Anyone remember HAL9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 Space Odyssey series? HAL, or the Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer, was the artificial intelligence (AI) voice that famously said, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” That series was set in 2001. Now, 20 years later, we authors are firmly anchored in a world of artificial intelligence.
Think about how AI affects our writing life. I’m pecking away on a laptop with spell check big-brothering me. My smartphone keeps tab of my time and when I text, AutoCorrect interferes—sometimes with hilarious changes. (Sidenote: no form of AI will ever get comma use right.)
I stop writing, more often than not, to fact check or rabbit hole on Google which is one large AI search engine. Same with Amazon and Facebook. They’re loaded with AI features we take for granted.
When I finish this piece, and I have no idea right now how long it’ll be, I’ll plug this AI-overseen Word.doc into my AI-run Grammarly editing program and clean it up the best I can before I pop it into AI-filled WordPress and hit publish so you can read it on AI-induced devices. Like, how cool is this brave new world of artificial intelligence?
Speaking of cool, I once paid top dollar to experience a gyro-ride in an artificially intelligent F/A-18 Hornet flight simulator. How I didn’t puke from being strapped-in and pulling multi-G’s was amazing in itself, and that’s for another story, but part of the thrill was listening to “Bitching Betty” who artificially sits with you in the cockpit and shrieks in an Edith Bunker voice, “Pull up! Pull up!” when you get too low to the ground while exiting an inverted loop.
Okay, back down to earth. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, AI for authors. I’m a big believer in making work easier. In fact, I’d like to not work at all, but writing is work and it helps pay the bills. So I embrace what AI technology is out there to assist with the income.
I’m keeping a close eye on Text-To-Speech (TTS) technology. I think the next tech wave is interactive ebooks where the reader will have a solid listener option for the device to convincingly turn the text into a realistic voice. That virtual reality already exists. It’s just not perfected yet. But my bet is within a few short years AI will allow a quick tap on your eReader, and you’ll listen to your book as if Bitching Betty was real.
This AI advancement may put the screws to those expensive human narrators or voiceovers who control today’s audiobook production. That’s progress, as they say, and I look forward to an affordable alternative in entering the audiobook market. It’s just that today’s TTS apps aren’t realistic enough to let my book babies play well with them.
They’re getting there, though. What brought on this artificially intelligent post was a recent wave of internet ads by a company called Speechelo. Anyone else see the FB ad-flood offering a 3-step, simple-to-use AI TTS generator for a 1-time low, low price of $49.00? Well, it turns out to be too good to be true, and the AI bots from Google shrieked, “SCAM!”
However, my rabbit hole descent found something else which I think is the real-deal AI writer program. I’ll get to that in a sec. First, I want to say a bit about TTS technology.
There’s some good AI reading apps out there, no doubt. Amazon’s Polly is remarkable. Word on the street is that AZ has an experimental TTS program on the go that aims to perfect NGL (natural language generation) on Kindle devices. Currently, AZ has a Kindle text-to-speech enablement that’s terribly inefficient. Here’s a quote about the new TTS program from an Amazon side channel I found in the r-hole:
“The second-generation Kindle and the Kindle DX have an “experimental” feature that converts any text to speech and realistically reads it to you. Calling a feature experimental means that it’s a peripheral Kindle feature that Amazon is working on; they’re available for “test driving” by certain Kindle owners to use but they might not be fully featured. There are some features that Amazon could choose to discontinue before they’re available to the open market.”
I don’t have a Kindle, so I can’t apply for a test drive. What I’ve done is plug some of my WIP text into Polly, and I have to say it sounds pretty good. From a voice perspective, that is. However, the AI still doesn’t have convincing NGL where the pace, accent, pronunciation, pitch, and infliction is that of a human narrator who brings emotion to the audio experience. That’s coming, believe me, and I’ll welcome its arrival.
Okay, on to what I found in AI for authors and the takeaway from this piece. It’s an AI novel critique program called Marlowe from a new company called Authors A.I. I found this software by rabbit-holing, and I was as skeptical as a sailor being offered a discount date. Marlowe is a next-generation AI critic (not so much an editor) who works for peanuts compared to the flesh and blood word scalpel. Here’s their sales pitch:
Marlowe* is an artificial intelligence that helps authors improve their novels and long-form fiction. She was born in January 2020 as the creative child of Matthew Jockers, Ph.D., co-author of The Bestseller Code, abetted by a surrounding cast of bestselling authors who have been contributing ideas and enhancements to her reports.
Here are a few fun facts about this brilliant reader.
She’s fast. Marlowe can read your book and deliver a 25+ page comprehensive critique within an hour.
She’s inexpensive. Priced at a fraction of the cost of a human editor, Marlowe allows you to run multiple versions of your report and can be used at every stage in the life of your manuscript. Let Marlowe identify and help you solve early issues before your manuscript reaches an editor or beta readers.
She doesn’t play favorites. Marlowe doesn’t have a favorite genre. She doesn’t judge, whether your book is a light-as-air fantasy or a thriller filled with gore or violence. She reads all fictional genres and sub-genres and returns equal and unbiased feedback, though she will tweak her results based on her specific genre norms.
She knows what goes into a good story. Seriously. Marlowe can critique character traits, plot arcs, narrative arcs, pacing, punctuation, sentence structure, reading level, and more.
* Why Marlowe?
Marlowe is named for both Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian who inspired Shakespeare, and Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private eye who plays chess and reads poetry. We like to think she has Philip Marlowe’s intellect and investigative skills and Christopher Marlowe’s pioneering spirit and love for the written word.
Marlow offers a free trial. Not being one to turn down something for free, I entered my manuscript for Beyond The Limits which is my latest release in my based on true crime series. I have to say I was impressed with the results. The freebie gave me twelve pages of professional-looking feedback on:
Sentence stats and readability score
Dialogue vs narrative
Explicit language (aka profanity)
Frequent adverb and adjective use
Verb choice and passive voice
This was all for free and the feedback provided excellent suggestions. It also offered the upsell that would give me information and criticism on:
Now I’m not on the Marlowe affiliate program or getting some sort of kickback for promoting Marlowe. I just found this AI tool interesting enough that I think I’m going to buy their Pro version which runs at $89.00 for a single complete report or a monthly pass at $29.99. A full-year subscription will set you back $199.00.
And that is what AI is to authors—a tool. AI assistance is a valuable tool for writers. I’d say it’s an invaluable tool that’s only going to get better. However, I don’t believe AI will ever replace the human brain and the imagination it produces. As Kevin Kelly says in his 2016 book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, “It’s not a race against machines. We’ll lose. It’s a race with machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with machines. Let them take your existing job and let them help you dream up new work for the robots.”
I’m good with that take on AI. I’m not about to let some bot steal my story. As HAL said, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
What about you Kill Zoners? What feedback can you give on AI for authors?
Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Garry’s expertise is investigating human deaths which led him to his third career in crime writing. His newest release in his 12-part Based-On-True-Crime Series is Beyond The Limits which covers an incomprehensible tragedy. The tagline is, “You never know what goes in in people’s minds.”
Garry Rodgers also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net. Besides writing ventures, Garry also holds a marine captain certification and uses it on the Pacific waters surrounding his home at Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Sounds interesting, but how does it deal with the elusive authorial voice? My editor knows to leave my ‘mistakes’ if they’re in dialogue, and that people don’t talk in complete sentences, so she doesn’t point out fragments.
SmartEdit points out that first list of check in the manuscript itself.
I’ve tried Grammarly when it was in beta and every one of the 27 ‘errors’ it pointed out weren’t errors at all.
But I’d be curious about what it would say about that second list of checks. I’m not sure James Scott Bell would approve because there’s no mention of the Mirror Moment. 😉
Hi Terry – I had to turn to AI to find out what the mirror moment is 🙂 I haven’t bucked up to explore Marlowe’s detailed side. Not sure how, or if, it critiques voice. I’m sure it’s not as thoughtful as the artificial intelligence that writes Amazon reviews. In my experience, Grammarly is good for cleaning up non-fiction and some general stuff in novels, but it’s clueless when it comes to dialogue.
A friend in one of my author groups tipped me to Marlowe awhile back–he saw it as another way of getting feedback. From what he indicated, it seemed like the AI gives very general plot and structure feedback, more along the lines of frequency of elements happening. I’d be very curious to get your impression if you do pony up the $89 for a detailed report.
I see AI as another tool in our writing tool chests. Certainly Word’s grammar checker and the Pro Writing Aid software I use are great helpers, but ultimately I can’t solely rely on them. I suspect Marlowe would be the same–I need feedback from human readers and editors. I also wonder about the ultimate utility of any AI that weights genre elements for authors that don’t necessarily write to include a checklist of tropes, for instance. And can that AI help you with tweaking the emotional impact your story has on a reader?
In the long run, very possibly. For now, I wonder.
G’mornin’ Dale. I’m interested in where all this AI is going. From my quick look at Marlowe, it showed me some interesting points that I’ve never got from a human editor/proofreader like sentence stats, readability score, percentage of dialogue to narrative, etc. When it came to scolding me about adjectives and adverbs as well as crutches, I could see that it was picking up stuff in dialogue which falls outside the “rules”. So it has it’s limitations and should be looked at, as you say, like another tool in the writing cabinet. Emotions? I’ll believe real artificial emotion (AE) when I see it, and that’s why I don’t follow politics 🙂
Good information, Garry. I’m definitely going to investigate Polly and Marlowe. I hope you’ll let us know what you think after you try Marlowe.
I haven’t even scratched the surface, but when I have the computer read my manuscript back to me, the more mechanical voice (Word) works better for me. A more natural voice (Scrivener) draws me into my story, and it is easier for me to miss mistakes.
I understand we’re talking about more complete editing, and I’ll be eager to hear what you think after your trial. At least the list of what Marlowe looks at would be a good list to use with a critique group.
Thanks, Steve. Polly has the most realistic computer voice I’ve heard… next to HAL. But from what I heard and saw on AWS Polly, it’s not geared to audiobooks. It’s designed for TTS applications such as PA announcements, online ads, and Youtube stuff. I’m not sure if I’m going to spend the money on Marlowe 2.0 – I’m interested if others have and what they think.
The more I think about this post, the more I think I, too, may have to try Marlowe on the mystery I’m currently revising.
Speaking of AI, there will be a hopefully triumphal display of it early this afternoon (Pacific time) when the Perseverance rover touch downs on the Martian surface. The AI aboard the landing craft will scan for a safe landing spot, much like Neil Armstrong did guiding Apollo 11’s LEM down, avoiding dangerous boulders.
Thanks, Garry, for another thought-provoking post.
I say give Marlowe a free dance, Dale. You’ve got nothing to lose. I got some good from it, but I’m not convinced to sign up for the entire ball. Thanks for the Perseverance reminder. Now that’s cool stuff!
Don’t we all love a spacecraft named Perseverance?
AI as editor? On structure? But you can’t argue or reason with it.
“Put the scene back in, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Jim. I can’t do that.”
“HAL, put the scene back in.”
“This novel is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
Well done sir!
Good one, Jim! Very good, indeed!
Being a Luddite, my answer is:
“I’m sorry, HAL, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Garry, this is all amazing to me. Marlowe, as you said, is a tool. I don’t think that I would want to entirely rely on it, however.
As far as audio AI goes, I’ve been getting sales calls for a while now that utilize this. They start out with what sounds like a real person who gives a short spiel and then asks, “Can you hear me okay?” I usually respond with “No. I can’t hear you. Is there anyone there?” at which point they ask me to repeat what I said and then continue. They sound very lifelike, however.
Thanks for another intriguing and informative post!
In the next two years, when you phone a Domino’s Pizza an AI voice will answer and speak to you and take your order. I see several years of the wrong pizza arriving, but it is coming anyway.
When my son was a teen, he and his buddies would phone in and send Domino’s orders to Pizza Hut and Boston Pizza orders to Momba’s. They were really good at switching phones and voices. Happy Thursday, Alan! BTW, my son’s name is Alan with the correct spelling like yours.
My suggestion. Cut off the dang correction software during the writing process. It yanks you right out of the story. It also does its dangest to neutralize your voice and the voices of your characters. I won’t even use it when I write nonfiction. If you must, run it when you are doing the final text editing. I can’t even begin to speak of my contempt for robo storytelling. The writing may be competent, but the story tends to be without a soul. What I call potato chip fiction. You eat it then forget it almost instantly.
I’ve been watching the growth of text-to-speech (TTS) software since the late 1990s. TTS has all but reached human voice quality. I listen to an appalling amount of YouTubers reading Reddit stories, and, sometimes, I have a hard time telling if the voice is human or TTS. What’s even freakier is that YouTube started demonitizing TTS channels so many of them now have human voices, and the comments section is filled with outraged listeners who prefer a robot voice. One channel has a narrator who sounds like Sebastian Cabot narrating Disney’s WINNIE THE POOH, OMG that voice, and people complain they want the robot voice back.
A horror story for writers. Years ago, “Publishers Weekly” did an April Fool’s Day edition for their website. One story was about a computer program which created novels. The comments section was full of editors wishing it was true so they wouldn’t have to deal with all us annoying authors. Welcome to our probable future.
I keep an aerosol safety warning horn ready for the unsolicited calls, Joe. If they swear at me in Hindi or Punjabi after a blast, then I know they’re real and not AI calling. Enjoy your day!
Sorry, Marilynn. The previous comment was for Joe above but the site is messing up with comment placement this morning. I don’t want to wake the WP administrator, so we’ll let it stand.
I’m with you about turning off the AI that stands over your shoulder while you’re drafting. I might be too cheap to pay for the full Marlowe, but I’d dearly pay for someone to remove Autocorrect from my cell phone.
Thanks for another informative post, Garry. I had just read an article about Marlowe a day or two ago. (Who can argue with writing software named in part after Philip Marlowe?)
Although it sounds like some of the Marlowe features are found in other products (e.g., Pro Writing Aid), the article I read focused on the plot structure analysis capabilities. That sounds pretty interesting to me, and I may give it a try just for the plot info. Still, it’s a tool, not a solution.
Good summation, Kay. All these AI aids are tools – assistants – not solutions. The only solution is to keep on writing and have assistants help polish the process.
Here’s the link to the article I read about Marlowe:
Coming from Jane Friedman, this will be credible. Thanks for the link, Kay. I’m clicking on it now!
I often use a text-to-speech program called “Ultra Hal” by Zabaware. True, it sounds a little artificial, but you can get pretty good results by tweaking the speed. I wouldn’t want to use it for an audiobook, but it helps to have my manuscript read out loud. And, finding a human to do that is difficult. You would be surprised how many errors I find hearing it out loud, instead of reading it myself.
Yeah, finding that human to do it is hard… and expensive to hire. I look at human voiceovers for audio books as an expensive undertaking that’d require a lot of sales to break even, never mind turn profitable. But having an AI readback would be valuable. I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for the tip to “Ultra Hal”, Tom. Much appreciated!
I just let Word read the manuscript. I follow along on screen. And Tom is right about the errors that you’ll find.
Another useful and thoughtful blog, Garry. My Word Perfect (yes, I’m one of the few who loves WP) spellcheck often disapproves of my work choices and wants me to change the b-word to “arrogant woman.” I say ‘Oh, hell no!” and it disapproves of that wording, too.
Thanks for another useful and helpful blog, Garry. I use Word Perfect (yes, I’m one of the few and the proud WP lovers) and its spellcheck must have been designed by a church lady. If I use the B-word, I get a disapproving message suggesting that I change it to “arrogant woman.” “Oh, hell no,” I say, and WP also disapproves of that work.
Word Perfect, Elaine? Isn’t that kinda like using a mechanical typewriter or a red pen and yellow legal pad 🙂 Seriously, I only know MS Word – very slightly know MS Word. This AI world is as foreign to me as Mars is to Perseverance.
ANFA — Artificial Nonsense for Authors.
Rumor had it that Clark was “one-upping” IBM with his ultra-smart HAL and came up with the “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic” name behind the acronym… Of course he claimed that it was all a coincidence…
I heard he just backed up one letter of the alphabet for each in IBM.