Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, Eamonn Griffin succumbs to the shiny-shiny and talks of his love of the toys that help him write.
I have a problem and I’m here today to admit it. A compulsion, an addiction. A displacement activity. A quest that I’ve been on for, oh, decades. A quest that I might just have completed. Or re-completed. Let me explain.
I’m a boy and I like toys. The kind of toys that I like are the kind that help me to write. Now, I move around a bit and I like to be able to write wherever I am. So, getting on for twenty years now I’ve been pursuing a particular kind of Holy Grail: the ultimate portable writing machine.
I started out on this odyssey with a Psion organiser back in the early 00s. An impulse purchase in Selfridges in Manchester, together with an admittedly cool but expensive fold-out cradle-cum-keyboard. You could take it anywhere, and if you liked you could write yourself notes, ether keying them in or by handwriting with the stylus. Learning the simplified glyphs that the machine translated into readable English was pretty easy. I loved it. Utterly impractical for writing anything longer than a memo, but nevertheless it was fun.
Then came the first of three (count ‘em!) AlphaSmart machines. An AlphaSmart, if you’ve not come across one before, is a full-size keyboard with a simple memory (eight file-spaces) and an LCD display. No internet, no distractions. Plus it runs on three AA batteries; hundreds of hours of productivity with no need for cables or a power supply. If there was a downside, it was in uploading the files to a PC; the AlphaSmart is little more than a keyboard emulator, and the loading speed of the work to your Word document is about that of a fast typist. More than fine for a first-draft machine as long as you accept the limitations.
Then came the era of the netbooks. I did a PhD largely on a Samsung netbook – I put in an extra gig of RAM to give it some oomph, slapped in a copy of MS Office and I was off. A sturdy little performer, and I was kinda sad when I got rid of it at the end of the course and treated myself to a tablet.
I went for a Google Nexus 7 – I’ve never been attracted to Apple devices of any stripe – and at first it seemed fine. This was Kindle and computer in one, and a perfect little portable solution. I bought a keyboard to go with it. Then another. There might have been a third as well. Problem: I don’t get on well with Bluetooth keyboards. The intermittent nature of the contact meant that I missed characters.
I’m not a touch typist (I watch my index and middle fingers as I type) so it was often a couple of hundred words later that I’d finally wake up to the missing data. A palaver. On top of that, there were issues in getting a Word document to talk to a Word-emulating piece of software.
Plus, I had (and still have, a couple of iterations later) an Android smartphone, and there was too much crossover between the smartphone’s functions and that of the tablet’s. I didn’t need both. All too soon, the tablet went back in its box to await a new owner.
I soldiered on for a while with my main computer, a straightforward though basic Toshiba laptop. My computing needs aren’t great. As long as there’s internet access and a word processor I’m good to go. I’ve been working professionally and personally with MS Office for twenty years. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable there. I know what the buttons do.
But did I stop there, comfortable in an environment that I knew well. No, dear reader, I did not.
I bought a Chromebook, seduced by the notion of fast computing, battery life as long as Mr Tickle’s arms, and easy syncing of work between different devices through working with the free-to-use Google Docs.
Don’t get me wrong, the Chromebook I initially got (an Acer 13) proved to be a fine device provided that you could work in Google Docs and you didn’t mind some kerfuffle when dealing with moving documents across devices and in and out of Word. It was light, fast, had incredible battery life. But I was struggling when on the move. So the Chromebook was retired.
Questions at that point (we’re in 2015 now): Do I get another Windows netbook? I decided not to. What I went for was a Microsoft Surface. It was a dream of a machine. Zippy, light, full of Windows 10, with MS Office on-board plus it chatted comfortably via OneDrive cloud storage to my desk PC. And it functioned as a tablet but with proper USB ports onboard – a real computer in a casing the size of a photo frame.
And then there was the keyboard. Jiminy. I know it’s nerdy as heck, but I just liked the way it felt. The motor function of typing can be a pleasure in itself. The device wanted me to write more. And I obliged it.
At that point in time (2015 still), I wrote: “Part of me knows that in a couple of years I’ll probably get itchy technological feet again. Part of me knows that I’ve got to be on guard against my magpie instincts, and try to resist the shiny-shiny. But for the first time since, well, ever, I’ve got all the elements that I’ve told myself that I’ve needed – lightness, portability, MS Office, decent battery life, easy co-operation with myself across different machines. I really haven’t got a reason to complain. So let’s hope I don’t!”
Ah, the confidence of youth. While a great portable workhorse, the Surface (an entry-level model) proved to be delicate and skittish. The power connector died inside the moment that the machine had broken the finish line on its warranty.
By now, I’d got more confident with Google Docs. Again, my head was turned by the prospect of a light, fast, simple netbook for first-drafting and on-the-go working when away from home. You’ll appreciate that this was in those carefree days when you didn’t have to wear a Hazmat suit to go out, and the pub or coffee shop was a welcome respite from the business and busyness of the working week, and before such premises were marked as plague zones.
Anyway, I settled into a new groove. Google Docs for first drafting, and then using Word for revisions, redrafts and all that sort of stuff. Having different machines and working environments (both physical location-wise and in software terms) is useful for me. It helps draw distinctions between writing and rewriting, between getting the story down, and the getting the story straight.
That meant, inevitably, picking up another Chromebook. It’s a machine that – as of October 2020 – hasn’t seen a lot of use the last few months, what with the Contemporary Unpleasantness ongoing. But it works, as does my now middle-aged Windows laptop. Sometimes I use the Google Docs function on my phone too. It can be handy for adding to a draft when on the go, for making a couple of quick additions or even – when in brainstorming mode – noting ideas for bits of business on Google’s partner Keep app, which links to Docs quite nicely, and is a useful digital memo pad in its own right.
Then I saw the Freewrite Traveler.
Cleanse me, Lord, of these impure thoughts.
The Traveler (yes, it’s the US spelling that’s used) is a new – as of October 2020 the product is about to be launched – writing-specific and distraction-free device. It’s made by Astrohaus, a company that has a similar though larger desk-based version, the Freewrite that’s been available for a couple of years. The original Freewrite looks like this:
Both work in a manner similar to the AlphaSmart machines that I’ve used before. There’s nothing on board bar a full-size keyboard, a screen, and a modicum of memory. You do your writing, the device syncs to your cloud storage of choice when it’s got a Wi-Fi connection (so you can work offline), and … well … that’s about it.
Astrohaus have raised funds for both devices through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. And, as by now you’ve surely worked out, I’ve ordered myself a Traveler.
I can only apologise.
I’m looking forward to the machine. I hope it’s good, because it’s not cheap by any stretch of the wallet. An early Christmas present to myself, and a “You Survived 2020 Thus Far” badge rolled into one.
The Traveler has an e-Ink screen, so the visuals will be like a Kindle. There’s a full size mechanical keyboard, and a battery life of four weeks between charges (I think the actual working time is about 30 hours). It charges up via a USB cable. It weighs about a kilo, or just under two pounds old money. A bag of sugar, or thereabouts.
So, the idea is that I’ll have a light, portable, distraction-free machine in my bag (I’m one of those types whose default setting is backpack/daysack) so I can write anywhere and everywhere. That suits me down to my boots.
What I’ll do, though – the Crime Cymru deities permitting – is report back in a few months. I’ll let you know how I’ve got on with it, and if there’s sense to the purchase/investment. Delivery is scheduled for later in October. Digits are presently overlapped that there’s no slippage!
If you’re intrigued by the prospect of this sort of kit, though, and particularly if you aren’t daft enough to splash out on what is undoubtedly a bit of an extravagance, then I’d suggest you pick up an AlphaSmart second-hand. You’ll find them on the likes of eBay for about £30-£50.
There’s a few different models available. I’ve used the 3000 and the Neo 2, and both do the same thing – text-processing – very well. You’ll need a cable to physically link them to your computer when downloading the draft (no fancy wireless connections on the bulk of these boys).
They’re fun and relatively inexpensive devices that turn heads (as they’re quite different to the ubiquitous coffee-shop laptop) with which to write with no interruptions.
What all of this underscores, though, is that writing can be an intensely personal thing, not least with the plethora of technological/digital options out there competing with the still-reliable pen and paper. Find what works for you, don’t be too phased by what others do, and be open to alternatives just in case.
And have fun. Toys are to be played with, after all!
Note: this is revised and updated version of a blog post from October 2015. The original version is here: http://www.eamonngriffinwriting.com/blog/writingonthego
Eamonn’s latest thriller is East of England, published by Unbound (2019).