Six Sorts of Stationery for Starting Your Book

It is possible (I hear) to write a book entirely digitally, from inkling (inklessling?) to final draft. But if you’re a lover of stationery such as myself, such a prospect rather chills than cheers. This list is for you.

Fine writing instruments
The first requirement of writing a book is, of course, a Pen. Now, you could use an endless supply of disposables, but it would be much more ecologically friendly – as well as more pleasant and aesthetically pleasing – to use a fountain pen. I wrote the first draft of Restoration Day with an old green Faber-Castell, and then bought myself a TWSBI Diamond Mini to celebrate. It is this latter that I shall be using for the first draft of the new book.

A pen is, of course, of little use without Ink (except in case of emergency tracheotomy; do not try this at home). Here is where the fountain pen really comes into its own: you can have pretty much any colour you choose – and some even come with scents. I picked Diamine Majestic Purple as the thematic colour for Restoration Day, and over 160,000 words later, I’ve only used about 2/3 of the 30mL bottle. For this new book (I really must come up with a good working title) I shall be using Diamine Kensington Blue.

It is true that ink comes in cartridges as well as bottles, but I say leave ink cartridges to printers. A cartridge is, after all, just a way to throw out part of your pen instead of all of it. And if you are worried about needing to refill on the go, get a TWSBI pen with one of their plug-in ink bottles. All the convenience, none of the mess, and it looks great on your desk. (No affiliation, just a satisfied customer.)

Having sorted out your basic writing implement, the next thing you need is something to write on. I would suggest – particularly if you are not yet sure whether your idea has what is known as “legs” – that you do not launch straight into a proper book. Instead, have a Noodling Notebook. This can be as flash or as plain as you like: I used a 3B1 with an evocative pattern glued to the cover.

Fleshing out your idea – what a grotesque expression; let us depart from it – exploring and filling out your idea in your noodling notebook will either fill you with such enthusiasm that it is clear a larger book will be required; or make you realize that as fun as the idea was, it isn’t enough to carry a book. In which case you at least have the consolation that you haven’t wasted your stationery treasure on a few scant pages of notes.

Once you get to the point that your noodling is starting to slop over the edges and grow right out of your notebook, you may think that it is time to take to the proper book. You would be wrong. Don’t believe me? Write down all the juicy little scene ideas which have sprouted out of your noodling on to Index Cards. (Note: not every idea constitutes a scene.) Then lay them out in the order indicated (a pinboard avec pins may assist with this, unless you have a large flat surface which is not otherwise encumbered with meals, cats, sewing etc).

According to Larry Brooks, a novel has, at a rough estimate, about 60 scenes. Do you have 60 cards with scene ideas on them? Alack! It is not so. This can be a rather depressing moment, when you realize that your lofty dreams are in fact exceedingly vague in the middle, but it is better to realize this now than after you have written 30,000 words and realize it’s not going anywhere. (Take it from someone who knows.)

Hence the cards. They also constitute a significantly easier to re-engineer form of your novel than an actual manuscript; but they’re easier to take in at a glance than a page of notes on a screen. Plus there is the possibility of colour-coding!

Finally, you are ready to write the book itself. What do you choose? Some may like to work their way through a ream of paper (one word of advice: paperweights), while others use what for want of a better term I will call Exercise Books. I wrote Restoration Day in eight large ugly ring-bound books – left pages only as I am left-handed when writing and it is exceedingly uncomfortable as well as messy to write with your hand resting on a large metal spiral.

For the new book, I have decided to treat myself. I purchased two Paper Lane A4 80gsm 240-page 7mm-ruled FSC hardback “journals” in blue (and on sale, yay!). The pen loop is rather too small for the TWSBI (another point in favour of fountain pens as opposed to disposable ball-points: you aren’t gripping a tiny barrel for hours on end); but I expect the storage pocket will come in handy.

Which brings me to the last of the six sorts of stationery: the classic Bits of Paper. Yes, you could just use odd bits of whatever comes to hand – old envelopes, receipts, the back of an unwary piece of A4 that strayed on to your desk – but you are much less likely to lose your thoughts, notes, lists etc if they are on pieces of paper which are unequivocally To Do With This. (This also avoids the drama of losing yesterday’s notes and ransacking your desk, only to find that they are on the reverse of today’s notes.)

I like to make a quick précis of what’s going to happen next when I break off for the day, so as to jog my memory quickly back into the flow the next day. Also useful for figuring out exchanges in the right order, diagrams, and a myriad other uses. Consider getting a memo cube or scribble pad in your thematic colour, to be used only for that project. That way, when you see a piece of it floating around your desk, you’ll know what project it belongs to – and when you’re missing a note it’ll be easier to find.

Those are, of course, merely the basics. Truly dedicated stationery-lovers will no doubt find a dozen other openings for stationery in the process of writing a book. Suggestions?

Making Plans

The eternal question (well, one of them, anyway): how much planning should you do before you begin to write?

Plan of the old railnetwork

Obviously, this depends a lot on a) what kind of writer you are; and b) what kind of thing you are writing.

Some writers can’t start ‘actually writing’ until they’ve exhaustively planned every last detail and diagrammed it all out, with every detail of their characters’ lives already known. (This can result in gratuitous prequels – I am looking at you, George Lucas.) If you dream of index cards and colour-coding, you may be this kind of writer.

Weapons for work

Others just let it all bubble away in their heads until the time is right. Isabel Allende, for example, always starts writing her books on the same day of the year – an approach that would drive me batty. If you take this approach – well, you have a better memory than I do.

Others just leap in there and figure it out as they go. This tends to result in a very… catholic first draft, in which both beginning and end can seem to belong to different works from the middle.

A Year's Work

I’ve just realised that I hate (strong word – perhaps feel very uncomfortable with) not knowing where I’m going – or at least where I’m up to. With no plan, there is little to measure progress against. Which is depressing. Call me a feedback-hound, but without encouragement of some sort my motivation to keep going rapidly dwindles.

On the other hand, if I plan too completely (or concretely) I lose all motivation to write the blessed thing – there is no element of discovery, no reading the tale as it unfolds.

Now, as previously mentioned, this is also affected by what kind of thing you are writing.

Prose, I find can be happily wallowed through until you get to the other end and find out what it’s turned into. Then the rewriting begins.

Scripts – particularly for the screen – need a lot more structure. (Unless you are an avant-garde script-writer, in which case you get to make up your own rules but largely have to pay for them yourself.) There is the oft-mentioned board (ideally pinned, but more often floored), on which is plotted out the course of the story, in varying levels of detail.

Nanowrimo Story Board

Poetry, I suspect, requires a balance of the two. Or it might be that this form is the most dependent on the person writing. I usually just went for it in the beginning, with whatever inspiration came to hand, and then shaped the rest around that, although I don’t know that I’d recommend it as a poetic approach. (Thoughts?)

At the moment, my Works In Progress include mostly scripts (stage and screen) and one novel, which is the WIP I’m actually W’ing on.

I tend to try planning everything out ahead of time with the scripts, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

One of my stage scripts can be redrafted mostly from the first draft (plus new material); the other will want new plans drawn up. It’s like the difference between building an addition and doing a complete rebuild with recycled material from the original structure.

The film script is still very much in the early planning stages – more blueprints than actual building at this point.

With the novel, I have a rough structure in mind – a sketch map, in fact – but I don’t actually know exactly what I’m doing with it, or how long it’s going to take. I am, in fact, making it up as I go along.

Fairy tale map

Entirely new characters show up and demand to be included. Simple places turn out to be complicated little worlds of their own.
It feels like it’s taking forever, but at least when I reach the end everything will be in there. Although I may need to do quite a bit of retrofitting.

But here’s the hard part: I am a structure junkie.

Vladimir Propp did not appear on this blog by happenstance. Three act structure, five act structure, the Hero’s Journey – if there’s a pattern, I want to know about it.

But I think sometimes (all right, often) I use it as a means of procrastination – of abdicating responsibility. The structure will tell me what ought to happen next, and which roles need to be filled, and then I won’t have to work it out the hard way, by actually writing the thing, and finishing it, and then going back and thinking no – that shouldn’t be there, and this should be over here, and why are so many people doing this and no-one doing that?

So there is my struggle. Bit by bit I must bring this thing into existence, and not know til the end (if then) how malformed and lifeless it may be, how much of my work, how many dark mornings and weary evenings, must be cut away and cast off like excess clay from a sculptor’s model.

The pen is mightier than the sword....

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James