I had fun last week with the first Wayback Wednesday — pulling posts out of the internet archive that otherwise would have been lost forever (might not be a bad thing to forget). I haven’t always done a good job of keeping my blog posts. Several times I’ve simply started over. The Internet Archive doesn’t have everything — it’s still fun to see some of the snippets left behind.

This week’s post is about the writing technology I used back in 2001. No HAL 9000 to help me.

Writing Technology

From 10/13/2001

As we enter the autumn of 2001 we discover that aspects of the anticipated science fiction future have failed to materialize. There are no space colonies, for one thing. For another, robots are still infants bumping into walls and playing bad soccer. The computer, however, has infiltrated our lives to a degree unimagined by science fiction. It has also become the science fiction writer’s greatest tool.

For the most part word processing technology has transformed the way I work. When I first started writing science fiction I wrote long hand in bound notebooks. When I finished a piece I typed it out, sometimes retyping pages several times so that they would be perfect. It was a time-consuming process. A couple years later I upgraded to a word processing typewriter that could hold about nine pages in memory and display it on a screen one line at a time. With this new advance I could make sure they were complete before printing out. A couple years after that it was a Brother word processor that could display four or five lines of text and save to a disk. It wasn’t compatible with the early and expensive computers. Only a few more years, though, and I was able to purchase my PC, a 386. Later more powerful computers.

All of the early solutions were lacking in one area or another. None were really portable. The laptop I could take in a backpack but in two hours or less the battery would die. Plus it eats up time with the boot up, launch Word, open the document, hope Word doesn’t crash and erase my work, save, and wait for the computer to shut-down. The process takes so long it was useless for anything unless I could find a nice uninterrupted block of time. It looked pretty but failed to be what I’d wanted since I first put pen to paper. Then I started hearing about the Palm OS devices.

At first I doubted that such a device would work for me but it made me think – yes, something like that is what I want. Small, portable, long battery life, ability to write and have it converted to text. Initially such devices lacked adequate memory and software. I kept my eye on the devices and eventually the situation improved. The first indication was when there were a couple choices available for keyboards. I ended up going with the GoType! for two reasons. First, because I work in all sorts of odd places and want to be able to put the keyboard on my lap. Second, they offered a Dvorak keyboard driver. The word processing software available was barely adequate initially but it would work until something better came along. Only a little while later Blue Nomad came out with WordSmith and all the pieces clicked into place.

At last I have the device I’d always wanted. I carry the device everywhere. The time management features help me stay on track. WordSmith provides just about all of the word processing features I require. Other apps have also surfaced to help with my writing. A ThinkDB database tracks all of my submissions, and another my progress on my projects. With ShadowPlan I can develop outlines for stories, keep track of upcoming projects, and log my ideas as they come up. The DateBook+ that ships with the Visor supports a daily journal. My Springboard Backup module provides me with backup capabilities wherever I am – if I write on my lunch break I can pop in the module at the end and make sure I have my work safe. If I just have a few minutes I can touch one button and the device is on, right back in WordSmith in whatever document I was working on. Another button press and I can jot down an idea. WordSmith, Palm Pocket Reader, and Adobe for Palm provide access to ebooks and documents. Avantgo downloads my favorite web pages.

Could it be better? Sure. There are features I’d still like to see. Particularly in tracking my progress. Most of the tracking programs are aimed at people who bill for their time. I don’t just want to track time. I have multiple projects and I want to set goals based on words or pages per day. I’ve got something like that in a ThinkDB database but it doesn’t do quite what I want. I do have programming experience, so I may end up developing my own custom apps for the device. A color screen might be nice – but I don’t want to give up long battery life. More memory would be good, but can be added with Springboard Modules.

So the Handspring Visor became my constant companion. I use it throughout the day. Eventually I’ll replace it with a newer device but only when the features offered are worth the price. With the way prices change that shouldn’t be too long, the Visor Deluxe that I use has dropped about $100 since I bought mine. I’ve heard writers doubt that they could work on a device like this – but I’m amazed that they don’t. Whether a Palm OS device or a Microsoft-based Pocket PC, the handheld computer is the best thing I’ve seen for writers.

Thoughts

Wow. It’s great being able to click those links and essentially time-travel back to that time when those websites were up and active (they’re gone now, except for codejedi.com and it hasn’t updated in a long time). Until reading this I hadn’t given much thought to the applications that I used to use to write back then. Visor, Wordsmith, ShadowPlan, and ThinkDB were essential tools for me. I loved using the GoType clamshell keyboard. In the weeks that followed this post I put up more in-depth posts about the software and hardware used.

These days I do most of my writing in Google Docs on a Chromebook that cost less than the Visor, or on my desktop, or dictating and letting Dragon transcribe my rough drafts. The tools have changed — the goal of telling entertaining stories hasn’t.