Friday, March 7, 2014


I ENJOY COUNTRY MUSIC, but don't listen to it much. Truth told, when I write, my usual soundtrack is silence, and when I'm on my everyday transportation (a Harley: I live in Florida), it doesn't have a radio, so all I hear is the rattle of my rocker box and rumble of my exhaust. But a week ago or so, I was watching "Good Morning America" on ABC before I left the house for the day, and managed to catch Dierks Bently performing his song, "I Hold On."
    The theme of that song, which is about holding onto the things that work for you (and are part of your memories), got me thinking about my AlphaSmart Neo.
AlphaSmart Neo

    The Neo, if you aren’t familiar with it, is an educational product that was introduced by AlphaSmart in 2004. It contains a rudimentary word-processing application called “AlphaWord,” which has basic spell-check and cut-and-paste capabilities. As it came from AlphaSmart, it also contained a basic calculator and quiz-taking applications—items that I have long since removed. So essentially, the one I have is a writing device. I write my work in any of eight key-accessible windows (it supposedly holds about 100,000 words between the eight of them), and—generally at the end of each session—I can connect it to my computer with a USB cord, push the “Send” key, and it streams what I have written into whatever application I have open (usually Word or Pages). It looks onscreen like a highly caffeinated typist is keying in the text.
    I often write or sketch out scenes using a pencil and notebook, and my revision and editing virtually all takes place at the computer. But although I have owned three desktop computers over the last decade, and no fewer than six laptops or notebooks, my intermediary device—the one that takes my work from handwriting to the computer screen—is generally the Neo.
    The Neo is now decade-old technology—the equivalent of the Pleistocene Era in information technology—but I keep on using it for three reasons.
    The first is battery life. I’ve never been crazy about the ticking-clock nature of working on a battery-powered device, and the Neo runs for about 700 hours on a set of batteries. That means I can do 140 coast-to-coast flights before the batteries die. When they finally do, it holds my work using the power of a coin-style battery (which I change every five years). And replacement batteries are three regular old AA alkalines, which are available pretty much anywhere (I once bought a set  at a drug store in the Azores). This, plus the fact that the screen is readable in bright sunlight, makes it a pretty much go-anywhere device (the screen is not backlit, but a book light and some Velcro fix that).
    The second reason I like the Neo is because of what it does not do. It does not access the Internet. It cannot check email. The only thing I can do on it is write, and as I have an attention span about like the “Squirrel!”-distracted dogs in the movie, Up!, I like that ability to keep me on-task.
    The third advantage of the Neo is its durability. It has taken a nose-dive off the roof of my pickup, and the only thing that happened was a key fell off (I stuck it back on). When I am on small boats, I keep it in a two-gallon ZipLoc bag, and I put it in a neoprene case before stuffing it in checked luggage, but other than that I don’t baby it.
    Truth told, I have killed two Neos over the years, but the culprit in both cases was my own stupidity.
    In the first instance, I stuck a USB flash drive into the USB port to prove to my daughter that it could not save to it (Neo has no disk-selective operating system). Turns out thumbdrives often hold a small electrical charge, and as Neo has no means of dealing with that, this was sufficient to fry the motherboard. So I bought a second Neo (fifty bucks, shipped, from eBay), and promptly messed up the display on that one by applying a wet-transfer glare-resistant screen protector and failing to let it dry out completely before I fired the device up.
    My present Neo is a “Frankeneo,” cobbled together using parts of the two dead ones. Renaissance Learning, which bought the rights to AlphaSmart products a few years ago, stopped making the Neo last year, and I keep meaning to buy another on eBay and just pull out its batteries and stick it in the closet as insurance in case this one dies. But unless I do anything else stupid, I am relatively certain that my present Neo will outlive me.
    Neo is ugly. It is precisely the same color of olive green as a plastic toy tank that I had when I was a kid, and the screen looks about as state-of-the-art as the old Texas Instruments Speak & Spell. When I use it on planes, people always ask what it is, and then look at me like I’m nuts when I tell them it’s ten years old.
    But it’s neither hot nor heavy on my lap, I like the feel and near silence of its keyboard, and every time I fire it up, I know that it and I have written six books together over the years, so we are fully capable of turning out another.
    That’s why “I Hold On.”
    What about you? Any fiction-writing anachronism that you’re fond of, attached to or even superstitious about?
    If you have one, tell us all about it in the “Comments” area below.


  1. I use Scrivener to compose my novels, but when the words stop flowing--and sometimes they come to a screeching halt--I pull out my Circa notebook system and a Uni-Ball Elite pen. Usually, that does the trick--the thick crisp sheet beneath a pen from which ink flows so smoothly that it's inspiration in itself.

    1. Okay. I had to Google the Circa Notebook system. You are obviously WAY more organized than me.

  2. My "book map" exists on a yellow legal pad. I've tried other methods that use newer technology (like writing programs and spreadsheets), and I find them annoying to the point that I always return to my yellow legal pad where I keep track of these headings: Chapter; Scene; Date; POV; Event. As I introduce a character, I make note of their hair color/eye color, etc. as a quick reminder (although I also have a very detailed character study of the main characters that I create in Word and print out ... I just don't like clicking between computer files. I like to have things I can spread out before me. Since Elmore Leonard said he began each book with a stack of legal pads ... I take that as assurance that good books can be written the old fashioned way. Whatever works, right?

    1. Yep.I believe Elmore was able to sell a few books.

  3. Don't have a Neo, but I do have an Alpha Smart. I used to use it to brainstorm. Now, I use my iPad with a tiny keyboard, perched on the eating bar in the kitchen. I feel like I'm playing, because that's what I mostly use my iPad for. Playing and reading, so it's not like work. Plus it's cute and harmless, not like my iMac parked in my office that screams 'do productive work on me'.

    1. The AlphaSmart 2000! With that weird, green, semi-transluscent body. I remember one year when it seemed as if, at every workshop or conference, everybody had one of those.

  4. Tom, I love when writers confess their quirks. I often write in my car. It's quiet, I can roll down the windows and get fresh air, it's relatively comfortable, and I don't have a million household things to distract me. I also sometimes dictate first drafts into a voice recorder, then transcribe it onto my computer. We do what we have to do to get the story down!

    1. I used to have a Chevy Astro van; it had two rows of bucket seats and a rear bench seat. I would often take one of the center seats out, fold the other one flat, and use it as a desk while I sat in the back seat. That was my office on the road. But I never used it in the driveway.