The Rise of the Machines: AI ‘story engines’
If you’re book-Twitter-adjacent you will doubtless have heard there’s an AI book generator out there created by a company called Sudowrite. (As in “Pseudowrite”, which is at least honest. I’m also thinking Sudocrem, which is stuff you put on a baby’s bottom when it’s got sore from sitting in its own excrement. Anyway.)
This purports to generate you a book. According to the promo video, you do a “brain dump” of a vague idea, and throw in a couple of characters if you can be bothered. That gets ‘expanded’ into a synopsis, which gets ‘expanded’ into a chapter by chapter breakdown, which gets ‘expanded’ into text, and lo and behold the AI has written you a book!
Let’s just remind ourself: artificial intelligence is not intelligent. It’s a prediction engine. It has scraped billions of words of text and it offers you what it judges to be the most likely one to come up next. If you spend your keyboard time thinking, “What’s the most predictable word or plot event I can use here, I really need this to be something the reader will totally expect”, this could be the tool for you.
So you feed the predictive text engine an idea (in the sample video it’s an idea which bears a strong resemblance to The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz, published 2022) and it suggests helpful things like, er, all the minor characters. In the video it generates a Wise Mentor, a Jealous Rival, a Supportive Friend, and a Villain. Amazing, what human could have thought of that. Then it “puts a lot of chains of language models together to figure out what are some compelling beats that would hit the plot points”, which is to say, it looks for the most predictable route the story could possible take.
Then it generates text. Jesus wept. I’ll just quote from my anguished Twitter howl:
The opening of the novel reads “It was a sterile space devoid of personal touches” and I shouted “Ha!” so loud the cat jumped. I mean, if I wrote that in a book about the soul-killing effects of AI generated literature, I’d think, “wow that symbolism is a bit too heavy handed.”
lol* the AI text introduces the man with a summary of his professional achievements and the woman with a description of her “simple form-fitting dress that accentuated her curves” and shimmery hair.
*by ‘lol’ I mean ‘vomit’.
Of course you don’t have to use the completely generated AI text! I mean, you will if you’re a Kindle Unlimited page farmer; KU is about to be rammed with this crap, probably unread by the people generating it, who will be cranking it out as fast as the cliché engine can run.
The website offers a sample of its romance writing:
Lady Catherine’s heart raced as she leaned in to meet the lips of the dashing Marquess of Eastwick. Their lips touched and the air between them seemed to ignite. She felt his strong arms wrap around her, pulling her closer as their kiss deepened. The thrill rushed through her veins and the worries of the world seemed to fade away as they clung to each other, their passionate embrace fueled by months of unspoken longing.
But as they reluctantly pulled away, Lady Catherine’s expression grew serious once more. Though her love for the Marquess was undeniable, she knew that she could not simply surrender her heart without knowing the depths of his conviction. She would not become a gambler’s widow.
“My lord,” she spoke, her voice filled with both tenderness and firmness. “My heart beats for you, but I cannot give it so easily. You must prove your love for me is true and everlasting.”
The Marquess of Eastwick’s heart sank at the thought of losing his love, but he knew that he must remain composed in this moment. “Tell me what I must do to earn your trust,” he implored, his voice filled with sincerity.
Lady Catherine met his gaze with a steady gaze of her own. “You must show your devotion to me until the end of the Season,” she replied. “You must avoid all wagers, cease all gambling, and abstain from any behavior that would cause a scandal. If you can prove your love for me in this way, and if your heart remains true, then perhaps we may consider a future together.”
I think what I find most depressing about this is that it’s just—just—plausible enough that page farmers will hoover it up. They won’t care about the repetition, the grammar errors, the POV switch, the grinding predictability, the way it feels like a very wordy synopsis, the soullessness. It looks sufficiently like writing that you can get away with it, but what’s there to enjoy?
Still, you don’t need to use the generated text! If you see yourself as a ‘real’ author rather than a page farmer, you can ‘collaborate’ with it, and just use it to ‘help’. Here are some of the things its website offers:
When the words just won’t come out – Write can do it for you
Write is like autocomplete on steroids. It analyzes your characters, tone, and plot arc and generates the next 300 words in your voice. It even gives you options!
If you don’t know what to write next, you need to work out why not. Maybe your characters are insufficiently developed, maybe you’re facing a plot hole, may be you haven’t developed your story enough, maybe you’re going down a wrong path. You need to stop and think hard about where you are and where you’re going. This process is literally how you make your book, because writing a book is not in fact a matter of typing till you have 70,000 words.
Pacing too fast? Presto expand-o
No matter how much time you spend planning, you’ll end up with some sections that feel rushed. Expand magically builds out your scenes so the pacing doesn’t take readers out of the story.
If a section feels rushed, that probably requires really close textual work. Why did you rush it—because of driving plot urgency, or because you were skating across a tricky part, or because you were having too much fun to slow down? You need to work this out, because all of those will need to be treated differently, and then you’ll have to think very hard about how to add whatever’s needed without clogging the scene or unbalancing the structure around it. Or you can just get a machine to plonk in some extra words. Whichever.
The process of writing a book is generally one long string of hitting problems. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. You write a book by solving the problems, one after another (what does this character want? where is this conversation going? what am I trying to say?). That’s literally the process. I have again and again discovered what I’m trying to do in a book precisely because I was trying to solve a problem.
I needed to tie up loose ends > I reshaped the entire plot and ending
I got hopelessly stuck > I realised I was telling the wrong story
If you ‘want to write a book’ but you don’t want to create your own characters, and come up with your own world, and weave your own plot, and make it heartfelt or moving or exciting or bewildering, and to spin your own sentences, and to take on this challenge you’ve chosen to the best of your ability…okay, but what part of ‘writing a book’ is it that you want to do? Where’s the satisfaction in looking at the elements of writing a book, and pressing a button that does them for you?
I press a button to make a machine wash my dishes because I want clean dishes and I’m not interested in the process. If you think the process of writing a book is a lot of annoying busy-work that’s obstructing you from your goal of being an Author, then I suppose you would indeed be delighted to automate it, but I can’t help feeling you might have missed the entire point of writing. (Unless you’re a KU page farmer, in which case it makes perfect sense.)
And don’t tell me that you’ll come up with the brilliant parts in the time you’ve saved letting Chat GPT generate your secondary characters and your plot; that you’ll take your predictive text pig’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. You know as well as I do that’s not how it works. If you want to raise wonderful flowers, you need to dig the damn ground.
I’m not being all Protestant work ethic here. I don’t see any moral good in crying over a MS. I’m just saying, art is created by putting in learning, practice, experience, hard graft, personal commitment. You put those in, you get art out. You put in a slurry of recycled text geared for the most predictable outcome…well, you get what you give.
A predictive text machine isn’t going to help you understand the deep reason you can’t get that bloody scene done. It’s not going to suggest that piece of imagery that brings your whole book into focus, or the twist that will make readers tweet incoherently gleeful outrage, or the magical line that makes them cry like it hurts, or the idea that makes them stare silently into the middle distance for a while. It’s not going to dig in to your pains and fears and rejections and dreams, and use them to pluck notes that resonate in other human beings’ souls. It’s not going to identify what’s going on when you can’t write at all. It’s not going to make you a better writer.
You are the one who needs to do those things, because that is what writing is. That’s what makes it writing, rather than typing; that’s what creates something memorable and moving and real. If you outsource the hard work to a text generator, you will indeed get a bunch of words in order. But you won’t have written a book. And you will have cheapened yourself and your work in the process.
Some practical notes:
- The Sudowrite AI has been trained on fanfiction (hilariously revealed because it ‘knows’ very specific sex tropes from omegaverse fanfic). The people who wrote the billions of words on AO3 weren’t asked permission to have their words used as a training dataset. Their own creative, lovingly composed, often deeply personal work has been scraped and used without consent or payment to create profit-generating software. That is morally wrong if not legally questionable. Moreover, fanfiction is derivative work and thus not for profit. You can play with my worlds with my goodwill but they’re not yours to sell. So if this AI has been trained on fanfic, it’s been trained on derivative works based on original copyrighted work. I confidently expect this whole mess to bite someone on the arse.
- Because AI text is produced by a plagiarism machine, it cannot be copyrighted. (I copied that large chunk of “romance” above without asking for permission, and I could have copied the entire ‘novel’.) Obviously you can still stick an AI McBook on KU and say it’s yours, I can’t stop you. But all traditional publishing contracts have a clause along the lines of this (taken from the Author’s Guild model contract):
Author represents and warrants that:
–Author owns and has the right to convey all of the rights conveyed herein to Publisher and has the unencumbered right to enter into this Agreement; Author is the sole owner of the copyright in the Work (or of Author’s contribution to the Work, as the case may be);
–the Work or Author’s contribution to the Work is original and has not previously been Published in any form
If you’ve used AI to generate your book you cannot warrant this to a publisher, and if you sign a contract knowing that your warranty is untrue, you may be in for a world of pain which you will entirely deserve.
If you are stuck on a book, you can ask a human expert rather than a cliche generator to help you work out why!