Thursday, October 30, 2014

Your Starting Line

Zestful Blog Post #77

Since lots of bloggers are posting today about writing, what with National Novel Writing Month (check it out at starting on Saturday, I want to help you in a different way by giving you some info on writing materials, specifically paper. If you write first drafts by hand, as I do, your paper is your starting line.

I think many writers are closet gearheads. We're into gear but we're not supposed to be, because unlike painters and their materials, our materials don't figure in our finished products; a writer's materials become pointless when the story or article is published, because a new medium takes it over, so to speak.

But they're NOT pointless. They have power. 

If you use rollerballs, ballpoints, gel tips, or pencils, your choice of paper can be based on aesthetics and price. Writing with fountain pens is another matter, as their sensitive nibs will snag on papers that are even a little bit rough. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the paper (that is, the higher the pulp-to-rag content), the rougher the writing surface.

For years I wrote my first drafts—novels, stories, articles, everything—exclusively on yellow pads, preferably Gold Fibre brand, as the paper is thicker, smoother, and more pleasing than the cheap pads, plus I liked the thicker cardboard backing. They took fountain pen ink pretty well. Then I started writing more with rollerballs and gels, and was able to save a few bucks by buying the cheapest spiral notebooks, as the paper quality just didn't matter as much. Then I got sick of throwing away empty pens or hunting for refills that cost almost as much as the pen itself. Now I write a lot with my pretty little neon-yellow Lamy with a 1.1mm italic nib, which is pretty sensitive.

I went on line and ordered a few different kinds of spiral notebooks, to see how different ones worked with a temperamental fountain pen, and to see how pleasing they were to look at and handle. (I have no business relationship with any of the following companies and their products. If only.)

Here's the review:

National Brand Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper 1 Subject Notebook, 80 sheets, 10" x 8": I like the pale-green color and the narrow rules. Most important, the paper is quite smooth. The Lamy doesn't snag. The paper, though, is pretty thin, and some inks will feather (meaning flow out a little from the line written, causing a fuzzy look), and some will bleed through, making it hard to use both sides. No micro-perforation, which makes tearing out pages messier than one might like. Somewhat flimsy spiral wire, but doesn't seem to be a big issue. Extra points for the matte tan cover, which may easily be customized with a doodle or pasted-on label. $2.99 (all prices on Amazon).

Campus Wide Notebook, 70 sheets, 10" x 7", the cover of which sports the legend, embossed in silver, "Campus notebooks contain the best ruled foolscap suitable for writing". I first bought one of these in San Francisco's Japantown, years ago, and liked it a lot. Got some new ones, which are as good as the old ones. Excellent smooth paper, narrow ruled. Resistant to bleed-out and bleed-through, which means you can write on both sides of the paper, a practice that doubles the usable acreage. No micro-perforation. Excellent quality thick cover boards and double spiral binding. Costly, but this is a top quality item. $10.99 each.

Gold Fibre Retro Pad, wide rule, 70 sheets, 8-1/2" x 11-3/4", Antique Ivory. Love the features of this one: the brown mottled covers, the copper-look spiral binding, the buff-colored paper with brown ruler lines, the fact that the reverse sides are quarter-inch graph ruled, the micro-perforations. Apparently the quality of the paper these days is less than before, which is unfortunate. I get a fair amount of feathering and bleed-through with fountain pen ink, and the surface isn't as smooth as I'd like. Yet I love the appearance of this thing, and I often tote one around if I'm going to mainly use anything other than a fountain pen with it. $5.08 each.

Clairefontaine classic wirebound, 90 sheets, 8-1/2" x 11". The emperor of notebooks, as far as I'm concerned. Excellent quality paper, smooth and thick. Takes any ink and nib, no feathering, no bleed-through, so you can use both sides. High quality double-spiral binding, micro-perforations, and full page size make this one a joy to use. You pay for it, all right, but I think I'll probably always have a few of these on hand. So pleasurable to use. I've customized the one in the picture by taping a postcard of Van Gogh's 'Madame Roulin' on it. $15.42 each.

Do tools matter? Yes. Can good paper make you a better writer? No. Can it make you a happier, more productive writer? Damn straight it can.

Tell us about the papers you use, hey?

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Story Power

Zestful Blog Post #76

When I was a teenager my mother and I went to see "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the local movie theater. (Given how seriously she took her Catholicism and how totally immune she was to rock & roll, I was impressed at Mom's adventurousness.) We chatted over our popcorn while the theater filled up. A pair of nuns in full habit came in and took seats in the row behind us.

Apart from having to explain to Mom, during the movie, that if you didn't catch every word of "Hosanna, hey-sanna, sanna, sanna-ho", that was OK, the key moment for me was when Judas's hand reaches out for the bag of silver. In a soft, distressed tone, one of the nuns behind us called, "No, Judas!"

Mom and I laughed quietly. That nun urging Judas to reject the blood money has stuck in my mind all these years, because it was such a perfect manifestation of the power of story. If anybody knew how this one was gonna end, it was that nun. Yet she was so drawn in—she felt the story so deeply—that she was moved to try to intervene.

Years later I received a gag gift of a paint-by-number set of Leonardo daVinci's "The Last Supper". I took the gift seriously, however, completed the painting, and had it framed. It hangs in my office. (Didn't I do a nice job?) I note that Leonardo made clear to the local illiterate peasants which one is Judas, because he's the only one with his elbow on the table (rude sonabitch), he's holding a bag (wonder what's in it?), he's spilled the salt cellar (bad luck), and his head is lower than anyone else's (status mattered, then as now).

OK, so that's four clues in one painting. If that painting were a contemporary novel, we'd consider it heavy-handed to put all those clues in. It's our job as authors to avoid doing such, because our audience is ever more sophisticated. And it's a fun dance, calculating how much to let our readers figure out in advance.

How to gauge it?

Stress-free guideline #1:

This will help you instantly: Always assume that your every reader possesses a voracious, sharp intellect and loves your genre.

Nobody hits it perfect, and every author makes mistakes, but do what the best ones do, and never err in the direction of dumbing down or broadening your hints. Why? Because keeping it smart and narrow pleases sharp readers, and the dull ones will realize it was their fault they didn't pick up on the clues. If they love reading, they'll figure they'll have to keep a sharper lookout next time. Thus is a discerning reader born. You have a hand in it.

Stress-free guideline #2:

If, for instance, you're going to surprise us by revealing at the end that a good guy was really the bad guy all along, give us only one or two hints along the way. We don't need more.

Let's say you've got a hearty, beloved kindergarten teacher who turns out to be the one who is abducting kids to be melted down for their growth hormones on the international black market. Besides her talents at communicating lessons and soothing tears, you might let drop that years ago she worked as a Border Patrol agent but got too stressed out and had to quit. (Thus she would naturally have knowledge of at least one way to smuggle people.)

That's just a little example. Now open your heartbrain and come up with more!

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tear Off and Enlarge

Zestful Blog Post #75

Whenever I prepare to do a writing workshop, I feel I should start by having everybody meditate or relax quietly for a few minutes, to clear and make ready our minds and hearts. But I've never done it, because I know some people are turned off by such novelties. And I don't want to turn anybody off. Actually, I just now realized that I want to avoid the mild emotional hassle of perceiving someone's rejection of the practice—the heavy sigh, the muttered comment.

Wrong, I've decided. This is my show and I should run it as I see fit, and if you're with me, you're with me. Writing is art, art is mysterious, and to achieve exceptional results,

you MUST tap into something beyond technique. [photo of Roy Gussow / Jose de Rivera sculpture by ES]

This decision was reinforced the other day when I read a profile of the painter Chris Ofili in the New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins. One of Ofili's art teachers, Bill Clark, had his students lie down and be with their thoughts for a while at the start of class. That's cool, but what's even cooler is Clark's Zen-master approach of bewildering his students by assigning seemingly outrageous work, like tearing off three-quarters of a piece of work, throwing that out, then enlarging the piece that remains.

Why not try this with writing—say, a short story? Slice it up, even crudely, by throwing out the first seven and a half pages of the ten you've got—and create a whole story from what remains. Or pick the middle hunk to keep, and go from there.

The point of the practice is to shake up and thus free your heartbrain, so you can make artistic leaps and bounds that may lead you to something amazing.

Anybody game?

Now for some writing-related news.

An outstanding writing coach who also happens to be my friend, Jamie Morris, has supercharged and expanded her business. Check it out via her new web site: The blurb from me is heartfelt.

Another of my friends, Lori L. Lake, has recently founded a publishing company, Launch Point Press. I've contributed a story for an upcoming anthology. Lori is a terrific person and businesswoman.

More next week.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You Gotta Play

Zestful Blog Post #74

Recently I was talking with a few other authors about inspiration. Everybody slung some bullshit about being inspired by heroic others, and I came away dissatisfied. Thinking about it, I realized that inspiration really means stimulation. I tried to go back in time, or basically to find some origin or place it can all be reduced to, and TOYS kept coming up.

Toys are the original stimulators, aren't they? The original inspirers.

The first toy I remember really loving was a fist-sized red rubber ball that came free in a Tide detergent box. (The original Tide graphic featured a red ball in the center.) My mom fished out the ball and tossed it to me, age probably three or four. I loved that ball. Other than its being bouncy, the main thing about it was its aroma. It smelled like Tide, and it stayed smelling like clean laundry for years, until I lost it on somebody's roof. The associations we make.

My point is this:

The sight or sound of a toy inspires us to act on it. A button on a string, a tricycle, an Etch-A-Sketch, a stick and an empty can, blocks, a cardboard boat. Point #2: As adults we don't stop needing toys, and we don’t stop needing play, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

Lots of times we call the stuff we play with 'equipment,' but it amounts to the same thing. (A golf club by any other name, you know?)

I keep trying to decide if my writing instruments, my pens and pencils and papers, are tools or toys. Well, they're both, of course.

Don't spend every minute of today doing something productive, or feeling you OUGHT to be doing something productive. Play, dammit. Grab that banjo and tune it up. Run outside and pretend to be a secret agent. Sneak around. Go to the woods and find a cool stick. Leave the tree book at home.
You know you'll be better for it.

Next week I'll share some good news from writing friends.

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[photo of boat and physio instructor by ES] 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

When to Push the Button

Zestful Blog Post #73

How do you know when a book is done? When is it ready to wing its electronic way to agents and editors? When do you hit 'PUBLISH'?

Recently I was listening to an artist discuss her current project, which consists of many moving parts and interfaces. Very complex. I perceived that over time, she'd been agonizing over increasingly fine details, and was starting to have difficulty making aesthetic decisions. She didn't know how long it would take to make it good enough for the marketplace.

Right then it dawned on me. "You're there," I said.

And I saw the exact parallel with writing projects—novels, nonfiction, stories, essays. Anything you create, really. When your project is rough, it's easy to see ways to make it better, and you busy yourself in the execution. Then the finishing process starts to get ever more delicate; you use a finer and finer grade of grit to shape your product. When you're not sure whether that speck is a bump or a hollow, stop. Ship it.

But it's not perfect! I know it! I can feel it!

Good. Nothing's perfect. Moreover, nothing should be perfect. Have you heard about

the rug makers of Persia who deliberately weave in an error out of fear of creating a mistake-free product? The same is attributed to Amish quilt makers, Navajo blanket weavers, Turkish shipbuilders, etc. The idea is that only the deity can be perfect. Presumably, then, to create something perfect would be an affront to that deity.

What a great, freeing idea for all artists! Leave perfection to the godhead! Do your best, ship it, declare victory, and move on.

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[Photo of cool rug by ES]