Today’s guest is UK novelist Emma Darwin, whose most recent book is A Secret Alchemy. She is now working on her third novel.
I’m not a Luddite when it comes to writing fiction. I’m a proper, ten-finger touch typist, I blog as happily as I talk, and though I love physical books I also love Facebook. But the first novel I wrote that had two, parallel voices, went back into history, and showed me my writerly self... was the first novel I wrote longhand.
It’s no coincidence. For me a first draft is about dredging up who knows what from who knows where. First draft records what turned up until I can find exactly the right words. And I’ve always brainstormed on paper because writing on computer is, literally, digital: each finger has a separate, single role. Writing with a pen is analogue. Your hand tracks your thought: changes of mind, alternatives, doubts. You can mind-map, put in balloons, see your crossings out. And your notes: “PL?” = “period language?” and I’ll keep moving, and sort it out when I type up.
Besides, word-processed stuff is too perfect, too easy to read and so too easy to fiddle with, staying in the safety of the known shallows rather than storming ahead into the waters of the unknown. Later, that perfection is vital for reading it as others would. But not at the beginning: then you need to be inside it, not outside it.
So I need a notebook. And since novels are long haul, I need a wordcount to keep me going when the road is empty to the horizon. The notebooks are bog-standard from W H Smith, which is our biggest stationery chain: they sell them, and I buy them, by the truckload: one novel is about 15 of them. 80pp of A4, wide ruled, smooth 70g paper. I just hope they never stop doing them, because I might have to stop writing. Best of all is how my pen flies across smooth paper on a good day, and Austen’s “telltale compression of the pages” as I keep going.
I also need a pen which will keep up with my brain and my sprawly handwriting. It needs to work at all angles and sizes, for notes on the facing page and squeezed-in additions. A biro... but thin biros gave me RSI, so I need it to be fountain-pen shaped, but without the smeary ink and the fuss about angles. Eventually I found my dream pen: a fat, shockingly expensive Waterman which takes biro inserts. At least it was tax-deductible.
And then I thought of the other time I really care about my pen. If someone’s bothered to turn up to a reading, perhaps pay for a ticket, listen to me, ask intelligent questions, and still pay for a book, I reckon they deserve a pen and a signature which looks as if I meant it, just for them. And no biro in the world will do that, only liquid ink will: the same pen takes a roller ball refill, and when I’m setting off to do a gig I swap them over.
So, like all the best stories, the story of each of my novels ends as it started: with a pen, on paper.