Words of wisdom, part the third

04 Jan

Off and on for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been looking for a particular Neil Gaiman quote, in light of the Penman Shipwreck and our general discussions of handwriting. It was the quote which, many years ago (in 1999) first reminded me of the importance of handwriting and set me on the long path back to being able to handwrite fiction comfortably. It was what triggered everything I’ve thought about writing and technology after that, to be honest.

I hunted and hunted through his journal and couldn’t find it, using every possible combination of search terms I could think of. It was browsing through and passively looking for the quote which led to those other Neil Gaiman comments I’ve posted.

Anyway, I found it just now. The reason I couldn’t find it in his journal was that it wasn’t there. I thought it was. I had actually read it in a Locus interview, in ’99, which is also available online. Harrumph.

Anyway, here you are, the definitive argument — one of them — for remembering your handwriting. (The first part, posted for context. The relevant bit is emboldened, for attention-grabbing.

Stardust has one brief moment of almost Tarantino-esque violence, a couple of gentle sex scenes, and the word ‘fuck’ printed very, very small once. But apart from that, it could have been written in 1920. The magic of writing, those things we do to convince ourselves we’re doing it the right way. Up until 1986, I wrote everything on a typewriter. From 1986, when I bought my first computer, I did everything on that, except maybe one short story handwritten. Then it came to Stardust and I thought, ‘OK, I want to write this in 1920.’ I went out and bought a fountain pen – curiously enough, the fountain pen I’m signing the book with, which has a lovely sort of arc of closure to it, a feeling of completeness. And I bought some big, leatherbound blank volumes, and I sat and wrote Stardust.

”I think it really changed the way I wrote it. You think about the sentence more before you write it. On a computer, it’s almost like throwing down a blob of clay and then molding it a bit. But I can’t do that with a fountain pen, so I think about it a little more. And I wanted a first and second draft, which is again something that seems to be fading. A couple of years ago, when I was editing The Sandman: Book of Dreams, I noticed that what 10 years earlier would have been 3,000-word short stories were coming in at over 6,000 words. And it was as if people writing them on computers let them bloat. If you have a choice between two things, you do both of them. With Stardust, I wanted to go back to the thing I was taught when I started writing short stories: Write them as if you’re paying them by the word. It’s 60,000 words, which is what books used to be. Obviously, the book has certain drawbacks and disadvantages. You can’t use it as a doorstop. You probably couldn’t seriously injure a burglar with it, and a stack of falling Stardust will not kill anybody.

 It is excerpted from this interview, which is enjoyable, aside from being done in the peculiar Locus way of removing the questions and leaving the answers strung together.


Posted by on January 4, 2008 in Uncategorized


20 responses to “Words of wisdom, part the third

  1. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Hmm. Now he says he thinks more on each sentence when he writes it in pen than on computer, but I don’t know that I think more about each sentence before committing it to paper than I do to pixelizing it. I think what makes my writing different hand written over typed goes back to the speed of my thoughts. Typing I keep up and the sentences come out as they are thunked. With hand writing, however, there is this odd process of trying to keep up with my thoughts and things getting inadvertently jumbled.

    As an example, I’ll give you two sentences, the first as I would have typed it and the second as it would end up being hand written.

    At the moment, I didn’t know how long a tunnel it was, but I certainly intended to find out.

    How long a tunnel I did not at this moment know, but I certainly intended to find out.

    The difference is because as I’m hand writing, the thought in my head sort of scrunches around, giving the sentence a weird, almost archaic feel to it. No?

  2. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 10:06 am

    No. Honestly, what I see from the second sentence is just jumbled thoughts. And that clears, after working at handwriting fiction for awhile.

    The thing I never mention in all of this is: I’ve been working very hard at handwriting fiction and getting it to a good and comfortable level where I can handwrite a story, a scene, and then type it into the computer and it comes out not only fine, but mostly indiscernable from my computer-written fiction. I’ve been doing this since around ’99, since around when I read this interview, and I’ve been working at it as hard as some people work at learning to play instruments, or learn to run marathons.

    (And the reason I mention this now is utter fear that I sound like a condescending twerp when I say things like “the sentence just sounds crunched a little, because your mind is flustered by ideas and sentences and snippets appearing and vanishing and appearing and vanishing much faster than your hand can write them, unlike on the computer.”)

    And the other important thing from the Neil Gaiman quote is where he points out that stories which should’ve been 3,000 words were coming out 6,000. From this, we extrapolate — in relation to what I mention above — that it’s good when snippets and sentences and the like appear and then disappear. It’s like what we all are always saying about ideas for stories and novels. If it appears and you forget about it, maybe it wasn’t worth remembering. If it appears AND STICKS, then maybe it’s a story idea worth pursuing. That’s true on the grand scope of ideas, so why shouldn’t it also be true on the level of a line of dialogue, a line of description, action, a paragraph, a sub-plot, a particular use of a word.

    If I ever had to print off one quote and put it over my desk, it would be that Neil Gaiman quote.

  3. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 10:10 am

    To show what I mean — or perhaps to prove I’m a twit — here’s what I just this moment handwrote, in my novel.

    Sergeant Johnny “Crash & Burn” Gardner hunkered down in the muddy trench as the air around him and his boys got filled up with gunfire, the thunder of big Nazi guns making it almost impossible to talk. Now and then, there was a heavy boom as an artillery gun fired off and everyone would hunker down further, bracing themselves, until a few seconds following the boom, the shell would explode a chunk of ground into a pillar of dirt, rock and fire. You couldn’t relax for more than a second or two, and then: another thud, another explosion, sometimes too close for comfort. Sometimes, the shell exploded in or on top of a chunk of trench and then some good American boys lost their lives. The damn Germans had everyone pinned. That’s the sort of problem Johnny and his boys got called in to take care of.

    Make of it what you will.

  4. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 10:12 am


    Aw. I like that second sentence. It reminds of me of Robert Frost’s, “who’s woods these are I think I know.”

    And I have miles to go before I sleep.

  5. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Pete = enormous Robert Frost fan.

  6. mymidnightmuse

    January 4, 2008 at 10:16 am

    What I’m finding – and I have to remind myself it’s because I’ve only just recently picked up pen and paper again – is that, on paper, I’m less likely to write out a long and interesting sentence when my hand is starting to tire. I might have a lovely, detailed paragraph in my head, but my pen wants to cut it short and get a rub down.

    This will fade, I’m positive, as my stamina grows. And perhaps – no, most likely – I’ll fail to write this entire novel longhand. I know I can’t write the entire novel longhand in one month. But if I come out of this month with a better feeling, a new understanding, and a return to how writing used to make me think and feel, then I’ll be happy for it. And I’ll be more inclined to continue to write parts, if not all, of my novels this way in the future.

    I’m definitely going to be one of those writers, from this day forward, who carries around a leather bound notebook and pen as a constant companion 😀

  7. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 10:18 am

    That’s a nice paragraph. I do like your word use. It’s a long paragraph, too. If I wrote something like that by hand it would take up almost half a page or more. Since its been years since I did handwriting and am at that stage where I have trouble gaging the size of a hand written vs. typed paragraph, I would have probably broken that up into several smaller paragraphs.

    But then, I think that’s my style anyway, short paragraphs.

  8. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Scares me that my thought echoes midnight’s and hers wasn’t up when I started mine.

  9. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 10:21 am

    That DOES fade, as stamina grows. It took time — and, honestly, aspercreme lotion is your best friend — but it goes away. I write fully and completely now. If I need a big paragraph, like above, I write it contentedly enough.

    (is really worried he sounds condescending talking about handwriting stuff…)

    It’s GOOD if bits get left out, though. In that above paragraph, I didn’t mention the smell of gunpowder on the air, nor did I mention the weird smell of burnt dirt, or everyone sweating, or the shouting of the Germans, and how you learn which words tend to get shouted just before the big guns go off. I meant to. But when the paragraph was written and I came out the other side, it wasn’t in there. And again, part of the thing I eventually had to learn to deal with was things going missing in the writing process. It doesn’t bother me now. If I’m desperate to add in those details, they’ll be in draft two, which is when I’m typing it in.

    (as for writing a novel in a month: say you managed about 2,000 words a day. In a month, you could do sixty thousand words. So I think you could produce a novel every two months, just fine. That’s six novels a year, from a math sense only. Just a thought.)

  10. tjwriter

    January 4, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Neil’s right about things becoming longer than they should. I can tell it in the differences I feel between the computer and the notebook.

    Sitting at the computer, I can type almost as fast as the words come to mind. I don’t have to think too much about them, as they just spew onto the screen.

    When writing in my notebook, with my plain BIC pen, thank you, I cannot write as fast as I think, so while part of my mind is making my hand write the words, the other part ponders those words that come to mind before they ever make it to paper. They change. Some are discarded, some are condensed, some are expanded, and some are left completely as they came to mind. It just depends on what thoughts I have by the time I am ready to write them.

    I think it makes my writing better. There’s always been a natural inclination toward handwriting for me. It’s my favorite method, so I keep coming back to it.

  11. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 10:23 am

    I should go grab the camera and post a picture of the page that paragraph came from, but I don’t know that it would help any. For what it’s worth, on college-ruled paper, that paragraph takes eighteen lines. And I’m hardly writing at my smallest, tightest handwriting. If that tells you anything.

  12. tjwriter

    January 4, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Goodness, you people were quick on the submit button while I was typing.

  13. mymidnightmuse

    January 4, 2008 at 10:31 am

    I find I have to keep reminding myself that this is only a first draft, and if I’ve left out words, or details and descriptions that originally were intended, they can be added in the editing process.

    Editing isn’t always cutting, and occasionally I forget that 😀

  14. tjwriter

    January 4, 2008 at 10:41 am

    That’s a good point, Kristine. I, too, often remind myself that I can add stuff back in later. Since I’ve yet to finish a novel, it’s only an assumption, but I have a feeling I write on the lean side.

  15. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I rarely delete unless its something really atrocious or redundant, something I realize I already said somewhere else in the novel.

    I’m an adder. My novels end up short, somewhere between 50 and 70000 words and I have to flesh things out to make it novel length (which for my genre is anything over 80000).

  16. mymidnightmuse

    January 4, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I was just going over some of my handwritten sentences, and at the early start of the day they’re definitely longer than they are later in the afternoon. Two of the longest, from a morning session, are:

    Oh there was a barn, sure enough, built somewhere back in the 1800’s that his uncle maintained for safety’s sake, and piles of hay that were nothing more than grass clippings from mowing the large yard. There were bits of leather from old horse carriages hanging off near-rotting beams adding to the look and feel of an old working barn, but nothing larger than a St. Bernard had wandered those stalls in the last two centuries.

    I’m positive as the afternoon wears on, my sentences will get shorter and more to the point. Not that these are very long in and of themselves. But I’m also confident that will change as the month moves on, and I gain stamina and confidence. And I’m also confident those two sentences will improve with a second draft edit 😀

  17. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Even a long-winded sentence on paper is shorter than it seems, when you type it in. In My Experience. If I babble for half a page handwritten, it’s fewer words and more to the point than if I babble for half a page on the computer.

    Sometimes, anyway.

  18. mymidnightmuse

    January 4, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    I’m also noticing, with interest, that at the top of every page my handwriting is clear and the words spaced neatly, but as the page continues downward, my writing squishes up and the penmanship – well – wrecks.

    I’ll be curious to see if this changes as the month progresses. It’s all quite fun and curious, this handwriting a novel thing. I should make a note to revisit this notebook in a few years’ time to see what I was like “back then”.

  19. Pete Tzinski

    January 4, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Another joy of handwriting a novel: When I’m not writing — for example, when my wife came in the room, scared the crap out of me by making no noise, and then stayed and talked to me — then I sit here with a pencil and doodle in the margins. I cannot draw, so Lori is going to have some surrealist pictorial worlds populated by stick figures in the margins of the pages.

    At the beginning of the writing session, my lines tend to be thicker and darker, because my hand hasn’t relaxed into proper pen-holding posture (much like you splash more at the beginning of your first lap across the pool, ’til you settle into your rhythm). As I go, my lines get thinner, smoother, and the words look better. And because I’m going faster, the pen makes a delightful scritching sound across the page, which I cannot get enough of.

  20. Shadow Ferret

    January 4, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    My writing starts out scrunched and ends up scrunched. My notebook writing is nowhere near as neat as the letter I sent Pete. (Pete’s saying, “That was neat?”) Maybe I’ll scan a page and post it so ya’ll can see like Kristine did that one time.

    I have noticed that because my pen has no spellcheck I keep typing the same mispelling over and over. For instance, I’ve never learned how to spell “luitenant.”


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