Make this the year that you write that novel – or at least a good letter.
Biography: Sicilian-born, Rome-based Terranova’s latest novel, Farewell, Ghosts, is her first to be translated into English. In Italy she has also published short-story collections and contributes to La Repubblica, Linkiesta and Il Foglio.
My relationship with keeping a diary dates back to when I was young. My aunt had given me Anne Frank’s diary and I remember that after reading it I was struck: somewhere in the world there had been a child like me who had been denied becoming a writer. I already knew that I wanted to become a writer myself, so from that moment on I decided that I would keep a journal. Just like Anne, I gave my diaries girls’ names and I’d write down all the daily vicissitudes that a girl that age goes through: school, friends, love stories and so on.
In Messina, my hometown, I still have about 20 of these diaries. I think I have such a good memory because I wrote down everything that happened to me. But it was after reading another book that my relationship with journalling evolved further. The book was Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, which made me understand that you could make literature out of your own life. It was then that I started writing short stories – my thoughts started going into fictional characters rather than just myself. A novel might seem to require a much stricter approach to writing than a diary but you can find true freedom between limits, stretching them and sometimes betraying them.
Today I still have notebooks in which I freeze my thoughts and jot down notes, images and words that I might use in my books. I always use my wooden pens, made by an artisan in Ragusa; I don’t write without them. I believe that picking up the habit of writing on paper and finding that rhythm every day can take us deep, especially if we write about ourselves. The physical gesture of putting pen to paper requires a small effort but that effort is a step towards ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise take. Even if what you’re writing is faithful to reality, by choosing what to omit and what to tell you’re not doing something that’s much different to what writers do with their work – you’re narrating. Another French novelist who I came across in my forties talks about this very well. In her autobiographical work, Annie Ernaux discusses the meaning of her writing. She talks about what memory means to her and asks herself why she chooses to recount certain things rather than others.
Everyone can benefit from writing. Leaving your thoughts in a drawer and, after some time, going back to them to read what you had to say is where the true benefit lies.
Monocle comment: Keeping a diary can lead you to literary fame but it also achieves simpler things. Writing in a journal helps you to order your thoughts and reflect on what’s worth remembering. It stops days flying past into a jumbled oblivion and is also a place to plan and plot.
Biography: Rainbow Milk,Mendez’s semi-autobiographical debut, was released in 2020. He reveals how he got into writing – and why you should consider doing so too.
Writing a novel might be one of the most involving, immersive and rewarding things that you’ll ever do. After working in restaurants for most of my adult life, I registered at the British Library and soon found that reading is everything. Read whatever comes into your hands because you’ll find life in it and its essence will seep into your subsoil. I’ve been surprised on re-reading books by James Baldwin, Marlon James, Andrea Levy and Sam Selvon by how much of their influence is in my novel, Rainbow Milk.
Your influences needn’t always be literary. I found inspiration in films and art. As a person of British Afro-Caribbean heritage, I know that food and music bring people together and affirm identities and relationships. Sounds, smells and flavours provoke memories. Writing a novel should be a joy that translates to readers. A discerning reader will notice if you aren’t fully invested in your material.
But it’s all very well indulging in one’s tastes and favourites. If you want to write a novel, you need to be systematic and organised, without putting too much pressure on yourself. You might find, say, 2,000 words a day difficult to stick to, so be kind to yourself lest you give up. What your novel needs, as it grows from a notion to a full draft and beyond, is consistency. There’s no rush – remember, you’re your own boss.
Monocle comment: Don’t let the length of a novel scare you away from a long-term project that instils a real sense of purpose.
Biography: Moscow-born, London-based writer, editor and podcaster Lappin is the author of Foreign Brides and The Nose. Her memoir, What Language Do I Dream In?, explores the émigré experience. Here she remembers why long-distance correspondence feels so much better when it’s committed by pen to paper.
It is so easy to delete texts and emails but I have kept most of the letters I received since my childhood. I love losing myself in the memories and moods that they conjure up through ink on paper in so many different styles of handwriting. Even the typed letters have that same flair because the sender’s signature is like a personal seal – real and unique.
It is a rather sad fact that most stamped envelopes we now receive contain official correspondence and very rarely an actual letter from someone who we know. We all have extensive lists of contacts and a multitude of “correspondence” via text or email but the thrill of writing a letter and receiving a reply (or not) is a completely different experience.
What makes letters so special? It’s about the concept of time: the time it takes to think about and then write (and often rewrite) a letter, in solitude; the time it takes to wait for a response after posting it; and the permanence of a letter, regardless of its fate. You would have to burn or otherwise destroy a letter if you wanted it to disappear. Otherwise it will survive for as long as the paper that it’s written on, or until the ink fades. Many letters can actually live forever: they fill libraries, archives, books.
My favourite “film letter” is the one that is written by Helen Hunt to Jack Nicholson in the 1997 film As Good as it Gets. Their characters have a very difficult relationship: he is a successful writer who can’t communicate with others; she is a friendly waitress and a single mother of a chronically sick son. To ensure that she continues working at his favourite restaurant, Nicholson generously pays for the boy’s medical care. Hunt is grateful but doesn’t want to be beholden to him in any way. To express and explain this, she stays up all night, writing a 20-page “thank you letter”, pouring her life into it. But when she hands it to Nicholson, he is not interested. His refusal to read it defines a gap between them – a gap they eventually bridge by falling in love. Would a 2021 remake of this film, where the letter is written as an email, have the same effect?
Nowadays I often enjoy occasional social-media conversations with strangers when a shot in the dark brings an unexpected, fleeting response. But I would much rather put my fountain pen to elegant paper and write a good old-fashioned letter, post it and wait for a reply. Waiting is a big part of letter-exchanging joy: it slows and extends time, reminding us that not everything needs to happen right now. My parents fell in love by letter. They wrote to one another simultaneously and waited for each other’s response, ready to change their lives if the other’s letter confirmed their feelings. I am a great believer in love letters.
Monocle comment: If you miss receiving meaningful letters then ask yourself when was the last time that you actually took the time to write one. Try swapping a texting session for sitting down with a pen and paper. Letters help us to express what we mean and make the recipient feel appreciated. Your friends, family and loved ones deserve it.
Biography: Chen worked as The Wall Street Journal’s Beijing correspondent before relocating to the US East Coast. Swapping fact for fiction allowed her to explore a different side to her environs.
I wrote my collection of China-based short stories, Land of Big Numbers, while living in Beijing as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. On the one hand it felt like a peculiar thing to do as my day job was writing about China too. But on the other, fiction offered respite: a chance to be playful, to luxuriate in possibilities and let the imagination prowl. Every morning I’d wake up early to sit and write for an hour or so, usually huddled in a blanket on our couch before going into the bureau where I’d write about the day’s headlines. Those quiet moments felt like a kind of sanctuary, a passport to the unknown.
As an American, I was often asked what it was like to live in China. There was so much that I wanted to convey and share about the place. It’s a country of such rich human detail and surprises, many of which can be hard to capture in a news story. For me, fiction offered another kind of canvas. Beyond that, what I love about writing fiction is how it compels you to pay attention and find significance in unexpected places, even if it’s something as mundane as a late subway train or a forgotten phone number. It’s like having a secret dialogue with the world around you. I’ve found that writing fiction is a way of sorting through the threads and making meaning.
Monocle comment: It’s amazing how fiction helps us get to the truth. Let your imagination roam; you’ll feel lighter for it.
To help you start, we asked authors to reveal their tools of the trade.
“My favourite pen is a Nakaya Briarwood fountain pen that I bought online. My notebook is a beautiful thing and it pains me to stain it with ink. It was made for me by a master bookbinder. It’s bound in goatskin, which pains me as I’m a vegetarian, and has Cockerell paper on the boards from a cache that my wife has from the 1970s. She was a bookbinder herself when young and made a couple of notebooks for me.”
“Pencils are my choice. I used to prefer mechanical ones so I didn’t have to carry a sharpener but now I like graphite pencils. I use them for editing. I’ve rarely written first drafts on paper but I love planning stories (usually just a couple of lines) on hotel stationery. In the early days, before hotel stays, it would be rejection slips and compliment slips.”
“I have increasingly terrible handwriting but I write by hand every day – mainly unintelligible notes to a less-busy future self. I collected a lot of Sharpies on my last book tour so I am using those up. I particularly like the gold one I forgot to return to a bookshop in Adelaide (sorry). I keep all my notebooks and cards in an old Menier chocolate box that I bought at a flea market. It’s gold so it imparts glamour to even the hastiest postcard.”
“I wrote my first three novels with a beautiful brushed-silver Sheaffer, which had the best nib I’ve ever used. Then I changed to an also excellent black Parker that I’d won as a prize for The Listener Crossword. I wrote my fourth novel with this but the top wouldn’t stay on so I bought a new black Sheaffer that I’ve used ever since. These days the actual composition is at the keyboard but I still make notes in pencil in small Daler-Rowney pocket sketchbooks with perforated pages. I’ve used these for the past 30 years; two or three for each book.”
“I’ve written the first drafts of my past two novels by hand, in 120-page A4 lined notebooks made by Clairefontaine. It’s a French company that started out making notebooks for schoolchildren. It also makes its own paper. I write using the classic transparent black Bic Biro. There’s no resistance with a Biro. The words seem to flow. My last first draft was a three-Biro job. Then there are my notebooks, which are like scrapbooks. I nearly always use dark-green A5 Ryman notebooks with plain pages. They’re the perfect size to carry around and the hard cover means that I can write anywhere.”
“I jot my notes down in a Moleskine. These could be initial notes or for when a passage that I thought I had cracked refuses to work. The Moleskine that I’m currently using is wine-coloured. It was a gift from my children and is inscribed with the legend, ‘The best mum writes here’. I use a fountain pen for special fragments, especially when I’ve worked on a piece or passage for a long time and it reads well at last. Then I use a Lamy with a red top and cap, and a blue bottom. It was a gift from a lovely friend.”
“I use a few pens on a daily basis because I put different inks in each. For my workhorses I have two: a Pelikan m120 and a Sailor 1911s. I can take either in my purse and they’re sturdy, dependable and smooth. The Pelikan has a steel nib, which means it’s stiffer. My Sailor has a 14-carat gold nib that makes it a little smoother across the page. Nearly all of the inks are by a brand called Diamine. I use a Taroko notebook with Tomoe River paper, which is perfect for fountain pens. It doesn’t smudge or bleed through and lets you write without that ‘scratchy’ sound. For work that requires extended bouts of writing I use a Mnemosyne notebook.”
“Years of reporting in the field taught me that I can write whole TV and radio scripts with anything on anything: a pen, a pencil, a napkin, a tiny notepad. I pause and think a lot when typing. But I write faster and in one go when I write by hand – my thinking is clearer and the flow is much better. The idea behind the structure for Black Wave was sketched on the back of a restaurant receipt. I wrote whole chapters of my book by hand, using a Pilot g-2 07 black pen. I use a large Moleskine lined notebook, always with a red cover. I start with a rough structure on one page and then I just give in to the flow and fill the pages.”
“I don’t write on paper any longer but I do love jotting a prose passage down when I’m walking or taking a metro or bus. There is an improvised quality to fragmentary prose in a Moleskine that feels spontaneous, almost genuine. I own three Kaweco pens. The book that just came out, Roman Hours, was all written in notes hastily jotted down in my Moleskine while walking around Rome. The pen that I loved most was a broad-nibbed Montblanc fountain pen, which I sent back to the Montblanc hospital for a check-up every two years or so. It got lost in the mail and I’ve never been the same since. Finally, I adore the 1.0 Uni-ball. I always carry it with me and love taking notes with it when I’m at my desk.”
“I do not allow myself to buy fancy pens because I just lose them or they explode in my purse. So my everyday is the classic Bic Cristal. They’re only $12 [€10] for 50 so I can afford to be a bit reckless; to give them to strangers even! To sign books I like a Sharpie fine point. My standard notebook is a Moleskine hardcover with lined paper. I try to get them in some colour other than black so I can spot them quickly in my backpack.”
“The pen – even the humble Muji Gel Ink pen, black 0.5mm – is mightier than the sword. It flows with easy precision and is brilliant for embellishing the text with doodles. I keep stashes in my desk drawer but they also poke out of kitchen and bathroom cabinets.”
“My preferred notebook is a pocket-sized Rollbahn. The kind that I like is bound along the top and the only place I can find them any more is in Japan. Tucked inside my notebook is a Caran D’Ache palladium-coated Ecridor XS Retro ballpoint pen. It’s a bit longer than my index finger and has a great weight.”
“My grandparents were architects and as a child I’d go to their practice after school, writing stories or drawing imaginary floor plans using their squared paper and black Edding Fineliner pens, 0.3mm. The brand that my grandparents used is sadly no longer in production but Muji and Stabilo make good substitutes. I think more clearly when I write by hand. It’s necessary for me to visualise a structure before I begin a novel and I repeatedly return to it as though I were building a house.”
“On being awarded a French literary prize a few years ago I wandered to my nearby post office in Bangkok to collect the bounty: a handsome, heavyweight Waterman fountain pen, which by this point was swimming in champagne. This was not purposeful. The jeroboam had broken in transit from Paris and a scene unfolded as the staff and I fished the pen from shards of glass and a small lake of champagne. I love the pen and use it every day but I swear that it’s still sticky.”