things I like about writing
When I stopped writing by hand, I became obsessed with the shapes typing made on the page. I developed a fixed idea of how the rhythm of long & short paragraphs affected the way they would be read. I was particularly interested in the look of single sentence paragraphs in relation to the bigger blocks of text around them. I would remove whole sentences if the page made a shape I didn’t like. I always work single-spaced. I hate double spaced typescript. It makes everything look awkward and vague and wrong; a single page of it gives you no idea whatever of the way the sentences are moving. At first I worked with a thousand words to a page of foolscap, no margin; then, as soon as I moved on to word processing, set out to mimic exactly the look of one page of a B-format paperback. I still use single spacing up to the point of delivery; sometimes after, depending on the editor or the venue. It doesn’t hurt to write like this, in a way that suits you; after all, this is you, not someone else. & these days you can turn it into the industry standard at the flick of a switch. Not enamoured of digital writing packages or house styles–especially where they interfere with grammar & syntax or flow-through, which I’ve always spent rather a long time on, even–in fact especially–when it seems otherwise. Nothing goes on to paper since 1987, unless a publisher insists; & as soon as I’ve sold a thing, I throw the drafts and notes away unless there’s some out-take that looks as if it might be useful another time for another thing, which there usually is. The idea is to provide a fully mystified object, like the books you used to take down from the shelves of an old public library–no dust jacket, no blurb, no genre label, no guidance on how to decode, not even, sometimes, a publishing date: just slightly waterstained boards & a novel inside ready to be unwrapped by reading. You’re ten years old & the whole thing just excites you so.
Love this. writing on a simulation of the intended medium has always felt better to me – whether it’s lyrics to music (pre-designing the liner notes with a songs-amount of blank space) or creative writing (finding the fonts of my favourite books and colouring the background just so).
For me it was always a commitment to shapes, patterns and flows of text & how they might be used to add force to the shapes, patterns & flows of the story as it developed for the reader via the act of reading.
Love these insights. Quite surprised there’s been nothing on paper since 1987. So Climbers was the last thing written in notebooks? (You posted photos of the notebooks a few years ago, and I just imagined this is how all your first drafts got written.)
Hi Shaun. Notes are still the basis of everything I do, but Climbers was the last thing that went through a major phase in a notebook. 1987, I started transferring the material on to the computer before I worked with it. Partly because I found that it usefully rewrote itself during transcription. Nothing much on paper since. The notebooks are still a workplace–I still make handwritten pictures of events, plein-air scenes, recordings of conversations etc etc–but less of an assembly stage. Of course, it might be different tomorrow. In fifty years your practise changes, and mine is always running off on its own. If you’re interested, there’s much more about note-taking in general in the new book, Wish I Was Here, a kind of hybrid non-memoir wholly made of notebooks, journals, blog entries & so on (Serpents Tail, May 2023).
Oh I’ll definitely be there for Wish I Was Here, really looking forward to it.
Your process of writing with the printed page in mind, reminded me of Hugh Kenner’s observation in regard to Pound and Eliot’s poetry, that the printed page “became the poet’s medium when poets began to use typewriters.”
(I’ve just been rereading A Storm of Wings so Eliot is high on my mind.)