Like most people who use word processing applications, I’m by now perfectly used to seeing those colored squiggly lines appear below phrases or sentences deemed grammatically incorrect. And as a subset of this group no doubt also does, I typically ignore them. I know what I’m saying, after all, and I’m aware when it deviates from standard grammatical rules. But a recent discussion I had regarding the heap of narrative do’s and don’ts piled on students of composition, e.g. Show don’t tell, led me to wonder how useful it would be to have such prescriptive narrativity rules built into a word processor. Let’s call it Story Perfect.

Would you use Story Perfect to compose fiction? What if it could check your metaphors for alignment? What if it could help you ensure your protagonist’s language was “in character”? Or help you pick the appropriate moment for your climax? And would the result still be “your story?” Though it may seem intrusive to most writers, we do this on some level anyway: internalize rules we’ve learned and reproduce them on the page. Why not have a little reminder during the moments of inspiration?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

4 responses to “Story Perfect”

  1. I’ve gave a program called Cliche Cleaner a whirl once upon a time. I guess it had some sort of database to use at the end of the day, but when push came to shove it actually worked fairly well (zomg ha!).

    No, but seriously, I used to love Word Perfect because it used to do grammar for me, highlighting passive voice and those “There was” constructions that spring so quickly forward we (or at least I) so rarely realize it. It also did a Flesch-Kincaid, so I could figure out reading level and such. I found those tools useful when I was learning to write. I’m not sure I would now (I was using Word up until a few weeks ago, and am now on Open Office. Everything else–at least on a PC–seems to suck, and I tried a bunch. Jarte and Creawriter and cetera).

    One thing I did find useful was that it helped me weed out my own authorial tics. I discovered that I am partial to the word “supernova.” I used it six or seven times in a time-travel novel, which is probably not all that unusual considering it was a bit heavy on physics for obvious reasons, but also on a meta-update of Faust (if you said “zuh?” you’re not alone). It caught a few other phrases and such as well.

    One program I love the idea (if not the execution, yet) of is called Write or Die. It’s a web-based app (though you can get the actual program fro $10), and before you start you enter in both a word goal and a time goal. And it basically shuts everything else on your computer off so the only thing you can do is write, say, 2000 in 2 hours. Or whatever parameters you’ve chosen.

    I think that’s kinda genius.

  2. Gloria says:

    I would not use it. Turns of phrase and the nuances of good writing are so much more than an algorithm.

    I lost an argument with Microsoft Word spell check last night. I, too, usually ignore the red squiggly line. See also: the green squiggly line. But it was telling me that weeped wasn’t a word. I was trying to figure out what its problem was. Was I missing a word before or after, thereby making my conjugation of the past tense of to weep nonsensical? No. It was insistent. So, I looked it up in the dictionary. Turns out the correct conjugation is wept. Who knew? I immediately blew my nose in my English degree and chucked it in the trash.

    I’m pretty sure I knew this stuff once.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    On a totally different front, how does that whole Flesch-Kincaid thing work?

    I don’t know – where do you draw the line between rules that you’re passively absorbed and actively used, as opposed to rules and aids that are being actively applied to your work?

    Would it be any different to having an editor?

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