Back in February, my documentary filmmaker friend Jason Scott created a short documentary about me any my use of pencils for writing first drafts. The doc came out last month, but I realize now that it got buried on my “About” page, so many of you probably haven’t seen it.
Anyway, it’s about 3 minutes long, and if nothing else it proves that Jason can film anything—even a guy writing in pencil and talking about them—and it’s going to be interesting. I hope you enjoy it.
Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.
Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.
I haven’t heard the completed, edited version yet, so you can bet I’m going to tune in to hear how I did.
If you’re interested in hearing about the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, my fiction, and writing in general, tune in today (Thursday, Dec. 19) at 6:30 pm (Eastern time) to the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell.
I hope you’ll tune in, or if you can’t hear it live, that you’ll check it out afterwards, when it becomes available for streaming. Thank you.
I’d like to share some thoughts about index cards.
My new writing, with the exception of blog entries of course, is happening on index cards. The fact that this is how my hero, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote all of his first drafts is purely coincidental.
Over the years, I’ve used index cards as ways of encapsulating scenes in stories or novels by writing a simple “slug” on each one, like this one from my first Dakota Stevens novel: “EXT. — Walk to W. Village diner in blizzard — NIGHT.” The purpose of this was to allow myself to shuffle the cards and get different views of potential scene orders, and to be able to see at a glance how many interior and exterior scenes there were. I happen to like a lot of variety of scene locations in my work, and this non-linear approach was one way to achieve scene variety.
However a few days ago I went to my salvaged library card catalog (in which I store my pencils by brand, along with other supplies) to get a sharpener and I saw a hefty stack of index cards just sitting there.
For the past couple of months, when I’ve sat down to write and faced the infinitely blank screen, the unnervingly white typing paper, or the falsely humble page of looseleaf, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of futility and hugeness of writing yet another (potentially) big work. So when I saw the index cards, and I thought about how well they’d worked for Nabokov, I decided this time to give them a try for my own first draft.
Index cards have many advantages over the other writing methods I mentioned, but let me share a few of my own observations about them:
• When you put one in front of you, its small size (3″x5″) gives you the feeling, “I can take this little bastard.” It’s small, so you can fill it easily, and the faster you fill them, the faster you develop momentum. Very quickly you can have a pile of 25, 50, 100 cards, which feels great and encourages you to keep going.
• You can write whole scenes, snatches of dialogue, smells, internal monologues, descriptions of places—anything you want—on each card, and you can do it all out of order. Working nonlinearly, I’ve noticed, frees up so much more material in you because you don’t feel like you have to have the next scene, and the next, and the next all lined up ahead of time. You just start writing about what you’ve got, shuffle up the cards, and when you sit down again, write what you’ve got.
• They’re cheap and easily organized later on, whether on display boards or index card “bleachers,” for transcription and editing.
• For those of you who respond to the visual and aesthetic qualities of your writing media, they’re cute and available in multiple colors in case you want to color-code them.
• You can put a stack of 25 of them in an envelope, along with a couple of pencils and a small block sharpener, and put the envelope in your coat pocket, and voilà!—instant, pocket-sized, portable writing center.
I could go on and on about the virtues of index cards, but you have to use the writing process that works for you. Maybe they’ll work for you, maybe they won’t; I just wanted to open your eyes to this extant low-tech writing method and its possibilities.
Here’s the thing with pencils and typewriters—they never go out of date, they never need updated software, and they never require virus protection.
Three years ago, I found I was spending a lot of my writing time making my computer usable. I had an iMac, of course, which was great, but for a portable I had an IBM ThinkPad, which seemed to have been steeped in a stew of viruses right from the factory. I got tired of jerking around with Windows, so I erased it and loaded on (per my friend Jason’s suggestion) SUSE Linux. This worked well for a while, but then I discovered I couldn’t network it to the iMac and was spending a lot of time emailing files to myself. There had to be an easier way.
There was. For computers, Alexas insisted (twist my arm, dear) that we scrap all the old ones and buy two brand-new Macs—an eMac and an iBook. So we did, and they’re working fine. But as far as writing drafts of work, I wanted the speed of typing without the BS of computers, so I got an IBM Selectric III. If you’ve never typed on one of these babies, I urge you to seek one out and give it a try. A profound sense of solidity and competence emanates from these machines, and each letter you type bangs onto the paper with a reassuring snap, much like a rivet into a ship’s hull. But I digress.
The only rub with the Selectric was that it required power, so I decided to go even older-school and find me a manual typewriter. One day I was helping Jason (a notorious pack rat) clean out one of his 37 storage units, and we came upon an 80-year-old L.C. Smith & Corona. He gave it to me as “payment” for helping him, and I added it to my burgeoning collection.
Then, recently, the Smith & Corona began to fail (the period key stopped working), so I started thinking about another manual to replace it. I’d always loved the ones Hemingway used (Remingtons & Royals), and I must admit I liked the association, so I bought a Royal Quiet Deluxe from Mr. Typewriter. The one he sent me had the classic “Little Old Lady” story: it had sat in a woman’s closet for over fifty years, taken out only three or four times to type a letter. It was made before WWII, so it has about 10 times more steel than it needs, but I’m not complaining.
The main point about writing with typewriters is that they’re an anti-technology technology. For one thing, it takes considerable practice to type well on a typewriter—especially a manual, which you won’t be able to use if your fingers aren’t strong. This means that you need to write slower, and as a result you find yourself choosing your words more carefully. Also, since they’re only good for typing, there’s no email, porn or video games to distract you.
As for pencils, they may be slower (a lot slower, in fact), but they’re reliable. I also like the process of sharpening them. (Think of Special Forces soldiers sharpening their Bowie knives before a covert op.) If I’m working in pencil that morning, I’ll usually pull out a dozen or so fresh ones and sharpen them until the points could penetrate the hide of a shark. When one becomes dull, I move it to the back of the line and rotate them until it’s time to sharpen all of them again. For the record, like an expert wine taster, I’ve sampled just about every pencil out there, and if you’re searching for the perfect pencil, let me save you some time. The following are the three best (not in order because each one is great for its own reasons):
* The Mirado Black Warrior – Anytime they show a cup of pencils on a movie or TV show, these are the ones you see. Says Alexas, “They’re black, so they don’t stand out in a picture.” Besides being photogenic, the Black Warrior is round and won’t hurt your fingers during long writing sessions (they were Steinbeck’s favorite for this reason). Also, the lead, while not harder than other #2s, is more resilient, so you get fewer annoying breaks.
* Staples brand – Believe it or not, these are consistently good pencils. What’s better, they’re cheap. A box of 72 might run you four bucks. Although they’re the old-school hexagonal shape, the lead is nice and dark, and the erasers work well.
* Staedtler Noris ergosoft – Made in Germany, these are almost impossible to get in the U.S. When I first discovered them four or five years ago, Staples and other places carried them. Then, for some reason (either they weren’t popular enough or they were too popular, outselling the other brands), they suddenly disappeared. After going without them for a few months, I finally tracked down an obscure wholesaler out of Illinois that carried them and had to order a gross. But why do I like them?
First, they have a triangular grip, so they’re ergonomic. Second, they have a rubbery coating that gives with pressure (soft), so your little fingies don’t get bruised. The lead is a rich black (although it breaks a little too often for my taste) and the coating has an aesthetically pleasing black & yellow design. The only downside to these pencils, besides their rarity, is that they don’t have erasers. If you never make any mistakes, you’ll be fine.
For more on pencils, you’ve got to see this website—a BLOG on pencils, with reviews: Pencil Revolution. Enjoy.
** As an addendum, following is a little video of me using some of my typewriters. This video was filmed by my friend Jason Scott a few years after this blog entry originally appeared. It’s titled “Equipment Test” because he’s a documentary filmmaker and was testing out his new camera equipment.