Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Open-Art Surgery: Dissecting a story

Imagine you see an attractive woman walking past. Your appreciation of the view is immediate and undeniable. She is beautiful because ... she is beautiful to you. Chances are she wouldn't be quite as beautiful if you literally dissected her on a morgue slab to see if you could understand why she is beautiful.

As an author, I'm often asked technical questions like "Where do you get ideas?" or "How many words are in your book?" Being naturally cheeky, I often respond: "About 91,851 ... but I use some of them more than once."

Well, now has taken cheekiness to a new height. It has recently unveiled a so-called "tag cloud" -- more formally, a concordance -- for its books. Basically, it's an alphabetical list of the 100 most frequently used words in a book (minus ubiquitous words like "the," "in" and "for.") As you look at the list, the font size of a word is proportional to the number of times it is used in the book ... for example, you'd be able to know that the word Blogger is more common than Typist.

In my new book FALL, the most commonly appearing word is the last name of one of the killers in this horrific true crime, Ron Kennedy (mentioned 484 times.) He was the dark force in the abduction, rape and murder of two young childhood friends of mine, and my prison interviews with him (as well as excerpts from his chilling unpublished memoir) consume an entire chapter.

The next most common word is the first name of one of his victims, my friend and neighbor, Becky Thomson (472), followed by Kennedy's henchman Jerry Jenkins (310) and Becky's 11-year-old sister Amy (224).

The rest of the Top 10 words in FALL are: years (224), two (214), day (212), life (208), time (204) and even (183).

All of those words evoke poetic meanings in this story ... except "even." So now, when I begin my next manuscript I'll be a little obsessive about using the word "even." Dammit.


Amazon also analyzes the "readability" of FALL with its new "text stats," that use measurements called "fog index" and "Flesch-Kincaid Index" to assess how easy (or hard) text can be to read. There (assuming you're inclined) you can learn such things about FALL as:

g Its 527,477 characters form into 91,851 words, which line up in 5,736 sentences.
g If you buy my book, Amazon will only charge you $1 per 5,577 words (and for shipping purposes, that adds up to 5,467 words an ounce.)
g Only 10% of the words are "complex" (three or more syllables) and the average word is only 1.5 syllables long, which makes 73% of all books harder to read than mine! (What does half a syllable sound like?)
g An average 8th grader can read it easily.
g Its average sentence has only 16 words, which is about average.


I feel dissected.

1 comment:

SingingSkies said...

Oh, yuck! It's not the number of times any particular word is used. It's how those words are crafted into the creation that determines the readability of a book, even ;) one about such a difficult and distressing topic.

How can one possibly attempt to dissect creativity in such a non-creative way? It's not as if anyone could truly dissect creativity in the first place. Creativity comes from some place other than letters and words and parsed sentence structure (although those things may be needed to communicate what's created to others).

Poor Ron. I'm sure your friends and readers will be supportive in helping you return your creative guts to their proper location, and slather the wounds with healing balms.