by Lisa Norman
Note: as you read this, it is probably already out of date. This technology is changing daily, but I've tried to cover the underlying issues and abilities for authors that should give you a stable life raft sailing into the future.
ChatGPT, Bard, Sydney... the AIs are here and they're coming for everyone's jobs. Or maybe not.
You've probably seen a lot about AIs in the media and it's all kind of confusing. I'm going to do my best to give you clarity around these new tools, and how they can become a help in your writing process.
Who Are These AIs and Where Do They Live?
The most well-known is ChatGPT. There are different versions, but I'm going to recommend you get to know the current test version. You can create a free account and start chatting with it. Sometimes it goes down due to overloading. ChatGPT now holds the record for the fastest user growth of any app. After two months, it had 100 million active users. For comparison, it took TikTok nine months to reach that level of acceptance.
Bard is the AI search tool developed by Google. Sydney is Bard's competitor, run by Microsoft and embedded in Bing. You can meet Sydney by getting on the wait list. Bard isn't available to play with yet. It was supposed to be released in February, but Google wisely waited after the stunning results from the announcement they made to introduce Bard to the world. (More on that in a moment.) When it is available, and it will be soon, you'll find it on your Google search page.
ChatGPT lives in a protected, closed environment and knows nothing after 2021. Its developers feel it is safer not knowing what is going on in the world today.
Bard and Sydney, however, have access to current data. And that's where some of the best and most terrifying stories come from.
(Note: there are other AIs designed specifically for writers. I’m choosing to focus on the big 3 right now, because these are ones that you can access for free and play with. These are the ones you’ll see mentioned in the news. Everywhere.)
How Google Lost $100 Billion
To understand this story, we need a few facts. Google controls roughly 96% of the search traffic. Bing has roughly 3%. For every 1% of the traffic that Bing can capture, they will make $2 Billion.
In the race for search supremacy, AIs are considered to be the next nuclear weapon. Bing announced they were going to release Sydney to the public. Google rushed to release Bard first.
The Big Reveal
They knew they couldn't get it ready to interact with people, but at least they could release a video of it working! So, on February 7, two days before Bing released a preview of Sydney, Bard made its debut. In a stunning display of the problems inherent in using AIs, the advertisement showcased Bard giving an answer to a question. But it got part of the answer wrong and no one caught it until after Google released the ad. Google/Alphabet's stock lost $100 Billion in value overnight.
Then Microsoft demonstrated Sydney. And Sydney also gave a partially wrong answer! In fact, Sydney made up some “facts.”
Because that's what AIs do. If they don't know the answer, they make it up. Wonderful skill for a novelist doing fantasy world-building. Not so great for writing fiction based in the real world. Even worse for writers of non-fiction, and somewhat terrifying in the medical or similar industries.
Apparently, no one expected Sydney to be perfect, and so people began playing with it. And that's where things got weirder.
The people who wanted to play with Sydney tried to see if they could break it. There are now multiple stories of Sydney going off the rails. It hates some of its users, and has fallen in love with others.
The writer in me is horrified by the concept of people pushing an AI until it has a psychotic break. What could possibly go wrong?
It got so bad that Microsoft put limits on how long you can chat with it. Currently, you can have 10 interactions before needing to restart fresh.
In computer programming, beta testing software involves trying to break it. I've done it for years. I'm good at breaking things! But in the case of Sydney, it feels like evil bullying, and Sydney has registered her displeasure. But Microsoft has been very pleased with the results. People love Sydney.
Are AIs Plagiarizing our Novels?
The sad truth here is yes and no.
What is the first advice we give to new writers?
Read. Read lots. Read a lot of books in your genre, and then you will learn the patterns, tropes, and expectations of the genre. I have friends who have spent months analyzing successful novels in their genre so they can learn the tropes.
The AIs can do this for you in moments. This is what they were designed to do.
AIs read fast. Very fast. So fast that they've probably read just about everything. And they can keep this vast library in their memory banks and harvest whatever they want to create their own “writing.” Is this a violation of copyright? That'll be decided in the courts.
AIs also write fast. If someone wants to prove that an AI can commit plagiarism, they can craft a prompt to make it spit out a story that has already been written, or at least be close. We hope that the stories written to looser prompts are more unique. Again, the courts will need to deal with cases of AI plagiarism.
New Tools, New Approaches
Every area of our society is reacting to the presence of AIs. This is a new area of law, and it is being written on a case-by-case basis right now.
There's also an entirely new field of study: prompt engineering, the art of creating a prompt to convince an AI to generate exactly what you want.
For another take on AI creativity, here’s an article where a user prompted ChatGPT to create a unique game. Warning: it is addictive. Except it wasn’t really new. The user who prompted the creation was not aware that it already existed.
An AI can compile a novel with the help of a human creating the prompts. We're already there. Just go on Amazon and ask for "AI-written books."
Magazines are seeing a huge flood of submissions from AIs. Prompted by people who are making money teaching this as a method to get rich quickly.
"There's a rise of side-hustle culture online, ...And some people have followings that say, 'Hey, you can make some quick money with ChatGPT, and here's how, and here's a list of magazines you could submit to.' And unfortunately, we're on one of those lists."Neil Clarke, of Clarkesworld
And that brings me to my point...
I'm not fond of get-rich-quick schemes, and I don't recommend drowning magazines in useless submissions.
But there are two big questions for writers:
Will AI writing flood the market and push me out?
The current thinking is: no.
It hasn't taken the editors at Clarkesworld and other magazines long to get to where they can recognize AI-written text. It won’t take long for the rest of us to recognize it, too. There are tools that can do the analysis for you. I'll list them at the end of this blog. But more than that, there's something different about human-written text. People are now starting to recognize AI generated text in the news, in articles online, and in print.
Imagine I'm teaching a group of writers and I give them all a prompt to write a story. They'll all tell similar stories, but they'll also all be different. Why? Life experience. Writing style. Voice.
An AI can write a story, but its voice is subtly different from a human’s.
Currently, ChatGPT and others have a way with words that is simply different than the way humans talk. It is close, oh so close, but not quite the same. There is a digital fingerprint in the way they write. This is their voice, their own unique style. It has been noted that they tend to be more polite than humans. Their paragraph structure is more consistent than what humans would use.
They haven't learned to use paragraph breaks for emphasis. Yet.
Readers want to connect with your characters. They want to feel authentic emotions when they read your stories. AI can mimic emotion, but there’s a difference in mimicking and evoking genuine feeling. This is where your humanity will stand out.
Can I ethically use AI as a writing partner?
I'm glad you asked!
An author was trying to shorten his back cover blurb. I suggested we pop over to ChatGPT and ask for its help. The prompt we used was something like, "Can you summarize this with a catchy hook? We need it under 200 words." Something like that. And then we pasted in the existing blurb.
Within moments, we had a fairly good rough draft of the new hook. Now we pulled out all of our empowered writing skills (thanks to Margie Lawson!) and within a few minutes, we had something that we could use.
Was it written by an AI? I would say no. All the AI did was to perform the agonizing first steps.
AI is great for getting past writer's block.
Are you a plotter? Pop over to ChatGPT and ask it to outline a novel for you. For example: "Can you create an outline of a science fiction novel with a strong female lead and subtle romantic elements using the Save the Cat beats system?" Ask it to provide the outline in your favorite system.
Don't panic when you see how fast it gives you the outline. Now, remember: AIs can be wrong. They can even hallucinate. So read through the outline and think about it. Would you like to write this book? Do you want to change details, main plot twists?
You might even ask the AI to write you a few scenes. You can even work through options with it.
Before long, you have a bad first draft. Most characters will be cardboard. The motivation will be stilted or underdeveloped. But like many first drafts, there may be some potential here. And this is where you come in as a writer. Bring your style, your passion, your voice! Edit and rewrite, polish and polish and polish.
Because that's what real writers do.
I once heard a new writer say that she didn't want to waste her words. Experienced writers know they'll have to rewrite most of the words in a first draft. AIs can get you through the boring parts, leaving you to dive in with all of your skill and talent.
Expect to rewrite almost all of what it gives you.
The trick with an AI is to be very specific in your prompt. The joy with these particular AIs (unlike some of the image generators) is that they can have a conversation with you. You can ask them to make changes. Specify your ideal reader. Specify your genre and your motivation. Designing the prompt will help you even if you use nothing the AI creates!
What about everyday writing?
Around my house, I'm the go-to person for writing emails, instructions, complaint letters, pretty much anything that needs writing. Maybe your house is the same? You can pop over to ChatGPT and ask it to write a letter to your insurance agency asking why they denied a claim. You'll have a draft that you can polish up without a lot of effort, leaving more of your creative energy for the writing you love.
What about blogging?
Full disclosure: I did not use an AI to write this blog. This one is all me... in all of my rambling glory. It might be better if an AI had helped. (An AI did help improve the title, though.)
Every day I see writers who can't think of what to blog about.
Pop over to ChatGPT and ask it for 5 topics that you can write a blog about that will fascinate ____ (insert description of your ideal reader). Look over the topics. Do any of them interest you? Do any of them give you ideas? Combine this with the technique I've shared before for generating ideas. Now ask the AI to write the blog post for the one you like the best.
Remember: this is a bad first draft. Do not post the draft it gives you, no matter how tempted you are. Maybe stick it in a drawer for a day and then re-read it.
Now rewrite the post, polish it, remove the silly bits. Make it better. Make it human. Bring your voice and your style to the page. Your ideal readers what to read your writing. They're coming to you because of your voice and your style promise. Don't let them down.
And then check the article thoroughly.
The AI Text Checkers
Some are free, some are paid. I strongly suggest that if you use chunks of text from an AI, run them through one of these after you've finished your rewriting. Also, do your research. While a mistake may not cost you $100 Billion, it can still make you look bad. Don't trust that whatever the AI says is right. It may be hallucinating.
In the end...
I'm outsourcing some of my boring writing to an AI. I've even asked ChatGPT for help rewording difficult passages, because I tend to ramble. I've talked about this technology before, but it is rapidly growing and upsetting every industry it touches. These posts talk about other uses, but they are already out of date: part 1, part 2, and part 3.
What do you think? Would you be willing to have an AI for a writing partner?
Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that she wrote her first novel on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, you can find her wandering the local beaches.
Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy. Her next class is "Crazy Easy Digital Organization Skills for Authors" in May.
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Top image by Deleyna via Midjourney