The Process of Pen and Paper

How Do You Write Best?

Learning how to write is probably the most obstructive roadblock of a starting writer’s journey. I’m not talking about the commas and clauses; I’m talking about the physicality of it–the very real process of sitting down in a chair and putting words onto paper. In my experience, every writer is different and so uses a different writing method. Discovering your method is something only you can do; it can’t be taught, but the knowledge of how other writers overcome this challenge can definitely help.

Writers are a bit like athletes in some ways. Michael Jordan, for a while, never went onto the court without wearing his North Carolina practice shorts underneath his NBA uniform. Caron Butler picked up straws from McDonald’s and Burger King and chewed them to pieces when he sat on the bench. Jason Terry sleeps in his opponent’s shorts the night before a game. The entire Celtics team eats a PB&J sandwich an hour before tipoff. Superstitions like these aren’t quite as prevalent – or far-fetched – in the world of creative writing, but I’ve known writers who can’t do anything without a glass of scotch in their hand. Some folks have a favorite type of pen; others have a certain pair of pants, or glasses, or shoes that they can’t write without. Recently, I’ve begun doing my best work while holding onto a chai tea (I usually don’t actually drink it). Having a superstition is fine, I think, but only if it helps more than it hinders. Be careful you don’t convince yourself into a corner where you can only write in a hotel room, or only on the third Tuesday after Hanukkah. Shalom.

So you’ve got your favorite pair of bloomers riding up your rear and you’re ready to go. Now what? For years, I struggled with whether or not to write by pen or by keyboard, and while I think the majority of writers have begun showing an affinity for the modern typewriter (read: laptop), I still know plenty of great authors who refuse to put down a good old-fashioned ink pen. A journalist I went to college with does this; she writes out every story, then rewrites it, then edits it, and in the end doesn’t type it up until she’s sure there’s no more work to be done. I myself spent an entire novel writing the first draft for every chapter in old composition notebooks. After the chapter was drafted, I would type it onto the computer. The opportunity forced me to slow down and actually pay attention to every word I’d written, and in the end I think it helped immensely to revise not only my prose, but the entirety of my writing style. Nowadays I’m much more comfortable with the quality of my drafts, so I take the speedier route and go straight to the keyboard.

Remember those old television shows where busy big-wigs would carry around a little voice recorder to keep track of their thoughts? “Captain’s log, stardate 9522.6: I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will.” Guess what? Some writers still do that. It’s a great way to hold onto that idea you had while boarding a plane for Kansas City. You probably know the feeling. “Where’s my pen? All I have to write on is my birth certificate! Maybe I can scratch it into the skin on my arm.” You can keep a voice recorder in your pocket, or better yet just download an app for your phone. I realize, though, that talking to yourself in public isn’t for everyone. My biggest problem is that I always forget to go back and listen to what I’ve recorded. Classic me. So instead, I cart around a miniature notebook and pen in my back pocket. Sure it isn’t always comfortable – and I’ve ended up with more than one ink stain when a pen’s leaked – but it’s proved the best way for me to keep my ideas time and time again.

Of course, most writers can’t just pop out a few ideas and be ready to start writing. Research, plot mapping, character profiling – the preparation for a story can easily overcome the time actually spent composing your prose. Here is where I’ve found the widest variety of strategies and methodologies, so many so that there’s no way I could possibly outline all of them – or even most of them – but I’ll do my best. From what I’ve found, most processes seem to revolve around the storage and organization of information, so in many ways your preparatory methods will probably be related to your learning style. Are you a visual learner? Kinesthetic? Auditory? Keep that in mind when putting your concepts together. For me, I’ve come to rely on a combination of digital and physical data maps. Above and around my desk, I have nearly a dozen cork boards and whiteboards covered with historical timelines, plot arcs, repeatedly referenced informational material, and highlighted passages from the draft so far. I tend to show connected material with bits of red yarn, and I try to keep concept art and reference photos where I can easily see them no matter where I’m standing. Meanwhile, on my computer I keep a series of mind maps through a great program called MindMaple. Each project differs, but there are a few maps that I recreate with every project. Character relationship maps, social dynamic maps, plot arcs, locations and geographical structures: organizing the world around your character can be just as important as defining the character itself…which is another mind map, by the way. The best part about the program I use is that I can export the maps as images when I’m done. Oftentimes, I’ll send a map or two to be printed as a poster, and they’ll join the mess of other reference material on my wall. As a primarily kinesthetic learner, the process of putting down my thoughts into any sort of structured form is unbelievably helpful in mentally cataloguing the information. Other methods I’ve heard of include filing away major plot events as ordered notecards in an indexed filing box, talking aloud to yourself or to a friend, creating an email account to which you send and organize new ideas, or stringing notes and bits of prose from the ceiling. Like I said: a wide variety of strategies.

One thing to keep in mind with all this is where you write. It doesn’t do you much good to have all your concept information strung across your bathroom if you always write at a coffee shop or a library. Some writers need absolute quiet, and some can’t work without a healthy dose of background noise. Some get claustrophobic if they aren’t next to a window, while some will take their work outside when they can. That’s one benefit of writing by pen, I guess; you can take your work practically anywhere. In this, I think you just have to go by trial and error. Get out, try writing at a few different locations. Eventually you’ll find one that’s most comfortable for you.

Remember, this part’s all about you. Want to listen to classical music? Do it. Want to dress in character? Go for it. Need to act out the scene you’re working on? Don’t hold back.

Do what you can to get in the zone, but above all else, just write

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