27 December 2011

Jane Austen's Writing Habits

Jane Austen's Writing Box
(Courtesy of the British Library) 
Yesterday was a 'Jane Austen Day' on BBC2 with Doug McGrath's version of Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow)  followed by the excellent Becoming Jayne Austen (Anne Hathaway) and finally an intriguing documentary Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait.

As usual with Jane Austen the programmes raised interesting questions and made me want to find out more.

Jane's Writing Habits

Most of Jane Austen’s best known writing was done at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where she revised Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.

Jane would try to write every day, close to a window for the light, using an amazingly small walnut table (which survives at the Chawton Cottage Museum) and a 'writing box' thought to have been a gift from her father. This can be seen at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library and was donated in 1999 by Joan Austen-Leigh, a direct descendent of Jane Austen's brother James. Described as 'a small chest which opens to reveal a writing surface and storage space for inkpot and writing implements' this was a convenient way to make sure she could quickly start writing.  (I wonder what she would have made of modern lap tops which take an eternity to 'boot up')

She wrote initially on small slips of paper, which fitted easily into her writing box. (This may have given rise to the story that she would quickly hide her writing if she heard the door creak - now thought by some experts to be unlikely). As her style developed, Jane's manuscripts were mostly written on 'booklets' of about 190 x 120 mm, probably made by cutting down half sheets of ‘post’ writing paper to form quires of up to eight leaves (16 pages) which were assembled inside one another to make fatter booklets.

Jane wrote using a quill pen that she dipped in a small inkwell. I have tried writing with a quill and found it quite satisfying, once you become used to it. The ink used by Jane was made from iron gall, which was tannin mixed with iron sulphate, some gum arabic and a little water. As well as being indelible, it was cheap and readily available.  When exposed to the air the ink would change from a pale gray to a rich blue-black then gradually turn brown as the iron oxidises.

Her way of writing was to mane an initial draft, often crossing out phrases or whole sentences until she was happy with them, then revise the whole work. It seems that reading the draft aloud to her friends and family was an important part of the process, particularly to her sister Cassandra.

Looking at the surviving manuscripts it is easy to see that Jane was not troubled by perfecting the grammar or punctuation as she wrote.  Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University studied over a thousand original handwritten pages of Austen's unpublished writings and points out that they feature blots, crossing outs and "a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing".

 Draft manuscript of Jane Austen’s
unfinished novel 
The Watsons
(Courtesy of the Bodleian Library)
Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

11 December 2011

Thomas Hardy: Afterwards

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
'To him this must have been a familiar sight.'

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.'

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
'He hears it not now, but used to notice such things'? 


1 December 2011

Ten things I've learned from completing NaNoWriMo

Yes at 10.30 pm on the 30th of November I did a word count and hit 50,014. Has NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) changed me? Well it has moved my WIP on in some interesting ways I certainly didn't expect.

I enjoyed the challenge and met some really interesting writers and 'writing buddies' I will definitely stay in touch with. I also learned a few things about how to write more productively so here, in no particular order, are my top ten:

1. There is a lot more to NaNoWriMo than just the writing

I was surprised at the range and variety of forums of every kind – and the amount of posts. I didn't have time to make the most of it but there is a wealth of ideas, tips, and writing information that is definitely worth a look.

2.  Google+ is an ideal support community for writers

I joined a small NaNoWriMo circle on Google+ in the first week which grew to 794 by the end of the month. For the first time I have seen how helpful it is to have so many people sharing ideas and worries on a single topic. There are a lot of very interesting writers in the circle, so now I have a new challenge of sorting them into something that will work for me in the future.

3. Writing in 'short bursts' works

One of the many tips I picked up from the forums was to write in short half hour 'bursts' with strictly no interruptions then stop and do something completely different. It sounds obvious but I'd never really tried writing like this and it seems to work for me.

4.  2000 words a day is a good target

Another thing I'd never done was worry about how many (or how few) words I'd actually written on any day. NaNoWriMo changes all that, of course. The actual daily target was 1667 so I found that 2000 words or slightly more meant that I could slowly gain some ground for the days when things weren't going so well.

5. Quantity can inspire creativity

Another NaNoWriMo tip was to just write and not worry at all about the quality, on the basis that you will always review and rewrite. I suppose I had fallen into the trap of trying to make the first draft as polished as I can. The NaNoWriMo way seems to be to just bash it out without reviewing your work until you reach the word count target. I expected that this would result in some dull dialogue but the reverse was the case, as speeding things up makes my speech feel more realistic than pondering over every line,

6. Backups can go horribly wrong

The NaNoWriMo calendar includes special days for backing up your work and I shifted from weekly backups to 48 hourly. The problem was that I made the classic mistake of backing up the wrong version of a chapter and of course didn't spot this until it was way too late, resulting in 3,500 words of retyping. It's never quite the same second time round and I would have rather spent the time on new writing or reviewing. My mistake has also reminded me of the value of backing up to different places and maintaining version control.

7. Telling people you are writing something gets it written

The advice on the NaNoWriMo site was to tell people you were doing it, as an additional incentive to persevere when running out of time (or ideas). I made a point of trying this and found it does work, so the same applies to any writing.

8. There are lots of ways to find extra writing time

One 'casualty' of NaNoWriMo has been the luxury of reading whenever I want to, so I'm glad to have that back again. I allowed myself just one book to read in November but tried to do it at times when I wouldn’t have been able to write. I have also developed a new routine of waking early and aiming to write at least 500 words before breakfast, then being more selective about what I watch on TV and writing instead. I've also not been able to spend much time on my blogs but took the opportunity to have a couple of guest blogs, which went down well and were no work for me.

9. Revision can wait

I was in the habit of revising as soon as I could after writing something, in case I forgot the details or repeated things. Thanks to NaNoWriMo I now realise that it's good to leave writing to 'mature' for a while, as the revision feels more objective.

10. You have to validate on the 30th

This was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo and although I knew the wordcount had to be validated before I could be pronounced a 'winner' I had missed the point that you have to paste the whole 50k ON the 30th as the web site is read only on the 1st of December. Never mind, I feel like a winner!

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