Earlier this year I wrote about genre fiction authors using AI in their novels. Most wrote for Amazon’s Kindle platform, where an extremely fast publishing rate, as fast as a book per month, is the norm. AI helped them write quickly, but it also raised complex aesthetic and ethical questions. Would the widespread use of AI distort fiction into the most common conventions and tropes? What parts of the writing process can be automated before the writing no longer feels like their own? Should authors disclose their use of AI?
With the debut of ChatGPT, many of the questions these writers faced have become more urgent and mainstream. I checked with one of the authors, Jennifer Lepp, who writes in the cozy subgenre of paranormal mysteries under the pseudonym Leanne Leeds, to see how she felt about AI now. She still uses the GPT-3-based Sudowrite tool — in fact, she’s now being paid to write tips on how to use it for the company’s blog — and has begun incorporating some of the more recent tools into her fiction . We talked about what it’s been like working with ChatGPT, how its debut has stirred up the community of independent authors, and other topics.
When we spoke last time, you had gone through an evolution of using Sudowrite, first mainly as a thesaurus of sorts, then you experimented with incorporating the text into your work, then letting it guide you through an alienating experience put on and contain it again and use it mainly to flesh out descriptions you had outlined. How is your process now?
Well, I had hoped it would help me write two books at once, and it failed spectacularly. Apparently, I’m still connected to my own writing. So on the one hand that was good.
Did you think you could switch back and forth with this and write two books at the same time?
I thought so, Hey, if I don’t know what to write, I’ll just put something in there and it’ll get me started, and I’ll be right back in the book I left a week ago. It didn’t quite work that way. If I didn’t know what I was doing, it didn’t matter what it spat out at me. It wouldn’t help me to reconnect with material I already wrote.
You and some other independent authors were early adopters of these tools. With ChatGPT, it feels like a lot of other people are suddenly struggling with the same questions you were facing. How was that?
I definitely still struggle, and I think I struggle a little bit more in public. For the most part, people had rolled their eyes before – I don’t think they understood what people were using AI for. ChatGP3 exploded that. Every group, every private author group behind the scenes that I’m in, there’s some kind of discussion going on.
Right now everyone is talking about using it on the peripherals. But there seems to be a moral divide between, “It does blurbs really well, and I hate doing blurbs, and I have to pay someone to do blurbs, and blurbs isn’t writing, so I’m going to use it for blurbs. ” Or “Well, I’ll let it help me sharpen my plot because I hate plotting, but the plot really good, so that’s what I’m going to use it for.” Or “Did you know that if you get it proofread, it make sure it’s grammatically correct?’
“Every private, behind-the-scenes author group I’m in has some kind of discussion going on.”
Everyone is getting closer and closer to using it to write their stuff, and then they stop, and everyone seems to feel like they have to announce when they talk about this, “But I never use it’s words to write my books .” .”
And I do. It doesn’t drive my plot. It generally doesn’t lead to the ideas in my books. It does not create characters. But the actual words, just to get the hang of them faster and get them out, I do. So I found myself asking myself over the past few weeks: Should I participate in this debate? Do I say something? For the most part I said nothing.
What do you think is the line that people draw?
It is a concern of plagiarism. Everyone knows that they have crawled things with permission and without permission.
And there is an ethical question. I can go in and — right now I’m listening to Jim Butcher’s audiobooks. I like his tone. I like the deadpan snark. So I went to the AI when I was thinking about trying something like that with a character and said, “Rewrite it Jim Butcher style.” Bam! Same kind of deadpan, urban fantasy phrasing.
Well, where did it get that from? It is almost exactly the same argument and the same fear that prevails among visual artists. It’s just much more apparent in the artist community. I have three authors that I’ve read extensively, indie authors that I’m friends with, and I know they’ve never allowed me to look at their material, and I’ve been able to recreate their style quite a bit.
Do you see a line between using AI for something like a description and using it to mimic another author’s voice?
Yes. I won’t. That is an ethical line for me. I may like Jim Butcher, and I may wish God I could write like him, but I’m not going to have my stories rewritten in his voice to rip him off.
But you could, if you were ethically OK with it, with this technology and what you can do with it.
Have you incorporated ChatGPT into your work?
Right now I use it for titles and plots – mystery plots in particular. And blunders.
I actually started by just telling who I am and what I need. “I am writing a paranormal mystery set in the small town of Table Rock, Texas. It has a female amateur detective. This is her name. I need a murder victim. I need how they were killed. I need four murder suspects with information on why they are suspected and how they will be acquitted. And then tell me who the guilty killer is.
And it will do just that. That will spit it out.
“It seems to understand what I’m asking for.”
What are some of the things it has given you?
At the moment I have [plots for] books two, three, four, five, six, and seven, and all of those murder mysteries were generated by ChatGPT, though I edited some of them. The impressive thing about it is that when I tell it to be a cozy mystery and I tell it to be humorous, it seems to understand what I’m asking for. The names it gives me for the suspects are adorable. The reasons behind it are never bloody or serious.
Do you feel like you can automate that part of it and still feel like you’re in control of the story?
There are two parts to a cozy mystery. There’s the murder, and the murder is the thing that all the characters revolve around. But the kill is usually less important to me than all the shooting. So there must be a murder, and it must be amusing and funny and give reasons for chaos and strangeness. But what it is is almost unimportant to the plot, even if it’s the thing that drives everything.
“Progress is so incredibly fast, and that really answers a few questions.”
You mentioned via email that you used AI for book covers.
I didn’t do the entire cover of DALL-E, but for the seventh book I had, I had outlined a plot involving a Lykoi cat. It’s a cat so ugly it’s cute. It is apparently a fairly new breed that resembled a cross between a cat with hair and a hairless cat. And so in some places it has hair and looks like a werewolf.
So I should have found a photographer who could do a shoot, find a Lykoi cat, pay everyone to get the image and cover I needed. That is expensive. So on a lark, I was like, How so? I wonder…
And I went to open my account, jumped into DALL-E. Tree! For me it saved so much time and money, and the cover looks great, but a photographer didn’t get paid, right? Someone who wanted to pose his cat was not paid.
How do you see these tools and the way writers use them evolving?
I’m basically just stuck in the middle wondering which way it will go. I definitely don’t want to encourage people who don’t feel comfortable using it. I do think it will leak into their lives. It’s already leaking into all of our other software, so I think it’s going to be really hard to get rid of. But I definitely don’t know where it’s all going. ChatGPT shocked me a lot. I would have thought, well, it will take three or four years, and it will get better. Then came ChatGPT, and oh my god, that’s so much better! It’s been six months! Progress is so incredibly fast and so few questions have really been answered.
The interview has been shortened and edited.