Thursday, July 17, 2014

Advanced Metrics

James O. Born

It's time to get back to the nuts and bolts of writing a novel.  Sure, we took a break to talk about the fun stuff like promotion and other things that don't necessarily affect your actual writing.  Now it’s back to work.

Evaluating our work.  This is not necessarily an artistic evaluation, but more of a statistical evaluation.  This falls in line with my background in statistics and I’m comfortable thinking of most things this way, but writing is not like "most things".  There are as many ways to look at a novel statistically as there are to examine anything.  What got me started along this line of the inquiry was an article by Clive Thompson that was in  the May, 2014 print edition of Wired magazine. I was unable to find a link to the actual story online and provide a link.  I went the extra step and contacted Mr. Thompson via e-mail to make sure he didn't mind me talking about it. 

The one-page story covered a study that put 19th-century British novels through various computer analyses and looked for patterns.  They discovered that as the century advanced, the number of terms describing action doubled as well as words that describe people's bodies.  There are several theories as to why this occurred, but the fact that this was discovered at all is what's interesting to me.  Just as something like the computer and word processing programs have changed novels in the last thirty years everything from the migration patterns of 19th-century Brits to the availability of writing implements could create a change in trends.  Perhaps it was something as simple as the reading public's case.  I will leave the article's conclusions for you to find yourself.

You don't have to use the power of the computer at a major university to dissect your work.  I have known several authors (who may or may not wish to be identified) who went to great lengths to study the patterns of action versus description in their novels.  They would literally chart the level of action in each scene, then look at the chart to make sure it grew like a wave and descended into the next action sequence.  And by action, I don't mean gunfights and stabbings, but something that propels a thriller or crime novel.

I personally disagree with this type of cold, analytical dissection of one's own novel.  While I am fascinated with the work done by academics using computers and well-written articles like Mr. Thompson's, I prefer to have my novels obtain a sort of organic progression.  Obviously, due to the nature of most crime thrillers, there would be more action towards the end of the book.  But as things occur, I like them to be the result of the actions and intentions of my characters and I also like those actions to surprise me as I am writing the book.  This is not an unusual experience for most writers.  (We will cover outlines next week.)

Some would say it comes down to writing versus storytelling, but I think it is more a function of personality.  Some people are more comfortable telling a story in a simple and straightforward manner and, at least in my case, know how stories like this in real life would unfold.  It would break my concentration and momentum in writing a novel to stop and study how it rises in crescendos and dips in certain places.  Don't get me wrong, like all writers, I review what I've written and hope I have an understanding when a book is lagging.  I don't always take Raymond Chandler's advice on this subject but I like it: When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun.

Mr. Chandler offers other device that's very close to our topic today: And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.

Once again, as with almost everything we've discussed, the choice is up to you.  I like to enjoy creating a novel from beginning to end and everything in between.  Using these kind of analytics would crush my soul, and frankly, at this moment, I don't make enough as a novelist to give up my soul.

Todays other quote is more about reading:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.   –Haruki Murakami


  1. James O. Born7/17/2014 11:55 AM

    Based on the number of posts between my two, I want to rename the Blog "Jim's Blog on Writing."

  2. I'd love to be able to put my finished manuscript through a computer program and have it tell my where to drop a few bodies. I want one of those charts used by certain unidentified authors.

    "Jim's Blog on Writing"...I LIKE IT!!!

  3. James, thank you for blogging today. I wondered what happened to the others. I noticed that Ridley Pearson and Cornelia Read have not blogged for a while.

    If it's Thursday, it's James O. Born's day for blogging.


  4. James O. Born7/18/2014 12:15 PM

    At least I am dependable.

  5. I think Raymond Chandler's line was "When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun." But your point is well taken, in any event. Another excellent blog on the Writing Process. It is a process, right?