Revising on a Kindle

I’ve started using my Kindle to revise the ninth Kormak novel Masque of Death, and now I am wondering why I never thought of doing it before. This will probably be old hat to many of you, but it’s a novelty for me.

The process of getting the mobi file onto the Kindle was a bit clunky. I exported the book from Scrivener to Word, then imported it into Vellum. In Vellum, I created a mobi file in the standard format I use for Kormak novels, even including the cover. I emailed it to my kindle using the device’s email address. (You can find this in the Manage Your Content and Devices tab of your Amazon account.) It appeared there as if by magic and then I set to work.

(Reading the above, it just dawned on me that there was no need to import the file into Word. I could have just gone straight to Vellum from the .docx export. Oops! Live and learn.)

Looking at the text on the e-ink screen is a totally different experience from reading it on a monitor, a laptop, a tablet or even a smartphone. I mark up any mistakes I spot, either with a note or with the Kindle’s built-in highlighter and move on. Since I have the cheapest form of Kindle without a keyboard or touchscreen, the notes have to be simple. If the flaw is complex, I write down my thoughts on paper.

Once I have read the book I will go back to my computer with my kindle and paper notebook and transcribe all the revisions into my editing file. This will be a lot slower than editing purely in Word or Scrivener, but this method does have one great benefit. It emulates the experience of an actual reader. The book looks exactly like a finished book with the same drop caps and section breaks and header graphics. I feel like I am looking at something written by somebody else. Repetitions, punctuation errors and clunky use of language leap out and slap me in the face. And while it may be slow, it’s not any slower than several of the methods of proofing I have used in the past.

In some ways, this is simply a variant of editing a PDF on the Surface Pro/Asus Vivotab or marking up a manuscript on paper with a pen. It forces me to look at the text in a new light and jars my brain into noticing things that I might not have spotted before. Just varying the experience of what I see seems to be enough to do that. In any case, I am pleased with the results and will certainly use this method again.

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Astrohaus Freewrite First Impressions

About 18 months ago I backed a Kickstarter for the Hemingwrite, a distraction free electronic typewriter. This weekend I got back from London to find that it had arrived. I set about unpacking it with considerable excitement. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Freewrite, as it is now called, is basically a keyboard and a small e-ink screen inside a rugged metal chassis. It even has a carrying handle. It reminds me of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, albeit one with a modern twist. This machine connects to the cloud and stores your writing there.

The basic idea is that you can get down to writing with no distractions. You can’t surf the net. You can’t answer emails. You can’t play games. All you can do is write.

It’s just you, a keyboard and your words.

I’ve tried various modes of distraction-free writing in the past but they all suffered from the fact that I was using them on a laptop. The world of internet jiggery-pokery was merely a button switch away.I could always reconnect if I wanted to. With the Freeewrite, all I can do is carry it somewhere and just write. It’s what I am doing now, in my local Costa.

Appearance

The Freewrite is striking looking rather than beautiful. The designers have gone for a retro-futurist look that makes me think of 50s motor cars– all metal and fins. It’s basically a keyboard in a metal case with a big red power button and a couple of dials. One of these controls the folder your work will be saved to. The other is for connecting to the internet. Buck Rogers probably typed his reports on something similar.

(The strikingness of the design has just been confirmed by the way. People keep coming up to me in the coffee shop and asking what the Freewrite is.)

It’s made of rugged plastic and metal– aluminum I think. It weighs about 4 pounds. It’s not as light as a modern ultrabook but it’s not heavy and it feels solid. I am not sure I would like to carry it around by the built-in carrying handle simply because I would prefer not to expose it to the elements but I certainly could.

The Keyboard

The Freewrite is obviously going to live or die by its keyboard. Fortunately, this is beautiful. It’s a Cherry Keyboard with actual switches underneath each key instead of the modern pressure pad arrangement. The only modern laptops that can compare to it are a few very high end, very heavy gaming rigs. In some ways, it takes me back to the days of my youth, when machines like the Commodore 64 had proper keyboards that were a joy to type on. No worries here then.

The Screen

This is a  backlit e-ink screen of the sort any user of Amazon’s Kindle will be used to. It updates a little slowly, particularly when you reach the end of a screenful of text but this is what I would have expected. It serves its purpose.

The writing area is about the size of a large smartphone screen where your text appears. There’s a smaller area fenced off below where various other bits and bobs of information can appear such as your word count, a clock or a timer. You switch between these using the special button on the keyboard.

Battery Life

Astrohaus claims a battery life of about 3 to 4 weeks between charges. Unfortunately, this is calculated using the same weasel marketing-speak logic that Amazon uses for the Kindle. It will last for those 3-4 weeks if you write for half an hour a day. By my non-marketing department calculations, that means a battery life of 10 to 14 hours. Why not just say that? Oh yes, it sounds way less impressive. Still even 10 hours is a goodly amount for the purposes the Freewrite will be used for.

I’ll let you know whether it’s a true amount after I have tested it. The Freewrite as far as I can tell lacks a battery indicator, which is an oversight, I think.

The Cloud

The other big selling point of the Freewrite is that it connects to the cloud and saves your writing there. You can use Dropbox, Evernote or Gdrive for this.

In order for this to work you need an Astrohaus Postbox account. This is not a problem. You should basically get one when you order your Freewrite. Once this is set up, all you need to do is connect to the Internet and you’re good to go.

Connecting to the net is a doddle. On the right side of the Freewrite is a three position switch. This sets your wifi to off, on or new. If you choose new, the Freewrite scans the local networks, you choose one, type in the password if needed and you’re good to go. This has worked perfectly for me so far. And that’s really it.

Your files are stored in plain text but by some odd quirk marked as docx when downloaded. This is a sensible enough decision given the fact that most people will probably be opening them up in Microsoft Word but it’s a bit annoying to those of us who use markdown and would prefer them to be just plain .txt.

Distraction Free

The Freewrite is really bare bones. There is no cut and paste. There are not even arrow keys for navigating your documents. The basic idea is that you will sit down and write your first drafts and then edit them somewhere else– Word, Evernote, whatever.

It’s a very different, very old fashioned way of writing, really rather like using a typewriter. It works.

Would I recommend the Freewrite? If you are in need of what it offers, yes. It is expensive for what it does but it comes from a very small company trying a very radical thing. I certainly intend to integrate it into my workflow. I’ll report back in a few months on how well it has performed over that time. Well done, Astrohaus. You have delivered.

Here’s a link to some pictures!


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Taking Notes with Pen and Screen

A couple of months back I read this article by David Hewson about using an Asus Vivotab Note 8 to replace paper printouts while editing. I liked the idea of being able to carry a whole stack of manuscript pages in my pocket and work on them whenever the notion took me and I am a sucker for a new gadget so I bought one myself.

The Note is small and light tablet with a decent 8 inch screen and a Wacom digitiser pen. It uses the latest generation Atom processors and it gets about 8–9 hours of battery life. It comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013 including the very wonderful OneNote, of which more later.

I’ve used Drawboard to mark up PDFs of a couple of book length manuscripts and it performs as flawlessly as David says. I save the edited PDF in Dropbox and, hey presto, it shows up back on my Mac ready for me to input the changes into Word or Scrivener or whatever else I happen to be using that day. I can recommend the process to other writers but that’s not really what I wanted to talk about today.

The Note has given rise to other changes to my workflow that I had not expected. I carried the tablet with me so I could do my editing but I found I was using it for other things. You see, it’s only slightly larger than the paper notebooks I normally use to capture my stray thoughts and ideas. The pen slides into the casing so I never have to worry about finding one or having it run out of ink. (These things happen to me more than you might think.)

Because it was there, I started using the pen to make notes. It just felt more natural than the on-screen keyboard. At first I wrote with the handwriting recognition software built into Windows 8 and Evernote, Word or WriteMonkey.

To do this, you open up a small window at the bottom of the screen and write in it with the pen. As you do so, your words are transformed onscreen into what Windows thinks you meant. Once you’ve filled a couple of lines you transfer the text to whatever program you are writing in with the push of a button, then you continue on.

Recognition is excellent, very accurate even in the face of my sloppy scrawl. It makes a nice break from the keyboard which is important for my RSI but I would not like to have to use it for a novel since my pen input is about a third the speed of my typing. That said, it’s more than good enough for a quick note although I found having to make the occassional correction slowed me down a little bit. Also on an 8 inch screen in landscape mode, the input window takes up a lot of space which makes your work a bit less than readable.

I started using OneNote. This program uses the notebook/binder visual metaphor and you can write directly into it with the pen, just as you would write directly onto a page. It does a very good job of understanding my handwriting and the files it creates are searchable. I can make notes right on the screen, giving each a separate page if I want. I can have as many notebooks and pages as I like colour-coded with different types of paper if I feel like it.

I can doodle, draw maps and diagrams and do a mass of other things I have not yet got to grips with. I found myself using the program exactly like I would use a normal notebook, making notes about stuff I had just read, jotting down ideas, fragments and bits of the usual inchoate nonsense that float through my brain, drawing little maps and sketches. It also let me store clippings from web-pages, screen captures and other stuff which is not something my paper notebook ever did.

OneNote uses OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) to sync through the cloud so my notes are always backed up and available on the web or on my other computers. I can export them as PDFs if I want to which is useful when I want to look at that list of 100 short story ideas as a standalone file on my computer or transfer it to Evernote or DevonThink.

The Asus Vivotab Note 8 is an example of how some new tech can be genuinely useful to a writer. It doubles up as an ebook reader, a manuscript editor and a reporter’s notebook. I can take photographs with it in a pinch. I can do pretty much anything on it I do on a Windows computer, albeit more slowly, given the limitations of pen input. It’s not the sort of thing everybody will want or need but it does an absolutely splendid job for me. As these things go it’s not terribly expensive ($269/£280 on Amazon right now). You might want to give it a look.


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