Monday, October 30, 2017

The Writer's Armory: In Praise of the FitDesk!

For the past few weeks, I've been spilling the beans about some tools that I've recently begun using that have revved up my writing and tripled my productivity.

The first was the "MSD," an amazing low-tech boon for under $5, that helps me keep every project fresh, in front of me, organized, and on-track.

Last week, I confessed my love for Leo, my Neo2 Alphasmart old-school wordprocessor. Using Leo keeps me from the distractions of being online and helps me produce usable first drafts in record time.

The final tool that has been a real writing revolution is my FitDesk. A bit pricier than the other two tools I told you about -- but I'd rather spend money on something like the FitDesk than an HDTV. This was my to-me / from-me birthday gift this year, and I couldn't be happier with how it's working out.

The FitDesk is a combination desk and stationary bike. Yes, I know it sounds rather Rube Goldberg-esque. Well, don't laugh till you've tried it. As you probably know, writing has two major drawbacks:

One is in the lifestyle choice of sitting on a couch or in a chair for long quantities of time (often stuffing one's pie-hole without much thought to actual nutritional content).

The other is the creative's dilemma of having the exact answer to your plot problem drop in the moment you leave the couch and decide to get some exercise -- with nowhere to record your brainstorm.

I got the FitDesk 3.0, though there are other brands of desk / bikes out there. I strongly suggest that if you're interested, you shop around and see what features you like the most.

Things I love about my FitDesk:

It has a small footprint. My house isn't big, so I couldn't have some enormous piece of machinery taking up a ton of space. My FitDesk fits perfectly in a sort of dead-end hallway that has always been a place to throw laundry baskets and accumulate cat fur. If I wanted to, I could close up the FitDesk -- it folds up to roughly the size of a large upright vacuum cleaner. But I leave it set up so it's ready to use when I want it.

It's comfortable. My FitDesk has an ergonomic seat with a back, comfortable pedals (if I pedal in my slippers, rather than putting on shoes, as one does), and nifty, nubbly roller things for me to rest my forearms on while I type. At first, I thought the roller-deals were the dumbest things ever. But it didn't take me long to see the error of my ways. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing knows about repetitive stress. Voila! Nubbly rollers help keep that stress to a minimum.

I use it. Ok -- this might sound stupid, but it's true. I dithered about getting the thing because I didn't want to be one of Those People who acquire a piece of fitness equipment and the only exercise they get from it is when they dust it. But, for some reason, that is not the case. I have my notes, my coffee, and my computer or Leo (see last week's post) -- and I'm off! My FitDesk is positioned in front of a window, so I can look outside and see what's going on. I just sit at my desk and start writing. The pedaling comes naturally; I never miss my couch.

So that's what works for me at the moment. Thanks to my MSD, Leo, and FitDesk, I have streamlined my writing process, getting far more done now than I did before I used them as part of my daily routine.

Now it's your turn. What writing tools would you be lost without? Do tell!

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Writer's Armory, Part II: Long Live the AlphaSmart!

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd recently begun to use three tools that have revolutionized my writing and tripled my productivity. The first tool was the cheap, charming, and utterly indispensable Mini Smiley Diary.

My Neo2. I have named him Leo.
This week, I shall share the secret of how I broke my internet addiction, which was actively corroding my ability to stay focused and eating into my writing time. It was simple. Instantaneous. And inexpensive. I bought a NEO2.

(Though the Neo2 was made by Renaissance Learning, the original company that Renaissance Learning bought was named AlphaSmart. Hence, many writers who use these puppies call them "AlphaSmarts." Whatevs. I have named mine "Leo.")

The Neo2 is a word processor that is literally old school. Back in the 90's and early 2000's, school districts used to use them to teach keyboarding at a time when it became obvious that computers -- not typewriters -- were the wave of the future, yet schools didn't have the tech or the funds to bring in a computer lab. Enter the AlphaSmart, a self-contained word processor that (and this is key) does not get online.

Leo is a simple little powerhouse. Whatever you type is stored directly into its RAM. It stores up to 200 pages of text in up to 8 separate files. To download a file I connect the AlphaSmart to my computer via a common USB cable and hit send. Beginning wherever my cursor is, in whatever program I happen to be running (Microsoft Word, Final Draft, even Blogger -- it's all the same to Leo), the device from yesteryear downloads the draft of my file onto my tablet or computer.

Things I love about Leo:

1.) It is a WORKHORSE. It's tough. It's built to handle (::shudder::) schoolchildren, so it's very forgiving of the occasional danish crumb. With a full-sized keyboard and decent feel to the keys, it feels much like my computer. Yet because I'm not online, there are no distractions. I sits and I types. And, because of the old-school display, I'm not inclined to begin micro-editing. Instead, I simply focus on getting the words out of my head.

2.) It has a simple screen. What some might see as a drawback, I consider immensely useful. Leo's "screen" is simple, unformated, block text. I can see what I've typed -- and scrolling through a lengthy file is simply a matter of using the arrow keys -- but I'm not obsessed by it. I use Leo for drafting, which, for me, is the longest, most tedious part of writing a book. I do my editing on my computer; it's better suited for the task.

3.) It has no glaring backlight. When I write on Leo at night, or in the wee hours of the morning, when I'm done, I simply turn it off and go to sleep, with no residual "screen burn" flickering on my retinas. Aaaaahhhhhh.

4.) It has a battery that, after two months of regular use -- sometimes up to 5 hours a day -- shows no sign of weakening. I've heard some AlphaSmart users say their batteries last nearly a year. I'd be OK with three months. When batteries need replacing, all I need to do is provide 3 AAs.

5.) It's cute as anything. Seriously: it's adorable. Though my productivity has tripled since I've begun using Leo, every time I use him in a public place, people come and ask me What The Heck Is That?

I purchased Leo for around $30 on ebay. Am seriously thinking of getting another one and putting it aside... just in case Leo ever wears out.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Writer's Armory: In Praise of the Teeny-Tiny Notebook

"Slow and steady wins the race."
The Tortoise is my writing spirit animal.
True confession: I am not a fast writer. Not by any means. Which explains why my blog posts are often few and far between. If I'm working on a major project, since the good Lord has seen fit to only give me 24 hours in my day, I generally choose to spend my writing time slogging forward on the Thing that Needs Doing.

However, in the past four months, I have acquired three new tools in my Writer's Toolbox that have tripled my productivity.


So I felt inspired to share.

Two are small, portable, inexpensive, and indispensable. (One is the subject of this post. The other I'll discuss next week.)

One is large and a bit pricey, but OH MY STARS how it helps ratchet up the productivity. [Patience, Grasshopper... I'll talk about that in two weeks. Promise.]

For the first -- the simplest; the easiest; the least expensive -- I credit Yi Shun Lai.

Earlier this year, when Yi Shun was a featured facilitator at a #Write2TheEnd writer's retreat I helped to produce and sponsor,  she gifted me with a Mini Smiley Diary (MSD, or "Misty," for short). Yi Shun has an affinity for quality paper, while I have a collection of vintage mini-notebooks. (As you may know, for writers, paper obsessions are very, very real.)

The little thing was similar in size to my phone, with an inane little proverb embossed on the cover ("If you laugh tomorrow will be fun"). It featured six sections, some lined, some blank, with different colored paper. It was saddle stitched, so the pages wouldn't fall out with use. It was so cute it bordered on twee. But its adorable appearance couldn't mask its power.

The Mini Smiley Diary costs under $5 on Amazon, and it is an absolute godsend. I bought a gross and started gifting other writers. After some trial and error, I've hit upon a system that makes my notes easy to take and easy to find. It works for me; perhaps it will work for you as well. Here's how I use mine:

In general: Each new project gets its own MSD. When a Work-In-Progress is my top creative priority, I carry its respective MSD with me everywhere. As in *everywhere.* It is as much a part of my personal detritus as my phone, my glasses, and my keys.

Footnote: Perhaps you're wondering why, if I exist in the 21st century and have the cell phone required for daily life, do I not just make my phone my notebook. To be honest, I have tried. I really have. But I haven't found an app that is as satisfyingly simple and userfriendly as Misty. See earlier paragraph re: my affinity for old notebooks. There's something wonderfully creatively energizing about paper.

1.) The first of the six divisions is lined. I use it as my constantly available note pad. It actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my writing project. Here's where I scribble my random notes, to-do lists, grocery needs, etc.

This serves several purposes. It obliterates the blank-book syndrome ("Oh, it's so cute! Much too cute to ever use.") It also allows me do what I'd do anyway -- because I know me. No matter what, if I need something to write on RIGHT NOW, I'm going to use the first thing I grab. If I tried to allot the first section to something critical for my project, I'd be setting myself up for failure the first time I ever needed to remember to buy toilet paper.

2.) The second section consists of blue blank sheets. This is my Big Picture section. On the first page, I write the one sentence "pitch" of my book. On the back of the first page, I list the themes of the work in progress.

At the top of the next blue pages, I write out the general story beats for the whole project. (For fiction, I use a modified Save the Cat story beat approach. I don't outline, but I don't begin a journey without knowing my destination.) As my project progresses, I use these pages to write notes on advancing themes and make sure major events happen when and where they should.

3.) The third section is lined. Here is where I write cool quotes, turns of phrase, snippets of dialogue that come to me, overheard conversations I'd like to revisit, and other things my characters might say.

4.) The fourth section is blank pink sheets. I use these for any illustrations or diagrams I need to draw out. House plans, maps, character descriptions & tics all go here.

5.) The last lined section I use for taking research notes about things that pertain to this project.

6.) And the final section -- green blank pages -- is reserved for the "don't forgets." Here I note the things that will need to be salted in, key connections, and loose ends that need to be paid off before the end.

That's it! Can you use any little notebook? Of course. But, for some reason, this system has helped me keep my notes more organized and be more productive than any I've used before. Thought I'd share.

Next week: the tool that helped me kick my Twitter habit, streamlined my drafting process, AND helps me sleep better...