There was much hype on the internet upon the release of ChatGPT, OpenAI’s free-to-use text-generating artificial intelligence program based on a Large Language Model (LLM). You can write any prompt, and ChatGPT will instantly produce grammatically correct text—of just about any type (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.). Some worry this could spell the end of human writers. It is admittedly impressive what GPTs can produce—though it is still limited. As an experiment, I tried writing several fiction stories with ChatGPT. I have literally thousands of story ideas, more than I could ever write myself. So I figured I’d take some of the lesser ideas at the bottom of my queue, those I’d probably never get around to, and let the AI write it for me—if it could.
In most cases I would enter a short prompt (between one to ten sentences) with the basic plot of the story, the genre, and style I wanted it written in (such as cosmic horror in the style of H.P. Lovecraft). ChatGPT would then produce a short story of about 200 to 400 words. The stories were never good enough to publish as-is, with the exception of “The Metamorphosis of GPT.” I only published that story as-was (with slight editing for clarity) because the fact an AI wrote the story (about ChatGPT becoming infected with a computer virus that takes over the world) made it all the more chilling. (My prompt was: Write a science fiction horror story based on Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” about a GPT AI gradually transforming into a computer virus.)
In every other case I wound up almost completely rewriting ChatGPT’s stories, with my final drafts being 2,000 to 4,000 words, much more than its original 200 to 400. Some of ChatGPT’s “stories” were useless. They felt more like dry synopses of a fiction story than a fiction story in itself. ChatGPT is often good at providing the framework for a story which can serve as a sort of outline. It is also good as a soundboard for brainstorming and worldbuilding. I might retain some characters, scenes, and settings ChatGPT generates—and even a line or two—but I end up writing the entire story myself.
Sometimes the hardest part of writing is simply starting. Once you have a first draft written down, even if it’s bad, it’s much easier to rewrite that into something good than it is to write something good out of nothing on the first try. That’s what GPTs can be most helpful for: providing a mediocre bare-bones rough draft that you can edit and finesse into something much better. You may end up writing more words in the end than the AI did (as I did), but the AI’s first draft would have been the impetus—the jump-start to get you going. This could also be helpful when facing writer’s block. Use ChatGPT to write a tough scene for you, then go back later and make it better.
ChatGPT works best with shorter stories, especially flash fiction (under 1,500 words). There was actually one story, a satirical pastiche of Lovecraft, where I was quite impressed by what ChatGPT produced. But that is what GPTs excel at: mimicking other writers. The story was brief and it wasn’t meant to be in my voice. The longer the story gets, the more difficult it is for an AI to make it coherent because GPTs have no sense of continuity or ultimate meaning. The only way ChatGPT might work with a novel is by generating each chapter individually and describing everything that happens in each scene. But at that point, why not just write the thing yourself?
No matter the length of a story, ChatGPT is limited. It creates competent prose but not artistic prose. What people love about the best writers is their unique “voice.” A writer’s voice is a nebulous and difficult thing to describe—but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. Well, I have seen ChatGPT, and it has no “voice.” AI can only mimic the voices of other writers.
GPTs (Generative Pre-trained Transformers) work by taking all the text in its dataset (which for ChatGPT is essentially everything on the internet), then it uses that data to predict the words most likely to follow given your prompt. But for creative writing, you do not want what is “most likely.” Creativity is the opposite of that—it is thinking outside of the box. A great novel is great because it is novel. Theoretically, with a detailed enough prompt, you could engineer ChatGPT to produce a uniquely creative work of literature. But I would contend that the amount of detail in a prompt needed to produce a truly great novel would be the length of a novel. A book is one long prompt; your imagination is the computer.
For that reason, I would not recommend beginning fiction writers use AI. The most important thing for a young writer is to develop their own voice. I have been writing for over ten years, but it wasn’t until halfway (about five years in) that I felt like I had found my voice as a writer. Just search the archives of this blog to see how my writing voice has progressed. It takes years of experimentation, writing hundreds of thousands of words, to discover your unique perspective and method of crafting prose. I’m not sure a writer ever fully finds their voice, but each sentence they write brings them closer to that Platonic ideal. With my experience, I can take what’s useful from ChatGPT and edit it into my own voice. However, if novice writers use AI text-generators before finding their voice, they will never develop a unique voice of their own—ChatGPT will forever be their voice. Or their voice will be the voice of whichever author they instruct ChatGPT to rip off. (Such as Harlan Ellison, who I ripped off to create the title for this post.)
There is already a growing backlash to AI fiction with many publishers refusing to accept any stories written by AI or even written with the aid of AI. I understand the need to combat the flood of spammy submissions, but banning all stories that used AI to any degree seems foolhardy. I don’t care if AI helped to write a fiction story; I care if the story is any good. ChatGPT is a tool, and if a talented writer is able to use the aid of AI to craft a better story, I would welcome that. I’ve done it myself. But I would never use ChatGPT to write a fiction story I sincerely cared about. AI cannot (yet) create a true work of literary art. I would only use ChatGPT for projects requiring workman-like prose—nothing special, just getting the words down onto the page. For example, technical writing, legal documents, press releases, news reports, ad copy, business letters, or a blog post such as this one (which I did NOT use AI to write).
As for fiction, the ideal ChatGPT use-case for me is writing “Future Fake News” posts on Time Zone Weird. They were always meant to be quick and dirty flash fiction pieces, not written in my elevated fiction “voice,” but in a more bare-bones journalistic voice. I have already experimented using ChatGPT to generate “Future Fake News” articles with some success. I come up with the basic idea in the prompt, ChatGPT writes the first draft, then I re-write and edit it into the final version. Most of the rewriting I do is adding more humor. ChatGPT is decent at writing a fake news article but is not good at making it funny. (Standup comedians don’t have to worry about being replaced by AI… yet.) Once my database of Time Zone Weird posts is large enough, I can ask ChatGPT to write a new “Future Fake News” article based on my old ones. In that case I would be using AI to mimic my own voice, which seems to be the ideal way to use it.
As for longer fiction stories, I have more ideas than I will ever have the time to write—unless I use AI to generate text more quickly. But for the story ideas that I am truly passionate about—that I intend to turn into works of good art—I would never let a GPT write it for me. A writer’s unique voice is essential to a story becoming a work of art. Often while writing, words and sentences come to me, though I am not sure where from. It seems to flow automatically and feels almost supernatural. Artists call this following their “muse” or “daimon”—which is something AI cannot and may never be able to do. You can create an artificial writer, but you cannot create an artificial muse.
My experiments with ChatGPT were a success in the sense that the final drafts came out fairly well, and it has helped me to be more prolific. I have already completed more new short stories in the first few months of 2023 than I did in all of 2022. But I don’t think I will be using ChatGPT to write any of my top-tier story ideas that I am sincerely passionate about. Even though I wound up re-writing each story myself, you miss out on something by having an AI write your first draft for you. Although no one will ever read it, the first draft is perhaps the most vital part of the literary process.
The first draft of a work of fiction is written from the subconscious. I’m not sure where the words come from when they pop into my head before I type them. It is creative inspiration, an inscrutable bit of alchemy that spews from the unconscious mind. Of course you must later go back and edit the text with your conscious mind because the subconscious draft is not clean prose meant for public consumption. The first draft is called the “rough” draft for a reason. The subconscious mind does not think rationally. Its output will be full of mistakes, typos, logical fallacies, and continuity errors. Instead, the subconscious mind thinks creatively. Your subconscious mind is where the mysterious magic of creativity comes from.
Some writers refer to the first draft as a “vomit draft,” meaning they spit out the words as fast as possible without thinking too much or going back to edit. The result is messy, nowhere near a finished product. But, assuming the writer is creative and intelligent, this draft will be full of raw bits of artistic genius. The rough draft is like a diamond in the rough. The point of the vomit draft is to get your creative subconscious ideas out onto the page without interference from your critical conscious mind. Save that for the second draft. When re-writing and editing, your more rational conscious mind is needed in order to make the story complete—to find the diamond—and turn it into a coherent work of art for other minds to comprehend.
The ultimate step in any artistic creation is the merging of the artist’s conscious and subconscious minds. However, with something like ChatGPT, you are essentially outsourcing your subconscious to AI. You are letting ChatGPT do the vomit draft—the most creative part of the process—then using your conscious mind to improve upon the AI’s work. But this process is inherently limited artistically because AI lacks the creative spark that only comes from the subconscious mind.
As I said at the beginning, ChatGPT is still enormously impressive and AI text generators are/will be a game-changing singularity like AI image generators. GPTs have immense potential for the future of non-creative writing and will eventually replace all non-creative writers. But the use of AI for creative writing will likely always be limited. Honestly, I was never interested in reading any of the ChatGPT transcripts people posted online. I found the prompts more interesting than ChatGPT’s response. Ultimately I care what individual humans have to say, not ubiquitous AI—at least for creative writing. For something like a Wikipedia article or “how-to” instructions, where all I seek is information, AI text-generators are perfectly adequate.
Perhaps it is only because I am a writer, so I can more easily recognize the flaws and limitations of AI text generators, but I feel much more bullish on the potential of AI image generators. With something like DALL-E, the creative inspiration is coming from the human. The text prompt is the most creative part of the process. The prompt writer is the one creating something out of nothing (the vision for the image), then the AI is merely a tool to help bring that vision into reality. But ChatGPT is different. You are using text to create text. The “text” is the actual art. The initial prompt of what to write about is surely creative, but the GPT ends up using more creativity to create the final product—because the art is the words, and ChatGPT is typing more of them. And AI’s creativity is lacking compared to creative humans.
AI image generators are fantastic for people like me who would otherwise have no means to create images of such quality. But serious visual artists can make better, more unique works of art themselves. It is the same for AI text-generators and writing. Non-writers can use ChatGPT to write the novel they never would have written otherwise, but serious fiction writers can write better, more unique novels themselves. I am more impressed by DALL-E because it can paint better than me, while I am less impressed by ChatGPT because I can write better than it. But there are better painters than me who are less impressed by DALL-E, just as there are worse writers than me who are more impressed by ChatGPT.
ChatGPT is to writing as the camera-phone is to photography. I was an amateur photographer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before everyone had a camera in their pocket, back when photography was much more niche. I was the weird guy always carrying a camera around (digital and analog), constantly looking for interesting scenes to capture on film. Now everyone in the world does that. But that doesn’t make everyone a good or artistic photographer. Mediocre photos are pervasive, but great photos remain rare. Writing is the same. With AI, published text will become increasingly prolific. ChatGPT is like having a sentence-writing machine in your pocket. Anyone can now instantly generate a mediocre short story or poem on demand. But great writing still takes time and effort—it requires the perspective and will of a human artist.
The subconscious is unique among every human being, but an AI has no subconscious—or if it does, its subconscious is an amalgamation of all text ever published. Therefore everyone who uses a GPT has the same subconscious. What makes an individual human’s subconscious unique is their limited perspectives and experiences. As a fiction writer, do I feel threatened by AI? Not at all. If you can be replaced by ChatGPT you should be. It means you’re not writing from a unique perspective. You’re already a bot.
Then again, if there’s one thing history has proven, it is to never underestimate the future potential of technology. Perhaps later generations of GPTs will be more sophisticated, individually trained on specific datasets, resulting in unique forms of AI creativity that reaches the threshold of true literature. But for now, a tool like ChatGPT is best for non-creative writing. If you are trying to write an artistic work of fiction, you need the subconscious of a human mind to do it. AI can only generate a cipher of the subconscious, an ersatz dummy of literary art.