I Wrote a Novel By Hand

by Harry Marks

I’m a writer. I’m also an aspiring author. I say “aspiring” because I haven’t been published yet, but that will come. I know it. I’ve written three novels in as many years and each one has been written differently from the last. The first was typed directly into Scrivener. The second was handwritten, typed on a typewriter, and entered into Scrivener simultaneously. To call that process “complicated” would be quite the understatement. This last book, however, took a simpler route, one that left me wholly satisfied when I reached the final page.

LUMINOUS began its life in an extra large Moleskine notebook, born page by page at the Barnes & Noble cafe near my office. For a few hours each morning, I sat in an uncomfortable chair–no doubt designed to turn one’s ass numb as motivation to eat his scone and get the hell out–and built my little world one pen stroke at a time. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I wrote about the joys of going analog and how computers made things too easy. Some of that still holds water. Other parts are a steaming pile of horsepuckey. Allow me to explain.

Why Pen and Paper?

Because a notebook is lighter than a laptop, or even an iPad. Because I don’t have to worry about battery life, or booting up, or waking from sleep. Because I’m not distracted by the mere idea of Twitter, Wikipedia rabbit holes, or cat videos. Because no backup solution is flawless, but paper is a whole lot more resilient than iCloud/Dropbox/a hard drive. And because I have a new baby and a typewriter makes too much noise.

When I wrote about writing more often on paper, I listed the following as reasons:

1. My brain does one round of self-editing as I carefully choose my words while physically writing them down.

2. Those same words go through another filter while my brain processes what I’ve already written as I type them into the computer.

To a degree, those concepts remained true throughout. I did find myself thinking more before I committed words to the page. It wasn’t like everything I scribbled was gold–much of it was replaced during the revision phase–but I noticed a significant difference between my prose for this novel and my second one, and a Grand Canyon-sized difference between this book and my first. I can’t chalk it all up to changing mediums, though. I’ve learned a lot in three years as a writer, as well as as a reader. I’ve picked up a few things in my travels and that education is popping up all over my work.

My biggest reason for using pen and paper? It was the ultimate distraction-free environment. While I knew my phone was in my pocket the whole time, I never felt the need to pull it out unless I had to consult Google or Terminology. I’m not ashamed to say I have no willpower when it comes to distractions. My wife calls me “Distracticus”, the god of–ooh, the TV is on. Had I written my first draft on my laptop, I would’ve found any excuse to check Twitter or Facebook, even if I’d disabled the Internet beforehand. Knowing a world of useless quizzes and fights about new iPhones are one minor finger movement away is dangerous in the wrong hands.

My hands.

What was the Process Like?

Like all great things in life, writing longhand takes time and stamina. It wasn’t glamorous and it felt a little weird to sit in a public place and write in a notebook when everyone else around me had a screen. I never worried about daily word count, though I did try for at least one page per day. With the help of a 0.3mm pen point, I was able to squeeze about 500 words on a page, so if I wrote two pages one morning, I felt like I’d conquered the hardest part of the day.

The biggest thrill came from watching the back of the notebook get thinner. I use Scrivener‘s word goal tool religiously, but a meter turning from red to green doesn’t have the same effect as holding a stack of pages in my hands and saying, “I did this.”

I did this.
I did this.

Completed sets of pages were scanned using Readdle’s Scanner Pro app on the iPhone. I waited until the draft was complete to scan the pages, but I realized later I should’ve been doing that as I wrote. This also describes my writing style–I’m a “pantser”, not a plotter. I like to make it up as I go and when I get to the end, I survey the mess I’ve made and do my best to clean it up.

Once I had several chapters down, I switched over to Scrivener and began transcribing them into the computer. Yes, I wrote two drafts simultaneously. Yes, I realize this might make other writers cringe, but you know what? Despite what some people might tell you, there’s no wrong way to write a novel. There were times when I looked at what I’d written in my notebook and said, “The Harry who wrote this should have his pen taken away from him,” and edited it as I typed. The greats will tell you to step away from a first draft before you start your edits. Take a week, maybe a month and do something else until what you wrote looks like it was written by someone else. I did that for the last two novels, but not this one. I kept this one fresh in my mind the whole time. I wrote entire chapters knowing I was going to turn around and massacre them when it came time to migrate them into the computer. My first draft is full of cross-outs and marginalia illustrating what I should’ve written instead of what I actually wrote. First drafts are supposed to suck and parts of mine were practically made by Dyson.

Writing by hand didn’t miraculously make every word perfect. It made me think more, but I still forgot pieces of scenes and sometimes I ended a paragraph early just to avoid further hand-cramping. Every method has trade-offs and for me, the trade-offs of enduring wicked hand pain over writing with distractions were worth every knuckle crack.

What’d You Use?

As I stated above, I wrote everything in an extra large Moleskine notebook. If you pay attention to stationery blogs and podcasts (which, if you read The Cramped, you probably do), Moleskine paper gets a lot of guff from enthusiasts. “It bleeds!” “It feathers!” “It tied me to a chair and stole my laptop!” Well, I’ve got 65,000-70,000 words that didn’t care where they were written and no larceny was committed.

My pen of choice is a Pilot Hi-Tec-C–not the cheapest pen, but definitely the smoothest and with a point small enough to allow me to cram a ton of words on each page.

The rest of the book was written with a complete disregard for healthy sleeping habits and enough caffeine to fuel 50 circus elephants. I got up at 5:00 every morning and was at the coffee shop by 7:15 am. I wrote for two hours, then went to work. If I had time on my lunch break, I kept at it. Otherwise, I’d have to wait until the next morning.

My train commutes were spent reading. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read. There’s no way around this one. This isn’t even a suggestion. I’m telling you. Others will tell you. You wanna write? You better make the time to read. I committed myself to 20 pages per day, usually reading at least 10 pages in the morning and 10 or more in the afternoon. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get through a book with that one little tip.

What Should I Take Away from This?

Hell if I know. I’ve been rambling for quite a while now. I’m not going to say writing in a notebook will work for everyone. I can’t say writing a novel period will work for everyone. What I did is for a very specific type of person who enjoys pain and what can come from that pain. I wrote a lot, but I scratched out and rewrote a lot more. Writing anything longer than a tweet is a process and I have fun screwing with that process all the time. It just so happens this process works well for me and as a result, I’ll be utilizing it more often.

But none of this matters. What matters is that you write. You put your butt in the chair every day and you open your notebook/laptop/package of napkins and you get the words down. Don’t worry about anything else.

Oh, and get yourself another cup of coffee.