Ed Hall, AC Staff Columnist
Starving Artists, Plots Unlimited, Writers' Tools, and Dark Star
When I suggested to Ben Poehland the name of this column, there was a brief pause on the phone, then a puzzled query, "The garrote?" Hastily I assured him that I had no intention of throttling anyone. Of course, there's always the possibility that I may choke on my own words. Should that happen, it would be poetic justice, since this column is about writing.
So, if my "garret" isn't the kind you use to strangle someone, what is it? Picture an old Victorian-style house in which one corner has been expanded into a tower that's taller than the rest of the structure. Just under the steeply sloping roof lies the garret, a small loft or attic space. There's a small dirty window with a cracked pane, and the walls and ceiling are of rough-hewn wooden beams. The roof leaks when it rains. In the wee hours of the morning, when day-labor men are deep in slumber and the rest of the house is dark, a pale shaft of light emanates from the tiny window. For the garret, you see, is the traditional home of the "Starving Artist" who slaves away at his craft, ever confident he will one day finish his masterpiece and leave the garret behind forever.
My credentials-and this column's title--come in part from my having left a rather well-paying job in order to work on a novel. I'm not starving yet, but neither is the book finished. Anyway, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of my XE patiently awaiting inspiration, and I've sometimes wondered what sort of effect, if any, the computer was having on my creativity. In "Understanding Media," which came out before the personal computer revolution, media guru Marshall McLuhan declared, "...the typewriter has altered English verse and prose, and indeed, the very mental habits, themselves, of writers." If this is true, then surely the same can be said of computers and word processors.
I can offer a mundane example: in Canada (where I live) the host of a long-running, national radio program observed that since the proliferation of personal computers, the letters he's received have noticeably increased in length. Are there more significant ways in which computers have affected writing? My guess is yes, although I can't begin to say how. But as for directly participating in the creative process itself, until recently I would have said no.
Take a look at any recent issue of Writer's Digest and you'll see a full-page ad for a software program called Plots Unlimited. It claims to have been "created especially for writers of screenplays, novels, short stories, plays and television scripts." I haven't had a look at it (it's only available for Macs and IBMs), but I imagine it works by selecting options from a database of plot elements.
Recently I came across a program called T.V. Plots which illustrates this principle. You've probably seen similar programs-ones that generate silly sentences, or offer advice after the fashion of Eliza. I began tinkering with T.V. Plots and ended up completely rewriting it. My version accompanies this article as a type-in listing. The concept is very simple. Lines 125-135 generate the random numbers used to determine which words and phrases the program uses.
After working on T.V. Plots, I came away much less skeptical about the practical merits of a plot generator. This is because many kinds of fiction are very formulaic-romances, crime novels, books in a series (Tarzan, Nancy Drew, etc.)-not to mention most TV shows. Publishers who specialize in formula fiction usually provide writers with guidelines which are very prescriptive. Writers of romances, for example, might be directed to introduce the heroine's love interest by page 2, and orchestrate their first kiss by page 25. For writers who ply their craft in such highly structured fields, a plot generator could indeed be very useful. For writers scripting daily soap operas, or weekly sitcoms, it could be a godsend. And if you think I exaggerate, play around with T.V. Plots and see how eerily familiar some of the plot-lines sound.
Atari Word Tools
We may not have anything as grand as Plots Unlimited for our 8-bit machines (nor as expensive, at $399), but don't despair. Creative Process (from the former Antic Catalog) can help with plotting stories, drafting speeches, planning articles, in fact with just about any kind of writing.
Creative Process doesn't generate ideas; it just helps organize them. For this reason it's called an idea or outline processor. You type in your ideas as they occur, using point-form notation. Each point becomes either a heading or part of a list beneath a heading; entire groups with all their sub-points can be repositioned as desired. Working in point-form allows for the freer flow of ideas and stimulates your creativity. It's a technique often taught in creative writing classes. Of course, you don't need Creative Process to employ this technique, but its advantage over a pen and paper is the same as a word processor's: it's so much easier to edit. You can also use the technique with a word processor, but since Creative Process is set up for point-form use and automatic indentation, it makes outlines much easier to construct. Creative Process is compatible with AtariWriter, PaperClip, Speedscript, and other word processors.
Did you know it's possible to gauge the readability of your writing? That's because shorter words and sentences are easier to read than longer ones. Based on this premise, several readability indices have been developed. The Fog Index is one such measure. Its ratings correspond to the grade level needed to understand a piece of text. Most newspapers are written for a grade 8 level. A rating of 12 is generally considered to be too difficult for normal use.
Fog programs have appeared in both Antic (February 1987) and Analog (July 1988). I tried them out on this article, and obtained ratings of 8.5 and 10. The programs also provide other information, the most useful of which is a word count. You'd think this would be a fairly straightforward procedure, but apparently not. According to the programs, this article contains either 1603 or 1690 words. PaperClip, the word processor I favor, comes up with a different figure (1657 words). Fortunately, word counts don't need to be exact; it's normal to round them off to the nearest 100, 500, or 1000.
The Antic fogger is painfully slow, but responds well to a RAMdisk and Turbo-Basic. The Analog fogger is the faster of the two, but wouldn't cooperate with Turbo-Basic, and needs a minor modification for use with a RAMdisk. Neither program worked when compiled with the Turbo-Basic compiler. I also discovered that text files with strings of punctuation marks (e.g. ellipsis, or several exclamation points in a row) could cause serious miscalculations in both foggers.
A less esoteric application for writers is the spellchecker. Most commercial word processors are equipped with them, but if yours isn't, try contacting a user group and ask for the following.
1. Magic Spell from Analog magazine, issue 46, but see also reader comments in issues 48, 50 and 54 for program modifications.
2. Personal Spell Checker, a disk bonus from Antic, October 1987. The sample dictionary file (Diction.1) was reportedly buggy, so best to discard it.
The only drawback to these public domain programs is that you have to construct your own dictionaries. If any readers have done this and would be willing to share them, or know of any P.D. service where they can be obtained, let me know and I'll pass on the info.
As useful as spell-checkers are, it's important to remember they're not proof-readers. They won't catch mistakes involving correctly spelled words, like "the the man" or "hoarse" instead of "horse". Both my wife and I have noticed an increase in this type of error in recent books. We think it's the result of editors and publishers relying on spell-checkers to do things they weren't designed for.
The solution to the problem is spell-checkers that are context-sensitive. I don't know whether such programs are available yet, but I do know that grammar checkers have been released for a number of platforms, including the ST. Unfortunately, it's not likely we'll ever see such products for our 8-bits.
To wrap things up, I'll mention a few utilities I keep on hand to assist with other writing tasks, and house-keeping duties associated with computergenerated text.
1. Text Tidier from AIM's December 1991 disk strips word-processor editing commands from a text file, and breaks large files into smaller ones.
2. Super Locator from Antic June 1989 searches files for a specified string. By using wildcards, one can direct the program to search several files in succession.
3. Bibliography Master from Antic (November 1987) is a labor-saving program that students will appreciate. Just type in the references and your computer will send a properly formatted bibliography to the printer. Note that a program modification appeared in the letters page of the May 1988 issue.
Before I finish, I'd like to change the subject somewhat and bring to your attention a movie fanzine called Dark Star, which focuses on science fiction, fantasy and horror flicks. Issue No. 8 features pieces on Bladerunner and The Princess Bride, as well as reviews of numerous movies, movie soundtracks, and books dealing with cinema.
Why mention Dark Star? Because it was produced entirely on an Atari 8-bit system using Daisy-Dot II to format the pages. It's a 40-page magazine enlivened with good writing, black-and-white photos (movie stills and publicity shots), and a two-color cover. I heartily recommend it to movie freaks who enjoy fantasy and SF. The cost is 1.50 British pounds (2.00 pounds for back issues), but you should also include something extra for postage, especially if you're ordering from North America. Dark Star is edited and published by Rob Dyer. Write to:Dark Star Magazine, 64 Arthur St., Gravesend, Kent, England
In future issues I want to discuss text adventures, and in particular a British company called Level 9, which has produced programs every bit as good as Infocom's. Most of these games are probably unknown in North America. The good news is that several are still available. I may also have the temerity to inflict upon you some concrete poetry created with the help of Daisy-Dot III.
Till next time...
T.V. Plots BASIC listing