Fountain Pen Addendum: Neil Gaiman made me do it7 min read

In a recent blog, I shined a little bit of a light on something that I found both curious and validating. No, I’m not mad for wanting to try writing a serious literary work with a fountain pen. Neil Gaiman does it all the time. But that seed took root and bore sweet fruit.

The Pilot Custom 823 had been on my radar before, but like most other pens over $25, it wasn’t likely to happen. My cheap pens write pretty well. Some of them write very well. But I was indeed looking for a pen so comfortable that I could write with it all day without tiring, and with such a high ink capacity that filling it up at the beginning of the day would hold all the ink I could need no matter how much writing I did that day.

I’d also been journaling quite a lot in Rhodia dot grid notebooks, and the spacing is pretty small. I’m happy to write small, within the dot grid, but the medium nibs on these Chinese pens were too big for the task.

I’d recently tested upgrade nibs on one of my cheapest of the cheap Chinese fountain pens, and the JoWo EF nib works pretty well in my Rhodia. But surely I could find something finer than this.

Meet the new boss

I’ve got a new boss at work. She’s new to the company, and I’m just getting to know her. In our first one-on-one meeting she saw me pull out my Jinhao 159 and got excited that I was using a fountain pen. She then showed me her Pilot Vanishing Point. She invited me to write a page or two in my journal with it to see how I liked it. While the ergonomics of the pen did not favor my large hands, the nib was so fine it could slice the hair on a baby’s head lengthwise. This was the final straw.

Back to Neil

Within minutes of publishing the first article, I’d gotten a tweet from Neil that was encouraging. We’ve since exchanged a few tweets, and he’s been very friendly and supportive of my curiosity about the Pilot Custom 823. While one of the benefits of being autistic seems to be that I don’t fanboy and lose my composure around celebrities, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an appreciation and enormous respect for the time that he puts into connecting with his readers on social media.

His gentle and understated support for my journey helped a lot, not because of his celebrity status, but because of the practical experience he’s gained as a prolific author who writes his first drafts with a fountain pen.

Why would you spend $265 on a pen?!?

The Pilot Custom 823 is a pretty fantastic pen. This isn’t a pen blog so I’m not going to review the pen itself. But I do appreciate that it’s kind of remarkable to spend in excess of $250 on a writing tool not much more sophisticated than what my great grandfather used at my age. Some of the materials in the Pilot were not available back then, but the fundamental technologies in place are only incrementally improved over what he would have had.

My day job is in the computer industry. But that’s not been my only line of work for quite some time. When I worked at IBM, I was moonlighting as a bouncer just to learn more about people, to observe them, to see them at their best and at their worst. For a number of years I’ve also worked as an artist either anonymously or under temporary pseudonyms. And more recently, I’ve been writing. Initially it was just blog length and magazine length for other sites, sometimes under my name, sometimes not, but often for pay. And it’s something that I enjoy doing.

Then came NaNoWriMo. This was pretty scary for me. I had to write a 50,000 word novel (novella, really) within the boundaries of the month of November. I did a little bit of prep work before the month began, just setting up an outline and some character sheets, etc. When November began, I was off like a banshee. I found little bits of time before work, during my lunch break, after work… and taking advantage of my insomnia, I wrote into the night. Partway into the month, I was feeling ill and I took off two full days and half-assed a third. I’d make up the time. 17 calendar days into the month, with only 15 of them spent writing, I’d finished my first draft. I’d “won”, as they say. That story is one that I don’t want to start my career as a novelist with. So it’s on the back burner.

And then I began writing “Two Seconds of Your Time”. It’s a piece of science fiction where an A.I. must figuratively look himself in the mirror and contend with a crisis of conscience. That work was going well, but something felt off.

Even though the story was to take place about 25 years from now, writing it with a computer seemed wrong. The words came out too fast. And even though the story’s main character was an A.I., the metering lacked a certain humanity that I really wanted to convey. I know that writing with one of my old mechanical typewriters, or with a fountain pen, puts me in the right headspace to write this story.

But all of the pens that I have are low in ink capacity, and I don’t want to screw around with refilling empty converters all the time. I was ready to invest in myself, in my success, to have a pen that was special and would just work so I could write and not worry about running out of consumables.

Why does a computer software engineer use a $3,000 laptop computer? Because when you spend so much time using a tool, you want a tool that’s not going to let you down. It’s okay to spend extra on a key tool that you’re going to use in your craft. I still love my cheap pens. No worries. I still use them quite a lot. But for my work, I’m going to have special tools around.

Raleigh to Tokyo, come in Tokyo

The 823 is only available in amber color in the US, but it’s also available in a smokey translucent black as well as clear colors in Japan. I found the eBay shop of a reputable exporter in Japan and plunked down my $265. Sure, you can get it cheaper from Japan. But none of the cheaper sellers could promise me that I’d have my pen in less than a week. I ordered the pen late at night on January 26, and was writing with it the afternoon of the 3oth. It worked great. I’ve written quite a few pages with it since then, and it’s been wonderful.

What’s next?

Out of respect for Neil Gaiman’s role in this, I’d like to read one of his books before I reboot my efforts on “Two Seconds of Your Time” with my new pen. To that end, I’ve ordered a copy of Anansi Boys for my Kindle and will bury myself in that until it’s done.

I’ve got a very large and a very small Leuchtturm1917 notebook set aside for this project (the big one is for the manuscript, and the little one is for any notes or character sheets or ideas that I want to record as I go). And I’ve got a special place off the beaten track to help immerse my imagination in this story’s world.

I’d originally thought “Two Seconds” would be a short story, but once I’d gotten into writing it the first time around, it told me it wanted to be at least a novella. I’ll be sure to share with you all here when my story is ready for others to experience.

And just know this when you read it: it was first written with a fountain pen, on paper. And while Neil didn’t make me do it, his support certainly helped to allay any doubts about this path. Thanks again, Neil!

12 thoughts on “Fountain Pen Addendum: Neil Gaiman made me do it7 min read

  1. I applaude you and your ability to write with a foutain pen. I seem to make a grand mess when I have attempted such a classic endeavor. Great post and best of luck with your story. It sounds awesome.

    1. As someone who has horrible penmanship, I can tell you that a good writing instrument (as long as you don’t write left handed) can spark the act of improvement. When you start making a conscious effort in writing you can bet you can see your handwriting improve.

      I know mine did (went form babylonian script to legilible) and so did my hyroglyph writing brother’s.

      All it takes is to make a conscious effort to write. the rest will come as needed

      1. I had so much trouble just getting ink on the paper. And then when it finally started flowing it was a mess. Bled through several pages. I admire you guys for being able to tame the foutain pen beast.

        1. It sounds like you had a pen that was horribly out of tune. I’d encourage you to not accept that sort of performance from a fountain pen, and consider trying again with a known good quality beginner pen. I’d recommend the Pilot Metropolitan or the Platinum Preppy as a great low-cost fountain pen that will “just work”.

  2. I would love to get that same pen, it’s currently on my wish-list, but I have a very limited salary and am really unsure of spending that kind of money on a pen. Though, I have written many novels and would really enjoy a quality pen. How has it held up? Is it a pen that you can see lasting for a lifetime?

    1. I use my Pilot Custom 823 and Lamy 2000 daily now. The Lamy has a bit of a stiffer nib and so it is easier to write quickly with, like if you’re scrambling to brain dump onto paper. I feel like while the Lamy has held up pretty well for me so far, some of the internal parts are rather cheap and I worry about the long-term prospects.

      The Pilot Custom 823 has a little bit of springiness to the nib which gives my writing a little more style with it. But that causes me to slow down just a little bit. Not a bad thing. Just something to be aware of. However, between the two, I feel like the Pilot would last forever. All of its constituent parts seem to be made of good materials and outstanding engineering.

      If you’re on a tighter budget, let me put another really outstanding pen on your radar: the Wing Sung 698. You can get these things absurdly cheaply on eBay if you’re willing to wait a few weeks for delivery. They’ll come quite a lot faster if you pay a few dollars more on Amazon. Either way, I’ve found them to be perhaps the finest value in self-filling fountain pens. And they are a pleasure to write with, which is perhaps most important.

      The Wing-Sung does use cheaper plastic. But I carry mine in my messenger bag and it’s none the worse for wear. If it broke, it would cost me less than a moderately priced restaurant dinner to replace it. And because of that, I’ll happily carry it anywhere without fear of damage or theft.

      The Pilot, being a vacuum filler, is uniquely suited to air travel. Whenever I fly, that pen goes with me. Definitely my “desert island pen”.

      Hope that helps!

      1. Thanks, and thanks for the more budget-friendly suggestion as well! I currently write with a Parker Vector Classic SS and it is super uncomfortable after a few minutes of writing with it so I think an upgrade is necessary. I may just go with the Pilot Custom 823 after saving for a bit, it doesn’t hurt that Neil Gaiman uses it and he is my favorite author 🙂

    2. Good budget paper to pair with the Wing-Sung: Search Amazon for “black and red notebook”. These things are *cheap* and the paper is relatively fountain pen friendly.

      1. Oh and I forgot to ask, do you have the medium nib on this one? If so, how is it? I have a Pilot Kakuno fine nib and am leaning more towards a western fine nib.

        1. My Pilot Custom 823 and Lamy 2000 both have Fine nibs. But the Lamy fine is much broader than the Pilot fine. The Pilot’s fine nib truly is fine (and they have an EF available if you are so inclined). The Lamy F is borderline “M” to me.

          My Wing Sung 698 has a Pilot Metropolitan “M” nib on it (I did the swap). This, to me, seems close to a western “F”. So if you’re after a Western “F” on a Pilot Custom 823, you might want to order it with an “M” nib.

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