Language

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers by Ian McHugh

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April 15, 2013

Ian McHugh is a fellow member of the CSFG and we were having a discussing on the mailing list the other day about this strange thing Ian had discovered in terms of word frequency in fiction. So I asked him if he’d consider writing up his findings and guest posting here for me. After all, that saves me having to write up what he found and it’s his baby anyway. He was foolish kind enough to agree. So, many thanks to Ian and hopefully you guys might find some of this quite interesting.

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers

by Ian McHugh (ianmchugh.wordpress.com)

A few weeks ago, fellow CSFG member Phill Berrie wrote a post about word frequency analysis, a tool he uses in his work as an editor. In his post, Phill included a link to a free online word frequency analyser. Plug the text of your story in and it spits out:

  • the total word count of the story
  • how many different unique words you’ve used (a, few, weeks, ago, etc)
  • and how many times you’ve used them (a=36, few=5, weeks=2, ago=2)

Since I had set aside that weekend for working on the final draft of my novel, I decided instead (see “advanced procrastination”, above) to plug a few of my stories into the online analyser and see what the results were. After plugging all of my stories into the analyser, it told me a bunch of stuff that I already pretty well knew:

  • I’m using less adjectives and adverbs than I used to.
  • I have developed a habit of overusing the word as to join two clauses in a sentence.
  • I somehow don’t write stories between 3,000 and 4,000 words long. Like, ever.

What it also showed, that I hadn’t realised before, was that the number of different unique words that I use has fallen by about 20-25% since I first started writing. For stories over 6,000 words, my number of unique words per thousand has dropped from up near 300 to under 230.

So, why?

I had a couple of hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1
My vocabulary is shrinking. No, seriously. I had to look up synonyms for theory to find hypothesis. Then I had to look up like to find synonym. I was very hard on my brain in my late teens and early twenties – like, “I can’t really remember 1991 to 1994″ kind of hard on my brain. I flunked out of art school because I was too stoned and drunk. Art school. That’s like flunking out of rock’n’roll for doing too much cocaine, only less cool. These days when I’m speaking, I often lose my words in mid-sentence. Maybe I’m using less words because I’m losing my words?

Hypothesis #2
Or, given that I’m using less adjectives and adverbs in my stories, maybe I’m just cutting out the crap?

So I wondered what the unique word counts would be for writers operating at a higher level than me. I just happened to have a softcopy of Kaaron Warren’s first short story collection, The Grinding House, so I plugged a few of Kaaron’s old stories into the analyser. Casting about, I also had a softcopy of a longish Lucius Shepard story from Issue 1 of Crowded Magazine. In both cases, I found that the unique word counts were down around 200 per 1,000 words.

Interesting!

Then I went to Tor.com and grabbed a few stories by authors who I immediately recognised as famous, award-winners, working novelists etc, and plugged those in. There was a wider range, but most of the unique word counts were still at or below the low end of my own stories.

So, does this mean that better writers use less words, but use them better? It’s an appealing idea. Had I cracked the secret code to being a better writer?

Yeah, no.

Nice idea, but it holds water about as well as… as one of them thingies that you wash lettuce in… like a bowl, but with holes in it… eh, nevermind.

When I threw a wider net (this was still my novel-editing weekend, mind you – advanced procrastination, remember) and looked at a larger sample of stories from online SFWA pro-markets (including more stories from Tor.com and stories from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons) the unique word counts were all over the place. Including from some of the same authors I’d looked at in the first sample. So much so that it’s not even meaningful to talk about any kind of mean or median.

If anything, many of them were opposite to where my stories have been headed, with unique word counts above my high early average.

So where does this leave me? Back at Hypothesis #1? Was Kaaron also hard on her brain in her youth?

Is there maybe some superficial similarity between my writing style and Kaaron’s writing style? Or at least, Kaaron Warren circa 1994 to 2003? Hell, I’d take that, any day.

Colander!

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that my writing style really is like Kaaron’s in any way you’d notice, but if I have lifted something from her work and incorporated it into my own, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. The Grinding House was a book that made a big impression on me in the early part of my writing career. (Kaaron still uses a quote from my review of it.)

Similarly, if there’s any single story that most influenced me as a new writer, it was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry Quiet War”. Because of that story, I wrote ““Bitter Dreams”, which is probably still my best story, and have kept on writing Westerns since then. “A Dry Quiet War” has a unique word count under 200 per thousand words.

Shepard was another early influence. While he does write elaborate fantasy stories (the Dragon Graiule tales, for example), he’s also written knuckle-dragging, hairy-backed manly stories for Playboy, with protagonists who are terse like the love-child of Clint Eastwood and Conan the Barbarian.

Maybe there’s a clue there. I tend to write in a close third-person or, occasionally, first-person point of view. A lot of my recent stories have featured protagonists who are in some way “simple” – mentally simple, children, from simple socio-cultural settings, or just plain terse. It follows that, with a close point-of-view, the narrative voice for a simple character should also be simple.

Simple character = simple language = lower unique word count.

And a lot of my more complex and elaborate stories are ones with higher unique word counts.

That seems like one of those revelations that’s bleeding obvious once you see it. “Well, of course I knew that!” I think there’s a lesson there, though, in terms of writing consciously for your character’s voice.

And another thing I found? One of the sweet spots for story length for (at least the) SFWA pro markets (I looked at) seems to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words long.

Sigh.

Another sweet spot seems to be between 5,000 and 6,000 words – in which range my stories have, overall, been noticeably less successful than they have over 6,000 words or under 3,000.

Well, I guess if nothing else I found out what I need to work on.

And I did also write/edit nearly 10,000 words of the final draft of my novel that weekend.

Advanced procrastination.

Speaking of which: You should be writing! So go find your character’s voice, and get back to work!

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The story’s the thing and the meaning of words

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January 16, 2012

I like words. That much is blatantly obvious to anyone who knows me and most who don’t. Language, words and stories are the foundation of everything we’ve become as a cultural animal. Language and words evolve too. You might hate it when people say arks instead of ask, as in, “Can I arks you a question?” To which you reply, “You just did, now go back to fucking school!” But you’d be wrong, kinda. The modern dialectal “ax” is as old as Old English “acsian” and was an accepted literary variant until c.1600. So “arks” is closer to the old version than “ask”. Although the word does derive from the Old English “ascian” (not the variant “acsian”), so the correct word has always been “ask” really. Anyway, I’m rambling like an old man on a day trip from the care home. My point is that language evolves and changes.

It can be upsetting sometimes, when we feel like language is dying or being killed off by the uneducated youth of today. But it’s not. It’s an organic thing, doing what it’s always done. After all, you don’t call a happy man gay any more. Unless he’s happy and likes cock, then it’s okay. And you could call him gay even if he was unhappy. Woah, this crazy thing called language!

books The storys the thing and the meaning of wordsSo I got to thinking about the nature of storytelling, as that’s my thang, and how it’s changing. And, by extension, how the language around storytelling is changing. It came up when I was sitting on the couch with my Kindle the other day and my wife called out from the other room, “What are you doing?”

I panicked and quickly checked that I wasn’t up to something, but rallied and replied, “Just reading a book… er, novel.”

And it surprised me. I was reading a book. Albeit an ebook. It was a novel. I could as easily have been reading a short story, novella or saved web page on my Kindle. I should have simply replied, “Just reading.” But it was out there. I was etymologically stunned for a moment. Why had I corrected myself? I wondered if the word “book” would change in meaning. At what point might it refer only to an actual paper and pages physical book? Would that ever happen? Would we then refer to ebooks by their type – novel, novella, collection and so on?

Let’s look at some definitions (all from dictionary.com):

book
noun
1. a written or printed work of fiction or nonfiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.
2. a number of sheets of blank or ruled paper bound together for writing, recording business transactions, etc.
3. a division of a literary work, especially one of the larger divisions.

While “a written… work” is primary, the bit “usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers” is a key part of the definition. It seems that book applies to the artefact as much, if not more than, the content. That’s why we specify ebook when we’re referring to an electronic copy.

So perhaps it’s better, when reading on my Kindle, to say, “I’m reading a novel.” I don’t think I’ll ever say, “I’m reading an ebook”, as it seems irrelevant in some way. It’s not a papery artefact, so I don’t say “book”. The fact that it’s an ebook does little to impart what I’m actually reading.

Ebooks stack lg The storys the thing and the meaning of wordsnovel
noun
1. a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.
(Interestingly – 2. (formerly) novella Origin: 1560–70; < Italian novella (storia) new kind of story. That's evolved now to mean a short novel.)

So that definitely describes better what activity I’m engaged in. Of course, I could say that I’m reading a story.

story
noun
1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
2. a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
3. such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.
4. the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.
5. a narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of these that is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.

This would work well if I was reading a short story, collection or anthology. But, as you can see from the definition, it doesn’t really work linguistically in terms of a novel. It’s come to indicate something shorter.

Of course, when reading a short or a novel, we’re absolutely enjoying a story. After all, regardless of the delivery system, the story’s the thing. That’s what we’re there for. When it comes to my own work, much as I love the beautiful artefact that is a paper book, all I’m really interested in is people reading my stories, be they short or novel. Read them on paper, ereader, computer screen, whatever. I don’t care. You could read them transcribed in felt pen on a hooker’s breasts for all I care, as long as you’re enjoying the story. And now I have this urge, at some point in my life, to read a story written on a hooker’s breasts. Ah well, something else for the bucket list.

So have I solved the conundrum? Actually, no. Because what if I’m reading a non-fiction work on my Kindle. It’s an ebook, so not a book in the artefect sense. But it’s not a novel either. Maybe I could then say, “I’m reading a book about literature on hookers’ breasts in the early twenty first century.”

My wife would come stumbling into the room saying, “What!? I haven’t seen a book like that lying around.”

To which I heft my Kindle and say, “It’s an ebook.” *sigh*

Language. It’s a funny old thing.

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French translation reprint in Monstres! anthology

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December 12, 2011

I’m still pretty tied up in the Kung Fu seminar, but it’s nearly at an end. My wife will be very glad when I get home and start pulling my weight again. In the meantime, I had to mention this bit of news. Some time ago I sold a reprint of my monster short story, Deep Sea Fishing, to the Monstres! anthology, coming soon from Celephais Press. The story was first published in Seizure, issue 4. It’s very exciting on many levels. Firstly, it’s my first foreign langauge translation – in this case into French. The anthology title should have been a clue – that wasn’t a typo. Not to mention the title of this post.

My story has been translated by Vincent Corlaix. I’m intrigued to think about what he may have done. I wonder how much of my voice and style survives a translation. I guess that’s the sign of a good translator – one who will keep those things intact. I’m sure Corlaix has done an excellent job. In translation, my story is called Pêche en haute mer. Which is kinda cool. It’s a Lovecraft-inspired yarn and fits the monsters theme well.

The other good thing is that Celephais have released the cover art, and it’s bloody brilliant. See for yourself – click it for a bigger image:

monstres cover 300x200 French translation reprint in Monstres! anthology

You’ll notice the list of contributors on the back cover and I’m very proud to share a Table Of Contents with a couple of very good friends – Kaaron Warren and Bill Congreve. It’s also nice to see my name right next to Lavie Tidhar. It’s actually the second time I’ve shared a ToC with Mr Tidhar – last time in Murky Depths, #16. Lavie, we must stop meeting like this. People will talk.

This antho will be available in early January and I’ll drop another mention then for those French-reading friends and readers. Or perhaps you could buy a copy for the French friends in your life. You’ve got a French friend or two, right?

Here’s the full ToC:

Blue (Blue), de Pablo Dobrinin, traduction Jacques Fuentealba
Dieu est argent (Working for the God of the Love of Money), de Kaaron Warren, traduction Benoît Giuseppin
Les reines de l’évasion, de Célia Deiana
L’heure des suicidés, Marc R. Soto, trad. Jacques Fuentealba
Fantômes (Fantasmas), de Carlos Gardini, trad. Jacques Fuentealba
Blood Faerie, une symphonie nocturne, de Yohan Vasse
Tania (Tania), de Fermín Moreno, trad. Jacques Fuentealba
Les meilleurs partent toujours en premier, Nelly Chadour
À l’aube de la nuit (Until Sunrise), Bill Congreve, trad. Luc Kenoufi
Mater Insania, de Marija Nielsen
Altera in alteram, de Léonor Lara
Ma femme est un shoggoth (I married a Shoggoth), de Jeffrey Thomas, trad. de Maxime Le Dain
Lien de sang (Blood Relations), de Lewis Shiner, trad. Élodie Meste
En préparant le pot-au-feu, de Timothée Rey
Grand-père Loup (Grand-Father Wolf), de Steve Rasnic Tem trad. Mathieu Rivero
L’Évolution des espèces (La evolución de las especies), de Nuria C. Botey, trad. Marie-Anne Cleden
Pêche en haute mer (Deep Sea Fishing), de Alan Baxter, trad. Vincent Corlaix
Le vieil homme et la mer. Et l’étranger. Et le Kraken. (El viejo y el mar. Y el extraño. Y el Kraken.), de Pedro Escudero, trad. Jacques Fuentealba
Zombi Revenge psyché, de Marc-Olivier Aiken
Lanjnoir (Blakenjel), de Lavie Tidhar, trad. Thomas Bauduret
Je ne suis pas un monstre, de David Pierru

I’ll get back to regular blogging when my mind and body recover from this seminar, hopefully towards the end of the week.

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Service interruption due to kicking butt

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December 4, 2011

I apologise if things are a bit quiet around here for a couple of weeks. As most of you probably know, my “day job” is teaching people to kick butt – I’m a Warrior Scribe. Martial arts practice and instruction, just like writing, requires constant practice and improvement, and the taking of every opportunity to learn. For the next two weeks I’m at an intensive Master training seminar with my teacher in Sydney, training six hours a day and spending the evenings drinking with training buddies, then collpasing into bed with phrases like, “Ow, my fucking arms!”, “Where did that bruise come from?” and “Holy shit, Kung Fu hurts but it’s so freaking cool!”

So posting here will be infrequent if not non-existent until mid-December. In the meantime, let me leave you with a word and a challenge. The word is collop. It’s good, epiglottal sort of word, huh?

collop
noun;
1. A small slice of meat.
2. A small slice, portion, or piece of anything.
3. A fold or roll of flesh on the body.

The challenge is this – use it in a sentence in everyday speech. If someone asks if you want ham on your sandwich, say, “Sure, just a collop, thanks.” Or perhaps say to your loved one, “Baby, let me lick your collops.” You know, that sort of thing. Do feel free to comment with any successful usages of the word. And you’re welcome – it’s a good’un, I know.

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Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 Results

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July 26, 2011

Snoopy Typing Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 ResultsThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one of my favourite literary events. It’s a brilliant idea. It stems from the awful writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. You probably think you’ve never heard of him. But I can almost guarantee you have. Here, see if this is familiar:

“It was a dark and stormy night;”

Yep. You know him. But did you know just how bad he was? Here’s the rest of that line, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Holy crap.

It’s writing like that which gave rise to the contest. During his studies Professor Scott Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University unearthed the source of that famous line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, as being the opening of the Edward George Bulwer-Lytton novel, Paul Clifford. And it is a very famous line. After all, Snoopy uses it all the time and that Beagle knows his shit.

For all his hideous writing skills, Lytton coined some phrases we all know well. Among them “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed”, and “the almighty dollar”. He’s had an impact, has Bulwer-Lytton.

So Professor Rice, with the help of San Jose State University, has, since 1982, put together the contest which seeks the worst opening lines to the worst of all novels. You can learn all about the contest here: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

Meanwhile, the 2011 results are in. The winner this year is the shortest entry to ever win the contest. It comes from Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI. (Yeah, I thought that was a children’s clothing line for people with more money than sense, but apparently it’s a place too.) Here’s the winning line:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Top work, Sue. Congratulations.

Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, TN takes out the runner-up prize with this one:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There are other winners in several categories (Adventure, Crime, Sci-Fi, Vile Puns, etc.) and they’re all listed on the contest site here. Go and have a read. They’re hilarious.

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What’s in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.

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June 7, 2011

The Pink Floyd Effect – The process of a name becoming perfect for its subject through familiarity with that subject and/or its actions.

Names. Very powerful things. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with demonology or the occult will tell you what a powerful thing a name can be. If you know something’s true name, you have great power over it. Maybe that’s why Prince changed his name to a symbol, which is very hard to pronounce in spells – could he be a demon, hunted by occult adventurers? But I digress.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because we rescued a tiny stray kitten last week and he appears to live here now. He has a strangely large chin and I said, “He’s like Stan from American Dad.” Henceforth, the kitten’s name is Stanley. He’s very cute, really. Look:

stanley Whats in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.

When I mentioned this on Facebook and Twitter, people were universally besotted with him, but the reaction to his name was interesting. A lot of people thought it was a great name and many people complimented me on giving him a “proper” name. I presume they meant as opposed to Tiddles or Mr Snookums. Other people were very confused and made comments like, “Stanley? Really!?” A couple of people even pointed out that he looks like a Stanley. Which he does, of course, because that’s his name. Chicken and egg.

The name and the named grow into each other and become inseperable. I guarantee that within a few weeks, our new kitten and the name Stanley will be completely normal, at least to us. It happens in every walk of life. For example, my favourite band of all time is Pink Floyd. Stop and have a look at that name. When you hear it, you think of the band and all the amazing work they’ve done. But really? Pink Floyd? The etymology is interesting. They started out called The Tea Set, then one day found themselves on a bill with another band called The Tea Set. So Syd Barrett suggested a name he’d been keen on for a while, based on his two favourite blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So they played as The Pink Floyd Sound. After a few gigs they dropped Sound, but remained known as The Pink Floyd. Usually known simply as Pink Floyd since the early seventies, the definite article is still used occasionally even now. But really, when you think about it, Pink Floyd is a bloody silly name. However, it’s also awesome as it contains and references everything about one of the most seminal bands of all time.

So of course, I relate this name situation to fiction. Names become incredibly important when we’re writing. I agonise over names – it’s probably the thing that gives me the most grief when I write. I want to get names just right. I want them to fit. But the truth is, whatever name I give a character will fit if I tell the story well and write the character convincingly, because the character and the name will grow together and seem like it was always the perfect match. I call this ‘The Pink Floyd Effect‘.

Drizzt Whats in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.I think the important thing is to not try too hard when coming up with names for your fiction, especially if you write fantasy. Remember, the apostrophied name is so overused now that it’s become something of a joke. Characters like Drizzt Do’Urden owned the concept back in the day, but now it’s seen as overly try-hard, or extreme wankery, to include crazy apostrophied names in your fantasy fiction.

In Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, I was initially really annoyed at the name Durzo Blint. It annoyed me because it seemed uneccessarily “fantasy”, and it still does annoy me a bit. But the name also now conjures for me everything about that character, and he’s a character I really like.

Let’s look at it from another real world example. I’ll write a name, you be aware of your immediate reaction. Ready?

Rodney King.

That’s a pretty ordinary sounding name in and of itself, but I bet you had a pretty visceral reaction to it. The man, the name and the events for which he’s known have become ingrained in our culture and the name carries a lot of power because of it.

Let’s try another one:

Errol Flynn

Calm down, ladies. Take a deep breath. Errol Flynn is actually a pretty funny name, and you might feel a bit sorry for anyone with a name like that these days. Although I do quite like the name Errol myself. But there’s no denying that it has power.

Okay, one more:

Sarah Palin.

Did you feel yourself get a bit dumber just then? Just reading or hearing the name actively destroys brain cells and enhances right wing idiocy and religious insanity. And that’s a name that could become much more powerful if the American people don’t take a moment to get their shit together. But in itself, Sarah Palin is a pretty ordinary name.

So, my point is this: Don’t over-stress the names you use, be it for your pets or the characters in your fiction. The Pink Floyd Effect will kick in with time and the name and the named will become one and the same thing. And potentially attach themselves to events people are aware of around the world.

When you’re writing your fiction, spend some time to think about the names, make sure they have a good ring to them, are easily read off the page and stuff like that. Then put your effort into writing the characters and the story as well as you possibly can. By the time you’re finished, the names you’ve chosen will be perfect.

***

Agree or disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts and examples in the comments.

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Slut is a powerful word

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May 28, 2011

Cities across Australia and the world are meeting points today for thousands of people who plan to take part in a SlutWalk. There have been many walks already and many more are planned. The idea was born when one Canadian policeman said women needed to take responsibility in the prevention of sexual assaults by not dressing like sluts. The reaction was, understandably, outrage. The walks are, in essence, women reclaiming the word slut and marching for their rights to dress how they please and never be at risk of sexual assault, abuse and rape.

Gay people have done a great job in reclaiming the word queer. Black people have managed to make nigger a part of their own vocabulary while it’s completely taboo for anyone else to say it. But they’re just words. Words on their own have no power. It’s how they’re used and how they’re directed that make them powerful. I just said nigger above – look, I did it again! – but it’s simply a word, used to convey a point. Using it in description of someone is universally recognised as an abusive, racist act and that’s wrong.

I’ve known girls that will greet each other with, “What’s up, sluts?” and all laugh about it. But if I were to call any one of them a slut they would be justifiably outraged and offended. It’s not the word that’s the problem, it’s the intent. It’s the baggage that comes with the word. It’s the sneakily “disguised” position held by the person using the word that has the power.

That Canadian policeman said to ten college students in April, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” The guy is clearly a dickhead. Dressing “like a slut” doesn’t make people sexually assault you, any more than heavy metal makes you suicidal or video games make you a mass murderer. People are already suicidal, homicidal or sexually sociopathic and any excuse will do. Women can dress however they like and should be able to do so without ever feeling at risk. They might attract some appreciative glances, but they should never be told they’re attracting attack.

I don’t know whether reclaiming the word slut is really going to work in the same way as queer or nigger or other reclamations have worked. But I do know this:

No woman should ever be the victim of sexual abuse or assault for any reason. There is never an excuse, whether it be alcohol/drugs made me do it, the way she dressed means she was asking for it, or the little voices in my head told me to. Any victimisation of anyone is wrong and only the fault of the attacker.

So walk with pride, and know that most men I know agree that a women is never a fair target of abuse or assault.

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Don’t be a dick online

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February 1, 2011

There’s been a lot of debate recently about how people comport themselves online. There are stories of teachers losing their job for complaining about students, other people losing jobs for complaining about said job, or their boss. Lovers discovering spouses and vice versa. Seriously, it’s a minefield out there. But that’s just life. I’m more interested in the persona someone puts out there when they’re some form of public figure, even a very minor one. Obviously, from my point of view, I’m most interested in writers, editors, publishers and so on. It seems that a lot of the time those people can be real dicks online and it can only damage their careers. I got to thinking about this after I wrote a fairly poor review of Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. Ahmad himself came along and left a comment that did some serious damage to his reputation among people that would otherwise have never thought badly of him. Some people even said they wouldn’t buy his book now, after the author “waded in with his ego-hammer”. You can read that post and all associated comments here.

I spend a lot of time online. I know, that’s really no surprise to anyone. But during that time I’ve seen a lot of people make serious asshats of themselves, for no real reason. Your personality online is very important. If you’re a writer and you want people to read your stuff, you’ll get more fans if those people feel like they know you. It’s one of the many things about this changing world of publishing. Back in the day you could be a complete shit, utterly sociopathic, but no one would know. If you wrote good stuff and no one ever saw you, you’d just be reclusive or eccentric. These days, with everyone online, people like to know a bit about the author behind the book. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to manage that is just to be yourself. Unless you actually are a dick, of course, but then you’ve got bigger problems anyway.

Not everyone is going to like you. I think that’s something we need to accept from an early age, regardless of what we do. Some people are just not going to dig you, just like there are some people you simply don’t like. If you’re being yourself and you’re happy in your skin, fuck ‘em. You don’t need to please everyone. It’s the same if you’re an author with books that you’d like people to read. Not everyone will like your books and not everyone will like you, but if you’re open and honest with your personality online, then the people that do like you will follow you, read your stuff, interact with you. If you have any sense, you’ll interact right back.

To use myself as an example, I swear a lot. Yeah, I know, it’s a shock to many, but it’s true. I believe that words and language are seriously powerful things, but I also think that swearing is an unneccessarily heightened taboo. That’s partly just rationalising my constant swearing, but fuck it. I don’t care. It’s how I am in real life, so I don’t pretend to be different online. I’m always getting in trouble with parents because I inadvertantly swear around their children. I do my best not to, but I’m not very good at it. I’m also opinionated, I don’t suffer fools, I call out the willfully ignorant, I can’t stand injustice or bullying or hypocrisy and I’ll challenge it every time I come face to face with it. That’s just how I am in real life, so that’s how I am online as well. But I try not to be a dick about it. It gets me in trouble, but so be it.

I like to have a laugh with it too. I’ll be deliberately controversial and antagonistic to get a debate going and to interact. I’ll question people to test their conviction. It’s fun, it’s interaction and it’s part of who I am. But, again, I try not to be a complete arse about it. I still want to be a good guy, that people are interested in and entertained by. I want to be liked, same as everyone.

But while I’ll be open and honest about who I am as often as possible, there are some things I’ll keep to myself, because they’re not right for open public consumption. Particularly, I won’t bitch and moan about people to vent my frustrations. I won’t rant and rave when I get a bad review. Other people are as entitled to their opinions as I am. Like Imran Ahmad coming onto the blog here and whining about a bad review, it would only damage my reputation. Not just my reputation generally, but with other professionals in my field – other writers, but also editors and publishers. If I went online and ranted on about some shitty rejection I’d had from so-and-so publisher that didn’t know their arse from their elbow, that rant would DEFINITELY get back to them. (Of course, I have nothing but respect for all the great editors and publishers out there – I’m just talking hypothetically. Honest.) But it works the other way too. Sometimes editors will rant on about some fuckwit writer they’ve had to deal with and that writer WILL hear about it. The nature of Twitter and Facebook and blogs and all that stuff is that everybody knows everybody in some connection. There are certainly not six degrees of seperation any more. Sometimes there’s not even one.

If you have someone you want to bitch and moan about, or a particular company or group you have the shits with, or a review or rejection that really pissed you off, ring a friend. Email a personal mate that understands. Do your venting in the privacy of an enclosed group. When you put that stuff out there online IT’S THERE FOREVER. You might delete it, but it’s already cached. Whenever you say anything online, ask yourself if you really want it out there forever and for everyone to read, because that’s what you’re doing. Careers can crash and burn before they’re started sometimes, because a person flags themselves as a nightmare to work with by the way they act online. This is especially true of newbies in the writing world, that haven’t thickened their skin yet. Because seriously, people, you need the skin of an old elephant to survive with your ego intact in this game.

Be yourself, interact with others, let people in on your personality and your style, your standards and ethics if you like. But don’t be a twat. People want to get to know you and with the internet the way it is we’re all part of one massive community. Which is awesome – I love it, I really dig being part of this great big cyber love-in and everyone needs to embrace it these days. But like the title of the post says, don’t be a dick online.

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Fun with Google Ngrams

By
5
January 21, 2011

There’s this thing Google have put together which is really addictive. It’s called Ngrams. Essentially, when you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books. You can set various parametres of time, which types/language of books are searched and so on. The graphic results are very cool.

For example, instances of the words horse (blue), bicycle (red), car (green) and motorcycle (yellow), between 1800 and 2008, in English:

horse bicycle car motorcycle 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

(click for larger images)

Pretty cool, huh. So naturally I started searching all kinds of comparisons. Regular readers here will know I’m fascinated with religious mythology, so I did a search on instances of Christian (blue), Muslim (red), Jew (green), Hindu (yellow) and Buddhist (blue), again from 1800 to 2008 in English. Look at the massive decline in Christianity’s dominance over the written word in that time.

christian muslim jew hindu buddhist 300x144 Fun with Google Ngrams

On that front, what about instances of heaven (blue) and hell (red):

heaven hell 300x146 Fun with Google Ngrams

Hell holding steady while heaven sees a steep decline. This amuses me.

All right, enough of this nonsense, let’s get onto the serious stuff. Between 1800 and 2008, let’s look at instances of fantasy (blue), science fiction (red) and horror (green):

fantasy scifi horror 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

Sci-fi doesn’t register until around 1950, fantasy has a slow growth right through, really peaking in the last thirty or forty years and horror saw a steady decline until a resurgence around 1980. I imagine that’s largely down to the pulp horror revival of the 80s and the emergence of superstars in the genre like Stephen King and James Herbert.

So the natural progression from there is to see which is really the most popular when it comes to the big three supernaturals. Here we have vampire (blue), werewolf (red) and zombie (green):

vampire werewolf zombie 300x145 Fun with Google Ngrams

Relatively even, though vampires clearly more popular, till around the early 80s, then the vamps went nuts. Anne Rice, Lost Boys and the like are clearly marked there.

But that was an easy one – of course the vampire is the most popular, as it is the coolest. Though I predict the werewolf has yet to really see its heyday. But now let’s sort out once and for all the ongoing rivalry that all SF fans get heated about. I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of both. But what says Ngrams in the great Star Wars (blue) vs Star Trek (red), in English since 1960:

starwars startrek1 300x143 Fun with Google Ngrams

Jedis FTW!

Man, I could play with this thing all day.

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Culturomics – 500 billion words start a trend

By
0
December 18, 2010

My brother-in-law sent me this one from the New York Times (thanks Ade!) and it blew me away. I’m guessing that people already know about the controversial project by Google to digitise every book in the world. If you don’t, it’s easy to find out a bit about it. Just Google it. *sigh*

Now, from that effort, a huge, and I mean monstrously, giganto-huge, database has been made from nearly 5.2 million digitised books. That database is now available to the public for free downloads and online searches. Before you panic that every book ever written is now available for free (which is what a lot of people fear) take a moment to understand the nature of the database. It consists of the 500 billion words contained in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian. That word-mine comprises words and short phrases as well as a year-by-year count of how often they appear. The potential use for this in cultural studies and humanities is mind-boggling.

“The goal is to give an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books,” said Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He calls this method of mass, high speed analysis “culturomics”: the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.

There are those that have reservations about the efficacy of the project and those that question the team involved, suugesting that not all the right kind of experts are represented. But you always get that among academics. They can be a bitchy bunch.

The New York Times article closes with this gem:

The warehouse of words makes it possible to analyze cultural influences statistically in a way previously not possible. Cultural references tend to appear in print much less frequently than everyday words, said Mr. Michel, whose expertise is in applied math and systems biology. An accurate picture needs a huge sample. Checking if “sasquatch” has infiltrated the culture requires a supply of at least a billion words a year, he said.

Read the whole article for a much clearer idea of what’s happening. There are links in the article to the full Science journal paper (available free to everyone, although you have to register) and an online tool to search the Google database for the use of any particular word or phrase over time. I can see myself wasting a lot of time with this.

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The website of author Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter, Author

Author of horror, dark fantasy & sci-fi. Kung Fu instructor. Personal Trainer. Motorcyclist. Dog lover. Gamer. Heavy metal fan. Britstralian. Zetetic.

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