By Steve Weddle
Last week, Merlin Mann was back on MacBreak Weekly, over on the Twit.tv network. He’s a bright guy with a book called Inbox Zero coming out next year. He was talking about Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg, which sounded like the kind of book everyone has read or should read. But this was standard fare. He mentioned a writing tool that caught me by surprise.
Have you ever heard of the AlphaSmart? I’d seen them advertised in writing magazines, but hadn’t paid them much attention. I don’t need another device. With a Palm Treo, iPod Touch, Palm T|X and a laptop within easy reach, I’m never without a way to create text. Heck, I could probably find a pencil and paper around here somewhere if it really came down to it. So when Merlin recommended the AlphaSmart Neo, I really didn’t see the point. Until he mentioned that by dropping about a hundred bucks on one of these used babies, I could kick my internal editor in the nards. Ok, here’s the deal. This little “keyboarding device” is really just a portable keyboard with a screen that can carry four lines of text.
On the computer, I use full page when I can and Track Changes in Word running down the side. I like to have a big screen where I can see what I just wrote. I like to have the bottom third of the screen blank, to let me know I have room to write. The idea of four not-wide lines filled with text doesn’t seem to be a good idea.
Oh, I haven’t gotten to the good part. Sorry. The AlphaSmart Neo has a mode where you can learn to type, according to Merlin. You just type. There ain’t no backspace. You have to keep going forward. No corrections. No re-thinking what you just wrote. That little voice in your head that tells you to go back and correct the mis-typing you’ve done? Gone. The voice that says you should have put the hero in a blue shirt instead of a black one? Gone. You just run, with no pausing. So you write quickly. Most of us agree that getting the stuff down the first time is the tough part, that the editing and revising is easier. Don’t we? Well, this is an amazing tool for that. Also, there’s no Internet. So there’s no temptation to stray after you’ve reached the end of a chapter. ME: “Phew. That was a tough chapter to write. I think I’ll take a few minutes and check my email.” The AlphaSmart Neo in typing teaching mode is sort of a hardware version of the Write Or Die site that punishes you when you stop writing.
Of course, some folks use the old pen and paper method. For me, this makes a good first draft or brainstorming option. I can get my ideas down and know that don’t have to be perfect. Heck, if my hand is acting up, there’s very little chance I can read my own writing anyway, but at least I’m getting the ideas down. When I write by hand I write quickly and with no forgiveness. I misspell words. I write the most banal, clichéd things. Sometimes I get the wrong character doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. And this is fine. When I start to type up this writing, I can fix it. At that point, I’m typing and editing, not writing. I’ve done the really tough thing, the actual writing.
The cool thing about that MacBreak Weekly show where they were talking about writing? It’s a tech show, about Apple products. And they had the same problems writing that crime novelists have. All writers share the same problem: the writing.
If the techies like Merlin Mann have figured out a way to work around the first-draft editor by hacking a cheap word processor, then maybe we should steal their idea. Heck, we’re crime writers. We know how.
Question of the day:
What tips or tricks do you have for getting that first draft down?