The Longhand Enigma (Plus, The Secret Army Learns a Hard Truth)

Image of scissors, pencil, rubber cement

My favorite tools

I’m often asked whether I write using a computer or some more traditional implement. In fact, I use both.

The best thing about my computer is that it lets me write quickly. I can trowel words onto a page with abandon, and remove them just as blithely; I can start the same paragraph over and over and over, and over, until I get the sentence just right. The machine truly comes into its own, however, during the revision phase, after editors, proofreaders and the FedEx lady have weighed in with their observations. In the old days, meaning the dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s when dinosaurs walked the earth and typewriters brooded on every desk, I hated the prospect of revisions, because inevitably I’d end up having to retype entire manuscripts multiple times. Now with my computer I just insert the necessary changes and, ta-dah, I’m done. It’s about as close to magic as anything can come.

But, I do find that there are times when old-fashioned methods work best. That’s when I bring out one of my yellow legal pads (the kind with reinforced backs, so they don’t flop around in your lap) and a couple of nice pointy Ticonderoga no. 2s—or to be more precise, the Dixon Ticonderoga 1388-2/HB SOFT.

I do this whenever I have an especially difficult passage to compose, for there is something about the labor involved in writing longhand that fosters creative thought. The operative force here is avoidance—there’s so much sheer effort involved in erasing and rewriting, crumpling and hurling paper, and writing anew, that a writer actually has to think before putting the first words on the page. I’m convinced that it’s that extra bit of advance thought that helps smooth the difficult narrative bumps.

I also find the computer to be very limited as a tool for the kind of broad-sweep editing that involves moving whole passages, even entire chapters, from one place to another. Suddenly the computer becomes a cramped place indeed, no matter how many windows you open at any one time.

In this phase, there is no substitute for the classic cut-and-paste approach. I use a big old scissors, a gift from my mother many years ago, and a jar of rubber cement. First I spread my entire manuscript over the floor of my bedroom. Needless to say this is not my wife’s favorite phase of the operation. I, however, love it. It’s a little like exposing film in a darkroom (dinosaur alert number two). At last you see what you’ve really got.

Next I get down on my knees and start cutting. If I’m trying to structure a single chapter, I’ll first chop it up into individual paragraphs, and pare away any obviously labored transitional sentences. I stack these paragraphs in a neat pile, then upend the pile so that all the paragraphs flutter to the ground. I shuffle them around until their original order is impossible to detect, and then stack them into a fresh pile. Now I begin rebuilding the chapter. I take the top paragraph and put it on the rug, then fumble through the rest to find something that might reasonably be expected to precede or follow it. I continue until all or most of the paragraphs are arranged on the floor.

The purpose of all this is to break apart the artificial structure of the initial draft. It is easy for a writer to fall victim to the illusion that his prose is so precious and perfect that it cannot be made better. This illusion grows stronger with each successive draft, until the writer has lost all capacity to examine his prose dispassionately. The scissors restores perspective. The initial structure disappears and is exposed for the flimsy, inertia-laden thing it invariably was, as a wholly new structure materializes on the floor. Often a few extra paragraphs will remain in the stack, proven to be unnecessary or suddenly revealed to be duplicates of material elsewhere in the work. A quick write-through now yields an infinitely improved chapter.

There are hazards in this approach. Once, our dear departed dog Molly trotted heavily across the entire manuscript of The Devil in the White City. When I tried to remove her, she of course decided that we were playing. I cannot tell whether the moment improved the manuscript or not, but it’s very likely that it did.


The Window-Sill Wars VII:  The Consequences of False Intelligence

I’ve been traveling for the last ten days, and returned to my office with no small degree of trepidation. I found a tense stand-off between opposing forces on my window sill. No one wants to be the first to blink. And in fact, neither side is actually able to blink, but neither wants the other to know it.

Nunzilla and Triceratops in face-to-face staredown

Nobody blink

The really important news is that the Secret Red Rose Army paid a dear price for its attempts to use “enhanced interrogation” techniques on a suspected spy within its ranks. For torture, as the Secret Army has now learned at great cost, often yields false information, especially when the tortured individual is in fact a trained agent taught to endure pain as long as possible in order to give his “confession” more credibility.

Recall that the Secret Army used an apple-corer to gain information from a recent recruit caught on camera holding a secret meeting with Rat, the spy. The army interrogated him until he broke.

Image of fractured pumpkin figurine

Broken by interrogation

It is now understood, however, that his apparent confession was part of a plan to mislead the commanders of the Secret Army and cause the army to march off course. The result is clear, captured in a recent surveillance photograph.

The Secret Army marooned in a frying pan

The fruits of torture

The Secret Army has lost precious time. Hostilities could break out at any moment. Innocent souls look on with wonder, astonished at how quickly the peaceful world of Erik’s window sill became transformed into a realm of jealousy, suspicion and fear.

Teddy figure showing anxiety

A portrait of anxiety

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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