The Kind of the Rest – My New Novel

In my last post I wrote about a nightmarish scenario in which books we read are created automatically by a software algorithm. I’ve had time to think about it since then, and to use the wonderful TweetWriter, a promotional tool for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. TweetWriter takes the body of writing that makes up your Twitter feed and creates a customised book based on your style of expressing yourself, which, as everyone knows, is usually at its finest in tweet form. Here’s my automagically customised back cover blurb:

When asked to described the real Joel Blacklock, Joel would often say “I am the walrus”, but 127 loyal fans will always know Joel best as the prolific writer who published over 1643 works, all written from Joel’s secluded playboy style mansion in Sydney, Australia.

In this astonishing latest work, ‘THE NAME OF THE KIND’, Blacklock’s writing is both mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure, and is surely destined to achieve the status of a contemporary classic.

Hear that? ‘Mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure’. One hundred and twenty seven fans can’t be wrong!

Let’s just say the software algorithm that will write a true bestseller is some time away. Quite aside from the fact that the back cover blurb is littered with errors and the title of the book is different on the front and back (I tend to think The Name of the Kind is better than The Kind of the Rest – thoughts?) I can’t imagine a single person would even pick this book up off the shelves.

Nonetheless, for the curious and the lazy, here are a few of Twitter’s finest minds at work.

The always adorable @stephenfry:

The redoubtable @johnbirmingham, erm I mean John Birmingha:

The terrifying @tara_moss:

What about our potential prime ministers? Here’s Red:

And the Mad Monk?

Check out your own book titles and link to them in the comments.

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival runs from 27 August to 5 September 2010.

Can Editors Keep Up With Technology?

An editorial clarification last week at The New York Times and the reaction to it has made me wonder if it’s possible for editors to keep up with how quickly language is changing in the face of technological development.

I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles.

The reaction to the Times‘s editorial statement – a decision which would ordinarily have come under no scrutiny whatsoever – was intense and harsh. People sneered at the idea of the so-called ‘guardians of the English language’ for daring to pronounce on what should or should not be considered ‘standard’ English.

I can see both sides of this argument. As a writer and reader, I hate the idea that some kind of arbitrary standard should limit the way people can express themselves (though to be fair, I don’t think whether or not The New York Times uses the word ‘tweet’ is of that much importance). On the other hand, as an editor, standardised decisions like this make my job much easier.

Yahoo News, swiftly becoming a trusted source of news as well as an aggregator, has recently released a stylebook in the vein of the much celebrated (and much despised) Associated Press stylebook. They are selling printed versions of it, but it also exists as a website for free. But I have to wonder, is there really a need for a resource like this when we have Google? The Yahoo stylebook has a fairly comprehensive FAQ, including questions about standard spelling and SEO. SEO stands for ‘search engine optimisation’. SEO is basically the umbrella term for all the tricks a web developer uses for getting their website to the top of Google search results. A part of this is ensuring that the standard spelling used for a word throughout a website – particularly if it’s a key word – is the spelling most likely to be used by people searching on Google.

This raises an interesting question. If Google is (among many other things) a global and aggregated digest of common spelling and usage, then is a stylebook even necessary anymore? Google has already become my go-to source for standard spelling, hyphenation or spacing of a word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. ‘How many pages are on Google?’ is often my first question when a fellow editor asks me for the standard way of writing something. As books are increasingly digitised and searchable, is it more important to be visible – or technically correct? Is there, in fact, even such a thing as ‘technically correct’?

Language is a tricky thing. There is a balance between authority and democracy to be struck, and the internet is tipping that balance toward democracy. It’s something that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the strength of the English language is its fluidity – it can change and adapt to the changes and adaptations of its speakers. On the other hand, the pedant in me screams at the idea that someone can start using ‘literally’ just to emphasise their point. But what if Google says it’s OK? Does that make it right? What do you think?

For Whom The Microwave Beeps

Twitter has become a great way of disseminating information to fans of a particular type of media. Sometimes it happens in a straightforward, linear way – the company or person involved in creating a book, movie or television series tweets something that gets re-tweeted by a bunch of people that are interested and then flows out from there.

Sometimes, however, information flows out in a far more interesting way, which, I would argue, is unique to the internet, and particularly common on Twitter. Someone makes a joke, and the joke is shared not directly, but by the person making up their own version of it and passing it on to their friends. The concept of the joke, idea or news is shared, but not the content. On Twitter this happens with hashtags (marked off with the # symbol). For example, the recent leadership spill in the Federal Labor party, which resulted in Julia Gillard becoming Australia’s first female PM, was marked off with the hashtag #spill. Users interested in following the spill on Twitter could search for #spill and find up to the second news and chatter about the story from random people, journalists and celebrities. Hashtags are tracked by Twitter and are kept track of in Trending Topics, which appear to the right of the Twitter feed on every user’s screen.

Sometimes the hashtag is not as serious or important as a leadership spill, but is just a vehicle for users to communicate ideas, jokes and thoughts. A recent hashtag on books was funny enough that I thought it might justify a blog post. The tag was #lesserbooks, and the premise was to come up with a pun on an existing book title that made it seem somehow … lesser. I first saw the hashtag in author John Birmingham’s feed when he tweeted one of his own book titles (Without Much Warning #lesserbooks), and saw a number of friends follow with their own interpretations.

Below are a few that made me laugh – I haven’t bothered to seek the original author, as it’s as likely as not that multiple people came up with the same titles at the same time. Sound off in the comments if you come up with one of your own.

  • Lionel Ritchie’s Wardrobe
  • A Brief History of Tim
  • Great Expectorations
  • The Bibble
  • Schindler’s Lift
  • The Merchant of Tennis
  • The Lord of the Files
  • Catch 21
  • Are You There God? It’s Me, Hitler
  • The Crepes of Wrath