Taking nearly all the magic out of writing, researchers in New York have developed an algorithm to determine if you have written a best seller. Or not, as is more often the case.
This procedure for ‘calculating’ a bestseller looks at the correlation between writing style and commercial success. Not surprisingly the research began at Project Gutenberg with the success of the novel determined by the number of downloads. Less successful novels relied on Amazon’s sales ranking, and The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown was included because of the sheer weight of negative critical evaluation in spite of its enormous commercial success.
The study found the more successful a novel, the lower its readability factor, which not only makes me hope I never write a bestseller, but also makes me worry about the number of downloads of ‘Taken by the T-Rex’ by Christie Sims. I can only hope this epic 17 page novel about a woman having sex with a dinosaur didn’t skew the math. (For the fashion conscious, the book cover does confirm the bikini was invented during the Cretaceous period).
I’m not sure how to apply this algorithm to my writing. I have a much more basic shit-from-shinola methodology. I write something, wait a few days, go back and see if I like it. I usually don’t. So I rewrite. The problem is I can do this indefinitely, which means I write the same 1,000 words over and over, and produce very little.
First drafts are supposed to be shit. You need to get something on paper to mould, to hack at, or like a parent to fuck up. For a writer it’s a very liberating concept, though I still find first drafts difficult. They embarrass me. They are often so removed from what I was trying to say that I wonder what’s wrong with me. And then I have a glass of wine. Even when I write something I like, I know I will change it in a couple of days.
I was speaking with a producer for BBC Radio 4 who explained when she writes, she thinks about the one person who will be so moved, so interested, so excited by the show that her fear of writing simply does not enter the equation. For her, this focus helps take off the pressure. When I write I think about a panel of Man Booker judges and Harold Bloom. This makes me sit with a pen poised above the paper crying.
I have never been entirely sure what an algorithm is; I think I had one once with tonic, but it might have been integral calculus with coke. Luckily I had a dream, about how to be a great writer. You had to sleep for a whole night balanced on the Log of Consciousness. If you made it through to morning without falling off you were a writer. No math, no drafts and no bestsellers; just uncanny balance and determination.