For Writers and Readers
What’s Your Story?
As my first post in Alchemy, this has to be the place to start – the story. The pre-eminent role of a fiction writer is to tell a compelling story. Amid all the advice about style, character development, stakes, punctuation, editing, publishing – it almost entirely comes back to the story. Frankly I don’t like Dickens’ writing style (it’s archaic) and prefer Hemmingway’s (stripped-down, punchy) – but I’d rather read Dickens because the stories are simply more unexpected, even joyful. So, what’s your story? The story you’d love to tell? It doesn’t matter if it’s about your life, or a turning point in your life. It could be a slice of an imagined life, sci-fi, romance, historical drama, adventure, noir, fantasy (not my favorite, although I still think back fondly on Narnia and The Hobbit). As a writer, or fledgling writer, you have the entire world of human experience and imagination from which to draw inspiration. Don’t let the mechanics of all this, the seemingly endless banging away on a keyboard writing and re-writing and editing stand in your way. Start with your story. If it helps, here are my stories. The Theory of My Wonders, which was inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s ‘Monument to Mankind.’ I imagined it as one of a new seven wonders of the world, and built a strange sci-fi drama around that. Bad Napkin was inspired by finding the plus-minus list a romantic partner wrote about me when I was in my mid-twenties (as you can imagine, the relationship ended pretty soon after that), and I tuned that into a Young Adult comedy. An unpublished sequel, Bad Behavioral Science, developed around my fascination with (you guessed it) behavioral science experiments (there’s a great one in which you cheat at tic-tac-toe/noughts-and-crosses to see how quickly the other person gets angry!) But perhaps my favorite was a very short story, six hundred or so words and no dialogue, about a young woman on the brink of fame as a singer – it was called The Mermaid and was published in three different compendia’s. It was an imagined self-reflective moment in the early life of Amy Winehouse, her realization of fame taking her away from reality (so from human to half-human, like a mermaid geddit?) There’s even talk (and, yes, mostly talk) of trying to make a TV movie of it. So, start with your story. Be bold. Be different. Be real. Because that’s what a storyteller is.
Making an Entry
I find one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction is the introduction of a new character, especially one of lesser importance. This may seem counter-intuitive – shouldn’t a Main Character (MC) be more difficult to introduce than a minor character? The reason for this is that you have more space and time to introduce the MC. They may be the focus of the opening sentence, paragraph, chapter. Hopefully when we meet them there’s something dramatic happening and we can see them fighting some aspect of the epic battle that is their life. But for a minor character, we don’t have that space, we need to introduce them quickly so they can play their part and get out of the way. But just because they don’t do much, doesn’t mean they can be throwaway and a writer can afford to be careless about them. Let’s imagine a doctor who’s about to deliver some surprising new to the MC. ‘Dr. Jenkins entered the room. He was old, his hair had thinned out, and dark circles grown around his washed-out blue eyes.’ So, we get the picture of an old male white doctor. But it doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading. The first thing to think about is whether you’ve made a good creative choice in visualizing this character. The old, white, male doctor is something of a stereotype. Why white? Why male? Why old? Why not a young Indian woman? Once you’ve made that creative choice, a powerful exercise is to write a few hundred words about that character to get to know them – a background piece. Place them in a situation a little before the point at which they enter your story and have something happen to them. Have some dialogue too. For the young Indian doctor, I wrote about her at lunch. She spills food off her tray and is angry with herself at her clumsiness and waste. This sets her up to enter your story as tightly wound, and maybe not in the best possible mood. Then consider their voice, and how they speak. Is it clipped, uncertain, quiet, loud? (Our Indian doctor talks quickly and with precision in her word choice). Are they garrulous, economical, circuitous? (She is very to-the-point, but prone to long silences as she marshals her thoughts). And then, how do they move? Fluidly, arthritically, slowly, quickly, erratically? (She is precise, matching the precision of her word choice, as if consciously taking up a well-chosen point in any environment). You can then consider the aspects of physical character. Eyes (shape and color), mouth, nose, coloring, hair, build. Use these as ingredients into the overall introduction of the character, and not the totality of their introduction. Too often I read something like ‘Dr. Jenkins entered the room. She had long dark hair and almond-shaped eyes of the deepest brown.’ Dull imo, and frankly not that informative. Lastly, consider if there’s an action you can give them that could add interest to their moment of introduction. The common wisdom in screen-writing is to always have a character doing something interesting when they’re introduced. So not sitting on the sofa watching the TV, or waking up, or making a sandwich. For our new Dr. Jenkins, I like the idea that she’s frustrated by some cleanliness issue when she first enters the patient’s room. Work all of these into the background piece we talked about earlier, and then start writing version of their introduction. And don’t expect your first version to be your best! So, here we go: ‘Dr. Jenkins entered his room and immediately noticed a used nitrile glove on the floor. It stopped her in her tracks. She looked over at the patient, her deep-brown eyes seemingly seeking the affirmation that she was correct to be offended. “I’ll have an orderly come make sure the room is cleaned,” she said, her voice low and precise. There was a long silence as if she was considering some kind of apology. “I was trained in Philadelphia,” she finally said. “Not in India like most people think.”’
Who’s That Talking Back to Me?
God invented editors to remind writers they can’t play god with their characters. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s true. In this short essay I’m going to talk about another aspect of writing when we as writers are far less in control than we think we are. And that is the character’s voice. I first encountered this when I was writing a screenplay, HBKR (it was a dramedy based on a popular emo rock band, and was squarely rejected by a studio who said they didn’t get what the hell I was talking about). In HBKR a minor character called Poppy – bit punk, bit crazy, heart of gold – suddenly started jumping off the page in her dialogue, her reactions to what was going on around her. Whatever situation I put her in, what she said was authentic, funny, unexpected – even unexpected to me. As I continued writing it was almost like I couldn’t wait to see what she would say (and do) next. She was a total scene-stealer. Eventually she started directing some of the events and dramatic flow of the story. Kid you not. Of course, Poppy being Poppy she went from a minor to a major character as well. An altogether more serious character was Columbia from The Theory of My Wonders. She didn’t have much of a dialogue voice, that wasn’t her thing, but her internal narrative was incredible. She had these theories – the Theory of Falling, the Theory of Trust, the Theory of Cruelty, The Theory of Dying and many many more – and in fact each chapter touched on one of her theories. They’re stark, weird, sometimes wrong-headed and sometimes even delusional. But they’re her’s much more than they’re mine. The obvious following question is, how then do you find these characters that have this driving voice, this authenticity? And the answer is, they just kinda pop up from time-to-time. There’s no formula to create them, it’s just plain happenstance and good luck. In The Theory of My Wonders there were only Columbia and one other small character that had this voice – out of twenty or thirty characters in total. That’s why you should keep writing and throwing away work. You don’t want to be trapped trying to work with characters who’re making life difficult for you (I’m starting to drift into an analogy of a movie director trying to work with a bunch of uninspired actors). So you may have a great story concept, and all the writing skills (or a good editor to fix them later), but if your characters are going to come alive on the page you’re going to have to try and try again until they show up. Still, nobody said writing was easy. But I promise those authentic characters will come to you – and they will lift your heart and your writing!
Thinking About Dating
Dating is part of the lives of many readers of young adult (YA) and new adult (NA) fiction. Some 50% of fifteen-year olds, and more than 66% of eighteen-year olds have been in a romantic relationship in the past eighteen months. As a writer, the challenge is to capture the authenticity of this important experience, to make it interesting – and, when appropriate, amusing. That’s’ what I’ll try to address here, and I encourage you to read ‘Dating. Really?’ on this site, written by Elizabeth, a 20-year-old living in the DC area. There are also boundaries that writers should respect to avoid accidentally offending the reader, and you should approach these with caution. I could refer to the movie Sierra Burgess Is a Loser for a few plot twists and scenes that frankly creeped me out. Avoid teens shaming each other, catfishing, assuming a rush to sexual intimacy in your characters, and any lack of respect to characters who are differently abled, neurodiverse, LGBTQ+, or just socially different. In the US the CDC reported that 57% of teenage girls felt persistently sad or hopeless (versus 29% for teenage boys), 30% had seriously considered suicide (nearly twice the percentage of teenage boys), and 18% had experienced sexual violence. Worse yet, 22% of LGBTQ+ teens have experienced sexual violence, and 20% had been forced to have sex. As writers to this community, we need to be incredibly sensitive. Getting back to authenticity of dates for this YA/NA population, consider that your characters are likely to be excited or nervous about the date. They may be worried about their appearance, about not being attractive or interesting enough, or having poor social skills. Because of this, you may want to write and explore how they feel before the date. During the date they’ll likely worry whether their date is having a good time, and in wanting to make a good impression may adopt a persona to impress the date. If it’s going well, they’re likely to be relaxed, engaged and funny. If it’s not going well, they’re likely to be bored, uncomfortable and even disappointed. Then there are things that go awry on dates. Not being polite and respectful. Being dismissive, interrupting, not listening to the other person, and talking too much. Being too self-centered. Not being honest. Being too forward or pushy, even to the uncomfortable point of making unwanted advances. Write about dates that capture those emotions and these actions. I confess to having had fun writing about dates in my YA/NA rom-com Bap Napkin. I put the character Sophy through a series of awful dates. One guy takes her to McDonalds but won’t let her order the same thing as him, a burger, even though she only wants a burger. With a different boy, part way through their dinner he goes to the bathroom and she gets a text from him: ‘I miss u already honeysox.’ A young man buys her dinner at the gas station, then goes on a crazy rant about portals to space and that aliens have “been interbreeding with humans for thousands of years, which means we’re not really Earth-people, we’re aliens, which kinda massively blows your mind when you think about it.” Another dude shows her the creepy drawings he’s made of her, based on Facebook photos she’s posted, and appears to be making a pros and cons list about her. If you’d like to have some comedic fun there are lists of best questions to ask someone on a date, usually presented as ‘How to Make Someone Fall in Love with You.’ These are the best I pulled out (from BRIDES.com list of 36 questions): Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible. OUR ASSESSMENT: ever hear of active listening? Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why? OUR ASSESSMENT: unlikely to make someone feel confident! What is your most terrible memory? OUR ASSESSMENT: way to set a good tone! How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? OUR ASSESSMENT: hmmm, where could this question possibly go wrong – in fact, a good lawyer will say that you should never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer! Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you on how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen. OUR ASSESSMENT: this should really stoke the romance! If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? OUR ASSESSMENT: super-depressing! Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why? OUR ASSESSMENT: bring on the tears. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet? OUR ASSESSMENT: see above. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? OUR ASSESSMENT: probably best asked if you want the date to end there and then! That’s over 20% of the 36 that are mildly unseemly to wildly inappropriate and depressing. Impressive. You could also combine these with some, er, interesting date ideas out there on the web and you’ll multiply the laughs: Do a Food Truck Tour. Support local entrepreneurs while you enjoy a range of tasty treats. ASSESSMENT: figure out in advance how many calories you both intend to consume on this gastronomical tour. Rent a Rowboat. Recreate a romantic scene from The Notebook and paddle around a pond or river for the afternoon. Surprise your partner by reciting some passages of poetry. ASSESSMENT: when did you last see a rowboat? Check out a thrift store. Make a game of finding each other the best (or wackiest) outfit for under $25. ASSESSMENT: So you could easily rack up a near-$50 bill on this simple activity. Plus a lot of thrift shops are financially for charitable purposes and to serve people short on money: it’s not an arcade folks. Foster or Rescue a Pet. This is a fun idea for couples that live together. Share the love by welcoming a furry friend into your home! ASSESSMENT: lovely, but not really a date idea unless it’s a small rodent you intend to adopt. Ride Public Transport. Choose a famous bus or train route and ride it to do some sightseeing and people-watching. ASSESSMENT: makes sense, but if you don’t live near a famous bus or train route (incidentally, I’d love to hear of a famous bus route) then there’s always the option of going on your commute then coming back again – FUN! Get a Couple Tattoo. Seal the deal and proclaim your love to one another with some permanent ink. The design can be a subtle nod to your relationship or a more obvious declaration of love. It's up to you. ASSESSMENT: oh boy! Of course, this is advice that older people are more likely to follow (I hope not) than our YA/NA readers. But use this as creative inspiration for the dates your characters go on, whether comedic or not, and the often daft things people say on those tongue-tied dates. It could also inform how you write the parents of your teen characters (a blog on that topic is coming soon too). Just be creative and have fun with it. To sum up, if you’re writing the next great YA or NA novel, find a way to have a pair of critical eyes look at it long before you’ve written a vast amount that includes significant parts – like dates – that lack authenticity and creativity. At Effigy Press we offer a free service where we give a candid review of the first 600 words of your novel which will give you a sense of whether you’re on the right track or not. And we invite you to sign up for future blogs about creativity and writing.
There's No Word for This
At least there isn’t in English. But there is in German, and it just so happens it’s one of my very favorite words: verschlimmbesserung. It describes an act of attempted improvement that only makes things worse. And we’ve all been there. The comforting text to a friend that somehow hits entirely the wrong tone and sends them into a full downward spiral. Offering to move someone’s collection of Edwardian glasses to a safe place and then dropping them all on the stairs. Shaving down the leg of a wobbly table and doing it so badly that the table is left lopsided and useless. One of the most famous examples of verschlimmbesserung is The Ecco Homo, a Spanish fresco of Jesus Christ that an elderly cleaner attempted to clean (damaging it) and repaint (to fix the damage) but ended up turning into a bizarre caricature of its former self. So this was, in fact, a double- or doppel-verschlimmbesserung. Verschlimmbesserung also happens to be quite a mouthful, which is probably why it’s never taken off in the English language.Schadenfreude, on the other hand, with three syllables to verschlimmbesserung’s five, has made a home for itself in English, displacing the entirely unlovely epicaricacy, which similarly means getting pleasure from the misfortune of others. Seriously, have you ever heard the word epicaricacy? I thought not. When I popped verschlimmbesserung into Google Translate it returned the translation disimprovement. That doesn’t capture anything of the deeply comedic aspects brought to mind by verschlimmbesserung, of the human condition where we try to be better as a person and yet still very publicly slip on a banana skin, arms flailing. That’s not disimprovement. I’m not even convinced disimprovement is a real word. So, in a somewhat meta exercise, I’d like to find the English portmanteau word that captures the foiled aspirations tone of verschlimmbesserung, and to do it without unintentionally worsening the English language by introducing a new word like chillax, funemployment, slacktivist and listicle (seriously, these are all real). So here it is, my suggestion: Dumprovement. Okay, see if you can do better. I look forward to hearing your ideas. I’m not sure there’s a great lesson here for all you writers out there, other than to have fun with the language, and explore the meanings of words in our lives. Words that are trying to express themselves as a meaningful part of human consciousness and the way we as humans see the world around us. If you’re writing the next great young adult or new adult novel, let your creative word choices bring your work to life. Simply, don’t write 120,000 words of dull prose.
Elizabeth,a 20 year-old living in DC
Look, all you nice people out there writing about how teenagers and young adults date, I hope you can remember when you were that age too. Because if you’re thinking it’s like a guy and a girl (or any other combination) going on “A Date” to some little Italian restaurant, then off to a movie theater, you’re pretty much way off. Which means you’ll have a reader like me eye-rolling, page-flicking, and quickly putting your great novel at the bottom of my bedside pile of books. Let’s start with early high school. Dates aren’t really real, because dating isn’t really real at that age. It’s a bit of texting, some handholding, not a lot of talking, a bit of joking. The dating pair hang out together, but hang out with their friends along too – each of the pair probably has at least two of their friends in tow. And it’s hanging out at someone’s house watching a movie or streaming something. It’s not very exciting. By the time it’s late high school, it’s all changed. Relationships are starting to get more long-term, but it’s largely dating people in your outer friend group (friends of your closer friends), or people you meet more randomly at parties. And everything’s a big deal when you date someone because word spreads quickly, everyone knows, everyone’s interested. If the relationship turns more serious, maybe there would occasionally be a casual dinner, or maybe something cute like hanging at a scenic spot by the river. But generally, it’s still hanging out at someone’s house watching a movie or streaming something. I live in an urban area where there are students from about six different high schools. That’s a pretty big pool to fish in, which discourages longer-term relationships; which in turn means there’s less dating activity in the traditional sense. I can’t speak for suburban and rural, but with a smaller pool I guess maybe they have more longer-term relationships. Plus, maybe there’s less to do; I’ve heard that some weekend nights everyone drives to a Walmart parking lot to hang out. Sounds like fun. Finally, there’s college. Add drinking, add new social ladders, remove parents. There aren’t any of the Nerds versus Jocks versus Goths categorizations and groupings that some people assume; it’s all about who’s cool, and where the best parties are. I tell you, all you writers out there, the drama and the antics goes up like a million-fold. And as a final helpful hint, if you want to get a sense of college Greek life, check out the discussion boards at GreekRank.com.
Yanno, like really yk
I received a response to my Verschlimmbesserung blog that read: “Well, disimprovement is a word, yanno!” Not knowing the word yanno I immediately turned to Google to look it up, thinking it’s some sort of put down. Even before I typed it out, I got it in a flash of phonetic realization! Yanno is “Ya know.” Yanno. Turns out it’s a phonetic portmanteau. Arguably LOL is also a sort of bizarre phonetic portmanteau, as we do say “Yeah, actual LOL” sounding the ‘LOL’ as ‘loll.” So it’s evolved from the acronym L.O.L. into the spoken language. There are other familiar phonetic portmanteaus out there, but not many: dunna, gimme, gonna, kinda, lemme, watcha, wassup, yall. For me the most amusing are like dwanna (“don’t wanna”), which, to add to the confusion, also happens to be a woman’s name. If you know of any more of these phonetic portmanteaus, let us know. If you come up with a good one, also please let us know. So, where am I going with this, other than down another strange linguistic rabbit hole? And what does it matter to a writer? It may well matter a great deal, especially to writers of young adult or new adult novel fiction. Which is why we must turn our attention back to the origin of these words: texting and IM’ing. Texting is part of our communications culture, perhaps one of the most important other than people actually talking to each other. As a writer, to put it simply, you must first decide whether to use texting at all in your work, then how much to use it. Then, you must make it authentic, including the use of words like yanno and emojis. Then you must make it interesting enough to support character-building and your dramatic arc. Then you have to somehow visually represent it on the page (there’ll be a blog on that soon, for this blog I’ll use a simple narrative representation). Yes, it can be pretty overwhelming as far as creative choices go for a writer. Starting with how much to use texting, it will depend on whether your work is more dialogue or narrative based. It could be your story – perhaps teen romance, or catfishing – absolutely requires texting. But I’d advise any writer who isn’t able to make it authentic and interesting to just stay away from it altogether. Personally, I’m confident writing standard narrative between characters in my books, but that fades quickly when it comes to writing text message exchanges. I have on occasion resorted to presenting text message like this, in the narrative flow: Her phone chimed. She looked at the new text message. All it said was ‘battry 3%’ followed by the angry face emoji. She rolled her eyes. This does flow, but also comes lacks the energy, and the invasion-of-privacy frisson, of reading what feels like an actual text exchange between people. If you decide to embrace texting in your work, it’s critical to make it authentic. Start by asking for guidance from people in your readership target age group. Here, FWIW, is the guidance I got from a 20-year old. Brevity and compression, including the use of acronyms like RN, FR, OFC, BC, TN, TTYL, TYFN, BRB, SMH, IRL, (all in lower case), and there are many more if you look online. In fact, when I mentioned yanno I got an eye-roll and was told that it should be YK instead! Allacronyms.com is a good place to start finding and decoding them. As for emojis, the advice was to use them sparsely and ironically (and there’ll be another blog on too). I was told to check how texting is used in television and movies. The series Euphoria was recommended for its realistic use of text. The movie Sierra Burgess Is a Loser was recommended for its poor use of texting, including too many written sentences, no abbreviation, no ironic emoji use, generic photos and weird selfies. Here’s an example from Sierra Burgess Is a Loser: Him: Just thinking of you Her: [smiling chimp photo] Her: What a coincidence. I was just thinking about you. Him: So I have something to admit Him: I didn’t want to scare you off but I know who you are Him: Cmon Veronika Him: Head cheerleader, I see you every time we play Feels like it was written by an older adult with questionable texting skills? I think so. And what does authentic text dialogue look like? Ask younger people for examples. They might tell you to gl, but you could get lucky. Here’s one, with the names changed (in this example, Murphy’s is the fictional name of a bar that was shut down because of illegal drug usage): Alyse: no bc yeah literally Jenni: this last year was like peak murphys time Alyse: fly high murphys fr Jenni: I wish it were still there that would be perfect for tn Alyse: literally it would be perfect but no ofc it had to get shut down Jenni: Duck you DEA Alyse: my dad just keeps sending me articles about people getting killed in different spring break destinations Alyse: live a little David Jenni: Jesus Christ David 😂 See the difference? And one difference may have leapt out at you – that for some readers this is going to be a slog unless they know the acronyms. Maybe use only a few of them (limiting it to just a handful like TN, FR, BC, OFC, TTYL) so the reader’s flow isn’t interrupted. Also, try to make the acronyms easy for the reader to understand from context clues, or inference, at least for the first few times you introduce them. Here are some examples: Amy: what you doing tn, wanna meet Amy: then he told me that, I mean fr Amy: I was late bc the bus was late Amy: ofc I wanna be rich Amy: gotta go sleep TTYL If you make the decision to use texting in your brilliant young adult or new adult novel, brush up on your skills and get feedback on it early. Feel free to send your creative texting our way too – at Effigy Press we offer a free service where we give a candid review of the first 600 words of your novel which will give you a good sense if you’re on the right track or not. And we invite you to sign up for future blogs where we’ll talk about more aspects of creative writing, including how to use texting.
So why is Wednesday on Netflix so popular? The Netflix teen-comedy series Wednesday was released November 23, 2022 – on a Wednesday of course. The show is centered on Wednesday Addams of the retro “Addams Family” TV show, and stars Jenna Ortega as the titular character. Wednesday enrolls in Nevermore Academy in Vermont… and, well, then the showrunners take over to supply the usual plotlines around friends, entanglements, the supernatural, and a series of local murders that collectively will keep us entertained for the next few years. And it’s very very popular. According to Netflix more than 50 million households watched 341 million hours in its first week. Actually five days, not even a full week, but it includes the US Thanksgiving weekend when presumably a good percentage of viewers were asleep on the sofa in a food coma while the show faithfully played on from one episode to another. This broke the record for an English language series, but the ultra-violent Squid Game holds the overall record. Squid Game’s popularity-plus-violence should be enough to make any writer sit up and take notice. But what’s the popularity-plus-ingredient with Wednesday? The show’s tone and plot-lines are classic teen drama – we haven’t moved on much since Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted in 1997. Clearly, they have an enduring popularity, even when they’re largely formulaic, as has been noted by critics complaining that the show is picked from the CW tree of teen dramas. But what makes Wednesday watchable is Tim Burton’s characterization of her as autistic – her lack of filter and her undeniably precocious intelligence. That makes her different from other characters like Jessica Jones who are unable to fit into a vanilla world – and similar in that they’re both remarkable, very watchable, and both feminist icons. Promoting neurodiversity in film and TV is important as we teach teens – and grown-ups – to accept others who think and act differently, or who have a different sexuality, or background, or skin color. Styling these characters to be watchable and popular is central to achieving that. No point in having autistic characters who aren’t. Frankly, no point in having any characters who aren’t. Whether it’s TV, movies, or a book – popularity requires both substance and style. And as is the case with Wednesday, the style trumps the substance. The crucial lesson here is that if you’re a content creator looking to make an impact, you must challenge your own artistic choices around how you’ve developed your characters, and your style. If you’re writing the next great Young Adult or New Adult novel, find a way to have a fresh set of eyes look at it long before you’ve written 120,000 words that aren’t going to connect in today’s culture. At Effigy Press we offer a free service where we give a candid review of the first 600 words of your novel which will give you a good sense if you’re on the right track or not. And we invite you to sign up for future blogs, and I promise I’ll eventually get around to writing about Squid Game.
Me vs. ChatGPT (1)
ChatGPT is the buzzy Artificial Intelligence language model developed by OpenAI that uses deep learning algorithms to generate text. It’s been trained on a massive amount of data from the internet, including web pages, books, and more. This allows it to generate text that is often human-like in nature. Interesting for writers everywhere is that it’s been trained on literary works including novels, short stories, poetry, plays. This means that it has knowledge of, and can reference, works from a wide range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and more – as well as a large variety of literary styles and structures. When asked specifically, ChatGPT told me that it knows Shakespeare's plays and poems. Which is, sadly, much more than I can claim (but I blame the English Education system!) So I decided to put ChatGPT to a test. One that would explore its creativity rather than its knowledge. In 2021 I had written a micro-story for a Halloween competition, so I basically gave ChatGPT the same instructions: write a Halloween story, 100 words or less, must include the words 'glow-in-the-dark' and 'goodies.' I added ‘scary’ so it would be roughly the same in tone, and wouldn’t come out as middle-school reading level. There we have it: one of the two following stories is by me, one by ChatGPT. I confess I tidied up the ChatGPT version slightly, but with only a light touch. Guess who wrote which one! Story 1 AS THE MOON ROSE, a young girl bravely approached the abandoned house, eager to collect Halloween goodies. But as she stepped inside, she realized she was not alone. The walls began to creak, the floorboards groaned, and the glow-in-the-dark decorations transformed into ghastly figures. Suddenly, she was surrounded by a horde of demonic creatures, reaching out to her with their bony hands. She tried to run, but the door had disappeared. The creatures closed in, their eyes fixed upon her, as she screamed. The only thing left behind was a bag of candy on the floor, abandoned in the darkness. Story 2 WHEN DAD LIT THE CANDLE INSIDE OUR PUMPKIN my neck was suddenly all goosebumps. Dad recoiled, and Mum screamed. We’d bought the pumpkin at 'D’Veels Goodies'. The man who sold it to us had weird eyes above his mask, which frightened me. But we’d carved a fun, goofy smile onto it. But now, on our doorstep, it was flaming. But not burning up. The fire crackled, but it sounded like cackling. Dad said, “In the car. Now!” We drove away. Fast. All the houses we passed had the same burning pumpkins outside, and the horizon was like a glow-in-the-dark necklace. Okay, so this is a very narrow experiment, but consider which one you prefer. Now consider which one is more creative. Which one has a spark of personality, originality and, let’s face it, humanity? Story 1 has a nice creative turn as the glow-in-the-dark decorations transform into ghastly figures, and then again with making the door disappear. Story 2 neatly links crackling and cackling, and then scales up the horror with it being some kind of demonic invasion and “the horizon…like a glow-in-the-dark necklace.” Within the 100 word limit neither have a ton of room to be incredibly creative, but for me it’s close to a tie on creativity. Scary! But scary in a totally non-Halloween way. Not scary because ChatGPT is suddenly going to put writers out of business, but because it highlights the threshold for creative choices. What do I mean? If you’re not making bold creative choices your writing won’t stand out more than what an AI can do as a kind of party trick, will lack the humanity of drama, and the drama of humanity. ChatGPT may be digging up Shakespeare for recycled prose, but it’s not a real human with a real life and real feelings. The quote, “Be kind, because everyone is fighting a hard battle” reinforces that – you, yes you, and your characters. ChatGPT isn’t fighting a hard battle (at least I hope not, because then all bets really are off for us as writers). My advice? Challenge your own creative choices at all those critical moments – the arc of the story as you dream it, the critical scenes that raise the stakes of the drama, the compelling word or phrase that illuminate our lives. If you’re writing the next great Young Adult or New Adult novel, find a way to have a fresh set of eyes look at it long before you’ve written 120,000 words that simply aren’t, well, going to cut it. At Effigy Press we offer a free service where we give a candid review of the first 600 words of your novel which will give you a sense if you’re on the right track or not. And we invite you to sign up for future blogs, where I look forward to sharing more complex creative writing experiments with ChatGPT along with more human perspectives on writing. And keep fighting your hard battle!
Me vs. ChatGPT (2)
In part 2 of “Me vs. ChatGPT” I had another battle with the AI that literally everyone is talking about. The instructions to ChatCPT were: please write a story about self-actualization. In the mature writing style. It should be literary. Very creative. It should include two people 'Alex' and 'Sophia'. It should include the words 'seed' and 'destroy'. Be really dramatic and creative. Story 1… THE TANKS CAME FROM THE EAST two days after my eighteenth birthday, metal pigs conjoined with human pigs. Spewing destruction from the mouth, dirty clouds from the arse. My family urged me to leave, “Alex, they’ll kill you, or make you join them to kill us.” I wanted to stay, fight. “You’ll be bleached bones in a filthy field,” Aunt Sophia cried. She knows, her brother is bleached bones in a filthy field; transformed by fire from a work of God to a work of Man. * The van that took us west had damage from an explosion; these were ten of us inside, silent and rigid. I waited for the moment we would be stopped by soldiers or run into a checkpoint. Would they take us prisoner, kill us just for sport? I prayed. I prayed for my journey. That my journey would return me home someday. That on this journey I would meet a wise man who would teach me about steel and death. That I would meet a girl in whose eyes I would see wisdom. So I might return with guns, and violence, and wisdom. A seed of hope. * The van slowed. It stopped at a checkpoint. Story 2… Alex and Sophia's love was toxic and destructive. They constantly hurt each other, both physically and emotionally. They were unable to escape their own demons and the demons they created in each other. Despite their love, they felt empty and hollow. One night, after a particularly brutal fight, Alex left the apartment and wandered the dark streets aimlessly. He stumbled upon an old bookshop and entered, driven by a desperate need for answers. He found a book on self-actualization and took it home, reading it with a sense of hopelessness. Sophia found the book on their coffee table and confronted Alex. "What's this?" she asked, holding up the book. "It's a book on self-actualization," Alex replied. "I thought maybe it could help us, you know, fix things." They both realized that they needed to change, but the process of self-reflection only brought up more pain and suffering. They delved deeper into their dark emotions and past traumas, tearing each other apart in the process. "I can't do this anymore," Sophia said one night, tears streaming down her face. "We're just hurting each other." "I know," Alex replied, his voice broken. "But I don't know how to stop." In the end, their attempts at self-actualization only led to more destruction. They were unable to heal the wounds they inflicted on each other, and their love became a thing of the past. They were left with nothing but their own broken selves, trapped in a cycle of pain and suffering. I leave it to you to guess which is by ChatGPT, which is by me – and where you see the differences, maybe even how you’d prompt ChatGPT differently. At Effigy Press we offer a free service where we give a candid review of the first 600 words of your novel which will give you a good sense if you’re on the right track or not – even if you’re ChatGPT!