Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - Noodler's Firefly

There are a lot of reasons to pick up a pen. Most of them involve writing something down (and some of them involve poking at the space behind your desk to scoot out that quarter you dropped). Once the writing is done, there's usually cause to read it back. To study it, maybe to edit it. For me, that's where Noodler's Firefly comes in.

I used to get along fine with a handful of felt-tip highlighters for most of my studying and editing. (By the way, have you ever noticed how highlighters tend to just multiply in drawers? I do NOT remember buying so many, but I have lots. Maybe I need to sit them closer to my spare change jar so they can teach it some tricks.)

There is nothing wrong with a good felt-tip highlighter. They get the job done, they're cheap, they're easy to obtain. They're simple tools. They're just not as much fun as they could be.

I got this ink because Lamy decided to release this pen as it's 2013 Limited Edition Safari:

Neon Yellow Lamy Safari. It's more neon than it looks.
When I saw that pen, I saw instant potential for an excuse to a) get a cool new pen and b) find a way to replace yet another common writing tool with a fountain pen.

I ordered my Neon Yellow Safari with a 1.9mm italic nib. An italic nib is one with no ball of tipping material on the end of the nib, usually cut straight across (or sometimes at an angle, called an oblique) and used to provide essential line variation for calligraphic writing. Or, in this case highlighting.

1.9mm is a wide nib, too wide for most casual writing, even if you're accomplished in penmanship. For my purposes, it was perfect.

I went in search of the highlighter ink that would most match my fluorescent yellow pen, and Noodler's Firefly was top of the line. Noodler's and a few other manufacturers make other highlighter inks in various colors, but as soon as I loaded Firefly in my Safari, I knew I had chosen well. It is such a perfect match for that bright, eye-searing yellow I am so well-trained to spot when scanning documents, and it showed up flawlessly on all the text I tried it with.

I was hoping that the fountain pen highlighting method would produce less smearing and ink-transfer when highlighting over handwritten (or ink-jet printed) words than felt-tip highlighters. Sadly, it was not to be. Highlighting over fountain pen ink is especially bad about this, but I noticed it happening with commercial ballpoints and rollerballs as well. Even though this is just as common with standard highlighters, this is a fountain pen which uses capillary action to produce ink-flow, and which can also suck up ink small amounts of pooled ink as it writes. That left the pen writing with a lingering black muddy quality for longer than it would take to de-smudge a felt-tip with a few scribbles.

Another concern is the water resistance. Be warned: if you are using this ink on an important document, keep it away from water! This is one of the most water-soluble inks I have ever used. It literally ceases to exist when it comes in contact with H2O. It is entirely erasable, and that's not a good thing in this case. 

The other issue I experienced was with the pen, not the ink. The 1.9mm nib I received had very tight tines and required some tweaking to get it to flow well. Even once that was done, I noticed that I had trouble keeping the nib flat on the paper, sometimes losing contact and producing a skip. The ink is thin and not very viscous, so it didn't help me out with maintaining flow like some thicker inks will. I also found it to be kind of scratchy and not as pleasant to use as I'd hoped. Part of the problem is with me--I am a left-handed underwriter, and while it doesn't affect my ability to use most pens, I have always struggled with italic nibs of all sizes. I do much better with an oblique that follows the natural contour of my grip and enables me to keep the nib connected to the paper in a more natural way.

This set-up took some getting used to, but I am very happy with the ink. It works great on laser printed and commercially printed pages. I may purchase a Platinum Preppy Highlighter pen in the near future. All Platinum Preppies are easily convertible to eyedropper fillers, meaning you can seal the threads and fill the whole barrel with ink. That would give me a felt-tip alternative to use with this ink, and I guarantee it will be more economical in the long run than going through piles of standard highlighters.

As with some other bright inks, this one proved difficult to scan. My scanner is designed to AVOID picking up highlighted sections, so I had to take a photo instead. It doesn't capture the fluorescence very well, but it is there, just as bright and useful as the drawerful of Sharpie highlighters apparently everyone has.

Of course, if you get a bottle of this ink and it doesn't fit your needs, you could always do what I suggested in the review: smear it all over your hands and go outside at dusk to strike fear in the heart of every firefly for miles.

The comparison is a Sharpie highlighter. When a highlighter is doing its job, it isn't supposed to be legible, right?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Inspiration Monday: From Observer to Narrator

I'm currently reading On the Road by Jack Keroac. While it is billed as a novel, Keroac made no secret about the fact that it was built from his own experiences. The narrative rumbles on and on in stream of consciousness like a jazzy drum solo, complete with unexpected adjectives that ring in your ears like cymbal crashes. Every interaction the narrator has with another person is colorful and alive, not because of the amount of details provided--on the contrary, he blazes from one place to the next like a shooting star in Mexican huarache shoes--but because of the ones he chooses to include. This is a gift Keroac had, for sure, but another reason he was able to capture so much noise and turn it into music was that he was purposeful about it. As a writer, Keroac did not just observe. He observed with intent.

Through years of writing fiction, especially those projects with a dash of fantasy, I have become well-practiced in observing entire worlds unfolding only in my head. How a person talks or drives a car or folds his pillow under his head comes from the jumbled trunk of collected experiences stored in the attic of my mind. There are all kinds of odds and ends in there--little bits of conversations, half-remembered sensory experiences, a few scars, and probably a good amount of Jell-O.

I didn't store all those things in the back of my mind with the plan of someday channeling them into a story, a blog post, or even to color the way I see things when I read books. They are largely just things that somehow stuck with me for better or worse, unimpeachably stamped with my perception and voice, that find their way out of the box when the time comes. These things can be useful, but they aren't intentional

I recently tried a little experiment. During a conversation with Husband, I grabbed up a notebook and I narrated him. He wasn't sure what I was doing at first, but I read what I had written back to him afterward. He not as amused as I was, but he was a good sport (because as sports go, he is the very best good one). I noticed a few interesting things. There is a cadence to his speech and a little dip in his accent that is all his own. I must have known; we've been married for years. I would recognize his voice anywhere, but I still hadn't noticed. He didn't talk like I write, he talked like he talks. Instead of remembering him on paper, I captured him.

Try it out this week. Don't just listen to the world around you, listen with intent. Write things down the way they are, not the way you remember them. Put on your journalist's hat and tell it like it is. Not only is it good practice for developing varied character voices, it is a great way to stockpile images, dialogue, and scenes that could come in handy later. Pay attention to the nuance. Give yourself a chance to really notice things. It'll become second nature, and you'll find yourself remembering things in a new, purposeful way.

It is one thing to go through life as an unexamined observer, but once you become a narrator you take on the responsibility of opening your readers' eyes to the way you see things, and underneath, why you see them that way.

Your life story is happening now. Tell it.

Point in Time

There are a lot of things I love about my job working with people who have experienced homelessness.

For one, I get a front-row seat to some of the greatest personal comeback stories anyone could ask for. I've seen people rescue themselves from human trafficking, unconscionable violence, dehumanizing addictions, and textbook-defying mental and physical illness. These same people get jobs, they go back to school, they get medical and psychiatric care, they learn how to read, they make friends. They go from streets, shelters, abandoned buildings, and sheet-and-tarp tents, to sleeping in beds (really sleeping, which many haven't done for years), washing their clothes, grocery shopping, and paying bills. These are all things most of us take for granted, but for my clients these are milestones. Not everyone has the kind of success they write about in human-interest newspaper stories, but most are on the road to seeing themselves as individuals again, remembering what it is like to have the privilege of being a "person" instead of being branded: HOMELESS.

My job is never, ever, ever, ever boring, and it allows me to see up close and personal the one really true magic trick a human being can perform:


It's beautiful. Completely. Every single time.

Today's adventure was the nationwide Homeless Point-in-Time Count. This initiative is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to gain a census of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations around the country's major cities on one given day, strategically chosen as the day after the estimated coldest night of the year. Service providers and volunteers are dispatched into the city to locate and interview unsheltered individuals.

The Point-in-Time Count is the only opportunity some of us ever take to spend a day taking stock of our city. This is a day spent looking around corners, behind things, under things, peeking through the looking-glass to the places our cities don't want us to notice, the places where invisible things like to hide. Invisible people.

Today, my coworker and I were assigned an area of the city we don't normally frequent. It's kind of funny, really, because this area is much nearer to my home than to my work, but it still felt foreign. We peeked behind parking lots, in alleys, around overpasses, and under bridges. My coworker, (who has a future in NASCAR if this career doesn't work out for her) pulled several EXPERT U-turns on seven lane highways to get us near enough to approach people. We met some interesting people today, ones I won't forget. It's hard to believe they have been there all this time, practically in my own backyard.

I work with people who have experienced homelessness for a living, and days like today still have the power to open my eyes and remind me: homelessness is a crisis. It is a complicated, tangled-up, no-easy-answers problem, but that is no excuse to forget. It is an emergency for these individuals, day in and day out, through all points in their time whether we are counting or not. Their lives are happening in these hidden places we are trained not to see and their every activity is centered around survival, whatever shape it takes for that person. It is profoundly unjust, and when we forget this (or just refuse to look), we lose a piece of our humanity.

I'm going to endeavor to remember to peek around corners a little more often, and to remember the people who may be carving out an existence there: people who are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and hopefully someday--neighbors.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Poopoopaper Panda Poo Journal

On a trip to the Memphis Zoo last year, I ducked into the gift shop with Husband and my friend. They meandered around, trying on safari hats and sunglasses, smugly ignoring all the snake memorabilia hiding on the shelves. I do not like snakes, remember? So, that left me creeping around the aisles, holding my breath and steeling myself so I could walk past the big display of plush snake stuffed animals (ages 3+). I was quickly becoming a nervous wreck and needed something to focus on so I could bide my time in safety.

My sixth sense kicked in and I finally located a panda-adorned table full of books, pens, and paper. There were no snakes anywhere near it, and no one else was standing there. Plus, PANDAS! Perfect.

The table was piled high with these:

They were made with panda poo.

Like, poo from actual pandas. Like this one, who posed so nicely for me:

He's making new raw paper material right now.

Naturally, I had to have one.

The manufacturer, Poopoopaper (their webstore is called the "Pootique"), uses the back cover to assure me that the poo in question was sifted for bamboo fibers, which were washed and sterilized before processing, ensuring an environmentally sound and odorless writing experience. Uh huh. Let's hope so.

There is good craftsmanship in this notebook. The cover is adorable. It is well-made and quite artful, especially the inset panda portrait with an origami-style plant for it to munch.  It does not smell like poo of any kind, unless Panda poo already smells like paper. I kinda doubt that.

I was not expecting this paper to be good for use with fountain pens, which are pretty much all I ever use. The paper is thick and spongy feeling, like most handmade pulp papers. Of course, that didn't stop me from giving it a try.

It went a bit better than I expected, and wasn't entirely unpleasant. It was obviously a bad pen and paper match--it was rough and there was plenty of feathering and "ink-bloat"--but I still found a lot to like about the paper. It is as soft and thick as the cover led me to believe. The front side is "smoother" but that is like saying my cat's tongue is smoother than 40-grit sandpaper. It is smattered with little fibers throughout. Fibers that came from poo.

The back side of the paper is quite different. It has a uniform "grid" pattern embedded into it from the paper manufacturing process. This type of paper is not press rolled like most commercial papers, but is dried on a screen, creating this unique pattern. I don't believe the notebook is designed for writing on both sides of the page, but I can't help myself. I hate wasting paper.

I tried the paper with a gel pen as well. I used the fake Mont Blanc someone gave my husband for free loaded with a Parker Gel refill. It's normally a nice writer, but I had a similar nagging fear that the tip of the pen was about to clog up with fibers.

Then came pencil. It is hard to go wrong with a pencil since they're fairly indestructible. If I'd had the right pencil in my hand, I might have found it a little more pleasant, but in this case, the one I had was a little light and hard for this paper. It dug into the soft paper and produced much too faint a line for my liking.

The best pen for the job on this particular paper, as I'm pained to admit, is an old fashioned paste-ink, 39¢ ballpoint pen.

The ballpoint matches pleasantly with the soft paper, and the lines are dark and easy. This paper makes for one of the better ballpoint pen experiences I've had, actually, mostly due to the pleasant sinking of the pen into the paper. It reminds me of when I used to flip over my mom's floppy plastic and rubber placemats when I was a kid and doodle on the backs of them. (Yes, I eventually got caught.) I thought I'd be as nagged by the fear of clogging the tip as I was with the gel pen, but for some reason, it wasn't a factor. It just didn't scratch into the paper as much.

On the whole, this is a nice notebook if you're not picky about your writing instruments. It is cute, it is quirky, it is well-made, and it is made of poo. How can you top that?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Inspiration Monday: Don't Fence Me In

Lately, I've been talking to one of my friends about his writing journey. He is an idea man, and a good one. He has laid out for me several times his plan for a sprawling epic fantasy novel that would probably make Game of Thrones seem like A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hope he writes it someday, because I'm already dying to read it.

He hopes he'll write it someday, too. He's trying, he's practicing, he's doing all the right things, but he keeps getting tangled up in his own feet. More specifically, he has fenced himself in.

In our last conversation, he mentioned that he feels he is weak on his ability to write description. "I have read a lot of books, and I can't do what real writers can do. I just don't have the vocabulary for it," he said. "I don't know the right words for everything I want to describe."

I can vouch that his vocabulary is fine. He lacks nothing to becoming a writer except confidence.

I've made the same mistake as my friend, and I will surely make it again. I think all writers do this--we compare our work to others and find it lacking. We compare our work to the image in our heads, the ideal, and we find it lacking there, too. We look at the watered-down word soup on the page, and we think we are not really creating, we are making literary mud-pies. Who would be interested in reading this? How do I do it well--no, how to I do it right?

When it comes to writing (or any type of art, really), we have an open field. We can do anything. There are rules, sure. Most of those rules are there for good reasons. They give us the structure we need to climb higher and strengthen our muscles. Beyond rules, there are expectations. Readers expect a mystery to read differently than Songbirds of South America, and they don't open a new literary fiction novel expecting the same wordy Victorian style as Pride and Prejudice. (Except for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.) Expectations, like rules, give us something to stand on, but they also give us something to play with. If we become afraid to do that, the gate closes behind us and we're stranded in our own corral.

My friend is caught up worrying so much about his inability to write like the authors he admires that he is paralyzed. "They're well-known, they get paid to do this, they made me love their work, so surely they're doing this right and I am doing it wrong." He is sure his work is so eaten up with fatal flaws that it is probably not worth saving, and he doesn't trust his own eyes.

It saddens me that my talented, intelligent friend has lost himself inside this box of expectations and absolutes where there is so much waiting to be discovered. With his ability to craft mythology, he has a whole fantastic world at his fingertips. He's just too afraid to open the floodgates and let it loose. What if he does it wrong?

Black ink on a white page is not all there is to writing. In that humble vessel lie infinite possibilities that come in all colors. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write your story. It is yours, as unique as your fingerprint. If you gave your favorite idea to any other writer, he or she would not be able to write the story you would have written. If it is to be, it has to come from you, and you have to get it out of your head and on the paper. There is nothing you can do in writing that you can't easily undo, so why not test your limits?

Don't let fear, rules, and expectations fence you in. They're just part of the landscape, and there is plenty to explore.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

Brief Synopsis: Room is not just a noun. Room is a world, a whole universe. At least that is what our narrator, freshly five-year-old Jack, thinks since the 11x11 room he inhabits with his mother is the only environment he has ever known. He was born there on Rug, he measures Plant's leaves by the width of his hand there, he counts his cereals at Table, he runs his there-and-backs around the outside of Bed, and reads with Ma, all the books in the world: Alice in Wonderland, The Runaway Bunny, and Dylan the Digger. Jack lives his life in Room, right up until nine o' clock when he has to switch off inside Wardrobe, because nine o' clock is when Keypad beeps and Door finally opens. Nine o' clock is when Old Nick comes.

Published: 2010

Format Read: Trade paperback, some round-robin convenience reading on my iPhone when I snagged the Kindle version on Amazon's Deal of the Day.

Comparison: Bear with me here. First, let me say, I haven't read anything else like Room when it comes to the direct plot. One element of the book that did ring familiar, however, was the precociousness and wonderment of the narrator, Jack. It reminds me of The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. Yes, it is a stretch to compare such a dark, adult novel to a beloved children's tale, but I would say there are a lot of similarities to Jack's story and that of the Little Prince. Besides, both books teach us that the voice of a child can carry a lot of wisdom, as long as an adult isn't too proud to listen.

In many ways, I saw Jack as the Little Prince and Ma as his beloved rose. Jack busies himself with his daily routines, just as the Little Prince was so careful to pull up the baobabs and sweep his volcanoes. He took care of his tiny, lonely planet as Jack cares for his friends in Room, even recognizing each object by it's proper name: Bath, Table, Plant, Bed, Wardrobe, etc. In The Little Prince, a rose finally grows on his tiny planet and becomes The Little Prince's companion. He loves the vain, beautiful rose, and he works to appease it and protect it. The rose is sometimes cold and demanding, which reminded me of when Ma would have her catatonic Gone days. I, the adult reader, know that she was overwhelmed, traumatized, desperate, and psychologically fragile, but Jack just knew she was Gone, and he struggled to keep his routine and play by Ma's rules, Room's rules. As the story unfolds, Ma begins to depend on Jack, even telling him at one point, "I thought you were supposed to be my superhero." Jack, terrified and confused, does his best to keep up his end of the bargain, just as the Little Prince did for his rose.

Jack wonders about the land of TV, where he believes all things outside of room reside, that they are all make-believe. His forays of imagination remind me of The Little Prince visiting other planets and learning about others different from him, and different from each other. Like the Little Prince, Jack soaks up every drop of information thrust upon him and he is brave and strong and resilient--but in the end, he endeavors only to be with his Ma. The Little Prince must always go back his rose.

I could see turning the tables and looking at it the other way, too. Ma is trapped in Room by herself, surviving the best she can, and then comes Jack. She loves him with all her love but it is a demanding task to be wholly responsible for the life of your child (and Jack is all child, just as egocentric as children his age are supposed to be), especially when they're stuck on what is ostensibly their own little planet.

Review: It is possible for something unpleasant to be beautiful. That is just how I would describe Room: unapologetically uncomfortable, and beautiful anyway.

It has been a long time since I read a book that got under my skin the way this one did. It devastated me, it challenged me, it confused me, hurt me, and healed me. It sent me around my house with a tape measure trying to understand what it would be like to exist--not just survive, but exist--only in an 11x11 space. It seeped into my dreams and turned them to nightmares, sometimes as simply as a key turning in a lock. It followed me to work, where I narrowed my eyes at the brown truck in front of me with the groceries in the back, thinking maybe it was Old Nick out bargain shopping for Sundaytreat.

Any book that sticks on your heels like that has done something right.

Diagram of Room courtesy of roomthebook.com. Go there.

This book is as bold and solid as Room's big metal door. You can't find the seams--just when I thought Jack was a little too aware, a little too clever to be an accurate five-year-old, he'd hit me with something so accurately childlike that would swing me back around. This can be a cheap trick in the hands of a lesser writer--whipping the reader back and forth like a tennis match--and it doesn't usually work. Not so with Jack. Donoghue makes the necessary excuses for Jack's ability to tell us this story, but she doesn't take unfair advantage of the situation. She builds us a well-crafted narrator, who is as honest as he is unreliable.

If the idea of an unreliable narrator makes you nervous, don't let it. The action happens in front of Jack's face, and while his limitations distort the experience, it only adds to the sense of foreboding we have, knowing we are so much bigger and stronger than him, that we understand so much more than this little boy.

If you're the type who likes symbolism, I'd say there is plenty to mine from here. For one, in a lot of ways, Room is like a womb where Jack has continued his isolated gestation. His mother still breastfeeds him, which first scandalized me, but later softened me. I had to think what it was like for Ma--what connection that must have brought her, what comfort for her son. There's also the pragmatic side of things as well. As long as she keeps her milk, no matter what Old Nick does to their food supply, she can keep Jack going just a little longer. The feeding becomes a kind of antenna for what is going on in the connection between Ma and Jack, and fits with the idea of Jack, Mr. Five, but also newborn in so many of the ways important to us readers. 

Working in the field of mental health and being a staunch advocate for those with mental health challenges, it was important for me that this book get the psychology right. I don't expect an author to get a degree in Developmental Psychology to be able to write a book like this, but they have to get the anchors in the right places. I'm pleased to say I think Emma Donoghue was right on the money. She had to filter everything through Jack, and he had to pick up on just the right things to cue us in without him understanding too much (a tall order if ever there was one), but she manages it beautifully, and we get a sincere understanding for the types of physical and emotional trauma and regrowth these characters must endure. She finds ways to sneak in terms and definitions, sure, but I found the real truth to be in their faltering strength and denial. Those are things I see all the time because no one wants to admit where they are weak and hurt, especially someone who has had those places exploited.

I don't want to say too much about the plot arc itself because I don't want to spoil the book, but it is fair to say it has two distinct halves. It is likely you will prefer one over the other depending on what you like to read, but personally, I enjoyed both for their individual merits. Both halves have their own objectives which I felt were achieved nicely.

I haven't read any of Emma Donoghue's other work, but I plan to seek it out. Even writing in the voice of a five-year-old, it is clear to see she is masterful with language, and she is not afraid to boldly show you her story without watering it down with unnecessary (and self-conscious) explanations.

Back when I was a bookseller, I had a few favorite books I liked to handsell. Among them were The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson, and The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier. All of these books have something unconventional about them--structure, style, voice, plot--that would sometimes scare away a potential reader. I pressed those books into people's hands time and time again and said, "This is a Trust Novel. That means that no matter how many times you think in the beginning that you don't get it, that you don't understand, that there are too many 'whys', you have to promise yourself you are going to keep turning the pages. You are safe in this book, because no matter how hard it may seem at first, this author will take you where you need to be and it is so worth it."

Room is a Trust Novel. Emma Donoghue is not going to let you down. That's not to say everyone will like everything about this book, or any other, but if you give her a chance to draw you in, she will tell you a story that will haunt you and change the way you think.

Trust me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I read an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago* by novelist Paul Theroux in which he described his creative process. He mentioned that writing by hand is a crucial part of his writing process (and he always uses a Lamy pen on good-quality Docket Diamond paper). In that article, he quoted Hamish Hamilton who would often praise writers' handwriting, stating, "He has a good fist." Mr. Theroux went on to state that he was once approached by a budding novelist who asked his advice on how to improve her work. He quickly told her that she needed to go back and copy the first fifty pages of her novel by hand. She asked, "Can I do it on the computer?" Mr. Theroux did not chuck her into the sea, but explained no, she needed to write her words by hand so she could study them, and that typing is vastly different than actual writing. In the end, the woman did not take his advice. Mr. Theroux said he knew it would have helped because he "would have been able to see her 'fist' in it."

We already know I'm on board with putting my "fist" in my work. Like Mr. Theroux, handwriting is a crucial part of my process. I can't think at all unless I have a pen in my hand--it is where I store my brain. Handwriting is not optional; I need to do it or I cannot write well. At least, I cannot write like me. (Also like Mr. Theroux, I do enjoy a nice Lamy pen.)

I've read other articles that suggest taking Mr. Theroux's advice another step further. If handwriting can light up our creative neural pathways and open doors into our own writing, then it naturally follows that a positive practice effect can be achieved by handwriting copies of works we admire. Basically, if I want to learn to turn a phrase like Steinbeck or draw a setting like Hemingway, I can learn how it feels to do so by copying the places they did those things well. It is a way to marinate our brains in someone else's good words so that eventually, when we are writing our own work, we will recognize the cadence, the look on the page, and the feel in the hand. Then we will know when our own words are good, too.

I learned of this technique a good while ago. I thought it was a good idea, and I meant to try it. I have written miles of pages since then, much of it morning grumbles about how I always want another cup of coffee, but I had never taken up my pen to try it out. I guess I am so hardwired against plagiarism that copying someone else's work seemed out-of-bounds, even for practice.

Since I have been sick and operating on half a brain, I figured it was as good a time as any to give it a try.

Like with most good advice, it turns out it was effective, and actually a good bit of fun.

I started with a handful of nearby books I have read and admired for one thing or another. After I did the handwriting sample, I did a little slab of analysis on what I learned.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I have long loved Philip K. Dick. I appreciate his work for his madness as much as his imagination, his sensitivity as much as his bravado. A Scanner Darkly is unique among the PKD novels and stories I've read, and I was glad to get my finger on what makes it tick. The first thing I noticed was that his sentences are actually straightforward and simple, unfolding one idea straight to the next like a set of Russian nesting dolls. He's not big on commas, either for connection or pause. He uses them appropriately, but not for fun. It adds to the straightforward style and voice. This works well, given the way PKD's works tangle themselves up in complexity and confusion as they go along. If his writing got in his way, it would be hopeless to follow.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down has long been heralded a classic, not just for its story, but for the creative, sensitive handling of writing from the perspective of a rabbit. Richard Adams gives his readers an experience they couldn't have any other way, and he does it in three dimensions. In the sample I copied, Adams takes his time drawing the setting and ambiance. I could feel it in the words themselves and the long, languid sentences. There was such an emphasis on all the trees and grasses, I almost sneezed just writing it. It gets the job done setting the world at a rabbit's eye view, and his lush writing mirrors the lushness he is trying his best to get his readers to see with him.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea was considered by Hemingway to be his greatest work. It has certainly endured as such, and is a fine example of Hemingway's signature style. The writing is sparse and unadorned, and often his sentences run on and on, nailed together with a string of conjunctions. He says a lot with a little, and does so without a comma in sight. The stark style works for the type of tale he's building, and the sentences come across as being brave and secure, unapologetic even. There are no nervous adjectives to add insurance to his descriptions. They just are what they are. Only at the end of his paragraphs does the hammer fall, and Hemingway hits us with a pitch-perfect metaphor summing up all we really need to know.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is a deceptive book. It sits camouflaged in the children's section of bookstores and libraries, pretending to be simple. It is not. There is nothing simple about it, and any lesser writing would never be able to pull together the slow-build of complex and increasingly conflicting ideals that gives the book its payoff. In copying this sample, I was stuck by how many words I saw dedicated to mood-setting. Lowry crafts a scene in which a relatively non-threatening event is described with palpable, growing anxiety. It is almost subliminal how she does it, sneaking in emotional cue words. Hardly even allowing us to notice, she builds a history of fear in half a paragraph, all while developing the setting of a community which has supposedly banished that very emotion to extinction.

Clearly, there is a lot to be learned by studying the works of writers who matter to us. I can milk a lot out of a reading experience if I put my mind to it, but there really is something to writing down their words. It's like trying on someone else's shoes. They probably don't quite fit, but you can still see how they look on your own feet.

This is an ongoing process, and I have a lot more to learn and discover. If nothing else, it is giving me a mighty fine excuse to use my favorite pens and paper, and to wave hello to a few books that have become old friends.

*Paul Theroux, "Paul Theroux on the Powers that Flow From a Pen," Wall Street Journal online, retrieved May 21, 2012 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - P.W. Akkerman Shocking Blue

Last week I gushed about my big, beautiful new bottle of P.W. Akkerman Denneweg Groen. I have continued using it--a lot--and it remains as peaceful and well-behaved as my purring Penny-cat.

The fateful trip to Vanness Pens that netted me my vaunted Akkerman ink was not only for Husband and me. Our friend Derek had recently discovered a Waterman Executive fountain pen in the back of a drawer. Silly Derek. He picked up the pen and used it, not realizing he was opening the door to Pen Acquisition Disease. Since there is no cure and Vanness is like a pen addict's Disneyland, we all tucked into the car and took a field trip.

Despite claiming to only like black ink, the exotic allure of Akkerman ink got to Derek too and he purchased a bottle of what we're told is the store's most popular Akkerman color: Shocking Blue.

It is an apt name. The closest ink I can liken it to is Diamine Majestic Blue, but there is a slight difference in hue. The Shocking Blue is maybe a half-shade lighter, but it is still a true, center-hued dark blue ink that fills a gap where one might traditionally use a blue-black. The "shocking" part comes in with the intense red sheen the ink can get in saturated areas. Again, this is similar to Diamine Majestic Blue, and it is one of my favorite features.

I wrote the handwritten review with Derek's Waterman Phileas, which wrote nicely but isn't a pen I'm familiar with. While I was at it, I siphoned off a fill for my Pelikan m805 so I could give the ink a test drive in one my most beloved and well-used pens. (Besides, it matches the barrel!)

I found that the things I liked about the ink at first continued to be things I liked about it. The color is just pleasant to look at, either scribbling a grocery list, taking notes for work, or filling up a slew of notebook pages with this and that. I did catch myself getting preoccupied looking at the sheen, losing a thought here or there because I was too busy holding the page up to the light to admire it. (I never said I was an efficient writer, just a passionate one.) The ink feels "soft" on paper, especially Rhodia. It is a feel I've noticed with some other highly saturated inks, leading me to believe it is something about the viscosity of the high dye content that gives that velvety ride. My Denneweg Groen writes smoothly and flawlessly, but it is missing that texture. It's nice...while it writes.

Derek and I both noticed that the Shocking Blue tends to dry out in the nib very quickly when the pen is left uncapped. I'm not talking leaving it uncapped on the dash of your car like your childhood Crayola magic markers, I mean pausing long enough to rephrase a sentence so it doesn't end with a preposition. As a veteran fountain pen user, I've grown used to the compromises and quirks, including getting into the habit of recapping my pen if I'm going to think more than a few seconds. I keep this habit faithfully, but usually found I had recapped the pen too late with the Shocking Blue, though it rarely happens with other inks. My Pelikan m805 is one of the smoothest, most trustworthy, perfect pens I have ever touched and it never skips, at least not of its own accord, but with this ink there was more than once that I had to swipe the nib with a damp paper towel to coax the ink to flow again. I haven't noticed any of this problem when opening the pen for a fresh writing session, so it doesn't appear to be evaporating too rapidly from the pen itself, but I don't plan on leaving it unattended too long. This ink is definitely higher maintenance than Denneweg Groen.

It would be a hard sell of this ink to someone who already owns Diamine Majestic Blue unless the person is as enamored with the amazing bottle as I am. That said, I already own Majestic Blue, and I can already see a space on my ink shelf for a bottle of Shocking Blue. That half-shade of color difference is enough to appeal to me. This ink is the very definition of deep blue, and since blue is my favorite color, there is always room for one more.

As always, my color correction abilities are pretty abysmal. Husband and I are working on remedying that in the future, but hopefully these scans and pictures will give you a pretty close idea of what we are looking at. Er...at what we are looking?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Inspiration Monday: Into the Fray

I have a new bed. I love it with the kind of love I usually reserve for...well, not furniture. Going without a bed for over a week and getting sick in the middle will make a person appreciate a bed, sure, but this one is BIG and COMFY and it has a shelf in the headboard for my books and pens. It is built from sleek, dark wood with sharp edges not yet worn and dinged from our touchy hands and our pets' beggy paws.

This bed and I are going to be close friends for a long, long time.

The old one was old-fashioned and too small, but it had its charms. It was antique, built by an actual craftsman. There was a little nub of wood that had chipped off one of the rungs of the headboard along the way. Someone tacked it back on with a finish nail that would sometimes get caught on our pillowcases (and sometimes on my head). The footboard had posts, worn to the bare wood from years of my husband throwing his bathrobe and jacket over them. The wood rails were scratched from years of feet getting in and out of the bed, but my favorites were the little digs from Bella's paws after years of her standing on her hind legs and begging to curl up with us, her own little wolf pack. The old bed was nowhere near the pristine beauty of my new one, but it had a personality of its own and I will miss it. Well, except the mattress. I will never let go of this new mattress. Ever.

The things in our lives tell a lot of tales. We surround ourselves with possessions, and it is not only what a person has that speaks to who a person is, but how a thing is worn.

This is the edge of my desk, worn rough and jagged from years of me hunching over it to write, draw, and make things. Desks don't get like that from just sitting. It takes work to gnaw an edge like that, and it speaks to the time I've spent there. That edge marks it as mine.

The same goes for my beaten up desk chair. It is getting ragged around its edges and it sinks gradually the whole time I sit in it until I look up and notice I'm sitting at the desk like a three-year-old without a high chair. I grumble and raise it back up to start the ride over again. I need a new one, but for now, I can still see the good in this one. I've spent many hours in it, enough to wear it out, and those were good hours. Sure, a lot of them were spent watching Netflix on my computer when I was supposed to be doing something more productive, but a lot of them were spent working, either creating or earning my keep. I earned those frayed edges.

Maybe I'm overly sentimental. I guess there's no maybe to that--it is pretty clearly true, but that isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes it can pay off. Not only can I look at the echoes on my objects and catch a whiff of the creative buzz that occasionally hovers there, but it inspires me to think about how I can flesh out my characters. If they were real people (and I am banking on someone someday believing they could be), they would not always sleep in sleek, sharp-edged beds with perfect mattresses. They would not hover weightless over their flawless desk chairs. If you are going to read about my characters and believe they are real, they are going to have to leave fingerprints. There must be cracks and smudges and carpet that is tracked flat and just out of style. If I want you to believe they are real, I have to fray up the edges a little.

Take a look around your place and I'm sure you'll find a few mementos of your presence. Run your fingers across those edges and think about the life and living it took to wear them away. Sure, worn out furniture can be an eyesore and make you twitch a little when you have guests, but for now, just for now, look at it and think of it as your own little Grand Canyon. Those marks wouldn't be there without the force of your nature.

It is an irrevocable fact of life: we touch things and they can't help but change.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Live From My Bed (Stage Left)

I am sick, sick, so sick.  I am the kind of sick that has me contemplating whether one more breath is worth the ensuing coughing fit even if it does keep me stringing along as a living creature for another little while.

I have taken up residence in my bed with my new best friends.

As friends go, they are nice enough, but they don't do much to take away the stifling boredom that comes with not being able to move without pain and suffering. I can't help but feel lied to by the Berenstain Bears, who filled my childhood with promises of sick day perks. There are no perky pastel dinosaurs here, smug Brother Bear. No dinosaurs at all.

I tried writing for a while, but then my vintage Esterbrook fountain pen leaked on me. I was displeased. Maybe, though, it is sick too. Maybe it can't help leaking out of its section threads, and it is sorry, but it hopes that I'll put it down and let have a mercy nap. Maybe I should dab it with a tissue and feel sorry for it.

Then again, that would mean it leaked ink-snot on me, and that's just gross.

I should probably not anthropomorphize things so much, but that would be no fun, and I am already having very little fun. However, I will say that being the writerly type can be fun when describing symptoms to a doctor.

"Tell me about your cough," becomes, "There is a grenade in my chest, the clip in my throat. Every breath I suck past it flicks the pin."

That one got me a blank stare and a breathing treatment.

"So, you have body aches."

"Yes, it is like my skin is boiled and pain burns up my legs like a slow wick, but not hot enough to chase away the chills."

Slow blink. "You have chills, too?"

"Yes. They leave me desperate and shivering like the last leaf in autumn."

That resulted in a raised eyebrow that said, "You have pneumonia and you read too much."

She's probably into mysteries, the Joe-Friday-Just-the-Facts-Ma'am* kind. They eschew the lacy edges of the language like a boiling plague.

Okay, obviously, I just can't help myself. Anyway, I am going to try to make the best of my confinement by working on that New Year's Resolution Resolution I mentioned before. There are books to finish, stories to write, novels to revise, and book reviews to type. Why did I think I was bored?

I guess there is plenty to do, provided I manage to keep breathing. (I'm on the fence about this.) I'll find something constructive to do right after this next episode of The Big Bang Theory. I swear, just one more. Just...one...more...

*Sergeant Joe Friday never actually said, "Just the facts, ma'am," in all the 1960's Dragnet series. I know this because I just swallowed whole all four seasons on Netflix. All. Four.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - P.W. Akkerman Denneweg Groen

Have you ever noticed how seeing something you can't have makes you want it even more?

Yeah, me too. My list is long, including vintage Mustangs, signed first editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, 90's Nickelodeon, a bed (don't ever give away your old bed before your new bed is delivered because it probably won't be delivered--ask me how I know), a vacation, and Akkerman ink.

I first heard about Akkerman ink from the inimitable fountain pen reviewer and contributor to FPGeeks, Stephen Brown. Being a resident of the Netherlands, he first showed the rest of world the un-have-able Akkerman ink.

Photo courtesy of Marieke G. via yelp.com
I wanted it. Lots of people wanted it, but the only place a person could get it was from P.W. Akkerman's located in the Hague, Netherlands. For a time, there was no way to order it unless you were fluent in Dutch and were prepared to buy a plane ticket to pick it up.

The ink itself looked good to me, but the real draw was the BOTTLE. Even if I was not an avid pen user and ink enthusiast, I would want the bottle. It is just cool. If there was such a thing as a genie and it had a literary streak, it would live in this ink bottle. If I was that genie, I certainly would.

I grumbled about my misfortune, this cool bottle of ink that I wanted as much a vintage Mustang and a new episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? that I was likely never to have.

But then! My favorite pen store came to the rescue.

Vanness Pens in Little Rock, Arkansas is the only distributor of Akkerman ink in the U.S. that I know of, and they carry all the colors of the rainbow. It is a beautiful, genie-filled rainbow.

After my last trip to Vanness, I left with a bottle of Akkerman Denneweg Groen (translated as Denneweg Green. Denneweg is a street in The Hague, but why oh why is it associated with green?) I may have also slunk out with a pen and some paper, but that is beside the point. I only bought those things because the staff at Vanness is so nice. ONLY. I'm cool that way.

I chose this color because I have long been after a bottle of Iroshizuku Shin-ryoku (Forest Green). It is a lovely dark blue-tinged green with a lot of nuance and texture. Akkerman Denneweg Green is a DEAD RINGER for the Iroshizuku Shin-ryoku, and when you calculate the price to volume ratio, it is a lot cheaper. Plus, the awesome bottle! Plus-plus the fact that this is the vaunted grail ink I thought I'd never have.

Yes, please.

It's a huge bottle of ink. 150mL is roughly enough ink to write by hand the great American (Dutch?) novel, the second greatest American novel, and the second greatest French novel (because Les Miserables can never be topped), and you would still have enough left over to write letters to all the TV executives that cancelled your favorite shows. It is a LOT of ink.

The inkwell in the neck of the bottle is worth the price of admission. It makes it so easy to fill your pen without getting inky, and when the ink level gets low (and by then, expect you'll be in a nursing home explaining to the staff what a pen is and why you insist on scratching symbols on wood-pulp instead of communicating telepathically like everyone else), you will still have enough volume to submerge the nib. The bottle shape also keeps things stable, and with that much ink volume, stable is a good thing.

Since I wrote the handwritten review, I've had more time to play with the ink, and I can say that it is truly well-behaved. I haven't had any problems with it clogging or staining, and the flow has been satisfactory in the pens I've used it in. I've tried it on a variety of papers, ranging from Rhodia to a cheap composition notebook, and while there was some mild feathering and bleedthrough on the cheaper paper, it was comparable to other well-known, well-behaved inks. I tend to write with finer nibs, so your mileage may vary if you prefer broader ones, but thus far, I'd say this ink uses its manners.

If you want your very own bottle of Akkerman, you needn't gnash your teeth or cash in your frequent flier miles, you just need to pick up the phone and call Vanness Pens. I believe there may be some restrictions with advertising the ink on their website, but I assure you, they have the ink in stock and if you pay them a fair and reasonable amount of money, they will send you some. If you find yourself in Little Rock, pick some up in person, but be warned--you'll probably also leave with a pen. Or two.

My scan doesn't really capture the true color of the ink. I tried to get some pictures of the subtle depth and sheen of the ink, but didn't really manage it. I guess you'll just have to try some for yourself.

Now you have no excuse not to.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Inspiration Monday: Start at the Finish

My last post was about how I want to finish things this year.

I still do.

I really do.

I want to as much as the person who put a curb and a stop sign and a little piece of road here with the full intention of connecting it to bigger piece of actual road.

Maybe the stop sign is for the deer. Makes sense.

I usually get about that far with my projects, too. Why? I have never not wanted to finish things I start. So why don't I finish them?

I have no idea. Well, truth be told, I have a lot of ideas, but to mention them here would be to finish the thought and that would be against type.

Sometimes when writing fiction I get so into the story, I feel like I'm a reader and not the writer. I cruise along dropping one word after the next in a thrilling creative fury. I fall for the heartthrob, I suspect everyone of the murder, I wonder just what heart-wrenching thing happened to the troubled protagonist to bring on such intriguing emotional scars. I wonder and write and make it up as I go along, twisting here, turning there...until I hit a wall.

Smash. Splat.
When I hit a wall, I hit it hard. Headfirst at a hundred miles and hour, and then...nothing. Complete darkness. Instant creative coma.

After that point, I start tiptoeing around my work like it is some kind of shrine to the creative consciousness that once made it alive. I read through it reverently and speak of it in hushed tones, afraid I might disturb what vestige of memory I have left of what it was to inhabit that world. The words themselves become sacred, like artifacts that should be only studied, and even that from afar.

This, of course, is a crock. There is nothing about any of my words that makes them sacred. My face will not melt off Indiana Jones-style if I dare move one of those precious words or (gasp!) ADD MORE WORDS TO KEEP THEM COMPANY.

I know this. I know it and I know it and I keep knowing it. But I never seem to do anything about it.

Therein lies my problem. I think maybe the key to finishing some fiction is to finish it first and start it later. Then I won't have a finishing problem, I'll have a starting problem, and I can't have a starting problem for a project that already has a finish. (Thank you, Roald Dahl, for creating Willy Wonka, because without him as a casual backhand reference, people would assume I am as crazy as I actually am.)

What I mean is this: if you have even a fraction of the difficulty in completing projects as I do, let's try a little experiment. Let's begin at the end. Draft out a whole expansive, fully formed, nicely written ending. It should grab you by your neck and hold on to you. It should make you want out to rush out and buy your own next book. Most importantly, for crying out loud, no matter WHAT, it was NOT all a dream.

Once you've crossed the finish line, taking a stroll back to the starting line should be like a walk in the park.

(As long as you don't get lost on your way to the park.)