By Glen C. Strathy
Can you write a novel with AI or "artificial intelligence" software? The day when that will be possible is fast approaching and may already be here. AI apps can offer novelists help with generating story ideas, correcting grammar, creating passages of prose, and even imitating a particular writer's style, to some extent. The temptation to use AI to make the novel writing process easier and faster is undeniable. Many people feel that AI is advancing so quickly that best selling novels will eventually be written entirely with AI, as in George Orwell's classic novel, 1984.
But, to paraphrase another science fiction story, Jurasic Park, before we become so preoccupied with whether or not we could write a novel with AI, let's stop for a moment to think about whether we want to. How can AI really help you, as an aspiring novelist? Will it's impact on the literary world be positive or detrimental?
The first question I think we should ask is... "Who will this technology appeal to?"
I suspect the ability to write a novel with AI apps is something desired mainly by publishers -- and only a certain group of publishers. It's not what most writers and certainly not novelists want -- with a few exceptions. Nor is it what major publishers want either.
AI is already being used by businesses to generate marketing copy, business communications, blogs, and websites. (This website may eventually be an exception because nothing here is or ever will be written with AI.)
The people who want to be able to write a novel with AI apps are those publishers (including small or self-publishers) who specialize in producing low-cost, low-quality nonfiction books. For them, AI writing apps are a way to lower the cost of production.
Publishing is a tough business. Most books lose money. So publishers have always felt pressured to lower costs. If they can use AI apps to avoid paying writers and speed up production, they will. It's safe to expect that many low-quality nonfiction books from now on will be written by or with the extensive use of AI.
AI-written nonfiction books may lack original and unique ideas. The prose may not be brilliant. They are often missing the personal experiences of human authors. But it is a simple matter for a publisher to write a book with AI on a common topic like "The History of Ancient Rome" or "A Beginner's Guide to Investing."
An AI app can scour the internet for information on a topic and assemble it into a generic facsimile of what a human being might write in far less time than a human writer would need. Of course, a conscientious publisher will still fact-check and edit the manuscript, but costs will be less than when working with a human author.
Honestly, there has always been a market for low-quality books. Low-quality books usually don't win awards or get great reviews. They are unlikely to be best sellers. You'll find far fewer of them in bookstores. But if the costs are kept low, thanks to AI apps or other measures, publishers will sometimes sell enough copies to earn a profit.
Of course, the easier it is to churn out low-quality AI-written books, the more the market will be flooded with them, and the potential profits will shrink to nearly nothing. In fact, if AI apps learn to do their own fact-checking, it may eventually be just as easy for anyone who wants information on a topic to ask an AI to write a book or article just for them, for free, rather than spend money on a book an AI wrote for someone else.
Meanwhile, high-quality nonfiction books, based on original ideas, research, and human experience will continue to be written by human beings, perhaps with some AI assistance. Whether they can compete with the coming flood of low-quality books is another question. There may be a period where it becomes harder for book buyers to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
However, that's nonfiction. What about fiction?
In a May 2023 article in Newsweek, one self-publisher brags that he created and sold 574 books using AI. (That is 574 copies, not titles. He has a little over 100 titles in his catalogue.) Each title took him only 6-8 hours to create. Altogether, his AI books generated $2,000 in sales.
Some things to note about this "success" story...
Most self-publishers sell at least a few copies of their books to friends and relatives. That's not an indication the books are worth reading.
To claim a readership exists for AI-generated fiction, respectable numbers of people not personally known by the authors must be willing to buy it. While 574 copies is not nothing, divided by 100 titles, it's not much either. Maybe better marketing and distribution would lead to higher sales, or perhaps the quality of AI-written fiction is very low, at least for now.
Of course, human beings have always written and published low-quality fiction. Sales of low-quality fiction are usually poor, but there are exceptions. Lots of bad children's and YA books are published and can sell well if backed by a recognizable brand. Low-quality erotic stories always have a market. Some self-published novelists are good salesmen and, with effort, can convince enough people to buy their books to consider themselves successful. Plenty of mediocre fan fiction has readers too.
However, if AI leads to an explosion of low-quality fiction, one would expect profits will become even harder to come by. Much as vanity publishers gained a reputation for low-quality books, self-publishers who use AI to write novels may go the same way.
At the moment, literary magazines and publishers are being flooded with stories written by AI and submitted by "writers" who are hoping for a shortcut to authorship. I put "writers" in quotation marks because I'm not sure we can say they are writing these stories themselves. Many are simply using an AI to write stories for them and perhaps doing a little editing.
So far, rather than being excited to purchase AI-generated stories, literary magazines are more bothered by the amount of work it takes to sort through the increased number of submissions and separate the AI-written stories from the human-written stories -- which are the only ones they are interested in publishing. If it took a lot of effort to find the gems among the stories submitted by human writers before the invention of AI, it is even more difficult when they are further concealed within a giant haystack of AI-written stories. So, for literary magazines, AI has simply raised the cost of publishing.
You may argue that AI-written stories may be bad now, but they will improve exponentially as the AIs become smarter.
Honestly, if AI apps become capable of writing great stories, what would stop a literary magazine or book publisher from writing stories and novels in-house and saving themselves the cost of paying human writers, the endless hours reading submissions, etc.? Perhaps that day will come, but it will not be good news for aspiring authors.
In my experience, most people are drawn to fiction writing as a form of self-expression. They have ideas for stories that emerge from their imagination and want to put them into book form. Aspiring authors usually love stories themselves. They want to apply their creativity to creating great stories that other book lovers will enjoy.
Why would you want an AI to write a novel for you? Wouldn't that just rob you of the fun and fulfillment you would get from writing a novel yourself?
Of course, writing a novel is hard. It seems especially hard when your manuscript is half-finished and you have no idea how to finish it, or when your finished draft is not up to the standards you need it to be and you have no idea how to make it better. It's hard when your publisher wants you to meet a deadline and you feel your work-in-progress is crap that you're too embarrassed to show your own mother, let alone anyone else. When you're in that situation, you may find it tempting to write a novel with AI, or at least use the AI to write the parts you are having trouble with. If an AI can point you toward a quick, easy solution, it might feel like a godsend.
The same feeling of desperation is what causes college students to buy essays rather than write them themselves.
But shortcuts can leave you shortchanged. Writing an essay isn't just about earning a grade. There is value in learning how to research a topic, draw conclusions, and express your thoughts cogently. You grow as a person from writing the essay yourself.
You grow much more from the process of writing a novel.
Moreover, literature is very much about the relationship between authors and readers. It's a sharing of insight from one human being to another. Readers can grow from the experience reading of a novel told by a human author. I'm not convinced the same value will be created when someone chooses to write a novel with AI.
Of course, sometimes readers just want a fun, easy read -- some light entertainment. But even the genres that are generally looked down on by those who prefer more intellectual reads take more skill, originality, and humanity to write than is generally acknowledged.
That said, can AI writing apps be of any use to fiction writers? Yes, I think they can.
As others have pointed out, "AI" should probably be called "applied statistics." AI writing apps are programs capable of sorting through data, looking for patterns, and generating random text that fits the patterns. The better ones can actually maintain some degree of continuity in their output. Whether they actually understand the meaning of their inputs and outputs is questionable.
Nonetheless, AI writing apps have their uses.
For instance, there are grammar and style-checking applications like Hemingway that can look at your manuscript and suggest edits that would make your sentences more closely follow accepted principles of good writing.
Some of the more sophisticated writing apps can generate plot points, or "flesh out" scenes that feel underwritten.
What you must bear in mind is that AI apps are generic in their output, because they are based on patterns discerned from large amounts of existing human writing.
If your prose is below average (and whose first draft isn't?), an AI can spot opportunities where your prose deviates from average professional prose. It can also suggest revisions to make your prose more seem more professional. All well and good.
On the other hand, the danger is that an AI will encourage your writing style to be more generic. Over reliance on AI runs the risk of taking away your story's unique character. It can erase your unique voice and style, as well as that of your characters.
For instance, a basic AI grammar and style checker will encourage you to replace passive verbs with active verbs. And usually that is a good idea. However, there may be stories or instances within stories where the passive voice contributes to a particular atmosphere, setting, character voice, or style that better fits your vision of the story. Assuming your vision is worthy of being fulfilled, you must have enough conviction to ignore the AI's suggestions to make your prose more generic.
The AI might want you to make your sentences closer to the average length for your genre. But maybe you have a good artistic reason for favouring longer or shorter sentences in particular chapters.
Or, let's suppose you ask the AI to write a description of a street your character is walking down. The best AI apps now can easily create a vivid bit of prose that would fit the bill -- but it may be a generic description. The details it offers, the adjectives it chooses, may not be the best for your story. They may not reflect the unique perspective of the character in the scene who is doing the observation.
The style favoured by an AI writer may not be nearly as interesting as a style you develop yourself to fit the particular story you are writing. Remember that the AI does not know what words and sentences mean. It does not emotionally react to language. It has no artistic instincts. Only a human being knows whether an edit makes a sentence better or worse. (It's something writers develop through practice writing, through a lifetime of reading, and by being thoughtful and sensitive.)
Sometimes, a reader may just want a generic novel to pass the time with that doesn't require a lot of thinking. But more sophisticated readers want a unique experience. They want a novel that offers them the chance to immerse themselves in the perspective of a character unlike any they've ever encountered, or a world of thought and imagination unlike any they've ever experienced.
My advice, therefore, is...
If you are going to write a novel with AI, don't let the AI make artistic decisions for you.
Each time an AI app suggests an edit to your story, don't just automatically accept it. Don't trust that the AI knows what's best. The AI can only suggest how a generic story might be written. You have to decide how your story needs to be written.
If an AI app generates a passage of text for you, don't just copy it into your manuscript word for word. Always take the time to rewrite it. Change the vocabulary to fit your sense of your characters, setting, and story. Make the style fit your vision.
If the AI points out that a particular sentence in your story needs improvement, try to write a sentence that's better than the one the AI suggests.
In other words, use the AI to locate sentences and passages that might need revision, and then ask yourself...
"Is the AI's response valid, or does it just not understand my intent?"
If the AI's has flagged a sentence or passage that has legitimate issues or could be improved, ask yourself...
"How can I make this better? Can I find a better solution than what the AI is suggesting? How can I improve this in a way that's in keeping with my narrator or character's voice or my intent?"
Don't sacrifice your unique way of expressing yourself in your writing.
Your personality, your narrator's personality, and your character's personality are what will make your finished novel worth
reading. What you're looking for is the best expression of those personalities.
Yes, it will take more time to evaluate the AI's suggestions and look for your own unique solutions. It will be more work than letting the AI write a story for you. But the result will be a better story, because it will be all your own.
Unless, of course you want to write low-quality fiction. But if you're like most writers, I suspect that choice will not bring you either the profits or the satisfaction you crave.