Category Archives: Commentary

A Fountain Pen Odyssey by Wendy Van Camp

sf-pen-show-ws

Fountain pens have been my hobby for the past few years. I tend to remember details better when they are written via a pen and paper, but my hand would grow tired after long sessions of writing in journals. When you write with a fountain pen, only a tiny amount of pressure is needed to glide the ink onto the paper and it allows you to write for longer periods of time. I started out with inexpensive chinese-made pens to see if I would like writing with one and ended up falling in love with the look and feel of the pens. Now I own a small collection of pens and inks that I use for different purposes. A year after I got started down the fountain pen rabbit hole, my husband did too. Now we enjoy going to fountain pen conventions together and exploring our hobby together.

Location

This is the third year that the San Francisco Fountain Pen Show has been held at the Sofitel San Francisco Bay Hotel and our second visit to the convention. It is nestled in Redwood City, near many big name silicone valley corporations and is a short journey from San Francisco International Airport. Driving there can be tricky due to all the “goose crossing” signs leading up to the hotel. Yes, flocks of Canadian Geese make the immediate area their home and can step out into the road without notice. Behind the hotel is a lovely lagoon with walkways to facilitate moonlight walks with your significant other. The interior is modern with a French twist. The hotel was as lovely as we remembered, with comfortable rooms and a pastry shop that tempted us with goodies.

pastry-shop-in-sofatel-hotel

The pen show is held in the ballroom and uses a few of the conference rooms nearby and on the floor above for workshops and meetings. The majority of the vendors were in the ballroom where their wares could be locked up securely in the evening, but this year there was an overflow of a few more vendors into the hallway.

pen-and-ink-drawing-pen-show-2016

Exhibitors

There were a large number of exhibitors this year, many more than the first time we came to the San Franciso during its opening year. These are a few that I frequented:

Anderson Pens
This was their first year at the San Franciso show, but I hope it will not be their last. They had a lovely assortment of bottled inks, notebooks, pens and pen cleaning supplies. My husband had placed a pen order for pick-up with them before the show, but we found ourselves returning for more goodies. I bought an inexpensive Plaisir Fountain Pen there and several bottles of ink.  Working the booth was blogger extraordinaire, Ann Reinert from The Well Appointed Desk.  It was a pleasure to be able to meet her in person. I’ve enjoyed reading her blog for many years.

Franklin-Christoph
Always a staple at the main fountain pen shows, Franklin-Christoph is a manufacturer of fountain pens, nibs, ink, notebooks and leather pen accessories. Both my husband and I own pen cases from them and my husband is a convert to their nibs. He will often match a pen he purchased elsewhere with one of the Franklin-Christoph nibs. While I did not purchase from them this year, I was glad to see them and will keep them on my A list when it comes to purchasing nibs and leather goods.

Curnow Bookbinding and Leatherwork
This is the first time I have seen Curnow Bookbinding and Leatherwork. I purchased a lovely leather travelers-style notebook cover from them. Their table also had handmade traveler’s notebooks with Tomoe River paper at a decent price. The workmanship from this artisan is superb and I hope to see them at other pen shows in the future.

Peyton Street Pens
It was my first time at the Peyton Street Pens table. My husband had suggested that I look at their Ranga line of pens since I was interested in gaining a pen with a Sheaffer nib. They had plenty of vintage Sheaffer pens, but my eye was caught by a beautiful turquoise resin pen newly made in India, but paired with a vintage 1970’s American made Sheaffer nib. I was able to pick the nib I wanted and match it with the pen body. They even threw in a converter and free fountain pen friendly notebook. Such a deal!

sf-pen-show-inks

Vanness Pens
This was the other large ink vendor at the show. I ended up buying a few bottles of ink from them as well. There was a great assortment of pens and unusual ink lines that I had not seen before. I was pleased to see Matt Armstrong, the host of The Pen Habit, a video series you can catch on YouTube was there working in the booth! It was a pleasure to meet Matt in person and he was quite knowledgeable about all the pens and ink at the table. A real asset to Vanness Pens, to be sure.

MikeItWork – Mike Masuyama
It is always a pleasure to see Nibmaster Mike Masuyama at a show. He will customize your nibs to your specifications, allowing you to gain access to nib types that are hard to find or impossible except by customization. He created a beautiful nib on a Parker 51 for me the last time I was at the SF Pen Show and I still love it.

Inking Station

ink-stations-2016-sf-pen-showOne of the exciting features of the pen show, and something you normally only see at the larger national level pen shows, was an ink sample table. 600 Platinum Preppy Fountain Pens were filled with an assortment of inks to try for the price of admission. Most of the major ink brands were there, such as Diamine, deArtementis, Noodler’s, Iroshuiku, Sailor, J. Herban, Montblanc, Pelikan, and Platinum. However, there were also inks from more unusual brands to try out. Kobe, Akkarman, Robert Oster, KWZI, LeArtisan Pastellier, and others I had not heard of.

I set up a page in my A5 cashier sized notebook and wrote down the name of the ink in the ink color and then created a dot so I could see the saturated hue on the page. I discovered that the colors I see on the monitor when I research possible fountain inks to purchase are very different from seeing them in person. This is a wonderful way to sample inks you are interested in and not only get a better idea of their color, but also see how they handle in the process of nib to paper.

Conclusion

Fountain pens are a great hobby for writers. The pens are a dream to write with, needing only the smallest amount of pressure to glide across a page and make long hours of writing more comfortable. While no one needs to purchase an expensive fountain pen to gain the benefits of their ease of writing, seeing all the fancy new pens coming out from the manufacturers, discovering all the vintage antique pens, and playing with the myriad of inks available makes for a fun time. If you get bit by the fountain pen bug, make a point to visit a local fountain pen show.

Generating Science Fiction Stories

Filofax and Notebooks

The act of creativity has been a subject that fascinates me. I have always been a creative woman, I can not stop creating things any more than I can stop breathing. It is a major part of my life and shapes who I am. When the desire to write burst within me in 2010, a single character demanded that I start to write his story. More characters in the story followed and together all these people have become a steampunk science fiction series that I will one day publish. Yet, a single series does not an author make. From time to time, I have been asked to contribute a story to an anthology or a magazine and I found myself frozen, unable to write a word or meet a deadline. I was forced to let these opportunities go without submitting a single word.

Outline The Problem

I became determined to overcome my science fiction writer’s block. While I have published memoir shorts and a regency romance, I consider myself to be a science fiction and fantasy author. I am well versed in the genre having read most of the classics from Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, to a range of women science fiction authors such as Vonda McIntyre, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. This has allowed me to become familiar with the genre tropes and style of the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s when science fiction gained its footing in popular culture. Yet, how to generate science fiction ideas for myself eluded me.

My first thought to solve the problem was to listen to other authors in the genre and get an idea of how they developed their ideas. I attended convention panels with Vernon Vinge, Todd McCaffery, Greg Benford, David Brin and other famous authors to glean how they came up with material that gained them Hugo and Nebula awards. Over time, I realized that each of these authors had a system to store ideas for themselves related to science fiction. Every author had a different way of obtaining these core ideas. Some had buddies who worked at JPL or NASA, others were scientists themselves with years of training in their chosen field. They attended science conferences or read journals about the world of technology today, took these raw facts and concepts, pushing the ideas into the future and giving it a literary twist.

The Past Through Tomorrow

Being a collector of fountain pens and notebooks, I had read how people in the past had kept journals known as “commonplace books”. This was a compilation of ideas and information that the author thought relevant. It was popular with the thinkers of 15th century England and eventually became a scholarly tool adopted by major universities. I liked the concept of the commonplace book and wondered if I could apply it to my science fiction idea generating problem.

To find the basic facts to form ideas from, I signed up for free science journals on a variety of subjects. I joined science fiction clubs and listened to what concepts intrigued the readers.

My paper notebook failed.

There is such a barrage of information in the journals, many fields are expanding their knowledge at speeds that make it difficult to keep up with, that copying the information by hand became overwhelming. I switched to using Evernote and set up folders where I could cut and paste various science-based articles that I thought might have a possible idea to base a story on. Using this collation method proved to be easier to maintain and slowly, I began to have folders of possible science-based​ concepts to write about.

Sharpening The Tools

Although I was generating facts to draw on, I was still having trouble generating science fiction stories except for my Opus Magnus. An author friend of mine suggested that instead of writing short stories, I should try poetry. The form was short and wouldn’t take up as much time to write. I had also taken an online writing course put out by the University of Iowa where one of the lessons said that to practice scene building, try writing haiku first. Haiku was about describing a single moment in time, which are the building blocks of stories.

This is where my love of Scifaiku was born. The poems are only three lines long and I can do them in batches. I would start with facts from my commonplace folders in Evernote and then apply an emotion, setting and time to them. It worked. I began to assemble science fiction poems and much to my surprise, people seemed to like them.

In September of 2015, one of my online writing communities held a writing challenge. Write one flash fiction story a day for the entire month. If I did the challenge to the end, I would have thirty flash fictions to show for it. I decided to try. I would focus all my creative energy on writing science fiction or fantasy and see where it led me. As it turned out, writing with a group of authors gave me the support I needed to complete the challenge. Not all the stories I wrote are good enough to submit, but a number of them were good enough to either send out as a flash fiction or to expand into a longer and better story in the future.

I have followed up with doing two more challenges in 2016. For the first time, I have a backlog of science fiction and fantasy stories to draw on. What is more, I seem to be able to create new characters and plots without the strain that I used to feel. This practice has sharpened my skillset.

Last Word

Today, short stories and poetry come to me more easily. I have established a method of generating science fiction stories that works for me. As time passes, my files grow richer with more science-based concepts to draw from. I hope that by outlining my creative process this gives you ideas on how to be more creative in your own writing.

Mars Inspires Writers

As a science fiction writer, the planet Mars has always intrigued me. It is a new world full of vast plains, mineral wealth, and the possibility of humanity having a second planet to call home. The technology to go there is already here, it simply will take the inspiration and guts for us to get there, along with the courage to develop the red planet into a proper home.

I’ve written several short stories that take place on Mars and often times I use photos or stories from scientific journals as inspiration for my tales. I stumbled upon a series of full sized posters were developed to inspire new settlers to go to the red planet. The posters are available for free at NASA. They were originally commissioned for an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in 2009.  Below are smaller versions of my favorites. If you like the images, be sure to go to NASA and see them all. Download one or two for your walls. Maybe they will inspire you to write about Mars as I do, or even to go there one day yourself.

P01-Explorers-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xEXPLORERS WANTED ON THE JOURNEY TO MARS

Boasting the solar system’s biggest canyon, putting Earth’s Grand Canyon to shame, is Valles Marineris. There you can experience the blue sunsets while the twin moons, Phobos and Deimos, sail overhead. Can you imagine being one of the first people to explore such a glorious place? It would be breathtaking.

P04-Surveyors-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xSURVEYORS WANTED TO EXPLORE MARS

Mars is covered by many robots that are measuring the planet and taking samples. Yet, once people arrive the land will need to be partitioned and sold to settlers much as it is here on Earth. Land will be designated as cities and townships. Acres set up for farms and mines. For this, surveyors will be needed. Much as George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a surveyor for the American colonies in his youth, people with these skills will also be needed on Mars. Could this be you?

P06-Technicians-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xTECHNICIANS WANTED TO ENGINEER OUR FUTURE ON MARS

One of the skill sets that will be needed on Mars at once are technicians. They will be needed to repair the machines that keep people alive in the hostile environment. They will be the ones working in the supply ships that will run between Mars, Earth, and the Moon. Such jobs should be in high demand. Will you be one of those people who go there to work your trade?

P07-Some-User-Assembly-Required-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xASSEMBLY REQUIRED TO BUILD OUR FUTURE ON MARS

Machinists and mechanics will also be professions in high demand on Mars. Builders of homes, of factories, mines and more will pave the way for future immigrants to the red planet. Already, people in these fields are applying to go one way to Mars even today. They bank on their ability to build what they will need to survive on the red planet without having to return to Earth. It takes courage to face a life on a new world, much as settlers a few centuries ago faced one-way trips to the Americas from Europe.

P08-We-Need-You-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xNASA NEEDS YOU

Reminding us of the famous Uncle Sam poster of another era, this final image looks you right in the eye and asks if you have the courage and desire to reach for Mars. Could being a technician, teacher, builder or even a parent raising a child there be in your future?

I hope that you have found inspiration for your own stories with these fun images from NASA. That they inspire you to dream about a new world and what life there might be like. If these images help ferment a few new science fiction stories for you, as they have for me, all the better.

Self-Editing Techniques to Polish Your Novel

self-editing writing

I’m a firm believer in independently publishing my novels. I enjoy the marketing process since it involves getting out and meeting people. Being a working artist for the past twenty years or more, I find working a table at a convention or being in a booth at a fair to be a normal state of existence. I would miss the experience if I allowed others to do this for me. There is nothing like the personal touch when it comes to learning what your readers like (or not) about your work. Other pluses include retaining complete control over my writing and gaining the maximum profits on my sales.

Part of being an Indie Author is making sure your manuscript is the best that it can be before you release it into the world. Instead of accepting the cover art the publishing house insists upon and using their editor, I take the responsibility to hire people to do the work myself. It can be costly, a good editor doesn’t come cheap (nor should they), but in the end, I feel that keeping control of my work is the better end of the equation. Self-editing can help to reduce the cost of an editor and proof-reader since they will not have to do as much work.

During my self-edit process, I use beta-readers to provide insight into the content. I follow with editing software to catch general grammar, punctuation, passive voice, and adverbs. I spend far more time rewriting and editing a work than I spend in the rough draft. However, there is more I do during self-editing than rely on machines.

Below is a checklist I use to polish a novel, novella or short story before I send a longer manuscript to an editor and proofreader or submit a short story to a magazine.

1. Do not express emotion via mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “The horse…is…DEAD!” doesn’t make an equine any more expired than “The horse is dead.”

2. Remove mannerisms of attribution. People speak. They do not wheeze, sigh, laugh, grunt, gasp, snort, reply, retort, or exclaim, ect.

3. Do not use similar names for your characters, it causes confusion with the reader. You should also avoid using the same first initial in names of your main characters.

4. Show, don’t tell. If Alex pounds on the door and demands entrance. You do not need to tell the reader he is angry.

5. Along with showing instead of telling, you do not need to explain the emotions of the characters. Let their actions do it for them.

Alex pounded on the door. “Let me in!”

instead of

Alex was angry at Mary. Furiously, he pounded on the door and shouted at her, “Let me in!”

6. Avoid cliches. This means not only common words and phrases, but also cliched situations.

Examples: Starting with your character waking up. Having a character look in a mirror so you can describe them via their POV. Having future romance partners bump into each other on their first meeting. It has all been done before. Don’t repeat history.

7. Remove stage directions. You don’t need to describe every single action of all the characters in every scene. Leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. We live in an age of television and movies. The reader’s mind has been trained to use similar images when they read about a place or situation. There is no need to describe it as much as authors did 100 years ago.

8. Use adjectives sparingly. Instead, find a strong noun and verb to convey the same information. Keep it simple.

9. Remove the word “that”. It adds extra weight to your sentences without giving any substance.

10. Avoid the words “up” and “down”. Only use them when needed. He started [up] the car. She walked [down] the street.

11. Do not be redundant. Do this in content with your ideas, but also in your sentence structure.

12. Choose regular words over the more unusual. Don’t show off your vocabulary. Make your content and ideas shine instead. Don’t get in the way of what you are trying to say.

13. Start the action right at the beginning. Don’t start it after a couple of pages of descriptive scene setting. Just get to it!

There is much more to self-editing, but this checklist is a place to start. Don’t let revision and editing daunt you. While it is a huge task, in the end it is rewarding to know you have polished your manuscript and made it the best you can.

Novel Writing: Organizing the Rough Draft

Header For Oganizing Your Novel

Writing a novel is a many step process. Your first action is to sit down and write the rough draft. For me, this means sitting in the various coffeehouses in my local area with my trusty AlphaSmart typewriter, a notebook with a brief story outline, and plenty of ice coffee.

When I write, the characters become friends to me, real people that I care about and want to spend time with. During the drafting process, this is a positive since it keeps your butt in the chair and working. However, after drafting, this love of story becomes a liability. Distance in the relationship is needed in order for you to take the next step in the process. Once that messy manuscript is completed, I stick it in a drawer or a computer file and take a long break from the work in order to allow my minds to reset on the story.

Once a sufficient amount of time has passed, it is time to open up that file and take a long look at what I have written. This is the point where I cringe and wonder what the heck I could have been thinking during those long sessions at the coffeehouse. I think that most authors feel this way at this stage in the game. What comes next is a read through of the book where you note places where you have repeated concepts, where plot holes have developed and other problems that need to be fixed. In many cases it is necessary to reorganize the book so that it has the plot twists and other major actions happen at the proper places in the book. The theme of your book needs to be discovered so that you incorporate it into the book and micro-scenes should be clipped to make the action more streamlined.

My process uses some of the techniques that I learned in the four books I am reviewing below. My favorite is Blue Print Your Bestseller. I use Horwitz’s method to break down my story into scenes, color code them in order to find plot holes, take out tiny transition scenes that slow down the pacing of the book and, most importantly, find the theme of my story if I have not done so during the drafting process. Then I reassemble the story into chapters and go forward in a more traditional manner toward the editing process. His method is a beautiful match to Scrivener and works wonders in that writing environment, although he personally uses paper in his descriptions.  However, there is much value to be found in all four of these books.  If you find that you have trouble with plot and structure as I do, these books will be of good service to you.

Blueprint Your BestsellerBlueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method
By Stuart Horwitz

I found this book to be an excellent primer on how to organize the first revision of your novel. The method starts with taking an unfinished manuscript, such as a Nanowrimo effort, and walks you through a process to break apart the work into its component scenes, identify the various threads that weave through the work, discover the book’s theme, and then finally put the book back together into a better more cohesive whole. The examples were clear, the language friendly and knowledgeable, and the content very useful to any writer. I feel that this book should be in every author’s library and recommend it to all my author friends.

Story EngineeringStory Engineering
By Larry Brooks

I have found this book to be instrumental in explaining the components of what makes a good story and how those elements can be combined. Brooks takes you from story concept through character development, scene construction and the basic structure of your tale. I found the book to be easy to understand and to have a fresh viewpoint on the subject. Once you have finished that rough draft, this is a great primer on where to move the various elements of your story or how to strengthen scenes and characters to make them more memorable.

90 Day RewriteThe 90 Day Rewrite
By Alan Watt

I have to include Alan Watt’s sequel to the 90-Day Novel in my list. The first book helped me overcome a major blockage in a series that I was writing and allowed me to complete a Nanowrimo project on schedule. I recommend the former book for anyone prepping for the 30 writing experience of Nanowrimo, it will get you to the finish line.

It was with great expectations that I picked up this book once my first draft was done. Once again, Watt designed a workbook that guides you through the process, in this case, of the first rewrite. Your work is broken down into thirteen weeks of tasks to accomplish that lead you on to clean up your book’s structure, strengthen characters, and do all the necessary things in your rewrite. If you feel as if you are wandering lost in the woods when doing your first rewrite, this book will leave you a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

The Plot WhispererThe Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Author Can Master
By Martha Alderson

As you may have guessed by now, plot and structure are my two problem children as a writer. I come up with real characters and interesting locations, but what they do in those places sometimes is a struggle for me. The Plot Whisperer helps to address these issues. She shows you have to create plot lines and subplot that work together, a method of scene tracking, how to show character transformation during the climax of your story and much more. This is a well-written book with many good ideas to help you become a better author.