Category Archives: Things Writers Need

A Quickie about a Clippie


Apropos of absolutely nothing, here is a $100 binder clip.

Put aside for now how you spell the word “clippie” (here I’m talking about a “clip-type-thing” and not an adjective meaning “cliplike” — for which “clippy” would almost certainly be correct).

I don’t really have anything to say about it. I just wanted you to know that it exists.

Speidel Mens Money Clip, Business, Credit Card Holder Engravable Stainless Steel

Okay, so Amazon claims this is a money clip, but, come on. You can’t fool me. That’s a tricked-out binder clip.

I mean, I love binder clips as much as the next guy. Probably more. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that binder clips are my #1 favorite office supply. (The fact that I care about office supplies enough to have favorites should be enough to tell you that when I say binder clips are my favorite, I’m not just fargoing around.)

And don’t get me wrong. It’s clearly a very nice binder clip.

But — and I feel pretty confident in saying this, too — I am not sure there is a circumstance under which I would pay $100 for a binder clip.

But if one were to procure said $100 binder clip, one would have to feel strongly enough about it to give it a name.

A name like Clippie.


On the Life and Death of my Pen


Tools.

Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a

Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)

The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?

I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.

So. Digital tools. Right?

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Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?

Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.

Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.

So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.

Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)

And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.

So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)


And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.

It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.

And then I broke it.

I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.

I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.

Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.

And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).

So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.

Neandarthalic.

But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.

And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?

Because I got distracted, that’s why.

I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)

Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.

And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.

(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)

All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.

(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)

I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.

To stay focused on what matters.


Novel/Short Story Submission Spreadsheet


I was looking for a tool to track my novel submissions today, and I stumbled on this nifty little spreadsheet hacked together by Matt Bell. But I’m one of those guys who likes my stuff just so, and you know, with a little bit of color to keep my tiny brain interested. So I tweaked it and added a couple little things.

A nice feature of Matt’s sheet is a counter that tabulates how long your submission has been in a particular agent’s (or publisher’s) slush pile — it tallies days until you put in a response date. Handy, but a bit dry.

So I added color-coding for the days your piece has been out for submission: Less than 2 months, green (I’d consider that an “active” submission), 2-4 months, yellow (still active but getting dusty), 4+ months, red (probably mostly dead and time to resubmit). This gives you a nice idea at a glance for how many “active” subs you have out.

I also added a “days since last submission” counter, also color-coded, which goes yellow after two weeks and red after a month — a sharp, at-a-glance indicator for whether you might want to send out some fresh subs.

Mmm, subs.

Writing Spreadsheet

All the bells and whistles should work for up to 150 submissions. In the spirit of Matt’s offering, I’ve made the end result downloadable and shareable, in the hopes you might find it useful.

And it’s all on the ubiquitously useful and convenient GoogleDocs, so, you know.

You can find it here.


An Open Letter to the Creators of FreeWrite


I heard about a product a little over a year ago: The Hemingwrite. I wrote a little piece about it then, in which I waffled between two opinions. namely that it would probably help some writers to a) write more and b) feel better about their writing, but ultimately I came down on the side of feeling that the thing was decidedly silly for the price. It was still in development, though, and everything was fair game for change.

Astrohaus-Freewrite_lg_05-1024x768

Well, the wait is over, and the discussion is no longer hypothetical: the device is here. You’ve rebranded it the FreeWrite, which is maybe less catchy than the obvious play on Hemingway’s name. I like it, though. The new name taps into the inspiring soul of the idea: they’re branding it as “your distraction-free writing tool.” It conjures up images of writing wherever, whenever you feel like. A lonely beach at sunrise! A breezy mountaintop with the whispering wind swirling about you! The cozy confines of your murder cabin! Er, writing cabin. I meant writing cabin. Take it anywhere, write anywhere. Distraction free!

And I stand by most of what I wrote in my original review. I would love to test-drive one. It’s still adorable. And I can totally see the draw it will have. We writers are a strange lot — what looks odd and useless to the general public can be a source of endless inspiration for us. Having a tool “just for writing,” especially a tool in which one makes a serious financial investment, is almost certain to do two things: remind the author that he has made a commitment to his craft, and remind him that he really should be writing.

Of course, we have Benedict Cumberbatch for that.

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But I see one problem towering above all the rest with the FreeWrite.

The investment.

When I first wrote about it, I (crazily, apparently) mused that I might be willing to spend $100, maybe $150 on something like the FreeWrite. I also realized at the time that that figure was probably laughably low, and I was right; I checked their website and the price, to my memory at the time, was projected to be in the $200-250 range. That’s frankly too rich for my blood.  I’m a guy who agonized for a month over shelling out $40 for a copy of Scrivener. (Which I love, it turns out, although they seriously need to implement a Track Changes feature for the Windows version.)

So what does $250 get us? A typewriter simulator with an e-ink screen and a wi-fi switch for automated cloud backups and a couple of weeks of battery at full charge (which is pretty cool). No internet connectivity for anything other than your backups (which is, obviously, sort of a core tenet of the idea — no distractions). A million pages of internal storage (which is, in the scheme of computer storage, not actually all that much, but since this is all the thing does, it’s more than adequate). Feels a little overpriced to me, but I guess I would have been willing to shell out extra for the kitsch factor.

Except — surprise! — the price on the current iteration of the FreeWrite is $499.

Four hundred ninety-nine dollars. (Which is a specially discounted, limited-time offer over the apparent original price of $549.)

Look. FreeWrite creators.

I wanted to like the product. I really did. In fact, I still do. I think, conceptually, it’s absolutely got a place among burgeoning, youngish writers like myself. (Sorry, I just had a coughing fit over calling myself a youngish writer. Whoops, it happened again.) I can even envision how I  would use it:

“I’m going out to write!” I announce to nobody in particular, as I throw a scarf around my neck and don my tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and spontaneously sprout a beard. I put on spectacles for no apparent reason (they’re just empty frames and YES I CALL THEM SPECTACLES), scoop up my FreeWrite by its collapsible handle and bicycle off on my 19th-century huge-front-wheeled bicycle (because modern bicycles are so mindlessly corporate, and yes, I use “bicycle” as a verb AND a noun in the same sentence; I’m a writer, whee). Along the way, I stop and pick some coffee beans from the living trees and brew them with my own urine, then I perch in the crook of a mighty elm in the heart of the wood, sipping my coffee and typing away on the next American masterpiece while the fauna of the forest swirl lazily around me.

Seriously, the site features pictures of a bearded dude writing on this thing. So tranquil! So creative! So hip! This is what you’re’re selling to the throngs of would-be writers out there. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great vision. People would buy that! I would buy that!

But — five hundred dollars? That’s almost a mortgage payment. Rent for a month. That’s two months worth of car payments. A university course. Four weeks’ worth of groceries for my family of four. 2500 packets of Ramen Noodles, enough to subsist on for over ten years!

So who are you really selling this to? I have to imagine that any “established” writer is already going to have their routines and favorite tools well-ensconced; they won’t have any need for this thing. Poorish college types will balk at dropping that kind of cash on this thing when they can easily get a laptop — and a damn good one at $500 — to do everything this machine does and more. And middle-of-the-road types like me (my wife and I are comfortable, but by no means flush with extra money) are never going to be able to justify dropping that kind of coin on a unitasker like this.

In short, I feel you’ve priced yourself out of the very market you hope to attract. The only people I can see spending $500 on this device are the very rich who have run out of useful things to spend their money and time on (which may be a bigger segment of the population than I give credit for) or those who believe that the tools seriously make the writer (which I sincerely hope is a minuscule portion of the writing population).

For the same $499, I can buy myself a laptop and a copy of Scrivener (which not only offers a distraction-free writing mode, but will also package and format my book for submission to agents or even self-publishing) or any other free programs that do what the FreeWrite does (q10 and WriteMonkey, just off the top of my head, are two free programs that are excellent for drafting), and still have $200 to throw at the tsunami of credit card debt rising outside my door because of all the frivolous, needless things that I buy.(I’m an American, after all).

I would have loved for the FreeWrite to be one of those things. I love its design and I love its concept.

But I can’t, in any type of conscience, let alone with a straight face, consider paying $500 for $100 worth of hardware and $400 worth of kitsch.

Bleh. Back to doing this thing I love using the tools I already possess — which are more than adequate and don’t make me feel like a stinky hipster in hiding.

 

 


Stuff Worth Watching – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows


I am a lover of language.

I adore aphorisms. I moon over malapropisms. I can’t get enough of witty wordplays. And then there are things that take it to the next level completely.

I wrote a few weeks back about how I dig on inventing words — I think all writers do, for that matter — but for me, it’s something I just noodle with, inventing a word to suit the moment. More often, I’ll simply invent a word to fit a dumb little alliterative pattern, or worse, bend and break a word to rhyme it. But the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is next level word genesis.

His postulate — that other languages have words for complicated concepts, while English lacks the words for similar artful expression — is one that I’ve bemoaned, but Koenig takes the matter straight to the mat. He not only invents words in an academic fashion (spinning together etymologies of Greek, German, Chinese and so on), he creates hauntingly beautiful videos to illustrate the concepts. Sounds a little bit hokey or pretentious, but his creations are elegant in their simplicity.

Take, for example, the cynical angst of Vemodalen: the frustration at the knowledge that everything you do, every creative endeavor you pursue, everything, in fact, that makes you unique, is as subtly differentiated and as lasting as a snowflake on the wind. Sure, no snowflake is exactly like another, but who gives a sharknado in a blizzard of billions?

Or, perhaps the quiet reverent awe of Socha is more your flavor; that realization that other people are not merely supporting roles in the great sprawling film of your life, but that they are the protagonists in their own stories, and you are just an extra at a coffee shop. The shift in perspective could dislocate your spine.

Maybe, rather, you’re a parent (like me) experiencing Yu yi on an almost daily basis: the desire to experience the world through new eyes again as only a newborn can, casting aside expectation and the monotony of the routine to be delighted by the delicate staccato of raindrops in a pond, or the graceful carving of the sky by birds’ wings. It’s a great sadness that we can never again know the world with the joy and wonder of a newborn, but we can live it vicariously through them.

At any rate, if you’re a wordnerd like me, you owe it to yourself to take a glance at the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. There’s not much else like it on the web, much though our Vemodalen might tell us otherwise.


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