[First of all, hello everybody! I just started at Hamline during this past January residency, and it’s been a blast so far. I’ve loved getting to know some of the Hamline community, and have been so impressed by the work of the students. Looking forward to meeting more of you—please reach out anytime.]
I was just going over the copy-edited manuscript for my next book, and I was struck by how many hands were in it. There were tracked changes from two editors, in red and blue, my own changes in purple, a proofer’s thoughts in green, and then the invisible accepted changes from my previous rounds of revision lying beneath, input from my agent and friends and editors. It’s moving, after years of writing in obscurity, wondering if I’d ever be published, to see so many people working on something that had started as a few notes in a diary or a scrawl on an envelope.
At the same time, I missed the feeling of scrawling on that envelope.
Because my publishers are so keen on track changes, I spend a lot of time in Word. All of editorial is and production is handled there, so the sequence of loading up Word and using its menus is very familiar. I had submission etiquette drilled into me early on: Use 12-point Times New Roman font, 1” margins and double spacing. Anything else will make you look amateur. So before my book goes anywhere, I dress it up that way. That’s when it leaves home and enters its Word life.
I’ve become very aware that once my book is in Times New Roman and attached to an email it will never be just mine again. Though I’m grateful to get it off my plate, I also miss the old book. There’s an intimacy that happens when I think of something as just mine, and a freedom—I’ll take risks and write my way into crazy plot moments, and each time I open the document it’s full of possibilities, because no one has tried to define it for me yet. It’s just me and the document, and the world can wait.
For that reason I’ve started to make my novels feel as different as possible while they’re in their infancy, before they graduate to their inevitable Word adulthood. I’ve stopped drafting in Word altogether. Instead I use WriteMonkey, a free bare-bones word processor that is a simple two-color screen, with no menus. My favorite feature is that it will make typewriter sound effects each time I press a key. It’s like a little reward each time I write a new character, and keeps me writing faster to keep the little sounds coming. So much of my writing process is fueled on small and irrational sources of pleasure!
Eventually, I need to do fancier formatting things, so I’ll import the draft into Word. But even then I choose a font very carefully. When I’m editing words, how they look matters. I’ll have to spend hours staring at a font, so it better look right. I’m convinced I’ll make different choices in Futura than in Calibri, say. Recent loves have been Constantia (for my YA ape quartet) and Century (for The Lost Rainforest). I’m currently writing a sci-fi novel that I’ve switched to a sans serif font, and it’s changed the whole mood of the piece.
I guess I bring this up because I want to share a lesson it took me a few books to learn: hold onto the personal-ness of a book for as long as possible. I literally dress the book differently when it’s just novel-and-me. It wears pajamas when eventually it will wear a suit, to remind me that this communication between author and language is why I got started on this whole crazy business in the first place.
Eliot Schrefer is a New York Times-bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City, and is the children's book reviewer for USAToday.