“So what’s your system?” Skin Girl asked me the other day. “Do you type, do you write and then type—what do you do?”
Here’s what I do.
I try to write for two hours a weekday, and then 4 to 5 hours on Saturday and Sunday. The goal is to treat it like a 20-hour-per-week part-time job. If I put in more than 20? I get mental health benefits.
I carry around half a dozen pens, a notebook, a project folder, and a notepad. The pens are Pentel Energens. The notebook varies; currently it’s a blue 5 x 7 that you can’t find anywhere anymore, but which Staples had a bunch of two years ago, so I bought up about ten of them. This notebook gets the raw material: initial thoughts, notes, early drafts, free associations, et the random cetera.
Every couple of days, I go through what I’ve written and transcribe those notes onto a lined legal-ruled pad of paper (I prefer the canary yellow Docket Gold, which is thick enough so that the Pentel ink doesn’t bleed through when I write on both sides). I organize these notes by project. Each note is treated like a scene which I transcribe and usually expand or free associate around while I’m transcribing it. Sometimes I end up with three yellow sheets full of notes based on just an initial line or two.
These pages go into 6-pocket plastic Avery Project Folders, or into a catch-all folder for ideas that don’t have folders yet. And as the notes pile up, each project builds like a good pour of Guinness.
The project folder in my shoulderbag contains all the notes and scenes for whatever I’m currently writing. I go into this once a day just to rearrange and edit outlines, remind myself of things I’ve forgotten, and spark my imagination. When I’m working on a specific project, the work cycle becomes obsessive and repetitive. I write dialogue and description on the legal pad, type it up and edit it as I type, print it out, edit the printout, and then add things to the printed version and type those up. Then print and repeat, print and repeat, print and repeat till it’s final. How do I know when it’s final? (A) When I’m tired of it and (B) when it tells me it’s done (I can’t explain it any other way).
It’s always amazing to me when I look back after I’ve finished something and realize it started with a few scribbled notes on an otherwise empoty piece of paper, and now here’s a complete play; here’s a hundred pages of a novel. Where did that come from? It’s the question all writers get asked: where do your ideas come from, where do all those words come from? (My favorite answer to that question is the title of this post.)
All I know is, when you put pen to paper, you’re opening a door. (The same thing happens when you type, but it’s a different kind of door, at least for me.) The more you write, the easier it is for that door to open. And when that door stays open, something will always walk through it, through you, and through the ink of your pen onto the blank page. And it will always surprise you.