Monday, August 24, 2009

Go, Go, Go: The Art of Writing Without Art

By Steve Weddle

Last week, Merlin Mann was back on MacBreak Weekly, over on the 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?


formulaic666 said...

I find that for pure first draft, Nanowrimo is pretty good. It's an online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, and the deadline doesn't allow for anything but writing. I've written two novels this way, but have been pretty unsatisfied with both so haven't done that much with them.

So maybe its not that great an idea after all.

Scott D. Parker said...

Dude! You and I listened to the *same* podcast! It was Mann's comment about 'muscular' writing that prompted me to write my Saturday column (although I already had the idea back in July when I started running). I have a Mac and I've already removed most of my word processing programs. I've decided to use TextEdit and/or Scrivener for writing. I keep an old Word v.X on my Mac for formatting and if an editor wants a Word file.

I also have been reading Minimal Mac (think Mann also mentions this one, too). Now, my Mac has a single icon on the desktop: the hard drive. I am starting to reorganize the way I compute, too. First thing to go was scores of the blogs I follow. I'll write more about this later but I eliminate three score blogs from my reader and reorganized the rest over the days of the week.

One new thing I'm going to try is speaking my text into my computer. I have MacSpeech Dictate and, well, I'm going to try it.

I did Nanowrimo three years ago but didn't finish (story of my stories, huh?). It's not that difficult at only 1667 words a day.

Back to pen/paper, my family went on a vacation when I was writing my first novel. Loathe to take my laptop (an old Powerbook), I took a comp book and pens. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I friggin' loved it. When I got back home, I didn't type in what I had written: I blazed ahead with the next chapter. Only later did I enter the written text into the Mac and edit as I did so. I highly recommend that method of writing. And, as I wrote, I'm going to see how well MacSpeech Dictate works at entering my handwritten material into my Mac.

Anonymous said...

I've heard of Alphasmarts before, and the writers I've talked to who have them swear by them. The most common thing I hear is how great they are for writing on planes.

As for first drafts, basically, I go downstairs to my office, fire up Word, and crank up the music player really loud. (Partly to drown out my stepson's merciless pounding of his Rock Band drum pedal, which is louder than his stereo through the basement ceiling.)

Steve Weddle said...

F666: I'd forgotten about the writing challenge. I bet even if that proposed novel doesn't get very far, many of the ideas and character still can. I'll have to try that this November.

Scott: Yeah, I listen to that one and the This Week In Tech every week. Tons of great advice, not just in tech -- clearly. Did you hear how they were saying folks are getting tired of micro-blogs (Twitter, FriendFeed) and moving back to blogs?

EJW: Sounds as if you're doing the same basic thing -> finding a way to block everything else out. Since I'm never on a plane (not allowed to travel outside the state until 2013, blah blah blah) I've not seen one of the AlphaSmarts used for that, but it does make sense.