Thursday, June 23, 2011

My new First Draft Machine

I've posted before about my Alphasmart 3000. It served me well off and on for years. But it's one unforgiveable flaw has caused me to turn my back on it.

It has a really loud keyboard.

Not just loud, but the keys require a ton of force to depress. And this is a problem with all Alphasmart 3000s, not just mine. Honestly, I could forgive this if it weren't for a recent development: I've begun writing at the local college library.

The internet does not distract me. Other things do, things which they don't have at the library, like couches and blankets and soothing episodes of MST3K. And I love libraries. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time in them from the time I was a child and I am very comfortable in them.

But I want to write on the quiet level, not the group-study level, and my faithful old Alphasmart 3000 is just too loud. It sounds like someone pounding a typewriter with a jackhammer. So I did the gadget equivalent of putting it down with my rifle: I drawered it.

The library is only a mile away, so I'm walking. Gets me some sun and fresh air (which are good anti-crazies) and I walk into the house warmed up to lift weights (which is a good anti-crazy). I knew that my new writing device had to be light. My three and a half year old Dell Vostro, which was $400 at the time, weighs like 8lbs and is a bit fragile. So it was out. I thought about buying a used netbook, but couldn't find any with a full-sized keyboard for a reasonable price. Well, reasonable for me, which is to say cheap. I would have been fine with something old that didn't have the processing power to do much more than run a word processing program, but those don't have full-sized keyboards.

I had the crazy idea of using my Droid phone. I found a decent free program to use. I went looking for Bluetooth keyboards. Only one works! The Freedom Pro. The design of this keyboard isn't ideal, because while it is nearly full-sized, it folds in the middle and so has strange shaped keys in the middle. And I couldn't find any reviews of people writing really long documents on them. And the keystroke looked shallow. And, having a lock on the Android Bluetooth keyboard market, it cost $90, which is just crazy. And honestly, I was worried about using my phone. First, the battery life with the screen on all the time would only be a couple of hours at best. Second, it occasionally freezes and crashes. This isn't normally a big deal, but I don't normally have 2,000 words of new fiction in limbo on it.

So I came back to the Alphasmart. The models made after my 3000, the Dana and the Neo, have amazing keyboards. But new Neos cost $170. I can't justify that. But used Neos can be very difficult to find on ebay, as people snap them up instantly. People who already have them sit and wait to buy them off of ebay just to have backups. It's crazy.

There are tons of Alphasmart Danas for sale for cheap. I wouldn't call it a failed experiment, but nearly. Some people like them. They run Palm OS, so they do more, but they are also more complicated and finicky. I read of people losing info transferring it off because they had to use a Palm sync program. Other Alphasmarts are just USB keyboards with a small screen and memory. You plug it into your computer, hit send, and it types your keystrokes into whatever your cursor is in. The Dana also only has a battery life of 40 hours, because it's running a real OS with a touchscreen.

After a week of driving myself completely insane with the choice, as I will do, researching continuously and weighing pros and cons, I found an Alphasmart Neo for sale on ebay for $80 including shipping. That's not cheap, but I snapped it up and this is my new first draft machine. I've been using it for a few weeks and I love it. So this is kind of my Alphasmart Neo review.

While I still feel a little weird typing on something that no one understands, having not seen anything like it, at least I don't feel like I'm typing on a toy, as the color is a serious blue and it's opaque. A big improvement over the embarrassing, candy see-through body of the 3000. The keyboard is just as good as advertised. It has a fantastic action, with a good click, a shallow-but-satisfying depth, and a snappy return. The action of the 3000 was much mushier.

The screen is improved, as well. It's a bit bigger, and you can adjust the size of the font to fit up to six rows of text on the screen. I've stuck with four, but it's nice to have the option.

It's a bit lighter than the 3000, and the build is better, more solid. It's built for school children to abuse, so it's tough as hell, with no moving parts, and I feel totally comfortable carrying it in my backpack. I like not having to worry about jarring it. And it's very light. Any lighter, and it would be too light. I like the sleeker build.

And it came with a sweet case.

The only thing I don't like about it compared to the 3000 is the battery placement. In the Alphasmart, your 3 AA batteries go near the bottom, beneath the space bar. In the Neo, they go just before the bottom angles up to the screen section. What this creates is a pivot point, and depending on how you hold the device in your lap, the screen can be heavier, causing the keyboard to float a bit. This isn't noticeable when you've got it on a surface, but when I was taking notes while watching UFC 131, it bugged me a bit.

Overall, this machine is awesome. I could type on it for 2 hours every day for a year before the batteries ran out. This isn't an exaggeration on the part of the manufacturer, either. My 3000 had batteries several years old in them and still had 50% power.

In the past couple of weeks I've been writing 2500 words a day on it. Anything that can make writing first drafts more comfortable and convenient is worth a look, in my opinion. The small screen really frees my brain from its revision mode. And if I absolutely need to research something, I do it on my phone. But since that's a pain in the ass, it keeps me from over-researching during the first draft, when I should mostly be getting the words down on paper. Basically, those factors combined with the portability have really helped me produce new work. I enjoy revision too much, so this thing is great.

End of Alphasmart Neo review.

So yeah, I'm getting out about 10,000 new words a week. I think that's a good pace. About 7,000 of that is going to the sequel to Burden Kansas. I was worried about that project at first, but things have been gelling in my head. I just kept pushing ahead, and eventually I saw the connections and things came together. So I'm pretty certain I can push through to the end at this pace.

The rest of the words are going to a weird little project I’m doing. I'll go more into it when I'm closer to done, but every day after I finish my Burden Kansas sequel stuff, I write a flash fiction based around a really awkward moment. It's kind of my reward for doing what I should be doing, and it's been a total blast so far. I don't know if I'm going to try to publish any traditionally. I'm definitely going to put them out as a collection at some point, though.

I just finished The Other Room by James Everington. It's really good. He plays a lot with my favorite kind of horror, the kind where the world just goes illogical on you, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a subtle way. I was skeptical at first, because while the first story sets up his themes, it's not the best story in the collection. It's a perfectly fine collection story, but maybe not a collection starter, I think because it only has one character in it, and his portrayals of the relationships between his characters is one of the strongest aspects of his writing.

The variety here is really good, too. I love the fabulist flash fiction pieces sprinkled throughout, "Some Stories for Escapists." They're very conceptual, but he totally pulls them off.

Basically, without getting too wordy, if you like smart, subtle horror, get this book.

Hey, I really am jacking up the price of Psychomancer. The new price has already taken effect at Smashwords and B&N. Get it at Amazon like, now, if you want it for $0.99.


  1. Hey thanks for the review; oddly most other people have disliked the flash, and said the title story was the best one. So now you've really confused me...

    In terms of 'first draft machines' I'm still a pen and paper man - no distractions, and I can bang it out anywhere. I also like the fact that I have to type it out again - it enforces a discipline to check every line is good.

    Also my first drafts are always dreadful, so if they're handwritten at least no one can read them (my handwriting = scribble)!

  2. My guess is that people who like the first story best are concept people, because it's probably the best concept in the collection.

    I hold a pen in a really stupid way (I'm right handed, yet I drag my hand through the ink. figure that out) that causes my hand to cramp extremely fast, so I don't handwrite anything. I usually even type grocery lists.