On Fountain Pens and Fiction Part I: 2024 is here, and I, R.J. Huneke, am still alive and writing, and I wanted to give an update as well as give a fun in-depth fountain pen-related review.
It feels like forever since I have spoken of my writing here.
Despite getting the plague for the better part of two months, to end the year – good riddance 2023 – and to start the new year – really, 2024? – I am happy to report that I am alive and a great many projects are in the pipeline.
I have been writing a lot, often in longhand.
Putting aside many manuscripts I have shelved over the years, I am actively working on two novels, two novellas that may grow into something bigger (more on this later), a children’s book, and quite a few short stories.
A lot of this fiction is polished – though I always feel it can be improved.
I have high hopes for 2024 and beyond.
It is exciting, because I am writing new fun things – lots of SFF – and researching a bevy of different sources from fairy tales, like Grimm’s Grimmest, to interviewing friends that were born in Hong Kong.
And I have no idea when a slew of my work that is fermenting will be available to quaff.
The only publication I know of for sure at this moment is a self-published chapbook I have been printing and mailing to my TFF Patrons that has grown enormously, and I am typing, editing, and putting it out in serialized signed limited editions.
As to the rest, there are many future works that I have completed polishing and are in the process of being picked up by various publishers in the form of short stories and novels.
After three decades, I have begun a new writing process.
I am back to creating entire rough drafts by hand, as I did ages four-to-twelve when a teacher begged my parents to get me a computer to type everything, because my handwriting was atrocious.
It still is ‘atrocious’ but I have more appreciation for it now than I ever have.
I have always written my poetry by hand and started off novels, or any fiction, by hand, often writing whole chapters and passages as the fit took me and writing many notes and character studies.
I have noticed that there is both a stream-of-consciousness magic that lets things flow more easily when writing on paper and an awareness.
There is a deeper awareness of the space that a sentence, a paragraph, a passage takes up on the page, so that more care is taken to employ best the words, syntax, and sentence structure as they go down, because writing them in longhand one does not want to waste any space or opportunity as ink touches paper.
It is a wonderful blend of improvisation and careful drafting of poetry – in prose – to form art.
Everyone has their own methods for writing and many just try and get their ideas – their impulses of world building, character creation, dialogue – down as quickly as possible with a first draft. Some call this word vomiting.
Many take a more careful approach, or as I do, a combined effort.
There is no wrong way. Art is individual.
What I have come to believe over many years is that writing on paper is more effective when I want to absorb, comprehend, and remember things than using a screen and also in creating new things.
I have always found that when conducting research in the classroom or out of it that taking notes and reading with paper works much more favorably too.
So news and studies found online that I wish to digest, I will print out and take notes on the paper.
As I started writing a short story that may become a long story these past few months, I found I make far less mistakes in spelling, grammar, and sentence structure scrawling with a beloved fountain pen than I do while creating the initial draft in Word.
It was a stark, disrupting realization that I hope will continue to improve my craft.
Back to the new writing that I am putting out there for anyone to enjoy, and then I will give a good ole rant on what amazing fountain pens, inks, and paper I have found recently and also the absolutely awful or underwhelming writing tools that I feel compelled to warn against, or at the least, to get your input and perspective in case I am missing anything.
For two reasons I will not go into detail about current projects before a publisher announces them: one, I do not want to jinx them (like a good baseball pitcher and the great reliever Turk Wendell who brushed his teeth between innings for luck) as I am superstitious, I also recently learned I have OCD, and I do not want anything to go wrong from my many drafts, rough to in-print; and two, agents, editors, and publishers go to all kinds of lengths to properly promote, distribute, design, and highlight our art for all to enjoy (authors not least of all), and I will not say anything that might hinder rather than help the work.
So much goes into making books and magazines, and the world is so much better for the writing and art that we eagerly devour.
Much as I have in the pipeline, as I detailed earlier, I will say no more about these works, except one, which I can joyfully talk about: we will call it “ANON” for now.
This story is an experiment I feel compelled to share.
And I can do so freely, because I am not even attempting to pitch it.
I am – and this is terrifying – writing by longhand a rough draft of “ANON” and typing it up with one round of revisions, formatting it into a chapbook format, and printing a few chapters at a time as serialized series.
I am not normally comfortable sharing a story at this point with anyone, but this has come together very well and I feel it is strong, as is.
And it is kind of thrilling to make mistakes and have a red raw wound of a story – long before it is healed into a polished work – that is still vibrant and exciting and a good read and sharing the art of it.
I have a heavyweight archival paper and a professional printer and have made a nice production, I feel, of an oversized chapbook that reads well in the hand.
This is the cover art to my chapbook:
The premise of this fairy tale for all ages:
The protagonist is twelve and emerges exhausted in the Library that has been closed to the public for two hundred years dogged by her father’s chief adviser with insidious designs; she knows his secret, and she hopes the Library – being an extraordinary place where the books open to worlds, planes, and realms all their own – and the power of story can stop the deadly pursuit.
What was going to be a short story is getting into novella-length territory and as it goes on, who knows where it will stop?
I feel I could sell this story, and one day maybe I will, but for now I want to put this out there, warts and all as they say, and let readers experience it as it unfolds, just as I do.
I will not jinx myself by being more specific than this, but I am proud of these pieces – as proud as I have ever been – and there are a few of novels in there at stages from rough draft to darn near finished ones.
And I have re-fallen in love with the short story art form.
I still hold it is the most difficult of writing forms and the bar set by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants”, and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, makes it daunting.
But I have crafted some shorter prose that I absolutely love and will share once they are in print.
I think that all of my rough drafts will now be done only by hand with fountain pens.
I am relying wholly on fountain pens to shape the letters and characters in unique ways; how I wish when primary school taught me handwriting, they had taught us with fountain pens – I envy the calligraphic style that many revel in displaying.
I have recently come to rather happy and harsh conclusions about the makes and models of fountain pens and notebooks that I have, as I increasingly rely on them now.
I wanted to share my experiences as online reviews have helped me enormously as I pursue this brilliant tool and pastime.
Pilot for the win!
My first fountain pen was a Pilot Metropolitan for about twenty bucks, and it still works well for a nail.
I primarily use it for notes on printer paper that is not conducive to fountain pens and for drawing, as the Pilot nibs are often thinner than most and a medium nib acts for a good fine nib.
I wanted more though, of course I did, especially in terms of flex and smooth feedback, so that my handwriting came to life on the page.
I read about the many Pilots, as everyone seems to agree their Japanese pens are quality, and after perusing their assortment in the armory, I settled on my first expensive pen ever, a Pilot Custom 912 with a 14K gold nib – a Falcon size made to be the flex-iest of the modern nibs out there.
I did a lot of research on it and the quality ebonite pen with iridium trim – white gold – that was able to take cartridges (though I have yet to try that haha) and use a wonderful custom Pilot converter that is a push button to easily fill the ink or clean with a few rinses is truly an amazement.
The Pilot 912 fountain pen holds a lot of ink, but not as much as a piston-filler like the Custom 823, though it is undoubtedly easier to clean, making it able to handle any shimmering, sparkling, or custom made inks.
The falcon nib is legend, and I must concur – it is an incredible writing experience!
That falcon nib still puts a smile on my face, as it flexes a great deal from little pressure to a heavier hand, making for a custom style in my handwriting with calligraphic qualities to it.
It is a smooth writer, though not as smooth as a modern nail, and it has pleasurable feedback on all of the papers I have tried so far, except for standard printer paper – tears it up, literally – and one expensive paper with a thick gloss that does not work with any fountain pen (more on this later).
It is my favorite pen, though I have a few others I love and that help make my daily writing instrument decision a difficult one.
I was fortunate to receive great advice from a thread I found here.
It pointed out the one drawback for the Pilot 912 with a Falcon nib is that it often ran dry and railroaded.
Ink flow was the issue, and as was suggested I picked up a two channel ebonite feed to replace the stock one, and Whoa Doctor!, is it wet and has no issues.
As you can see, I wanted to start out with new pens, especially as I feverishly learned to use them while researching vintage fountain pens in search of the elusive and epic “wet noodle” that the graybeards tell tall tales of with insane flexibility with little to no effort – like pressing a wet noodle to the page.
I lucked out with Pilot fountain pens to start, because they are amazing.
But as I ventured to get new varied size pen nibs, I hit a few snags.
Online reviews are just that, online reviews, and the subjective opinion – even of those trying to be objective – of others’ expectations is not always parallel with one’s own great expectations.
If I had had a pen or stationary story anywhere near me at the time, I would have been able to try out pens and get invaluable expert opinions from the folks who love and work in the trade.
If you can do so, go to a good fountain pen seller brick and mortar shop.
If like me that is not an option locally, then we are bound to the online reviews of many experts and many amateurs, not unlike myself.
And for this reason, relying on quality brands with a well-earned and well-established reputation – over many years – is a great help, as it was for me when I blindly went with Pilot.
Case in example: I saw a lot of advertising for – and though I loathe and block out most marketing, I broke down and finally got – a Fountain Pen Revolution pen.
Here’s a tip. Though most online pen sellers offer a discount from retail cost, a company that sells direct and always has a significant sale – like the buy one get one BOGO that got me – probably does not have quality product.
Again learn from my getting burned – there are others that have too, and then there are many who love FPR.
I have read that India-made pens are often lovely and FPR started using reputable JoWo nibs from Germany that are also held in high esteem.
I purchased the FPR Himalaya Version 2 and being a BOGO I decided to try two vastly different types of nib in a stub 1mm and an Extra Fine size.
I will say the FPR pens themselves look pretty.
I love the look of smoke on black and the pearly white pens, though when they arrived, they are quite skinny and extremely lightweight (and feel kind of cheap).
I gave them a good rinse, inked them up, and one converter leaked rather badly, despite the lithium grease I had put on the threads – it had a hairline crack in the seating section of the pen that was one piece with the feed – and the other did not pull any ink, at all.
I switched the one converter that pulled ink to the pen that did not leak, and then . . . the Extra Fine pen wrote for a while, consistently running dry to the point of being maddening.
I swapped nibs and still it wrote terribly dry and was not usable.
To FPR’s credit, they did answer the phone (when my form submission on the site never yielded a response), and after asking me if I knew how to use a piston converter, were quite kind in offering to promptly send me a replacement seat/feed section and they sent it with a stub already in it and that looked more aligned and quality over the one I had tried.
My guess is they suspected an inferior product so they tested the nib/feed setup to ensure it pulled ink and actually wrote, for a while at least.
They also sent a couple of converters, again thinking one might work with the quality issues.
The converter worked but the EF nib pen rarely works long after a mandatory priming. Not usable.
The stub nib pen worked for a while – a week, maybe, I was thrilled, and then, it too, ceased being a continual writer.
I got pissed, saved up my pennies, because even $50 pens or $25 each with the BOGO that did not write are a waste of money – I wish I had asked for my money back.
I did learn of a cool trick to help with modern feeds, both plastic and ebonite, involving near-boiling water and just seconds of pressure to slightly bend them up more toward the nib to make better contact and cure the dreaded common railroading that many modern pens can have (were the art of making fountain pen feeds lost in the now infamous Y2K years?).
This trick works and so far I have not broken any pens haha.
You will, if you look, read online that many pens are good for nothing more than the wastebasket – I feel this is true of both of my FPR pens.
I decided to spend a little more, but not the few hundred I put into the Pilot 912.
The annual Fountain Pen Day came and there were flash sales galore!
I quickly got lost in it all and again, with mixed reviews, decided to take a chance on an old American brand, Conklin, and I got a $100 pen, the Conklin All American Limited Edition wooden pen for, shocker, $20.
I love wooden products and the idea of a pen carved from one piece of wood that looked great with its matching rose trim hardware seemed perfect.
And it was a limited one – wahoo – and that hype, noise, and sale got me to waste my money.
I had a medium nib on it, but I had ordered a quality German-made steel 1.1mm from Birmingham Pen for $7 on sale.
The wooden pen is too heavy posted and since I like the balance of posting a pen, this was unfortunate.
The medium nib writes okay though often needed priming.
I wanted a nib with a lot of variation. So I put on the stub nib – the store was out of nib/feed setups or I would have gotten that – and I installed the stub easily, and it writes dry, barely writes ever.
The feed did not handle medium well and would not do better with a better nib because it was bigger.
I took a deep breath and let it be until a holiday sale came along.
And I was caught again – marketing, a sale – as the Conklin Raven – another all black (I love black) pen and nib seemed like it would be great, as Conklin also had a “flexible nib” (guffaw).
I tried another hundred-dollar Conklin that I got for less, hoping the flex would have a feed that was wetter and actually work, and be a cheaper but sharp looking E.A. Poe Raven Black compliment to my Pilot 912.
Granted, Pilot set the bar high – I’d take a $20 Pilot over any FPR or Conklin – but some pens just will not write.
The Conklin Raven looks great, and if you push on it with all of your body weight you see a tiny amount of flex to the nail nib, but most importantly you cannot pick it up and write.
It constantly runs dry. I tried switching to the stub nib in that Raven, hoping the feed would work with it, and got the same result.
When I have free time, I may try the heating and flexing feed trick on the plastic feeds of the FPR’s and Conklin’s, but you should not have to make customizations just to be able to use your pens.
I found new life in the fantastic world of vintage fountain pens, and this is quite the rabbit hole to go down, so I will save it for another article.
What I will say is that researching and searching can yield incredible vintage fountain pens that write like no new pen on the market – so so smooth and so so well – and I have three awesome daily writer-worthy pens in my quiver and I only had one that was not to my liking – more because of the size of the pen than anything else as I have big hands.
I also found that fountain pen paper made a world of difference, and even using quality gsm heavyweight paper with fountain pen-friendly gloss did not mean a whole lot.
If you like pens that work, they usually run wet, and anything but the driest Metropolitan can feather, bleed, and run on even the most expensive paper, if it is not the right formula of materials and production.
Romeo paper was both expensive and terrible to behold – I am talking feathering, long dry times, and bleed-through from everything, despite the thick paper.
Seeing how long this post has become, I will also save my paper rant for another day.
I have had both bad paper experiences and great ones, and I find that a little research as to what you want and how to temper your expectations – because printer paper or the junk pulp paper in Moleskine’s cannot be expected to hold up well to fountain pens – you can find affordable and expensive fancy paper stock and notebooks that make the writing experience even more pleasurable.
And then there are the many fountain pen inks!
So many inks!
I will have more pictures of pens, papers, and inks next time.
As I am limiting this article, even as I try to limit the inks I buy until I finish up some bottles, you will be in for a treat in “On Fountain Pens and Writing Part II.”
Until next time, and may your pen never run dry, writers! ~RJH
P.S. The killer ebonite foutain pen shown here is my new vintage 1950’s Kaweco, and it is incredible!