I wrote this earlier tonight (it’s Monday evening as I write this) because of my occasional frustration with the intrusion of grammar and spelling checkers as I write fiction.
Yes, I know it’s an incomplete sentence. Yes, that is the word I mean. Yes, in this instance I want a passive voice. Yes, I know that’s an improper use of an ellipsis. Yes, I want a comma here. No, I did not mean “fudge off”.
. . . it gets annoying.
I recently read of programs that analyze stories (scripts) and can accurately predict box-office success. I extrapolated where this is heading.
© 2015 – E. J. D’Alise
Ed sat in front of the new computer, fuming. This was the latest model, packed with robust productivity tools. And he hated it. He longed for his old computer, but even careful care and loving attention could not stem the ravages of old age. There simply were no more parts to be found, and Ed had replaced his old computer with the slick machine he was now battling.
He checked all the settings, every virtual switch he could find, and with renewed hope retyped the sentence.
Even as he typed, the auto-correct function rearranged his words, replaced some, and changed the tone of the sentence.
“ARGH!” he yelled aloud.
He picked up the manual and looked for a solution to his problem. The sad part was that the manual itself had been translated from another language and was full of confusing sentence structure and obviously incorrect words, and yet this machine was “correcting” his prose.
The results of the proofing algorithm were technically flawless but devoid of any style. No voice, no emotion, no ‘feeling’ to the words. Most of all, it was not his writing; it was just his words.
He noticed a small paragraph in the addendum of the manual. It mentioned a learning module; the machine’s proofreading algorithm could be trained to mimic the style of the writer. After following confusing directions, he stumbled onto the appropriate sub-menu and pressed “Learn Mode.”
A dialog box opened on the screen.
Well, that seemed easy enough. He navigated to the directory with the files of his work in progress; his novel. Nearly complete, he had more than eight months into it. He clicked on the latest file and pressed Enter.
“Loading complete. Analyzing.”
A progress bar appeared in front of the words he had so lovingly crafted. He watched as the percentage increased. It slowed as it approached 100% and then sat at 99% for an inordinate amount of time.
The 100% mark finally lit up and Ed screamed as he watched message boxes pop up and his work being mutilated by the proofreading module. He uselessly sought to stop the program as whole paragraphs were rearranged, entire sentences deleted and replaced with new ones, and even chapters reordered, split up, and sometimes erased.
He pressed the power button, holding it down, but the machine responded with “Waiting for a process to finish”.
Frantically re-reading the manual, he realized his mistake. It was not a learning mode for the program; it was a learning mode for him. The machine was showing him proper structure, plot flow, character development, the use of humor, suspense points, and other things he could not read as the message boxes piled up atop one another.
Finally, all the messages boxes cleared save one:
Ed reached for the mouse, but the machine shut down before he touched it.
Stunned, he watched the blank screen.
“What just happened?” he asked aloud.
He switched the machine back on. It fired up nearly instantaneously. At least that was an improvement. His old machine would take minutes to be up and running.
The editor opened up automatically, his re-written novel staring back at Ed.
He forced himself to read it.
It was perfect . . . And boring. No voice to the story at all. The plot was nominally the same, the characters flawless cardboard cutouts, the action taut and predictable, the flow of the chapters timed to a three-act play format. Clicking on the “Options” button, he was presented with the option of a seven acts format, modifying the humor from light banter to sarcastic, caustic, or irreverent, and the option to pad to a desired word count.
While technically perfect, it was not his story. Worse, it was now like many of the books he had tired of reading. Formulaic, predictable, and insultingly condescending toward the reader. His idea had survived, but the words that now draped over it obscured its beauty and offered no hint of elegance, left no feeling of wonder. Quite the opposite; the novel now begged to be read once and forgotten.
He shook his head as he switched off the learning mode, closed the file, and opened his backup. Ed’s neighbor came running from his apartment as he heard Ed’s anguished cries at the realization that all of the novel’s backup files had been automatically updated to reflect the revised version.
It took Ed nearly a year to re-write, longhand, his novel. During that time, he found and restored an antique typewriter. He even made his own ribbons, learning by trial and error the proper amount of ink needed for crisp text on a page.
Another two months of editing to arrive at the finished typewritten product that he mailed to the editor he had met at one of the writing conferences Ed attended.
Finally, a reply. Not a thin envelope, but a thick legal-sized mailer. It contained an enthusiastic letter, a copy of a contract, and a hand-written note congratulating Ed on what the editor hoped would be the first of many books.
It was not until four months later that Ed received his proof copy along with a note from the editor. As he read the note, Ed felt a sense of dread:
Here is the first proof copy. We scanned your manuscript and ran it through our new proofer, and it made a few changes. I hope you don’t mind. Publication is scheduled for the Fall.
We’ll be in touch as far as appearances and promotion efforts. Again, congratulation on this, your first book.
Sincerely, . . . ”
Ed dropped the letter and opened the book. Once again, his neighbor came running at the sound of Ed’s siren-like scream.
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. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.