Are You an Author or a Writer?

When I’m looking for something new to read I’ll often peruse samples of self-published books on Amazon.com.  It’s a treasure trove of brilliant stories and superb writing.  Sadly, it’s also a quagmire and finding the gems among the mud can be a hassle.

Last year I came across a book, the details of which I will refrain from giving.  I only read the first few sample pages and promptly put it down.  It was nothing but passive voice, info dumping, endless adverbs and paragraphs with the same word used half a dozen times.  It read worse than most nanowrimo drafts I’ve seen.

I put the book out of mind until I happened upon its sequel the other day.  Curious, I read the sample pages to see what improvements the author had made in his writing.  None.  He still had all of the novice mistakes and sloppy editing that’d plagued the first book.  He clearly didn’t care about improving his craft, he just wanted to get his book out there.

In one of my writing groups we have people wander in with their shiny new manuscript, ready for us to be awed.  These new people have either visited other groups where they received a pat on the head, or they’ve never been to a writers group before.

My group is arguably one of the more brutally honest.

When these new people receive their critiques, there are three common results.

1. They never come back – Hurt that we didn’t love their piece, we never see them again. I feel sorry for these people, because they can develop into exquisite writers if only if they could handle the constructive criticism.

2. They get defensive – These people are fun to watch. They aggressively try to defend their writing, and how they’re right and everyone else is either wrong and/or stupid. They subsequently also never come back, but I have no sympathy for this group and say good riddance.

One girl received a particularly harsh criticism.  Her character was a 25-year-old beauty queen, philanthropist, helicopter pilot, brain surgeon billionaire (I’m not exaggerating).  The character was also a complete jerk, yet somehow everyone in the book fell in love with her.

In previous critique sessions, the author had been told that this won’t work, but she ignored all advice.  Finally, fed-up with the same character appearing again and again, one of the people who’d critiqued her simply said that he wished this character would just die in her Olympic-sized swimming pool.

A short while later this girl returned with a new piece.  This time her character brutally murdered someone with the critiquer’s name…in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

After that we never saw her again.

3. They accept the criticism and try to improve, carefully looking over the comments and taking to heart the points that would best help them. Sometimes critiques are hard, but they return slightly better than before and ready to learn.

I have seen incredible talent blossom from those who are willing.

To be an author is easy; you just have to put words on paper and get it out there for the world to see.

To be a writer takes effort.  Writing, Revision, Critique.  You bleed red ink and still come back for more.  You are never at the pinnacle of your talent.  Always strive to build upon your craft and become something greater.

Don’t just be an author.  Become a writer.

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The Gods Conspire Against Nanowrimo

It’s that time of year again.  Nanowrimo.  For those unfamiliar with the the program, it’s a hellish experience where you write a whole novel in November.  The monthly goal…50,000 words.

No editing allowed!  That’s hard on someone like me who prefers creating and polishing a chapter a week before moving on.

I dove head first this month into Nanowrimo’s swirling morass or adjectives and pronouns, and I am doing very well indeed.  My word count is well above the daily goals and I’m on my way to completion.  Joy!

Yet, you know, it’s during the good times when the Universe points its finger at you and say’s “no!”

Bills come due when you have extra money.

Things break right after you’ve fixed them.

Starcraft II – Legacy of the Void is released…right in the middle of Nanowrimo!

Now, I’m not a big gamer anymore.  There was once a time when I could spend weekends and evenings playing computer games until well into sunrise the next day.  Those times have passed.

Starcraft is one of those exceptions, and I can still lose myself in it just like my twelve year old self.  So, why?  Oh why Blizzard must you present me with this most terrible of temptations during a month when my sole focus should be pounding my head against my keyboard?

Curse your devilish timing and hedonistic temptation!

Kami no Itte

The game of Go, the game of the divine, my game. Before me an empty space of infinite possibility. I click my stone to the grid like a black star winking into existence, the first of my creations. My universe. A lonely speck, but soon others will join it.

Click! A white star appears, disturbing my aesthetic. Unacceptable. I place another black, expanding my cosmos, and then I lean back, smiling. This is my space; I will not suffer intrusion.

Click! Now there are two white stars in my universe! I place another black stone. I will be the largest, uncontested and unassailable. Another white paints the grid. I build my network of black, claiming my territory even as White claims his. I ponder my opponent’s boldness; we are destined to clash. There can only be one.

***

It was a lazy Friday afternoon. Most of the students at Nakacho Elementary had already left for home, and I sat in the teacher’s office listening to the clock quietly tick away. The sun beamed through large windows, and the spring sky was so clear I could see Mt. Fuji rising in the distance. The weekend beckoned.

It began with a strange, low groan, like the bowels of a wooden ship on choppy waters. Tables rattled. My desk vibrated. Pictures fell and trees swayed.

***

My black stars pulse to life in the field of white as I test my opponent, gauging his strength, and how he’ll react when I invade. I click my stone, and my opponent draws back, raising a hand to his mouth.

What now?

This conflict between black and white has repeated itself over four thousand years. The ancient game of Go. Eloquent in simplicity. Mesmerizing in complexity. To which there are more possible outcomes than atoms in the universe.

To be of the gentry in dynastic China one must learn its moves. In Japan, even the samurai bowed to a master of the art.

Two opponents sit across from one another and exchange a traditional Japanese greeting with a slight bow. “Onegaishimasu.” They take turns laying black and white stones that click when placed on the board. Whoever controls the most territory emerges victorious.

Click!

A white star flashes near my lonely black; a solid if not conservative response. But I do not play conservative.

The board, a simple 19×19 grid, hides the enormous depth of the game under a façade of ink. The wood is Kaya, Japanese nutmeg, prized for its pleasant sound, strong yet subtle grain, and delicate cinnamon aroma.

The scent tingles my nose as I lift another black stone from my bowl. I smile. Well done, white, but you cannot stop me now. Instead of retreating to the center, I dive into white’s strength. He struggles as my cluster grows, slicing like a knife through his feebly constructed barriers. My dominance is assured.

***

After almost three years in Japan I’d come to accept the occasional tremor as ordinary, and the thirty-second rumbles didn’t faze me anymore. But this was something different, like facing a rabid dog after knowing only puppies.

In six long minutes the entire island chain of Japan shifted eight feet and the earth’s axis tilted four inches.

The rocking continued beyond the main jolt. For hours the ground hummed, swaying the dead oaks outside the office windows. Saitama Prefecture escaped the worst of the shock, but we knew something terrible had happened.

My colleagues tuned into NHK’s disaster report. 9.0. We’d experience one of the largest quakes in recorded history with the epicenter several hundred miles off the northern Tohoku coast.

We listened in stunned silence as the newscaster announced…

Tsunami.

***

Go is played on a razor’s edge, and the smallest move can have the most profound impact. Frustration is your greatest enemy. It leads to desperate, ill-planned plays and ultimate failure. Understand that a loss may only be the avenue to greater victory.

Our conflict rages across the grid as stars flare to life, spinning an intricate web of black and white.

However, White has erred, and the advantage is mine. I will crush this upstart and claim my victory. Everywhere white stars fade from the board.

***

Racing across the Pacific at five-hundred miles per hour, the waves slowed as they reached the shore, growing in places as high as one hundred and thirty-feet. They smashed into the northeastern Tohoku coastline in one relentless wall after another.

We watched on live television as cars floated through the streets like specks in a river, and people ran from the deluge only to be consumed by the flood.

My anger boiled at the newscasters, safe in their helicopters. Each of them could have potentially saved a life: a mother clinging to her baby, a man desperately racing for high ground, people huddled on rooftops; the deluge claimed them while newscasters hovered, filming homes crack from their foundations like sandcastles in the surf.

We stared in disbelief, later learning that fifteen thousand people had lost their lives. Fifteen thousand! Could I even comprehend that? Though it happened so close, the distance reflected in the screen made it unbelievable.

***

In Go it is polite to resign when you can’t win, and the height of rudeness is to continue a lost game.

Click! White plays again, this time challenging my cluster near the center. We spiral around one another. I smile and drive white’s failed assault right into my waiting wall of black. My opponent shakes his head, and I smile in anticipation as I lean back, waiting to hear the word of defeat: “Makemashita. I resign.”

White breaths a heavy sigh, but it’s not a sigh of resignation.

***

The ocean twisted in chaos when the waters receded. At the town of Oarai a whirlpool spun a hundred times larger than the funnels of the Naruto Maelstrom between Awaji and Shikoku.

The supermarkets were barren. Following the advice of my religious leaders, I had kept twenty kilograms of rice aside as emergency food storage. This helped not only myself, but also others in my apartment complex while stores struggled to replenish their stock.

Miraculous stories of survival emerged in the days that followed. Susumu Sagawara took his boat and charged directly into the oncoming waves. He and his boat survived and both provided invaluable service in the rescue efforts during those crucial days that followed.

Hiromitsu Shinkawa clung to the roof of his house as the currents carried him ever further from land. His wife had disappeared under the waves. He survived alone for two days in the glare of the Pacific sun. Rescuers discovered him ten miles off the coast; one of them handed him a bottle of water. He swallowed then burst into tears.

The call for volunteers came months later, and I went to assist in the cleanup. As I walked through Otsuchi, one of the worst hit towns, much of the rubble was gone and the floated cars now sat piled atop one another. On the other side of town, a tourist boat stood in testament of the tsunami’s height.

It rested atop a two-story guesthouse.

Though half-inundated the city hall still stood, one of the few buildings that did. The clock over the entryway ticked no more, its hands forever frozen at 2:49, the time the first wave hit.

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***

Click!

I tilt my head at the new white stone, now glistening in my sea of black. I lean forward and examine the move. Inconsequential. My eyes widen as I draw back and scan the entire board.

No!

Sweat beads my forehead. I retaliate. White responds. Our battle continues as my victory, once so secure, fades like wisps of steam on a summer’s day. My strategy fails, and across the grid my black stars wink from existence.

How could my opponent have seen such a move? White’s play, stimulating and beautiful, precise and exacting. It was a Kami no Itte, a divine move, something to which lowly mortals aspire and in deep contemplation only true gods can inspire.

***

The destructive power wrought by nature awed me, but even as I stood amidst the foundations of buildings swept aside, I struggled to understand the true magnitude of this disaster. At the base of a hill, I walked past the overturned tombstones of the city cemetery, gazing at the devastation. In the debris was a small stone. I bent over and picked it up.

It was a Go stone.

All of the weight of lives lost and communities destroyed fell on me as I rolled the tiny, black piece around my fingers. Here in my hand was a universe, someone’s universe. Every skeletal foundation represented the life of someone who’d lost the chance to play. Tears filled my eyes.

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***

I stare at my opponent, his face still in deep contemplation, showing none of the overconfidence and condescension that was my downfall. I hesitate, squeezing the black stone in between my trembling fingers. I sigh and slowly drop it back in the bowl and hang my head.

Makemashita,” I say.

My opponent bows as I surrender my universe. “Arigatou gozaimashita.”

***

I sat in the graveyard and stared at the tiny stone resting in my palm. Did the owner of this piece play a divine move and survive the flood against hopeless odds? Or did he bow his head in silent resignation as the swirling morass overtook him?

I kept that stone as a reminder of the lives lost and games never played. Someday, once the scars have healed and the town rebuilt, I’d like to travel back to Otsuchi and present the city with this small, but personally significant gift; the discovery in a ruined landscape that painted a human face on a faceless disaster. The last Kami no Itte of a simple black stone.

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How to Clean Slate and Shell Go Stones

I’ve sold Go stones for over three years now and people often ask me how to clean and take care of a set.  I finally decided to put together this little guide in hope it’ll help you keep your set looking nice for generations.

A little disclaimer first.  I haven’t spent much time editing or polishing the language, so my apologies for poor grammar or drab speech.  🙂

FIRST A LITTLE SELF ADVERTISEMENT:

I’m selling Go equipment on Ebay again starting the final weekend of September.  Because ebay has a limit on free listings, I rotate sets each week, so if you saw something you liked and it didn’t sell, but isn’t posted the next week, please contact me and I’ll be happy to make arrangements for you.

PLEASE SEE MY EBAY PROFILE AT…

http://www.ebay.com/usr/shadow436

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Prevention

For Slate and Shell, the best way to keep your Go stones looking nice is to wash your hands before your play.  This removes excess oils and dirt from your hands.  When finished playing, take a white cloth and wipe each shell stone to remove excess hand oil.

Follow this simple step and it’ll be years before your sets will need cleaning.

Step 1: Determine kind of stones you have.

The most important thing in cleaning Go stones is knowing what kind you have.  For those who bought Slate and Shell from Mr. Kuroki or something else from another company, you’ll likely know.  If you bought your set from Ebay though, it you might have trouble identifying the kind of stones inf your set.  Slate and Shell, Yunzi, Glass, Jade, Agate, Ing, Plastic or something else.  There are many possibilities.

For demonstration purposes I’ll concentrate on Slate and Shell.  These are what I specialize in.  However, if you have something else, just follow Step 2 below and that should be sufficient.

So, you have some white and black stones but don’t know if they’re glass, yunzi or slate and shell.  You can determine what you have through fairly simple observation.

If the white stones have grain (lines) running through them, then you have Shell stones.  The grain may be strait, slightly curved, heavily curved or wrapping the stone.  The grain will appear on only one side in less your stones are from a giant clam…such sets are extremely rare.  If you have trouble seeing the grain, shine a bright light behind the stones to be sure.

As an added note, Clamshell stones are note bright white.  They have an eggshell/ivory color in contrast to glass or yunzi.

Black stones are a little more difficult.

Slate traditionally accompanies clamshell, but oft times, when buying a used set, you’ll find some glass stones replacing lost or broken slate.

If there’s sparkling in any chips or nicks on the stones, then you have glass.

If you can shine a bright light behind the stone and see a greenish hue, then you have Yunzi.

If you’re still not sure.  Dump the black stones into a bowl of water.  The Slate will appear matte black while glass will be bright.

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I’ll use the above stones for demonstration purposes.  They’re from a sized 25 standard grade.  You’ll notice the yellowing.

Yellowing is the result of extensive play and poor care.  It happens when oils from your fingers seep into the stones over years of use.  Surface yellowing like this can be cleaned and the stones will look like new, but once it works too deep into the stone you can diminish it, but it’ll be impossible to remove completely.

Sometimes you’ll see stones that have browned rather than yellowed.  Browning is caused by tobacco smoke.  Avoid smoking anywhere around Go equipment.  Tobacco smoke will wreck havoc not just on stones, but bowls and boards as well.

Step 2: Soaking

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To begin the cleaning process, soak the stones in water with a mild detergent for at least an hour.  This will loosen surface dirt and remove hand oils.

As a side note, you’ll notice I’m using a glass bowl to clean the stones.  I actually don’t recommend this.  Shell stones (especially standard grade) have a tendency to chip, so I recommend a plastic bowl instead.

For the same reason, you may want to wash slate separately from shell.  This is a case of do as I say and not as I do 🙂

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Okay, the stones are clean and now you need to rinse them.  The bathtub is a good place.  Again, shell stones are prone to chipping so use some kind of cushion.  Here I’m using a…well…I don’t know what that blue thing is but it works 🙂

Turn on the water and let it cover the stones completely.  Make sure the water is lukewarm or cold.  Never use hot water on shell stones.

By letting the water cover the stones you’re making sure all the detergent is removed.

Now pick up the stones a handful at a time, swish them in the water for good measure and lay them out on a towel to dry.

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The ten stones I’m using for a demonstration are at the bottom.

Don’t worry if you have hard water and it leaves residue, we’ll take care of this problem at a later step.

If you do not have slate and shell stones, then just take a white cloth, dry the stones thoroughly and now they’re ready to play.  Alternately, you can let them dry, then take a cloth and wipe the hard water deposits off.

Step 3: Hydrogen Peroxide = H2O2 (Shell stones only)(Skipable)

This step is for Shell stones only.  If you soaked slate, glass, or anything else in H2O2 it won’t hurt, but you’re going to be wasting your time.

Once you’ve cleaned your white stones, you need to decide whether or not you’re going to clean them again, this time with Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2).  If your stones are yellow, brown, or old and orange, then the answer is likely yes.

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Here we have the demonstration stones after their initial cleaning.  You’ll notice how shell has some yellowing.  It isn’t bad, but does detract from the beauty.

Yellowing like this is the result of oil and dirt working its way into the grain.  Hydrogen Peroxide will remove, or at least mute this discoloration.

If the discoloration goes too deep it’s impossible to remove, though you can still improve the look of the stone with H2O2.

DO NOT USE BLEACH!!!  You’ll ruin your stones if you do

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In the picture you have 3% hydrogen peroxide, available in just about any supermarket, and 35% food grade hydrogen peroxide found in specialty stores only (or online).   I use 35% to clean the stones I sell, but it’s expensive, especially if you’re only working on a single set.  3% will do the same job, but it’ll take longer.

Since you’ll likely use 3%, that’s that I’ll utilize for demonstration purposes.

If you choose the specialty 35%, make sure you get food grade and not sauna and spa.  A note of caution…this stuff is strong.  Use rubber gloves and do not get any on your body.  It’ll cause your skin to turn bright white and bubble under the surface.  The effect only lasts for a few hours, but really stings!  I speak from experience, and you have been warned.

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Place the stones in a plastic cup (again to avoid chipping) and fill the cup with hydrogen peroxide.

At 35% I let the stones soak for 24 hours, with 3% you’ll want to leave them longer.  For my demonstration I soaked the stones in 3% for 48 hours.

Once finished, thoroughly rinse the stones with water.

Make sure the stones are completely rinsed.  This is EXTREMELY important.  If you don’t take care with this step and let the H2O2 dry on the stones, then you risk ruining them, especially if using 35%.  The Hydrogen peroxide may burn through the wax finish while drying and make puffy white spots in the stones which won’t come out.  While the stones are soaking, there is no danger, but once you remove them, make sure you rinse them.

Once rinsed, spread the stones out in the sun or a well ventilated space to dry.  Make sure not to leave them in the sun for too long (short stays of a day or two won’t hurt them though)

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Here you see the demonstration stones after they’re H2O2 bath.  There is still some yellowing, but they look much, much nicer than before.

Since this set wasn’t an extreme example, I wanted to show just how effective Hydrogen Peroxide can be.

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These are sized 34 stones I removed from a set to which they didn’t belong.  This is an example of extreme yellowing, brought on by years of poor care and neglect.

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Here’s the same set of stones after 48 hours in 3% Hydrogen Peroxide.  The difference is remarkable.  This set will never be pristine white again, but the yellow gunk is gone and the stones are much more pleasant to look at.

UPDATE – APRIL 2016 –> Through some consultation with manufacturers I’ve learned that additional 24 – 48 hour periods of soaking (5 – 6 times in total) will further whiten the stones. They must first be dried (as listed above) before subsequent soaks.

My experimentation on some yellowed sets have shown promising results.  The first soak will definitely create the most drastic change, but further uses will help improve the color.

This still won’t cure extreme yellowing (like seen above), but it will help.

Step 4: Waxing (Shell Stones Only)

Waxing the shell stones is potentially the most time consuming step.  There are a couple of options for you.

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The best wax is Ibotarou イボタロウ.

Ibotarou is an insect wax used in China and Japan.  It works wonders on Go stones. It’s devilishly difficult to find here in the U.S. and outrageously expensive to buy on Rakuten or Yahoo Auctions Japan.  You’ll usually find it in 30g packets for $10+.  Make sure to get the powder, not the bars.

Take the powder, dump it in a plastic bag with your stones.  Shake it around and then wipe each individual stone with a cotton cloth.

As an alternative, I use carnauba car wax.  Sounds odd, but it works extremely well.  Make sure you get wax without any additives…the purer the better.

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The top wax is cheap and does an excellent job.  The bottom is the best I’ve found, and I save it for special sets because it runs between $20 and $30

You can find both on Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0009IQXCM?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o09_s00

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00789Y98K?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o08_s00

Waxing the stones serves two purposes.  First, if you have hard water (like I do) it gets rid of the residue.  Second, it makes the stones shine like (or almost like) new.

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To begin, take a small dab of wax and rub it in the corner of a cotton cloth.  (You may need to repeat this several times as you work)  Then take your stones, one by one, and rub the wax around them.  You only need to use a light coating, it doesn’t take much.  Once finished, set the stone aside and move on to the next one.  Expect to take at least an hour if you’re working on a full 180 stone set.

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Here you see the demonstration stones.  Once you’ve finished with the set, spread the stones out and let them sit until the wax is just barely dry, thirty minutes to an hour tops.  Do not let them sit any longer or the wax will become too hard and very difficult to remove.  If it becomes too hard, just re-wax the stone(s) and wait again.

Once you feel the stones are ready, take a white cotton cloth and thoroughly wipe each piece clean.  Step back and see how they shine 🙂

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Here are the finished shell stones.  Nice and shiny and ready to play.

Step 5: Oiling Slate Stones

Now we come back to the humble slate.

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Once you’ve finished drying the slate stones, they may look something like this.  A little drab and lacking in luster.  Many players prefer their slate stones like this and if you’re one of them, then you can skip this step.

You will need some good mineral oil.

Oiling the stones isn’t difficult, but it is time consuming.  There are two ways to go about it.

The first method is to place your slate stones in a plastic bag, add a few drops and shake it a round.  Once finished, take a disposable cotton cloth and wipe the stones down one by one.  I recommend wiping them two or  even three times just to be safe.  You don’t want mineral oil getting into an expensive board or onto your shell stones.

The second method takes longer, but I prefer it.

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Take a white cotton cloth and drip five – ten drops of the oil into one of the corners.  Take each individual stone and rub it around.  Once done, set it aside and repeat.

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Once you’ve finished oiling the stones, you’ll need to wipe them down.  Take a cotton cloth and remove the oil from each stone, one by one.  This won’t remove the oil entirely, so you’re going to need to repeat this process another two times.  Even if the stones haven’t been cleaned for over a century, once finished, they’ll have a new luster.

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End result of cleaning slate stones.

What To Do With Older Sets

Through use and natural aging, Go stones take on a beautiful ivory appearance and feel.  These sets are old, often from the late Meiji, Taisho, or early Showa eras.  They usually consist of very thin (less than size 20) stones.

Sets this old are almost exclusively native Japanese suwabute clamshell (often called Hyuga Clamshell).  You’ll often come across these venerable sets on Ebay or Yahoo Auctions Japan and more often than not, they’re in terrible shape from decades of abuse.

You can clean these sets, and while they’ll never look new again, they can be made to look beautiful nonetheless.

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The stones above are from one such set.  They don’t appear to have been been cleaned in more than fifty years.  Grime cakes the surface.

The first step is soak the stones in a mild detergent, just like normal cleaning.  Let them soak for at least three hours, longer is better.  This will loosen the grime.  Next take a fingernail cleaner like the one pictured above, and brush each individual stone to remove the excess dirt.

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Once scrubbed, the stones look much nicer, don’t they?  Unfortunately oil and dirt has worked so deeply into them that you’ll never get it out.  It’s impossible.  Not even Mr. Kuroki with all of his equipment could do it.  You can dampen the effect though by following step #3

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After their H2O2 bath, the stones are much nicer.  The harsh, gunky orange is now much more pleasant to look at and in four of the cases above the stones have whitened significantly.

At this step I recommend buffing each individual stone with a fingernail brush, like the one pictured above.  Many stones this old are chipped or uneven and the buffing helps ease the harshness of the edges.

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Finally wax the stones and they’ll have a beautiful shine like the ones pictured above.

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Here you see the difference between the ten cleaned stones (pictured top) and ten stones from the same set that haven’t been cleaned (pictured bottom).

In Closing

Wash your hands before a game, wipe the stones afterward and clean them as needed.  If you take good care of your Go stones, they can last generations.

For those interested, I’ll be happy to offer a Go Stone cleaning service.  Please contact me on the 19×19 forums for pricing quotes.  My username there is Erythen.

http://www.lifein19x19.com/forum/index.php

Alternatively, if you don’t mind international shipping and would like a truly exquisite service, Mr. Kuroki, the finest Go Stone manufacturer in Japan, offers a professional service.  Contact him for details.

http://www.kurokigoishi.co.jp/english/

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Here’s a site in Japanese demonstrating a cleaning with H2O2 you may find interesting.

http://www13.plala.or.jp/hamusha/goishijikken.html

Five Minutes

The League of Utah Writers held its annual conference this year in Logan, Utah on August 28th and 29th.  From what I hear it was the most successful conference the league has ever presented.

I taught a class on foreign/artificial language in writing and learned from other presenters on their own topics of expertise.  Prior to the conference I’d submitted a number of pieces for their writing contest and won first place for my creative nonfiction piece “Five Minutes.”

I thought I’d share it with you.  🙂

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A big thank you to the Cache Valley Branch of the league for the honest and helpful critiques over the years.  You’ve helped me learn (and continue to learn) how to write.

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Five Minutes

With the glimpse of flowering blossoms rustling in an April breeze or the orange beams of a sunset on wispy clouds, there are times when I catch a glimmer of beauty that stays with me forever.  This is why I climb mountains.  Only where earth meets sky, can I truly feel free, if for only five minutes.

In the summer of 2008, I arrived in Japan fresh out of college and ready to show the world what I could do.  I planned to climb Mt. Fuji as a grand welcoming to the land of the rising sun.  Conquering Fuji-san was like conquering myself, proof that I could endure my years away from home.

Unlike the other mountains I’ve climbed, Mt. Fuji rises so prominently over packed cities and mountainous landscape that it dominates the skyline for more than a hundred miles.  It is the subject of countless poems, photographs and artwork, and it is the single most recognizable symbol of Japan.

The best peaks offer more than just a good view; they offer an array of life, nature, and landscape.  The trail up Mt. Naomi in Northern Utah passes through meadows thick with wildflowers that slope into an alpine wilderness.  Teewinot in the Wyoming Tetons is not for the faint of heart, with its steep trails and dangerous cliffs, rising to a pinnacle that drops a sheer three thousand feet into Cascade Canyon.

Mt. Fuji, an active volcano, offers rocks.  Big rocks, small rocks, round rocks, sharp rocks, lots and lots of boring, brown rocks.

To be fair, I only climbed the upper part of Fuji-san.  A lush landscape surrounds the lower half, but that isn’t where people usually start, and like most people, I began my ascent just below tree line at the Subaru Fifth Station on the Yoshida trail, Yoshida Subaru Gogome.

The fifth station is a tourist trap, and with the exception of a small Shinto shrine, the hotels and shops looked like a tacky alpine village.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d have sworn I was in a ski resort.

Mt. Fuji itself looms over the hotels and souvenir shops, or so I imagined, were it not for the clouds blocking the view.  Fuji-san is an extraordinarily shy mountain.  She’s so large she has her own weather patterns and gladly snatches nearby clouds to wrap around herself like a fluffy blanket.

Every good hike needs a walking stick, and with my favorites still back in the U.S., I perused the shops whose selections included a variety of staffs, each with intricately carved mountain gods or local animals.  I opted for a plain, four-foot wooden pole.  This has since become one of my best hiking sticks.

Two Japanese signs marked the trailhead on the far side of the fifth station, and a line of haggard returning hikers ambled past as I took my first steps onto the trail.  They leaned on their own walking sticks, cringing with each step.  I gulped and sped on, the path couldn’t be that difficult, could it?

Lush trees and pink flowers lined the way, and the hum of cicada song punctuated the ambience.  Miniature shrines dedicated to the mountain gods dotted the path, and one such statue stood winking at passersby with a small pile of coins at its base.  I couldn’t decide whether his expression wished good luck or was meant to encourage donation.  I still had a few pennies in my wallet, so I left them for him, hoping that American currency would bring as much luck as Japanese.

It didn’t.

The trees soon parted at the sixth station, rokugome.  From here, the land below stretched into the horizon, growing from a canopy of green.  Sadly all I saw was gray fog.  The trail widened, zigzagging into the mists as the ascent began in earnest.  Most people turned back here, satisfied with the forty-minute nature trail.

I climbed into the drifting haze above, and it dampened the sound of other hikers, leaving me isolated with my thoughts.  For the first time, I contemplated what I was doing.  Here I was, on the other side of the world, and climbing a mountain I’d only seen in pictures or film.  The thought invigorated my muscles and drove me on.  I’d worked for years to finish my degrees and move out into the world, and now I at last I was here.

There’s a saying in China, “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man.”  The Japanese have a similar phrase, “Fuji-san, ichido mo noboranu baka, nido noboru baka.”  This roughly translated as, “He who has never climbed Mt. Fuji is a fool, and he who climbs it twice is a greater fool.”  In China, I passed my test into manhood, and now I would prove I was no fool.

Still, what about climbing Mt. Fuji twice made you a greater fool?

The path gradually narrowed until the switchbacks stopped at the seventh station, nanagome, a collection of mountain huts offering lodging, overpriced food, and outrageously expensive water.  Each hut also offered a special hot iron stamp for your walking stick as proof you’d made it this far.  For a price, of course.  I leaned on my pole and sighed as the man pressed an iron to my stick.

I felt like such a tourist.

Nanagome, the seventh station.  The word “nana” in Japanese means “seven,” but there’s also another word for it, shichi.  “Shi” has connotations with death, so while Shichigome means “the seventh station,” in liberal interpretation, it could also mean “the death station.”  Not a particularly pleasant thought and I wondered why my mind focused on that obscure aspect of the Japanese vernacular.

I’d passed hundreds of people on the trail, but it was those in their sixties, seventies, and dare I say eighties that impressed me the most.  They huffed, moved slowly, but kept going.  Their determination reminded me of Ulrich Inderbinen, a mountain guide who scaled the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps three-hundred and seventy times, with his last ascent being at the age of ninety.  He’d continued to climb other alpine peaks until retiring at ninety-five.

The sky cleared.  At last, I could see the top, closer than I’d anticipated.  Both my legs and feet rejoiced.  I already felt bruises on the bottom of my feet, and a blister growing under my little toe didn’t help.  I sat on one of the benches at nanagome and eased my shoes off, spilling out the tiny stones that’d fallen in.  My soles were red.  It’s amazing how much lava rock hurts, even through thick shoes.

Here and there patches of green dotted the brownish slope, and an occasional bird darted about, snatching insects.  A small cliff of rock jutted from the top and was the only feature of note.  When compared to the Idol and Worshiper on Mt. Teewinot, it wasn’t much to look at.  Still, that was my goal, and I would meet it before sundown.

The clouds reached and pulled back like wispy fingers reaching for an endless sky.  One in particular rose like a menacing shadow over the others, and for the first time, I began to question the wisdom of climbing the tallest mountain in Japan while a tropical storm hovered off the Honshu coast.

Fuji-san’s shadow reached over the clouds in a perfect cone.  It grew, moving like a stalker through the mists as the hours waned.

The higher I climbed, the more difficult it became to breathe, with each inhale harder than the last.  My muscles tingled and my head spun with the beginnings of altitude sickness.  Although sleeping in the huts at the top would help me acclimatize, this was going to be a long, headache filled night.

A sinking pit welled in my stomach as I neared the rocky outcropping.  There were ten stations, and if I was near the top, why hadn’t I come across the eighth yet?

I sighed.  Yes, this “top” was the eighth station, hachigome.  I looked back at the rocky outcropping I wrongly thought my goal.  It now sat at least two or three hundred feet below.

The sky brightened with the last shades of twilight and when the slivers of pinkish sunlight faded, the moon rose like a pale lantern, illuminating distant clouds.

I looked for the altitude marker and my heart sank.  I still had more than four hundred and thirty-six meters to go!  Fourteen hundred feet!  It was like climbing every step in the Empire State Building with another four hundred left to spare.

The man in the last hut looked with trepidation at the path ahead, and advised me to stay there for the night since I hadn’t brought a flashlight.  I looked up, this time not at a false top, but the real goal.  I shook my head.  No.  I set out to climb this mountain today, and I was going to do it.  I came to Japan for the experience, and if I stopped now I might as well turn around and go home.  I needed to prove I could do it.  If I succeeded, then perhaps I could find a place in the land of the rising sun.  I held out my staff and paid the man to stamp it, proof that I’d at least made it this far.  He sighed and gave me a knowing look, as if I’d not been the first to ignore his sound advice.

I trudged on, stubborn determination carrying my steps far above Hachigome.  I looked back at the line of headlamps and flashlights dotting the trail between the seventh and eighth stations.  None followed past that point.

I was alone on the mountain, just like I was alone in Japan.

The clouds crept back so slowly that I didn’t notice until they’d completely obscured the moon, leaving me in darkness.  The rising winds chilled my skin and the last leg of the journey sapped my stamina.  At this height, the lack of oxygen makes each step an expression of sheer will.  Altitude sickness is a little like having the flu; your skin tingles and all of your muscles lose their strength.

To keep myself going, I counted my steps.  One.  Two.  Three.  Every time I reached fifty, I’d stop to catch my breath.  Again.  One.  Two.  Three.  Ten.  Twenty.  Or was that Twenty-one?  My oxygen-deprived mind lost itself in the simplicities of basic math.

The ninth station, Kyugome, was little more than a trail marker.  No hot food, no warming huts, and no one to stamp my stick.  More rocks had collected inside of my shoes and the blister on my toe was now the throbbing size of my thumbnail.  My will to go on faded and I looked back at the “death station” far below and struggled to banish unpleasant thoughts of my own demise.

Then the rain started.

Water pelted my face in gusts that blew me about while I felt my way up the trail with my walking stick.  The mountain winds howled, and shivering, I drew my jacket around my neck.

What was I doing?  Why was I here?  Not just on Mt. Fuji, but in Japan?  I stood on the opposite side of the world, with an ocean between me and my home.  I wanted independence, freedom, but I was fresh out of college.  It was like I’d jumped into the deep end of the pool without checking whether I could swim.

One.  Two.  Three.  The winds whisked my words away.  Aching, soaked and chilled I rounded a bend and squinted to see a torii gate.  Jugome.  The last station!  Only two more switchbacks stood between me and a warm blanket.  My knees buckled under the pressure, but gasping for breath, I carried myself up and passed through the threshold.

I looked about.  Why was it dark?

I walked past the mountain shacks in confused bewilderment.  I’d taken too long to get here and they’d closed for the night.

Years ago, during a particularly cold day in Switzerland I got caught in die Bieza, a bone-chilling winter wind common in the alpine valleys.  I experienced a case of mild hypothermia where my core body temperature dropped several degrees.  I spend an hour in a warm bath, but it wasn’t until about a week later when my body completely recovered.

My frantic knocks on the doors went unheeded, and I brought my knees to my chest as I shivered and slumped against one of the buildings to huddle out of the storm.  The air prickled my skin and blew almost as cold as it had in Switzerland, only this time with a chill rain.  I’d conquered the summit of Mt. Fuji, but she wouldn’t yield a victory so easily.  Was this what it was like actually living out in the world, away from a sheltered college life?  I was woefully unprepared for this mountain, so was I likewise unprepared to live away from home?

A group of people from India who’d also braved the hike arrived thirty minutes later, and we kept each other company until someone noticed us and opened the door.

The warm perfume of kerosene rushed into my face as I stepped into the hut.  My wet clothes clung to my skin, and after paying the mandatory fee, I took my bed, bunked among dozens of others.  The heavy blankets soothed my muscles and I drifted into restless sleep.

I woke to the commotion of hundreds of people.  Stumbling from my bunk, tired and stiff, my clothes still wet, I glanced through the crowd.  Many had spent the night, but many more had climbed after the rains had died down earlier that morning.  Everywhere people slurped small bowls of soba noodles and drank green tea.

I stepped outside and scowled.  Clouds had covered the mountain again, obscuring any view of the legendary Fuji sunrise.

I walked the caldera, up above the Jugome and away from the crowds.  I wanted to be alone when the sun rose, even if I couldn’t see it.  I stared at the reddening glow, disappointed.  All of that effort and no sunrise.  Worse yet, the hike back down would probably be nothing but a dull, gray fog.

As if in answer to my disheartened inner voice, or in reward for coming this far, Fuji-san showed compassion, and she parted the vapor.

Below, the clouds rolled in a sea of violet, and above, they coalesced into a ceiling of wavy red.  The sky between opened into a narrow corridor that stretched into a horizon of shimmering gold.

Rising like a red orb, the sun peeked over the blanket like a shy child gauging an audience.  From the station below, people called to it, raising their hands three times and cheering in unison.  “Banzai!  Banzai!  Banzai!

For five minutes I stared awestruck at the halo of color.  For five minutes I was free.  Free of care, worry, or pain.  My cramped legs became a distant moan, and my headache faded into the first light of the rising sun.

Fuji-san gave me a moment of paradise that I’ll ever thank her for.  The fog soon rushed across the caldera, again obscuring the horizon and leaving me with a bright, gray haze.

It was enough.

One of the men at the tenth station, jugome, stamped my stick with bright red kanji, Japanese characters proving that I’d made it.  That stick sits in the corner of my room, and every time I look at it, that red mark serves as a reminder of Fuji-san, and the lessons she taught.

I climb mountains for those rare moments when, in the freedom offered by the high places of the world, I catch a glimpse of beauty and understand what it means to live.  Though an ocean stood between me and my home, I now knew I could face what Japan offered.  As long as she, from time to time, gave me five minutes.

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My Silence is Broken

It has been some time since I last posted, and I promise to be more dutiful in the future.  I’ve been busy editing my first book and writing my second.  It’s an interesting process, but sadly I neglected my time here.

Another reason I haven’t written much was my preparation for the League of Utah Writers conference and writing contest.  For those who don’t know of the league, I’ll include a link.  It’s wonderful organization that has helped me improve my writing immensely.  I’m particularly thankful for the Cache Valley branch and the incredible aid they’ve given me in the last few years.

I presented a fun class on how to use foreign/artificial languages in writing and reflecting culture.  It took me several days to prepare the slides and presentation.  I wore my yukata for effect and while nervous sweat beaded my neck, the presentation went wonderfully thanks to a group of excellent students.

I only submitted four pieces to the competition this year and am overjoyed that my “Five Minutes” took first place in Creative Nonfiction.

I need to give those who prepared the most successful conference the league has ever had a big thanks.  Especially to the league’s president and conference planner Amanda Luzzader.  It was a huge success Amanda!  Great work!

“The Haunting of Springett Hall” by E.B. Wheeler, available July 14, 2015.

A friend of mine will be releasing her first book this summer through Cedar Fort Press.  I recommend it 🙂


TheHauntingofSpringettHallCover“The Haunting of Springett Hall” By E.B. Wheeler.

Eighteen-year-old Lucy doesn’t remember how she died or why she’s haunting Springett Hall in Victorian England.  One thing is certain: she was trying to fix a terrible mistake—one she must set right before oblivion reclaims her.  As she pieces together the mystery of her death, shadows try to drag her into a dark abyss, and she struggles against the commands of a disembodied voice.

None of the living notice Lucy haunting them, except a servant named Philip whose memories are as fragmented as hers.  They find evidence they wre involved in a necromancer’s scheme to cheat death: a spell that went awry.  Lucy also suspects Philip, for whom she’s developing an impossible attraction, may have been one of her enemies.

The more Lucy learns, the less she wants to remember.  The necromancer’s work isn’t finished, though, and his influence is consuming the minds and wills of everyone in the house, living and dead.  To have any chance of making a happy ending out of their mistakes, Lucy and Philip must face the truth about their past and free the residents of Springett Hall from a curse that reaches beyond death.


E.B. Wheeler’s blog

Amazon

A New Prescription

Last week I received a new prescription for my glasses.  It’s been six years, and with each, I’ve noticed my vision worsening.

It’s quite amazing how clear things are now.  It’s like the difference between a DVD and Blu-ray (with my normal vision being VHS).  The mountains are crisp and clear, trees no longer look like globs of color and I’m not worried about driving at night.

Oft times, you reach a point in a project where your vision blurs, and you find yourself unable to notice simple details.

Sometimes a character doesn’t quite agree with you, or the story veers off course.  The longer this goes on, the more frustration grows and less clear the road.  Relax, clear your vision with a walk, vacation or separate project and you’ll be amazed at the change in vision.

I recently hit a snag in a middle grade story I’ve been working on, and each word felt like I was writing myself into a corner.  I didn’t know what the problem was and frustrated over every dead-end chapter.  I finally set the project aside for a few weeks and I worked on something else.  After clearing my head, I immediately pinpointed where my story derailed.  The answer was obvious, how could I have missed it?

If a project struggles, then work on something else, and come back with a clear mind, thankful for the change in prescription.

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches

Rupert Campbell is in the worst 5th grade class imaginable.  His teacher, Mrs. Frabbleknacker is as awful as her name.  She makes her students dig through garbage for a paper clip, dissect frogs, and perform otherworldly science experiments.  None of the students are permitted to speak to one another, even outside of class, and if they do she gives them brutal punishments.

Rupert is lonely and misses his friends, but doesn’t dare cross his teacher.  He has an unhealthy fascination with the witches that live in town, but his mother insists he stay away from them.

Rupert’s curiosity gets the better of him and everything changes when he answers an ad for a witch’s apprentice.  Instead of a real witch though, Rupert finds Witchling Two, an adolescent who has difficulty casting spells, and is only a few weeks away from her witches bar exam.  If she fails, she’ll lose all her magic, the witches will force her to leave town, and Rupert would lose his only friend.

Now Rupert must help Witchling Two pass her exam while avoiding the other witches who don’t approve of their friendship.  If they catch him, they’ll bring him to the evil Fairfoul Witch who’d boil his toes, turn him into stone, or worse.

Stars: 5/5

I rarely read lower middle grade, but I admit the cover caught my eye.  In all, I am very impressed.

I almost never laugh at written jokes, but Lauren Magaziner brilliantly weaved them into her piece.  Although the humor targets elementary aged children, I found myself chuckling from time to time.

The only difficulty I encountered was accepting that this book was intended for an audience much younger than myself.  The magic, town and circumstances are a little far fetched but that’s to be expected when writing for this age group, and fortunately after the first few chapters I was fully immersed in the story.

There’s no objectionable material and this book is safe for all audiences.  If you like nonsensical silliness with a dash of magic and the ever-constant threat of bunny attack, yeah, that’s right, bunny attack, then I highly recommend The Only Thing Worse Than Witches.

Other reviews and places to buy the book

Goodreads

Barns and Noble

Amazon

The Writers Group

I’ve worked hard to improve my writing, and one of my greatest tools to that end has been the writing group.

Just for fun, I went back and re-read the first chapter I brought into a critique group two years ago.  Ouch!  The overuse of adverbs and terrible, clichéd writing was like someone scratching fingernails over a chalkboard.  I’ll never understand what possessed me to write a page and a half about hummingbirds in the first chapter of a fantasy story that had nothing to do with them.

A critique group can help both veterans and novices alike.  I recommend joining one that meets regularly (at least twice a month) and has members who write in a variety of genres and styles.

I’ve observed three kinds of groups in my writing career.

The casual meeting

Butterflies, ponies and fluffy bunnies.  The casual meeting is punctuated by food, games and perhaps a discussion on writing (if you’re lucky).  There’s very little in the way of critique, and the purpose of the group is to help a writer feel good about themselves.

The casual group is best for writers who aren’t looking for critique, but rather the companionship of like-minded people who want to have fun.

Possible critique: I like your book.  It’s a good book.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here

The crucible.  The sinking stairway into the abyss of despair.  Pain incarnate.  There’s no road to hell, because you’ve already reached your destination.  If sulfurous fumes and acid laced pitchforks don’t scare you, then this is the writers group for you.

This group is honest.  Brutally so.  The focus is solely on critiquing, leaving no room for fun and games.  You’ll enter this group with a piece and have it returned to you bleeding red ink.  This is the first group I joined.  We tend to have a new member attrition rate of about 70 – 90%.

Don’t come for praise.  You will get it from time to time, but expect to be torn apart.  No one but you can put the pieces back together again and when you do, you’ll be stronger and more confident than before.  Once you’ve survived your first few critique sessions, you’ll have the hardened skin needed to face critics and detractors head on.

This group is best for someone who wants to improve their ability.  There’s no flashy gimmicks, no playing around.  There’s only the writing.

I should mention, however,  that we meet at a restaurant afterward to unwind 🙂

Possible Critique:  You’re using way to many adverbs.  This piece is garbage and here’s why.  The protagonist is so annoying I hope she dies.

The hybrid

At last we have the hybrid.  A good mix of the previous two.  Hybrid groups meet and critique, but do so over a table of food…you know, the healthy kind.  Doritos, cake, salsa.

We focus on our storytelling as much as we do on our writing.

My group is small with four members.  This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.  We’re familiar with each other’s styles, but because we’re familiar, we’ll occasionally overlook mistakes we otherwise wouldn’t.

The hybrid group is best for those who like informal, small meetings with critique, story feedback, and fun.

Possible critique:  This part of your story works well, but your protagonists actions don’t fit their character.  Try this instead, it feels more natural.

Final Thoughts

Find what works for you.  I don’t particularly like the easy, casual group, but if that’s what motivates you to write, then go for it.  If a writers group doesn’t encourage you to improve, move on.

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So, I’ve talked about the three group styles of I’m acquainted with.  How about you?  Are you in a writing group?  Is it like one of groups listed above or is it different.  I’d like to hear your thoughts and/or experiences.