Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Invisible Keywords, Hiccups, Geodes, Excel Formulae

Every so often I do a reading binge of stories published in the New Yorker. I go to the website, open the stories (making sure to click on "entire story"), copy and paste them all into the one word document and plough through them that way.

Somehow, in this copy and paste process, I end up with seven "keywords" under the title for each story which are not visible on the website. For a few examples, the latest story, 'Procedure In Plain Air' by Jonathan Lethem, lists the following keywords:

New York City

'Complicity' by Julian Barnes, from last week, had:
Love Affairs

This reeks of IT logic: In order to improve the searchability of short stories, you need to provide keywords for each story.

I'm sure no one is suggesting you can capture the essence of a story (not a good one, anyway) in seven key words or phrases, but it's still worth noting how misleading some of these keyword clusters can be.

Based on keywords alone, George Saunders' rip-roaring 'Victory Lap' from a couple of weeks ago looks pretty dire:
Crime, Criminals
Cross-Country Runners

A fairer set of keywords for this quirky story would surely include: geodes, over-parenting, and imaginary baby deer.

Cynics may point to the stultifying sameness of the fiction published by the New Yorker (George Saunders aside) and say that seven keywords is enough to guess the contents of the story. (Perhaps that's why the keywords are not visible on the website?)

But I approach it from the other direction: with a bit of cut and paste, you have at your fingertips a database of story ideas. Hiccups, gloves and a love affair? Sounds like enough to get you started.

(Here I should acknowledge the similarity of this suggestion with the world-famous-in-New-Zealand, Wellington,IIML-Graduate-circles 'Six Things Exercise'.)

Don't want to be limited to odd convergences in a single story? (Probably wise…) Pick and choose from several sets of keywords (or let Excel and its RAND and IF formulae do the choosing for you).

Someone more web savvy than myself could write a code to randomly generate a set of New Yorker keywords. This may be a service to the writing community, or it may lead to a spate of stories prominently featuring hiccups being submitted to lit-mags everywhere...

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