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How I Write My Novels – Pt.1 (Pens, Paper, Planning)


Start on paper.

I’m going to tell you how I craft a novel from start to finish. Every author has a workflow, and I’m sure those are no secret. I’m not going to pretend that what I’m telling you here is magical. I’ll just say that it’s working for me, and it’s working well.

(I’m going to talk at length about I have not been compensated in any way, I just like them.)

I capture my ideas when they happen.

You’re going to have ideas in the shower. You’ll have them in the break room. You’ll have them on an airplane. You’ll have them pretty much anywhere that it would be inconvenient to have a laptop and start typing.

Margaret Atwood’s top ten rules for writing fiction appeared in The Guardian a few years ago, and the first three exclusively focus on pencil and paper. Those are convenient things to have around, because they’re cheap, abundant and you can steal them from your friends without causing ill will.

There are other reasons for writing manually. One of the biggest is that handwriting supposedly improves memory retention. That’s going to come in handy, because your novel is a huge undertaking with tons of moving parts. The more robust your grasp of it, the better you’ll feel when you start.

I stay organized with convenient journals.

Anyone who has seen me recently can tell you I carry around a bundle of books like a 1920s schoolboy. You can see them pictured up top. Each one of those books contains the seeds of a specific novel. Every time I have an idea, I open up the relevant book and start writing. If I don’t have it handy, I grab a sheet of paper, jot the notes, then transfer it when I get home.

A lot of novelists have ideas for many books at any given time. This method has allowed me to work through my next three manuscripts’ plots without ever sitting down for more than five minutes. The process is simple:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Write that question at the top of the page.
  3. Answer that question on the rest of the page.
  4. Write any secondary questions that come up as you work.
  5. You can answer those questions, or you could go get a beer.

These questions are broad brushstrokes. “What is Character McLastname like?” or “Why would that guy kill that other guy?” “What would you even call this thing?” At this point, I’m not focused on timelines, just ideas.

I create a positive feedback loop for notes.

It’s not enough to want to take notes for me. My handwriting is terrible and I get cramps. However, I’m a picky, epicurean sort, so when I was recently introduced to fountain pens, I fell in love.

The way that my specially-selected ink flows onto my specially-selected paper from my specially-selected pen… well, it activates the love of fussiness in me. There’s that shimmering moment before the ink sinks in and the way my nib shoots across a Rhodia pad like skates on ice. These things make me want to take notes. I used to hate handwriting, and now I can’t wait to get into my pads and jot ideas.

By the way, I bought my stuff at Jet Pens.

  1. This is my little black pen. (Kaweco AL Sport)
  2. This is my blue pen. (Lamy Safari Al Star)
  3. The longer black one is a Waterman Hemisphere. (Not sold at Jet Pens)
  4. This is my totally awesome bookstrap. (Sun-Star Pen Jacket)
  5. And, most importantly, this is my favorite paper on the planet.

And, of course, there are all kinds of inks and stuff.

I’ve started using the journaling method as a way to determine how feasible I think a book idea might be. Is it worth starting a pad? No? Maybe I’ll just throw it in my miscellany pad until the time comes.

When I have a solid concept that needs strong development, I break out a fresh pad and start writing. That’s when I know the idea is worth at least… $2.50.

Read Part 2: Going from paper to software.

9 thoughts on “How I Write My Novels – Pt.1 (Pens, Paper, Planning)”

  1. I think these are all exceptionally good ways of planning out your ideas. It also seems you have worked out a lot of swell writing ‘rituals’ (for lack of a better word) to help you along. I’ve been thinking of carrying a special note-book for ideas around with me and you have only given me more agency to do so.

    I’m a bit ‘superstitious’ (for lack of a better term) though when it comes to planning. I can sometimes plan things out in my head to extreme details but when I put them down on paper in note form I tend to abandon them when I get to writing. Subsequently I don’t always map out my structure as complete as I should. I may change them eventually in my head as well but when I plan them out on paper they tend to change completely.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with changing everything away from the plan. In fact, I have not yet had a novel go according to plan. That’s the whole point, right? The characters are organic human beings who grow and surprise you.

      In fact, I’d say you should write notes, just so you can feel sure that a path has closed. You’ve explored it, and now it’s done. What do you say?

      1. In fact, I’d say you should write notes, just so you can feel sure that a path has closed. You’ve explored it, and now it’s done. What do you say?

        You’re right, I think, but I would also say that not writing it down and planning it out (in bed before sleep, usually) gives it a more organic flow as well. That said, not planning it out might also explain why I overwrite.

          1. Not quite. I sometimes combine scenes to save time even before writing them. I tend to just build scenes as wholes rather than just snapshots.

  2. To be honest I tend to fix a lot in ‘post’ but I have so many challenges in my writing that most would have thrown in the towel by now. I soldier on but wonder whether I’ll glget to my destination.

  3. I know what you mean, Alex, about enjoying “pen to paper”! My problem is this: I’m left-handed and all my life have struggled to maintain a consistent hand position for writing. Fortunately my typing speed is great. But I do very much enjoy making idea notes in my journal. (I enjoyed this post.)

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