Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stumbling Blocks and Flying Notes

If you’ve been following, you’ll know I very recently begun my emergence from a nasty, festering pile of Writer’s Block. Over those dark days, I spent a lot of time thinking about process, talking to my crit group and other authors about it, and pondering both the blockage and what I felt was my own plot-less-ness. (Perhaps ‘plot-less-ness’ is too strong a made-up word. It was as if I were sitting in that festering pile in the middle of a complex, tangled forest, only catching tiny glimpses of the blue above the trees, unable to see which plotline or character quality would lead me up, out, and skyward. Have you ever experienced Writer’s Block? Did it feel similar for you?)

I have a number of writer-friends who write longhand before they take their work to the computer screen, and I’ve always wondered how exactly they do it. I also wondered why they would write longhand, when word processing programs make for such easy writing, quick changes, and moving things around. As a very non-linear writer, I’ve always loved the perceived freedom a word processing program allows. But I also had to wonder why others were producing so much more than I, and faster, and why they didn’t seem to get so stuck. Something in my process was clearly not working for me, and I was desperate to know what.

Last week, I had coffee with Rebecca Maizel, author of Infinite Days and out of our discussion about process, came an absolute epiphany (Thanks, Rebecca!). She showed me how she writes in a large lined notebook. And when she needs to make notes about craft, process, narrative arc, and so forth, she turns the book upside down and writes on the adjacent page. This helps her keep the two connected, yet separate enough not to break her flow.

Entranced by this idea, I stopped on the way back to my office, bought an attractive, eco-friendly notebook and—discovering (or creating!) a spare hour at the end of the day — took it out into the garden and began to write. Almost immediately, it was as if something clicked. I felt myself literally break free of the muck, and I was up, up, and away.

One of my main problems, I quickly realized, is that I do exactly what I tell my students and clients not to do: I edit as I go. Unlike many authors, I love revision. I love the subtleties in individual sentences, the cadence of the language, the fascinating interplay between characters and the nuances of their body language and behavior. I like to play and turn sentences upside down and bring out the music in words. I can happily get lost in that for long hours—until I realize I’m still as deep in the forest I was. As an editor, surprise-surprise, I have the perfect day job. But as an author, it turns out, I'd become my own worst enemy.

The beauty of the notebook is that it does not allow me to get bogged down in editing. I can still jump about from section to section of my book as I am wont to do. But because my handwriting is barely legible, I cannot edit on the page, or I risk not being able to read what I’ve written at all. This has the wonderful effect of forcing me forward with the narrative, hurrah!

In turns out that I am not, in fact, plot-less; I just get weighed down by the minutiae of individual sentences. And in the last week, I’ve carried an onscreen idea and some random paragraphs to an almost complete first draft of a new chapter book. Thanks to some great advice and a notebook, I feel light, I feel free, and I’m flying.

What about you? Do you write longhand? Do you prefer the screen? I’m eager to hear about your process.


  1. Head to heart to hand. :) - xoxo = Rebecca

  2. I, too, write my first drafts longhand (in my sugarcane-based paper notebook). I always have. I only use a Pilot Precise P-700 gel roller because those pens are "fast" so they don't slow me down. When I want to be creative, the process of moving my hand across the page opens up ideas for me.

    I do a similar thing to Rebecca- I only write on the right side of the page, leaving the left side for related, yet separate ideas such a future plot plans, a character idea, etc. I occasionally rewrite as I go, but these are only brief delays along the way, not full on editing. Once I have a first draft (what I call "down draft," as in "just get it down"), I move to the keyboard.

  3. Thank you, thank you for those tips!!

    I'm a virgin author, having spent many years as a community artist and more recently an illustrator. I've just started a manuscript for an illustrated children's book and have run into exactly the problem you describe Marlo! I love editing and I've realized that doing it too soon is a waste of time as I know that the plot will change as the book progresses. I love the ideas of:

    1.using the note book...seems obvious as I've been writing in artist's diaries for years!
    2.using the other page for additions
    3.Doing the "down draft" before the keyboard...will help me temper my critic
    4.Using the gel roller...I've used their Hi-tecpoint V7Grip for a few years for a similar reason - but for "fast" sketching!

    Cheers :-)

  4. Oh, I love the screen -- and I also love the revision process! The blank screen is much scarier for me than a full page just ripe for revision.

    I do sometimes jot notes long-hand in the car when I'm idling.

    I've actually been stuck lately - finished one WIP, not sure what to start next. I started fooling around with the Snowflake Method and came up with a workable plot to kick start my new WIP.