Review: Echo Smartpen and MyScript

So I write. Most people who write do it on the computer, typing directly into their word processor or other software… Well, I do that sometimes, but I often find that I’m more creative, more connected to my work, if I write longhand, real pen on real paper. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get past places where I’m stuck.

Of course, what this led to was a lot of pages, written out on paper that all needed to be transcribed into the computer. Bleh. No fun. Lengthy. A waste of time. What’s a writer to do?

This writer bought a smartpen, specifically the Echo smartpen by Livescribe.

So what’s a smartpen? It’s a pen that knows what you’re writing. The Echo needs special paper. Each page is covered in tiny dots, small enough to simply give the paper an appearance of texture rather than pattern. Each page has a unique pattern of dots and the pen looks as it writes and can keep track of what you write (and draw!) on each page. You can have as many as 8 unique notebooks at a time and the pen can keep track of all of them individually. The paper is reasonably priced, imo, at 4 spiral notebooks for $24.95 from livescribe and a little less from amazon.com.

Not only that, but the echo has a recording feature. This would be really useful for students or anyone who might be taking notes at a talk or a meeting. Set the pen to record and it will store an audio of whatever you’re listening to. What’s more, it syncs the audio to the text, so if you tap the pen on a particular section of your notes, you can hear what was being recorded as you wrote that section.

With an app, you can also listen to music on your pen as you write. How cool is that?

Wow, right? Well, there are a few downsides to the Echo too. The ink isn’t as nice as I might like, though that may be a function of how opaque or not it should be. I’m not sure. And the ink cartridges (also reasonably priced at 6.95 a 5-pack; amazon.com is less, but only sells mixed packs of black or blue with one red cartridge) are pretty small. This is a function of the way the pen works. There has to be room inside it for hardware.

Neither of these problems bothers me much. The only thing that really drives me crazy is that the Echo has a cute little cap, very small, very adorable, and there’s no way to deal with the cap when it’s off. You just have to put it down somewhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone frantically searching for that cap when I’m done writing. I wish there were some way to attach it to the pen. The cable that hooks to the computer is at the top of the pen, where you’d post the cap of an ordinary pen and I assume that’s why you can’t put it there. However, you can’t write while the pen is hooked up, so why not let the cap cover the cable connection when writing? I don’t know. There’s probably a technical reason, but it does drive me crazy!

Overall though, I love my pen and I recommend it to anyone who might see a situation in which it would be useful.

Now, I’ve told you all the cool things the pen can do, and I would never part with mine, but it was a solution to a specific problem for me. I wanted to get editable text transferred onto my computer from my written page. The Echo doesn’t do that by itself. You need an extra app.

That app is MyScript by VisionObjects. After I upload my written pages from the pen onto my computer, I use MyScript (which—very nicely—has a button integrated into the livescribe software). Now I have terrible handwriting. Terrible. No. Really. People who have known me for years, have read my writing over and over, still have trouble reading my handwriting. Sometimes I have trouble reading my handwriting. MyScript can read it, usually. It isn’t perfect and occasionally I have paragraphs of gibberish. It’s inevitable. But overall, MyScript is surprisingly good.

I had my doubts when I got it (and you can get a 30 day free trial, which I did) but it surpassed my expectations (which wouldn’t have been hard) and turned out to be quite good. Fixing the mistakes and the occasional paragraph of total nonsense still takes a lot less time than transcribing written pages. And my handwriting is so poor that others are likely to get much better results than I do.

The one irritating thing for me is that MyScript puts a hard return at the end of every (fairly short) line, meaning I have to go in and remove those manually. I know it’s probably a necessity, since MyScript can’t know if I’ve changed paragraphs or not. It’s still a small price to pay for the amount of time I’m saving.

So, there you are. I recommend Livescribe’s Echo smartpen and the MyScript app to go with it. Neither is perfect, but what in life is?

Book Review: Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is not a new book. Not even close. It was published in 1984. In 1985 it won the World Fantasy Award for best novel and in 1986 it won the Mythopoeic award for best fantasy.

Bridge of Birds is ‘a novel of an ancient China that never was,’ to use the lovely description that appeared on some of the covers of editions over the years. It is the first of three books that feature Number Ten Ox, our narrator, and Master Li, an elderly (at least 100 years old), disreputable scholar with ‘a slight flaw in [his] character.’

At the outset of the book, all the children between the ages of 8 and 13 in Ku Fu village are struck with the same illness. Ox is charged to go to the big city and ask a scholar how a plague has learned to count, that it would strike only some children and not others.

With the saved wealth of his aunt, Ox can only afford to pay the elderly drunkard, Li Kao, to help and so begins the quest to save the children of Ku Fu. When the hand of the August Personage of Jade, the greatest of the gods, seems to be involved, Ox and Master Li know there is more to their journey than is at first apparent.

Well, I can’t stress enough how much I love this book. I will make a confession. I just read this book, but it was not the first time (not even the second or the third). So I love this book. The End.

Well, that’s not much of a review is it? Fine. Here goes.

The tone of Bridge of Birds is light and there is a lot of humor to be found. Even better, the humor is offset with fast-paced, exciting action as well as passages of great poignancy. Other characters come and go. Some return having been transformed (for good or ill) by their experiences. All the while, something bigger than—though never more important than—the illness of Ku Fu’s children, builds around Ox and Master Li.

Hughart’s prose is playful and graceful. The voice of Number Ten Ox never falters. He is a young, innocent, country lad but wise enough to see the world around him as it is and to keep his tongue firmly in cheek. Still Ox remains kind enough to never disrespect the reader or the characters with whom he interacts. It’s a careful balancing act, especially in first person, and Hughart walks that tightrope well.

There are of moments of sweetness and sadness that never slip into melodrama nor become maudlin. There are moments that will make a reader laugh out loud, though the novel never descends into slapstick. It is a book of the fantastic and the grand, seen through good-hearted Ox’s prosaic and sensible mind.

In all, Bridge of Birds is a book of perfect balance, which would—I think—have pleased Hughart’s Taoist influences very well.

Bridge of Birds on wikipedia
amazon.com reviews for Bridge of Birds
Bridge of Birds goodreads page
The first, unpublished, very different but also delightful, draft of Bridge of Birds
(thanks to @navythriller for directing me to this!)

Polishing a Manuscript

Well here’s an interesting article about polishing your final manuscript.

I agree with much that’s here, but not everything. I do however, believe that any manuscript can benefit from going through this process.

Do you have to replace every adverb you find? Absolutely (<—- adverb) not! Should you examine each one and make sure it’s doing something that you actually (<— another one! the sneaky little bastards are everywhere) need. When I was polishing my manuscript I went through with a search for ‘ly.’ I removed most of them, in particular almost every appearance of ‘completely,’ ‘really,’ and qualifiers like ‘apparently.’ Don’t use ‘suddenly’ unless you are certain it’s really sudden. But sometimes you need an adverb. They exist for a reason.

On other hand, some of the words that have been suggested ought to be removed, I don’t know. ‘Seemed’ is a great word when you’re dealing with a limited 3rd person point of view. Your pov character can’t know some things for certain. But again, be 100% you want that word. It can be weak if not used precisely (<—- adv– okay, yeah, you get it).

The rest of the advice is spot on. Honestly (<— oh, nevermind).

Is it Irony?

Well, my last post was all about writer’s block, or what is often called writer’s block.

Well, now I’m suffering ‘writer’s block,’ also known as (in this particular incarnation) laziness. I sit to write and remember all those other things I need to do that are so much more important than writing. They aren’t. I know they aren’t, but I don’t want to write.

Writing’s hard.

I’m going to go sulk now. (Instead of writing!)

Writer’s Block: Myth or Reality?

Here‘s something Neil Gaiman had to say about writer’s block. It’s short. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so what do you think of that? If I understand what the inestimable Mr. Gaiman has written, he suggests writer’s block is a glamorization of a few more mundane and more easily solved problems. (Well, laziness is not easy to solve. Laziness is a lifetime’s work and a hard habit to kick! Believe me, I speak as a knowledgeable lazy person in this.) Is writer’s block really just a name writer’s use for other problems with their work?

Naturally, I’m going to give my opinion. I think so. Of the three culprits Mr. Gaiman lists: perfectionism, laziness and a stalled story that needs to be reassessed, I think perfectionism is the sneakiest culprit.

Laziness might be hard to combat, but it’s fairly easy to identify. There are two distinct symptoms.  One is sitting in front of your preferred medium (computer, tablet, wax tablet, chisel and flat rock) and staring at it and not doing anything. Not even agonizing about not doing anything, just thinking you ought to do it and not doing it. I’ve been there. You can disguise it if you try by blaming your muse, or the weather or what have you, but what’s really happening is you just don’t want to do it. The other symptom is not sitting down at all. Telling yourself you should and then watching tv or surfing the net (or writing in my your blog). Inspiration gets blamed again, but you should know better. Writing is hard work. Deal with it.

Stalled stories, ones that have gone off the rails as Mr. Gaiman says, are the easiest of these three evils. It’s sometimes hard to recognize your story has gone wrong somewhere (hence the identification as writer’s block) but if you think hard you’ll see it’s not that you can’t write, it’s that you can’t write this. At least not the way it stands right now. When inspiration seems far off, reread what you’ve written. See if you’ve wandered down a blind alley. Take some steps back and plot a new course. It feels good.

And now the true evil: perfectionism. It’s insidious and I’ve written about it before on the blog. The biggest problem a writer faces when trying to pin down why she isn’t writing, and what to do to combat it, is that perfectionism feels like work. You give yourself the illusion of getting somewhere because you are sitting down and working with words. “I wrote for three hours this morning, but I didn’t seem to get anywhere. Must be writer’s block.” What you really did is spent three hours crafting the first paragraph over and over. In theater they say it’s all about bums on seats. In writing it’s all about words on pages. Don’t judge your success by how long you worked. Judge your success on how many words you wrote. You’re not a writer if you don’t write. The words might not be the perfect words, but that’s why first drafts exist.

I’m guilty of all these sins. I did finally shut down my inner editor. I can get words on page, but I have had derailed stories and I know I’m lazy… but I promise never to blame writer’s block again!