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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Thumbnail Dipped in Tar - Writing without technology

“And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)
(From Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson)

I have appalling handwriting, the product, of three different education systems during my formative years. My handwriting is so bad that even my then boyfriend (now husband), to whom I had written several passionate love letters while he was away, commented he could only read every other line. I gave up after that. I don’t think he’s had a love letter since! Even my father (hardly one to point fingers in the handwriting stakes) commented my writing looked like a “thumbnail dipped in tar”.

Owing to a complete failure at mathematics, I was banished to the “commercial stream” at school where I was taught touch typing, such a useful skill for a gal, along with shorthand and bookkeeping (I didn't actually do shorthand although it would have been very useful!). A university education was not high on my school’s ambitions for its ladies in those days. Typing proved to be the one really useful skill I ever learned at school (thank you Mrs. Spence) - and sewing (thank you, Mrs. Plummer).

University came and I bashed out my essays on a portable typewriter, fearing for my marks if any poor benighted lecturer had to read my handwriting. Exams were problematical. Poor handwriting and time pressure… I wonder how much that accounted for some fairly ordinary marks. Was my brilliance overcome by frustration as a tired examiner, burning the midnight oil opened my book?

Hooray for computers. I was an early adopter of the “word processor”. My useful skill of touch typing came to the fore and starting with Wordstar, I moved to Wordperfect 5.1 (still IMO the best word processing program EVER)and have progressed through all the stage of Microsoft Word. I write my books using a combination of Scrivener and Word.

Then of course along came the internet…and google… and email… and Facebook… and Twitter… and Wikipedia. My life is now fully contained in the Cloud which moves from my phone to my iPad to my PC or Mac notebook. I am a 100% early adoptive cyber chick.

You can imagine my horror when I arrived at the airport for our recent holiday and realised I had left my hand luggage containing (apart from the weekly Bombay Gin supply), my iPad and bluetooth keyboard which I had packed knowing I had 24 hours by myself and intending to do some writing. With a new book percolating in my mind, all I had in the way of technological assistance was my phone. Quelle disaster!

A writing pad, a pen and a cute hotel room...
This meant drastic action… Here I was alone in a nice hotel room with 24 hours of uninterrupted writing time. Even the wretched Television didn’t work and the cricket finished early. I purchased a clean new pad of paper and a pen and sat in my hotel looking at it. I didn’t even know where to start! I uncapped the pen and did, as “Alice” suggested, I started at the beginning and went on till I came to the end. Well not quite… but in that short time in the hotel room, I developed a plotting process for pantsers (more on that in future posts) and using this prototype, I actually plotted this new book. With no technological distractions the ideas flowed out into a mind map and there was the very bare bones of Book 2 of the Harcourt Chronicles. All I had to do was write it… I turned to a fresh page of the writing pad and began…
“…Above the drone of Pastor Newington’s voice, a low rumble, like thunder, disturbed the drowsing congregation. Every face turned to the window above the altar which had once boasted a fine representation of the Resurrection, but now where the it had not been boarded over, the cold wind whistled through in the wintertime….”

And thus I wrote 2500 largely illegible words which I now have to transcribe into Scrivener (using the new template I worked out). A thoroughly good day’s work.

So the moral of this story… sometimes, just sometimes, walk away from technology, get a pen and paper out and let the story flow. There is something to be said for that magical connection between the hand, the pen and the paper. Whether I have the fortitude to do it again… remains to be seen.

How Alison saw herself...

...What she really looked like....

I know many writers do still write their first draft longhand. As I also now suffer from arthiritis in my right thumb, the thought of 50,000 words of longhand fills me with terror. What do you think?

And in other news, my latest release CLAIMING THE REBEL'S HEART (Book 1 in the Harcourt Chronicles), is officially released on January 22 but is available for pre-purchase on KINDLE and SMASHWORDS. 


  1. I love writing longhand, and find it's great to make use of waiting times. I once wrote a skydiving scene while waiting to have my blood pressure measured which was NOT a good use of that waiting time, but most of the time, it is productive.

    I went through a phase where I always wrote on coloured A4 notepads, but now it's usually in notebooks, amongst To Do lists and shopping lists.

    My first drafts can be made up of a variety of typed words and longhand.

  2. You are so right, Diane. I do carry notebooks around with me and if I am stuck somewhere and inspiration hits I write it down (really boring work seminars are very inspirational!) but this was my first go and doing a few thousand words in longhand. Since discovering Scrivener I am much more organised about my first draft.

  3. I love writing long hand. The only bad thing is how long it takes. But the ideas flow differently from a pen. More fluently. Or something. Tim Winton used to have three desks with three hand written projects going at once! All his first drafts were hand written in the early days.

  4. Thanks, Kate... I have 2 different computers on 2 different desks... does that count???

  5. Count me in with the longhand writers. My brain isn't fast enough to keep up with my typing but it works about one second faster than my writing hand so the ideas flow without interruption. No alone time in a nice hotel room for me, but I find a coffee shop gets me away from domestic distractions. Only drawback with that is the calories in a mocha!

  6. Thanks,Alice. NOw I have discovered the joys of longhand, I might take you up on the coffee shop idea. I know the PERFECT place!

  7. Loved the post! As mentioned, I wrote my first book longhand but that was a number of years ago. It flowed so much more freely than it now does with computer. Not only can't I write longhand anymore but can't use keyboard for more than a few minutes so it is voice recognition for me. Total rerouting of neurones! Instead of creative mind to hands, it is creative mind to voice. Like having teeth pulled but I now close my eyes and speak my scenes as deeply imbedded in them as I can be. Not the same though!

  8. JOanna, I can actually hear my hand creaking when I write these days! Not sure I could transition to voice recognition though - I am a visual person and need to see what I am doing.