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How I learned to stop worrying and love A.I.

The story of how I got past my initial reluctance to use AI to improve my writing

When I first heard about Marlowe, the fiction-savvy artificial intelligence from Authors A.I., I experienced two strongly conflicting emotions.

Emotion one: An AI can read my entire novel in 15 minutes and tell me what’s good/bad about it? Wow! That is amazing.

Emotion two: An AI can read my entire novel in 15 minutes and tell me what’s good/bad about it? Yeah, right! In your dreams.

In life, I’m a skeptic. But I’m also an optimist. And I often take fairly major decisions on little more than gut feel. (I once bought a house because I loved the color of the front door.)

house
Photo by Esther Wilhelmsson on Unsplash

My skepticism about Marlowe (and this was before she acquired her cool moniker) was down to a belief that my creative process was unique and distinctive, and how could a mere bot understand it?

But the overall promise was irresistible. Because, I reasoned, what if she really was that good? You see, I want to write best-sellers. It’s my goal. And in Authors A.I. co-founder J.D. Lasica, here was a very persuasive guy telling me he had a piece of software that could help me.

‘‘OK, I’m in,’’ I said.

What did I initially expect from Marlowe?

I guess my worry, if I’m honest, was that she’d throw out a lot of criticism. Maybe without the ham sandwich approach taught on most creative writing courses. You know, praise first, then hit them with the hardball criticism, then a bit more praise to salve their wounded pride.

In fact, this is absolutely not what she does. When we show our work to friends and family we ready ourselves for remarks like these:

“I loved it! It’s so good. You should definitely get published.”

“I didn’t like the main character.”

“It felt a bit flat in the middle.”

Even the positive remarks aren’t really that helpful. What we authors really want to know is why did you like it? What was wrong with the main character? How come it felt flat in the central section?

Marlowe is a judgment-free zone

Marlowe is different. The one thing you won’t get is subjectivity. Marlowe doesn’t love novels. She doesn’t hate them either. Instead, she analyses your writing based on the thousands and thousands of best-sellers she’s already read.

And then she compares your book to those others.

Finally, she generates a report showing you exactly how and where you’re going wrong – and right.

This is essentially a quantitative approach. Marlowe counts things. Action beats. Words with high emotional power. The amount of dialogue versus narrative. Use of clichés.

Her burgeoning superpower is being able to tell you how your numbers compare to those of best-sellers in your genre. What you do about it is up to you.

If you have a manuscript in your bottom drawer, pull it out and give Marlowe a try. You’ll receive her feedback in as little as 15 minutes:

Five (faulty) assumptions I made

Here are five mistaken assumptions I made about Marlowe … and what actually happened.

Marlowe would give me a line-by-line critique of my book

1I think I’m a pretty decent stylist. By which I mean as well as telling a good story, I can use language with a certain amount of skill. Now, that may all be narcissistic BS, but it’s how I feel.

I thought — or feared — Marlowe would break down my book line by line as a copy editor would and pick apart every metaphor, verb tense and character description. Essentially wagging an ink-stained finger at me and rewriting every sentence.

In fact, Marlowe scrupulously avoids passing judgment. She doesn’t even say a given word, sentence, paragraph or chapter is bad or good. What she does is to give you a reality check — to make sure you’re aware of what you’re doing.

A small example is her table of repeated words and phrases. You might have an unconscious, or even conscious, preference for describing characters as quirking their mouths into a smile.

But how would you feel if Marlowe told you you’d used that word 50 times in a 70,000-word manuscript?

I’d be taking instruction from a machine

2I didn’t spend decades honing my craft only to be told by a mere machine how to write novels! That’s basically how I felt when my skeptical side was in the ascendant.

But the clue came with my own reaction. Because a mere machine doesn’t know squat about writing novels. Or flying fighter jets. Or designing recipes for diabetics. That comes from human experts. In our world, that means best-selling authors.

bot
Photo by Maximalfocus on Unsplash

Marlowe has no interest in becoming your new editor. She has gorged herself on thousands upon thousands of best-sellers. And here’s the tricky bit to wrap our heads around.

She doesn’t know why they work. She only knows that they work.

The really key insight I formed while working through my feelings about letting Marlowe loose on my drafts was this …

A human being told her that the books she imbibed into her database were bestsellers. And those bestsellers were, in their turn, written by humans.

So, no, I would not be taking instruction from a machine. I’d be taking lessons from thousands of best-selling authors whose craft and instinct for a great story well told was codified into a series of benchmarks I could use to evaluate my own work.

Marlowe would fix the problems in my novel

3OK, I thought, let’s suppose JD is right. Marlowe is going to revolutionize the way I write. She’s going to show me exactly how my books compare to best-selling thrillers.

And then tell me how to put right whatever is wrong.

If I’ve written a draft that is drowning in dialogue, she’ll convert some of that dialogue into narrative, or internal monologue.

If I’ve contracted a bad case of sagging middle she’ll inject some pacy scenes to prop up that bellying prose.

If my two main characters embody identical sets of traits, she’ll tell me how to pull them apart and give them distinct identities.

No. Nuh-uh. Sorry, chum. That’s the writer’s job.

However, what she does do, brilliantly, is tell me how much dialogue I have compared to narrative, and where in the story it occurs.

She shows me with a graph where the main action occurs and give me specific text references to help me pinpoint it.

And she describes the main characters, not as I imagine I’ve written them, but as they actually appear on the page.

Marlowe would be slow and laborious to work with

4When I’m in the zone, the last thing I want to do is wait. For anything. I’m there, I’m firing on all cylinders (forgive the cliché, Marlowe would). I’m immersed in my fictional world.

And now this JD fellow is telling me I need to stop what I’m doing and send my MS off to be read and analyzed before Marlowe writes her report.

Are you kidding?! I don’t have time for – wait, what? It’s ready? But I only send it off 15 minutes ago.

I send off each draft I want analyzing at the start of a coffee break. Maybe lunch. And the report I need to rework it and make it better is waiting for me when I get back.

Marlowe would take the fun out of writing

5Even as I eagerly embraced the chance to have my novels compared dispassionately to bestselling authors, I worried I might have to ditch creativity in favor of being a slave to the machine.

Like a literary version of the children’s game Simon Says, only without the gotcha questions you’re supposed to ignore.

Marlowe says cut the passive voice.

Marlowe says insert more action.

Marlowe says use fewer clichés (by spotlighting the ones you didn’t realize you’d used).

Marlowe says add more dialogue.

Marlowe says shorten your sentences.

In fact, I would say Marlowe has increased the enjoyment of writing. The initial excitement as I create a first draft out of nothing more than my imagination is still there. Still phenomenal. Still great fun.

But now, once I send it to Marlowe, I get a roadmap to a second draft that will pull it closer to what my human editor calls ‘‘the best version of the story you’re telling.’’

It’s still up to me to decide what to do in response to Marlowe’s observations. If my middle third needs more action, well, it’s me who has to figure out what that action should be. And it’s me who then has to write it. Like I said. Fun.

Those were my reservations. How about my actual experience having worked with Marlowe on three novels so far?

How I learned to love Marlowe

You’ve probably guessed by now. But for the record, let me say it here.

I am a convert.

Why? Because just as I invest in human beings to edit and proofread my novels, I also invest in AI to help me shape the version I send to those human beings.

By ironing out simple structural and linguistic issues first, it means my editor can focus on the kinds of issues best done by a human being. I’ll give you an example using dialogue.

Marlowe looks at the ratio of dialogue to narrative. She expresses that number as a pie chart and a timeline highlighting the distribution of dialogue through the book.

What she doesn’t do, what she can’t do, is assess the quality of that dialogue. But my editor can.

If the character speaking is doing an info dump – in other words I’m using dialogue as exposition – my human editor will tell me and suggest an alternative. If I haven’t nailed the way someone would really speak, again, she’ll tell me.

The other reason for using Marlowe is that there’s nothing to agree, or disagree, with. Her reports are entirely factual. You have used commas this many times in your manuscript. On average your sentences are this long. You have evenly spaced story beats except for a gap between 56% and 71% of the way through your story.

Not only that, but she also tells you how these numbers compare to books that hit the bestseller charts.

That’s a metric I’ll always find useful.

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