Columns > Published on September 26th, 2014

Testing Lab: Gifts For Writers

When you Google phrases like "Good gifts for writers" or "unusual gifts for writers" or "what the $^#& do I get this stupid @$$%^@#?" you'll find plenty of advice blogs and heaps of bizarre gadgets, and you'll find several that pop up over and over. But do these gifts actually work? Are they, as MC Hammer put it, 2 Legit 2 Quit, or are they the exact opposite, 2 Crappy 2 Make You Happy? When you buy something for the writer in your life, are you wasting your money in a fun, conversation piece way, or is it in a junk drawer kind of way?

Waste no more, friends!

I personally tested several items that popped up on more than one list of great gifts for writers, and I'm here to lay out the results. Take heed, take notes, and if it's now stuck in your head, feel free to crank up a sweet MC Hammer jam while you read.

Product: Aqua Notes

Sales Question:
Ever had a great idea in the shower only to have it go down the drain like so much dirty soap water?

Pretty simple idea, a waterproof notepad and pencil with suction cups. Mount the whole thing on the shower wall, never lose your shower inspiration again.

That phrase sounds gross. "Shower inspiration." Let's revise that to "writing inspiration as conceived in the shower." It's a little wordier, but I can live with that.

The back of the Aqua Notes box is the first thing that's suspect about this product. I mean, assuming you don't find it completely suspect already.

I have a rule. Never put money into a product that tells you about the potential different uses for it. This is the hallmark of a bad product. Think late night TV. The ShamWow. ShamWow ads spend hours telling you all the different uses for a towel. We get it. It's a cloth that takes wet things and makes them not wet anymore. When you buy a screwdriver, no one has to tell you "Screw screws! Unscrew screws! Use as an ill-advised pry bar! Smuggle into a prison and use as a weapon!" A screwdriver doesn't do that because it doesn't have to. We already know about screws, unscrewing them, and we know about prison justice. A screwdriver doesn't have to explain that it's useful because we already know that to be true.

Aqua Notes's packaging tells you about a variety of uses for the product, but all of those uses are as a notepad. Leave a note for your lover, write down a grocery list. You know that thing where a pencil touches paper to make symbols that have meaning in language? You can do any form of that thing IN THE SHOWER, thanks to this device!

Aqua Notes's paper feels a little glossy, sort of like thermal receipt paper, if you've ever touched that. The pencil seems to be exactly like every other pencil except for the sweet slogan printed on the side ("No more good ideas down the drain!"). Everything about this seems like standard issue infomercial crap, so I went in with low expectations.

Which is why I was surprised that it actually worked. It does exactly what it's supposed to, and it works even when the pencil and paper are under the water stream. The marks don't wipe off, even if you soak the paper and pencil. The eraser even works wet.

Am I dumb for not knowing that a pencil works when it's wet? I feel like I'm discovering something everyone has known for a long time. Like everyone but me has known that you could scuba dive with a pencil and write as much novel as your air tanks and the sea, being a harsh mistress, will allow.

In terms of doing what's advertised, mechanically, Aqua Notes work. Even the suction cups are decent, which is more than can be said for SOME products (see below).

My complaint about this item is one that should have been obvious, but wasn't to me. I'm not all that perceptive, which is why my mind was blown by a waterproof pencil.

If you're writing on a pad, you're not really showering, right? You're IN the shower, there's a lot of the shower things happening, but you're not doing stuff to your body to make it clean. There are some things that you can do in the shower while you clean yourself. You could sing a song. You could sing "Timber" under your breath so your roommate doesn't hear. You could sing "Timber" loudly when you think no one is home and then emerge from the bathroom to find your roommate came home at some point, and then you can spend the rest of the night wondering how much he heard. But writing and showering?

Look, I've had more than one incident in life where I came across someone on a train or at a concert who wasn't properly showered. I think that, as a society, we could stand to be more diligent about hygiene. Once we have that tackled we can discuss making sure we have a note-taking tool in the shower.

Should You Buy It?
The good news is that it's pretty cheap. It's fun for a lark, and maybe good if the recipient complains about the troubles of remembering shower brainstorms, which would be dangerous if brainstorms involved lightning and thunder as opposed to horrible business speak and corporate exercises. But if you buy this, you should buy it and install it in a loved one's shower for them. Don't hand it over in the box. It just seems junky. You'll have to force this on someone to demonstrate its value.

Book Perfume

Sales Question:
What book lover wouldn't want to smell like books?

People tell me they like the smell of books. This can mean a lot of different things. A new graphic novel has a smell that is always linked to human odor for me. Just a little hint of armpit, plus some citrus. An old bookstore, it has that smell that's like a nicer version of a dishrag that's been in action too long without a wash. A brand new book, that smell mostly makes me thirsty.

I'm just trying to be honest here and say this product wasn't likely to work for me.

It's a very flawed idea, book perfume. Think about it this way. I really like barbecue. Would I consider it a plus if a date slathered herself in sauce? "Who are you wearing?" "Oh, just Sweet Baby Ray's."

No. Well, maybe. Okay, no. I thought about it more, and I do not want to date a woman slathered in sauce. As adults, we learn that some combinations of two good things, a nice lady and a sauce, are not always desirable or better than their original parts.

The smell of Paperback, when you uncap the bottle, is pure chemical. Like nail polish remover. Or turpentine. Basically, take your chemical of choice that's designed to strip a coating of something from something else, and you'll have the smell of book perfume. Maybe a little less head rush, but the same sort of notes.

I was nervous to put it on my skin, but I don't own any of those little cards the ladies at Macy's spray perfume on. So I went for it. The fear sweat may have affected the scent a little. The smell was less offensive on skin, mellowed out. But still, I wouldn't say this is something I want to smell like on purpose.

Should You Buy It:
You know, it's a cute addition to a book nerd's shelf of literary doo-dads and gew-gaws. But in all honesty, it smells vile. And that's half the fun, right? The smell. If they'd created something that actually smelled like old books, even if it didn't really work as a fragrance, that'd be one thing. But this stinks. And I applied it to my skin. I've poisoned the temple that is my body in order to write this column for you people.

I'd skip this one. It's a little pricey for a gag. Maybe if they decide to put it in a more exciting bottle that could serve as a conversation piece, we'd have a worthwhile item. As it stands, pass.

Fisher Space Pen

Sales Question:
Don't you want to write upside-down, under water, or...some other nonsensical way? And hey, isn't the pen that's good enough for America's astronauts good enough for you, or are you some kind of Commie?

This is easily one of the more popular gift pens. It's a neat idea, even though we apparently don't have a real space program anymore. I guess we got the pens, the astronaut ice cream, enough fodder for one horror movie about Leprechaun in space and one horror movie about Jason in space, and then we decided to let sleeping dog stars lie.

I ordered the Fisher Space Pen and had it for a few weeks when a friend asked me about it.

"Does it really work upside-down?"

Which is when I realized I'd never actually tried it upside-down. It turns out that I spend very little time upside-down. Excepting a foolish ride on a Las Vegas rollercoaster last summer, which culminated in a nausea that I was only able to cure through heroic alcohol consumption, I might go so far as to say I spend NO time upside-down. I'm no Spider-Man, Spectacular, Amazing, or otherwise. The Otherwise Spider-Man, I am not. There's never reason for me to write upside-down. And kind of like the waterproof pencil question, I'm not entirely sure that MOST pens require being right side-up to function.

I did try the Space Pen in water along with our friend Aqua Notes. It worked. Pretty much. There's something strange about holding a technologically-advanced pen while nude in the shower, and I don't really want to go into it. Let's just say, for me, it worked on all levels except the spiritual and leave it there.

The weakness of the Fisher Space Pen isn't how it performs in adverse conditions. It's the day-to-day. The thing writes like the kind of crappy pen they have at every front desk ever, the kind of pen that has crazy flowers taped all over it. You know, that thing where someone hit on the idea of adding $18 of tape and fake flowers in order to preserve a 40-cent pen investment.

This pen, it's sort of like buying a badass sports car with hard suspension, no radio, no A/C, and using that sports car as your day-to-day ride, to commute 15 minutes on a choked freeway. Yeah, on the rare occasion you get to open it up, very cool. However, most of your time is spent wishing you were in something moderately priced and comfortable.

Should You Buy It?
If you think you'll be doing a lot of writing in wacky places, perhaps an upside-down, water-filled cave is the only place you can concentrate, then go for it. If you're Jim Cantore, the most intense weather man ever, then this would be a good choice to have at the ready in your weird weather jock coat.

If you're not any of those things, well, it's a pen. If your writer friend is a pen nerd, it's a fun one to add to the collection. For my money, however, you'd be better off going with any of the pens from this list. They're nicer for writing 99% of the time.

Nancy Pearl, Librarian Action Figure

Sales Question:
Your other action figures may all have swords, missiles that actually fire, and other great accessories, but are any of them based on one of Library Journal's Librarians of the Year?

Nancy Pearl is the only famous librarian, right? Okay, sure, Batgirl is a librarian. But is she a famous librarian or famous because she's Batgirl? Librarians often wear this Batgirl career choice as a point of pride, but come on. Librarian is her gig, Batgirl is her CALLING.

While Nancy's action figure sort of resembles her in real life, it also sort of looks like the Dana Carvey church lady. Although, to be fair, action figures don't have a great track record when it comes to looking like the people they represent.

Nancy Pearl makes a fine gift, but let me tell you, it would seem that nearly every book nerd and writer who sought refuge in a library has received this figure at one point or another. I got one that my mom picked up at the thrift store. Why my mom looks through the baskets of action figures at the thrift store, I do not know.

Let me just say, this thing does not have many points of articulation. For those of you who aren't former subscribers to Toyfare, points of articulation are joints, basically. Places where the figure can move. Perhaps this is on purpose. Nobody wants Nancy Pearl, Library Journal Librarian of the Year, to lose her dignity via articulated hips.

That said, it makes for a boring figure. No Nancy versus Swamp Thing battles. No Nancy dangling from a string of patio lights all summer. No Nancy holding a lit cigarette the size of her entire body.

Truthfully, the story behind the figure is more interesting than the figure itself, and you can hear more about it here.

Should You Buy It?
If the victim of your affection is a fan of stuff, as in a fan of having stuff all over the house, then it's a go. If not, definitely pass. If you're not sure, also pass. It's a gag gift. Not that there's anything funny about reaching the pinnacle of librarianship, which is having an action figure made in your likeness.

Treadmill Desk

Sales Question:
Tired of sitting all day? Why not get in your exercise while you work?!

While I couldn't buy and set up a treadmill desk at home, I DO have access to one. So on a weekend morning, when it was not in use by legitimate business types, I availed myself of this gizmo. Try and ignore the creepy puppets in the background. I wasn't able to, and I think my work suffered.

I'm not an expert on the evolution of office furniture. At home I rock a $5 dollar rolling office chair that squeaks so loud I feel bad about using it past 10 PM. It would seem, however, that desks morphed from places you sit and work to places you stand and work, and now have evolved to places where you walk and work and work out. I guess we discovered that our sedentary lives were killing us, and it was of vital importance that we live longer in order to do more spreadsheets.

I think you could probably set this up for yourself if you already have a treadmill. Just buy the tabletop part and a regular treadmill, not a whole treadmill desk setup. Which is what I'd recommend, because the one I used, the one that's meant to be a treadmill desk only, has a low top speed. So while it's a treadmill desk, you couldn't throw the table off to the side for some quick wind sprints. Also, you couldn't use this all-in-one version as JUST a desk. Unless you set up a rolling chair with some wall anchors, which would be a great triumph of ingenuity and laziness over the human spirit.

I figured the way to go was to try and get in 10,000 steps, the amount everyone says you should shoot for per day. At top speed I managed 100 steps per minute. Which means, according to my calculations here, it would take 400 million years of spreadsheets and purposely looking away from puppet creeps to get in my 10,000 steps. I swear, that old man puppet DID NOT have a screwdriver in his hand when I got here.

Should You Buy It?
No. It's too expensive for what it is. Also, the value of walking is definitely diminished when you're still staring down a laptop screen. You're better off taking a half hour break to actually walk outside rather than walking while you work. Perhaps consider whether you want to live another decade if that decade is spent on a treadmill that lets you do office work.

Oh, and as a side note, it's always a good idea to use caution if you buy somebody a thing that MAY be interpreted as carrying the message, "Hey fatso, here's a gadget for fatsos that will make you less of a fatso."

Lighted Clipboard

Sales Question: Ever had a great idea in the car, but no way to write it down as you plow into the back of a truck and out of your mortal body?

My main problem with this device is that I haven't made peace with a higher power in such a way that prepares me to die. Also, death with dignity is kind of a thing for me. When I got uncomfortably close to rear-ending a giant truck, I was writing a note to remember a joke. The joke was that instead of remixing Beyonce's song for the 50 Shades movie, they should have hired R. Kelly to do a "Submission Remix." "It's a remix to submission/hot and fresh out the kitchen/mama tie up that body..."

That would have been the last thing I did in this world, make a joke about an R&B singer who pees on people doing a remix for the film version of Twilight fan fiction.

On first glance, I can see why someone would say this looks unsafe. But what they're missing is the fact that it's actually WAY less safe than you'd think on first glance. This is seriously a bad idea.

I'll admit, I keep a plain, spiral notebook in my car to jot ideas. It sits in the passenger seat, and if I need it, I grab it and write in huge, sloppy letters so I don't have to take my eyes off the road.

This thing is a much worse alternative. If you want an idea of how inconvenient this is, next time you're in your car, lay a piece of paper across the dash and try to write on it. While you drive. There's a reason dust collects all over the dash, and it's because that surface is much further away than I ever imagined.

Not to mention the suction cups are total nonsense. They don't work. I don't know what it is about suction cups that some work and some do not, but these categorically do not.

Minute 1:

Minute 1.0001:

Oh, wait, the light! How could I forget?

I tried to photograph the light in action, and it was impossible because the light was not bright enough to create an image that made any sense to the human brain. Perhaps this is a safety feature. One brave soul at the factory sabotaged the light so that, at the very least, users of this contraption wouldn't be blinded at night.

Should You Buy It?
Only if you find the ranty writings of your writer friend to be hilarious. In which case, this would seed a great Amazon review. Assuming that your friend still has the use of her brain after she rolls her Subaru 40 times while jotting down a quick joke about, I don't know, Tag Team's soundtrack contribution to Addams Family Values.

"Time to Write" Coupon

The Sales Question:
Isn't a homemade gift always better?

This one comes up on a lot of lists, the idea to give your loved one a coupon for a set time of uninterrupted writing. Usually it comes up as the last, more crafty, cutesy thing. Make a little coupon that gives the writer in your life what they really need: Time.

I wanted to address this one because I think it's important.

Don't give your writer time to write as a gift. I think you'll both be unhappy with the result.

Time to write is something the person needs as a constant, not as a one-off. It's a nice thought, but it's a little like giving someone a coupon that says "Good for one free day where I don't criticize your morals, values, and everything that combines to make you a human person." It's sort of an expectation, right?

If the person you care about is a writer, it's important that you make the effort to give them time on the regular. It can be annoying and frustrating, I know. Nobody hates it more than me. Non-Writing Pete HATES Writing Pete. Non-Writing Pete does all the chores. He has to tidy up after that other jerk. And for what? Where's this great NOVEL we've all been hearing so much about?

However, this sort of coupon makes it feel a little like, well, like it's a heroic effort to give someone the time to pursue something they love.

Should You Make It?
I'm just saying, if you're in a relationship with someone who writes, and if you want that to work out for both of you, it's better to give them the time as a normal, regular thing.

Keurig Coffee Maker

The Sales Question:
Writers love their coffee, right?

By now it's starting to feel like I picked things that I knew I'd hate. I swear, this isn't true. I thought I would enjoy writing in the shower. Which I sort of did until my environmental guilt caught up with me and I felt like I should write an apology note to the planet, and that I should do so at my desk, which is not a treadmill.

The Keurig seemed like something I would really like. A single cup of coffee without all the hassle of a bunch of cups of coffee? Okay, that's dumb. It's not the amount of coffee that makes for the hassle.

The issue with making more than one cup of coffee at a time, I will drink however many cups are available. If I make a single cup, I will drink that single cup. If I make 8 cups, then I guess we're in for a jittery afternoon. Let me put it this way: I go to a greasy spoon that shares a parking lot with my apartment, and in true diner fashion they refill your coffee after almost every sip. A normal person will, at some point, cut off his or her own refills. I am not a normal person.

For me, I figured that the big advantage of the Keurig would be getting only one cup at a go. So, when I look at it now, I was really hoping that it would be less convenient for me to make single cups.

I managed to operate this device. It was a little like Will Smith flying the alien spacecraft in Independence Day. It wasn't really believable to me that I figured out the Keurig's alien technology, but the plot made doing so necessary.

I took a drink, and it was not great. Not great at all. The coffee was super hot, which usually happens to disguise flavor, I think. The one-use-only K-cups of instant coffee are a little less than a dollar apiece, a price that's pretty high for what you get here.

Am I a coffee snob? Maybe. I'm not above any cup in a storm. Much the way the United States Air Force learned to rely on a drunken Randy Quaid in Independence Day, I've been known to drink a cup that's rough around the edges when the situation calls for it. Most of my life lessons come from the motion picture Independence Day, by the way.

The other thing, making coffee in this doohickey is pretty easy, so it didn't do a lot to reduce my consumption. Although looking into the garbage and seeing 5 K-cups was a fairly shaming experience.

While the Keurig might be just the ticket for some coffee drinkers, I don't think it'll go far towards pleasing many coffee lovers.

Should You Buy It:
I have to go with no again. Especially because for a much lower price, you can get a grinder and a French press, which also allow you to make coffee in whatever quantity you want.


Let's tally what we've got. 8 options, none of which I would recommend after this lousy, subjective battery of tests. If this set of tests were a real battery, it would be a C. Bulky, crappy, and just a drag. But a battery of tests nonetheless.

It leaves me with a big question: What DO I recommend people buy for the writers in their lives?

The trick is to buy something for the person in your life, not the writer.

There are many people in my life who are writers. But that doesn't mean I'd buy them the same gifts, nor would I necessarily buy them a writing gift. Maybe Writer Friend A is very motivated and ambitious, and maybe what she needs is a day off, so a trip out to lunch where she can get away from her keyboard is really what she needs. Maybe Writer Friend B is staring down writer's block, so I would probably avoid buying that person a huge, scary, blank notebook and instead buy him a book that I thought he might love, that might inspire him. Maybe Writer C can handle coffee like an adult and therefore is eligible for a Keurig or other coffee device.

The point is, when it comes to gifts, my recommendation is that you buy them for people, not types.

And no matter what, do not buy them a lighted suction cup clipboard. Seriously. I'm revising the sales question on that one.

Lighted Clipboard Sales Question:
Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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