Monday, July 11, 2005

To Laptop or Not To Laptop

I was reading some of the past Clarion blogs, and noted with interest that some of the "Names" who have instructed there still write in longhand on a pad of paper and then transfer it to computer later. I strongly suspect that this is because these folks starting writing before the advent of the word processor, and no one in his right mind tries to write a first draft on a manual typewriter. At the time I pretty much shrugged it off as an eccentricity. I know when I was writing papers in grad school, I could hit an exact page count on any topic just by writing on the computer and watching how close I was to the end of the page. One draft and some edits and I had a darn good paper. Of course, sometimes I would cut and paste whole sections around in that edit session, so major changes were often made -- but that's the power of the modern word processor. Outlining? Whassat? Never heard of it. :) All of the stories I've written so far were created on my laptop, as well. I have a Toshiba Portege Tablet PC that I really love. The screen rotates and snaps flat over the keyboard so that you can write on it with a special pen. The screen is about the size of a piece of notebook paper, so its the perfect size. Very versatile. Reading eBooks on the machine is a joy. There is a thumb switch on the side of the screen that turns pages (some eBooks have even gotten clever and added a "page turning" animation to complete the illusion). I bought the souped-up version with a 2 GHz processor and 2 GB of memory -- laptops are notoriously difficult to upgrade, so you need to get the best one you can when you purchase. I sold over $3000 worth of junk on eBay, so that financed the purchase of the machine quite handily.

There are some pretty serious disadvantages to using a laptop, though. First of all, even though this is one of the lightest machines on the market (it doesn't even have an internal CD-ROM drive), it's still a lot heavier than a pad of paper or even a hardback book. While that's not a problem in laptop mode at a desk, it does get a bit fatiguing in tablet mode (since you have to cradle it in one arm). Like most laptops, the machine gets pretty hot on the bottom. I've had red marks left on my legs that made it look like I'd been sunburned in a very odd pattern. Yes, you can buy thermal mats, but that's something else that has to be lugged around. Battery power is another issue. I currently only get about an hour and half or at best two hours out of my battery. I should note that with my failing eyes, I really need the bright paper-white screen, so it drains the battery a lot faster than it would for someone who can live with power save mode. I have a second battery, but again, that's something else to tote around. In the case of my tablet PC, the handwriting recognition is fast (faster than a Palm Pilot), but it's still not up to regular handwriting speed, so that gets cumbersome.

As far as versatility goes, though, you can't beat it. It's every bit as powerful as a desktop machine (I've even got a great nVidia graphics card in it for games), yet it has the flexibility to be taken anywhere and used almost anywhere. There are some intangibles that speak against it, however. One of the things that attracts me to writing freelance is the ability to work anywhere. No more being cooped up in my office, I can sit outside, or gaze at the swimming pool, or head to a coffee shop (even though I don't drink coffee, it's an interesting place to be). As I've mentioned before, writers need to be able to go out and observe the world. This is critical to good writing. Staying cooped up at home at a desk is not much better than being cooped up in an office. Given this, however, the laptop becomes a real liability. First and foremost, there's the power issue. The battery is finite, so your writing session is as well. And I don't want to think about corrupted drafts when the machine suddenly goes into hibernation when it loses power. The weight, while not terrible, is not inconsequential. Also, you have to get all your gear together when you go out -- it's not as easy as picking up a pad and a pen. With paper and pen you can literally write anywhere, even if you only have small snatches of time. If I'm waiting to get a haircut, there's not really time for the machine to boot up, open up your file, and get started writing before your turn comes up. And what do you do with the machine while you're getting your hair cut? That's the other big factor: You have to be concerned about someone stealing the machine. Not so with a nondescript pad of paper. The disadvantage to paper, of course, is that you're going to have to type everything into the computer at some point, so you've just added time to the writing process that wouldn't have been there otherwise. Not only that, I think I grip pens too tightly, because I always find my hand hurts a lot sooner than when I'm just typing.

Given all of the above arguments, I am persuaded that the luxury of being able to write anywhere, anytime outweighs the disadvantage of having to type in the first draft of the story. I figure I'm going to be re-reading the story over and over while I make edits anyway, a fresh reading while typing will help me to notice problems that I might have missed otherwise. Sort of like reading the story aloud, as has been recommended by a number of authors. I have some hardbound lab notebooks (the pages can't be removed) that I think might just be perfect for the task, so I think I'll give that a whirl. I'd be interested in other opinions and experiences -- I may end up changing my mind as I get busier!

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