Best-Seller Foreteller?

What if a soothsayer could tell you if your manuscript would become a best-seller? If you were a publisher, you’d hire that soothsayer, right?

Throughout the history of the publishing industry, editors and publishers had to make buy-or-reject decisions based on experience and gut feel.

Welcome to the Age of Big Data.

Crystal ball image from Wikipedia

According to an article in The Telegraph , researchers at Stony Brook University used computers to analyze writing styles and could predict whether a book would be successful with up to 84% accuracy.

Following up on that, Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers wrote The Bestseller Code, a book about their algorithm (the “bestseller-o-meter”) that analyzes character, plot, setting, style, and theme to make its predictions. According to an article in BBC Culture, this strangely named algorithm is also highly accurate.

More recently, I read an article in BuiltinAustin about a company in Austin, Texas called AUTHORS.me that has developed their own algorithm, StoryFit, which they market to publishers.

These algorithms chew on massive amounts of data—thousands of novels—and perform statistical analyses. After being given test data about past novels for which the success or failure results are known, the algorithm “learns,” or at least develops rules, to distinguish best-sellers from flops. You then apply the algorithm to an unpublished manuscript and make a reasonable prediction. A crystal ball for novels.

Could this lead to a world where publishers reject your manuscript because their algorithm said it wouldn’t sell? Or a world where authors could edit their manuscript to add in the aspects such algorithms judge to be indicative of success? Could the writing and publishing of novels be reduced to a numbers game?

Not quite yet, apparently. The Stony Brook University algorithm struggled to predict the success of books in one genre—historical fiction. Also their algorithm “predicted” Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would flop. Archer and Jockers’ bestseller-o-meter rated The Help by Kathryn Stockett as meh. Further, the novel achieving their algorithm’s highest score (The Circle by Dave Eggers) was a commercial failure.

Certainly, these artificially intelligent systems will improve and get more accurate in the coming years. They’ll identify trends in how the reading public’s tastes are changing. Maybe the algorithms will never be 100% right, and some books they reject will succeed and vice versa. Every now and then, an author tries something new and it sells well despite being unlike the norm. They do call them novels, after all.

As publishers make increasing use of tools that predict a novel’s success, and as authors begin to use similar tools to tune their manuscripts for market success, could it be that overall novel writing will improve? Will that lead to an increase in readership, a renewed clamor for books by the buying public?

I hope so. In the meantime, my new big-data algorithm has just finished analyzing all my previous blog posts, and states there is a 99% probability I’ll conclude this one by signing it—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Better Writing through Chemistry?

If you consume alcohol or mind-altering drugs, will that improve your writing?  Many people think so.  Supposing it’s true, it’s nice to have that short-cut to greatness available, isn’t it?  Why struggle to choose the right words while sober or clean when you can snort, inject, or imbibe your way to literary greatness?

The connection persists because so many of the top writers, it seems, had a reputation for using drugs or alcohol.  The two that spring to my mind are Edgar Allan Poe’s use of opium and absinthe, and Ernest Hemingway’s consumption of wine, mojitos, and daiquiris.  The list of famous authors who wrote under the influence also includes Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Jean Cocteau, Phillip K. Dick, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Stephen King, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams.

The effects of alcohol that might benefit a writer include a loss of inhibitions, which might stimulate creativity.  However, other effects would be less helpful: blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory, blackouts, shaking, lack of muscle coordination and balance.

Drugs vary in their effects, but some of the reactions that might aid an author include euphoric pleasure, confidence, and extended wakefulness.  I suppose hallucinations could be of use to a writer, so let’s include those.  However, the known downsides of drugs can include delusions, aggression, paranoia, drowsiness, respiratory depression, nausea, blurred vision, headaches, disorientation, impaired memory, slowed reaction time, diminished judgment, mood swings, and addiction.

On balance, it seems to me there would be more harm than good in drinking or using drugs to improve your writing.  Some of the things said about the writers I listed above may not even be true.  The Edgar Allan Poe Society has debunked the myths about the writer of “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells.”  It’s not entirely clear if some of the other writers took drugs or alcohol to improve their writing or to cope with their troubled lives.

I remain skeptical about using drugs or alcohol as a path to quality writing.  Joanna Penn, whose blog I follow, has written a very thoughtful piece on the subject.  I have to commend author Eric Kuentz for actually conducting an experiment and being willing to share his experience.  His results seem rather mixed and it appears he’s disinclined to recommend the practice to others.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on, or experiences with, this subject.  Please leave a comment.  As for my own experiences, well, my scribing job occasionally takes me to Olympus where I’m sometimes allowed to partake of ambrosia and nectar.  Those are the substances most recommended by—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

November 4, 2012Permalink

Hook ‘em, So You Can Reel ‘em In

How will you begin your next story?  The beginning, called the ‘hook,’ is important.  These days readers don’t have much time.  Other things like TV, video games, and the Internet compete with your story for their attention.  If your first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grab them, they’re on to doing something else.

Here are some examples of great hooks used in novels as chosen by the editors of American Book Review:

  • Call me Ishmael.  Moby-Dick, Herman Melville 
  • Marley was dead, to begin with.  A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  1984, George Orwell
  • You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.  The Trial, Franz Kafka
  • Mother died today.  The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  • He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • It was a pleasure to burn.  Fahrenheit 451,  Ray Bradbury
  • The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.  The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

These beginnings work well for several reasons.  They give us an early idea what the story will be about.  They establish the tone of the story, and something about the attitude of the narrator’s voice.

But most of all they seize our attention and compel us to want to read more.  What gives them this quality?  It’s hard to find a common attribute just by looking at them.  They seem to appeal for different reasons.

Writer Darcy Pattison has grouped the different beginnings into categories.  This is helpful since one category might work better for the start of your story than another.  Knowing the category can give you a starting point for developing your hook.

Many of the beginnings in the list start with a sense of the ordinary, and then give the reader something that clashes or is jarring somehow.  We’re left with a puzzle, an oddity, a question that can only be resolved by reading further.  So read on we must.

Those without that twist added to the ordinary seem to possess a different quality.  They settle us in, set a mood, fluff up our pillow, put on some appropriate music.  We’re now comfortably in the story, transported to the author’s world right from the start, and now that we’re there we might as well read on to see what the place is like.

Each of these beginnings without exception is easy to read.  None have rare or difficult words to stumble over.  All have rhythm, and almost poetic brevity.  Not a word is wasted.

How do you write an opening like these?  Heck if I know; these are some of the best ever written.  Ask one of the world’s greatest authors.

With that task added to your to-do list, perhaps we could set our sights a bit lower for now.  How do you write an effective story beginning?  For one thing, it takes time and many trials.  The beginning is the hardest part to write, usually takes the longest, and usually involves the most revisions.  You might decide to skip the hook and come back to it later as the story evolves.  You might like to write a first version of the hook knowing you’ll revisit it over and over.  In any case, be prepared to spend the time and thought to craft it right.

To learn much more about how to write story hooks, read Hooked by Les Edgerton.  What an invaluable resource!

With regard to beginnings, we’ve reached the end.  Remember to check back at this site next week for further ramblings about writing by–

                                                                 Poseidon’s Scribe