Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Generative A.I. For Writers: An Unfolding (But Not Inevitable) Nightmare!

I have seen the sentiment around that generative AI for writers and artists is “inevitable,” which is a message that I think falls right in line with the myth of the starving artist — meaning, they’re two bits of pervasive folklore put forth by the Powers That Be, because it rewards and enriches those powers. To put a finer point on it, it’s fucking capitalism. It’s capitalist propaganda bellowed from the deepest, most cankerous cave of moneyed interests, because if they say it enough times and make it true, then they make more money because we make less money, the end.

Just the same, I’ve seen some actual writers and actual artists start to… really take this to heart. They are taking on the inevitability of Gen AI sure as a broken-hulled boat takes on water — but that boat doesn’t have to sink, and nor does AI have to be inevitable. I do think it is inevitable that Moneyed Interests will continue to push AI as a catch-all solution to problems that don’t exist, and they won’t just let that bone go — but I do think, just like crypto and NFTs and what-have-you, that the actual value of Gen AI and the inclusion of Gen AI is far, far from confirmed prophecy.

So, this is a post talking about what we are, I anticipate, likely to see regarding artificial intelligence and both our writing lives and our writing careers. Note: none of this is good, but again, none of this needs to be inevitable, either, and I feel like blah blah blah, forewarned is forearmed.

Real quick, a quick sum-up of where we’re at with Gen AI in art and writing (and arguably music and game design and pretty much everything else):

a) It is built entirely on stolen work, colonizing the efforts of human creators, milling everything into artbarf and content slurry — and it is worth reminding too that it is not the AI that has stolen our work but rather, the creators of the AI who literally directed their artbarf robots to build themselves out of pilfered material.

b) It is environmentally damaging, increasingly so, guzzling water like a man in the desert and contributing overmuch to carbon emissions — see this article here, from Yale. Immigrants crossing borders are dying of thirst, but meanwhile, we’re feeding a half-a-liter of water to the machines just to ask it a couple-few dozen questions (which it will probably get wrong).

c) It continues to chew at the beams and struts of our information fidelity, and in those holes and in the inevitable collapse, mis- and disinformation will flourish like an invasive species.

With those three things in mind, it is fair to say, I think, that use of AI in writing and in the arts is unethical at present until the problems of stolen material, environmental damage and information erosion are addressed and solved. There’s a fourth thing, one that arguably is too true of everything we touch, which is that Gen AI exists largely to make Rich People Richer, and does nothing for everyone further down the ladder. (This is a much harder problem to solve because, well, welcome to the water in which we swim.) It serves companies. It does not serve people. It doesn’t help writers or artists or the audience. It’s there to make stuff fast, cheap, easy.

And, to opine a bit here, even outside the ethics of this, I also think use of Gen AI in this way is supremely lazy and completely betrays the entire point of making art and telling stories in the first fucking place. It’s not helping us make the work better and get paid more. It’s relegating art and writing to a hobby only, while simpering incel chimps press buttons and get their rocks off by having the AI make images and stories of whatever mediocre garbage is passing through their minds at any given moment.

But, but, but

Again, I don’t think this is inevitable.

Here I’m really going to switch gears and talk more explicitly about Gen AI in writing, and the problems it presents beyond the lack of ethics and the fact it’s really just there for lazy people who actually like the idea of writing more than they actually want to write. (Ironically, some people want to be a writer without doing work, but AI doesn’t fix that for them — they’re still not writing jack shit, they’re just zapping the Fancy Autocorrect Robot and making it shit out words for them. The software is the writer, not them.)

So, for me there are two key problems with Gen AI in writing —

1) It sucks.

It really just sucks. It’s not good. It can make the shape of the thing you want it to write (article, story, blog post, review) but then it fills it with half-assed hallucinations. Gen AI isn’t here to get things right, it’s here to make things look right, which is a very different thing. AI is vibes only. You don’t get an article — you get an article-shaped thing that’s just a really, really advanced version of Lorem Ipsum.

Gen AI isn’t true artificial intelligence. It isn’t “thinking” per se about input and output. It’s just barfing up the raw-throated bile of effervescent copypasta. It’s just a program tapping the predictive words button. And it knows to do this because, again, it’s stolen a whole lot of material to feed to its Judas Engine. So what it’s outputting is a broth steeped from tens of thousands of illicitly-yoinked human-created pieces of writing.

It also isn’t good at sustaining anything with continuity. Continuity is really important for writing — in an article, in an essay, and especially in longer-form material. When we talk about Chekhov’s Gun, that’s a shorthand that means the pieces of narrative information we use early are just the start of the trail of breadcrumbs that will carry us through the story. The gun appears early and must be used later — but that’s true of so much inside our work. We introduce things that are important, that have continuity throughout the work, that appear again and again and form a kind of constellation of narrative information — and that information comes in the form of themes, motifs, motivations, descriptions, tension-building plot points, and so on. AI has literally no understanding of that. Because it doesn’t understand anything. It just sees a pile of stuff and attempts to ape the shape and colors of that stuff. Gen AI artbarf can show you a house in image, but it has no idea what building a house means, it doesn’t know what’s behind the walls or how bricks are laid or how fucking molecules and atoms form together to make everything — it just horks up the architectural hairball on command, like a cat with the Clapper in its stomach.


Anyway. What I’m saying is–

AI doesn’t know shit and can’t sustain shit.

And here the retort is often, “Well, sure, but this is what it can do now, imagine what it can do in a year or two.” And that mayyyyy be true, but I have a gut feeling that — particularly when it comes to writing — it has some very hard limits. It can never really go beyond the fact it is Fancy Autocorrect. Because it does not truly think, it will always be janky. It will never sustain information for long. It will always lie. It may be able to fake shorter pieces, but I also think that, like humans spotting Terminators, we will develop a keen eye to be able to spot this bullshit with an increasingly refined Uncanny Valley detector in our guts.

2) The second problem is that it can’t be copyrighted. That’s a real problem, a true vulnerability, though one that hasn’t been entirely tested legally, yet — what if you push the AI-Do-My-Work-I-Suck-And-Am-Lazy button and it spits out a 5,000-word short story but then you change like, every 100th word? What does that mean for its copyrightability? I don’t know because I am a stupid person and not a lawyer, but I do suspect that it remains a very real weak spot in its defenses.

So, these two things mean we’re free and clear, right? The AI will eventually fail to be a Good Writer. It will collapse under its own mediocre hallucinations! It’ll be like the aliens in War of the Worlds, felled by pigeon herpes and rat poison, same as Brave Flaco.

(I apologize, I just really wanted to write “pigeon herpes.” RIP, Flaco. Poor owl. People are bad and pigeons have herpes, the end.)

Sadly, we are not free and clear.

Gen AI will come at us from a dozen different directions, and we need to be eyes up in terms of what happens next — because eventually it will become clear it cannot sustain itself as a Pure Form Generator. But Money Shitheads are still Shitheads who want their Money, and so that means Gen AI will continue its ceaseless march upon our territories. After all, they’ve already invested, and they’d much rather not pay actual humans (because, god forbid, those humans might start getting sassy and unionize, oh fuck).

So, AI is still coming for us all.

Question is: How?

The myth of its magic and potency will be a cudgel used by companies to bash us into taking less money for our work.

Meaning, they’ll say, “Ah, look, the AI is so good, it has generated this script, this story, this idea. It’s done the hard work!” And here we must remember that AI is very much about the fetishization of ideas. “So, now I just need you, Word Janitor, to come and, you know, sweep these ideas into a pile for us.” The writer will just became a wrangler, a jockey, a plumber clearing story clogs — at least, that’s how it’ll be described. In reality, the writer will be even more vital, because the writer will be handed some inane, insane piece of shit from the Artbarf Robot, and told to turn that horrible thing into art — which is harder than just allowing a human to refine their own idea into something amazing. “Turn this AI turd into a profitable Ryan Reynolds movie” is a Herculean task, but will be paid with Sisyphean money.

(Real-talk, licensed IP is already set up for this pretty easily. Most of these licensed worlds are already miles deep in terms of storytelling and worldbuilding — it would be no shock to see Marvel or Star Wars or whoever feeding all their existing material into The Machine in the hopes it will extrude favorable content, whether as an idea or as a full “story.” Again, it’ll be slop that will require an actual human to make palatable.)

This will probably fail, too — eventually they’ll come back around to the idea that humans are better than the Artbarf Robot, but by that time the aim will be served, which is, writers get paid less. Here, the AI serves almost more as a threat than as an actual foe. And it doesn’t take much to imagine some company in the future telling its writers, “We’re paying less now because honestly we could just get The Robot to do it, but we’re throwing you a bone.” It’s a lie, of course. The Robot can’t do it, or they’d have it done already without you, for sure. But, that’s the AI trick, isn’t it? AI is here to build to a convincing lie. A useful lie. Artifice wielded by power.

That’s the more direct way it’ll come for us, but this is a death by a thousand cuts situation, and it would not be shocking to find:

– AI implemented in generating descriptions of our written material online, or Amazon using AI descriptions above the flap copy written by us or our publishers, orrrrr

– Publishers saying “fuck it” and using AI to write the flap copy in the first place, pre-appeasing the robo-tyrants

– Publishers replacing human editors with AI, though again here the reality is likely that they’ll still retain and require human editors, but they’ll just pay them less (or heap other duties upon their shoulders, burning them out through strain and crunch) because “well, the AI did most of the work, now you do the cleanup” — meaning, editors will just edit the shitty editing done by the shitty robots. Or, they’ll let the AI rewrite whole sections of your book, and leave it to you, the author, to fix it.

– Book reviews written wholecloth by AI. I think I’ve already found a couple of these for my books. Here, you can find one here, a review of Black River Orchard at what looks like a reputable place. Is it AI? Maybe not. But it gets some details totally wrong and other details seem simply lifted from the text, as if the book was fed to a machine in order to defecate out the review. And some of the sentences are… just weird. “Calla is not fooled by its appearance and refers to this new blend situation as trapping her between the Scylla of Golden and the Charybdis of the apple. Along with the narrative of a now older Calla and her father, we are treated to time spent with two other kindred spirits: life partners Emily and Meg. Their stories will become intertwined with each other, as well as a horde of other interesting characters with whom Wendig peppers his tale.” Like, what the fuck is that sentence? Hell, the whole review starts off suggesting I’ve been praised by Stephen King, which… trust me, if Stephen King had praised me, I’d be spraypainting that shit on the walls of your homes. We’d all know it.

– And even if the above review isn’t AI, the simple possibility of it being so poisons the entire ecosystem. It’s like The Thing. Any one of your friends or co-workers could be the monster.

– AI as an insult, too — “It sucks. ChatGPT probably wrote this.”

– AI “authors” straight-up remixing our books and publishing them at Amazon. This is more or less already happening — Jane Friedman notes that there are books on Amazon labeled as written by her, but not written by her at all. And Stephanie Land found “biographies” of her at Amazon.

– AI picking and choosing what books get made based on the trends it analyzes and farms. It’ll be wrong, of course, and worse, it’ll be wholly pedestrian in its tastes — the best case scenario is that it’ll get stuff so wrong and so weird that it accidentally picks some interesting books. One could argue in a sense this is already happening with algorithms on social media…

– Publishers passively or actively letting AI onto book covers. This is, of course, already happening. Gothikana, Fractal Noise, etc. Sometimes it’ll be art directors not realizing that AI was in the stock imagery they’re using. Sometimes it’ll just be someone plugging the cover idea into Midjourney and seeing what the Arfbarf Robot barfs up.

– Companies feeding written material into the machine in order to train the machine. This is again likeliest amongst freelance work or work done in service to licensed IPs because you do not own that work and they can do whatever the fuck they want with it. (And I’d argue this is a reason to start reconsidering doing licensed IP work, by the way. The juice is increasingly not worth the squeeze.)

This is all just a sampling. AI will come to fuck us in so many worse and weirder ways. And in the larger sense, it’ll simply add way too much noise into an already noisy process — lots of uncertainty and threat, all designed to, again, direct money upward and not toward writers and artists.

So, what the hell do we do about it?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Absolutely. This stuff is really not inevitable.

First, push back on it. Whenever you see it, push back. I am really appreciating that when I see AI pop up somewhere, people hop in the comments to say THIS IS AI, and then explain why. It vibes to me that there is a strong public sentiment against the intrusion of AI, and I’m all for it.

Though, also worth noting, it is possible to get it wrong, and it’s why it’s important to do your best to enlighten and engage rather than throwing sharp rocks at individuals. And when it’s not an individual, when it’s a corporation — well, sharp rocks work juuuuuust fine.

Second, AI does well with formula. The most vulnerable writing is the kind of writing that has at its core a formula, an equation of how the thing is written. This isn’t always escapable, but when it is, definitely escape it. It’s as good a reason as any to go big and weird and personal. The AI can’t do shit with wild swings. It’s not clever enough or smart enough. The more humanity you put into the work, the less it can ape it — and, ideally, the more likely it is you connect the work to other human readers and not just info-scraping robots looking to render the text into replicable hot dog paste.

Third, if you see it in contracts, do your best to kill it with fire. It’s also why agents are very important here, especially agents who understand this stuff and are on your side. If they don’t and they’re not, get a new agent. Good to get ahead of this, too, by talking to agents and editors — be they current or potential suitors for the work.

Fourth, get good at spotting it. AI imagery, even in its advanced state, is still obviously AI with a few cursory glances, and there are good groups on, say, Facebook that will share tutorials on how to spot AI. AI writing is a little harder but even still, it usually gets a bunch of shit wrong and has a kind of… fakey-fakey sound to it, the prose as plastic as the weird TikTok voice or the creepy sheen on so much AI-generated artbarf.

Fifth, don’t use it. Not even a little. Don’t dick around with ChatGPT even for shits and giggles. Avoid it. Spit upon the lens of its cybernetic eye-stalk.

Sixth and finally? Don’t quit. It’s tempting. It is. But don’t quit. Stay in the game if you can. Keep your boot on the Terminator’s neck. Assert your human-ness through your art and through your stories.

Generative AI does not need to be inevitable. It doesn’t need to write our TV shows and movies, it doesn’t need to write our books, it doesn’t need to be all up in our articles or legal briefs or bios. It shouldn’t edit us, shouldn’t make our book covers, not any of it. Leave AI to help us figure out when milk is on sale or to alert me to what birds might be migrating into my area overnight. I don’t want AI to write or draw comic books — I just want it to help me plot a better route to the comic book store. Okay?

The Artbarf Copypasta Content Slurry Thieving Magpie of a Robot can fuck all the way off. And when it won’t go willingly, we need to hit it with a stick until it does.

Anyway. I am a human. Buy my human-written books. Shit, when I say it that way it sounds like I’m protesting too much. I wrote them! Me, a human! A person of BLOOD AND MEAT oh god it’s sounding worse I AM NOT A ROBOT MY HEART IS NOT METAL

(also p.s. I’m realizing that I’m posting this on April Fool’s Day and boy that is totally appropriate given how AI is trying to make fools of us all)

(anyway Black River Orchard is out in paperback June 25th bye)