Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
zette@sff.net

How Hurricanes Toyed with My Writing

By Lisa A. Wroble
2004, Lisa A. Wroble


 

I never imagined moving to Florida would change my writing so much. Oh, sure, I envisioned leisurely writing at the beach, but I soon found I needed beach time to simply stare at the ocean. My writing life was as busy here as it had been in the north, but now I had the distraction of year-round sunshine to battle with. After a year, I'd stomped out a routine with technical writing and editing during the days and working on my fiction and teaching in the evenings. Life was indeed grand in paradise. Another year later, though, I experienced my first hurricane. Luckily, it forced me to find ways to be productive without power. These new toys have made writing fun, too, which helped bump up productivity! (And to think I have Hurricane Charley to thank.)

Charley charged ashore a mere 30 miles north of my town but the powerful winds and water damage made me feel it was only a few miles away. We lost power for several days, and for the first time ever I realized how much I relied on technology to do my job. I'd worn out the battery on my notebook computer blogging the experience of a hurricane. Guiltily I awaited the return of power so I could get to work. I had deadlines! Disheartened, I learned that the return of cable (and my modem) wasn't a priority during a State of Emergency. (That took an additional week.) Still, I worked long into the night, thanking the electricity gods for the juice my computer, modem, scanner, and printers gobbled up.

I'd nearly caught up three weeks later when I learned Frances was headed our way. This time, I vowed, I'd use the 2.5 hours of battery time on the notebook for work, but what would I do after that? What if it again took four days before power was restored?

While everyone else fought over the last jugs of bottled water and cast nets for tuna fish among the canned meats, I trudged to Best Buy for a Logitech IO digital pen. I love fountain pens and this nifty pen seemed the best of both worlds to me. It was a great move on my part, too, since Frances slogged her way across our state at an agonizingly slow pace. This time, when I lost power and switched to my notebook, I focused on work. Though I accomplished a good deal during the 2.5 hours the battery lasted, it felt like nothing compared to the long hours without power. But with my digital pen, I was able to write longhand and upload to Microsoft Word when the power returned.

The Digital Pen

This is an amazing invention. With the sleek, smooth look of a modern fountain pen and the weight and balance of a traditional fountain pen, this device records the pen's movement and digitizes the words and images. It's like a regular ink pen with a tiny camera to "translate" your message. You must use special paper, notepads, or Post-It notes that have "dots" the camera senses to help track the pen's movement. You see what you're writing because of the ink. Placing the pen in a cradle, hooked up to your computer via a USB port, allows the information stored in the pen's memory to upload to your PC or network server. The memory holds about 40 pages worth of data. The pen is rechargeable and lasts for about 3 hours of continuous use or 20 hours on stand-by. (If you don't replace the cap and leave the pen sitting -- a bad habit I'm in from using fountain and Roller Ball pens -- the battery enters stand-by until picked up and used to write again.) Green and red lights, respectively, indicate when the battery is low and when the memory is full and needs to be "emptied" to a computer.

The pen lists for $199.95 and comes with a charger/USB-powered cradle, MyScripts software which converts handwriting to digital text (plus software to manage each document and link with popular programs such as Microsoft Word), 5 ink refills, and a sample of notebooks, writing pads and Post-It notes. Refills for the pen are sold in packets of 10 for around $11 and are cheaper than either fountain pen or Roller Ball refills.

The Drawbacks

Like voice recognition software learning your voice, the pen needs to "learn" your handwriting. Mine is a blend of printing and cursive, so lower-case "i" translated to lower-case "L" and "worries" translated to "wonnes." But it learns. The pen's weight (around 40 g or 1.5 ounces) tired my hand eventually, but fountain pens often do the same. Since I love the feel of pen on paper, and watching the words flow, I found this digital pen made writing fun for a time.

And, because technology always changes, the Logitech IO2 is now on the market, so the IO is available for as low as $130. The IO2 is slimmer, sleeker, and weighs slightly less. It also comes with newer software to make digital writing even more enjoyable.  See http://www.logitech.com and click on "digital writing" for more information, pricing, system requirements, and a store locator.

Other Alternatives

While the Logitech digital pen helped me through the rest of the hurricanes, I longed to type and feel productive. I'd seen ads for the Dana Wireless in an issue of The Writer and I hunted it down for more information. A visit to the AlphaSmart website (http://www.alphasmart.com) nearly had me convinced to spend $500 on a combination keyboard and PDA. The Dana and Dana Wireless use Palm OS and related software to create a notebook-style environment for students, but many professionals have found the full-sized keyboard and ability to send and receive e-mail and use other Palm OS applications very desirable. Battery life far exceeds a notebook, and because these devices are designed for students, they are durable, lightweight and portable.

But did I really need more software to deal with and an additional e-mail service? All I really wanted was to key in text and load it to my computer later. AlphaSmart has other models, used mostly with elementary students. While they have fewer whistles and bells than Dana, the one I considered was closer to $300 and still had more software on it than I cared to deal with. If only I could try one, first.

While visiting an elementary school in the area I saw a room full of students having a blast with what I thought were AlphaSmart keyboards. I asked the teacher if they were the AS Neo, hoping I could try one. "Oh, no. These are better!" she said. Grabbing an unused keyboard, she demonstrated how they worked and showed me the best part: an Infrared Receiver to send the document either directly to the printer or to an open Microsoft Word document.  No additional software necessary! Plug into a USB port, point, press "send" and transmit!

The Writer Plus is available for $189 (plus $8 shipping) from Advanced Keyboard Technologies in California. (Visit  http://www.keyboardinstructor.com or phone 1-800-797-7121 for more information.) According to Joel Stark, an account manager with the company, this product was created by teachers for teachers to focus first on keyboarding skills and then on writing. It's bundled with two software products (built in). One teaches proper keyboarding using a fun game that rates student progress and prints results directly to a printer at the end of a session or game. These are the skills anyone older than 32 learned in a typing class and anyone younger probably never learned. Today's students are learning to approach computer use with these skills intact and The Writer Plus provides that training in a fun way.

The other built-in software includes writing prompts and basic word processing, similar to the typewriters with limited memory popular before everyone had a desktop computer. This software allows paragraphs, and basic formatting, along with providing a built-in a spell-checker and thesaurus, plus a Spanish-English dictionary. You'll get around 300 hours of use from AA batteries (a rechargeable battery pack is available for under $30) and 100 pages of text in 16 separate folders. Each folder allows for up to 25 named files. That's a lot of flexibility for the number of projects I work on! Each file can be accessed, added to, changed, or deleted from The Writer Plus memory, or sent via IR receiver to a PC for editing and in-depth formatting. 

In a sense, it's all I need; it contains some of the better features of the $300 Neo by AlphaSmart, but costs less than the AS3000, AlphaSmart's basic model. The Writer Plus also comes with a mesh carrying case and the IR receiver for the base price of $189. It's great for taking to the beach or pool, or writing on the go. The lack of a "lid" makes it less obtrusive than lugging my notebook computer around town.

The Pros and Cons

I'm finding it fun to hammer out stories, articles, and letters on the full-sized keyboard. The Writer Plus is lightweight (around 2 pounds) and designed with elementary students in mind so it is durable. Shoving it in a beach bag or hauling it with my books to the library is not a problem.

It also includes writing prompts. Though designed for kids, they're fun for me since I write mostly for the children's market. It's fun to consider how my character would respond to the prompts. I also like the journal feature which automatically saves and dates entries for formatting and printing later.

The LCD screen is small, though, and takes getting used to. It scrolls about four lines of type at a time. I find it easier to edit on either my desktop or notebook using Word, but at least I'm able to get drafts out. And I can send a draft directly to a printer where it prints with basic formatting. For drafts I don't need the noise of whistles and bells.

In order to remain productive during times without power, I'm finding The Writer Plus to be the perfect answer. The Logitech Digital IO pen has also returned the fun to my writing. I guess I'm thankful to a horrendous hurricane season for pushing me to find these productivity toys!