Last week I was without my computer for a number of days in a row, so I had to take my writing back to the old school style: pen and paper. Specifically, I used an awesome, binded blank book a friend gave me years ago that I was saving for something special.
I do think I might write my new Herezoth novel in that book.
My computer-less period led to the idea for this post: the pros and cons of writing fiction on paper first, before transcribing it into Word or some other word processing program.
When I wrote my first Herezoth novel, “The Crimson League,” I did a lot of writing on pen and paper over my lunch break at a summer university office job. At night I would transcribe what I wrote onto the computer. So I’m not unfamiliar or untested in this style of writing.
I now have a full-time job and get an hour’s break for lunch. That’s a full hour I don’t want to lose just eating and hanging around until I have to clock back in. I’ve been thinking, and I believe it makes sense for me to go back to writing a first draft on pen and paper over lunch.
Why? There are a number of reasons I liked this method in the past.
- I GET AN AUTOMATIC, BUILT-IN FIRST “BABY-EDIT.” My first drafts are riddled with extraneous nonsense, always: phrases I don’t need, repetitive sentences, and clunky wording. When I go to transfer my handwritten pages to the computer, I often can clean things up to a degree with minimal effort/extra time: for instance, making passive voice active and cutting unneeded dialogue tags. (Sure, there’s the simple time of transcription to account for, and I’ll touch on that later. But rewording a sentence intuitively as I type it doesn’t add much time to that unavoidable block I’m already giving up.)
- I GET MORE WRITTEN IN AN HOUR’S TIME. Meaning, I don’t stop to edit or to overthink things as I write because having a page–a physical page–in front of me makes me much more conscious of how much I have written than a scrolling computer screen does. That may not be the case for everyone, of course. But it’s true for me, so writing on paper physically has that advantage for me individually.
- IT JUST FEELS MORE “CREATIVE”. Again, this is a personal thing, and no one would be wrong to disagree, but I feel that the act of creating art should be physical. After all, shouldn’t the result of “creating” be “something created”? Something you can touch, something more than a digital file? Artists have pre-sketches, and their canvases at every stage are physically right there. We writers don’t have to function that way, but there’s something comforting about having those physical pages with my writing on them, even when that writing is a crummy first draft. It’s physical proof of the creative process for when I feel like I accomplished nothing.
- SOMETIMES IT FEELS MORE GENUINE. I am, or was, a professional scholar of Spanish lit, with a focus on the early modern period. (Basically, if you ever want to talk Don Quixote, I AM GAME.) This means I enjoy reading older stuff: the classics. Stuff that was written on pen and paper, or at the most technologically advanced, a typewriter. For centuries, pen and paper was the only option people had. It’s kind of silly, but I feel more connected with the world’s great literary tradition writing on pen and paper. Not that I’m deluded into thinking a second Cervantes or something…. I know I’m far from that. But my personal roots, my personal experiences with literature, are very established in older fiction. And I feel more confident when I keep that connection as strong as I can.
- I CAN WRITE PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE IN A NOTEBOOK. You can’t bring a laptop everywhere, but a notebook fits easily into a purse or briefcase :-)
Of course, there are some drawbacks to this method as well.
- TRANSCRIBING TAKES TIME AND CAN BE AN ANNOYANCE. Still, when I factor in how I can write anywhere in my blank book, and how I write faster in that book, I don’t mind transcribing so much. And when I really don’t feel like transcribing, who’s to stop me from grabbing my book and continuing the story instead of typing old scenes out?
- THAT “BABY-EDIT” DURING TRANSCRIPTION CAN TURN INTO A PROBLEM. The key is keeping the baby-edit to a baby-edit. Rewording something that’s clunky is one thing, and a quick, often intuitive fix. Rethinking plot development or character motivation as a result of revisiting old scenes during transcription…. that can become a real motivation-breaker and time-suck. Remember, any time you revisit old scenes in a work in progress, that becomes a possibility.
All in all, I’d say I’ve had success in the past writing in blank books that awesome people have given me as gifts. (Seriously, I have tons of them, and I’ve never bought one for myself!)
Also, the last novel I wrote, one I’m abandoning completely as a “failure” right now, I rushed and composed entirely on my computer. So shaking up my process and doing things differently is helping me avoid a “failing” mindset. If things take longer than last time, but results are better, I am totally okay with that.
So, have you ever written a novel on pen and paper? Or do you go straight to the computer? Do you combine methods or go back and forth, like I’ve done? What do you love about the way you write?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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