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Can a computer judge fiction?

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 21, 2008

The ad on Craigslist was from an Oakton company called Zirdland.com. Zirdland claims it has developed a software system that can electronically analyze the quality and commercial viability of a work of fiction and prompt changes that will make it better.

Because the product, called Arc Angel, is still being fine-tuned, the developers needed sample manuscripts. So the ad invited would-be novelists to submit their work for a free computer critique of their "structure, plot line, character arcs and emotional sub-text."

Hey, I've always wanted to be a novelist. I wrote a short story and took it in.

JASMINE AND LAURENCE

By Gene Weingarten

The two lovers writhed as one, entwined and moist, like a spool of twine that had been dropped in the toilet.

"Oh, Laurence," Jasmine moaned, her breath the color of warm air.

Jasmine had a very complex character arc. Actually, it wasn't an arc so much as a parabola that could be expressed in Cartesian coordinates as an asymptote with polynomial coefficients, viz., y2 = 4ax, x2 = 4ay. In short, Jasmine was really hard to fathom, the way it's hard to fathom why you sometimes have to type "www" to access a Web site, but usually you don't. Also, she had very perky breasts.

Laurence arose from the bed and paced the hotel room. He was a handsome billionaire industrialist but still looked ridiculous, the way all men look when they are pacing around naked without proper support. Laurence was deeply troubled by a major emotional subtext.

"My wife does not understand me," he wailed in an uncontrolled fashion, like an accordionist trying to play the sitar.

"Let us run off together, my darling, even if we must live as paupers," said Jasmine, whose sudden unselfish outburst both advanced the story structure and made her character arc awesome. Her eyes glistened. They were blue. Actually, her eyeballs weren't all blue -- they were mostly white, but each had a blue part with a black dot in the middle.

Laurence saw her as he had never seen her before. She was not a gold digger after all, he thought, an insight as blinding as what happens when you look at an eclipse without one of those homemade pinhole boxes that make the sun look like a pale orange disc on a piece of cardboard, but really that's the best you get.

Meanwhile the plot line was resolving itself masterfully. At that very moment, unbeknown to Laurence, his wife, Lucretia, was flying to Zurich with $312 million of assets she had stolen from him, but the plane was crashing into a mountain and Lucretia's body was being reduced to pieces as small and bloody as your pinky toenail after it gets caught on a sweat sock as you are yanking it on. Since the money was not in cash but in redeemable unsecured certificates of deposit, Laurence would get to keep the babe and the bucks.

The End

So, I took my manuscript to Zirdland.

Arc Angel turns out to be a hugely complex electronic tool, developed over 20 years by inventor Lawrence Au. It analyzes stories word by word, using hundreds of criteria, instantly evaluating how well characters are developed, how dynamically they interact, how effectively their plights resonate, how the plot is resolved, etc.

Au and his partner, Joel Ratner, are hoping that this interactive tool will become a Web site to which aspiring authors will flock to improve their prose. Plus, theoretically, if book publishers trust it, they will show more interest in a manuscript that the computer has anointed as worthy.

Au fed "Jasmine and Laurence" into Arc Angel, which decided within 10 seconds that the story was ... great!

"Yes, it's showing emotional depth," Au said, interpreting the elaborate color-coded spreadsheet feedback. "There is a lot of motivational punch that propels characters along. There is a lot of resonance. The tool says you'd have a lot to gain by continuing the story."

Uh.

I asked him if he had noticed, personally, as a human, that my story was dreadful.

"Yeah, that's a good question. What you wrote was florid and colorful, which Arc Angel saw as a good thing. The problem is we haven't yet developed in it the ability to detect cheesy writing. We are definitely working on it."

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

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