Entries from May 2009

Things I Love: The AlphaSmart Neo

What writers need more than anything else is quiet. Not physical silence, but a quiet mind. I can work happily in a crowded coffee shop or rattling along on the Acela from New York to Boston. When I am writing well, I work in a sort of trance. What is around me does not matter. I’m hardly aware of it.

Of course, the human brain resists that sort of deep focus. It wants to wander. We are rigged to notice, to investigate, to root around in the bushes for something good. It is in our nature to skip from one thing to the next. Hey, what’s over there? Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing: a few million years of living in dangerous wild places has taught us to be alert always.

And the web is perfectly designed to exploit this instinct to sniff about. The dope in front of his computer at midnight, his mind fogged, clicking link after link on Facebook or Google Reader, bored and demoralized but still clicking away — let’s not judge him too harshly, the poor monkeyman.

So what is a writer to do? His job is to type, but his keyboard is connected to the noisiest distraction machine ever, the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the computer itself — great toy, the computer). The answer, of course, is simply to look away, to direct his attention elsewhere. To disconnect from the whole ringing, rattling, honking mess.

The best way to do this, short of writing everything with pen and paper, is a little gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo.

The Neo is a sorry thing in technological terms. It looks like a glorified calculator, with a QWERTY keyboard instead of number keys below a small LCD screen. It is not smart enough to be called a computer, nor dumb enough to be a typewriter. It is somewhere in between, a simple, stripped-down computer that can only be used for one thing: typing plain text.

I have been shamelessly pimping this thing to my writer friends since the day I got mine. No more waiting for the computer to boot up or shut down; just turn it on and it’s ready, turn it off and it’s off. No more worrying about battery life or finding a plug for your laptop at Starbucks; it runs on plain double-A batteries which last at least a year. (The company claims a battery life of 700 hours. I’ve had my Neo for eighteen months and have never replaced the batteries, though I don’t use it every day.) No more lugging around a heavy laptop and adapter; the Neo is much lighter that most laptops and, because it has so few moving parts, tougher too. There is no Save button; your document is automatically saved after every key stroke, a process that is completely unnoticeable. The full-size keyboard has a nice, solid feel comparable to a good laptop keyboard. Best of all, there is no internet, no operating system, not even a word processor to distract you. Just a perfectly clean, quiet work space. I know — sit down, the idea of it can make you a little lightheaded.

The Neo was originally designed for use in schools, to teach kids “keyboarding skills,” which I think means typing. Last week, my niece and nephew were delighted to discover me using the same machine that they use in school. (They are in grades 3 and 6.) But the Neo has been taken up by writers of all kinds. It has a devoted online following. There is even a group on Flickr where people post pictures of their beloved Neos, some tricked out in different colors or displayed in exotic locations.

The Neo is not perfect. Porting your files from the Neo to your computer is a hassle. Files can be transferred using a cable or an infrared connection, though I doubt many people are using the infrared link since computers capable of receiving infrared are now few and far between. The cable works well but is unnecessary. The whole process would be much easier if the Neo simply had a USB port that could accept a thumb drive. Another quibble: the LCD screen is not illuminated, so it is hard to read in dim environments. But, to be fair, the low power consumption of that screen is, in part, what enables the Neo’s miraculous battery life — a smart tradeoff.

The Neo is one of a class of machines sometimes called “portable keyboards,” which include QuickPad and the Neo’s slightly more complex older sibling, called Dana, plus a few more aimed more squarely at the school market. But the best, because the simplest, is the Neo.

If you are a writer — and I use the term broadly, to include anyone whose work involves a substantial amount of writing — you must try this machine. It is the silver bullet you’ve been looking for.

(One last thing. To preempt a few questions: Yes, this was written on my Neo. No, I have no affiliation with the people who make the Neo, and I have nothing at all to gain by recommending it to you. And yes, the monkeyman described above is me, though I’m not proud of it.)

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Writing in the Age of Distraction

I’ve said here that the internet is lethal to book-writing. And to me, it is. But since the internet is not going away, we writers had better learn to manage it. Cory Doctorow is one writer who seems to have figured out how. Somehow I missed this great piece by Doctorow on Writing in the Age of Distraction.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing.… But the Internet has been very good to me. It’s informed my creativity and aesthetics, it’s benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I’d no sooner give it up than I’d give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.

Doctorow offers six techniques for getting your work done without quitting the internet cold-turkey. It’s worth a read for any web-frazzled writer — myself very much included.

Categories: Creativity · Internet · Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·

When Every Writer Is a Publisher

Seth Godin on the future of blogs like this one:

Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin were both printers who became writers … one would imagine they did this because it was cheaper to write your own stuff than hiring someone, and having words to print and sell is good business if you’re a printer. … Today, of course, being a printer is no fun. Anyone can be a digital printer, publishing their words to the web. And so we have a mysterious flip, in which writers are becoming “printers,” not the other way around. In a world in which just about everyone is a writer and just about every writer wouldn’t mind benefiting from their work, there’s a huge need for people who can help us publish profitably.

Read the whole thing.

Categories: Internet · Publishing    Tags: ·

Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow: Why Writers Get Stuck

For the last couple of weeks I have been struggling with a scene that just won’t come. The scene is an important one. It opens the second act of my novel and changes the tone of the book in important ways. It is no throwaway transition or plot-mover. It really has to work.

I am not “blocked.” I don’t believe writers’ block actually exists. Anyway, the trouble is not that I can’t write; the trouble is that I can’t write well. Everything I type feels cliched, phony, flat. It is crap — but there is no shortage of it. So, not blocked, merely stuck.

These stalled periods are always miserable. I feel anxious. Often I can’t sleep. A morning becomes a day becomes a week with no new pages, and I get increasingly nervous, short-tempered, gloomy, agitated. I try to hide all this anxiety from my kids (I have two little boys, ages five and eight), and my wife has learned to tolerate my stuck times, as well. But there is only so much I can do: when I am stuck, it is hard on everyone.

For writers, there isn’t a lot of support in this situation. “Write fast,” people tell you, or “turn off your internal editor” or that sort of thing. That is the common wisdom.

But I’d like to suggest that being stuck is natural, even inevitable. It is a necessary part of the creative process. Lord knows, I go through it often enough.

How do we know what is a natural part of creativity? The process is only dimly understood. There is no way to see into the mind as it creates (though we can increasingly see into the brain). But creative people have always been able to describe subjectively how it feels to create, and these descriptions do suggest patterns.

In 1926, Graham Wallas presented one of the first models of the creative process in a book called The Art of Thought. For Wallas, creativity occurred in five steps:

(i) preparation (preparatory work on a problem that focuses the individual’s mind on the problem and explores the problem’s dimensions),

(ii) incubation (where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening),

(iii) intimation (the creative person gets a “feeling” that a solution is on its way),

(iv) illumination or insight (where the creative idea bursts forth from its preconscious processing into conscious awareness); and

(v) verification (where the idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied).

These stages all ring true to me. After many days of anxiety, I woke up early last Thursday, before dawn, with a sudden awareness that I had cracked the problem. It was an intimation: I knew I would solve the problem the next day. I knew why the scene was not working. I still did not know how I would fix the scene, exactly. But I was cheerful and certain I would do it. I told my wife that morning, “It’s going to happen today.” And it did. I tore up my outline and reimagined the scene in a way that made it feel more fresh and inventive to me. I am still writing that scene, but I know now that I am on the right track.

To my fellow writers, I would like to offer a simpler way to think about this process: suck, squeeze, bang, blow.

It is an old phrase that describes how a common four-stroke engine works. The piston cycles down and up twice. (1) Down, and the expanding chamber is filled with gasoline mist — suck. (2) Up, and the gasoline mist is compressed in the shrinking chamber, which makes it more explosive — squeeze. (3) The spark plug ignites the compressed gasoline — bang — and the piston is blasted down again. (4) Up a second time, and the rising piston pushes any unburned gasses out of the chamber through an exhaust valve — blow. Then the cycle begins again. That’s what moves your car down the street: suck, squeeze, bang, blow.

Ideas work the same way. Your mind is an engine. The idea is sucked in: you turn to the scene you want to write, you begin to consider it. The idea is then squeezed, or “incubated,” to use Wallas’s word. Your brain has to work on the problem and keep working on it, squeezing it, until bang!, finally the breakthrough comes. Then comes the working-out, the actual implementation of the idea — the writing.

I do have a point with this tortured, silly metaphor. Fellow writers, the squeeze — that nerve-wracking, despairing period of waiting for the idea, the breakthrough — is part of a process you have been through and will go through again and again. When you get stuck, when there is a problem with a scene or maybe the scene is just misconceived altogether, when you hit a passage in your writing that is difficult and you fumble with words for days on end — when you are really stuck — then the squeeze will be especially harrowing. You will worry, as we all do, that the illumination will never come. Don’t give up. You are stuck for a reason: your mind is working on a problem, and your scene will be stuck until the problem is solved. Remember, squeeze is followed by bang, incubation is followed by insight. This is our job. This is how we earn our ideas.

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

A Quote for the Holiday Weekend

“It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation.… When you come back to the work your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Categories: Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·

The Way We Write Now: Novelists and Their Blogs

I once heard John Updike say in an interview that he could not imagine a day going by in which he did not produce “text.” The word jumps out of the sentence — “text,” so like the “content” the web feeds on. Updike was frighteningly prolific. Like the great Victorians, he seemed to pour out words: thirty novels, plus countless poems, essays, reviews and, best of all, short stories. Had he been born later, he would have been a natural blogger. He would never have been so enthralled by the magic of seeing his words printed on dead trees.

I’m no Updike. I can easily imagine a day in which I produce no text. Happens all the time. The enemy of the possible is the perfect, and, alas, often the enemy of writing is perfectionism. Managing my perfectionism is probably my biggest struggle as a writer. But blogging demands constant output — content. So how will blogging affect my day job, writing novels?

I have always avoided writing for the web because I was afraid it would suck away some of the creative energy I need for my novels. Novel-writing is grueling. It demands long periods of quiet and concentration. The web, an endless stream of flashing, hyperlinked calls for your attention, is lethal to that sort of sustained focus. It is a stimulation machine. The novelist Neal Stephenson shut himself off from the web entirely because, he said (via), “I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.” I have always felt the same way.

But, after The Crash in publishing, midlist (or downlist) writers like me simply cannot afford to ignore the web. Toxic as it is to book-writing, the web is essential to book-selling.

And we writers simply have to become better marketers. We cannot just leave it to publishers to sell our books anymore. They don’t know how. I recently asked my agent, What would be a realistic sales goal for my upcoming third novel? Fifty thousand copies? “The question is naive,” she answered, “because nobody has any way of knowing how many it will sell.” In no other business would it be naive to think about how many widgets you might actually sell when you try to figure out whether it is profitable to produce them. But that is the industry wisdom. So we writers have to turn to the web as a way to circumvent the publisher-bookstore complex and market directly to our readers — that is, if we can find our readers.

Or maybe it is better to say, if our readers can find us in the vast, raucous environment of the internet. It is a long, hard job to make yourself visible on the web, to find your audience. The bloggers who do it best, like two of my favorites, Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Weinman, have been at it a very long time.

But we novelists can do it, too, I hope. As business writers like Seth Godin have proved, authors can learn to pitch their own books cheaply and effectively. What choice do we have? A lucky few will be buoyed up to the surface by huge marketing campaigns by their publishers. Most won’t. We writers are all independent booksellers now. So increasingly, sometimes reluctantly, we establish ourselves on the web with blogs like this one.

I do not mean to turn this into a blog about blogging, but I suspect I will have more to say on the subject in the future. For now, suffice it to say that blogging and novel-writing are uneasy partners. I’ll post here as often as I can without it interfering with writing my novels. Like Neal Stephenson, I don’t wish to retire as a novelist at this time.

Setting my fears aside for a moment, I wonder if blogging will actually help my novel-writing by teaching me to write fast, without self-editing. It may just loosen my fingers. Imagine, loose fingers! You keep yours crossed for me. I’ll use mine for typing.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·