Friday Fictioneers – Deception

vintage-kitchen-tools-valerie-barrett
PHOTO PROMPT © Valerie Barrett

The chandelier resonated with marching boots on the parade ground. The salon walls shook as heavy vehicles rumbled onto the quay.

The author buried his head in his hands. “I can’t create in this din.”

“How about,” the brigadier-general suggested, “we toss a corpse into the sea, pockets stuffed with secret plans for an invasion at Calais?”

“You don’t understand fiction do you?” the author said in withering tones. “The enemy will see through that in a second. We need to misdirect them from the Normandy denouement, sprinkle-in clues so readers are forced to work out the Calais conclusion themselves.”

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. This one is a belated 75th anniversary tribute, of course, to the unsung heroes of D-Day You can find other stories here

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Friday Fictioneers – Just a Small One

ceayr-3
PHOTO PROMPT © Ceayr

When the glass shattered, everything stood still. Dad’s greenhouse!

“Joel!” Dad sounded anxious.

Joel knew soon the tone would change to anger. “It was just a pebble, Dad. A small one.”

But Dad didn’t get angry. He put his hand to his mouth and gazed at the heavens.

“Just a small one,” he said. “A one gram microsatellite. Accelerated to a quarter the speed of light.”

He whipped out his calculator, punching the keys in panic.

“Jesus Christ! There’s no way of slowing it down. Impact of a small nuclear explosion on collision. How will the aliens understand? What have we done?”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

116. Story analysis apps under review

I’m a geek. I love tech. But I’m not an easy sell. The world is full of artificial intelligence that isn’t as intelligent as you’d think. I previously put the literary analysis website Who do you write like?   to the test and found it could not accurately identify James Joyce as himself.

This month, I put two more literary tools under the spotlight—Fictionary and Autocrit. They’ve reinforced my view that, while algorithms are pretty good at copy-edit-level text analysis, they aren’t yet up to the job of structural analysis. I’m sticking with wetware for that task.

Fictionary

Fictionary is a web-based program that claims to provide a structural assessment of your book. According to its website it:

  • Automates visualisation of your story arc
  • Evaluates your story, scene-by-scene, against 38 story elements
  • Guides you through an edit of plot, character, and scene
  • Offers tips for rewrites

The service costs US$20 a month or $200 a year. I used the 14-day free trial.

Fictionary runs only on Google Chrome or Safari browsers and requires the Word docx format.

In my test, it felt buggy. The upload cut-off the first two chapters of my novel. This happened even on a second attempt. Manual corrections of some lists (such as characters) didn’t take.

The programme provided this visual of the arc for my novel.

Fictionary Star Compass arc

For comparison, this is the story arc Fictionary generated for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Fictionary Christmas Carol arc

Pretty much the same. The story arc is a template, rather than an analysis of the text.

My own schematic of the chapters in my book looks nothing like this template arc. My cumulative diagram (below) is more like a roller coaster. It shows the number of stimulus/response pairs in each chapter (a proxy for dramatic intensity) and whether the protagonist’s emotion is positive or negative (a proxy for advances and setbacks).

star compass cumulative plot

This didn’t give me confidence that the algorithm was smart enough to parse my book. And it isn’t. The part indicated as the inciting incident isn’t the inciting incident and the climax isn’t the climax. You have to feed it with lots of coding. As you do so, the programme offers editing hints. These are all generic rules of thumb, rather than deep analysis of the text.  Examples are:

  • What is the purpose of this scene?
  • What type of scene is this (dialogue, thought, description, action)? Variety is important
  • Anchor the beginning of a new scene so the reader doesn’t get lost
  • Provide a hook for the scene

You have to divide your manuscript into scenes, code each scene, pick out your characters from a list of proper nouns, and provide lots of other information. I wasn’t convinced that this was any advance on doing the analysis myself.

 

Autocrit

AutoCrit analyses your work to identify areas for improvement, including pacing and momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice and repetition. You can also compare your composition to that of popular authors.

This screenshot shows the summary for my book.

Autocrit summary Star Compass

This score of 80.52 is described as being in the 75-85 territory of best sellers, perhaps a little hard to believe since I haven’t finished editing. George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones gets a tally of 79.99. However, Autocrit is measuring something, since a much earlier draft of my novel achieved lower at 71.39.  Another novel, the one I’m most proud of, scored 84.96.

The indicators the program is using to create the scores are those in the bottom diagram: repetition, pacing, dialogue, word choice and “strong writing”. This latter category includes overuse of adverbs, consistency of tense, showing versus telling, clichés, redundancies, and filler words. Which means this isn’t really a structural analysis. It’s a copy editor with a beguiling summary screen.

 

Copy editors

If AI is not yet smart enough to perform a structural edit, it’s invaluable for the more mechanical copy editing process.

I’ve been using ProWritingAid since 2015 and I swear by it. ProWritingAid analyses your text and produces reports on areas such as overused words, writing style, sentence length, grammar and repeated words and phrases.

So, how does ProWritingAid compare with Autocrit?

  • Autocrit ran significantly faster than ProWritingAid. The latter took two-and-a-half minutes to analyse 75,000 words, compared with around 30 seconds for Autocrit.
  • Autocrit was not as effective at finding repeated phrases.
  • Autocrit highlighted overuse of passive voice, whereas ProWritingAid found this to be well within target. On closer examination, Autocrit is using frequency of the verbs to be and to have as proxies for passive voice, and is thus less accurate here.
  • Both programs flagged overuse of “filler” words. Autocrit found the main culprits to be “that”, “very”, “seem” and “really”. The list of overused words made editing easy and allowed me to bump up my style score in Autocrit from “too much” to “average”. But again, ProWritingAId is doing something more complex and my filler score dropped only slightly, from 47.1% to 46.8%. ProWritingAid suggests that no more than 40% of words should be “fillers”. In my defence, Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” speech from Hamlet scores 53.4%.
  • Autocrit gave me a pass for frequency of adverbs (which it measured at 11), whereas ProWritingAid flagged the 12 it found as borderline. Neither program states what an acceptable rate is, though the Hemingway program uses a threshold of under 1% of words.

Autocrit adverb score

  • Both programs okayed my readability, though they produced different values for the Flesch reading ease score (83 in ProWriting Aid and 78 in Autocrit).
  • Neither was very accurate at detecting show-versus-tell issues, which is unsurprising because word or sentence analysis is unlikely to be very sensitive on this problem.

Overall, the two programs have broadly similar features, though Autocrit is much more expensive. You get a year’s subscription to ProWriting Aid for the cost of two months with Autocrit.

Autocrit ProWritingAid comparison

The bottom-line verdict

  • No algorithms are yet sophisticated enough, despite overblown marketing claims, to replace a human editor for structural edits.
  • Copy editing of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word-use can now be automated.
  • Autocrit and ProWritingAId do a pretty good job of copy editing. Auotcrit’s uniqueness is the comparison with published fiction. ProWritingAid offers a more complex analysis and better value for money

Free Alternatives

Some of the features of the copy editing programs are available in free software. Grammarly and After the Deadline will review spelling and grammar. Hemingway will assess readability scores, and detect overuse of adverbs and passive voice.

Friday Fictioneers – Bears

finding-a-signal
PHOTO PROMPT © Susan Eames

No. I won’t.

No, I can hear you perfectly well from where I am. You may say I’m up a tree without a paddle. But you can skedaddle. Just how much use do you suppose a paddle is in a tree, eh?

I can see for miles and miles and miles. As many coconuts as I can eat. And no bear’s going to get me. Jagulars maybe. Strorny good droppers, jagulars, as Pooh remarked. But not bears. You, on the other hand, are extremely vulnerable to roving ursines.

So, which of us would you say is crazy?

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories at the link below

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Friday Fictioneers – Gizmo

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PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

Oh, you may say it’ll never catch on. But I fear its terrible appeal. The young folk like it. They spend hours sending messages back and forth to each other.

In my day, we spoke to each other, danced, played. If there were stories to be told, we recited them. Now we are become shallow, relying on this infernal invention while our memory withers.

No, I say writing will corrupt us all. Nothing will be the same again

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Selkie

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PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Jamie’s eyes were fixed on the sea loch. Never on me. The brine- and shellfish-scented wind ruffled his hair into a halo and stirred the water. Out by the headland, a vortex formed.

“Look,” he shouted, pointing, “it’s Nessie, the monster.”

A grey head broke the surface. I knew it for a selkie, because I’d seen the shed sealskin once on the beach. A selkie, here to take a comely lass’s form and carry poor Jamie away under the sea.

Turn to me, just once, I silently willed him. Only once and I’ll save you.

He didn’t. I walked.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

115. Frame Stories

Frame stories are useful literary devices. They provide “containers” that help organise other narrative material. Many stories, sometimes several layers deep, may nest within the frame.

Think, for example, of one of the best-known frame stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  Shaherazad prevents the Sultan executing her by telling him a new story each night. Her attempt to keep herself alive provides the frame for the tales she tells.

Scheherazade

Some of these tales, in turn, are also frame stories for collections of others: such as the Sinbad sequence.

Uses of the frame story

The essence of all frame stories is that they offer the possibility of telling other stories. But there are many reasons a writer might want to do this.

A narrator may want a container into which they can drop smaller narratives from their preferred stock.

Or there may only be one other story inside the frame. In this case, the frame allows the writer to suggest things about the second story. For example, to signal that the narrator is unreliable, or to propose other reactions to the reader.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six stories each nested within the previous one.

 

Framing for accessibility

Another use of the frame story is to make a more complicated structure accessible to the reader.

I used this device in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. It uses a simple frame story about an undercover policeman investigating a terrorist cell and falling for his target. The reader could choose to engage only at this level. But embedded within this are other magical tales which come to interpenetrate the real world of the frame story. Reality becomes the story we tell about things: a fitting epitaph for a professional liar.

 

Frame and reprise

A reprise is a repeating element. Often, the repeat is at the beginning and end of the story. This gives a sense of returning to the start, which readers tend to find satisfying.

Such a reprise functions like a frame, without being a complete story in itself.

 

This article is reprinted from my author newsletter. If you’d like to receive more pieces like this as well as tips on writing tools and news of work in progress, click on the Subscribe button on this page

Friday Fictioneers – Alex

on-route-66-jean-l-hays
PHOTO PROMPT © Jean L. Hays

Alex speaks a language no-one else alive understands. Well, we call him Alex, but we don’t know what he calls himself. He’s always refused to signal this.

It’s not that he has any hesitation about speaking. He will happily speak all day. Just that nobody knows what he’s saying. We detect pleasure, frustration, thoughtfulness and a range of other states. But the argument he’s advancing so passionately eludes us.

Today, though, Alex is silent. Is he angry? Sad? Or has he simply finished reciting the entire history of his race?

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Temple

roger-bultot-synagogue
PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Mrs. Gant always scared me. She’d race out of the temple at us kids, waving her mop like a scimitar. The fear meant I never did get to find out who they worshipped in there. I imagined stern priests, stone slabs, and human sacrifice.

It seems fanciful now, slinking past the bland block structure. Four decades since I walked the neighbourhood. Mrs. Gant long gone.

And yet. The iron railings carry wrought shapes. And those swirling shapes pull in shadows from the temple garden, plucking with lean fingers at the shades from the street. I turn and run like hell.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

114. From tiny tickles to character reveals: tropisms

What makes the inner world of a fictional character really sing? The author can, of course, have the character think ideas, speak, and carry out actions. But, besides and more interesting than this, is the way they respond to the world and understand things. After all, the universe inside every head seems magically different from the one inside my own.

Tropisms

I’ve just come across an author who tried to render that inner world, using an idea borrowed from biology. Plants grow towards the light. Biologists call this stimulus and response phototropism.

 

tropism
Encyclopaedia of Human Thermodynamics

The French writer Nathalie Sarraute used the metaphor of tropism to highlight the origins of actions, speech, and feelings in the momentary experiences on the fringe of consciousness.

In the first vignette in her 1939 book Tropisms, she writes

They seemed to spring up from nowhere, blossoming out in the slightly moist tepidity of the air, they flowed gently along as though they were seeping from the walls, from the boxed trees, the benches, the dirty sidewalks, the public squares.

This seems to be a plague of weeds or vermin. In fact, she is describing people staring into shop windows.  But these are not people as characters. Rather, stripped of identifiable shapes and personalities they become sensations. Sarraute eliminated plot or character from her work, in order to explore the “impulses, desires, processes that exist before speech, before comprehension, before consciousness”, as Allison Noelle Conner puts it.

nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute

Sarraute would devote pages to exploring the mechanisms that intervened between the stimulus and the response.

The objective correlative

Though I don’t buy into Sarraute’s analysis that plot and character are conventional masks that prevent us exploring mentality, I do find something intriguing in her approach. T.S. Elliot had a similar insight in his idea of the “objective correlative”—a sequence of things or events which creates the sensation the writer is trying to summon in the reader. He described this: “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

 

Other techniques

This clearly has connections with the often tiresome writers’ dictum of “show, don’t tell”. But it takes this instruction further. It makes location, conversation, and events a means of conveying character.

It also might seem similar to Swain’s technique of the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU), which also works on a stimulus-response basis. However, these work on the basis of a chain from feeling to action to speech, whereas in tropism, all of these are preceded by a simple sensory experience. I wrote about my experiment with MRUs in a previous post.

 

A method for illuminating mentality

I’ve used the insight about pre-conscious stimuli to rework the opening chapter of my current book, The Star Compass. Robert, a bookish recluse, has come to the remote Pacific island of Yap. All his life he has avoided ever learning anything about the South Seas so he might believe there is one place on the planet where nature is bountiful and people are nice to each other. Now he is forced to have a confrontation with reality. The chapter begins:

He paused at the bottom rung of the stairway. Then stepped onto the tarmac and off the edge of the world.

Here all his maps ran out. Here be dragons.

The humid tropical night wrapped itself like a moist towel around his nose. The bulk of his body began to cook from the inside. Sweat pooled in his armpits, beaded his brow, and trickled down his spine. The perspiration felt clammy. He wanted to turn, run back into the plane, and get away from this island.

But he continued to shuffle forward towards the door of the tiny airport, keeping his place in the line of a hundred other passengers and urged on by those behind. The terminal complex was so small it lacked an immigration hall and they queued on the apron. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, though puddles evaporating on the tarmac indicated an earlier downpour.

Things had happened here before he arrived. The island had its own hidden history. Anything might lurk here in the unknown South Pacific.

He reached the portal where souls were divided. One door for visitors, and the other for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia. The sleepy official took his landing card, examined his passport. Robert Urquhart, UK citizen, fifty-one years old.

Yap airport
Yap International Airport

In making this revision, I hunted for small sensations in the draft and considered these as stimuli. I then checked that there was a response for every stimulus and a stimulus for every response. For example, the action of stepping onto the tarmac provokes the sensation that he’s stepped off the edge of the world. Or the stimulus of the humidity makes him want to turn and run. And the realisation from the rain puddle that the things have happened here before he arrived, triggers a fear that anything might happen here now. I aimed to render Robert’s profound unease through these small almost pre-conscious moments. Sometimes, it involved taking a small moment and expanding it.

 

I’d love to hear whether you’ve tried or come across anything similar.