The last few weeks, mentions of AI in the marketing and fiction-writing worlds have been everywhere. I’ve seen some scare mongering, some people who are excited, and some people who are indifferent, like me.
I’ve seen authors who think it’s coming for their jobs, while others are experimenting with it to write ad copy. Some were impressed with what it could do, while others thought they could do better.
To be honest, I was trying to avoid it. But I’ve come to realise it’s inevitable, so I might as well learn a bit about it and see how it could affect (maybe inspire) my writing, publishing, and marketing.
Here’s what happened:
During the Christmas break, my boyfriend and I were sitting on the sofa with Millie. He turned his laptop to me, showing me a screen I’d never seen before. It was ChatGPT.
Boyfriend: What do you want it to write?
Boyfriend: [Stares, waiting]
Me: [Sighs] Fine. Tell it to write a ghost story.
I chose a ghost story because they’re hard to write. You have to get the atmosphere and the emotions right for it to feel truly spooky.
And the ghost itself needs to be a formidable foe for the reader to really be afraid. Extra points for a jump scare, but they’re more of a TV/film/game thing.
There was a small, old house in the countryside that had been abandoned for many years. It was rumored to be haunted, and no one dared to go near it.
One dark and stormy night, a group of friends decided to spend the night in the house, hoping to experience some paranormal activity. As they entered the creaky old house, they immediately felt a chill run down their spines.
They set up their equipment and began to investigate the house, determined to capture evidence of the ghost that was rumored to haunt it.
As they explored the creaky old house, they heard strange noises and saw unexplained movements out of the corner of their eyes. They tried to dismiss it as their imagination, but the occurrences became more and more frequent.
Suddenly, they heard a loud crash and saw a figure standing at the end of the hallway. It was a ghostly woman, dressed in white and with long, flowing hair. She seemed to be beckoning them to follow her.
The friends were terrified, but they knew they had to follow the ghost to uncover the truth about the old house. They followed her down the hallway, and she led them to a room that had been sealed off for decades.
Inside, they found a diary that told the story of a young woman who had been murdered in the house many years ago. As they read the diary, the ghostly woman appeared again, this time looking peaceful and at rest.
The friends realized that the ghost had been seeking their help to finally lay her spirit to rest. They left the old house feeling grateful for the experience, and they knew they would never forget their encounter with the ghost of the old house.
It definitely needed more guidance than just writing a ghost story. Everything it’s come up with is contrived and cliche.
Also, how does them reading her diary allow her to rest?! What does the diary say?
It’s kind of vague with a lot of half-formed ideas and it’s overwritten in places.
In version two, I asked it to add more atmosphere, since that’s a key part of any ghost story.
As the group of friends entered the abandoned house, they were immediately enveloped in a thick, musty air that seemed to cling to their skin. The floorboards creaked beneath their feet, and the sound echoed eerily throughout the empty rooms.
The windows were covered in cobwebs, and the furniture was covered in a thick layer of dust. It was clear that no one had set foot in the house for many years.
Despite the eerie atmosphere, the friends were determined to investigate the rumored hauntings. They set up their equipment and began to search the house, hoping to capture some evidence of the ghostly presence.
As they moved from room to room, they heard strange noises and saw unexplained movements out of the corner of their eyes. The temperature seemed to drop significantly in certain areas of the house, and they could feel a palpable sense of dread lurking in the air.
Despite their fear, the friends pressed on, drawn by a sense of curiosity and the thrill of the unknown. And it was then that they heard the loud crash and saw the ghostly woman standing at the end of the hallway.
The ghost seemed to be beckoning them to follow her, and they knew they had no choice but to obey. As they followed her down the darkened hallway, they could feel their heartbeats racing with fear and excitement.
Finally, the ghost led them to a sealed-off room, and it was there that they discovered the truth about the old house and the tragic fate of the young woman who had been murdered there many years ago. And as they left the old house, they knew that they had just experienced something truly extraordinary and unforgettable.
At the time, this impressed me. It was certainly more than I thought AI was capable of.
But reading it back with my editor hat on, it feels overwritten. Like it’s trying too hard. There are some nice images there, but they still don’t make me feel afraid of this ghost, or curious about what might happen next.
There are also no motives for the friends or the ghost. We don’t know the truth about the house. It feels rushed: like someone had to create an assignment at the last minute, so they threw as much as they could at it in the hopes of scoring more marks.
This edit, I asked it to make the ghost scarier.
As the group of friends entered the abandoned house, they were immediately struck by a feeling of unease. The air was thick with a sense of dread, and the floorboards creaked beneath their feet as if warning them to turn back.
The windows were covered in cobwebs, and the furniture was covered in a thick layer of dust. It was clear that no one had set foot in the house for many years. The only light came from their flashlights, which cast long, eerie shadows on the walls.
The house was silent except for the sound of their own breathing and the creaking of the floorboards. It was as if the very walls of the house were holding their breath, waiting for something to happen.
Despite their fear, the friends pressed on, determined to uncover the truth about the rumored hauntings. They set up their equipment and began to search the house, hoping to capture some evidence of the ghostly presence.
As they explored the shadowy rooms, they heard strange noises and saw unexplained movements out of the corner of their eyes. The temperature seemed to drop significantly in certain areas of the house, and they could feel a palpable sense of malevolence lurking in the air.
Suddenly, they heard a loud crash and saw a figure standing at the end of the hallway. It was a ghostly woman, dressed in white and with long, flowing hair. But as they looked closer, they saw that her face was twisted into a grotesque, demonic expression. Her eyes glowed with an otherworldly light, and her mouth was open in a silent scream.
The friends were frozen with fear as the ghost advanced towards them, her movements jerky and unnatural. They could feel her icy breath on their faces as she approached, and they knew they had to run. But their legs seemed to be rooted to the spot.
As the ghost reached out towards them, they saw that her hands were nothing more than gnarled, twisted claws. And when she opened her mouth, they saw rows of sharp, jagged teeth.
Just as the ghost was about to attack, they heard a loud banging on the door. It was the police, responding to reports of strange noises coming from the abandoned house.
The friends rushed out of the house, shaken but relieved to have escaped the terrifying ghost. They knew they would never forget their encounter with the malevolent spirit, and they vowed never to return to that haunted old house again.
Annoyingly, it ditched a bunch of the atmosphere and went back to the style of version 1 in this one. I hadn’t expected that.
The ghost is now really quite stereotypical. A white dress? Flowing hair? Demonic expression? Otherworldy light? Silent scream?
Come on. That’s not scary in 2023. It’s nauseatingly cliche.
Not to mention they never fight the ghost themselves, the police save them. This is a deeply unsatisfying ending because any self-respecting character needs to save themselves, otherwise they haven’t actually achieved anything and they’ve been a passive observer in their own life.
A lot of readers won’t consciously understand why this is unsatisfying, but it’s because it feels less complete. It hasn’t started and ended with the same character, or them overcoming an obstacle that was holding them back (which is what most stories are about. That or them being destroyed by said obstacle).
We did a few more iterations, but to be honest, they got progressively worse, so we gave up and didn’t save those either. (Like I said: I came up with this blog post after we’d done it, so we didn’t save all the iterations.)
But I think this might be another problem with the AI—and I’m surmising here—but I don’t think it’s going to be able to come up with a twist, or work out how to tie the character’s motivations back to the end of the book. All these things are quite complicated and part of something that AI just isn’t: human.
What really struck me was that none of the examples above include emotion, which limited how scary the story could become.
Was that because of what I’d asked it to write? Because of my instructions? Or can it just not do it?
In the name of literary research, I decided to go back and get it to write something about someone who’s afraid of cats.
Why cats? I don’t know. It was a late-night idea I decided to stick with.
I also thought cats would be a harmless, and maybe funny, topic. But if you are afraid of cats, maybe skip to verdict 2.
A fear of cats
For this experiment, I asked it to write me a first-person monologue about someone who’s afraid of cats. That’s all I gave it. This is what it came up with:
I sat nervously on the couch, my eyes fixed on the small black cat sitting across the room. Its green eyes seemed to stare into my soul, sending shivers down my spine. I tried to remind myself that it was just a harmless animal, but the fear I felt was overwhelming.
I had always been afraid of cats, ever since I was a child. The way they moved so stealthily and unpredictably, the way their eyes seemed to follow you wherever you went. It was as if they were always watching, always waiting for the right moment to pounce.
The cat got up and began to walk towards me, its tail twitching. I froze, my heart pounding in my chest. It came closer and closer, until it was only inches away from my feet. I held my breath, expecting it to attack at any moment. But instead, it simply looked up at me with its big, green eyes and meowed softly.
I let out a sigh of relief, but my fear didn’t completely disappear. I knew that it could still attack me at any moment, and the thought made my heart race. I decided to get up and leave the room, unable to shake off the feeling of dread. The cat seemed to look at me as I left, maybe in a way of mocking me.
So it defaulted to a black cat, which is pretty stereotypical. Also harmful to the black cat population, which already suffer enough as they’re seen as a sign of bad luck. (Unless you’re Scottish.)
The reason why the character is afraid of cats also isn’t really explained. I didn’t give it any suggestions for that, as I wanted to see what it wrote without too much help from me.
So this suggests that while it can describe things, and share information, what it can’t do is think for itself. It’s just rehashing what it already knows.
So it’s not really surprising that it does warn you to double check any stats or information it comes out with, since, if it’s taking the general consensus from elsewhere, there are no guarantees it’s going to be accurate.
The actual description is pretty good, but again, it’s lacking any real purpose, mission, or reason for saying what it’s saying. It’s all kind of shallow.
The verdict: round 2
One of my old university lecturers, Simon Heywood, explained things perfectly:
To my eye, the AI writes – kind-of-exactly – like an aspiring human writer writes, when:
(a) they haven’t got anything of substance to say and are writing purely with dreams of commercial success or other external validation for its own sake
(b) they haven’t put enough work into developing their technique.
And that’s it. The AI mimics creative writing well enough … but *only* bad, cynical, underformed creative writing.
I’ve done some research over the years into why our students come to us to study. We do get some starting-out writers who *just* want that external validation, and don’t seem to have much of a sense of what they want to say, beyond whatever it takes to get the validation.
But mostly it’s the other way about. We get writers who already know that they have something to say, and are working on the way to say it.
I would say from this experiment that the second kind of writer has nothing to fear from AI, but the first kind has a lot to fear from it. If you have something to say, the computer can’t beat you. The computer isn’t Maya Angelou.
But if you just want to create impact for impact’s sake, it seems to me the computer may possibly get better than you at creating the impact. The computer isn’t Maya Angelou, but it is Dominic Cummings.Simon Heywood, storyteller and Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Derby
What makes any writing unique is the author’s experience. Their opinions; their beliefs; their purpose; their view of the rest of the world. All these elements influence what someone writes, often without them realising it.
Unless the author puts those things into the instructions, there’s no way AI can replicate it.
And, because AI writes based on the general consensus, it’s prone to stereotypes (like the black cat thing) and thin explanations. (Which a lot of people are also prone to.)
The importance of voice
AI also can’t replicate your voice. It can try, of course. It might be able to emulate different tones. But your voice is yours and yours alone. It’s this, combined with your beliefs and purpose, that makes your writing unique to you.
Everything written by AI will always have General Internet Voice. It’s not casual, it’s not formal. It just is.
We may not be able to spot it one day, but we’ll be able to spot the things that weren’t written by AI. They’ll have personality, humour, and stronger voices. It will be clear that the author wrote it with purpose and passion. And we may come to value it more as a result.
The best description I’ve seen for AI writing is that it’s good for inspiration, but you still need to edit it.
And, based on my adventures above, unless you have a really clear idea of what you want in your head, you’re going to have to spend forever going back and forth editing it…
…at which point you might as well do the writing and editing yourself as it’ll take a similar amount of time and energy. Maybe even less.
Writing with purpose
Ultimately, AI lacks voice, personality, finesse, and purpose.
None of these things can be replicated by a robot. AI can’t give your writing purpose if you don’t know what you’re trying to say.
But if you have something to say—and you’re willing to work on your craft—you have nothing to worry about.
A lot of people aren’t willing to work on their craft as much as they need to, don’t realise it needs work, or they think they already know it all. These are the types of writers who are likely to struggle and find it increasingly hard to stand out among any noise.
AI is unlikely to ever be perfect. Even if the developers do polish up its writing abilities, it will probably then veer the other way and become too perfect. At which point it will need a person to roughen it up so that it still sounds natural.
Unless AI becomes sentient, and gets some life experience, it’s always going to struggle to recreate the writing abilities of a living, breathing human with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
That being said, it can be a fun tool to play with. But it isn’t one I’m going to bother with too much. Writing is my favourite part of the process: why would I outsource that to a robot that can’t do it with as much passion as me?
What do you think to AI writing software? Is it something you’re interested in? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!