Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing longhand: Goodbye to an old friend?

By William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger One of the questions I’m often asked during any event Q & A is how I do my writing. More specifically, do I compose directly to a computer or do I write longhand? The funny thing is it’s one of the questions I almost always ask of other writers. I love to know about process.

In my own case, the answer used to be simple. For nearly three decades I wrote everything in longhand first, then transcribed to the typewriter or—much later—the computer. The reason isn’t complicated. I’ve always done my creative writing in coffee shops, and when I began that process there were no laptops. A notebook and pen or pencil was the only option. Oh, how I grew to love the feel of writing, which was not just a cerebral process but physical as well. I swear I can sense the energy of the story shooting from my brain down my arm into my fingers and finally through the pen onto the page. In a way, I’ve always regarded it not only as process but as ritual, something that’s necessary in order to make the magic of writing happen.

Writing longhand The benefits have been many. I’ve always appreciated the freedom of writing longhand because I can compose anywhere, anytime, so long as I have paper and a writing utensil. (I’ve even used crayons on occasion.) The process helps me to look at my work in different ways. First, there is the mess of the initial composition, all scrawled and scratched out and with margin notes and addendums and arrowed lines showing where changes need to be inserted. Transcribing to the computer is my first edit. On the screen the structure is neatly organized with clean sentences and formal paragraphs and text that is easily read. I’m able to see the story as it will appear in manuscript form and I look at it differently, from a more considered perspective than the creative frenzy of scribbling on paper allows.

For most of the thirty years I’ve been writing, nothing has been more exciting to me than sitting in the booth of a coffee shop and opening a new notebook because all I see in those empty pages is promise.

Lately, however, things have become a bit muddled. I just completed the next novel in my Cork O’Connor mystery series, a book titled Vermilion Drift. Because I was a little late in beginning the manuscript and because deadline was looming, I was forced to streamline my normal creative process. The book was written with a hybrid approach that involved some longhand on paper and some composition directly to computer. It felt awkward at first, but as I went along, I became more comfortable with my fingers on the keyboard channeling immediately what went on in my brain. During this period, I began work on another novel as well, not in the series, which has been written entirely to computer. Just between you and me, I think it’s a wonderful manuscript.

Coffeeshop writing So, these days when I’m asked about my process my answer tends to be much more complicated than before. I don’t know if I’ve given up longhand for good. In a way, I hope not. It would be like saying goodbye to my best friend. But as the song goes, sometimes even the best of friends must part.

I’ll keep you posted.


Maryann Mercer said...

Hi Kent! We've met at Love Is Murder several times...the last being during the famous Thursday night blizzard at the Wyndham where you and Libby graciously listened to me ramble on about my latest efforts (all on PC). I've heard you talk about your writing process and been envious that even in a coffee shop, I'm on my laptop, or maybe just jotting notes on a napkin or scrap paper rather than using pen and paper. Whichever method you use, I'm waiting to see where Cork goes next. Not to mention what you'll give us in the 'other' novel. Thanks for the keeps me turning the pages even when I should be doing other things.

Pat Batta said...

I use my laptop for writing because I can get the words down on paper as fast as they arise and it is easy to change, edit, and rewrite. However, if I am struggling with the emotion in a scene, then I need to go back to paper and pencil. There is something about the physical act of writing in longhand that opens the floodgates.