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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYPERCULTURE

Once Upon a ROM . . .

Software Offers Words for the Writer--or You Could Just Read

September 15, 1997|DANIEL AKST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine that you are a software reviewer, and you receive in the mail a CD-ROM purporting to teach the art and science of dirigible design. You pop the thing into the drive and discover that installation and use are easy, and that intelligent guidance is offered in the time-honored craft of producing lighter-than-air ships.

Essays on zeppelin guidance and maintenance are included, with checklists to see that you have mastered the lessons of refueling, mooring and so forth. With application (and not a little talent), a few students following the advice here might turn out a passable dirigible, although it's unlikely you would want to ride in it.

Lighter-than-air vessels aren't much in demand, you say? Yes, but zeppelin makers abound, most of them employed teaching the young and not so young (among whom interest is mysteriously unflagging) the art of levitating gas-filled bags. Degree programs spread, conferences are held, and dirigible output spirals ever upward.

Such is the admittedly cynical response of your humble correspondent on receiving a copy of the Writer's Software Companion, a new CD-ROM intended to help users (heaven help them) learn to write novels and short stories.

The Writer's Software Companion is hardly the first software aimed at aspiring Faulkners. The Writers' Computer Store, for instance, physically in West Los Angeles but virtually at http://writerscomputer.com, sells a host of software packages aimed at aspiring scribes, including, just to cite one example, Dramatica Pro, said to help you "develop your characters with the right blend of motivation, method and purpose while the Dramatica Story Engine mirrors your instincts to keep Character, Plot, Theme and Genre all working together."

Or perhaps you prefer Fiction Master? "Easily import existing scenes, fix problems, create memorable characterization, page-turning plots, and enhance dialogue."

But the Writer's Software Companion, from Novation Learning Systems Inc., is the newest in this genre, and as good an example as any. Judged on its own terms, I can say without guilt or smirk that this product is filled with perfectly reasonable advice, clearly presented, and bolstered with examples from literature high and not so high.

The comments on things like authorial distance, and how to decide the order of events, for instance, are a pretty fair presentation of these important narrative problems. In general, the exposition on this CD-ROM isn't long-winded, and by answering a series of questions about yourself, it produces a tailor-made little lecture.

For instance, I told the program I wanted to write novels in a genre the program refers to as "glitz," for modern popular fiction, but that I don't read much, spend little time writing, and never have anyone critique my work. I also said I am submitting my work to publishers, and that my biggest problem in my books is the middle. Oh, and I told the program my name is Fyodor.

The result was a frank talk that began with a few encouraging words ("Fyodor, first of all, we hope a publisher will soon accept your work") and then got down to business.

I am given a strangely qualified exhortation to read more ("Unless you're publishing regularly, a steady diet of good literature is a must") and spend more time writing. Finally, I've got to get over my hubris and get some input from others.

"Fyodor, critical reviews from others, friends, fellow writers, or editors of the publications that interest you, can be one of your best resources," the program says frankly.

The question, though, is just who should use a product like this one? At $80 (you can download a free demo from http://www.novalearn.com), it costs much more than comparable books, and contrary to what the company contends, probably isn't much better than one. Personally, I'd prefer a book, which I could read lying down, underline, etc. I also suspect most aspiring writers would benefit from a writing class, and now that back-to-school season is upon us, these shouldn't be difficult to come by.

The Writer's Software Companion tries to cover this base as well. You get a free critique if you send in some of your own writing, and you can pay for additional critiques as well. I had plans to submit "The Age of Innocence" or "Great Expectations" (such works are freely available for download on the Internet) to see whether anyone spotted the ruse, but I lost heart.

What, after all, would be the point? Hardly anyone reads novels these days, and there is no market for short fiction, except for literary magazines that pay nothing and aren't read. It often seems that more people now write fiction than read it.

Certainly these programs cannot pretend to be preparing anyone for a "career" in writing novels and short stories, since practically the only livelihood available in the field is to get paid teaching others to write novels and short stories. Literature in America is becoming a giant pyramid scheme, abetted now by the software industry.

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