Curious Rat

Penciling in a New Passion

In the early days of the internet as we know it, before the whole world had the ability to instantly flash-mob a hashtag and drive a person into self-inflicted witness protection, small communities cropped up around myriad topics. Books, sports, kayaking - you name it, there was a group of new joiners and old hats ready to type about it.

And then the world became the internet. The few resident experts in an IRC chat room soon became whispers in the arenas of Twitter and Facebook, where everyone was now an expert. Everyone was a curator, or an artisan, or a homeotelepathic gluten whisperer who prefers coffee roasted in the basement of an old beer bottle factory no more than five miles away and exactly 47 hours prior to being hand ground by an ex-nun and filtered through an unused cloth diaper into a mason jar. You know, the real way coffee is meant to be consumed.

With so many “experts” on a particular hobby or lifestyle, how is someone new to know where to look? That’s where I found myself a year ago when I abandoned the toxic waste processing plant 1 known as “tech blogging” for something simpler. As an avid supporter of analog tools and stationery, I dipped my size 13 toe into the waters of writing implements. I had no interest in blogging about them. People with far greater talent than I had already cornered that market. I simply wanted to graduate from Bic ballpoints to something better without taking out a second mortgage on a limited edition Mont Blanc.

I started by listening to the Pen Addict podcast. Brad Dowdy is a man who doesn’t just know pens, he knows how to make something daunting, like choosing an ink or a beginner fountain pen, seem as simple as choosing an Applebee’s appetizer. His shows tend to be grounded in single topics for discussion rather than rambling about anything and everything under the paper sun, so learning something new is as easy as devoting an hour or so to an episode. The Pen Addict podcast seemed like a small mountain I had to climb in preparation for Kilimanjaro and it’s a step I’d suggest anyone take before diving into the pen pool wallet-first.

From there, I checked out sites like Ed Jelley’s blog and S.B.R.E. Brown’s YouTube channel, and eventually found my way to dedicated pen stores, such as Pen Chalet and JetPens. JetPens has been as big a help as Mr. Dowdy in my education. The people who run it seem as interested in helping current customers as they are in acquiring new ones. Since I bought my first Pilot Metropolitan long ago (a stellar pen at such a low price), I’ve been tweeting them questions about converters and inks and even penmanship tutorials and every time, they’ve come back with advice and products to genuinely help me find what works for me. I’m never sold more than I need.

On the graphite side are the pencil enthusiasts, such as Tim Wasem, Andy Welfle, Johnny Gamber, and Caroline Weaver, who’ve also been instrumental in broadening my horizons beyond the old reliable Dixon Ticonderoga #2. The Erasable Podcast, much like the Pen Addict, took me to school from episode 1, revealing an entire landscape of pencils from all over the world. Bullet pencils, Blackwings, Generals - and sharpeners. So many sharpeners, from hand-cranked Classroom Friendly machines to one-holed wonders. And again, those who’d established themselves as experts in the field were ready to guide me and others toward the tools they knew we would love.

That’s what I’ve come to truly adore about this community - and it certainly does feel like one. No matter how green I may feel when looking to upgrade my pen or try a new notebook, I don’t hesitate to ask. I’m never made to feel stupid or like a “n00b” for asking the difference between nibs or graphite hardnesses. And with shepherding from the blogs and podcasts listed above, I’m starting to understand what I’m looking for in new additions to my collection. Furthermore, I’m not looking to amass a collection. I’m interested in acquiring those few special pieces that make my fingers twitch with anticipation when I open my bag. The ones that draw a smile out of me when I twist them sharp or post their caps.

I recently purchased a Lamy Al-Star fountain pen in copper orange with a medium nib. I love its design and the way it feels in my hand. Simple. Clean. The color looks like something pulled from a car’s palette, like a modern General Lee made pen. And it writes so smoothly, I actively look for things to write so I can use it.

I also made a point of picking up a bottle of Diamine Autumn Oak ink, which, as expected, has the orange patina of fallen leaves in October - a true schooltime color I’m happy to use all year round. I never thought I’d enjoy colors that deviated too far from the blue or black spectrum, but the more reviews I read, the more I’m drawn to deep purples and smoky grays.

So, here’s to the inky ones. The writers. The sketchers. The Field Notes hoarders. Thank you for your patience and your tutelage. I am grateful and I look forward to passing on what I’ve learned to another who might begin as I had in a state of overwhelming confusion. It’s nice when you find the right tool at the right price. It’s even better when you find the right people are only a few clicks away.

  1. It doesn’t actually clean the waste. It just churns it into an even thicker paste that erodes the soul of the reader and turns the writer into a shell incapable of expressing any emotion other than a smirk as he excoriates a new gadget he’s only used for three days. 

My Growth as a Writer

Trees grow. So do tumors, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with likening my writing to a cancerous mass of cells. Others might be, however…

I’ve been querying my third novel, LUMINOUS, for the last several months and in the rejections I’ve received, I’ve noticed something different from the last two books I queried: feedback.

Whereas before I’d send a query letter via an email pigeon, only to have it turn right around with a, “Thanks, but no thanks,” wrapped around its ankle (and those certainly still hit my inbox), today I’m seeing more personal notes. Phrases like “smart sentences,” “strong project,” and “very interesting,” are making their way into my rejections, proving something is different about this book compared to the first two I wrote.

It’s not hard to see what changed—I did. I got better. My writing muscles strengthened. I have a storytelling six-pack where used to reside a keg of naive optimism. And that came about from a simple trick I learned while reading a bottomless pit of articles on writing:


That’s it. That was the big trick. Every morning on my train into New York, I read, and every morning for two hours in a Barnes & Noble cafe before work, I wrote. What struck me as I read was how my brain processed the prose. I used to read only for pleasure. I’d wander into the woods of a plot and set up camp for a few days to breathe in the fresh air. I still love living in books, but now as I wander among the trees, I stop and admire the flowers growing between them - the turns of phrase, the metaphors, the carefully structured sentences. I read to learn as much as I read to escape. My forest is more lush than I once thought.

My observations have paid off, too. When I go back to read my first book side-by-side with my latest, I can see the cringe-inducing difference. I might as well have been hopped up on Benadryl and mushrooms while I queried that first novel because that never should have left the desk drawer. I was hopeful and stupid. I was going to be the one to break the rule of first novels. Mine was not only going to be published, but it was going to define a new era of literature and—

You can stop laughing now.

LUMINOUS, however, is what happens when a writer finds his voice. It’s what is born of voracious reading and near-paralyzing fear of failure. LUMINOUS is the book I always wanted to write. It’s proof of growth. The story is tighter. The language is cleaner. I imagine it as the final project of a class taught by Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Anthony Breznican - a class I still worry I failed, but one in which I got a few points more than I did the last time I took it.

Reading is everything. It’s almost more important than the actual writing. I absorb the books I read and in turn churn my stories in my mind to thicken them up. To make them richer. And I don’t just read the literary powerhouses to enrich my writing. I read genre novels to observe pacing and romance and action. I read bad books to know what not to do. I read award winners, award losers, and books that wouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of an awards stage.

Read everything. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read short stories and novellas (where some of the best world building and pacing happens because there are limitations for the writer to overcome). Pull it all apart and sew it back together again and use that to nurture your craft.

Growth is necessary for a writer. It’s natural. A writer who doesn’t grow is a writer no one wants to read, for if a writer doesn’t grow, the stories he or she tells don’t grow, either. And who wants to read a malnourished, neglected story? I know I don’t.

Literary Links for March 16, 2015

Chuck Wendig:

Nobody is good enough to tell the stories and ideas inside them. I mean that sincerely. The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.

But sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, a beam of light is still a beam of light no matter how diffuse it is, no matter how dirty the light, no matter how filthy the floor is that it illuminates. And when it’s not enough, you keep on trying until it is.

My books never come out the way I envision them and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the doubt ever goes away, but I’m glad my feelings are also experienced by successful writers. I don’t feel alone in my failure. It makes me want to keep going, to get better.

Lincoln Michel for Electric Literature:

An appreciation of readers as diverse individuals with different tastes should be a basic tenet of criticism. Instead, it’s common for critics to imagine that their aesthetic preferences are the reflections of “readers” or a special class of readers—“serious readers,” “imaginative readers,” “brave readers,” or some other ill-defined category—whose views truly matter.

I don’t judge anyone for the books they read and love. Any critic can hoist his elbow patches upon a desk and tell a reader he or she is wasting his time enjoying “un-literary” books. The job of a critic is to make us ask questions about a book to better understand it, not dismiss it for its genre or because it’s “for kids.”

Literary Hub:

There is more great literary content out there than ever—but it is scattered across the Web. Literary Hub brings it together in one place, a go-to daily source for all the news, ideas, and richness of contemporary literary life. With the help of its partners—a cross-section of the best in contemporary literary publishing—Literary Hub will feature original and curated content about books and the people who write them, read them, love them.

I signed up. Seems like a great way to catch up on my literature-related news now that I stopped using RSS altogether.

Covered Episode 8: Courtney Alameda →

Harry talks with author Courtney Alameda about her new paranormal horror-thriller, Shutter, as well as the variety of books that inspired her, the misperceptions people have of horror authors, and dealing with the frustrating question, “What is it like to be a woman who writes horror?”

Harry also reveals the winners of the #CoveredConfidant giveaway, courtesy of Baron Fig!

COVERED Episode 7: Eric Shonkwiler →

Harry talks with author Eric Shonkwiler about his award-winning debut novel, Above All Men, as well as Cormac McCarthy, MFA programs, and the current state of literature.

And keep your ears peeled for a very special giveaway courtesy of our good friends at Baron Fig!