I was in the middle of a story about an A.I. of all things when the invite to test Sudowrite slid into my inbox. Sudowrite is a GPT-3 program, or a “deep-learning neural network” that generates text via algorithm. Think Plotto for the 21st century, just trained on a corpus of hundreds of billions of words.
Initially, I was flip about it. I’d chuckled through Sunspring, the A.I. scripted movie, with its characters who vomited eyeballs and casually mentioned going out “to the skull,” and I was certain mine would be vaping letter openers while brooding under streetlights made of licorice whips. What I experienced both confirmed and blew away those expectations. It was also a bit deflating.
Sudowrite’s test version is uncomplicated and unthreatening: a white text box on a soft rainbow palette with an easily navigable interface. Above the text box are functions for summarizing, A.I. feedback, plus the fun parts, such as Wormhole, which continues your story, What if (self-explanatory), or Describe, offering suggestions for highlighted text. There are also macro functions, such as a “twist” option that spits out ideas for overall plot. I’ve yet to explore many of the latter features, so I’ll just give a rundown on the first two.
I tested Wormhole with this chapter opener from a work in progress, a book about a magic and old Hollywood cinema.
If you were to take a turn down Sydney Street on a certain Saturday during the first week of August, you might think you’d stepped into the pre-war 1940s. The Orpheum Theater, sided though it was by a surfing shop and a café touting avocado toast, looked as if it had tunneled up from another time. A line of polished limousines curled around the block, depositing their glamorous passengers on a red carpet, bordered by velvet ropes and Klieg lights that swept the twilight as if they were trying to shoo away the last of the day.
Within seconds, the program spat out five lengthy paragraphs. In the interest of brevity, I’ll stick with the opening lines from the best three, but most, were you not reading carefully, could have passed unnoticed as a continuation of the story.
“There they were, arriving from whence they came, the great of the classic Hollywood era, the gods of the silver screen…”
“The evening’s audience, dressed in ball gowns, tuxedos, and wide-brimmed hats, entered through the old-fashioned glass door and through the lobby…”
“For an hour forty-five minutes, slo-mo cameras would frame the mise-en-scène of an earlier world: women in full skirts and high heels tottered down the red carpet…”
I was gobsmacked and also a bit flattened. None of these were the directions I would have taken—the “whence” and the Hollywood “gods” imagery, for example — but scene and paragraph transitions are two of my major stalling points, and the program glided easily into approaches I hadn’t so much as considered. I didn’t use any of them—the prospect of letting those already flimsy muscles atrophy is terrifying — but as a means of shaking up my approach to a scene, I found the Wormhole function to be enlightening about where I should be looking.
Wormhole didn’t always work this smoothly. Further attempts were a mix of hilarious and psychedelic, and things really go haywire once you add names and job titles. Sudowrite turned several high school aged characters into professors and bedraggled police officers, but watching those paragraphs spool out— and at such speed—was both astonishing and unsettling.
With the Describe feature, you highlight a word or phrase, and watch the program generate samples categorized by sense and metaphor, less cheating than having a context-ready thesaurus on hand. When I read, I’m always jotting down phrases on index cards, and have stacks dedicated to gestures and facial expressions, weather, and the sleek but useless and very uncomfortable furniture aboard spaceships. But being generally disorganized, I have yet to work it into an efficient system. Using the same paragraph, I highlighted “velvet ropes” and got some not so useful results. Sight resulted in “swaying in the breeze”; Sound was the “soft clink of silverware on china,” taste was “chocolate.” I’ve never bitten into a rope before, but if they’re that good, who needs Milk Duds. Metaphorical dropped straight into condescension. “I think you mean ‘Velvet Ropes,’” it told me. “The British indie rock band from the ‘90s.”
But in other instances, Describe was helpful, mostly in that it, again, made me aware of my worst habits. In the A.I. story, I was struggling to describe an old mainframe computer for which “research” had produced pages of technical diagrams neither evocative nor accessible. Sudowrite, in contrast, offered up images of exposed wiring, a glass cabinet covered in finger prints, and melted circuit boards. It was a quick and ironic reminder to zoom out and experience the object as a human being, and more importantly, to leave the specifics for later and keep writing. Another faithful procrastination method, far less efficient than the index cards, is to abandon the blank screen for long and fruitless searches through my bookshelves, where I curse myself for not having some elaborate color-coded Post-it system for descriptions of open air crowd scenes or the parquet floors in Edith Wharton’s ballrooms. Sudowrite was showing me how my own attempts to mechanize my writing process got in the way of the actual writing.
There’s an oft-bandied notion that algorithms won’t replace us: they’re simply alternate versions, churning out ideas we might hit upon years from now or in another life. I find that comforting as a storyteller, but I also wonder about the cost of removing time from the process. Is it right to jump the queue to a “self” whose insights don’t connect to experience?
And then there’s choice.
We have so much of it already.
As writers, we’re already hoarders — of notebooks and pens, of books, some of which we’ll never get around to reading. Then there are all those ideas, scrawled on said notebooks, receipts, or set down in garbled snatches of speech on our phones. What will it do to have so many more at the press of a button?
Sara Kate Ellis is a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow and attended the Milford Science Fiction Workshop in 2017. Her recent stories have appeared in Analog, Visions, Fusion Fragment and Space and Time (under Kate Ellis). She is currently an assistant professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, where she lives with her partner and several ornery street cats.