Writing by algorithm

Welcome to AusStories 2.6

In just a few moments, you’ll be writing your very own Australian masterpiece with the help of the AusStories database, which contains over nine hundred million possible novels, short stories, essays and poems.

So begins Ryan O’Neill’s remix of a Cate Kennedy story for if:book’s ongoing project Lost in Track Changes. It’s a story that imagines the setup protocol for software that allows the user to create quality short stories at a whim (the $4.99 Winton upgrade guarantees a Miles Franklin nomination for example).

It’s a clever update to a premise that has been knocking around for some time: that we can imagine the creative act of writing being outmoded, superseded by machines or software. One my first short stories invented an artificial intelligence agent named ‘Hemmingway’ (the additional ‘m’ is never explained by the way) capable of producing any copy asked of him within moments.

Is it possible for our current wave of technological change to drive authorship into irrelevance?

Sure it’s possible. It’s happening right now to a certain extent. The Associated Press along with a host of top tech companies have already begun using Wordsmith, software capable of taking large and complex data sets such as stock quotes or sports results and turning them into readable stories. By all accounts, it works. And it’s uncanny.

But getting machines to spin prefab stories from boring stuff like stock market summaries is one thing. Let’s go to the other extreme. How would a machine go about recreating something like Patrick White’s prose? From an engineering point of view, we work with a finite number of symbols and mostly in broad patterns that can be predefined. Whether an algorithm can produce copy in the style of a sports summary or Nobel Prize-winning literature is just a case of using the right input, both in style and scale. With the right data and enough processing power, the next Voss might well be reproducible at the push of a button.

Not that there’s a great demand for another Voss. On a related point, I have a theory that Clive Cussler is already an algorithm.

But there’s one fundamental problem at the heart of this kind of innovation. We already know White’s style. We can analyse his body of work make inferences from it to construct writing in a way that’s reminiscent of how he arranged his words. Algorithms are great at recreating something known, analysing and reproducing according to a set of instructions.

Imagine if you were to sit down and re-write a story you know well exactly as it was originally authored. It could be anything: Heart of Darkness or The Da Vinci Code. Tell the story exactly as its original author did. You can’t, can you? No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get it the same. Ever tried to rewrite your own work from scratch after losing the original copy? Even when you were the original author, again, it never get quite comes out the same. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s better.

What gets in the way of our ability to play photocopier? Memory, sure, but also voice. You can never quite escape your own voice, your own point of view, your own unique way of seeing and recording the world around you or the world in your head. It’s a part of you and only you that hits the page every time you do.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but for now authors can sleep tight. The software still has a long way to go.

Lost in Track Changes
AP's automation software

It was a very good year

I've always had a fascination for the borrowing history of books and every book's list of dates is now made more poignant by the inevitable wall somewhere in the early 2000s. 

If you know the song this post borrows its title from you might think it's pretty schmaltzy, but that's because you haven't heard the version that involves dodecahedrons in a state of quantum uncertainty having sexual intercourse.

The N00bz Launch

I'll be talking literary experiments with fellow n00bz Benjamin Law, Greg Field and Keith Stevenson at the impending launch for the new if:book collection,The N00bz. I was editor and contributor to this essay series throughout 2013 and worked with publisher Editia to bring it to ereader screens and bound pages. The new edition includes a brand new essay on being a digital writer in residence from Jennifer Mills and a mashup of literary adventures submitted via twitter.

If you're in Sydney on 12 August, come along to the launch. It's shaping up to be a lot of fun.

The Noobz: New Adventures in Literature

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Better Read Than Dead
265 King Street, Newtown NSW

RSVP: 02 9557 8700 or betterreadevents.com

Can't make it to Sydney? No problem. The book is now available all over the place, but the best place to get it is directly from the publisher. Digital editions come without any filthy DRM that will lock you down to any one device and the print edition is...well it's print, isn't it.

An aesthetic choice

Over the last two years, one of if:book’s most ambitious projects created a book from concept to print within a single twenty-four hours, extracted from that book an extensive database of edits, and turned that data over to number crunchers, artists, and poets to creative adapt and remix the work into new forms.

Through it all though was a desire to represent the project beyond its original 150-page paperback or a searchable collection of fragments. We wanted to capture the epic scale of the project and provide a sense of the undertaking in something tactile, something visceral.

We wanted to produce the entire database in print.

The result of around six months of database crunching, Willow Patterns: the Complete 24-Hour Book is a large multi-volume work that reproduces every saved version of every story in chronological order from midday to midday.

How large? Twenty-eight volumes large.

To be honest the sheer scale of the final work took me by surprise. And I was there on the day we created the original data.

For Willow Patterns, we went to town on production: hardcover tomes with a beautiful slipcover designed by the inimitable Benjamin Portas. Each volume represents a set amount of time and each hour of the project is coded by colour, meaning the viewer of the work can stand back and easily see natural ebb and flow of the writing and editing over time.

So what is this thing? A beautiful object for its own sake? A physical, tactile archive of data? A demonstration of new possibilities for print technology? A visual gag?

I would suggest it is all these things.

Bob Stein, founder of the US Institute for the Future of the Book, once told me that the decision to print will become an aesthetic choice. At first I took that to mean a choice on the part of the author or publisher, eventually I realised it is—rightly—the reader’s decision.

So if the decision to print is the reader’s aesthetic choice, then we must consider to what end the choice is made. We have to allow for the possibility of printed books designed for purposes other than reading.

To people with a passion for great reading and writing, that might sound depressing. But while Willow Patterns borrows from print’s powerful symbolism, it does not devalue the collected stories in the project’s final product. It provides information and background and provokes discussion that may lead not just to the final text, but to engagement with broader ideas around the purpose of writing and reading and the media through which we transmit them.


Willow Patterns: The Complete 24-Hour Book is on currently display at the Queensland Writers Centre. A gallery of images is also available from the if:book Australia web site.

Compare and contrast

Compare this:

With this update, we're providing specific information about Amazon's objectives.
A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there's no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market -- e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

The Amazon Books Team

With this:

It seems like the iOS market is so huge that it should be able to support lots of iOS-only indies.
But with how prices have fallen — how people are now accustomed to not paying anything until they’re hopelessly addicted and need the $4.99 packet of imaginary things that will get them to the next level — I can’t recommend to anybody that they quit their job to just write their own iOS apps.
There’s a downside to this beyond just the vague feeling that it’s a shame that iOS developers have to supplement their incomes — it’s that any rational developer aware of the economics will not be able to make as big an investment in iOS apps as they would if they could expect their effort would be rewarded.
Consumers win in terms of quantity of choices and low prices, but not in terms of quality.

Brent Simmons

Amazon is right to an extent, but the duplicity in their approach makes the message harder to swallow.

Publishing is a system geared towards making books better: a publisher (especially an indie) takes a specific risk and when an author wins, so does the publisher, the bookseller, and the reader.

But I can't imagine Amazon will do anything but relentlessly drive the price of books—both physical and digital—down and in doing so, creating a publishing industry more akin to the App Store. In this model, the vendor is more like the only casino in town where risk for them exists only in aggregate and—fuck you—the house always wins.

It's possible this has nothing to do with any specific market or individual company's actions. Maybe this downward spiral is an immutable fact of nature for digital products. Maybe, but then why has this pressure been less pronounced for Mac and PC apps? Is it because consumers have been long accustomed to paying higher prices for individual titles? Is it because apps on those platforms are not confined to a single all-encomassing gatekeeper?

Really, I don’t know. But I do know that quantity isn't everything and Amazon's populist schtick can only last so long. 

The White Album Concert

My review of The White Album Concert is over at TOM Magazine, wherein I reveal my questionable devotion to the record (something I've alluded to previously), question whether too much reverence is a good thing, marvel at the chops of the touring band, and make a very brief case for more cowbell.

I acquired my first copy of The White Album when I was about twelve. I don’t really know why, but something in that record clicked with me and I can safely say I subsequently listened to that sucker every single day for the next few years. Yes, the whole thing. These are thirty songs embedded deeply within my consciousness. I now have more copies of The White Album than might be considered rational. I’ve heard the bootlegs. And identifying the arcane differences between the mono and stereo mixes? Yeah, across that.

In some ways, this was a concert I was born to critique. And, frankly, it’s unreasonable fans like me who present a significant challenge in staging The White Album Concert.

Read on.

On Being A N00b

Last year, if:book challenged twelve Australian writers to step outside their comfort zone and try a new professional experience – something related to your craft that they have never tried before, whether it’s tool or a technique at the cutting edge or whether it has been around for centuries. Change tools for storytelling, change routine, learn a new form, engage with parts of the wider industry. See what happens and report back.

We called the project The N00bz.

Some authors we caught at the right moment. Sean Williams reported back on his participation in a sleep study and observed its effect on his creativity. Sophie Masson was in the early stages of establishing her own independent press. Jeff Sparrow found himself at a loose end between books. Emily Stewart had already decided to give away her library. Greg Field was closing his bookshop.

Other authors were prompted by the proposal to suggest their own experiments. Romy Ash tackled storytelling with a 140-character limit. James Bradley wanted to create a graphic novel. And Carmel Bird had been wondering what to do with her rights for Dear Reader. In these cases, we were more than happy to provide the excuse to follow through.

The results are by turns insightful and amusing if, just occasionally, a bit harrowing.

For some writers, their experience as a n00b heralded permanent change. Setting up your own press, leaving your previous career behind, and giving away your library are not experiences that can be undone as easily as command-z. But the intention of The N00bz was not to bring about permanent change necessarily. I have barely touched a typewriter since my experiment, I’m pretty sure Benjamin Law hasn’t had much call for his shorthand, and I can almost guarantee Marvel Comics hasn’t got Ronnie Scott on speed dial—yet. This is the nature of trying something new. Sometimes it changes you in obvious ways, sometimes change is much more understated. Being a n00b means stepping outside your typical routine and finding a new perspective and it’s this perspective that stays with you, even if you don’t end up encoding your own ebooks.

Being a n00b demands open-mindedness and a willingness to test, experiment—and sometimes fail. Of course these laudable qualities are not restricted to writers or to this strange business of sharing stories. So as much as this is a collection of writing about writing (a very meta topic, I know), it also documents pure curiosity and the quest to continually improve.

For my money, I hope I will always be a n00b.


The N00bz: New Adventures in Literature is available now from Editia.