Subway Writing

PhoneI wrote The Painted Man, the first book in my soon-to-be-published fantasy series, on my phone. I have an HP Ipaq 6515 Pocket PC, which runs Windows Mobile 3.1. It’s a little outdated now, but it was the shiz-nit when I bought it a couple years ago.

I used to read a lot on the NYC subway, with my earphones in to block out all the surrounding noise. I would frequently become inspired to write, but I have never been one to write by hand, and my old Palm Pilot wasn’t designed for real writing. It ran MSWord, but you had to write in that stylized chicken-scratch Palm shorthand using the little stylus. I didn’t care for it, but it was nice when I had a good idea I needed to jot down.

But when texting became all the rage, I got a Nokia Musicphone, which had a full QWERTY keyboard, and I realized that with a tool like that, I could write for real.

Back then writing was more a hobby, since I never really expected anything to come of it. Still, it was something I felt I needed to do, and commit to, because novels aren’t like short stories that can come in a burst of inspiration. They require careful planning and long-term effort, even when inspiration is not striking.

But I also had a full-time job, and a new bride, and friends to see and other demands on my time. Giving up every evening to write was a big sacrifice. I needed a compromise.

Enter my daily commute. On a good day, I was on the subway an hour and a half. On a bad day, anyone who is familiar with the NYC subway system knows your commute  can grow exponentially. What if I started using that time constructively?

So I would get on the train, and look hard for a seat (it’s impossible to write more than a handful of words with your thumbs on a moving train if you’re standing). I was raised to always yield seats to women, but I got over that real quick. If you weren’t pregnant or stooped and gray, sorry. I had work to do.

Most days I could get a seat. Maybe 70% of the time. I would put my iPod on to drown out the background chatter, and start thumb-writing. I set a goal of 1,000 words a day for myself, and usually I could get at least 800 of those done on the commute. More if I wrote at lunch. At night, I would go home, sync the phone to my PC, and then clean up the file, fix typos, and finish off the quota (if needed).

The phone really changed my life, because it meant I could write anywhere, at any time. In a long line at the bank? Write. Waiting at the bar for a friend? Write. In a cab, or the passenger seat of a car? Write.

I would say 65% of The Painted Man was written thus, the rest done the old fashioned way at home. I don’t know that I could ever have done it without this tool to make my historically unproductive time so productive.

Earlier this week, I finished the final draft of The Painted Man and turned it in to Del Rey, meaning to get right to work on the sequel, The Desert Spear, before I developed any bad habits by being home all day.

But I was in a lot of pain the first day. I have what is called a syrinx, which is a little bubble in my spinal cord that presses on a nerve cluster, causing me constant phantom pain in my side. On a good day, it’s like someone is poking me in the ribs with a stick. On a bad, it’s like a knife in my ribs. Exercise aggravates it, and on Monday I walked 2 miles each way to a 90 minute yoga class. I am hoping the increased flexibility that comes from yoga will help me in the long run, but in the short run… ow.

So Tuesday was shot. The pain intensifies when I am sitting, so the computer chair would have been the equivalent of a medieval tortue device. Wednesday was a little better, and I got up with every intention of writing, but instead I started upgrading software on my computer, did dishes, read, napped with the cats, pretty much everything except writing.

I knew I was just procrastinating. I have written about 25% of DS already, but haven’t touched it in months because I was working on PM rewrites. I didn’t have my approach for re-insertion down. Should I start by editing what I have, or begin a new character and just write? Should I re-read the stepsheet and glossary to re-familiarize myself with it all or trust that I have it down? Should I go through all the comments from my test readers, or just read what I have cold and make my own opinions before looking at theirs? When you don’t have a game plan, it’s easy to just get nothing done at all.

So by the end of the day yesterday, I was pretty angry with myself for not accomplishing anything. I had plans to go see Southland Tales up by Union Square with some friends in the evening, so I decided to just put a chapter with a new character on my phone, in case I wanted to write on the train.

Which I did. Like the wind. My thumbs couldn’t move fast enough. In the 25 minutes I was on the train, I knocked out close to 300 words, and completely set myself up to go on and write the rest of that chapter decisively.

Could it be that writing on the subway offers more than a constructive use of downtime? Maybe I need to leave the house every day, separating myself from distractions and just cruise the subway lines, pecking away with my thumbs. 

Posted on November 15, 2007 at 9:53 pm by PeatB
Filed under Craft, Writing

17 responses to “Subway Writing”

  1. […] Original post by Peephole in my Skull […]

    Posted by Subway Writing · Pocket PC News and Reviews, on November 15th, 2007 at 6:13 pm
  2. I have the same weird thing. For reasons I do not understand, I write *much* more productively in a Barnes & Noble Cafe than I do at home. I have all the same amenities at home (coffee, comfy chair, internet access, etc. . .) and there are even more distractions at B&N.

    But I just have to accept it. The muse lives in the B&N cafe. She’s not coming to my condo, so I have to go to her.

    Maybe your muse lives on the F train?

    Posted by Myke, on November 15th, 2007 at 7:23 pm
  3. Interesting choice of metaphor, for it would be a gods-given curse worthy of Greek tragedy if my muse lived on the F train, the worst of all subway lines. I quit my job to get away from that bastard.

    Hey, did you notice that some Pocket PC blog spidered and linked to this entry literally within minutes of my posting? That’s kind of creepy.

    We’re all on the grid…

    Posted by Peat, on November 15th, 2007 at 7:30 pm
  4. Dude. That *is* creepy. They should pay you for advertising.

    Posted by Myke, on November 15th, 2007 at 7:33 pm
  5. I wonder if someone even read it, or if it was all done by a bot?

    (Look at me, using the words “bot” and “spider” as if I know the difference!)

    Posted by Peat, on November 15th, 2007 at 7:46 pm
  6. A “bot” is any kind of internet program that performs an automated task (most often spamming or assisting in a hacking related op).

    You’re confusing “spider” with “web crawler”. A web crawler is a kind of bot that indexes web pages for search engines.

    So, yes. It’s likely that a Pocket PC News and Reviews bot, most likely a web crawler, found your blog entry based on key word searches and automatically linked to it.

    Posted by Myke, on November 17th, 2007 at 5:54 pm
  7. Web crawlers and spiders are the same thing, Mr. Smarty:

    Posted by PeatB, on November 18th, 2007 at 8:31 am
  8. the most i’ve ever written was during NaNo a couple of years ago. i didn’t have a computer, so i wrote on yellow legal pads. with a pen. an ink pen, can you dig it.

    at 20k i had to quit, but still, i’ll start off on a yellow legal pad when writing.

    with a pen.

    Posted by netta, on November 20th, 2007 at 11:59 pm
  9. What’s a pen?

    Posted by Peat, on November 21st, 2007 at 8:00 am
  10. think hammer, chisel, and stone tablets.

    Posted by netta, on November 21st, 2007 at 7:00 pm
  11. Man oh man look at all this computer nerd talk. I am going to go read ink on paper now. You hip types enjoy your internets.

    Nice website btw.

    Posted by A.J. L, on November 28th, 2007 at 12:33 am
  12. I’ve learned that making friends on the train defeats this purpose. Since I had a few months warning before I switched to the train, I got a laptop and I was breezing though for a while until I took a break and made conversation with people I saw on a regular basis.

    I’ve also did good work at Subway restaurant. 🙂 Just enough distraction to take a break, but not enough to keep me engaged for a moment, too.

    Posted by Chris Negelein, on May 4th, 2008 at 12:03 pm
  13. Either you’re a far friendlier person than I, or you’re not from New York City, because you’d never catch me making conversation with the wackadoos I see on the Brooklyn F train.

    Posted by Peat, on May 4th, 2008 at 9:08 pm
  14. […] in her response, Deanna linked to my website, particularly my post on Subway Writing, where I describe how most of my current novel was written on my cellphone with my thumbs while I […]

    Posted by Viral | Peephole in my Skull, on May 14th, 2008 at 9:54 am
  15. […] most inspiring story I’ve ever read about work space was this blog entry by Peter V. Brett. It really impressed me, and although he’s on his way to becoming the next […]

    Posted by » Blog Archive » Finding The Time To Write, on June 6th, 2008 at 9:51 am
  16. Wow. I’ve written a bit on iPAQ and couple of palm pilots, but that’s impressive. (My new smartphone’s just a little too small, I think). Or my thumbs need a wee bit of trimming.

    That’s something.


    Posted by David Keck, on August 10th, 2008 at 9:00 pm
  17. I just ordered the new iPAQ 910 from the HP site. I searched just about every store in Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for a test model, but couldn’t find it anywhere, so I broke down and just bought the damn thing online. It’s got a lot to live up to, but since it’s like 2.5 generations ahead of my current phone, I have high hopes.

    Posted by Peat, on August 11th, 2008 at 2:04 pm