I write like who?

This evening, I was enjoying science trivia night at the museum with a longtime improv friend who blogs at The Flehmen Response under the name Sparky MacMillan.  (Disclaimer: This is his nom-de-plume.  I don’t call him this.  I use his name.  Partly because I’ve known him by that name for over a quarter of a century.  Mostly because having my closest friends be named Mookie and Sparky is bad for my image.  It makes people think they’re imaginary.  And I’m pretty sure they’re not.)

Anyway, we were talking about blogging, and he mentioned a website he had found a while back called I Write Like, which takes samples of prose and analyzes them against the writings of about 50 authors to determine who your writing style compares best to.

This got me intrigued, so I went and found the website.  I plugged in about two dozen or so samples from my blog.  Here’s some of the results:

  • The most common match (around 40%, I would estimate) was Edgar Allen Poe, followed by Margaret Mitchell (maybe 20%).  Poe, as every English major learns in college, was famous for his obsession with robots and Scarlett Johansson.  (He was very much ahead of his time.)
  • I got multiple responses for James Joyce, Cory Doctorow, and Dan Brown, and a few one-offs.
  • I took a series of 4 posts I wrote about my hand surgery a couple years ago. Two of the four (the first and last) came back Stephen King, indicating I guess that I ended the story badly.
  • One other sequence I did was 3 different stories to explain the “Legend of Moleskine” sign I saw at Barnes & Noble.  One came back as Douglas Adams (a particularly proud moment).  The other two came back as H.P. Lovecraft.

I don’t have nearly the ego to take any of this seriously, but I find stuff like this fascinating, the same way people on Facebook post which Harry Potter character they are most like. (Disclaimer: No, I don’t know which Harry Potter character I’m most like, unless it’s the one that doesn’t want to know what Harry Potter character he’s like.)  Douglas Adams is one of my favorite authors, so being compared to him is flattering.  I gave my friend Stephanie a couple of Dave Barry books as a baby shower present, and she told me when she read them, she kept hearing his words in my voice, which is also flattering, as he is another of my favorite humor writers.  It’s dangerous to believe stuff like that, but it’s still nice to hear.

I read the “About” section of the website, and with only 51 authors in its database to compare with, a certain amount of redundancy is expected.  The site creator describes the algorithm used to correlate the writing styles as based on a Bayesian classifier, the same algorithm that is used in spam filters.  Which I guess means that reading A Labor of Like is the equivalent of getting spam mail from Edgar Allen Poe and Margaret Mitchell.

You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Gone with the Raven.

(Disclaimer: According to I Write Like, this post was written in the style of Edgar Allen Poe*. The original e-mail that I sent to Sparky on this subject was written in the style of Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita.  You’re welcome for the rewrite.)

* A critical literary deconstruction of the stylistic similarities between this post and Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart would be weird and creepy.  Hopefully in a Poe way, and not in a Nabokov way.


In one year and out the other

(Disclaimer: This post is about me and my blog.  I’m not that interesting.  Go here to read about the recent destruction of the gods at Ragnarok.)

(Disclaimer 2: There’s a thank you to my readers at the bottom of this post.  Skip down there if you’re the type that enjoys a good thanking now and again.)

In random factoid news, today is the one year anniversary of A Labor of Like.  In other words, this blog has outlived its expected lifespan by roughly 500%.

As I have mentioned before, I started this blog as a distraction to keep a certain Muse from tricking me into writing a book.  (I will let Toni remain nameless.)  I expected that I would archive my stroke adventures here, maybe write the occasional anecdote, vent a little bit about things that bug/offend me, and eventually get bored and drift off.

Things didn’t quite work out that way.  In fact, this whole experience has been very different from what I expected.  And I learned some things along the way.

(Disclaimer: My personal lessons may not be interesting to you.  Go here to read about intrepid explorers trapped in a hostile environment.) Continue reading

Writing about Writing: What if?

As Pliny the Guy I’m Quoting Again once said, “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.”  Once you decide to write, how do you achieve true glory?

Stories can all be boiled down to two big concepts: What Happened? and What If?  Non-fiction writing is about What Happened.  Histories and biographies are the obvious examples, but almost any book of facts is at its core a history of what happened before.  If you get a book on birdwatching, the author has basically written down what he found out when he looked for birds.

Fiction is different.  Fiction is about What If?  What if a one-legged sea captain got obsessed with the white whale that injured him?  What if a freak tornado dropped a little girl’s house on a witch?  What if an ordinary guy got put in an iron mask because he coincidentally looked like the king?

What If? stories are a staple of science fiction.  You can find whole anthologies of stories written about what would have happened if the South won the Civil War, or the Nazis had won World War II. Continue reading

Sit down and grow up!

Yesterday I was in a meeting on the floor below mine.  As I was leaving, I noticed a sign someone had printed out and posted near the elevators:

Please Be Mature

Do not take others office chairs

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been trying to think of a time in my life where I stole chairs because of a lack of maturity.  I have younger siblings, whose raison d’etre is to torment and be tormented.  I can’t remember a time where I went into a room, found my chair to be missing, and responded, “Oh, grow up!”  Besides, without chairs, where would the truly juvenile among us put Whoopie Cushions?

As I’ve observed before, engineers are a curious breed.  My best guess is that there is a giant, undeclared game of musical chairs going on downstairs, and every time the music starts, HR takes one chair out of the building.  At the end of the quarter, whoever is still standing gets laid off.  (Note: I would support this policy.  If you can’t figure out how to stay seated, you’re probably not smart enough to work here.)

I am reminded of the words of two great writers.  In 1st Corinthians, Paul wrote “When I was young, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I reasoned as a child.  When I became a man, I quit stealing the other apostle’s chairs.  Especially Peter’s, which is made of fine Corinthian leather.”  (Disclaimer: I’m not near a Bible right now, so I’m quoting from memory.)  And Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “If you can keep your chair when those around you are losing theirs and blaming you, um… you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din!”  (Disclaimer: I’m not near the works of Rudyard Kipling either, but I’m pretty sure there were some nice chairs on his ruby yacht.)

Editor’s Note: Since this is happening on the floor below my cubicle, I would like to say that I am above this sort of thing.  But I’m not going to, because that would be an unthinkably bad pun, and you, the reader, deserve better..  You’re welcome.

In the shadow

While I was at Barnes and Noble this morning, I noticed a new book on the shelf in the sci-fi/fantasy section: The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien with his son Christopher Tolkien.  I find this unsettling on two counts:

1) J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973.  It took him 40 years to write this book.  What else did he have to do for the last 4 decades?

2) On the assumption that Christopher Tolkien did most of the work, it just seems sad that he still got second billing.  That’s going to make for an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, even considering the fact that Dad is going to want brains again instead of turkey.

Disclaimer: I have no opinion on the question of whether Christopher Tolkien is real.

Writing about Writing: Why write?

Writing is fun.

Writing about writing is cool.  It’s very “meta”.  Kids these days love that kind of stuff.

Writing about writing about writing (what I’m doing now) is just confusing.  So I’m going to go back to writing about writing.

There is a great quote from Pliny the Elder.  “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.”  And Pliny knew a few things, or else they wouldn’t have called him the Elder.  He’d have been Pliny the Guy Who Nobody Listens To. (Note: I did not read this.  In the game Civilization IV, Leonard Nimoy announces this when you discover the technology of Writing.)

So if you want to write, take it from Pliny: write something that deserves to be read.  Think to yourself, what deserves to be read?  What kind of things do you read, and why?  People read all the time, for a multitude of reasons.  I read Dilbert because I want to laugh.  I read Star Trek novels because they’re all plot and dialogue, so they go fast.  I read spiritual books because I want to get closer to God.  I read the instructions on medicine because I want to know what horrible side effects I’m courting with this or that pill.

Writing conveys knowledge.  It conveys emotions.  It conveys wisdom and experience.  Not necessarily all of these, and not necessarily all at the same time.  But the key word here is that it conveys.  It takes knowledge and emotions and wisdom and experience out of one life and dumps it in front of other people for their benefit.  (Note to self: Maybe “dumps” isn’t the most inspiring word here.  Come back and fix it later.)  And that’s the key.  What you write doesn’t deserve to be read simply because you need to write.  It only deserves to be read if the person reading it thinks so.

How exactly does one do that?  It depends.  And that’s a topic for another time.