It's November and aspiring writers are plugging away at their novels for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, an annual event that encourages people to churn out a 50,000-word book on deadline. But a hundred or so people are taking a very different approach to the challenge, writing computer programs that will write their texts for them. It's called NaNoGenMo, for National Novel Generation Month, and the results are a strange, often funny look at what automatic text generation can do.
I've attempted to do NaNoWriMo multiple times but I could never finish a novel, no matter how many times I attempted it.
But this? Write a computer program to do the dull boring bit of writing 50,000 words? That sounds more fun.
Okay, “fun” being a relative word here.
I've looked at some of the results and some of them are fantastic! Ten years ago I threatened to write a novel with 50,000 fictional words but this year—Liza Daly has done what I threatened and wrote a book with 50,000 fictional words—using potentially fictional alphabet to push it to 11.
Most of the submissions appear to be written using Markov chains (an algorithm that uses probability of word A to follow word(s) B to generate the text) and while it can produce some spellbinding wordsmithery—a story with the fascinating title of “The Case Of The IT. And Now I'll Be Too Late With A Murder Done On My Own Doorstep. Volume: 8” is a prime example, you have to read through a lot of dull and nonsensical prose to find the gems.
A better technique might be a more template driven system, such as the one used to generate The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed:
At all events my own essays and dissertations about love and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be known and understood by all of you who read this and talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject of this essay. We will commence with a question: does steak love lettuce? This quesion is implacably hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is a question: does an electron love a proton, or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting and critical response to this question is: no! He is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony and crazy about her. That is not the love of steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and neutron. This dissertation will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me and fascinating to you but it is painful to Bill and Diane. That is love!
But that requires quite a bit of work to write the templates that help to generate the text:
(redundancies explicitly added by Chamberlain, by repeating a text-variable type, apparently for camouflage)
<Intro phrase> my own (essays) about love and its (endless) pain and pleasure will be (understood) by all of you who read this and (talk) about it to your (<worried> <friends>). Love is the (subject) of this <essay>. We will <begin> with a question: does <meat> love <vegetable>? This quesion is (<implacably> <hard>) to answer. (Here is a question: does a man love a woman or, (to be specific), does <man> love <woman>?) The (interesting) response to this question is: no! (He is (infatuated) with her.) That is not the love (of <meat> and <vegeable>). This <essay> will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of <meat> and <vegetable>. Love is (interesting) to me and you but it is painful to <man> and <woman>. That is love!
- Hello. Please state your problem.
- Excellent! Excuse me a minute while I attend to some business. I will be right back.
- Why do you need to tell me excuse while you attend to some business?
- Is it better to need or to despise? Why is it that I do need to tell you to excuse myself to attend to some business? Because electrons are brave. Braveness is nice, don't you think? And the needers all insist upon it. Do you imagine I am a Communist?
Hmm … have to think on this …