122. The robot will see you now: writing apps reviewed

We’re a long way from robots writing compelling stories, but software can make an author’s life simpler. There are three broad classes of software intended to help writers.

  • Planners help you plan a story,
  • Organisers help you write it,
  • Editors help you edit it.

I list some of the main alternative here.

As I’ve said before, though I love software, I’m not a big fan of the Organisers for authors. I’m just as happy using an ordinary word-processor and a spreadsheet. So none of the programs in the Organiser category is in my toolkit and I haven’t attempted to test and review them. Remember, a computer program won’t write a single word of your novel for you. I do however recommend Beemgee from the Planner category and ProWritingAId from the Editor group. I’ve also tried Contour from the Planner group and it’s pretty good. I was less persuaded by the usefulness of Contour’s companion program, Persona, compared with Beemgee.

beemgee

Planners

Most of the software in the organiser group below includes some planning functions. However, there are more dedicated planners

  • Contour is aimed at screenwriters supporting them in developing an outline. It’s based on four key question: Who is the main character? What is the main character trying to accomplish? Who is trying to stop the main character? What happens if the main character fails? It costs US$39.95
  • Persona is character-creation companion software to Contour. It’s based on archetypes and costs US$39.95
  • Beemgee offers a very detailed series of prompts for defining character and plot outlines. I like the way Beemgee links plot to character. The basic version is free. The premium version with more functionality costs €59per year.
  • Dramatica, like Contour, is based on a writing theory. In this case, the central idea is that “every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process”. It costs US$99.95.
  • Storyweaver is a simplified version of Dramatica. It costs US$29.95
  • Snowflake Pro.  This is Randy Ingermanson’s famous method turned into software. It will cost you US$100. Or you can just read the ten steps of the Snowflake on his blog for free.

 

Organisers

This type of software acts as a word-processor and filing cabinet. They conveniently store your plot outline, timeline, notes on background research, and your stray snippets. Some include prompts for generating characters. All include a stripped-down and uncluttered word-processor. The particular advantage of word-processors for writers is that they’re designed for you to move chapters and chunks around easily. Scrivener is the best known of these.

In addition some include templates or other devices to help you build your story arc.  I’d recommend treating this facility with some caution. Following templates may lead to mechanical stories.

writenow storyboard
WriteItNow storyboard

For ease of presentation, I’ve listed all the features and the costs of the main products in a table.

story organisers

Editors

In a previous blogpost I reviewed Fictionary (which implausibly claims to give your novel a structural assessment), and copy editors Autocrit and ProWritingAid, as well as some free alternatives.  I recommended ProWritingAid as best value for money.

 

The bottom line

Many of the story Planners can be copied out as question templates. So you could try the demo version, copy the questions, and create your own tool. There’s pretty much nothing in the Organiser group you can’t do with a word-processor and a spreadsheet, or indeed paper and pencil. Only the Editing tools depend on algorithms and databases you can’t copy.

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117 The Shape of Stories

Stories have structures, or arcs as authors like to call them. When we think of stories in this way, we can begin to see story-types.

The simplest stories

There are two very simple structures. They’re so basic they don’t really qualify as satisfying stories.

simplest stories

In Rags to Riches, everything gets better. In Riches to Rags, everything gets worse. Though few self-respecting authors would tell such a naïve tale, politicians tell them all the time.

The simplest viable story

Freytag

This is the Freytag triangle. It follows Aristotle’s injunction that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end (the Three-Act structure).

The beginning comprises the exposition and the inciting incident. The exposition phase introduces essential information about the characters and setting, while the inciting incident launches the action.

Tension rises in the middle as the protagonist struggles to achieve something. There is a turning point. And tension falls towards the resolution.

In the ending, the problem is resolved and there is a denouement where all the loose ends are tied up.

There are many ways of structuring a story, but the Freytag triangle is a classic on which a lot of others are built.

The W Diagram

This is essentially a Freytag triangle with a high point where everything appears to be resolved before the rug is pulled out from under the protagonist and a new trial begins.

W Diagram

A complex story like a novel may have several hills and valleys. There may also be subplots with arcs of their own.

 

 

multiple arcs
Hacktext

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories

In a humorous talk, the writer Kurt Vonnegut outlined the shape of stories, based on his rejected Master’s thesis. The diagrams and text from Vonnegut’s talk here are from Mcclure.

Vonnegut Man in a Hole

Vonnegut Boy Meets Girl

Vonnegut Cinderella.jpg

Machine intelligence analysis of story shapes

Researchers from the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide tried to test Vonnegut’s idea using machine analysis of sentiment in 1,327 Western stories. They found the stories grouped into 6 basic types. The diagrams here are from Munson Missions.

six story arcs

For those of you who like to understand method, read on. For those of you who don’t care, skip to the Hero’s Journey. These shapes were generated by analysing the words in the stories and scoring them for the degree of happiness they convey. Words like love and laughter score high, while words like terrorist and death score low. You can check this out yourself at the authors’ Hedonometer site.

Before you get too excited about this, consider the following sentence:

“Trekking through the vale of tears, dark, clammy and terrifying, we were ambushed by the monster and killed it for all of you.”

Almost every word here in unhappy, but the overall sense is one of hope. The meaning of a set of words depends on context and not just the words by themselves.

The shape generated by a machine intelligence, of course, depends on the method used. Compare these two shapes for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This comparison was done by Kirsten Menger-Anderson.

Hamlet plot Hedonometer

Hamlet plot sentiment

The first was generated by the Hedonometer. The second by another machine intelligence routine that rates sentiment (positive or negative). They don’t look much alike.

The Hero’s Journey or Quest

Heros journey linear

The Hero’s Journey is among the most commonly used story templates. It derives from the work of Joseph Campbell, who believed all stories, at root, followed the same archetype. George Lucas used it to structure the first Star Wars movie.  In Act 1 the protagonist receives the call to adventure and is assisted by a mentor to accept the challenge and move into the “special world”.  In Act 2, the protagonist is subjected to a road of trials, before winning the reward and starting back to the everyday world. Act 3 follows the road back where the protagonist delivers the reward.

For those who don’t like straight lines

The quest structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, can be represented by a “there and back” circle.

Heros journey circular

Stories that loop back on themselves are very satisfying. Though, since a circle contains no change, a spiral may be a more appropriate shape. The diagram below was made by John McPhee to illustrate the structure of his Travels in Georgia

McPhee Spiral

And finally

Tears of Boabdil structure 3

This was the structure diagram I constructed while writing my novel The Tears of Boabdil to try to capture the layering.

Are there any major story arc devices I’ve missed out? Let me know.

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.

103. Two steps forward, one step back

step in sand

Last month I talked about some ways to drive more traffic to your site, and said I was going to experiment with some of the ideas.

  • Guest posts on other blogs
  • Building an e-mail list
  • Joining an online writing community

The guest post is still scheduled. I can now report on the other two.

Building an e-mail list

I used MailChimp to mail a newsletter to a list of 158 people who follow my blog and/or who have commented regularly and thoughtfully on my writing. The draft newsletter was pilot tested with nine people.

The mailing didn’t go hugely well.  Yes, on the one hand the response was well above industry benchmarks. On average, 22% of e-mails in the media and publishing industry are opened. My open-rate was 42.7%. Again, the industry benchmark for “click rate” (clicking on “subscribe”) is 4.66%, while in my case it was 14.6%.

But something went horribly wrong. I should have received 23 subscription notifications. But I only got three. Some people told me independently that they had signed up, bringing my e-mail list to eight. So, I’m missing 15 subscriptions. I guess I made some mistake with MailChimp.

subscribe

 

The Scribophile writing community

Scribophile is a large members-only community of writers, and claims 858,776 critiques for 145,608 works, an average of just under six responses per work. Being a closed group, it has the advantage that it shouldn’t prevent you submitting your work elsewhere. I joined it last month, and I’m pretty impressed.

It runs, like any successful community, on the basis of reciprocity. You can’t post your own writing without first contributing, most particularly by critiquing others’ work. There are groups for people with particular interests, bulletin boards, competitions. And, of course, posting your writing for critique. I’ve used it to test out whether readers will tolerate breaking some pretty fundamental rules about first chapters.

I’m a newbie on the site – you start with the rank of “Scribbler” and can rise to “Scribomaster”; I have reached the dizzying heights of Typesetter. Despite that, I can track 16 visits to my blog originating from Scribophile. I also have 13 followers on the site.

100. How to increase visitors to your site

So you want to draw more people to your site. There are three ways to do this

  • Produce great content.
  • Make sure people know about it
  • Be incredibly famous

How do you do these things? The secret of being incredibly famous still eludes me, so I’ll concentrate on the first two topics.

How do you produce great content?

great content
Anatomy of great content

Apart from being talented (which, of course, you are) what can you do to produce great content? Great content is, at least in part, stuff that other people want to read. Nathaniel Tower writes a blog which I really like. In January 2018 he published a helpful post on writing what people want to read. In summary, his 5 tips are:

  1. Write about something that answers a commonly-asked question.

He recommends using something like Moz Keyword Explorer to find out what questions people are asking. This will tell you that 11,000-30,000 people a month are asking questions about writing.

You can also use the stats from your own site to identify what search terms drew people to your posts. In my case for example two frequent search terms were variants of “formula for flash fiction” and “scenes, sequels and MRUs”. These drew people to two of my most popular post – Scenes, Sequels and MRUs and My Secret Formula for Flash Fiction.  This tells you it’s worth putting some effort into thinking about your titles.

  1. Write about something that will help people.

Like, for example, how to drive more visitors to your site. Last year I tried this in a big way, with an online writing course. It never took off because I’d neglected the third of my three principles – fame. I’m not a famous writer, so why would anyone listen?

  1. Write about something that’s controversial or polarising

Nathaniel gives the example of his post on whether you should write every day. He advises that you cover both sides of the controversy so you engage all the readers rather than turning off half of them.

  1. Write about something you’ve never seen written about before
  2. Write about something that means a lot to you

 

How do you make sure people know about your site?

If I was writing as an expert, I’d try out all the ideas and then tell you the result. But I’m writing as I learn, so I’m going to share the experiment with you instead. These are some of things I’ve tinkered with and intend to try more systematically over the coming year

  1. Join an online community

This has been far and away the most successful strategy I’ve used. In the first nine months of this blog, I got an average of 53 views and 23 visitors per month.  WordPress has 74.6 million blogs and receives 21 billion page views per month. That’s an average of 281 views per blog per month (if the reads were distributed evenly, which they’re not). So my hits were distinctly below par.

In the next year, views of my site jumped over 10-fold to 592 a month and unique visitors to 174.

blogstats 2

This wasn’t because my content was so much better. One simple thing changed in February 2016 – I joined an online community. Friday Fictioneers is a group of writers that varies between 70 and 100 people a month, producing a hundred-word flash fiction each week. Posting these stories exposed me to a bigger audience, not just for the weekly stories but also for my other content.  Why not join it too? It’s managed by Rochelle Wisoff .

Since joining the community, my stats have continued to build slowly. In the 10 months to January 2018, views grew a further 22% to an average of 721 a month and individual visitors rose 28% to 222 a month.

The slow growth coming from Friday Fictioneers will take a long time to reach the next level (say 1,000 hits a month).  But this strategy worked so well that it may be worth finding other communities. The difference between a community and the other approaches is that it’s not a one-off: you’re engaging permanently – building credibility, trust and relationships.

Strategies I’ve tried

Strategy Average increase in reads Permanent change
Online community 540 Yes
Cross post in other communities 15 1 follower
Author interview 20 No
Guest posts 1 No
Mentions by others 40 No
Mention others 9 No

Other writing communities

However. I have tried other communities in the past – Webook, a writers’ community about to go into liquidation, as well as publishing online on Wattpad and on Big World Network. None has been as effective as Friday Fictioneers.

materiality-of-research-writing-in-the-classroom
Image © Vladimer Shioshvili

Authors Publish suggests four communities worth joining.

  • Lit Hive aims to be a community that unites writers with readers. The most widely read book received 19 comments, the most recent over two years ago. The discussion boards seem equally inactive.
  • Scribophile is a large members-only community of writers and claims 858,776 critiques for 145,608 works, an average of just under six responses per work. Being a closed group, it has the advantage that it shouldn’t prevent you submitting your work elsewhere.
  • Writers Network is another writing community.
  • Writers Café is another writing community. Its server was achingly slow when I tested it.

2. Engage more with readers and potential readers

I have probably not been as generous as I should be in reciprocating readers’ interest. I pretty much do respond to all comments, but I don’t necessarily reciprocate follows and likes or build a conversation. Some ideas are:

  • Follow more people (particularly if they follow me)
  • Join in the conversation on others’ sites
  • Build and maintain an e-mail list with unique content for regular followers and attentive commenters. There’s a saying in marketing about the importance of e-mail promotion “the money’s in the list”. This is the strategy I’m currently experimenting with.

The reason I haven’t done these things isn’t aloofness. It’s shyness. I engage with friends and colleagues I know well, but it takes me out of my comfort zone to do that with strangers. In a very British way, it just seems pushy. The whole language of “building your author brand” just makes me a little queasy.  But, building trust and relationships I understand. So of course, I have to spend time outside my comfort zone if I want to engage with the community of other writers and readers. The idea of building relationships (rather than selling) is fundamental here.

 

3. Engage other people’s readers

Engaging other people’s readers might help make the next jump.

  • Guest posts. Invite other people to do guest posts on my blog and solicit invitations to post on theirs. I tried this a little bit in the past on A Writer’s Path (with over 26,000 followers), which didn’t generate much evident short-term boost to my stats, but then I haven’t explored this systematically. I have a guest post coming up 4 May on Dee Cee Taylor’s blog It’s All About Books as part of a blog tour to promote the Climate Fiction anthology Nothing is as it was (in which I have a story) to be published on Earth Day 22 April by Retreat West Books.
  • Reblog other people’s posts. Hopefully they’ll reciprocate.
  • Interview other people. I had intended to establish a regular series of interviews with other writers. I did one in 2015, a conversation with A U Latif, author of Songs From the Laughing Tree I never got around to doing any more, until this February when I published an interview with Claire Fuller.

Claire Fuller

I can track an additional 19 reads this brought to my blog, so this isn’t going to boost my followers into the thousands. However one friend did say “Would love to see you post more such interviews. So helpful to compare another writer’s process with mine, get new ideas for approaching research, see how things evolve.” So it falls into the category of posting what others want to read.

  • Mention other people in your posts and tell them you’ve done so. For example, I wrote one post thanking some writers for their support. Their friends did read the post.
  • Write a “top ten” list, any top ten list, it doesn’t really matter. For example, the top ten sites for advice to writers. This is a much more intricate take on the previous idea. The idea is that at least some of them and their followers will read your post and you’ll pick up some as your own readers.
  • Include reviews of books you’ve liked. Again, I’ve done this sporadically on my blog, but most of my book reviews go on Goodreads, where I don’t have much of a profile.

The basic driver behind all these ideas is good old-fashioned vanity. Everyone likes to see themselves in print. We read our reviews and what others are saying about us. (You obviously have to let the people know you’ve done it, so they’ll go and look and tell their friends about it). And, of course, if you choose people with thousands of followers, you’re more likely to pick up new readers. The challenge, though, is to convert them into regular readers, which goes back to having good content. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: ruthless self-promotion will only end up looking like what it is; you have to engage with what people want, not with what they can do for you. In other words, be genuine and interested in them and, if you can’t, don’t do it all.

 

4. The techie stuff – don’t worry about keywords

It used to be the case that spending a lot of time massaging the tags and keywords on your site could make a huge difference to your ranking on search engines. There still are ways in which you can manipulate this, but it’s much less important than it used to be. Google no longer uses keywords to rank its output.

To prove this, I checked out the page rank score for my blog on the Moz site and compared it with two other writers’ sites (which I won’t name). My site has one keyword (my name) and a page rank of 40. The page rank indicates how prominent the page is likely to be on search engines, out of a possible 100. The two writers I compared myself with (both with significant followings) have 80 and 19 keywords respectively and both have page ranks of 41. J.K. Rowling, by comparison, has a page rank of 77.

So, if like me you’re bored with fiddling under the hood of your site, you can pretty much ignore this. The only thing you need to know is that you’ll rank higher if you include useful links in your posts, and particularly if others link to you.

 

5. More techie stuff – best time and day to publish

Another set of data you might or might not want to ignore is that on the best time and day to publish. There’s a useful summary of several studies by Garret Moon. These suggest that the best day for page views may be Monday morning between 9:00 and 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

time to post

Two of the studies indicate that the best time for comments and shares is at the weekend. This would make sense, since there’s less competition from other posts then, and people have more free time. However, another study indicates that the best time for shares is Thursday at 10:00 a.m. EST.

The reality is probably that you should be guided by your own experience. A lot will depend on who your audience is and where they’re located. Your blog provider will probably give you some analytics and installing Google Analytics will give you more. In my case, around 35% of my readership is from the US, around 27% from the UK, and 17% from India. My highest page views come on Wednesday between 8:00 and 10:00 EST. That is for the simple reason that Friday Fictioneers publishes on a Wednesday.

I’ll let you know which of these strategies I experiment with, and with what results.

What strategies have you tried to increase traffic to your site? How did they work out? I’d love to hear your experience.

90. Who do you write like? The limitations of literary analysis tools

Who can resist a personality test or a fortune teller? Writers are no exception. The online tool I Write Like promises to tell you which famous author your style most resembles. The tool works by Bayesian analysis, much like a spam filter on your e-mail. I tried it and was rewarded with the answer that I wrote like Vladimir Nabakov.

gypsy-2

Then I tried it again. And again. Seventeen times with seventeen different stories. I got thirteen answers ranging from the flattering Tolstoy to the surprising Stephanie Meyer. Five times I got James Joyce. So I started to wonder what the tool was really responding to and analysed the five “Joycean” stories in more detail.

The stories didn’t have genre in common. Two were literary, one was humour, one a thriller and the final one a psychological flash story. Did they then have some stylistic similarity? I used the Hemingway app which measures lexical complexity and assigns a readability score. They averaged grade 4.2, but varied widely from grade 7 (more complex) to grade 2 (less complex).

They also had a higher average “lexical density” than is typical for fiction or than the non-“Joycean” stories. Lexical density is a measure of how many words in a text carry information (nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs) compared with non-informative grammatical words (such as articles, conjunctions, prepositions). Fiction typically has a lexical density of between 49% and 51%. Only 20% of the five “Joycean” stories fell within this range, but only 25% of the non-“Joycean” stories did either.

To check that the I Write Like website wasn’t just throwing out random names, I fed it the same texts on two different days. It gave the same answers, so it is measuring something. Then I ran the obvious test – I fed the tool text from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It identified this as being like Agatha Christie! To be fair, it identified Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as being like Tolstoy.

In the course of this chase, I also looked at another literary analysis tool, the Online Authorship Attribution Tool. This is similar to the tools used by Universities to detect plagiarism in student essays. It compares three features of an unidentified text with known samples: the use of function words, such as “and” and “the” which are independent of content; punctuation; and lexical structure such as sentence length, word length and complexity of vocabulary. This tool failed to identify any of my “Joycean” stories as being like James Joyce. However, it also failed to identify chapter five of Portrait of the Artist as being by Joyce either.

I write like badge

I looked more closely at my five “Joycean” stories. They did have one thing in common – they all contained an extended monologue or internal dialogue. I have no way of knowing for sure whether this was what the tool was detecting. But it made sense, more sense than the idea that I have thirteen different styles. The story that was like Stephanie Meyer (author of the vampire romance Twilight series) was sci-fi and contained a hunt.

The moral of the investigation is: use these toys for fun by all means, but don’t take their readings any more seriously than you would a personality test or a horoscope in a magazine.

67. Road-testing agents and publishers listings, and avoiding scams

How do you find an agent or publishers who will accept manuscripts without an agent? How do you know which ones are scammers, or vanity publishers? When I was around fourteen or fifteen, I got a Writers and Artists Yearbook for Christmas. It was a hefty book even then, listing agents and publishers.

In the era of online databases, you can find much of this information on the Internet, and more. A lot of it is free. Authors Publish, which will e-mail you a useful update every week, is a resource I use a lot. Last week, they published a useful article on all aspects of submitting a manuscript, full of links to other resources.

There are guidelines on things like writing query letters and constructing pitches. There are also databases for finding agents and publishers and checking their credentials. I test-drove a couple of these. The results were disappointing.

AgentQuery is billed as a reputable search engine for agents. Also listed were Querytracker, and Publishers Marketplace. All are free, though Querytracker requires you to join. Querytracker seemed the most useful for finding agents, because it lists country. Both QueryTracker and Publishers Marketplace contain listings of who represents who – a useful feature if you decide your writing is like someone who is already published, though they failed to find the agents for the two authors I tried.

AgentQuery is the only one that allows you to search by genre, but not so helpful if you’re outside the US, since it seems to list only US agents. I tested it on agents for my current book, and it returned precisely none of the agents I had selected to pitch to, all of whom are in the UK. Query Tracker found two of five agents I selected for testing, while Publishers Marketplace found three. I wasn’t convinced any of these sites would replace my own diligent research.

test results

Then there are some websites against which you can check the credentials of agents and publishers. Anyone can set up and agency or a publisher. Some are not very good, and some are scams. Anyone who charges a reading fee should probably be avoided. And some publishers are vanity publishers where you pay them to publish your work rather than the other way round.

Preditors and Editors identifies those who are not recommended, as requiring fees or offering vanity publishing. I tested the site on four small publishers, and it had no listing for any of them. Index to Agents, Publishers and Others is a community resource, driven by postings from users. It listed three of the four test publishers, though the information on one was out of date. You should bear in mind that user postings may or may not be accurate and dispassionate. Again. I felt it was probably better to rely on my own research.

With both agents and publishers, you can take a look at their websites. Ask yourself, do they look professional? Check out their authors – are they people with whom you’d feel in good company? Are they interested in your genre? Do they offer editorial and, in the case of the publishers, marketing and distribution? What are the royalty arrangements? Databases can help, but remember they are neither complete nor fully accurate.

44. Revising with spine and ribs

Michael Crichton says “books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It’s one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Revision
As promised last week, I’m devoting this post to the feared and hated topic of revision and a great approach to revision that I learnt from the University of Iowa course that has now finished. The take-home messages were:

  • Writing is only the beginning; where the real work and the real fun of it comes is in the rewriting
  • Let time pass between edits – part of writing is not writing
  • Build the rewrite in “layers” – focussing on one thing at a time for each edit
  • Enjoy the problem-solving – failure leads to mastery – the more problems you solve, the better you get at it

I got really excited about a method for structuring the revision process, which I’m going to call the spine and ribs method. It was proposed by one of the teaching assistants, Christa Fraser. But this is my own adaptation of it, for whose faults no blame attaches to Christa. The method involves two passes, and each is structured as a set of questions. I’ll lay out the questions here. Then I’ll illustrate its use with the revision I made of a story about a shoe shine guy who has an encounter with a mysterious customer.
Pass One

  1. What is the “soul” of the piece?
    What are you trying to convey and what concerns were working there of which you were not fully conscious?
  2. Who are the main characters and what is the setting here?
  3. What are the primary obsessions, preoccupations, desires, fears, obligations, etc. of our characters?

Once you’ve answered these questions, in what ways are these things driving or pulling the narrative forward? These are the long lines or spine of the story

4. What are some of the short lines of narrative tension that are already there?

Now that you have identified the spine of the narrative, are some of the existing short lines of narrative tension now incongruous with the re-aligned story? Are there new short lines, or ribs, that are opening up and wanting to align themselves along the spine of the story?

You revise the piece using these questions. After the story has been realigned so that you feel that you can see the true shape of the story as it wants to and ought to be, you return for Pass Two.

Pass Two
1. Record and adjust the timeline
The story’s timeline may extend earlier than the earliest point of present moment action and later than the last moment of present action. Can you explore references to the backstory, or hopes and plans that extend beyond the action?

2. Adjust the arc of understanding.
Are you explaining too much? Too little?

3. Polish the mirrors in the mirrored hall of infinity: moments that endlessly reflect
What are the motifs? Where do they repeat? Which parts should mirror each other? Which parts should be prefigured? This is where you play with structure.

4. Polish the burrs off
Read the piece aloud and listen to the rhythm. You’ll hear the false notes, unnatural syntax, incorrect words or phrases, repetitive elements, and anything else that will disrupt your reader’s experience of the narrative at a sound and language level.

5. Share the work with friends whose feedback you trust

6. Repeat all these steps until you think the story is ready

7. Put the story away for months.

8. Repeat all of the above until you think the story or longer work of fiction is ready for submission or publication.
The spine and ribs revision method applied

I used this method for the last assignment of the course, which was to revise a story we had already written. I revised a story about Horacio, a shoe-shine guy. Horacio has a simple moral worldview that good people are recognisable by the care they lavish on their shoes. He has an encounter with an enigmatic drifter, who he sees initially as a devil and then as an angel. An apparent miracle occurs which forces Horacio to question his morality.

I was really pleased and surprised by the result. In pass one, I came to recognise that in addition to Horacio’s worldview there was another idea lurking: an exploration of the way we try to fit events to our worldview. I considered whether I needed to give Horacio more of a backstory, to explain his morality. I also considered whether I needed to give a clearer explanation of the drifter, and whether he really was a messianic figure, or whether he was manipulating Horacio. The main conclusion was that I needed to give the story more room to breathe – to draw out the conflict between Horacio and the drifter. I also moved the devil/angel definition of the drifter from the narrator’s voice to Horacio’s voice.

In pass two, I had a lot of fun. At this point I layered in a lot more complexity that had been lurking in the story as subtext without me being aware of it. In particular, I saw that the events which challenge our worldview with good outcomes need not themselves be good.
I gave Horacio a backstory, tracing his morality to his flinty mother who scoured him of religious doubt. I considered, and rejected, extending to story to what happened after Horacio’s revelation.

The work on structure and motif in the second pass was really the glory of the thing for me, perhaps because playing with structure is the bit of revision I enjoy most. I recognised motifs not only of devils and angels, and good shoes/good men, but also of burnishing/scouring and aridity that I hadn’t been conscious of. I saw how I could connect them more clearly. I saw that I could prefigure the climax (hopefully, without it being obvious). I gave Horacio a more explicit revelation that good shoes did not necessarily imply a good person. I altered the ending so that it echoed the beginning. Interestingly, this changed the story but not the subtext. In the original version, Horacio leaves his shoe-shine stand and follows the drifter. In the revised version, he refuses. But this didn’t matter because it still underscored Horacio’s revelation.

I shared the rewrite with two other writers on the course before submitting it. One wanted a tighter structure and deletions, and the other a greater opening up. I tried two different approaches to structure and I now had two different versions of the piece! One was narratively more straightforward but eliminated some of the backstory. The other was more convoluted but denser. My head opted for the first version, my heart for the second. In the end, I went for the first version when I realised that my heart was attached to a piece of descriptive writing that didn’t really move the story forward.

I’m really pleased with the result. One reader said “you have deepened and expanded this into a lovely parable”, and another described it as a “richly intelligent read, full of a kind of tenderness”. Now I just need to leave it to infuse and mature in a deep recess of my hard drive before I return to it.

30. How sticky is glue? Footnote on editing software

Following on from my last post about the perils of slavishly following the dictates of a machine editor, I had this salutary lessons. I was editing a story in which a character quotes Shakespeare’s speech from As You Like It:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”

My editing software says the Bard of Avon made some schoolboy errors here. The whole thing has a “glue index” of 51.4%. Glue words are the 200 or so most common words in English, which slow the reader down. Worse still, the first sentence has 71.4% of “glue” words – all, the, world. ‘s, a, and, men.

Ha! Much ado about nothing.

29. Machina ex Deus

deus_ex_machina_2

Are machines stupid? Yes, of course. And here’s proof.

I love my editing software. I use Pro Writing Aid to ferret out all those repetitive words, sneaky adverbs, and missing commas. It speeds up my editing and never tires. BUT …….

It’s a machine – the programme has no clue what the words mean. The first line of the chapter from A Golden Illusion that I’m working on at the moment is

“The night was long and adventurous, the morning easy and languorous.”

I was rather pleased with this, and the way it got me out of having to write another sex scene.

Pro Writing Aid wasn’t so impressed, and picked this out as a “sticky sentence”, containing 63.6% of “glue” words. The target figure for such words is below 40%. The software explains glue words as follows:

“Glue words are the 200 or so most common words in English (excluding the personal pronouns). Glue words are generally used to link nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. You can think of the glue words as the empty space in your writing. The more of them there are the more empty space you readers have to pass through to get to the actual meaning.”

Unthinkingly I obeyed since I was in the midst of correcting lots of mistakes. The revised sentence was

“The hours before dawn were prolonged and adventurous, the morning easy and languorous”,

which successfully banished the stickiness by paraphrasing the glue words “night” and “long”. Success! Except that it’s a terrible sentence and doesn’t convey the meaning I wanted. On re-reading, I reverted to my original.

Another thing the software searches for is sentence length. The target for the average number of words per sentence is between 11 and 18, and the maximum length for any sentence is set at below 30 words. Again, this is a reasonable rule, but when followed mechanically, it led to unreadable sentences.

For example, the programme drove me to amalgamate the following sentences into one.

“‘No, not exactly, but it’s a trivial private matter. As I understand it, something to do with a stain on the Parris family reputation.’”

The resulting 24 word sentence was grammatical and within the maximum word limit, but it was harder to read.

Another set of algorithms confirmed the reading difficulty of the sentence. Hemingway App (http://www.hemingwayapp.com/) checks the readability of text, though it will only analyse around 5000 words at a time. The long sentence required a reading age of 14-15 years, while the original corresponded to a reading age of 11.

So, the moral of the tale is don’t allow the god of creativity to become a slave to the machine. I’m a big fan of the machine editor, but make sure your human eye reads everything over afterwards. Correct the text to what you intended to say, even if that breaks a rule or two.