Writing by machine
February 18, 2017 2:38 PM   Subscribe

In an interview with a writer, he mentioned old writing machines, that mechanically constructed sentences, maybe longer texts.

Think spinning a wheel and getting a word. I've tried googling to find examples of such machines , but I find only online generators and occasionally the Mechanical Turk (which neither wrote sentences or really mechanical). I'm sure I've seen something like this in a book somewhere, but I'm lost for how to find such a machine. Any suggestions for how/where to search, or leads to actual machines?
posted by bwonder2 to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds kind of like William Cook's Plotto system:
Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:
In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.
Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:03 PM on February 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Also, Wikipedia offers a few more leads in the article on story generators, including The Plot Genie which used a book of plot elements in conjunction with a dial spinner.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:07 PM on February 18, 2017

You might find what you're looking for in this post on generative poetry by katie rose pipkin or this one by Holly Gramazio. From your description it sounds like the writer may have been referencing the Eureka, a Victorian-era machine that produced Latin hexameter. (Which writer were you interviewing?! I want to read this interview.)
posted by aparrish at 4:00 PM on February 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is (sorry) not an answer to your query, but if you're also interested in fictional depictions of writing machines, then Roald Dahl's short story 'The Great Automatic Grammatizator' is a biting satire of the concept.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:18 PM on February 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I saw a William S. Burroghs exhibit that had something on wiring machines. I can't recall the details, but that might be something to look for.
posted by JMOZ at 8:03 PM on February 18, 2017

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