Using speech synthesis to improve your writing

I’ve just discovered a fancy-pants new way of helping me with my fiction, and I thought I’d share. The idea is to use a speech synthesiser to listen to parts of your writing. By listening, you hear problems that aren’t so obvious on the page.

I recently bought a copy of [Cepstral’s][cepstral] text-to-speech software, buying one of their voices for $30. This lets you do some very nice things. Originally I just intended to listen to web pages using the [Click, Speak][] firefox extension. Rather nice; visit a web page, choose ‘speak selection’ from a menu, and hear the web page. Neato.

But I’ve found it more useful when editing fiction. Select a sentence or paragraph and have it spoken back to you. As you listen, awkward phrases will jump out at you. Sentences that flow badly become more obvious. Good writing seems satisfying when you hear it read out.

So how can you go about it? Well, [Cepstral][] do a free demo download of their voices. I’m using Cepstral Alison. Cepstral do their own text editor called _swifttalker_. Just cut and pastie text into the editor and click the play button. Until you buy it comes with a prefixed message about licenced, but if you purchase it’ll go away.

If you are more technically inclined, and are comfortable writing scripts for your word processor (say, macros for MS Word, or python for [Sublime Text][st], or lisp programs for [emacs][]) then you can use the `swift.exe` program that comes with a Cepstral voice, piping selected text into the executable. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s great.

[cepstral]: http://cepstral.com/
[Click, Speak]: http://clickspeak.clcworld.net/
[st]: http://www.sublimetext.com
[emacs]: http://www.emacswiki.org

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The Rise And Fall of Art Forms

Two things you should read; this [coilhouse post][ch] introducing [“The Decline of Fashion Photography”][art].

[ch]: http://coilhouse.net/2007/11/24/the-decline-of-fashion-photography/
[art]: http://www.slate.com/features/010510_fashion-slide-show/01.htm

The main article traces one art form from the fifties to the present-day in twenty-eight photos and comments. Her argument is that the form has descended from a heyday to a low point nowadays, with either too little art, or too little fashion.

In a wider sense, it’s interesting to consider whether art forms generally go through such rises and falls. This has to be quite focussed; I think arguing for a golden age of cinema, or of music, would be ridiculous; but arguing for the heydey of zombie explotation movies, or mod, or house music, that’s possible.

For me, the interesting question is around sci-fi short fiction. Recently, it’s been [argued][we] and [riffed on][al] that science fiction short story mags like [Analog][an] have been declining in circulation; does this mean that form of written, printed short fiction drawing to a close? Is it being transformed by the internet? free electronic distribution of magazines like [hub][], reworking the form into [flash fiction][ff], and changing the medium by podcasting (eg [pseudopod][pp]) suggest the forms mutating rapidly and that the classic sub-10,000 word, printed paper story might well atrophy away. After all, while people might not be comfortable reading a whole book on a screen, they’ll read an awful lot of short pieces.

PS: I’d recommend [coilhouse][chm]; it’s a interesting art blog focussing on alt culture.

[we]: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=5212
[chm]: http://www.coilhouse.net
[al]: http://www.hub-mag.co.uk/?p=11
[an]: http://www.analogsf.com/0712/issue_12.shtml
[pp]: http://pseudopod.org/
[ff]: http://www.365tomorrows.com/
[hub]: http://www.hub-mag.co.uk/

The Amazing Expanding Sentence

I’ve been thinking about writing software for a while now; first [Ariadne][], and then several little projects.

One that’s been at the back of my mind, not fully developed but nagging me, is the idea I’ve come to label **The Amazing Expanding Sentence.**

Here’s the idea. Let’s say you’re a writer and you want to write a novel. You start of with a single sentence

A wonderful tale of a rebel who overturns
an evil empire.

Well, that sounds pretty cool. So we want to expand that sentence. Somehow (and this, of course, is the trick I’m looking for) we ‘overwrite’ this sentence with two or more sentneces.

We meet Jake, a folk singer, who has a
dead-end job. He learns a terrible secret
about a senator about to become president.
He runs across America, and finally corners
the senator in his Volcano base.

Well, you get the idea. The first sentence has expanded, but the old one is there. You keep expanding, hopefully until you’ve detailed the whole story, moving through one-line summary, synopsis, treatment, chapter summary, scene summary, and novel.

There is probably some horrific flaw to the whole idea.

[Ariadne]: http://www.getariadne.com

Is SF a genre?

Have you ever considered that science fiction may not be a genre?

People are always looking for ways to categorise art, and to group together things they like and things they don’t. It’s quite natural for people to lump together all the books with common elements.

I don’t want to try to offer a definition of sci-fi, but in common use, “sci-fi” is applied to books with speculative technology like nanotech, spacecraft, AI, or faster-than-light travel, or alien worlds or characters.

Problem is, that doesn’t really define what the story is about; is it a slasher movie, like Alien; a horror, like Event Horizon; a fairy tale, like Star Wars; or a kung-fu move, like The Matrix?

What I’m really wondering is, if someone says they like Science Fiction, what the hell do they mean? Have they told you anything about their tastes?

The two posts which inspired me;
– “What Do You Hate Most About Short Science Fiction
Hub Magazine’s post that alerted me to it.