Any time I hear people complain about not having time, myself included, I think about Harry Marks. He works a full-time job, has a family, hosts a podcast, and cranks out more writing than would seem humanly possible. How? When?
What follows is a brief Q & A that shows you sometimes have to make time. No whining. Marks also talks about all the cool stationery tools he uses daily, which is obviously my favorite part.
SSC: So, what's your story?
MARKS: By day I work in marketing for a law firm in New York. By night, weekend, and lunch hour, I'm a writer and podcaster. I've written four novels and I'm currently working on a fifth. I also write short fiction and my latest short story was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of HelloHorror. My podcast, COVERED, is a bi-weekly interview show where I talk to published authors and other publishing professionals (agents, audiobook producers, etc) about their books, the writing process, and the various stages of the publishing machine.
SSC: Tell us a little bit about your stationery origin story. When did you realize that paper was more than just paper?
MARKS: I've always been interested in all things analog. When I pick up a pen, I'm holding the means to physically extract what's in my mind and put it somewhere for everyone else to see. I think there's a power there that goes beyond the keyboard. Even after my short excursion into the world of ebooks with the original Barnes & Noble Nook, I went back to paper books. Reading is a multi-sensory experience. Words have weight, so when it comes to putting them on the page, I want to add physical to the emotional.
At first, I only paid attention to what I could find in my local office supply store, and there are quite a few great pen/pencil/paper options to be found there, but it wasn't until I started listening to The Pen Addict podcast and the Erasable podcast when I began to venture outside Staples and into the vast world of stationery stores. Moleskines gave way to Rhodia pads and Midoris. I retired the Pilot V5 rollerball for a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen. My Ticonderogas were phased out in favor of Blackwings. That's not to say my original choices were bad—they weren't—but it was time to broaden my horizons.
SSC: How do you use analog tools to tell your story?
MARKS: I don't just use analog tools to tell *my* story, I use them to tell all sorts of stories. My to-do lists always start out on paper and sometimes make it into an app if I remember, but paper is essential to my daily workflow. I've written novels and short stories using pen and paper. I'm currently outlining my fifth novel in a legal pad with a sharpened array of Blackwing 602s by my side. I also began a draft of a book in a 1950s Smith-Corona typewriter I bought a few years ago. I love it—the sound and the feel of the letters smacking the page, each one a popping blister on a sheet of bubble wrap. It's a fun, visceral way to get the words out, and I only wish I got to use it more often.
SSC: All right, so what's in your bag?
MARKS: My bag is my mobile writing station. It's a Johnston and Murphy leather messenger bag, inside of which I carry a black Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bag. This is what stores my legal pad, file folder of research, and array of pens and pencils. Currently, I carry:
- 1 Amazon Basics yellow legal pad
- 1 file folder stuffed with printouts and research for my next novel
- 3 fully sharpened Blackwing 602s
- 1 pencil extender with a 602 stub inside
- 1 KUM Masterpiece pencil sharpener
- 1 KUM 2-stage long-point pencil sharpener
- 1 Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil
- 1 Story Supply Co. pocket notebook
- 1 Midori Traveler's Notebook
- 1-2 books for reading on the train
- 1 Polaroid Snap instant camera
With regard to that last item, I enjoy carrying a point-and-shoot that automatically prints a tiny version of the photo I've just taken. It forces me to be thoughtful in what I shoot so I don't end up hoarding thousands of photos the way I currently do on my iPhone. I then stick the photos (they have adhesive backings) in my Midori as a way to get myself back into journaling.
On my desk at home, I almost have too much to list, but a few of the highlights are:
- A 1950s Smith-Corona typewriter
- Audio Technica turntable hooked up to a pair of 1980s Bose bookshelf speakers
- Orange Lamy Al-Star (which I lovingly refer to as "the General Lee")
- Black medium nib Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen
- Silver fine nib Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen
- Black Kaweco Sport fountain pen
- Mason jar stuffed with various pencils, like Mono 100s and General's Cedar Pointes
And my office walls are lined with books. BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS as far as the eye can see. No e-readers for me.
SSC: What's your typical creative process look like?
MARKS: My creative process actually isn't so creative. Often after I finish a book and begin the querying process with agents, my reserves are tapped. I feel like I've got nothing creative left in me and so I float through the next several weeks as the world moves around me. And then I look up from my stupor and begin to absorb what the world is trying to show me. My latest novel arose after seeing a historical 1700s colonial for sale on my street and wondering, "Who would choose to live the way someone did back in 1760? Who would cook in a wood-burning stove? Who would buy a house they couldn't legally modernize?"
Once I have a general plot idea, I try to outline a few key points of the story. I don't always work from an outline and certainly not a detailed one, but I do like to have a vague path to travel as I write so I don't end up too far into the weeds.
My first drafts tend to be written using some analog method, be it pen/pencil and paper or my typewriter. I live in New Jersey, but I work in New York City, so I don't have a lot of time to work on my writing. As a result, I'm up every morning at 4:30 am and on the train an hour later where I read until I fall asleep. Reading is essential to my process—it's like running every morning to train for a marathon. You can't be a good writer unless you read. I know some people find it difficult to read while they're working on a book, but I can't give up reading for 6-9 months at a time. It would kill me.
My train pulls into Penn Station around a quarter after six and then I'm off to the Barnes & Noble near my office. On nice days, I'll walk from Penn Station, which provides me about half an hour to work on the book in my head as I stroll through Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center. On hot or rainy days, I'll take the subway and read some more. Regardless, I'm at the Barnes & Noble cafe near my office by 7:00 am--right when it opens. For the next two hours, my derriere is in a chair and I'm writing. I don't deviate from this. I can't. The routine is necessary or else I won't be able to finish the book. I don't have time at night or on weekends to write, so I make the most of what little time I have.
Once the first draft is completed, the pages then get transcribed into Scrivener, which acts as one round of editing. That second draft gets printed on a laser printer at home, and with red pen in hand, I slash and scribble all over it until I'm ready to transcribe those new edits back into Scrivener. By the time it's all finished, I've reached a point where the novel is as good as it's going to be. I'm of the belief that when I can't stand to look at the manuscript any longer, it's done and anything further I do to it will only hurt the story.
From there, I try to have a few fellow writers look over it and critique it. Their suggestions are weighed and (usually) incorporated back into the book and then it's time to query agents. This is the part of the process that makes me cringe. I keep a Google Spreadsheet of all the agents I want to query and update their records as I send letters and sample chapters out. Querying, for lack of a better word, *sucks*. It's a waiting game and an exercise in reinforcing one's self-esteem. The good news is as I've been at this for the last five years or so, I've noticed the quality of the rejections get better and better. What used to be "thanks, but no thanks" form letters have turned into, "Not for me, but please think of me when you're ready to query your next book," and "Keep sending this out." Phrases that tell me my book(s) *will* find a home—it's just a matter of time.
And that's the thing about writing—it takes persistence. It takes an iron will and the desire to grow, to hone one's craft, to not get discouraged by rejections or bad reviews on Goodreads or the occasional email from some random person with a grudge. I can say without a doubt that my first few novels were crap. C-R-A-P. Crap. Had I had a clearer mind, I would've shelved them entirely—no queries, no critiques. Just shoved them in the deepest, darkest corner of a drawer and forgotten about them. But I didn't. I sent them to agents and got told "No" over and over again and it was the best thing I could've done. I used them to propel me into my next book, then another, and with each new novel, my writing got tighter. My sentences got cleaner. I grew and continue to grow with each book and short story I write.
SSC: Okay, obligatory "desert island" question. You only get to have one paper and pen/pencil combination for the rest of your stationery using days, what's it going to be?
MARKS: While there are those who swear by fountain pens and fine paper for their precious words, I prefer something a little less glamorous. I wrote my second novel in a large, softcover Moleskine notebook with a pile of black 0.3mm Pilot Hi-Tec-C pens. I'd trade the Moleskine for a stack of legal pads, but that pen is a knockout. Writes on anything and dries instantly and the tiny point means I can squeeze notes into the margins and between lines with ease. So, give me the 0.3mm Pilot Hi-Tec-C and a legal pad for the rest of my life and I'd be a happy writer.