The Novel on the F Train: An Interview with Peter V. Brett

How do you pass the time when you’re sitting in a train, plane or bus? Do you listen to music or surf the web on your phone? Are you the type who likes to get some work or emails done on your daily commute? For those of us who like to think we’re being productive during our travels, or maybe just productive in general, meet Peter V. Brett. While commuting on the subway to and from work, Brett was writing a novel — on his smartphone! Brett adhered to a strict writing schedule (his train commute) and produced about 100,000 words over the course of two years. The fruits of his labor came together in The Warded Man, or The Painted Man as it’s called in other countries, a fantasy fiction novel that has been well-received by critics everywhere. While some of you may already be familiar with Mr. Brett’s story, he decided to share some details about his phone and gadget preferences with BGR. Hit the jump for the interview!

What prompted you to write a novel on your phone? Was it something planned or did it just happen by chance?

I would say it happened more out of necessity than planning or chance. I wanted to write a book, but I had a steady job with a successful PR firm in Times Square, a wife, friends, family, and a long commute. There was never time. I wrote whenever I could get the chance, but there just never seemed to be enough hours in the day.

I was also shackled to my computer. I was the first kid on the block with a home PC in the 80’s, and have done all my writing digitally ever since. Of course, my handwriting suffered as a result, so when I write by hand, I felt like a crypto-linguist trying to crack some foreign military code as I key the notes into my digital files later.

I had a laptop, of course, but you can’t effectively use a laptop on a New York City subway at rush hour, or any of a number of other places where you have a short window of downtime and want to quickly jot down an idea or snippet of prose. Writing on a hand-held digital device was really the only logical solution.

Have you written long pieces of work on your phone prior to the novel?

Nothing really comparable, but I’ve always used it for blogging, too, which probably adds up to a lot over the years, now that I think of it.

What kind of phone did you use and what condition was it in after the whole process was done?

I started taking notes on a Nokia music phone, which had a comfortable design for its QWERTY keyboard, but it had a minuscule screen, and you could only type short note files. The sync software was also terrible, and the phone’s whole operating system had a tendency to freeze up every time I got on the subway and it was cut off from the network.

After that, I moved on to the Palm m515, which would sync with MSWord, but required you to write with the stylus using their graffiti letters, which was a really frustrating interface. I got pretty fast with it, but it was still very inefficient for writing large amounts of text.

It wasn’t until I switched to the HP iPaq 6515 with Windows Mobile that I began to really write significant amounts of text on a mobile device. The 6515 had a huge screen and a well-spread QWERTY keyboard with space between each raised key. It was very easy to write on, and between my commute, lunch hour, and other downtime, I began to average between 700-800 words a day, every day, written on the phone.

This destroyed the battery, of course. I don’t think it was designed for that kind of heavy use. Writing depleted power very quickly, so that I had to charge it 3 times a day, and eventually had to buy a much bulkier battery that doubled the phone’s already considerable thickness. It was also a very buggy device, crashing often and having sync problems, which worsened with the heavy use.

Are you still using that same phone today?

Last fall I bought a more recent version, the iPaq 910, which fixed many (if not all) of the operating bugs of its ancestor. However, the screen is like 1/3 the size of the 6515, and the keyboard much more cramped, so it doesn’t give as good an interface. Still, I use it daily, and have written many tens of thousands of words on it.

Are you very particular about your gadgets and smartphones? What are your top three requirements for a smartphone?

I am incredibly particular, but no matter how careful I am in selecting a device, it is usually obsolete the moment I take it out of the box. Any smartphone by this point should be passable as a phone, planner, organizer, and e-mail client. Assuming those things as a given, my three priorities are as follows:

My main focus is writing, so the device needs a comfortable physical keyboard and a good word processor I can sync with MS Word. This precludes the iPhone, at least for the moment.

My next requirement is music/videos, which most smartphones can provide once you buy extra memory, but it eats battery life and system resources like crazy, and doesn’t have nearly the memory, speed, or easy functionality of my 80GB iPod video, which I am therefore still forced to carry.

Third is internet access & functionality, which some phones do better than others, but none do to satisfaction, mainly due to the limitations of screen size.

When one gadget call do all of the above, I’ll be satisfied until they invent the tricorder.

Did you ever lose a significant portion of work due to system crashes or errors? How did you save your daily work?

Like most people whose entire livelihood is digital, I sync and back up constantly. I mirror all my files up to an external drive nightly, and to a flash drive on my keychain and my laptop frequently. My most vital and/or active stuff is also backed up to the phone.

Since large files require too much system resource and are difficult to navigate on the phone, I usually break novels into individual chapters that I can work on both on the phone and desktop until they are complete and can be added to the main file. That also minimizes loss if the active file gets corrupted, or if Activesync glitches and saves the wrong version of an Office Mobile file, which happens occasionally (though not as often since I got the iPaq 910).

Aside from technical issues, what other problems did you run into while writing on the train? Thumbs cramping, seating space or crowded areas?

I was riding a New York City subway at rush hour, heading to Times Square, so seating was always a problem. You can’t thumb-write with one hand holding onto a rail. My stop in Brooklyn is far out enough that I could get a seat 70% of the time on the way into the city in the morning, but the reverse was true on the way home when I was getting on at 42nd St. I became an expert at reading people to see which were gathering their things to disembark, and positioned myself to snag their seats before anyone else realized they were getting up. Once I was sitting, I would just put on the iPod, tune out my surroundings, and start writing. The rest of the trip would often go by in an instant, and I would sometimes even miss my stop because I was so engrossed in the writing that I forgot to keep track.

When the novel was completed, how did you feel about your accomplishment? Do you think you’ll ever write another novel on your phone again?

I had a huge sense of accomplishment, but it was more about the book itself than the technicalities of how it was written. Writing a 400+ page novel requires considerable commitment under any circumstances, and I put my heart and soul into The Warded Man. It was picked up by publishers all over the world long before the fact that much of it was written on a mobile device became common knowledge.

About 50% of the sequel, The Desert Spear, was written on my phone as well, and I expect the third book, The Daylight War, will have more or less the same ratio. Even though I am writing full time now and no longer commute, now that I am no longer shackled to my desk, I see no reason to put the chains back on.

We at BGR are very thankful for Mr. Brett’s time and wish him all the best with his future projects! His novel, The Warded Man, is currently available from Amazon.com as well as major retailers across the country (and world).

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