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Tools for Writing in Public: The AlphaSmart

alphasmartI have a lot of different ways of writing when I write in coffee shops (and I’ll probably talk about them all at some point) but one of my favorites is also the one people seem most surprised and impressed by: my AlphaSmart 3000. The AlphaSmart is essentially a keyboard with a small screen that shows four lines of text at a time. You can’t really edit on it, and it wouldn’t work at for anything that needs formatting (so, I don’t use it when I write screenplays). But man oh man, it is wonderful.

Here’s what’s great about the AlphaSmart:

  • It’s very light. I have put it in backpacks and then forgotten it’s there.
  • It’s super-durable. I have dropped said backpacks on the ground really hard before remembering it was in them. It rattles if you shake it but works just fine.
  • It has the same size keyboard as most laptops.
  • It runs on AA batteries. So you never have to worry about recharging or running out–just pack a couple extra batteries if you’re worried; but don’t be. It runs FOREVER on those batteries.
  • It’s cheap. I think I got mine on Ebay for $45.
  • You can write on the beach with it. I do this sometimes. I wouldn’t want to carry my laptop or iPad on the beach, but the AlphaSmart… I just don’t worry that much. And writing on the beach is FANTASTIC.
  • You can carry it with you pretty much anywhere, and it’s great anywhere, but the VERY best thing is when you travel or commute. It’s perfect on buses and subways because it fits on your lap, can be shoved into a bag without being folded or whatever if you have to stand, and people are much less likely to steal it than a laptop, because it just doesn’t look all that impressive. I like taking it on airplanes, too, because you don’t need to make a big deal about bringing it through security. And you can use it (easily) with the tray table folded up.

When I’m trying to get a lot of (non-screenplay) writing done in a short time, I keep in it my car. That way if I get some unexpected free time I can grab it and go into the nearest Starbucks, or a park, or if I’m ten minutes early somewhere I can just sit in my car and type on it for a little while.
When you’re ready to get what you’ve written onto to your computer, you open a text document (word, or whatever), plug in a cable to the AlphaSmart and the computer, and hit send. It’s like you’re typing into the document (so if you have AutoCorrect on in Word, it fixes your spelling mistakes as it goes).
The bad stuff:

  • It only holds roughly 25,000 words. Then you have to move it to your computer and clear up files.
  • There is no word count function (on my version anyway; later versions might have it) so you can’t really know if you’ve hit your daily quota.
  • Mine does a weird thing where it switches punctuation so I have to do a find/replace; friends who have them don’t have that problem and it might be because I did something weird to it.
  • A friend pointed this out and it’s true; when you use it strangers constantly interrupt your writing to ask what the AlphaSmart is and how it works and whatnot.

As I said I have an AlphaSmart 3000; there are several versions (the 2000, the Neo), some more expensive than others. I’m really happy with mine. You can find them by searching on Amazon (they have 12 just like mine, right now, for $25-$58) or on Ebay. Make sure the cable comes with it.

Five Splashes of Soy Milk (out of five splashes)

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The Grocery Store Starbucks, and Our Shared Civic Duty


I live in a place with lots of traffic, so I never really know how long it’s going to take me to get anywhere. Especially since I’ve moved from Hollywood to the Valley–going over the hill could take twenty minutes, or it could take an hour. I hate being late so I always leave early, and this means I’m often in a strange neighborhood forty minutes before I need to be there.
Luckily, with google maps on my home computer, not to mention the GPS search function on my phone, I can always find a Starbucks to hole up in and write. I usually include it when I get directions somewhere–I do a quick search to find what Starbucks are nearby (obviously, there are other coffee places, and I look at those too. But as I’ve said before, I usually have a gift card for Starbucks, and I’m on a serious budget these days). Sometimes I’ll leave even earlier than I need to–just figure I’ll get an hour of writing in before the appointment.
Another thing I’ll do, if my husband and I miss each other because he’s in rehearsals for a play; I’ll do a search for a Starbucks near his rehearsal space, drive him there, go to Starbucks and write, and pick him up after. Quality time in the car together, and I get to be productive.
Most of the time, this works out delightfully. I find a new Starbucks (or, often, one I’ve been to before but forgotten) and have a lovely time getting lots done.
But now and then, it’s not so great. Of course sometimes it’s too crowded, but I can almost always find a place to squeeze in at a counter or on the patio.
But the worst, the VERY WORST, is the dreaded GROCERY STORE STARBUCKS.
The fact that these are listed the same as a regular Starbucks on google maps is a TRAVESTY.  I don’t understand how it happens, and it has caused me grief innumerable times (I know you’re thinking I should just see if there’s a grocery store at the same address, but at least around here grocery stores and coffee shops share the same strip mall all the time). Not just Starbucks; Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has burned me this way too.
There is, however something we can do. We have power, and we can take care of one another: We can leave reviews that mention the Starbucks is inside a grocery store. If you know of a Starbucks that is inside another store, take a moment. Mention it in a google review (also: Yelp!). Put the fact that it’s in a grocery store in all caps at the top of the review. If this becomes a thing, you might be protected from this horror.
At the very least, you might not end up at the SAME GROCERY STORE MORE THAN ONCE, as has possibly happened to someone I know.


How to Create a Perfect Writing Playlist


I love the chatter and background noise in coffee shops, unless people are actually talking near me or the store is playing any music at all, at which point I have to put on headphones.

When you’re writing, you want to be focused on what you’re putting on the page. Pausing to change songs is a problem, and so is pausing to enjoy songs. You want to be able to turn on your ipod and then not touch it again. You want every song to be perfect background to your creativity.

Here’s how to make that playlist.
It’s not about hand-picking all the right songs; it would take forever and you’d get impatient and make the list too small and you’d get bored with it. The much better way it is to just get rid of all the wrong songs.

First: Make a new playlist with every song you own –unless you already have a smaller playlist that is just songs you like. In that case, copy that one.

Next, get rid of all the songs you’re going to stop writing to skip past. Songs you secretly hate, but own because they’re by your favorite artist, or because your friend bought you the album, or whatever. We all have them. There’ll be good excuses below to explain why they’re not on the playlist even though you loooooove them (in case your bff, who keeps buying you Prince albums, sees the playlist). Sometimes you can remove whole artists or albums at a time this way. And don’t feel bad–I hate “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols and that does not in any way diminish my love for every other song they made.

Now, get rid of anything that will pull your focus.

  • All albums that are just spoken word— Seinfeld wondering what the deal is, Rollins telling about that time he was in an airport, that sort of thing.
  • All the songs that tell a story. Anything that has a strong character singing about a specific event. Because chances are, you’re not going to be writing about that character or event in that moment. (If, for instance, you’re writing a sex scene, the single worse song that can come on is “The Gambler.” This is a proven fact. )This can go fast if you go through your show tunes albums and just pick out the few that AREN’T like this.
  • All the songs that don’t work as single songs but require the song after it to immediately come on. Songs from concept albums–a lot of Pink Floyd songs are like this, for instance. If hearing the end of one song and not hearing the beginning of the next is like missing a step, your brain will screech to a halt while you notice it.
  • Songs you love too much, or anything that could be called your “jam.” If when it comes on you have to stop everything to listen to it and drum on the table or whatever, it needs to go. Put it on a different playlist.
  • Songs that make you think strongly of a specific scene in a movie. If you can hear “Maniac” and think of anything other than Jennifer Beales dancing, well, that’s surprising. If you’re not writing, right then, about a person dancing, it can get in the way.
  • Songs that invoke a particular memory or emotional reaction in you. I love REM’s “Losing My Religion,” but every time I hear it I spend anywhere from 45 seconds to fifteen minutes thinking about the guy I loved and lost when I was nineteen. This is not good for writing. Or “Eye of the Tiger,” the best song possible when you’re trying to motivate yourself off the couch, is not a great one when writing a death scene, say.

When you’re done, you should have a whole bunch of songs that are pleasant and ignorable. Songs you like but don’t make you pay attention to them. Of course as you write, you’ll find there are still songs on the playlist that pull your focus or that you never realized you hated. Make a note of them, and remove them from the playlist next time you’re at your computer. It will happen less and less often.

Oh, and play the list on shuffle, always. If you get used to a pattern, your brain will complain if it’s missing.

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I don’t know why it is that I write so much better in public than at home. I have a very nice little home office, with a desk and a computer and a nearby kitchen in which I can make coffee.
But somehow, going out to a public place–most often a Starbucks, since I have gift cards and their gold card means I get free refills–makes my writing flow a thousand times better than it does at home. I love having people around me. Even though I put on headphones so I can’t hear them, and wear a baseball cap so if they jiggle their legs I can pull the visor low and block them out, I like having them there. Even though a lot of the time I hate them.
I left my job at a newspaper last summer, and since then I’ve been spending a huge amount of time in coffee shops, writing. Also working various part-time jobs to make ends meet–a wonderful one at the library and some not-so-wonderful ones other places. But writing is my real work.
I used to be horrible at self-discipline, and I’m still not great at getting started, but I have become very, very good at getting writing done once I get going. In the last six months I’ve written and edited eight short stories, written and edited (and self-published) a novella, wrote the rough draft of a full-length novel, completed three rounds of edits on a screenplay, and written the rough draft of another screenplay. Nothing makes me as happy as writing does.
Oh, and this isn’t going to be a blog about the deliciousness of coffee or the wonders of caffeine. Coffee has to be horrible before I notice it’s not the best coffee ever, and I drink decaf (doctor’s orders). Sorry.