my reviews for GMR, my occasional essays for submission elsewhere, or my posts for Byzantium's Shores -- in longhand. And I haven't really done any longhand work in nearly a year, although I've been hankering to do so again (to the point where I recently bought a fresh bottle of Sheaffer Skrip ink). And obviously, this is one of those "No right answer" things. John Scalzi has had considerable success writing at his computer exclusively, and Neal Stephenson wrote his recent Quicksilver trilogy in longhand. What matters is what makes the writer comfortable with the work.

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