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Styles and good/bad books

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A highly technical paper at

http://aclweb.org/anthology/D/D13/D13-1181.pdf

discusses using lexical analysis to correlate different Parts of Speech (POS) with the likelihood of a book being more or less successful. It's meant mostly for analytical-linguistics wonks, but some paragraphs and tables (especially in Section 5, discussions re: tables 4 and 6) are accessible by lay readers. They consider POS features that characterize books that are popular and sell vs. those found in books that aren't and don't. An editor's gut feel replaced by computer analysis.

One unexpected insight the researchers gained was that books deemed easier to read were less popular and sold less well. Evidently for adult-level texts anyway (roughly MG and older), agents, editors, and readers prefer complex lexical structures in their reading, at least within a given genre or literary submarket. Who knew? So add more conjunctions and invert those clauses!

If the authors of the study wanted to really clean up they'd hit the SCBWI regional lecture circuit. I'd pay good money to hear them speak their insights boiled down a bit into writer's lingo.
#1 - November 09, 2015, 09:24 PM
« Last Edit: November 09, 2015, 09:27 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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That's interesting stuff. If anyone could figure out a formula to make a book successful, I wish they would try it! Nobody else seems to know for sure. Even the experts have a pretty low hit rate :)
#2 - November 10, 2015, 02:21 AM
Kell Andrews
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THE BOOK DRAGON, Sterling, 2018
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Dionna

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 :goodpost
A.S., you should write a summary about the study, and interview the author for the SCBWI Bulletin.
#3 - November 10, 2015, 02:37 AM

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Hmmm. I wouldn't trust an algorithm to predict whether a story is good though. I'd trust the editor. In matters of the heart, trust the human.

I think what bugs me about these kinds of studies is that people are quantifying what they can and trying to correlate it to something else. Is it a true correlation? As in cause and effect? We know that French people drive Renaults. They also have lower incidence of heart disease than Americans. Someone can say, driving Renaults is good for the heart. I know it's a ridiculous example, but you get my point.

I suspect it's the good story that leads to the better sale. And the style must serve the story. And how you quantify something that is subjective (good story) is anybody's guess. This is why marketing departments are surprised when a quiet book suddenly takes off, or when a heavily marketed book flops.

Vijaya

ps: To be fair, I didn't read the whole article, just glanced through it. I must :writing3
#4 - November 10, 2015, 06:12 AM
Max & Dagny, Why in the World, Tongue-Tied, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
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That's interesting stuff. If anyone could figure out a formula to make a book successful, I wish they would try it! Nobody else seems to know for sure. Even the experts have a pretty low hit rate :)

Didn't Erich Segal write LOVE STORY on just such a dare? He was at Harvard on a sabbatical at the time, and had done a lot of literary analysis as an English professor . He dismissed many bestsellers and commercial movie plots. Then someone suggested that if commercial books were  just a lowly formula, he should try it. He wrote it as a screenplay first.
#5 - November 10, 2015, 07:36 AM
THE VOICE OF THUNDER, WiDo Publishing
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I didn't know this Mirka. For sure, formulae can work ... aren't a lot of books on plotting trying to teach exactly that? Why certain structures are more satisfying to the reader? I took Storymasters this spring and it was really funny when James Scott Bell talked about the "mirror moment" at the 50% mark. Many of us had this in our mss and some of us even had it with an actual mirror. LOL. His little booklet on writing from the middle is quite good. But I digress.

Vijaya
#6 - November 10, 2015, 10:05 AM
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A.S., you should write a summary about the study, and interview the author for the SCBWI Bulletin.

Okay. The first part was (kinda) straightforward, but the interview(s) might take a little longer.

It should be noted these none of this has anything to do with writing to formula! It simply measures correlation (not causation) between certain lexical tags and the demonstrated commercial or popular success of categories of books. That said, writers can look over the stuff below and think about whether it might inform their own styles.

Examples bulleted are not exhaustive, obviously.

FREQUENT IN MORE-SUCCESSFUL BOOKS
---------------------------------
Prepositions, General
· above, at, before, behind, below, by, inside, outside, under
Determiners, General (DT)
· the, any, all, an, another, both, each, either, every, many, these, this, those

Nouns, Plural

Nouns, Proper Singular (NNP)
· London, Peter, Paul, Mary, Superman, Catwoman

Coord. conj., General (CC)
· and, but, for, nor, or, so (discourse connectives)
· which, though, that, as, after, but, where, what, whom, since,

Numbers, General

Pronouns, Possessive (PRP$)
· her, his, mine, my, our, ours, their, thy, your
Pronouns, General WH (WP)
· that, what, whatever, whatsoever, which, who, whom, whosoever
Pronouns, Possessive WH (WP$)
· whose

Adjectives, General (JJ)
· high, low, hot, cold
Adjectives, Superlative (JJS: -est)
· biggest, smallest, highest, lowest, hottest, coldest

Prepositional Phrases (PP) that function as adjectives
· From my granny
· Under the clear blue sky
· Along the crowded platform
· Without further ado

Noun Phrases (NP) (noun + modifier: plays the role of noun or pronoun)
· a cat; the dog
· the cat's meow; the dog's bark
· my cat; their dog
· the green cat; the wet-nosed dog
· a running cat; a panting dog
· the cat up the tree; the frustrated dog below
· the cat stalking the bird; the dog fouling the footpath
· the cat to own; the dog to give away
· the happy Marie

WH-noun phrases (WHNP) (less so in Juvenile category)
· who, which (noun), whose (noun), all/some/none of which, how many (noun).
· the cat who walks through walls
· the dog whose nose is dry
· She Who Must Be Obeyed
· that which must be seen to be believed
· how many times

ALSO GENERALLY FOUND:
Verbs that describe thought-processing
· recognize, remember, consider, ponder, perceive, believe, wonder, recall
Reporting verbs
· say, comment, discuss, explain, express, mention, suggest, point out

Especially with more-successful books in the Juvenile category
--------------------------------------------------------------
PRN (Parentheticals)

ADJP: Adjective Phrase
· relatively efficient
· slow as a slug
· better than she could have hoped (for)
· any better
· this short
· a bit queasy, a month early
· my green parrot

SINV: Inverted (declarative) sentence: subject following tensed verb or modal
· Nearby stood a tree.
· Below roared the torrent.
· Here comes the bride.
· In my bag was interesting book.
· Out his backside flew a monkey.
· Through the crack Bilbo could just squeeze himself.
· A-marching we must go.
· This I could not do.


FREQUENT IN LESS-SUCCESSFUL BOOKS
---------------------------------
Adverbs, General (RB)
· (basically any verb modifier ending in -ly)
· (might not include comparatives ending in -er or prefixes more-, less-)

Adverbs, General WH:
· when, where, why, how, whence, whither, whereby, wherein, whereupon.
Interrogative:
· When are you going to Savannah?
· Where did you put the cheese?
· Why did she quit?
· How did you become interested in writing?
Clausal:
· This is the city where Goethe was born
· We've no idea how/when it happened

Adverb(ial) Phrases (ADVP):
Time:
· In a short time
· Any moment now
· Before sunset
Place:
· Near the blackboard
· At the corner
· In the world
· Through the looking glass
· Over the rainbow
Manner:
· With great regret
· In dismay
· Like a cat eating a mouse
· In happiness
· With a song on my lips
· In a civilized way

Verbs, Base (VB: Simple infinitive without the "to")
· do, see, excel, pass, sit

Verb Phrases (VP) (note however that this form is required in screenplays):
· She smells the socks. (active)
· The wet goat pongs terribly. (linking)
· He appeared on youtube as a commentator. (active)
· Tony looks angry. (linking)
Verb phrase as a predicate:
· The  author is  writing a new PB.
· I  must earn  a high score.
· The  cat might  eat the mouse.
· He  was walking  to school.
· We  grew apart  after college.
Functioning as an adverb
· Running by the pool, she slipped and fell in.
· Fill up the thermos to let us drink later.
· To write a manuscript, all one really needs is a pen and paper

Verbs, Non-3rd sing. present (VBP):
· know, run, look, like

Verbs, Past tense (VBD)
· accepted, added, carved, refused

Verbs, Past participle (VBN: -ed)
· been, sung, drunk, gone, made, found, eaten, given, written

Verbs, 3rd person sing. present (VBP: -s)
· has, sees, goes

Verbs, Modal auxiliary (MD)
· can/can't/cannot, could/couldn't, may/mayn't, might/mightn't, will/won't,
· would/wouldn't, must/mustn't, shall/shan't, should/shouldn't, ought (to)/oughtn't
· dare/daren't, need/needn't

Foreign, General (FW)
· (any non-English word not in common use)

Symbols, General
· % & ( ) < = > + @

Interjections, General (INTJ):
Oh, Ah, Alas, Huh, anyway, Whoa, Aye, Hey, Ha/hah, Oops, Yea/Yeah, Hmm

GENERALLY FOUND IN LESS-SUCCESSFUL BOOKS
----------------------------------------
Adventure stories: verbs that are explicitly descriptive of emotions
· crave, seize, promise, weep, cheer, glare.

Fragments (FRAG):
Lacking verb or subject:
· The colorfully adorned circus clown.
· Tumbled across the entire length of the arena.
an unattached subordinate or dependent clause:
· Into the den of a hungry hyena.

Adventure stories: Extreme Words
· never, very, breathless, sacred, slightest, absolutely, perfectly


Especially with LESS-successful books in the Juvenile category
--------------------------------------------------------------
PRT (Particles)
· the "to" in infinitives: to go, to fly
· verb+preposition: go (up) to, eat up, swallow down
· attitudinal: oh, well, you know, I mean, huh, like
SBAR
· Clause introduced by a (possibly empty) subordinating conjunction

#7 - November 10, 2015, 01:58 PM
« Last Edit: November 10, 2015, 07:59 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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That's a great summary. Thanks!

(I did have to laugh though about the adverbs -- that's one of the most-oft repeated complaints/criticisms of JKR's writing, and as HP remains one of the most successful children's series of all time...probably goes back to story trumping all.)
#8 - November 10, 2015, 03:56 PM
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I did have to laugh though about the adverbs -- that's one of the most-oft repeated complaints/criticisms of JKR's writing, and as HP remains one of the most successful children's series of all time...probably goes back to story trumping all.

Can't argue with success ££££! Maybe all that disdain for books heavy in adverbs and verbs generally is unwarranted... makes one wonder about the motives and tastes of the disdainers (agents, editors & critics), not the readers.
#9 - November 10, 2015, 04:17 PM
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Thank you for the summary. I didn't realize how much I like prepositions. Nouns and verbs are my favorites though.
Vijaya
#10 - November 10, 2015, 05:21 PM
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Very interesting! I think some of the "less successful" items are examples of lazy writing (not saying I'm not guilty of them at times!) ... such as using adverbs or "extreme words" rather than strengthening the verbs.

I wonder whether using the word "just" makes a book more or less successful? I do know that if I had a dollar for every "just" I edited out of my manuscripts, I'd be rich!

Postscript: The happy Marie? wth?
#11 - November 10, 2015, 06:36 PM
LindaBudz
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EM & EM (2015)
THE FUNERAL SINGER (2013)

A question that is brought mine is, couldn't any given work be simpler even if it uses things generally considered to be avoided?

The situation I'm thinking is where the sentence is not technically bad grammar, but the whole general structure might be considered wonky. But because of the words chosen it is a breeze and joy to read.

Like you might have a sentence that--unbelievably--has about ten sub clauses, but the sub sentences uses words that one doesn't have to look in a dictionary to reference outside of the reading experience.

Or maybe the situation provides enough context that the few foreign words could be relatively easily learned in a classroom experience by using the power of general inference.

Not real complex words, but more if it's forth grade then they have sixth grade words.

Like if you have a character who is a genius, but their wordiness is used for comedic effect.
#12 - November 10, 2015, 07:21 PM
« Last Edit: November 10, 2015, 07:23 PM by SarahW »
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Well, I still reserve the right to use "shan't" when I please, and did so in my current project. Rowling's Peeves the Poltergeist certainly did, so nyah, nyah  :pp to taking lexical-analysis results too seriously as an absolute guide to writing or evaluating books.

Still, I do hypothesize that frequent use of the less-successful books' common POSs might well be symptomatic of deeper problems with vocab, grammar, and sentence & story structure: tell-tales, but not necessarily bad per se.
#13 - November 10, 2015, 08:14 PM
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Ok, to me this "study" sounds like they've proven that books with words will be successful--kinda similar to the one that spent tons of money proving that older people fall more often that younger adults.
#14 - November 11, 2015, 02:21 AM

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