Note: this review is for the original (1.0) smartpen, which I bought a couple of years ago. A new (2.0) version is out with more capabilities, including iPad integration, but I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading yet.
The IRISnotes Executive is one of several smartpens vying for market share. Unlike most of the others, however, it does not use special (read, expensive) gridded paper, nor does it store the transcribed text in a heavy, high-tech pen. Instead it uses a normal-sized ballpoint pen with a infrared transmitter around its nib, and a receiver unit that you clip to whatever notepad or loose-leaf paper you desire.
Since a) I have small hands and b) I don’t want to have to buy a load of expensive notebooks on top of the pen, this makes the IRISnotes Executive an attractive choice. And since I have quite neat cursive handwriting, I find the recognition accuracy of the software to be pretty good. At least, it is when I’m writing non-fiction with lots of long sentences and standard vocabulary. It struggles a lot more with fiction, which is heavily punctuated and includes a lot of words the software doesn’t recognise, such as character names.
The biggest downside though is that the desktop software is clunky, unintuitive and poorly documented. Firstly it relies on a separate utility, MyScript Retriever, to transfer data from the receiver to your computer, which is not integrated into the IRIS software but must be run separately. Once you have transferred your files, you can then switch to the main IRISnotes Executive program, which is frankly over-designed, using a non-standard interface for no good reason. The Quick Start Guide covers the basics, but finding out anything else about the program has proved problematic. That red cross next to an uploaded file? I eventually worked out that it means the file is corrupted and can’t be imported, but there’s nothing about that in the manual, nor a tooltip to explain its function. Very frustrating!
The software runs on both Windows and Mac, although the MyScript Notes utility, which allows you to use the pen as a virtual tablet, is Windows only. I recommend you download the latest version of IRISnotes from the manufacturer’s website; however on the Mac at least, it keeps warning you that you are using an older version of MyScript and would you like to convert to the latest format. Well, yes, yes I would. But I wish it wouldn’t keep asking me!
My overall feeling is that this is a nice piece of hardware and a decent handwriting recognition algorithm that are badly let down by the desktop software. If you can stick with it long enough to get the program trained to your handwriting it may prove useful, but it’s not a toy for the impatient. And because it is weak on transcribing fiction, it’s not an ideal solution for novelists on the go. Which is a pity, because that’s exactly what I’m still looking for…
After Saturday morning’s analysis of my writing patterns, I realised that part of my poor progress was down to an unease with the way the second section of this draft was going. Firstly I should say that the book is turning out more episodic than the previous two, probably because it covers a much longer timespan. Hence I’m trying to structure each section as a semi-independent arc, almost like a bunch of novellas (but not quite as self-contained). The third section is where things really kick off with a vengeance and the stakes are raised ever higher, so I’d found myself rushing the second section in order to get on with it. My Muse, however, had other ideas, so I decided to bring forward my planning day (usually scheduled for a Monday) and rethink the end of that arc.
I realised I needed about three more chapters’ worth of material in order to give this arc room to breathe, so I just inserted some blank documents into Scrivener to give it some shape. Then I realised it needed more action, particularly on Mal’s side of things, so I brainstormed a new scene and sat down to write it. At first it was just a bit of fun and spectacle (a joust at Whitehall Palace for a royal special occasion) but then my Muse started throwing in ideas of how this fitted into the plot. I wrote a thousand near-effortless words on Sunday and woke up this morning excited about finishing the scene…
So now I need to stop again—briefly—and assess the impact of events and how they dovetail with the rest of the plot. As I’ve said before, it’s an inefficient way to write, and I wish I could plot everything in advance and just write it down, but that’s not how my brain works. Tant pis! I’ll take what I can get, frankly, and be grateful!
Another two weeks, another tale of patchy productivity! Weekends have been fairly good (1500-2000 words a day), weekdays, not so much; I’ve added about 12k to my manuscript in the past fortnight, so I’m still not managing 1k a day. Of course it’s a vicious spiral: the less I write, the more stressed I get about deadlines and the less able I feel to write. Hence I’ve decided that baby steps are the only solution. Even a few hundred words a day, every day, is an improvement over none, and I know I can add a decent amount at weekends.
I’m still trying to identify the best times for writing, or the least worst, at any rate, as per Rachel Aaron’s inspiring article. However the only trends I’ve been able to detect is that I write most efficiently in short sprints of about 35-45 minutes, during which time I can write 600-800 words. Productivity drops off noticeably after 50 minutes, and whilst very short sprints are often efficient, they don’t produce many words.
Variation within each time category is harder to pin down: some scenes flow swiftly despite minimal planning, others have been planned but still feel like wading through treacle. Time of day and location are hard to pin down; lunchtimes are productive but I can’t always make time for writing when I’m at work; mornings can be productive or they can be dreadful, depending on how well I’ve slept. Evenings are at least consistent!
Hence this week my approach has been to sit down for an hour after getting home from work and write as much as I can, which is anything between 500 and 900 words depending on how the scene is flowing. It’s not great, and I need to do more, but if I can establish one writing slot and stick to it, I might then be able to add another without getting stressed out.
After I’ve got a schedule sorted out, I need to move on to the other two sides of the triangle, and in particular recording my level of enthusiasm for the current scene before each writing session. As a discovery writer, planning isn’t something that comes easily to me (or is even necessary all the time), but I can certainly work on making scenes more fun to write!
This week, instead of the usual book review I am delighted to be hosting a free short story by fellow Angry Roboteer Emma Newman. Take it away, Emma!
“This is the twenty-ninth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. This story is part of the build-up to the release of the first Split Worlds novel “Between Two Thorns” in March 2013. Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here, where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).”
When the woman with the nail through her hand left the waiting room Ben fidgeted. His arm was aching from keeping his left hand up in the air. And he looked like a dick.
His Mum tutted. “If you’d actually done what you were told, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“Everybody else does it.”
“That doesn’t make it a good idea. I thought you were more sensible than that.” When he didn’t answer she kissed the top of his head. “Is it hurting a lot?”
He shrugged. “Will they put a cast on it?” When Tim broke his leg everyone signed his cast and gave him tonnes of chocolate. Ben smirked as he remembered what he’d drawn on the back of the ankle. It had been worth the punch he got once Tim saw it on the removed cast.
“If it’s broken, probably.”
“Please be broken,” he whispered to it. If it was just a sprain he’d never live it down.
A man stumbled in, sweating and clutching a piece of cloth over his mouth like he was about to throw up. Ben picked out the three people who looked the most likely to be vomited on. He wished Tim was there so they could bet.
The man went to the desk and spoke through the cloth. The nurse, unimpressed, sent him to the waiting area. The man scanned the few empty chairs and then sat himself down opposite Ben. He still looked like he was about to throw up.
Mum shifted her feet to one side as she looked for another place to sit but there were no pairs of chairs free. “I’ll get you a drink darling,” she leaned over and added, “Tuck your feet under the chair in case that man is sick. And don’t bother him, he looks a bit weird.”
Ben took a proper look at the guy once his mother was gone. His right eye was badly bloodshot and his hands were covered in gravel burn. His t-shirt sported the new gold and red Flip logo, the same one Ben had got for his birthday.
“Did you have an accident?” Ben asked, pointing at the t-shirt with his good hand. “I got a Flip ‘board, that’s how I bust my wrist.”
“I came off my bike.” He was still speaking through the cloth.
Now he was closer Ben could see the cloth was a bandana. It was black with tiny skull and crossbones all over it. “Did you bust your teeth up or something?”
“No,” the man coughed. “I swallowed… something.”
“A fly?” The man didn’t reply. “Was it a-”
“You won’t believe me, so leave it, alright?”
“Tell me. Go on.”
“I think I swallowed a… fairy.”
“Eh?” It was the last thing Ben expected him to say. “Don’t be daft.”
“You ever had a fly in your eye?”
“Did the fly look massive?”
Ben nodded, remembering it well. When the tiny bug filled his vision the veins in its wings looked as thick as pencils.
“This twat stepped out into the road a bit ahead of me and got hit by a car and this thing he was carrying – it was jar or a lamp or something – it smashed. Those… things flew out of it. I swallowed one and it’s stuck,” he paused to cough. “But another went in my eye and it looked like a girl with wings and it was shining really bright, like a-”
“Sorry, is he bothering you?”
Ben jumped at the sound of his mother’s voice.
“No,” the man said, “it’s cool.”
“Benjamin Stephens,” a nurse called and Ben was ushered away.
Throughout the doctor’s assessment Ben thought about the man in the waiting room. Why say something like that? He probably liked winding kids up. Or he was tripping his ass off like Tim’s older brother did at weekends.
He whooped when he found out his wrist was broken. After a few days in a splint, once the swelling was down, he’d have a cast and all the chocolate he could want.
The man was still there when they went back out to reception with the cloth still over his mouth. Ben wanted to speak to him but his mother was steering him towards the exit.
“Mrs Stephens,” the nurse called her back. “I just need to go over a bit of paperwork with you.”
Ben waited until she was engrossed. “So I was thinking,” he said to the man. “If you did swallow a fairy, why are you keeping that bandana over your mouth?”
“I need the doctor to tell me if it’s really there. Otherwise I might be, you know, mental or something.”
“I can tell you,” Ben said.
The man shrugged. “Sod it. I’m sick of sitting here. You ready?”
Ben crouched in front of him and gave an eager nod. The bandana was pulled down and the man’s open mouth revealed.
“There’s something in there!”
The flap of skin at the back of the man’s throat was illuminated from behind, like he’d swallowed an LED and it had got stuck there. Ben could smell coffee on the man’s breath. The light got brighter as something emerged from the behind the skin but the source was too small to see properly. It shot out of the man’s mouth and zipped to the nearest window where it flew outside. Ben, who’d snapped his head back to avoid it, fell backwards into the chair behind him.
“Did you see it?” The man demanded.
Ben cradled his wrist to his chest, trying not to cry. His Mum rushed over and pulled him up by his good hand. She glared at the man. “Come on, we’re going home.”
“But what did you see!” the man said, but Ben didn’t know what to say.
“What was he talking about?” His Mum asked as they left.
“Nothing,” Ben glanced at the man as they passed the window. “He was just some weirdo.”
Like pretty much every writer nowadays, I do most of my writing via a keyboard, whether that’s on my laptop, on the bluetooth keyboard tethered to my iPad, or (occasionally) using the software keyboard on my iPhone. However anything big enough to comfortably touch-type on is also too big to slip into my everyday shoulder bag, so I’ve been looking for alternative solutions. There’s also the issue that whilst I’ve long since become accustomed to writing the stories themselves on a keyboard, I still prefer to do background note-taking (world-building, plot brainstorming, etc) in longhand; it just feels more natural and organic. Unfortunately this means I end up with a lot of paper notebooks, which are difficult to search through!
There seem to be two major strategies for solving this problem: digitising your handwriting as you do it, and digitising the image of the handwritten text using OCR. Either way, the usefulness of the end result depends a great deal on both how neat your handwriting is, and how good the software is at recognition. If humans can barely read your handwriting, a computer isn’t going to have a snowball’s chance in Hell—and a garbled file full of nonsense words mixed with random characters is unlikely to be of much use to you.
With that caveat, here are my thoughts on the various hardware and software solutions I’ve tried.
On-screen handwriting recognition
This is the type of digitisation I was most familiar with for years. As a long-time user of the Palm series of PDAs, I became fluent in Graffiti, their stylised “handwriting” that allowed direct digital input using letters handwritten on the device’s screen with a stylus. As a result, I’ve spent a long time looking for an equivalent for iOS (I have several styli, as they come in handy in cold weather when I need to wear gloves), and I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed. All the apps I’ve tested assume that you’ll want to use your normal handwriting, and so they put a lot of processing power into full handwriting recognition, which makes the app painfully slow even on an iPhone 4S. I’ve yet to find one that, like Graffiti, expects you to learn a simplified alphabet which the computer can easily recognise, which is highly frustrating for me. If you know of such an app, please, please let me know!
Optical character recognition (OCR)
OCR has been around for quite a while, and is often used for digitising printed books that were never released in an electronic version. As software has become more powerful, however, it is now possible to digitise handwritten text as well.
The traditional method is to scan a document page-by-page using either a flat-bed scanner (necessary if your pages are bound into a book) or a more compact feed-through scanner. The latter takes up less desk space, but if you’re like me and mostly write in bound notebooks, a flat-bed scanner is your only option. Or rather it was, until very recently. The advent of smartphones with relatively high resolution cameras means you effectively have a portable scanner in your pocket—a fact that has now been exploited by popular note-taking app Evernote. Using the Page Camera option (available on the Add Note screen), you can take snaps of your notebook pages and slurp them into Evernote. They are even teaming up with Moleskine to create “smart notebooks” that make scanning more accurate. Naturally these don’t come cheap, but they might make a nice addition to your Christmas list!
The desktop version of Evernote also has basic handwriting OCR built in, so you can search the images of your notebook pages, but at the moment it doesn’t offer full digital conversion of text. Hence it’s no use for content that you need to put into a word processor, so you can’t handwrite your novel and then use Evernote to transfer it into, say, Scrivener. Also, I’ve tried using Evernote and Page Camera on my project notebook, but its handwriting recognition isn’t all that great unless you write very neatly, which I tend not to do in the heat of inspiration!
Finally, large high-resolution images use up a lot of bandwidth, which means that if you have more than a few notes, you’ll be obliged to pay for Evernote’s premium service (they cunningly include 3 months’ free subscription with the smart notebook) and presumably also consume more bandwidth on your mobile devices. If Evernote introduces the ability to do reasonably accurate OCR on files and then archive the actual images, I think it might be worth scanning in more of my notes, but right now it’s not a complete solution.
This is the latest, most high-tech solution: you write on real paper with an electronic pen, and the image produced by your writing movements can be uploaded to your computer and then run through OCR software to produce a digital version. There are two main kinds of smartpen: one requires special paper marked with a grid of dots, the other uses normal paper but relies on a receiver unit to detect the pen’s movements. I own one of the latter type, an IRISnotes Executive, and I have to say that it’s pretty nifty. I’ll review it in detail next week, but so far I’m impressed by its handwriting recognition capabilities, at least when it comes to non-fiction. Of course smartpens are pretty expensive (prices start around $100) and require more practice to get right than using a normal pen and paper and then scanning the page. On the other hand they’re lightweight and don’t require you to buy (or find room on your desk for) a scanner.
In summary, there are now a number of ways to get your handwritten text into your computer, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Still, they offer a potential bridge between paper and screen for those of us who still enjoy writing the old-fashioned way!
At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.
At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.
It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…
Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.
Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.
So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men 😉
Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!
Having reorganised my schedule around conventions, the above timespan isn’t a fortnight’s worth of writing – which is fortunate, because I haven’t done anywhere near as much as I intended! Between excitement about the convention beforehand, and jet lag afterwards, I’ve been singularly unproductive. Add in a bunch of exciting new ideas for my backburner project that are clamouring to be written down (following a long chat with my agent at WorldCon), and it’s fair to say that I’ve been procrastinating way too much 🙁
However I broke the dry spell today with a respectable 1546 words; not much for a day at home, but I did have to research a new setting, which slowed me down somewhat. It didn’t help that this latest chapter is set in a part of the world I’ve never been to, so I was stalling out of nervousness. I’m hoping that now I’m over that hurdle, things will flow more smoothly and I can get on with the story!
I’m also now only counting the words in my actual draft, not scenes that I wrote and then discarded along the way. Since I did a major re-outlining of Act Two on Saturday 25th August, this meant a good chunk of material got binned. My total is therefore rather lower than it would otherwise be, and my daily average has plummeted as a result. No matter; there’s no point hanging onto scenes that aren’t contributing to the story. Things can only get better…
A few days ago I flew out to Chicago for my first US convention, Chicon 7 (aka Worldcon 2012), the 70th World Science Fiction Convention. I was very excited about it, mainly because it was a chance to finally meet a whole bunch of writer friends from the other side of the Pond, as well as being only my second trip to the States. For starters, I got to meet fellow Angry Robot authors Chuck Wendig, Madeline Ashby, Lee Collins, Matt Forbeck and Wesley Chu; Wes is a local, so he took us along to a restaurant for the obligatory Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (though I have to confess I much prefer New York style thin crust).
I had a busy schedule at the convention: reading and signing sessions, as well as three panels. The first panel, on Writing Gender Roles in Science Fiction (and fantasy – we didn’t confine ourselves to SF) was at 9am on Friday morning, and I was feeling both jetlagged and hungover—the latter a result of staying up late drinking scotch and chatting with Doug Hulick and a bunch of fencers. I was therefore not really on top form, especially when it came to giving examples of good gender writing in fantasy; indeed my main interest in the topic is down to the paucity of same, particularly in epic fantasy. That’s not to say that epic fantasy is uniformly bad in this respect, but picking out books worth recommending is another matter entirely.
My second panel, on Constructed Languages in Science Fiction and Fantasy, was rather less stressful, and it was awesome to find myself sitting next to moderator David Peterson, who created the Dothraki language for the Game of Thrones TV show. I only wish I had had time to talk linguistics with David outside the panel, as he chose to focus on general advice for writers rather than a technical discussion of language design. Finally I did a panel on Saturday morning called Why I Love My Editor. Since I only have one book out, I didn’t have any horror stories of errors that made it into print, but I was able to talk about my own editing process and of course about the pleasures of working with Marc and Lee of Angry Robot.
In addition to sitting on panels I also attended a few. Violence in Fantasy, moderated by Scott Lynch, was entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking, as was Vivid Character Building. The latter panel’s members (Kay Kenyon, Carol Berg, Brian Thomas Schmidt, Teresa Frohock and Randy Henderson) had a wide variety of approaches to the topic, which is always helpful. I only wish I’d made more notes! The other really good event I attended was a one-man talk by Ramez Naam, one of Angry Robot’s newest authors, on Merging Mind and Machine. This was a look at past research, current technologies and possibilities for the future—all utterly fascinating.
Of course conventions aren’t just about the formal programme. For new authors like myself, they’re a great opportunity to meet one’s peer group and network informally, particularly in the bar! Mostly it’s just sitting around drinking and talking, but one night I did get roped into a silly card game called “Apples to Apples”. I won my first round out of sheer beginner’s luck, but Mur won the game overall. (Apologies for the terrible photo, which was taken with my phone.)
One of the most awesome parts of networking is getting to meet so many people who, until now, were just names on book spines. For example, the night after I saw him on a panel, I met Scott Lynch and just about managed to rein in my fan-girl reaction when he said that my book was on his TBR list! And in addition to Mur Lafferty, I got to meet a couple of other favourite podcasters: Howard Tayler and Mary Robinette Kowal of Writing Excuses. I also spoke to Elizabeth Bear, Carol Berg, Saladin Ahmed…the list just goes on.
As well as these famous names, I hung out a good deal with fellow debut authors Doug Hulick, Mike Cole, Kameron Hurley, Teresa Frohock, Courtney Shafer, Brad Beaulieu and Mazarkis Williams, drank some more whisky and ate dried crickets and mealworms at the Night Shade Books room party. It was all Kameron’s idea, since her book has bugs in; you were challenged to eat a bug in order to get a free book. I didn’t need any more books, but I ate some of the bugs anyone, just out of curiosity. For the record, the cricket was very dry and felt like it stuck in the back of my throat, but the mealworms were quite nice.
No convention would be complete without a tour of the dealers’ room. I’m afraid I went a bit mad and ended up with three t-shirts, two books (a secondhand paperback of Shadowspawn by Andrew Offutt and a personalised signed copy of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal), two necklace-and-earring sets and a steampunk pocket watch! I could easily have spent twice as much, but I didn’t want to over-stuff my suitcase and get charged for it.
On Sunday I took a day off from the convention to spend time with my husband (who came to Chicago but didn’t want to attend the con). We had a lie-in and a late breakfast, then walked through Grant Park in search of entertainment and culture. On the way I spotted a remarkably russet-coloured grey squirrel; like most urban park squirrels he was quite tame and came closer when called. Not too close, however, especially once he worked out we didn’t have any food for him!
We were going to go to the Chicago Institute of Art, but there was a horrendously long queue and it was a hot sticky day so we ventured further south. Eventually we reached the Field Museum, which specialises in anthropology and zoology—two of my favourite topics! The museum is enormous, and I could happily have spent at least a day looking around it, probably more. Sadly the Genghis Khan exhibition was sold out, but there was plenty to see in the extensive Native American galleries. All the major cultures of the Americas are covered, with artefacts ranging from Aztec gold and jade to woven baskets from the Pacific Northwest, and even replica houses.
At the museum shop I bought a book about pre-Columbian America and a hand-carved stone fetish. This little fellow now has pride of place on my desk, and I hope he will bring me some fox-like cunning to aid my storytelling 🙂
Sadly I was too exhausted from my tourist day to attend the Hugo awards, so I didn’t get to meet Neil Gaiman. Still, I did meet nearly everyone else I had hoped to, and more besides. All in all it was a fantastic convention, possibly the best I’ve attended so far, with a great programme of events and an amazing guest lineup. Apologies to anyone whose name I have omitted; there were just too many to list.
We flew back to England on Tuesday; I was happy to be going home, but sad to be saying goodbye to so many new friends. However World Fantasy is in Brighton next year and, better yet, London has won the bid to host Worldcon 2014, which hopefully means that some of them will be coming over to visit. I know I can’t wait…