Friday, October 28, 2011

The Best Laid Plans...

I'd hoped to figure out what was keeping me from posting photos here today, but I have had no time to. Last night, we had snow, which is very unusual for October. Although annoying and inconvenient, it was a small snowfall. Tomorrow, we are supposed to get hit with a real New England, mid-winter nor'easter. Now, in mid-winter, that wouldn't be much to get excited about, either. But this is October. Many of the leaves on the trees around here are still green, and even many of the leaves that have turned have not fallen yet.

So, we are expecting at least a few inches of wet, heavy snow, which will cling to the leaves on the trees. With so much weight bearing down on them, the branches will bend, and many of them will snap. I can remember the last time we had a storm of this sort when there were leaves on the trees; it was on the 9th of May, 1977, and the power was out for days. There is, of course, no way to predict the precise outcome in advance, but that was only about an inch of snow, and it was in early May, when the leaves were still unfurling and weren't as large as they are now.

Power outages are all but certain. Experience suggests there will be more damage to the power lines than there was from Hurricane Irene, since the occasional ice storm wreaks at least as much havoc, and an early storm like this is worse than all but the most severe ice storms. The only question is how long it will take for crews to restore power, and that will depend on how many branches fall on the wires, how widespread the area of damage is, and a million other tiny details. I've spent every spare second until now frantically trying to do what I can to prepare. We didn't have anything put away for the winter, but then again, neither did the most prominent meteorologist in the area. No one was expecting anything like this. Until very recently, the weather has been almost like summer.

No matter what happens, the storm won't do as much damage to my plans for NaNo as it might have. After all, I'll be writing with fountain pens, which require no power at all. I will need light, and the days are shortening, but a candle, lantern, or flashlight will serve in a pinch. So I'll be able to start my story, even if I'm doing so while shivering in a chilly, powerless house. The more problems we have, the more distractions I'll need to battle, and I'm not suggesting all will go well, but I am not throwing in the towel.

However, my PC will not work without power. And, while we have notebook computers which work fine - as long as the charge in their battery holds up - the wireless router they connect to and the modem that serves as the router's gateway to the internet will be out of action for as long as the power stays off. Of the possible locations where I might try to get a WiFi connection in order to post here, most of them are as likely to be without power as we are, and the few that still have power will be jammed with people all trying to get hot food and drinks, connect to the internet, and so on.

In other words, I may not be posting for a few days, even a week or two. I'll be writing, as much as I can, and trying out pens and inks, taking notes, and taking pictures. But I may have no way to let you know about all this until later. Depending on how bad things are, and how much I fall behind due to distractions, even when I'm back online I doubt I'll be posting immediately. For one thing, I'll still need to type in the pages I've already written. (I suppose I could do it on one of the laptops, as long as the battery lasts, but typing in is something I usually do later, when it is dark, and it is much easier, at least for me, to write by hand in limited light than to transcribe a written page. So I doubt I'm even going to try typing any of it up until the power is restored.)

I will still post updates, when that is possible, but I can't predict how long they may be delayed. This year has already been unusually rough for us in terms of weather, and again, experience suggests there may well be lines that were weakened but not broken during the hurricane that will be that much more likely to come down now. And in the colder weather, a power outage is a much larger inconvenience than it was back in August when Irene hit us. So I apologise to my readers, and assure you that I very much hope all the predictions are wrong, and nothing happens. But if there is no new post on Tuesday, and no posts after that for a week or more, you'll know I have not given up on this project, but am busy scrawling the pages and chapters of my novel in Rhodia notebooks by whatever light I can find.

And in spite of how weary I am tonight, and frustrated at this new threat, I can't shake the sense of irony that struck me as soon as I knew we were due for such an early nor'easter. When I first proposed this project over on the Fountain Pen Network, one of the replies suggested I highlight the advantages of using fountain pens and "add a little drama" by pretending the power had failed and reminding my readers that I was using a fountain pen, so it wouldn't affect me. Much as I'd prefer to skip the drama and just write, it seems life has other plans... If, in spite of annoyances and distractions along with everything else I'm trying to do, I manage to reach 50,000 words this November, it will be a real testament to the power and utility of the fountain pen.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Birth of An Idea

I've been working on jotting down my idea. I don't tend to plot too tightly when I'm writing for NaNo, or indeed for most stories, because that can all too easily kill the spontaneity of following a character's reactions and seeing where they lead. So I just jot down a quick idea, a rough guide to what the story is about and where it is headed. And, in this case, since this story will be an alternate history, I'm trying to rough out the historical changes that will affect my story.

Which brings us to my choice of pen and ink. For this first exploration of the bare bones of the story, I chose a Wality 77D, a piston filler made in India that no longer seems to be made. It is a pity these aren't still on the market, since it cost me significantly less than twenty dollars when I bought it new, and it is a beautiful pen with a nice, smooth semi-hooded steel nib. It does seem to require coaxing if it is allowed to sit nib up for very long, but writes so well that is a minor issue. The metal cap also has a beautiful pierced pattern, while a dark plastic inner cap prevents the nib from drying out too easily.

I filled it with Noodlers Air Corps Blue-Black, which is a very nice ink with a World War Two theme. It flows excellently in every pen I've tried it in, dries quickly enough I haven't managed to smear it so far, and looks nice on the page. In the photos I took (which Blogger is being stubborn about letting me upload, citing an "internal error" every time I try), it shows as a basic black, but in person, there is a subtle blue tint to the blackness that makes it a very appealing ink to use. It is an ink I only obtained recently, but it has already become one of the colours I never want to run out of.

I chose the pen because it was made in India, and while my story is set mostly in Britain and in Europe, there are flashbacks to my main character's past in India, when he served with the British Army there during the Indian Rebellion. For those who aren't sure of their history, the Indian Rebellion of 1931-33 is the "point of departure" for my alternate history. There are so many ripple effects that can alter the delicate balance of what was, after all, a very touchy period of history. And I filled it with Air Corps Blue-Black because of the association with World War Two, as much of the story is set during World War Two.

I'd recommend Air Corps Blue-Black to any writer for any project. The only task it isn't really suitable for would be marking up an existing draft, since it wouldn't offer enough contrast to stand out (unless, of course, your draft was written in a lighter colour). And it is permanent enough to allow you to recover what you wrote even if you spill coffee all over your completed manuscript. For those writers who enjoy a dash of Indian style, the pierced cap of the Wality 77D is appealing, the piston filler is convenient and easy to use, and the nib is a dream to write with. It is a light, cheap pen, and although my cats demonstrated that it can survive a two foot fall (capped) with absolutely no damage, isn't the toughest, most durable pen ever made. Still, it would be nice if Wality still made these.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting Ready

I had intended this to be a longer and more interesting post, but it is getting late, and I don't have photos to post. In a sense, this is a dry run, and I can see that I'm going to have to scramble even harder than I was counting on to get even brief posts up. Which makes me happy that I decided to do things this way.

I am still frantically "clearing the decks" of everything I can before next Tuesday. I am, more or less, ready; I got my shipment of notebooks and one last ink from Goulet Pens a few days ago. I have not been paid or offered any compensation for mentioning them, I simply think they're a great source for pens, inks, and paper. The very little extra you may pay for some of these items will seem like a bargain the first time you have a reason to rely on their customer service, which is not only as good it gets, I consider it as good as it can get. I may order a few more inks later, if I have the chance, because I know they do all they can to get orders out as quickly as possible, but I do have a nice selection of different brands and colours to try out.

I ordered a few Rhodia notebooks from them as well, to write the novel on. Since the "Out of Stock" notice went up right after I put my order in, I may be to blame for that. I prefer top bound notebooks because they're just easier to work with. It isn't an accident that steno pads and reporters' notebooks share this style; they need to jot things down quickly and easily access what they've written. Normally, I like to use the Ampad steno pads, but those are getting tough to find, and when I got too low on those, I made the mistake of buying a stack of cheap Staples steno pads.

I can - barely - use them, but I can hardly wait until I get down to the end of those. The paper is cheap and terrible, and I hesitated to use it for this project because it is a hideous light green that spoils the colour of nearly any ink. So I snatched at the excuse to order the Rhodia pads instead. I can already tell that I'll be sad when I get near the end of these. They cost a bit more than even the better steno pads, but the paper is of so much higher quality that it illustrates the old saying "you get what you pay for". Using a single page in one of these notebooks has convinced me I need to get rid of my monolithic heap of cheap steno pads and start using paper that won't make me grit my teeth in frustration.

Now, I like these much better than anything else I've been able to find that I've tried, but I wish I had the ear of someone at Rhodia, because there are a few things they could do to make these even nicer. They do a lot of things right; they give you a nice, stiff backing so it isn't a struggle to write while holding one of these in the air, and they microperforate the tops of each sheet, so you can tear off the ragged edges you get on any page torn from a wirebound notebook. So my quibbles are really minor, and are entirely focused on the ruling of the pages. The perforations are so close to the top line, that if you want to use it at all, you have to be careful to write very small, while there is a wide blank space at the bottom. It would be nice if they'd shifted the ruling down, just a small amount. And I live for the day when the ruling in notebooks is subtle but attractive, but that's a complaint I have with every single sheet of ruled paper I've ever used...

I meant to tell my few readers a bit more, but I'll save most of that news for tomorrow. In the meantime, I do have an idea, and I have the first part of the story in my head clearly enough that I could sit down and write it now. The sample I'll be posting about is from my notes on the story, and to give you something to anticipate... I wrote this sample with an Indian pen (for a very specific reason) and an ink with echoes of World War Two (for another, similar reason). You can have fun trying to guess the name of the ink and the make and model of the pen, although the only prize you'll get for the right answers is the same prize I'll get for winning NaNo - personal satisfaction. And you're welcome to guess at my reasons for the choices I made, too, for the same incredible prize.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Are the Benefits of Writing With Fountain Pens?

Someone who read about this project over on the NaNoWriMo site asked me what the benefits are of writing with a fountain pen. There are numerous benefits, which is why I chose to answer this question in a second post, instead of making yesterday's post longer. Some of these benefits are tangible, while others will vary from person to person. And I've saved some of the best, or at least those which apply to everyone, for last.

As a writer, the most important benefit is the way using fountain pens aids the process of writing. When the ideas are flowing hot and heavy, the nib never has trouble keeping up, yet the act of using a pen of this sort encourages a bit more thought than banging away on a keyboard. The simple knowledge that the words I write cannot be "undone" forces me to think about what I'm writing, and that leads to better writing that needs less editing later. And, since there are none of the annoyances, interruptions, and crashes so common when using a computer, I don't lose the thread of the story to the fickle whim of a stray electron.

Often, the simple act of holding and using a certain pen will inspire me; I may ink up an Esterbrook Dollar Pen made in 1941-42 (something I can tell from the style of the clip) to write a story set during World War Two. Thinking of how that pen may have been used to write letters from the home front to a soldier fighting that war helps fuel my imagination. Or I may choose a pen for its looks or style, even if there is no obvious historical connection. I even bought one vintage Parker 51, imprinted with another person's name, because the sight of that pen brought to mind a character.

There is something visually stimulating about the lines left on paper by most fountain pen nibs. It is elusive, and digital reproductions seldom if ever do this factor justice, but text written with a fountain pen is "alive" in a way no other form of writing except dip or quill pens can be. It is much like the difference between letterpress printing and most printing today. Even if the impression of the type in the paper is not deep enough for you to see, there is a subtle quality that just isn't there in the same text deposited on the surface. Not only that, but some nibs offer intriguing line variation, from the subtle to the extreme, and the joy of seeing such forms appear on the paper helps motivate me to keep on writing. And the ease of using just about any shade of any colour that might suit my story and my mood is another way I can encourage myself when the writing gets tough.

Almost everyone who takes a little time to get used to using a fountain pen also finds that it improves their handwriting. Fountain pens with special nibs are what is used in the finest calligraphy, but even if you don't bother to learn calligraphy and have an ordinary nib, you'll find your handwriting will start to look better. The technique required is just different enough that it leads to better handwriting, even if you don't make a conscious effort to improve it. Even doctors have discovered that this works. When I post digital images of some of the pages I've written, you may doubt this... but keep in mind that I am writing quickly, and that my handwriting has always been atrocious. On those rare and painful occasions when I'm forced to write with anything else, my writing is more jagged and much more illegible.

Repetitive stress injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, hand cramps... those are the symptoms of someone who uses a keyboard, or a modern pen which requires them to exert pressure on the point. Ballpoints and pencils may be worse, but even the smoothest rollerball needs pressure to write. Fountain pens require little or no pressure at all to write with. That is one of the things which make them a joy to write with. You can save yourself pain and possibly even injury just by using a fountain pen. This is one area where new users need to be careful, though; most people are so used to applying too much pressure, compared to what a fountain pen needs, that they have trouble and can even damage the nib by shoving it into the paper.

Although I admit this won't help if you get hooked on buying lots of pens and bottles of ink, fountain pens are actually less expensive to use, over time, than the cheapest of ballpoints. No one ever thinks about how the cost adds up. It is difficult to compare the two methods exactly, since the traditional measure of a ballpoint's life is how long a line it will write before running out. With fountain pens, every nib is different, and a broad or a wet nib will use a lot more ink than a fine or a dry nib. But you can get some idea by measuring the amount of ink contained in every ballpoint or rollerball refill. For under thirty dollars, you can buy a bottle of good quality fountain pen ink that contains as much ink as nearly a hundred and twenty dollars worth of the cheapest refills available. (At least in Massachusetts.)

And unlike those cheap pens that are worth nothing by the time you toss them away, most fountain pens keep much of their value. Some are even worth more twenty years after you buy them than they were than. So the pens so many people perceive as "expensive" can actually save you money. Of course, this will only work if you can resist buying a lot of them. But even if you do, many fountain pens are objects of beauty in their own right. Even ink bottles can be minor art objects. You can add beauty to your daily life, and still have a good investment. And no matter how many pens you buy, the only ones you won't be able to resell later are the ones you lose or break. Since they tend to last quite well if you take reasonable care of them, there's no need to be too worried about this. I've bought fifty year old pens that wrote - with absolutely no trouble, and no servicing beforehand.

And, of course, a fountain pen using bottled ink is the "greenest" option for writing. You can recycle or reuse your empty ink bottles, and a good pen should last you the rest of your life. (Depending on what you choose, you may need to have it serviced very occasionally.) With a disposable pen, you are throwing out the tip, the barrel, everything, once the ink is used up. Even with a ballpoint or rollerball that accepts refills, you are throwing out the empty refill, and these are seldom easy to recycle. So there is much less waste from using a fountain pen. So the real question is, why wouldn't anyone want to use a fountain pen?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Did I Start

A fellow NaNo participant just read about my plans, and sent me a "NaNo mail" (a private message on the NaNo site) to ask a few questions. I started to reply to him, then it occurred to me that if one person was wondering, there were probably others who would like to know the answers to the same questions. He wanted to know how in the world I ever got into collecting fountain pens, what the benefits are, and if I use them for everyday writing or just keep some that are never used. I plan on breaking my answers to those questions up into two posts.

I started using fountain pens when I was still in school. I bought a cheap Sheaffer "school pen" and was hooked. They require little to no pressure to write with, so they're easy on your hands, and with the right pen the experience is nothing like writing with even the best rollerballs. At the time (the 1970s) good rollerballs didn't exist, so the experience stood out even more for me. For a while I stuck with Sheaffers; I did try one other fountain pen I found in the store, a Wearever, but that experience convinced me Sheaffers were the only ones worth using. My first "real" pen, which I bought about the time I got out of school, was a stainless steel Targa.

Over time, I bought a few Targas, one or two just to keep in different places, several with different nib types and sizes, and one or two more in different colours. Gradually, I tried a few other pens I found here and there, and discovered Pelikans. Pelikan is a German company and their pens are piston fillers that write very nicely, especially the pre-1997 models. I was tired of needing to change cartridges often while I was writing, and a piston filler will hold more ink, enough to last a full day of hard writing. Depending on the nib, it may last several days. So I stopped using my Targas for the most part, and bought a few Pelikans for regular use. I even saved up enough money to get a Pelikan Toledo, a heavy, expensive replica of the original from the 1930s; the first such replica they ever made, as far as I know.

It has never occurred to me to not use my pens. Some pens may see much less use than others, depending on what I want to use them for and how my tastes and preferences develop. As I already mentioned, I haven't used my Targas much since discovering the joys of pens that use bottled ink. (Although, as some of you may already know, the Targa can also use bottled ink by inserting the optional squeeze filling converter, but I find those too small and inconvenient to use often.) But I have never bought a single pen with the intention of keeping it untouched. Even the mighty Toledo got its first drink of ink soon after it arrived, although, again, it isn't a pen I use everyday.

Once I began spending time on the internet, I was able to learn more about odd fountain pens I'd never heard of before, and I started a habit of picking up different pens just to see what they were like. I bought a couple of Wality pens, very inexpensive Indian fountain pens that aren't made of as durable materials as the more costly makes, but that work surprisingly well. And I like having cheap pens on hand, that I will be less likely to mind losing if anything happens to them. When I want to go somewhere there might be a risk of losing them, I can take one of those, and not one of my better pens. Although, that said, I tend to grow attached to all my pens, and keep a careful enough eye on them I haven't lost one since I got out of school.

So far, I was still stuck in the belief that vintage pens were "too much trouble". Then a friend who loved fountain pens died, and I inherited several of his pens, all thirty years old or more. One was a Parker Senior Duofold from about 1930. Those pens sparked my interest in vintage pens, and I made some amazing discoveries. A basic Sheaffer pen from about 1960 wrote as smoothly as a much more expensive pen today; I'm sure of this because I've bought several of the Imperial II Deluxe model with the Touchdown filler, all new old stock, and they all write this well. These aren't pens that have been 'tuned' or tweaked by a nibwright, either.

I spent more than twice as much for one pen, 'set up' by a nibmeister, than I paid for all three of the Sheaffer Imperials I own, and they write as well as the more expensive, specially set up pen. This isn't the nibmeister's fault; anyone who works with pens is forced to work with whatever the manufacturers give them. But I mention this to illustrate what an eye opener my experience of vintage pens has been. And they are amazingly sturdy; there is a story of an Onoto that was onboard a ship sunk by the Germans during World War One, and that pen lay in the wreck on the sea floor until it was recovered in the 1990s. With no more restoration work than you might have to do on any pen of that age, it was restored to working condition.

One of the joys of trying out so many pens is that every make, every model, has its own personality. Not only that, but each individual pen develops its own characteristics. In this way, fountain pens are a lot like guitars. I'm not a musician, but I know a few guitarists, and I know that every guitar is a bit different. In the same way, every single fountain pen has a 'personality', and there is nothing like discovering a real beauty. It is true I haven't yet used every pen I now own; I've bought a few that I haven't had the chance to ink up yet, since I try not to keep too many inked at one time. But the whole point, to me, of owning a pen is to use it. There are collectors who buy pens that are decades old but have never yet been inked, and put them away in display cases to be admired, but I personally find that sad.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Limits of Madness

I've spent some time considering just how I'm going to handle this. I don't want to disrupt the writing process too much, and I don't want to damage any of my fountain pens. I also hate to waste ink. So, while I was thinking of using a pen a day, I've decided it may be better to fill a pen and use it until it runs dry. There will be a few exceptions; if I decide to use one of my TWSBIs, I'll be sure not to fill it completely, or I won't have a chance to use any other pens. Or perhaps I'll use a TWSBI on the last day...

And I will almost certainly stick to using one ink in each pen. That way, I won't need to clean out one ink to make way for another, or have them blend into some ugly colour that will be the opposite of inspiring. I still hope to fit in as many pens and inks as possible. In fact, I'm not making this a hard and fast rule, just a general guideline for what I plan to attempt. The idea is to have fun, learn how some of my pens and inks behave when I'm working under pressure, and expose other writers to the immense fun you can have using fountain pens as a part of your writing process.

In fact, I find using a fountain pen actively helps me in the writing process for several reasons. I can choose a nib, and an ink, that will prove inspirational to me as I lay the words down on the page. The pens themselves are often inspirational; there is nothing like writing a story set during World War Two - with a pen someone in that era once held in their hand and probably used to write letters to one or more soldiers (unless the owner was a solider, and was writing to the homefront instead). Or there's just the rich tradition, knowing that so many authors before you wrote their manuscripts with fountain pens, or with dip pens or quills that weren't so dissimilar, just less convenient.

Even if you aren't sure the pen, line, or colour would help to inspire you, there still is a chance you could benefit from using a fountain pen. On the one hand, writing by hand forces your mind to move just slowly enough to let you think about what you're writing. It isn't so slow that you can't get the story down, and it isn't so fast that your fingers move ahead of your brain and derail the whole story. And the nib glides over the paper without any need to use pressure. There is no "friction" in writing by hand with a fountain pen, as there is with any pencil, ballpoint, or even a rollerball.

Fountain pens are also tools you can use to write anywhere, under any conditions. You can take a pad and pen with you on a walk, and pause to set down a scene, with much less trouble than you'd have trying to type it in on a smartphone. You don't need to worry about the battery running low, either. And if you take along a few spare cartridges, or a tiny nalgene bottle full of ink if your pen uses bottled ink, you don't need to worry about running out of ink, either. Or you could find one of the pens that holds so much ink you don't even need to worry about running out while you're away from home.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Preparing for the Madness

I've already taken part in NaNo (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated) every year since 2006. Every year, I had no idea what I was going to write until just days before the first of November. Some years, I spent weeks pondering an idea I liked, only to lose my enthusiasm for it and be lured away by another. Yet every year except 2007 (when a very close friend died in September), I've "won". Some years, I didn't think I was going to make it. Yet even when I was behind my target by over twenty thousand words, I somehow managed to write so much in the last week or so that I caught up.

I take NaNo seriously, in that I refuse to resort to any of those strategies to pad my word count that many NaNo veterans love. I confess that I don't worry about sparing words while I'm writing, but I won't throw in extra, pointless scenes just to reach that day's target. My interest in NaNo is as a way to spur myself to write more, but to write something I can at least edit into a good story. Which is, of course, all any first draft is. So I use NaNo for a serious purpose, to lend myself the energy to get more writing done. Yet I also find NaNo a lot of fun; it is exhilarating, refreshing, satisfying. (Decades ago, when I was in school, I was the only kid who didn't groan when we got a writing assignment. I had fun with them.)

But I've always assumed, like most who take part in NaNo, that I just "didn't have time" to do anything but use a computer. Ordinarily, I like writing out my stories with a fountain pen, then typing in that draft, and revising it a bit as I go. The experience of using a fountain pen - as opposed to any of the other soulless, purely utilitarian writing tools - is an enjoyable one in itself. I like the way the nib skates across the paper, the way the ink glistens, the varied colours that are available... I find it easier to write this way, and the experience is such that it actually encourages me to write. So, this year, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could still manage to write fifty thousand words in thirty days... longhand.

I discovered there is even a clause (the "Luddite clause") in the NaNo rules which will spare me the need to type in my handwritten manuscript. I may still do some of this, if I have time. I may even try to get enough typed in to validate my manuscript the way everyone else does. But it is good to know I have other options, if I need them. Although I would urge the powers that be who run the Office of Letters and Light to change the name of that clause to something more affirming. The Artisan clause, perhaps?

In any case, I also thought other writers, and fountain pen enthusiasts, might be interested in my adventures. I set up this blog, where I hope to post on most days in November, and perhaps through December as well, to share my thoughts and experiences with some of the pens and inks in my collection. I was originally planning to scan every page of the manuscript, but that raises a number of issues, so I'll post representative photos or scans of some pages whenever I feel my narrative needs illustration. I hope you enjoy the chance to vicariously take part in the wonderful madness that is NaNo and fountain pen use.