Happy Fountain Pen Day

A notebook with ruled pages, cursive, and a fountain pen
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Inspired by National Fountain Pen day, we’ve created a new forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Analog Tools is about those non-digital, non-computer tools we writers love to use, including fountain pen, other pens, pencils, paper, and typewriters. 

Today is the sixth annual Fountain Pen Day, celebrated every year on the first Friday of November. It’s a great time to try writing with a fountain pen.

Five years ago I returned to writing by hand as a way to take breaks from the keyboard (and pain from carpal tunnel). I made a (to me) startling discovery. Fountain pens are hands-down easier to write with than a ballpoint pen, or even a gel pen (my previous pen of choice). This isn’t just me; this has to do with the basic design of the ballpoint or roller point pen. Ball point pen ink is deliberately thickened to make it less likely to leak. Moreover, the ball that gives the ball point pen its name must be physically propelled with some force across the paper in order to coat the ball with ink and transfer it to paper. The extra force required to propel the pen across paper, and coat it with ink, results in increased tension in a writer’s hand and arm.

Writing with a fountain pen did take some getting used to. But writing has been much less stressful on my hands and arms. I’m not fighting the ink. I’m also not gripping the pen tightly in an effort to physically push the pen across paper while bearing down in order to coat the “ball” with ink, and write. Fountain pen ink wants to spread. If you’re even a little bit curious, I encourage you to try a personal experiment in terms of drafting your writing with a fountain pen, or using a fountain pen for personal correspondence or journals and similar kinds of writing. NaNoWriMo offers a great opportunity to see if writing by hand helps your creativity. It does for some. Switching from my keyboard to writing by hand has helped me when staring at my laptop screen is frustrating rather than fruitful.

Your First Pen

You don’t have to spend much for a perfectly good pen. If you’re brand-new to fountain pens and aren’t sure they’re for you, consider trying a “throwaway” Pilot Varsity (it’s available in several colors) or the refillable Platinum Preppy; both pens are under $5.00. The Varsity is not meant to be re-filled; the Platinum Preppy is, and uses cartridges and can be refilled indefinitely (the Preppy is available in several colors). This is an affordable-no-real investment way to try writing with a fountain pen, and both pens are more than adequate for most writing. Consider using a fountain pen during NaNoWriMo, as a way to jumpstart your creativity.

If you are sure you want to write with a fountain pen, consider one of the highly respected quality “starter pens” under $30.00. These include the Pilot Metropolitan (around $15.00, with several colors of pen and Pilot ink available), the Lamy Vista (around $25.00), and the Lamy Safari (around $30.00), among others. I’ve used and really love all three of these. I’d suggest starting with either a Fine or Medium nib (the nib is the pointy part of the pen that contacts the paper).

Ink

When you first start, you’ll likely want to use pre-filled ink cartridges. Cartridges are sold in packs, they’re portable, and they’re easy to use. You will need to buy cartridges made for your pen; it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ink also comes in bottles, and it’s more economical to use bottled ink instead of buying cartridges (or refills). You need to have a fountain pen converter in order to use bottled ink, and like cartridges, converters are designed for a specific pen. Some pens will come with a converter, others require you to buy one for $5.00 bucks or so.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of ink colors. There are also several kinds of ink; inks that are water soluble (not for use on checks or anything that you want to keep), water resistant inks, archive quality inks, inks meant to feather less and thus perform better on poorer quality paper, and specialty inks that change color, glitter, or are invisible. Most people start with a medium or dark blue, a blue-black, or a black ink. But color can be fun, as well as useful, for for editing or for distinguishing one version from another (draft in blue, edit in red, new draft in purple, etc.).

Paper

You want paper that encourages the pen to glide smoothly, with little application of force, but which will display the ink without blots, or clogging the nib, or feathering.

There are numerous sites suggesting the Best Possible Paper for writing with a fountain pen. People often have very decided opinions about paper. The general rule of thumb is that the heaver weight the paper is, from about 70gsm up to say 100 gsm, the better it is for using a fountain pen. You’ll see people debating the virtues of Moleskine vs Leuchtturm 1917, or Rhodia vs Claire Fontaine, etc., but honestly, preferences are personal. Look for paper that is at least 70gsm; less will bleed or feather or otherwise fail.

If you’re writing rough drafts or person notes that aren’t to be kept indefinitely, HP 32lb Premium Paper (you can print your own lines if you want), I’ve found Mead Composition books made in Vietnam, or Mead Five Star notebooks with a Fine or Medium nib fountain pen are usable (if not viable for the long term) with most pens and inks, especially if I only use one side of a page. Amped Docket Gold pads or  Red ’n Black Notebooks usually work well.

The Nib

The nib is the metal part of the pen that contacts the paper when you write. People have pronounced preferences about nibs, but for your first pen, you’ll probably want a fountain pen with a Fine or Medium nib.1)Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

TIPS:

  • Use decent paper
  • Don’t grip the pen too hard or use force to propel it across a page, or bear down on the nib. Let the ink do the work for you; gently guide the pen.
  • Practice writing or even scribbling first; try your signature, try a couple of test sentences.
  • Most problems with fountain pens can be resolved by cleaning them; if it’s a refillable pen, clean or rinse it every time you refill it, if possible.

References   [ + ]

1. Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

Your NaNoWriMo Portable Writing Studio: No Computer Required

Image Credit Green chameleon

One reason a lot of writers tell me they’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, the annual November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month is that they can’t fit in long writing sessions; they work and have other commitments, or they don’t have a portable computer and can’t write at home because there are too many distractions.

One strategy for coping with the compulsion to write every day for NaNoWriMo is to have a portable writing studio that doesn’t rely on digital technology and a convenient electrical outlet for writing. The “portable” part means you can carry the basic necessities to make any place your writing studio. The “basics” are what you personally need to be able to write. They need to be portable (and we really do mean “the basics”) and you need to have a convenient way to carry them.

Everyone’s Portable Writing Studio (PWS) is a little bit different. For some writers, it means having everything they need for several hours of intense writing, including food and drink. For others, it means their notebook, and pen, and grabbing ten minutes here and fifteen there, to write. Your PWS will reflect the way you write. You might need a small backpack; others will be able to pack their studio in a slim messenger style bag, or even a back pocket, for the true minimalist.

It’s going to be a matter of personal choices, with the goal of being able to write effectively, without distractions, and without the need for electricity. For some, that means a battery powered tablet or minimalist laptop; for me, that means paper, pen and pencil.

It took me a couple of years to figure out what I really need to write effectively almost anywhere; there was a lot of trial and error, and it changed when it became harder to rely on the ubiquity of the Internet for backup and the ubiquity of electrical outlets for power.

My PWS consists of:

    1. 1 “large” A4 (c. 8.5” x 11”) or B5 (“composition notebook” sized) notebook with good paper (suitable for a fountain pen)
    2. 1 “medium” A5 (c. 5.7 x 8.3) notebook with good paper1)Good paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily without smearing
    3. 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in blue or blue-black
    4. 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in green
    5. 1 Kuro Toga mechanical pencil with spare lead
    6. 1 Tombow Knock eraser with refill
    7. 1 set over-ear headphones
    8. 1 iPhone with music/ambient nature recordings for writing

I fit this in a small messenger bag, with room to spare. I do a lot of writing in places where connecting to the Internet or electricity is problematic, or downright impossible. That means I’m often writing by hand, with handwriting that only I can read. I draft and take notes and plan by hand, and later, keyboard the actual draft. Often I don’t have time to type up the previous day or night’s work, so I begin the next session by making a clean copy of the writing from the previous session, and revise as I go. This process of making a clean copy and revising really helps me get back into the flow of what I’m writing.

I user the larger “composition” sized B5 notebook for drafting; I use the smaller one for notes and planning. I use Mead Composition books that are made in Vietnam from sugarcane; they work well for first drafts with fountain pen (I can write on both sides of the paper) and cost less then $1.00 on sale.2)Look at the back of the notebook of ra tiny label that says Made In Vietnam I use a Scribbles that Matter notebook for notes and planning. Test whatever notebook you plan to use with the pens and / or pencils you’ll use, to make sure they’ll work for you.

I frequently make my first pass in pencil, writing as fast as I can before the ideas melt away. I’ll revise in ink, or use a different color of ink, if I need to distinguish between versions or possible narrative options. I take notes about ideas and planning in the smaller notebook, and use the larger one for actual writing.

I like the Kuro Toga mechanical pencil because it’s designed to rotate a little each time you press and lift the pencil up from the paper; that means it’s never dull. I like Tombow Knock erasers because they let me erase precisely.

I prefer to write with fountain pens because it’s easier on my hands; fountain pens glide over the paper. When I’m writing away from home I use pens I can afford to lose, like the Platinum Preppy.

I listen to a playlist of downloaded local music or ambient nature sounds on my iPhone to help mask background sound (and set the mood).

A Possible “Minimalist” PWS:

      1. 1 Pocket sized notebook (c. 3½” × 5½” 48 pages)
      2. 1 multipen

The idea behind the minimalist PWS is that you can fit your notebook and pen in your pocket, literally. You can write anywhere you happen to be. The poster child for “pocket” notebooks are the small paper bound Field Notes; there are similar notebooks on Etsy, and from a number of other companies. Some writers who use one small notebook per chapter, and carry a second notebook for background note, plot ideas, etc. Some people like to use a single small bound A6 notebook like Moleskine or Leuchturm; they still fit in a pocket.

A multipen means that you have more than one color of ink available, and even a pencil or stylus, depending on the base pen. You can write wherever you are, whenever you have ten minutes, with the intention of either keyboarding your current work later or making a “clean” copy by hand after you edit.

It’s not too late to create your own PWS for NaNoWriMo. What’s in your PWS for writing anywhere, anytime?

References   [ + ]

1. Good paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily without smearing
2. Look at the back of the notebook of ra tiny label that says Made In Vietnam

Interview: Elizabeth Bonesteel

Elizabeth Bonesteel is the author of Breach of Containment, just out from HarperCollins. Breach of Containment is the third book in her Central Corps SF trilogy (The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment).

Did you have a playlist for Breach of Containment? (I usually ask writers this question, but you are the first to have already answered the question. I notice that you have playlists for The Cold Between and Remnants of Trust, as well as a theme song for The Cold Between on your Website.

I’ll confess I tend to use publication dates as an excuse to throw playlists together, just because it’s fun to do. I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing, but on the occasions I do, I go for instrumental stuff, usually trance or deep house. I listened to Nick Warren’s Renaissance Part 4 a lot while writing Breach; it’s got a nice mix of melodic stuff and general weirdness. Weird trance stuff is great for the imagination!

There are two more conventional songs that come to mind that fit thematically with Breach, and they’ll both be on the playlist: Snow Patrol’s “This Isn’t Everything You Are” (yes, I am shamelessly sentimental), and KT Tunstall’s “Uummannaq Song.”

The theme song for The Cold Between was written by Richard Tunley, who’s been my writing buddy for years, and is a phenomenal musician on top of everything else. All of his work is astonishing, and when he put that together for me I was absolutely floored. It’s a beautiful piece, and it captures an aspect of that book just perfectly.

Breach of Containment is the third book in a trilogy that you began with The Cold Between, followed by Remnants of Trust. When you first submitted The Cold Between, how much of the succeeding books did you have plotted?

When the book went on sub with publishers, it was pitched as having “series potential” — I’d started Remnants, but only just, because I was wary of getting into a sequel for a book I might not be able to sell. When we started getting responses, editors started asking about my plans for what happened next, so I had to give them what were essentially my high-level notes for the longer story arc. Which worried me a little! I can look at The Cold Between and see the seeds of all of it, but at the time there was a lot I didn’t yet have set in stone. In retrospect, I suspect what was most important to them was that I had more ideas than what was in the one finished book.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Breach of Containment? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

One of my characters — Dallas, who we meet in the prologue — ends up with a much bigger role in the story than I’d intended. After a couple of drafts, it became clear to me I needed another POV character, and because Dallas was already alive in my head, they were the obvious choice. In retrospect I wish I’d have thought of the idea earlier; I grew quite fond of Dallas, and I would have liked to spend more time with them than I was able to in the end.

As to the plot — more than once I’ve had a small plot point grow and wind itself inextricably into the rest of the story, and that’s what happened here. And I can’t tell you what that plot point is! (I’m not trying to be coy — Breach is a tough book to talk about without spoilers.) But it’s a wonderful experience for me as a writer when that happens. Generally it means the book has taken on a life of its own, and it gets much easier to write after that.

What’s your writing process like?

When I first come up with a story, the characters and the universe grow together. I start with one scene, and I think about how my characters get to this point, and where they’ll go afterward. At some point a beginning and an ending emerge. From that a few interim milestones evolve naturally, and somewhere in all of that mess I start writing it down.

I usually use the NaNoWriMo-sanctioned “start at the beginning and write to the end without stopping” method, with one difference: I always write the end, or a scene near the end. The ending of Remnants was written almost immediately after the prologue; that particular scene was always very clear in my head. With Breach, it wasn’t the ending, but a scene close to the end. Having a fixed destination makes it much easier for me to stay on track.

Occasionally I’ll do a little outlining, but never more than two or three chapters ahead. When I revise, I’ll outline the current draft so I can see repetition and continuity errors. But I can’t outline the whole thing ahead of time — too many details change while I’m composing.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I write on my MacBook using Scrivener, although when I need to loosen up a little I’ll work in Pages (weirdly, it feels like less pressure). I use Word when I have to exchange files with someone; it’s an industry standard, and they’ve made some real improvements lately, but I’m never all that comfortable in it.

Usually I write in my living room, late morning into early afternoon. I’ll occasionally decamp to Barnes and Noble, especially if I need focus and am feeling like being at home is a distraction. (Also, there is espresso there.)

I loved reading your memories of seeing Star Wars in a theater as a kid. Do you plan to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a theater?

Ooo, that’s a hard question. I’m deeply skeptical of Star Wars movies these days, for no other reason than I’m still cranky about I–III and some of those “revisions” Lucas did to the original three films. I thought The Force Awakens was uneven, and I’m unconvinced that The Last Jedi is going to use the parts I liked rather than the parts I didn’t. On the other hand, I loved Rogue One, despite all of the coincidences and serendipitous single points of failure, and I love the idea of Old and Cynical Luke.

So yeah, probably. I may complain afterward, but they’ll suck that $15 out of me. And I’ll never stop loving the franchise.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I’d say there are two that stuck out for me last year: one was Emmi Intarata’s The Weaver, which felt very Earthsea without actually ripping off Earthsea. It’s quiet and beautiful and moody, and one of the few books I can imagine reading over and over. It’s a really satisfying read.

The other was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which of course is an older book, but I hadn’t sat down to read it until this year. Everyone always talks about how funny it is, and how vivid the worldbuilding, and both of those things are true. But when I finally opened it up, I was in tears by the third page. It’s a deeply sentimental story, and that comes through even with all the humor. I’m also fascinated by the structure of it — the first 2/3 of the book is essentially exposition, but it’s so good and so entertaining that you don’t even notice. It’s an example of doing everything you’re not supposed to do in a narrative and ending up with an amazing result.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I used to collect books on writing. The last one I remember reading was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I remember a section that pointed out reading books about writing was not actually writing, and I suppose I took that to heart! I do think it’s important, though, to be reminded that writing is a craft, a skill that you can hone and improve, whether you’ve been writing for decades or are just taking your first crack at it. I’ve got Stephen King’s On Writing on my TBR pile, so I may start collecting again.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

There was a wee bit of controversy around The Cold Between (the first book). In a few corners of the Internet (and one prominent blog), it somehow got tagged as a romance novel, and as a result there was some backlash since the story doesn’t resolve in a romance-genre-appropriate fashion. But nobody ever contacted me to discuss the issue. So I guess the question I’d like to answer is:

“What’s the deal with that romantic subplot, Liz?”

In my life, I’ve been in love with multiple people, but I only married one of them (the right one, of course). I wanted this book to include an important, healthy, loving relationship that was not destined to last forever, because relationships like that exist and are important to many people’s lives. And yes, that’s a spoiler, but I’m still surprised that readers can get through Chapter 3 and believe that these two people will somehow wind up together. To me the endgame of that aspect of the story is never a mystery.

None of this is particularly controversial, of course. Strong romantic subplots in SFF are legion. Had the book not been mis-genred here and there, I doubt anyone would have remarked on it at all. It does please me that Trey is a character people connect with; I have great affection for him myself. I left him in the right place at the end of that book. I know what he’s been up to since, and if it ever makes sense, I’ll write about him again.

What’s your favorite charity?

I’d probably say the SPLC or the ACLU, because unless people can be heard, it’s impossible to make changes in the world.

Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and various cats. Elizabeth Bonesteel has a Website, and a blog. You can also find Elizabeth Bonesteel on Facebook and Twitter.  

My Rights Reversion Odyssey, or, How I Jumped through More Hoops than a Circus Poodle

By Alice Loweecey

In a perfect world, self-publishing would come with a bottle of wine per book. I picture a shining, fluffy cloud appearing above my desk. With an ethereal sound of angelic voices it would open and a chilled bottle of Chenin blanc would come to rest next to my keyboard.

Still waiting for this to happen, by the way.

My first series ended in 2013 after its initial three-book contract. Because I had a new contract with a new publisher I let the old books hang. Not a smart plan, so a few years later I requested via a formal letter for my rights to be reverted to me.

The letter arrived about a month later, returning all rights, e and paper. Now that I owned my books again, I got to work.

Wine bottle #1: Commissioning covers. I decided to issue ebooks only. I’m no artist, plus I know ebook covers have to be formatted to certain specs. I got estimates from a few artists whose work I liked and fit the tone of the books. When the right artist and I agreed and I had the new covers in hand, I moved on to . . .

Wine bottle #2: Formatting. If anyone heard a primal scream from the east coast of the US at the end of summer, it was me. To make my books available on all platforms (Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Kobo, etc.) I used the Smashwords style guide.

Full disclosure: I opened the style guide, scrolled through, and closed it again. Twice. Only the money I’d already spent on covers and the knowledge that it would be a shortsighted business decision not to have my books out there made me open the guide a third time. Adulting FTW.

There are no shortcuts when formatting. Every chapter needs to be formatting separately. I kept three docs open on my screen at the same time: The final Word doc, the edited PDF, and the new Word doc for self-publishing.

Every chapter. Every book. Night after night (after the Day Job). Rechecking each book after I thought I was finished. Changing certain elements. Updating others. Editing and more editing. The copyeditor in me would not be silenced.

Wine bottle #3: Uploading. So many hoops to jump through. The carrot that kept me jumping was inclusion in the Smashwords Premium Catalog. Again, it would have been short-sighted to skip steps and cut myself off from free marketing to potential readers.

I chose to price my books at $1.99. This way I can run a half-price sale in conjunction with my next new book release. Marketing. Promotion. Getting my work out to new readers. I am so happy my current ten-book contract (!) comes with my publisher’s marketing clout and contacts. Because all that is on the self-publisher. Constant work in addition to writing a new book, because readers want a new book and authors want readers coming back for more.

I tip my fascinator to all writers going it alone. Now to work on clouds that deliver wine. In  between writing, promotion, conferences, the Day Job, laundry, cooking . . .

And maybe a short nap.

Baker of brownies and tormenter of characters, Alice Loweecey recently celebrated her thirtieth year outside the convent. She grew up watching Hammer horror films and Scooby-Doo mysteries, which explains a whole lot. When she’s not creating trouble for her sleuth Giulia Driscoll or inspiring nightmares as her alter-ego Kate Morgan, she can be found growing her own vegetables (in summer) and cooking with them (the rest of the year).

Force of Habit is the first of three Falcone and Driscoll mysteries, followed by Back in the Habit and Veiled threat. You can read more sleuthing from Alice Loweecey’s character Giulia Driscoll in Alice Loweecey’s latest from Henery Press The Clock Strikes Nun.

Alice Loweecey has a Website. She also writes horror as Kate Morgan.

Journaling for Writers during NaNoJoWriMo October

image of handwritten journal entries by John Steinbeck from his Grapes of Wrath journal
John Steinbeck’s journal for The Grapes of Wrath

Fall is here, and that means we’re getting closer to NaNoWriMo.

One way to start thinking about what to write for NaNoWriMo is to keep a writer’s journal, one that’s primarily about prepping to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during the month of November.

Writers’ journals are a venerable tradition, used by many writers in the past and increasingly popular today. A writers’ journal can be a conventional “dear diary” journal, of the sort Samuel Pepys kept, or it can be a record of where you are in a writing project, where you need to go, what plot points and character traits you want to remember and emphasize — even your emotional response and impressions about your writing.

John Steinbeck kept a writers’ journal from the beginning of his work on The Grapes of Wrath. He used journaling as a way to help cope with and mitigate his anxiety and stress about writing every day. Sample entries include short notes like these:

 

May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.

June 18: I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity

September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too . . . If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over . . . I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all.

Other writers are less interested in their emotional response to their writing, and more interested in counting the words; they often write short notes about the current word count, the daily word count, and what they mean to start writing about in their next session.

567 words this morning; 31789 total. Must figure out who Bryan really is, and why he wants to find the crater. What is his driving need? What will finding the crater do for him?

As a way of prepping for NaNoWriMo, consider starting a NaNo journal. Starting a NaNoWriMo journal now allows you to plan, plot and work on characters and backstory without actually drafting. Consider the NaNoWriMo journal a sandbox for your writerly imagination. A journal can not only be really helpful in terms of concentrating on writing during NaNo November, it can be a great deal of fun.

A NaNo journal doesn’t have to be elaborate; a .99 cent composition book from the corner drugstore, a spiral notebook, or even a small pocket notebook that’s meant to fit in a back pocket or purse are all perfectly fine; whatever works for you. You might be happier and more like to use a journal app that runs on your smart phone. Like a pocket notebook, an app for journaling on your phone is convenient, letting you make quick notes about your WIP while waiting for the bus or during your lunch break. There are journaling apps for Android and iOS. You might even want to use a bullet journal as a writers’ journal.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of journaling, October 1 starts National Journal Writing Month:

National Journal Writing Month (NaJoWriMo) helps you start and maintain a journal writing habit in 30 days. NaJoWriMo is geared toward personal growth, reaching your goals, and recording your life as you live it.

NaNoJoWriMo is a quarterly event (January, April, July and October) meant to encourage people to try journaling. It’s not terribly rule-bound; you can journal as you see fit, with a goal of journaling every day for 30 days. There are daily prompts, as well as lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit. NaNoJoWriMo has a theme every quarter; this quarter’s theme is Unleashing Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. That sounds perfect in terms of NaNoWriMo planning. The NaNoJoWriMo website has a free newsletter; sign up for a free downloadable with lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit.

Journaling is a great way to start your writing day, and it can be freeing to be able to write without it having to be your WIP. You might want to keep a journal to remind yourself of the good things in your life (an awesomeness journal). Journaling is a one way to freewrite and start your writer brain, especially if you’re struggling with writers’ block or your well of inspiration is temporarily dry. If you’re in front of a keyboard and screen for much of the day, or working on your WIP on your computer, consider journaling with pen and ink (or pencil) as a way to free your writer brain to work on your story while you write differently.

Banned Books Week 2017

ALA 2016 Book Challenges Infographic

This is the first day of Banned Books week. It’s a celebration of the right to read. Books are constantly challenged in the context of the right to read them, the right to sell them, the right for teachers and libraries to include specific books in their curricula and libraries. Book challenges and book bans take place far more often than people realize, and often, the books are challenged by adults who haven’t read the books in question, but want to make sure that others can’t.

Most challenges are made by parents who not only want to stop their children from reading a particular book, they want to stop all children. The second largest group in terms of book challenges in 2016 were challenges made by library patrons who wanted to have a book removed from a library’s collection.

The First Amendment is generally seen as the primary protection regarding the right to read. The First amendment to the Constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Increasingly, as you can see from these top ten lists of challenged books, books are challenged (and subsequently removed from school curricula and library collections) because of concerns about reference to sex, or because they include LGBT characters.

Large numbers of books that some people don’t want you to read are classics. Many are children’s books. Increasingly, the challenged and banned books are YA books or books challenged because they feature diverse content, that is:

the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider. Often, content addresses concerns of groups who have suffered historic and ongoing discrimination.

The challenged books (and they become banned when schools or libraries remove them from shelves) include books like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Look at the lists of challenged and banned books, to see if a book that’s meaningful to you, or that you loved reading is there; I’m pretty sure you’ll find an old friend or three there, as well as lots of new friends. Consider participating in the Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament, or Absolute Write’s own local contest described here.

You’ll notice a lot of canon novels are considered worth banning; here are just a few. The books on this list are books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century that have been the target of ban attempts.

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.
  2. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye.
  3. John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath.
  4. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird.
  5. Alice Walker. The Color Purple.
  6. James Joyce. Ulysses.
  7. Toni Morrison. Beloved.
  8. William Golding. The Lord of the Flies.
  9. George Orwell. 1984.
  1. Vladmir Nabokov. Lolita.
  2. John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men.
  1. Joseph Heller. Catch-22.
  2. Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.
  3. George Orwell. Animal Farm.
  4. Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
  5. William Faulkner. As I Lay Dying.
  6. Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms.
  1. Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  2. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man.
  3. Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.
  4. Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind.
  5. Richard Wright. Native Son.
  6. Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  7. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five.
  8. Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  1. Jack London. The Call of the Wild.
  1. James Baldwin. Go Tell it on the Mountain.
  1. Robert Penn Warren. All the King’s Men.
  1. J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings.
  1. Upton Sinclair. The Jungle.
  1. D.H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
  2. Anthony Burgess. A Clockwork Orange.
  3. Kate Chopin. The Awakening.
  1. Truman Capote. In Cold Blood.
  1. Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses.
  1. William Styron. Sophie’s Choice.
  1. D.H. Lawrence. Sons and Lovers.
  1. Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle.
  2. John Knowles. A Separate Peace.
  1. William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch.
  2. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited.
  3. D.H. Lawrence. Women in Love.
  1. Norman Mailer. The Naked and the Dead.
  1. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer.
  1. Theodore Dreiser. An American Tragedy.
  1. John Updike. Rabbit, Run.

There are Absolute Write affiliate links in this post.

Interview: Spencer Ellsworth

SPENCER ELLSWORTH’s short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed MagazineThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Tor.com. He is the author of the Starfire Trilogy, which begins with Starfire: A Red Peace. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works as a teacher/administrator at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.

Did you have a playlist for Starfire: A Red Peace?

I am one of those awful superfans who has an insane backlog of Radiohead bootlegs. (2006 Bonnaroo, amiright, Head Heads?) There’s something about the layers, the flirtation with epic proggy bits, and especially the trancelike quality of Radiohead’s music that makes it perfect for writing space opera.

What’s your writing process like?

It really depends on the project. When I conceive of a project, I generate ideas in all sorts of ways — sometimes by blocking it out with action figures (Star Wars when available. Calico Critters work too). Sometimes I start by handwriting, and sometimes by writing the scenes that pop into mind first.

Generally I’ll draft something readable in Scrivener, and when I reread the first draft, I know that certain parts lag, or just land with a thud. Sometimes I’ll just have long sections represented by a bracketed words, a la [ACTION SEQUENCE HERE]. So I’ll write whatever new bits I need either in a separate document, or just handwrite them. Then I’ll go through the book and “stitch” the new material into the old.

For me, the key part of any writing is this: keep the inner editor & the inner writer separate. Even when you’re drafting new material, draft it cold. While the inner writer drafts, send the editor off for a (mental) drink. While the editor stitches things together and trims them, let the writer go for a (mental) walk. They cannot work in the same (mental) room together.

Red Peace is the first volume of a trilogy. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

This trilogy is short — each book is about 200-300 pages total — which is the first step to keeping track. I don’t have as many moving parts as Tolkien did. I made a list of new words and new names (and missed some; thank goodness for the style sheets my publisher sent)! Once I got a paper copy of the first book, I could stick Post-Its on particular scenes to cross-reference. (Not dog-ear, for that is the way of the heathen.)

I try not to kill too many trees, but there is something about print. It sticks in your head. The brain remembers the solidity!

There are a number of different religions depicted in Red Peace. What inspired you to use religion as an instigating influence?

I love this question! For some reason, even though religion is a motivating factor in 95% of major human interactions, a lot of people leave it out of their science fictional/fantasy worlds. And even when it’s there, it’s so often played for fundamentalist villains.

The galaxy in the Starfire trilogy is . . .  a rough place. Giant space spiders live in the Dark Zone and will eat your suns and planets, so the intergalactic government constantly need an army to fight said space spiders. The army is made up of “crosses,” genetically engineered soldiers. The government’s line is that the crosses are not sentient. The crosses disagree.

This would cause serious cognitive dissonance with people who genuinely believe in a God who creates sentient life. Did God not create the crosses? Why, then, do the crosses think and feel and demand recognition as sentient life? I knew that various religions would take various positions on this one. The main characters, cross and human, all take various positions informed by their faith.

And of course, there’s a death cult with a giant zombie wasp.1)

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

Any advice about how to plot?

Character creates plot, and plot creates character. Once you have a person in your head, and you know how they need to change, and what will force them out of their comfort zone, the plot is just a method of taking us through their journey.

You want to avoid contrivance, but you also want to avoid scenes and activities that don’t change the character. If it has to happen for the sake of the plot, but it doesn’t do anything to advance the character, it’s the wrong scene.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have a standing desk I put together from surplus shelving and 2x4s I got when my neighbor disassembled his carport. I have a ton of books, piled on a shelf, on top of each other on the shelf, and on the floor. And way too many Transformers on display.2) Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?

You work as a teacher, and you’ve got a young children. What advice do you have for parents who want to write regarding time management?

Pick your writing time, and show up. As long as I can write from 5:30 to 7 every morning, projects get done. Also, have a supportive partner — and take care of them. It’s just as important to make sure you’re making dinner, cleaning up, & taking the kids if applicable.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I really loved Michael Livingston’s Roman fantistoricals The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell. The writing is just absolute crystal clear, and brilliantly powerful and the action sequences OH DUDE THE ACTION SEQUENCES. I love Nicky Drayden’s first novel The Prey of Gods, which is a super-gonzo wild explosion of fantasy and SF ideas, set in near-future South Africa.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I think every writer only really needs one book about writing. There is a time when you are really ready to learn from one book, and as long as you find a good book, it’ll open up the process.

For me, it’s always been How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, AKA “no, not that James Frey.” It’s got a really clear breakdown of how to map out characters’ journeys and use dramatic tension, clear prose and powerful dialogue to raise the stakes.

You’ve attended several different writing workshops. What advice would you give writers trying to decide if a workshop will be helpful (any workshop)?

I’ve attended several — and been rejected from many more! Shortlisted even, but never got in. Always your bridesmaid, Clarion.

Be aware of two things: most working writers went to some kind of workshop, but they didn’t all go to the cool shiny big-ticket one. A workshop is what you get from it. I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005 and I’m ashamed to say I really did not get much out of it because I didn’t put much in.

I got a lot more out of Viable Paradise 2010 because I went there hungry and ready to step up.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I want to know why drywall isn’t reusable. Doesn’t that seem incredibly wasteful?

Okay, seriously, I’d love to be asked about my “low culture” influences. My favorite writers of all time are Octavia Butler & Shakespeare, but I’ve also read every Transformers comic that came out in English since 1984.

What’s your favorite charity?

It’s not strictly a charity, but if anyone wants to help me & my friends and students out, please, please consider a recurring donation to the American Indian College Fund. I work at a tribal college, and we are a favorite target for budget cutters. A lot of students depend on AICF to get their degrees.

Spencer Ellsworth has a Website. Spencer is also on Twitter. You can find his short story “When Stars Are Scattered” at Tor.com.

References   [ + ]

1.

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

2. Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?

Interview: Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass is the author of many SF novels, including the Circuit and Edge series. She also writes for and is the co-editor with George R. R. Martin of the Wild Cards series. She served as the story editor for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and wrote several episodes for ST:NG and other shows. An expert equestrian, Melinda Snodgrass splits her time between New Mexico and California. In Evil Times (July 2017) is the second book in her Imperials series, preceded by The High Ground and followed by The Hidden World (2018). Melinda Snodgrass has a Website as well as a blog, and you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Did you have a playlist for In Evil Times?

I have been listening to a lot of Mozart piano concertos and Beethoven cello sonatas and Saint-Saens Piano concertos. I was classically trained singer so I tend to favor classical music though I am beginning to enjoy more pop music now.

What’s your writing process like?

I get up each morning. I look at my outline and I know what is up next to write. I try to write every day, but writers are always writing. Dialog is spinning through our heads, we’re eavesdropping on diners at neighboring tables, etc. The other thing I do is each morning I reread the previous days work, and edit and rewrite. That means I’m fixing as I go and putting myself back in the space where that novel and its characters live. I also can’t jump ahead and write a scene that I know is coming. I have to experience it in real time with my characters.

How different is it from your perspective to write for TV vs writing for print?

I actually write my books using a lot of the tricks from screenwriting. In fact I believe my time in Hollywood has made me a much better novelist. For example, I will cut from a line of dialog and have that line finish in the next scene spoken by another character. I try to have every scene and every chapter hand off to the next one like a relay runner. I almost always start in the middle of a scene rather than do all that — knock, knock, come in, thank you for seeing me captain, etc. And my books are very dialog heavy. I have to remind myself to fill in all that boring description. (fill in gif of irony here)

In your Imperials Saga, you’ve got a society with an aristocracy and lines of inheritance and family inter relationships. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

I use Scrivener which is a wonderful program that keeps things beautifully organized. They have sections for characters, places, research. With every book I keep track of any new characters, adding them to the list, and I update the status of returning characters. Okay, so Delia is married and her two kids are now this age and one’s at The High Ground. That sort of thing. Every phrase that is unique to the books ends up in the research section. All the planets, descriptions of them, capital cities are listed in places.

In addition to the human culture of the Solar League, you also have a number of non-human species with their own cultures and history. How do you manage world building? That is, did you work out the world building concepts, for instance the cultures and aliens first, or as you went?

I had a pretty strong idea of the traits of the various aliens. I knew the Cara’ot were master traders, and genetic engineers. I knew the Isanjo were functionally high steel workers, the Flutes are highly skilled in mathematics. Truthfully I cheated a bit though I’m going to have to address this in book four since I have an alien view point character. Because the aliens are a conquered people their own religions, cultural norms, etc. have been suppressed by their human rulers. Most of them claim to worship human gods, particularly the Christian god, they don’t have to accept the limits female participation in business because they are considered less than, but in most ways they try to ape their conquerors. It’s just safer that way.

Although I’ve only read the first two books of the five-book series, it’s pretty clear you have a plan for the journey and a destination. Any advice about how to plot?

Plotting is my favorite thing to do. And yes, all five books are worked out and the final scene of the series is already laid out. I start with a cork board and 3×5 or 4×6 cards and multi-colored pens. (You can also use a white board, that’s what we used on Star Trek but it’s hard to make changes or move scenes. I prefer the cards.) Anyway I put up cards detailing Teaser, and generally 3 acts though some longer books can be 4 or 5 acts. I then assign a color to each major character. I then put down the final scene of the book. Because if I don’t know where I’m going I can’t get there. I then generally put in the teaser. The hook that convinces someone to buy the book. I then put in the final scenes of each act. The exciting revelation that puts the heroes deeper in a well or changes up the game, etc. I then fill in the big scenes that get me to those act outs and the climax. The reason I use different colored pens is so I have a visual cue that I’m losing track of a character or another character needs to be cut back. Sometimes you discover in the early plotting stages that you don’t even need a character because you can’t keep them on the board. For a screenplay I would have every scene blocked out. For a novel I can’t do that, but I lay out all the major scenes or what I call tent pole scenes.

[Editor’s note: Melinda Snodgrass has an excellent post about “the teaser, the hook, the opening scene of a book” on her blog.]

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I hate clutter so my space is very orderly. I love writing from my home in NM because I have a breathtaking view out my window. In L.A. I’m in a cubby hole and I really hate it, but right now my life is lived in two places. I generally have music playing, but not vocal music because I was trained as a singer and I start listening to the lyrics rather than writing. I keep a cup of coffee or tea at my elbow and sometimes a small sweet. More because it gives me something to do with my hands when I’m thinking about a sentence or a scene.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I adore Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series; Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series, Paul Cornell’s London Falling books. I have to read a lot of Wild Card stories from our writers who I help edit so I don’t get as much time to just read for pleasure as I would like. I also find myself sick of words by the end of the day so I often play a video game rather than read. Or watch TV because that is homework for me.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I actually don’t because I sort of stumbled into this. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman is good. I liked Steven King’s book On Writing, but I don’t agree with him about just feeling your way through a book. I think plotting — being an architect as my friend George R.R, Martin puts it — is essential if you have to write on deadline, and especially in Hollywood.

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a number of them. I donate to Planned Parenthood, I’m an investor making micro loans with Kiva, I donate to Heifer International. I sponsor girls through Child Reach, I’m an ACLU member, The Horse Shelter in Santa Fe. I have a page on my Website called Doing Good. If a reader makes a $25 or more donation to any of the listed charities and sends me proof of the donation I will send them any book of their choice autographed. I pay the postage too.

 

Camp NaNoWriMo July

Image credit: Clean Public Domain

The July session of Camp NaNoWritMo is about to start. Like the April NaNoWriMo Camp, Camp in July is an opportunity to work on projects with word count goals between 30 and 1,000,000. Writers can work on any project they’d like, including new novel drafts, revision, poetry, scripts, and short stories. A lot of writers use the July camp to sketch out and plan for NaNoWriMo in November, or concentrate on editing and revising the previous NaNoWriMo draft. Camp is very flexible, so your project is completely defined by you—even non-fiction is ok at Camp. This post about the April Camp has some suggestions about what you can do at Camp.  Don’t miss this page of resources for Campers, writing fiction or non-fiction.

Now is the perfect time to sign up for NanoWriMo Camp in July and to find a cabin—your cadre of fellow sufferers writers during Camp. A cabin is a group of up to twenty writers; you’re placed into a Cabin based on your Preferences settings in your Profile once you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo Camp. If you’ve got writer friends who are also Camping, you can set up or join a private cabin with them. (There’s a thread on Absolute Write for people looking for cabin mates.)

Interview: Alice Loweecey

Baker of brownies and tormenter of characters, Alice Loweecey recently
celebrated her thirtieth year outside the convent. She grew up watching Hammer horror films and Scooby-Doo mysteries, which explains a whole lot. When she’s not creating trouble for her sleuth Giulia Driscoll or inspiring nightmares as her alter-ego Kate Morgan, she can be found growing her own vegetables (in summer) and cooking with them (the rest of the year). Her fourth Giulia Driscoll Mystery The Clock Strikes Nun will be released on May 30. You can preorder now at Amazon or B & N.

Did you have a playlist for The Clock Strikes Nun?

For The Clock Strikes Nun, I discovered white noise on YouTube. Those sleep recordings that mask outside noises. Did you know there are more than a dozen haunted house white noise recordings? They have crackling fire, thunderstorms, ghost sounds, howling wind. They’re great atmosphere. Plus they really do mask things like rugby on the TV. I like sports as a kind of white noise, but haunted houses were perfect for this book.

How did you become interested in fascinators?

Alice Loweecy with fascinator

I’ve always liked vintage fashion and jewelry and I’m fortunate to be able to wear hats. Except baseball caps. I look awful in those. When I turned 50 I decided I wanted to try a fascinator. I spent a week or so on the black hole that is Etsy and found my first one. I was going to wear it as a confidence booster for my first-ever Bouchercon panel (9 am) and take it off afterwards. But everyone started recognizing me in it and I loved wearing it. Thus a style was born. I have five now. Chiki Bird Hat Studio is amazing! I tell her the theme of my current book and she creates a hat for me.

Do you start out knowing “who did it,” or do you discover it as you write?

I write gigantic anal-retentive outlines, so I usually know who did it, but characters are ornery creatures and sometimes they take over the story. For The Clock Strikes Nun I knew who did it from the start. For the next book in the series, I wrestled with the outline for at least a week longer than usual until I realized I was trying to make the wrong person the villain. Once I let that go, the story fell into place.

What’s your writing process like?

Every single free minute is either at my keyboard or at my trusty three-ring binder. I work full-time and deadlines don’t care if you’re tired or want to watch a Saturday night horror movie. Even fifteen minutes is enough to write a few paragraphs or edit a page. I learned this years ago when I was shuttling my kids to soccer games and band practices.

How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

Excel spreadsheets are my life. Each book has a giant spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Character charts, research, backstory, outline. I also use Scrivener for its corkboard and web page cache features.

Any advice about how to plot?

I’m a tactile writer. I work best with pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard. I always start with a character. My first step is to open a blank spreadsheet and brainstorm. There’s no pressure this way, and my characters reveal all kinds of personal information as I type, especially the villains. They love to talk. Doing this in a Word doc is probably easier, but I started out this way and it frees my mind because my fingers go into auto-pilot.

While I firmly believe the best way to plot is the way you’re most comfortable with, I’ve recommended my method to several new writers as a jumping off point.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

It depends on the season. We have a small koi pond in our back yard. In the summer I sit out there as much as possible with a three-ring binder and a fountain pen. When Buffalo weather does its thing, I plant myself on the couch with either the binder or my laptop. If the words aren’t flowing, I switch from one to the other.

Enquiring minds want to know; whats in your binder?

In the front of my binder is a hard copy of my outline. Then 30–40 blank pieces of paper. At the back are hard copies of all the character charts and any backstory. Everything I need for an extended stay in the sun.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

A Line in the Sand (Jesse James Dawson #5) by K.A. Stewart. I’ve devoured every one of these in a single sitting and am salivating for book 6.

When Falcons Fall by C.S. Harris. Another terrific series, with a riveting antihero.

There’s also manga, which I read for relaxation. The current series I’m reading are Bungo Stray Dogs and The Ancient Magus’ Bride. So much fun!

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)
Zen in the Art of Writing (Bradbury)
Writing the Breakout Novel (Maass)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss)
The First Five Pages (Lukeman)

Save the Cat! is a screenplay book, but it made me look at characterization in a whole new way. When I read Maass, my takeaway was his advice to think of the worst thing you can do to your MC, and then do it to them. I applied that to my then-unpublished horror novel which had piled up an Eiffel Tower of rejections. It changed the MC’s motivation and made her darker and more obsessed. The book sold.

What’s your most memorable fan mail?
Fan mail is the best, but this one stood out because I could practically hear its tone of voice. It began, “I want you to know I don’t like to read! I finished all three of your books in one weekend. When’s the next one coming out?”

I replied “Sorry not sorry” and named a character after this fan in the next book. I smile every time I tell this story.

What’s your favorite charity?

A local organization, Buffalo City Mission. They’ve been helping the homeless for years. They also have a women’s shelter.

Alice Loweecey has a Website. You can also read more about her books on Facebook and Goodreads. Sometimes, she Tweets