Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Mobile Author, Part One: The Portable Office

Summer is almost here. It's always a challenge for a writer to find time to work on that latest project, but it's especially difficult in the summer. At this time of year, we tend to spend a lot less time indoors, tied to our desks.

Fortunately, over the last couple years, it has become increasingly easy to take your work on the road. I'll  leave it to you to decide whether that's a good thing, but it's certainly useful when you're up against a deadline or in the middle of a project to have your work available if you have some time to work on it or if an idea strikes you while you're sitting in a cafe in Paris. Or a McDonald's in Cedar City.

Over the next few Wednesdays, I'm going to give you suggestions for setting up a mobile writing office that can go everywhere with you. You might find many of these ideas useful for more than just your writing life, but because this is a blog for writers, I'm going to focus on writing.

I'm going to show you how to set up a mobile office, then I'll lead through using that office for the key phases of a writing project: planning, writing and revising, sharing and critiquing, and submitting. I'll provide brief overviews of useful apps and websites that will help you through each of those phases. Because my own portable office uses Android and Windows, there will be a slant toward those operating systems; however, if you use Mac and iOS, don't worry, I won't forget you. I promise.

I hope you find my suggestions useful. If you have questions, or have suggestions of your own, we love comments.

So, let's get started.

Setting Up Your Mobile Office: Your Portable Desk

The first thing you need if you're going to work away from your home office is something to work on. Until about five or six years ago, that meant a laptop, unless you wanted to carry your computer system on the road. The advent of tablets and smart phones provided more options, but until fairly recently, their usefulness for writing was pretty limited.

In the last year or two, the capabilities of those mobile devices have exploded. The devices themselves have increased tremendously in power, and the number of useful apps continues to grow.

When it comes to spending long blocks of time writing, nothing serves the mobile author better than a trusty old (or new) laptop. The keyboard is usually more comfortable and accurate than those little phone and tablet keyboards, and the larger screen is easier on the eyes. A laptop also lets you open more than one screen at a time, so you can have your notes and your writing program open next to each other.

If you're on the move, it's not always easy to carry a laptop everywhere you go. Even if you usually have a backpack with you, a laptop gets heavy and takes up a lot of space. A tablet is much more convenient. It's much lighter and can easily fit in a small backpack pocket or a purse. This series of articles will concentrate on tablets, under the assumption that you already have what you need on your computer.

But let's not forget the smart phone. Although the small size makes it less-than-ideal for serious writing for long periods, the size is an advantage for other writing tasks, such as making notes or taking pictures. If you are out somewhere and suddenly have an idea, you probably have your phone with you so you can jot your thoughts before they slip away. Or, if you see something that gives you an idea or would work well in your story, you can snap a quick picture.

Other Useful Gadgets

If you're going to do much writing on your tablet or even, if necessary, your phone, you'll want to invest in a Bluetooth keyboard. You can find a keyboard designed specifically for your tablet, one that comes in a case for your tablet that essentially turns it into a mini laptop. In theory, any Bluetooth keyboard should work with any Bluetooth-enabled device, but you'll want to scan reviews carefully before making a purchase in case others with your device had trouble with a specific keyboard. You might also want to check out keyboards in an actual store (remember those?) to make sure the one you pick is going to be comfortable for you to type on for a couple hours at a time. There are many types of keyboards with different styles of keys, and chances are good you won't like some of them.

Less necessary but definitely useful is a Bluetooth mouse. You can do without it, but chances are you'll eventually wish you had one.

You can also get an inexpensive little OTG (On-The-Go) cable that plugs into your tablet where you usually plug in your power charger and lets you connect any USB device, like a mouse of flash drive or external hard drive. If you get one of these handy little cables, just make sure you get the right connector for your device. A microUSB connector works for many tablets, for example, but won't work for an iPad, so if you have an iPad make sure you get an iPad-compatible cable.

For me, the ideal mobile office includes a laptop, a tablet, and a phone. Each is useful for different things.Although I don't think it's the perfect situation, having just one of these gadgets is enough to keep you writing when you're away.  I use the laptop in a hotel room, and a tablet if I'm away from a desk. Add a keyboard and mouse, and you can do just about anything on the road you would do at home.

Next Step

Come back next week and we'll discuss using your mobile device to organize your office.

The Mobile Author, Part Two: Getting Organized
The Mobile Author, Part Three: Managing Your Project
The Mobile Author, Part Four: Planning Your Story
The Mobile Author, Part Five: Writing
The Mobile Author, Part Six: Submissions
The Mobile Author, Part Seven: Managing Your Writing Life


Bruce Luck said...

Got an iPad and bluetooth keyboard, but limited writing software for it keeps my clunky laptop as the go to writing device.
Will your series address staying connected? There are a few places in Utah with no cell service.

Scott said...

Connection is sometimes a problem. I don't talk specifically about how to stay connected in dead spots (without wifi or another source of Internet, you're kind of stuck), but I do have suggestions for apps that are useful when you don't have a connection.

A laptop is a better writing tool than a tablet in most situations, thanks to the bigger screens and keyboards, the larger internal storage, and the increased computing power, and especially because of the better writing software. But tablets and apps are getting better and the increased portability has definite advantages.

Anonymous said...

Bruce Luck - there is a app for the iPad called Pages, which is as close to Word as you're likely to get. It is a little pricey, at $9.99, but if it makes your tablet a better writing tool and frees you fom the laptop, it's worth it!

Bruce Luck said...

I'm writing with Scrivener on the laptop. Haven't checked to see if they have an iPad version.

Yamile said...

Pages is now free with the new iOS. I love it. It's the only word processor I use, with the exception of Scrivener. There isn't a Scrivener app, but if you search on youtube you can learn how to back up your scrivener files on Plain Text, which is a free app. It's very handy and easy to use. The only thing is that you have to be VERY careful when you sync your devices so your documents aren't corrupted. Maybe Scott can delve into it in one of his posts?

Yamile said...

By the way, I love having all my documents in a cloud I can access from any device, even my phone. One of the full requests I got from an agent was because there was a very limited window in which he was open for queries. I was at an airport, browsing twitter when I saw his announcement. I then proceeded to email my query ad pages that were conveniently available in Dropbox. Best thing I've ever done! Had a full request in a few days.

Scott said...

Way to go, Yamile. The cloud is the difference between taking work with you on the road and having an actual mobile office. The cloud plays a major role in this series.

I probably won't add the details you mentioned about syncing Scrivener and Pages. My iPad is an aging first-gen model, which is considerably less enjoyable to use than any of my other tablets, and my introduction to Scrivener came too late in the process for my current WIP, although I plan to use it for my next project, after I finish this one (which sometimes feels like an impossible dream). Might make a good topic for one not your posts, though,

Edward Antrobus said...

Just found this post. I actually do most of my writing on the road (Literally, I work in road construction). If I have a 5 minute block of time, I'll tap something out on the screen, but for lunch breaks, I keep a Logitech bluetooth keyboard in my bag.