The Longhand Experiment

Writing is hard, per my frequent reprise. Sometimes it helps to mix up the process.

I do most of my writing on the desktop PC in my study. Picture me there with headphones blocking out everything but a playlist of 70’s and 80’s college rock, a neglected mug of tea close at hand and the keyboard cheerfully clattering away for a few seconds at a time before another eleven minute pause for thought.

One problem with this arrangement is that I have ready access to the internet, which accounts for many of those eleven minute pauses (and then some). As the Facebook meme goes, “Writing is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet”. I fall short of that implied standard a lot.

The bigger problem is what to do when I find myself with writing time when I’m away from home. When I was on holidays I carried my iPad with me and wrote in the Notes app. I found it a productive approach when I had predictable writing time but I’m less keen to carry a tablet with me for everyday use.

My notebook pages do not look like this

So I went old school. I’m writing a story in longhand. At first I had a dedicated notebook, but after I filled it up I started using the back half of my journal. The story is now spread across three separate books. Here’s a thing: I have no idea how long the story is. The longer I write it, the more the story expands – and I’ve been writing it for more than two years now.

(For reference, this is the story I’ve codenamed Chrysanthemum. It’s a fantasy story, loosely mashing together a murder mystery with unionising monsters in a quasi-Chinese setting. It started with a single idea of a magistrate investigating an inn in a notorious mountain pass and has broadened into politics, family drama and a strange buddy cop romance. With monsters.)

Chrysanthemum: much easier to look at than type or say.

Without a doubt, the method has affected the content.

When I work on Chrysanthemum, I usually only have ten or twenty minutes to spare. I tend to write it in bursts of between one to four pages, which means anything from two to seven hundred words in a session. I rarely read back more than a page, unless I need to check a character name. And I wrote down the ending I had in mind, but I lost the piece of paper more than a year ago, so I only vaguely know where I’m going. Other than that there’s no plan.

I think I will finish the first draft in the next few days. Will it feel like I’m reading someone else’s story? Probably – and I’m not sure I’ll be very kind to it. My expectations about what I will find are:

  • Repetition of core concepts like the protagonist’s beliefs and some of the setting details. The disjointed writing method means that in order to orient myself in the work, I frequently reiterate the story elements of which I am certain.
  • Bloated writing: whether it’s sprawling action scenes with loving descriptions of skull fractures, long passages of introspective self-doubt, expositional world building, or tedious philosophical arguments I haven’t bothered to think through beforehand, I suspect there’s a lot of fluff I need to edit out.
  • Continuity errors: I know I gave my key antagonist a name at some point, but I don’t remember it and mostly I’ve referred to him by his relationship with another character. Likewise, I am pretty sure that my descriptions of the physical setting, the characters and the legal code that sits behind some of the politics will all prove wildly inconsistent if not contradictory.

The next challenge will be getting it all into an editable form. It’s not feasible to edit the story across three books, even if I had left enough space at the margins for notes. (I didn’t). The thought of transcribing what is likely a more than ten thousand word piece is daunting. I may take the opportunity to experiment with dictation software, though from what I’ve heard, attempts to get accurate voice-to-text translations of fantasy terms is an uphill battle.

It’s been an interesting experiment. I don’t know whether what I’ll have at the end of all that work is a coherent story, or a satisfying one. I don’t know how long it is. I don’t know if the characters work, or if the world makes any sense. I don’t know if I can face typing the word Chrysanthemum ever again.

It’s kind of exciting.

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5 Responses to The Longhand Experiment

  1. I like the idea of short, concentrated bursts of writing. Definitely easier to fit into the schedule.

    Please let us know how you go with this experiment. I admit I’m curious to know how it works out for you.

  2. Lexifab says:

    The level of reliability on my part waxes and wanes, it’s fair to say. When I decide to stop procrastinating with the internet (put the phone down and step away…) it’s nothing to pump out two pages in fifteen or twenty minutes.

    I can’t usually keep it up for more than four pages, because my writing strength has apparently atrophied from my university essay-writing days where I’d crank out seven or eight foolscap pages in the last ninety minutes before an assignment was due 🙂

    • My writing skills have atrophied, too. It turns out writing reviews is a different kettle of fish to writing stories. I thought this short burst approach might be a good way of building up my skills again. However, I think I’d need to be consistent for it to stick.

  3. Darren says:

    I have a couple of manual typewriters. You could borrow one if you want to type but not be internet enabled. It’s even possible to scan and OCR with (some, variable) success. Very good in direct light, as well. Patio. Rock to hold down the pages. Typewriter. Let me know if you think you’d like a go. It’s tucked away in the shed, so no inconvenience to me.

  4. Lexifab says:

    I used to do all my writing on a typewriter when I first learned. Thanks for the offer, but I’m not sure that I could go back, to be honest. I remember how my wrists used to hurt after a long typing session!

    Then again, your charmingly rustic picture of stacking sheets of manuscript under a rock (a la Colin Firth in Love Actually) is pretty cool. If I had a decently shady spot in the garden it’d be great!

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