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Can Sudowrite Make Me a Better Fiction Writer?
I review one of the leading AI writer tools for authors, Sudowrite. Also: latest #aiwriter news, perspectives & research.
One of the tools I’ve been most curious about is Sudowrite, which markets itself as an “AI writing partner” for authors. In this post, I test out Sudowrite and write up my first impressions. My goal: to see if Sudowrite can make me a better fiction author!
My current focus as an author is nonfiction books, but I have written a bunch of fiction in the past — including my 2016 technothriller novel, Presence. I’ll be honest, though: I think I’m a much better nonfiction writer than a fiction one. So let’s see if Sudowrite can help me improve one of my short stories — and maybe even turn it into a novel.
At the end of 2015, I wrote a short story entitled “Uber Off!”. I published it on my personal website, where it has languished almost entirely unread for the past 7+ years. When I wrote it, I was aiming for a whimsical short story “about Silicon Valley and an escalator pitch gone wrong.” I wrote it in first-person, with the main character being a young German entrepreneur named Christoph. Basically, the story is that Christoph tries to pitch a well-known Techcrunch blogger (Brandon Hopscotch) while ascending an escalator in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and hilarity and pathos ensues. Or at least, that’s what I was going for. It’s about 3,100 words long.
I began a new Sudowrite project and then quickly browsed the manual. One of the first tips was to leave a sentence unfinished, so that Sudowrite can jump in and complete it. So I pasted in the first paragraph of my story, but leaving out the last several words. I then clicked Write > Auto.
In response, Sudowrite gave me two new sections, listed to the right in card format. Each section was an extra four or so paragraphs, which the AI had generated based on what it suggested should come after “don’t forget…” in my opening. The first option finished the prompt with “to call me later tonight!” Then the AI had Christoph meeting a lady blogger with “long, curly hair and bright green eyes that shone like emeralds.” Hmmm, that sounds rather sexist, and trite — plus, the blogger I’d mentioned in the first few words was male. So I nixed that one. The second option sounded more promising: don’t forget… “to grab the sample products!”
Ok, sample products — that could go somewhere interesting. I read on. In this scenario, the AI had Christoph meeting a (male) blogger “wearing a black leather jacket” and with “a stern expression on his face.” So…he’s meeting The Fonz?! Hmmm, I decided the autocomplete feature wasn’t for me.
Next up, I tried pasting a full section of my story into Sudowrite, so I could test some of the other features. I pasted in the first 729 words, which was the point in the story when Christoph had finally caught up with the Techcrunch blogger on the escalator and had given his elevator pitch (“So we are Buber, an Uber for Bicycles”).
Perhaps my opening paragraph wasn’t strong enough, I thought, so I highlighted that and clicked “rewrite.”
It gave me several options, so I clicked “more descriptive.” I wasn’t impressed by the results, so I tried again with “rephrase.” One of the options wasn’t bad, but once again I didn’t see that much improvement (and in fact, I still liked my version better).
I tried one more time with the “rewrite” feature. Let’s see what “show, don’t tell” comes up with.
Hmm, that’s actually quite good — I like the idea of the Techcrunch blogger’s companion being a woman with a camera (in my version, it was a British male blogger from The Next Web). Also I liked the re-made first sentence — who was Brandon scanning the crowd for? Perhaps that could become a plot point. So I inserted this card into my story as my new opening paragraph. I tweaked it slightly to say “in our native German” (since that implies that both Christoph and his friend are German).
Next, I wanted the AI to tell me who this mysterious woman in a navy blazer is. Was she a blogger also? Was she Brandon’s friend? Who else might she be, my AI writing companion… I clicked the “brainstorm” button.
I entered in a suitable prompt (including the description the AI had already given me) and clicked “Start”.
As I half-expected, it suggested “fashion blogger” several times — but none of the descriptions were inspiring. I gave the thumbs-up to some of the other options instead.
Back in the main document, I was given the option of using one of the new female characters. It may well have improved the story to have a woman character (my original story only had male characters), but I would have to re-write some more.
I won’t bore you with the rest of my experiments in improving my ‘Uber Off!’ short story, because I think you get the gist. I want to turn now to a relatively new feature of Sudowrite: Story Engine. In Sudowrite’s welcome email, it is promoted as a tool to “help you expand an initial idea into a full novel.” I decided to see whether ‘Uber Off!’ could be turned into a novel, using this tool.
As prompted, I entered in a synopsis and a braindump of other information (including my description of the three main characters in the original story). In the synopsis, I left it open as to what might happen after Christoph and Garek get rejected by Brandon the Techcrunch blogger. I then chose “technothriller” as the genre and instructed the style to be “Thriller styler, so fast-paced and exciting.”
I clicked “Generate” at the top of the Synopsys box and it extended my brief synopsis into a 400-word one. What it suggested first was basically a redemption story — the two young founders pivot their startup and eventually they impress the Techcrunch blogger on their second attempt. Boooring. I noticed a box with “Rewrite synopsis” so I typed this into it: “Make it more of a technothriller, where there are much higher stakes than impressing a blogger.”
The result this time was an outline for a “tech espionage” novel:
“As they pitch their idea to investors and venture capitalists, they realize that they are being closely watched by a shadowy figure who seems to know everything about them. They soon find themselves embroiled in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, where the stakes are much higher than just impressing a blogger.”
Not bad. I also liked the AI’s suggestion that I give both main characters intriguing backstories:
“As they try to navigate this treacherous world of tech espionage, Christoph and Garek must also contend with their own personal demons. Christoph is haunted by the memory of his father, a brilliant inventor who died under mysterious circumstances. Garek is struggling with the guilt of leaving his family behind in his home country to pursue his dream.”
There was some good stuff in the suggested conclusion too:
“As the threats against them escalate, Christoph and Garek must use all their wits and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of their enemies. They soon realize that they can't trust anyone, not even their closest allies. In a race against time, they must find a way to protect their idea and themselves before it's too late.”
Now, I will say this is all fairly generic technothriller territory, but that’s ok — in my view it should be up to the human author to provide the depth and nuance in such a story (the human qualities, one might say). What the AI provided was a skeleton for a technothriller novel, and it was definitely something I could work with.
Overall, I found that I liked Sudowrite mainly as a tool to help nudge me (the human writer) in new directions; e.g. adding a more diverse character to my short story, or creating a rough outline for a potential novel. I don’t think Sudowrite helped me become a better fiction writer, per se — although maybe the introduction to my short story pops a bit more now.
It also became clear that you will need to put in the work to get good results — fiddling with Sudowrite features and seeing what works, adding your own insights and creative ideas, curating the AI output, doing your own creative writing, etc. Don’t expect magical results. It’s still up to you, the human writer, to craft an original story.
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Here’s my roundup of AI writer news and analysis for the week…
Mediaweek: “NewsCorp has a team of four staff that they call “data local” who generate 3000 articles a week using generative AI to cover daily topics such as local weather, fuel prices, and traffic conditions.” (via the Guardian)
Publishing Perspectives: Elsevier Releases ‘Scopus AI’ for Researchers
The Guardian: Supermarket AI meal planner app suggests recipe that would create chlorine gas
If you’re interested in how the Internet Archive uses AI, the non-profit online library has an event on 12 October (physical and virtual).
Well-known author and publishing commentator Jane Friedman also has a beef with Amazon (including its subsidiary Goodreads). She says that “garbage books”, most likely AI-generated, are “getting uploaded to Amazon where my name is credited as the author.” (Techmeme)
Authors were out on social media this week protesting about Prosecraft.io, which Gizmodo described as “a site that used novels to help power a data-driven project to display word count, passive voice, and other much more subjective, writing-style markers such as vividness.” (Techmeme)
NY Times: A.I.’s Inroads in Publishing Touch Off Fear, and Creativity; I thought this was a well-balanced look at the impact of AI on publishing (but the creative stuff is in the second half of the article!)
John Battelle bemoans the loss of serendipity on the internet; “As we enter a new age of artificial intelligence, where information design is buried in hidden “weights” that pre-determine outcomes, we’d do well to consider what we’re losing as we forge ahead.”
ACM.org: “Researchers are now trying to come up with metrics to quantify AI creativity.”
Stanford Smallville: “25 AI agents inhabit a digital Westworld, unaware that they are living in a simulation.”
See you next week, my fellow augmented writers!
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