22 March 2015

Writers' tools: notebooks & pens

I have a confession to make: I love, love, love paper products and pens. I've hoarded them for years. One of my favorite pastimes is going into a bookstore or quirky gift shop and browsing their selection of notebooks and journals. I currently have 15 blank journals and 6 blank notebooks waiting on the shelf for their turn. And I have a big Ziploc bag full of pens that will probably - if I'm being really honest with myself - dry out before I have a chance to use them. But I can't help myself. Some people collect stamps or rocks or their roommates' hair from the bathroom sink; I collect pens and notebooks.

Another confession? This blog post is really an excuse for me to show-and-tell some pretty things, aka some tools I use in my writing process that you might want to check out if you're also a fan of the instruments of writing by hand.

Wait. Writing by hand?
"Don't we all use computers now?" I imagine you thinking. "And didn't you write a whole post on Scrivener as the new word processing tool for writers?"

Yes, yes. But you know what? Sometimes I like to write by hand. I keep a journal in actual physical form, for example. I tried journaling on my computer for a while but it just wasn't the same; it wasn't as satisfying or motivating. I also find it helpful to brainstorm by hand, freewrite by hand, do story and character development by hand, and pretty much tackle anything I'm unsure about via writing by hand. So there. Can we get to the pretty things now?

I use notebooks to freewrite, brainstorm, plot/outline stories, jot down first drafts of poems or scenes, work through the tricky points, and capture the fleeting images or story premises or bits of dialogue that flit through my head.

Composition notebooks by Top Flight
After some experimentation, I've settled on simple, college-ruled, composition notebooks. No spiral binding, small enough to pack into a large purse, nothing cumbersome or pretentious or heavy. My preference is the New Leaf recycled paper composition notebook from Top Flight or the Decomposition Notebook by Michael Roger, but I can't find them everywhere and sometimes they strike me as too expensive, so I alternate between those and whatever non-recycled composition notebook the store has on hand.

If you prefer notebooks of the spiral variety, I recommend checking out Miquelruis notebooks. Some of them have plain covers, others super-cute cartoony covers, and the multi-subject notebooks separate subject not with dividers or tabs but by giving the lines and margins different colors. One word of warning: they're designed by a Spaniard primarily for Europeans, so you have to make sure you're getting a lined notebook instead of one with graph paper. Unless you like writing on graph paper, in which case, have at it.

After I fill a notebook, I go through it and make sure I've transferred the things I might want to work on to my Scrivener projects before retiring it to the shelf and starting a new one. I do not throw them away, probably because I hold out hope that someday I'll go back through them and find a jewel of an idea that I failed to recognize at the time. (Delusional? Possibly. But it's possibility that keeps me going.)

Journals by Chronicle Books
In high school, my journals were spiral one-subject notebooks. I think I started with these not only because they were readily available to me - they're what I used for school - but also because I was used to writing in them. They were everyday objects that didn't make me excited to write in them, but they were accessible. Over time, though, they didn't hold up: they bent, ripped, shed pages, etc. They weren't small enough to stick into a purse and the spiral binding made them unwieldy.

In my college years, my dad got me a fancy leather journal for my study abroad trip to Spain. A few years later, an aunt bought me a HUGE (576-page) journal with a faux leather binding like you'd find on a fancy edition of a classic novel. This is when I realized that a "real" journal was daunting. It wasn't just the length; it was the fact that my thoughts didn't seem worthy of something so beautiful. Luckily I got over that.

What I look for now are compact books, sometimes hardbound but usually softcover, with a cover design that appeals to me; smooth, fine paper that won't drain all the ink out of my pen too quickly; and roughly the same line spacing as college-ruled notebook paper.

Moleskine journals
Not all of my choices have interesting covers; some are Moleskines with plain black or red covers. Recently I realized that there's great opportunity there for designing my own covers by putting stickers on them or drawing or writing on them with white, silver and/or gold paint pens. I'm not much of a visual artist, but the idea of personalizing my journals' covers with images or quotes excites me.

When it comes to choosing which journal to write in next, I decide based on what design is calling to me most at that time in my life but also based on the thickness. I have this strange superstition that each journal represents a phase in my life or in my personal growth, so I don't choose a fat one unless I feel ready to settle into whatever phase I'm in for a protracted period of time. I know, I know. It's silly. But it's true. Even after I started writing in pretty journals it took me years to start the huge journal my aunt had given me because I knew it'd take at least a couple of years to finish it, and I wasn't ready to settle down until I bought my condo.
I've had some beautiful journals over the years. Probably my favorite is a hardbound, square journal covered in textured red velvet by Michael Roger. I *loved* writing in that thing and was sad when I reached the last page, especially since I haven't been able to find one like it since. Luckily there's no shortage of beautiful journals out there. In addition to the ones already mentioned/pictured, you might check out Barnes & Noble and Cavallini & Co.

Pictured right, clockwise from upper left: journals by Leap Year Publishing, Peter Pauper Press and C. R. Gibson.

My go-to pen is a plain ol' BIC Cristal ballpoint in blue ink. They start writing straight out of the box, last a long time, and have consistent ink flow right up until they quit on you. You can also see when they're about done because they're clear. I also keep some BIC Cristal black ballpoints and red ballpoints on hand for when I'm feeling moody/need something to stand out in my notebook.

Assorted pens
But sometimes I like to change things up a bit. For example, right now I'm in a phase where I want to journal in purple ink. I love the color, grip and flow of Pentel's EnerGel pen in purple, but the first one's ink stopped flowing evenly much sooner than I expected. I'm also trying out the BIC Round Stic in purple. I like it well enough for a ballpoint, but you don't get the rich color of a gel pen. On the other hand, the Round Stic is a lot cheaper than a gel pen, so it's a trade-off. I'm also a fan of the Uni-ball Vision Elite in blue-black ink when I want to write in a different color.

If you like to do a *lot* of color-coding (or just like to switch colors), I highly recommend the Zebra pens variety pack by Sarasa, which I've found at Office Max and Staples. They have rich colors and clear bodies and work right out of the package. Every so often I'll get a Sarasa pen that doesn't have even flow, but for the most part they work like a dream. And they're clicky pens!

What's your point, lady?
My point is that not only do I find writing by hand useful for certain tasks but also, if I have the right tools, I actually feel more excited to write. I almost always journal more frequently and for longer periods of time when I'm nearing the end of a journal because I'm excited about starting the next one, and a smooth, blank page in a beautiful book or a pen that write smoothly calls me back to writing again and again. Obviously pens and notebooks aren't a cure-all for everyone's writer's block, but if you can make writing more fun, why not?

Do you ever write by hand? If so, when, and what are your preferred materials?

Note: This is an unpaid endorsement of several products that I like. I offer these suggestions as a service to readers of this blog and do not receive any form of compensation from any of the brands named in this article.

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