Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Renaissance Art custom composition book cover

Beautiful rustic brown leather...

I LOVE composition books. They're old friends. My oldest ones are now getting yellowed and crackly, but they date back to the mid-80s, so I guess they've done OK. I used them for journals, mostly, and for my early attempts at poetry and fiction. The oldest are thin, squashed down, with well-thumbed edges and bits of the white portion of the marble pattern and some of the letters filled in with blue ballpoint. Didn't everyone do that as a kid?

Even now that I've grown up and can afford more exotic and expensive notebooks, I still fall back on my old standard time and time again. They're cheap, readily available, comfortable and familiar. I still like to doodle in the top margin, scribble notes in the side margins. I still have times when I'll write a word three or four different ways inside the cover as I try to remember how to spell it, or do math problems (like figuring word count) in the margins or inside the covers. I love the size: not too small or too big. The wide ruling lets me stretch out a bit as I write. I like the way the pages crackle and pop at the stitching as you turn them.

And if you can find the Made in Brazil ones (Wal-mart usually has at least some, typically for less than a buck each), they're pretty fountain-pen friendly, too. You can write on both sides of the page with all but a really wet nib (or Noodler's Baystate Blue). There's occasionally some show-through, but very little bleeding or feathering. Much better than the Moleskine I'm currently using for a journal, for that matter.

Point is, I like 'em. But...let's face it, they're not exactly very stylin'.

Enter Renaissance Art.

Close-up of the tie

Renaissance Art is a small company that makes leather book covers, homemade journals, leather folios, etc. Their work has a rustic, old-world look to it. They have a strong following among folks on several of the writing related forums where I hang out, so I'd seen their name tossed around quite often. When I started looking for a cover to protect and add a bit of style to my cheap comp books, they were one of the first places I checked.

They don't list this particular cover on their site, but they'll make you pretty much anything you could wish. Since I was confused as to how to proceed, I dropped them an e-mail and got a very timely response in which I was directed to customize the large custom book cover to get what I wanted. I was able to easily customize it right there on the site. I went with brown leather, marked out the dimensions and noted that this was for a comp book, since Arthur (the company founder and typically the one who will respond to your messages) had mentioned they have them in the studio, and I figured they might be able to get a more accurate measurement in person.

The toughest part for me was picking a closure style. Normally for the standard book cover they offer either no type of closure (just a simple cover), a wrap and tie, or a strap that tucks into a couple of little loops to hold the book closed, medieval style. Since I carry my notebook chucked into a bag with lots of other stuff, some sort of closure was a given, to keep it all protected. I originally asked about having a wrap with a snap instead of the tie. It seemed the tidiest, least fussy way of keeping the book closed. For years, I've scorned any of those frou-frou journals with the tie closures. It just struck me as pretentiously earthy and silly. But in considering the snap, I started to think about the reasons why I'd disliked snaps on things like purses in the past: they can wear out eventually, for starters, though I think the ones RA uses aren't liable to do that any time soon. But if they do fail, they're hard to replace. Also, you have only one small spot where you can close the book, and you have to be precise. It means you also can't overstuff the thing with a stack of paper that day. Not very flexible. And it only holds in one spot--it doesn't snugly wrap around the whole book to hold it all together.

And when I finally broke down and played with a few of the tie style journals at the bookstore, I had to admit that in general, it was pretty easy to close them quickly.

I still feel a little self-conscious about the tie when taking out the notebook in public. But I have to take back much of my original thoughts on the subject. I like the tie. The one that came with the cover is very sturdy and attractive, and I can imagine it wouldn't be too difficult to replace if I eventually wear it out. It wraps around twice and tucks under--easy. I played with some tying methods as well, but a simple tuck works just fine. The biggest downside is that my two cats are *fascinated* by that long cord. Neato! A Tarzan rope just my size!

Cover open

I also had a medium sized pen loop added to the basic cover: the perfect size for a Parker 21/51 or other like-sized pens. Most of the time when I head somewhere with my notebook, I drag my whole bag along with me, but this lets me take it all together in one compact package if I so choose. The pen fits snugly into the nice long loop, and combined with the wrap, I have no fears of it falling out and being forever lost: something I *have* experienced with lesser loops in the past.

The turn around time was pretty amazing: I ordered Sunday night, it shipped Tuesday, I got it Thursday. I'm impressed! This wasn't just something to pull off a shelf, either: they had to build it right then.

Opening on the right makes it easier to insert the comp book

The comp book fits in perfectly. There are flaps on each side to hold it in, with the flap on the right being open to make it easier to work the book in. I tried to show that in my picture, but photography isn't my strong suit.

And the leather? Just wonderful. Soft and thick and with a wonderful depth of color. It should only become more attractive with time, and it feels great already. It did have a rather strong smell at first--a little *too* strong, and somewhat unpleasant. A remnant of the tanning process, I'd guess. It has faded fairly quickly to just a nice leather smell. It's not a polished and business like sort of leather, so there is that to keep in mind, and you can see that the pieces are cut and not just punched en masse. I like that aspect, personally.

I'm very pleased with it, and wanted to share it with the world, particularly since I know there are other composition book fans out there who might be interested in one of these puppies. I couldn't find any pictures when I was searching. Maybe this will help the next lost soul!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

NaNoWriMo Redux, and paper and stuff

1. NaNoWriMo Redux:

Another year of NaNoWriMo insanity has come and gone, and I managed to squeak past the finish line for the sixth time. Yay, me! This was the second time I've handwritten it with fountain pens start to finish, in spite of my good intentions on the typewriter front. I don't exactly understand my own reasoning there. Part of it was that I'd started out by hand, figured out my average page count, and it was easier to stick with the figuring if I didn't switch methods. Partly I just liked (some of) the results I was getting. Partly I once again got all obsessed with fountain pens and ink, and I tend to focus on one obsession at a time. And I also got into the habit of hitting the coffee house at six thirty or seven every morning and writing for a solid hour before heading off to work. I'm still not at a point where I'm comfy lugging a typewriter into a very quiet early morning coffee house to type.

In any case, I finished. What have I learned? What did I come away with? Well, for the third year in a row, I have a story I think merits finishing and polishing. It needs considerable rewriting, but my stories always do. I'm a figure-it-out-as-I-go writer, and sometimes my stories are a bit like a game of telephone. I have to go back to the beginning and rewrite the scenes that I understand better now that the characters have fully evolved. But the story is moving. I have a head start; I've slogged through the sometimes tedious and scary initial stages of inventing characters and scenes and figuring out the skeleton of the plot. I love that about NaNo. I still have a good half the story to write, and a lot to trim away. I can't really blame NaNo for the bits that need trimming. It's more to do with my own tendencies as a writer: if I get stuck, I spin my wheels, and the story takes awhile to move on. Much of the wheel spinning will need to come out in the rewrite, but without it, I never hit the ground and move forward. Honestly, this is another reason paper works for me. I need to see all of those stages where I'm trying to figure out where to go or how to say something important. On paper, my character may say the same thing four different ways, and of course that's redundant. But now I can come back when the story is done--after I know *exactly* who that character is--and choose which of the four ways is really, truly them. I love that.

OK, now for some negativity. You know that old adage about monkeys on typewriters? Well, you know and I know it's a bunch of hooey. It doesn't matter how much time you give the monkeys, they'll never pound out anything but gibberish. Sometimes I feel like one of those monkeys. There are lots of inspirational little sayings out there about needing to write so many words of dross before being able to write a really good novel. But the truth is, you do need a certain amount of innate talent and creativity, or you're basically like one of those monkeys: no amount of time and effort and books and classes and critiquing is going to change the fact that there's a limit to just how good you're gonna get. Skills can only be honed within one's limitations. I tell myself that it doesn't matter, because I'm only writing for myself, but--and many of you can identify with this, I think--there's a little part of me that still wishes--at least some of the time, or now and again--that I could be that big famous author I dreamed of being when I was first learning to form sentences on paper. And there's still that little voice that says writing isn't worth it unless I am capable of doing just that, but I'm not, so why do I try? No matter how many times I tell that little voice to scram, it still pops up now and again to ridicule me and tell me that what I'm doing is pointless and painful and will only mean I leave piles of paper for people to laugh at when I'm gone.

Wretched thoughts. But can anyone identify sometimes, at least a little bit? I've been plotting ways to kill the little voice, but it tells me my ways aren't nearly creative enough. Poisoning with an antifreeze smoothie has been done. Shooting is soooo messy and overused. Dissolving with acid tends to muck up the carpeting if you drip....

2. Paper and stuff

Thanks to the guidance of fellow typecaster mpclemens and a 20%-off coupon I found on DIY Planner, I picked up some Circa/Rollabind disc-binding goods right before NaNoWriMo began. My entire 50,000 words fit into one letter-sized Circa notebook, on lovely fountain-pen-friendly heavy HP laser paper that I punched to fit. I also punched 3x5 cards to add notes in various places, especially questions and comments for the rewrite; added articles that I wanted to references; moved pages around or took 'em out as needed. It's a perfect system for a writer. You can combine typed pages, handwritten pages, reference material, pages of different sizes and shapes...all in one notebook that holds together nicely. I was impressed with how well it worked for me.

So, naturally, during the month I went to Wal-mart (during an hour when no one was there...) and picked up a stack of my old favorites: el-cheapo composition books (the Made in Brazil ones with nicer paper). This is my logic for you. Especially considering that the Circa stuff is a pretty hefty investment.

Not that composition books don't have their points, for sure. One thing that concerns me a bit about the Circa books is that you *can* move things around. It's not like anything fell out in spite of all the flipping through the book I did over the course of the month. It seems less likely to come apart than the average spiral book, honestly, especially if you use heavyish paper. But it's still an irrational fear of mine. I've never had a comp book tear in all my over twenty years or so of using them. And they're the perfect size. And they're cheap. And I am immediately comfortable with scribbling in the margins and drawing doodles at the top of the page and writing all my hard to spell words inside the covers, etc., etc. They're a well known and loved quantity.

But I can't mix them with typing or easily add any other information to them, and therein lies the rub. I usually just combine them with a smaller notebook for any notes that don't fit in the margins (since I number the pages, I can even mark what comp book and what page the notes apply to), but it's not quite the same as having one package. I like 'em both. I'll probably use both. I'm using a composition notebook for the next section of the story, for example, if only because I felt guilty about having 'em otherwise. But I struggle with the inconsistency of it all.

I'm fortunate that these are the complex issues of my life right now....