The Alphasmart may be the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing

In 2009, when I started writing fiction again after a fifteen year hiatus, I was able to draft a 120,000 word book in about three and half months. In the past 10 years, even though my technical writing skills have improved, my word counts have drastically slowed. Some of you have been saying it looks like I’m writing a lot these days (and I have increased dramatically), but that’s an illusion. Yes, I did release two books recently and in very close succession. But these two books were 40,000 and 50,000 words long, and took me six months and four months to write, respectively. In literary fiction this would be considered lightning speed, but in genre fiction, this is the equivalent of molasses dripping from a jar in the Arctic Circle in winter. It’s very, very slow.

In large part what accounts for the slowing over the years has been the number of distractions I allow myself to be subjected to while working on my laptop. Granted, I have tried multiple ways to limit these distractions. Sometimes I’ve been successful; often I have not. Let me state for the record this: these are my own weaknesses and not attributable to anything else but my own inability to keep myself focused. Things I have tried include:

  • }turning off my Internet service {didn’t work – my family needed it as well]
  • using dictation (as I am now in writing this) {I’ve found it works for me for blogging/emailing, etc., but not for drafting fiction}
  • using various timing mechanisms where I reward myself with non-writing time for doing a certain number of words or a certain amount of writing time {rewards are sweeter
  • using programs like Write or Die to scare myself into writing more.

While all of these have resulted in modest improvements, I have always found ways to circumnavigate them. I even wrote some code to be able to capture my text off of the timed writing tool I used so I did not, in fact, lose it. Such is my determination to procrastinate that I will actually program to do it.

Last year, several of my writer friends, having similar issues, told me of their attempts to overcome using so-called distraction-free devices. These come in several varieties, and really are nothing more than old-fashioned word processors scaled down to a workable size and with the ability to export text back to a computer, either wirelessly or via a cable. One of these devices, which I have seen and actually looks quite awesome, still wasn’t right for me due to its price tag. However, the Alphasmart Neo2 was something that looked like it might work for me.

This device is old school, at least from where I’m sitting right now. It can’t transfer text wirelessly (unless you have a specialized infrared receiver sold separately), it doesn’t have a Wi-Fi connection, and even the cable used to hook it up to the computer is difficult to come by these days. This is one of those rare cases where DH’s obsession with hoarding every piece of electronics we’ve ever bought and every cable we have ever cabled comes in handy. I was able to dig through some old boxes and find several of the type of cables that I needed. By the way, if you’re curious, this is the old style USB printer cable.

What you get with this device are the basics. It has a dictionary that you can use to do spellchecking, and you could add to it if you have specialized vocabulary in your writing. It has a thesaurus which I haven’t used yet so I can’t comment on its utility. It has calculator function in several other functions intended for educational purposes (it was originally developed to be used as a typing and word-processing tutor aid), but these are all things that I don’t need. This writer suffered through two semesters of high school typing class, and due to playing piano, has some strong damn fingers that can type out about 80WPM.

The most important thing is what it doesn’t have: pretty much anything else. You’re not going to get email notifications, no IMs coming in from friends, and if I ever see a single pop-up ad come up on this thing, I will throw it against the wall. It is as distraction-free a device you can get that will still capture your words electronically rather than in ink and not let you do much else. As long as you keep your phone out of reach and your computer off, and assuming there’s no cute dogs or squirrels outside your window, you will be typing like crazy on this thing.

I’ve had this device since last spring, but I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to start a new book before using it as one thing that is difficult is transferring existing files to it. There is a way to do it, I know. I read about it in the user manual. But it looks kinda complicated and I didn’t really want to try. As aforementioned, I’ve been working on two books in his last spring that took me until earlier this fall to finish. Last week, I finally started a new book which allowed me the opportunity I was looking for. Last Friday morning I pulled out my Neo2, put in the batteries, pressed the power button, and just started to plunk my little heart out.

I use an online word tracking tool called WriteTrack to schedule my projects. It allows me to set up a timeline, and to associate certain effort percentages with each day that will then trickle down into determining what my daily word goal must be. I thought I was being pretty demanding of myself by setting up a six week timeline to write a 65,000 word book. After all, I’ve never written a book that fast since 2009. My resulting daily word goals varied from 500 (on the days where I still had to go to my part-time “real job”) to 1900 (on the days where I was writing full time). In the first seven days of using this device, I hit my word goals six out of seven days, and actually could have done much more if I didn’t have the policy of stopping to do “writer business stuff” when I make the mark. Consequently, in seven days of using this device, I have written over 10,000 words. While this is not a great feat in terms of genre writers, it is a great feat for writers named Kendrai Meeks. Because I know I actually could have done more, I’ve taken up the policy of cutting one day off of my total production schedule for every three days that I make my word goal. Just to be fair to myself I’ve also agreed that if I go three days without making my word goal I will tack on an additional day. In doing this, I will be able to complete my project on time, and more than likely, early. All this has come about because of my reliance on the Alphasmart.

Now, just to be fair there are some things the Neo2 cannot do which I wish it could. First and foremost of course, is that I wish you could transfer wirelessly. I don’t want it to be on Wi-Fi because I know the dangers that will present, but I would really love if it had Bluetooth. Unfortunately, this machine was designed and manufactured before Bluetooth was really a viable product. (Did I mention they don’t make these anymore and that you have to buy them secondhand? Yeah, you should know that.) Also, this is a straightforward word processor designed to get the words onto the screen, and not to make them look pretty. There is no ability to bold or italicize text; that you have to do when you transfer the words into whatever computer-based word processor you’re using. I’m also not sure if it could hold a whole book on it. The device has eight preestablished files set up. I’m not geek enough about hardware to be able to tell you how much data equals words on these things. What I can tell you is that the longest chapter I’ve written on it so far is 2618 words long, and that fills up 28% of the file space for that chapter. Extrapolating then you would think about 9000 words can go into each file. With eight files that’s a total of 72,000 words. My book will fit, but yours may not.

I also learned my lesson yesterday about considerations when transporting this thing. Having to work remotely yesterday (i.e. for me, that means not at home), I put the Alphasmart into my bag and headed out the door. When I pulled it out and turned it on, I discovered that, while jostling in my bad, it had turned on and an additional 600 words of gobblygook had been typed into my document. This gives me an opportunity to tell you of another of the disadvantages: it’s difficult to erase large sections of text. You have to do the old-fashioned “delete delete delete.” I could have simply transferred the document to my computer and took it out the accidental text there, but I wanted to keep writing on the device until the chapter was done, so I pressed “delete” a lot. One of my goals for this weekend is to figure out something I can put over the keyboard of this thing to keep that from happening, as I would like to use it wherever I can take it.

One other consideration is the screen. It allows for the view of four lines at any time, which is plenty. However the screen is not backlit, so this is not a device you can work on without light. If you’re a person who likes to type in bed or, for some reason, the dark, this will be an issue.

Yes, it has some downsides. What doesn’t? But 10,000+ words in seven days tell me that this was a great decision to make. Given that you can pick up one of these devices from used market such as eBay or Amazon for less than $50 “new in the box” (I got mine for $30 with free shipping off eBay), no more than the price of many of the other tools and services we buy and often cheaper, it is one of the best investment decisions I’ve ever made with the highest ROI.

I was considering doing a video where I review the Alphasmart for you, but as you know, I hate being on camera (or at least, seeing myself in pictures/video), and there are already tons of reviews of these things on YouTube. Go watch a few. Here’s one from 10 years ago that pretty much encapsulates what this device can do. Yes, a whole decade ago, and this device hasn’t changed since then.

By coincidence, 10 years ago was when I was able to write a 120,000 word book in three and half months.

Actually, that’s not coincidence at all.