Blog: AI writing assistant for fiction writers

For more in-depth reviews of the choices read below, for further anecdotes and insights see this Further Observations piece. To read the test stories check out AI Writing Assistant Stories

Recommendation

When some writers hit a block, the first thing they do is go to a book on their desk, back to their notes, or earlier drafts to find new things to try out. With its "Twist," "Characters," and "Describe" buttons, Sudowrite seems to be aware of this process. It prioritizes a creative, prolific, and free-wheeling approach to ideas: you will probably discard most of them, but they tend to come out of the AI relatively fleshed out, ready for use. Perhaps it’s too leading of a UI for both A.I. enthusiasts and writing purists, but it was my most enjoyable experience, by a mile and it's a service I plan to keep paying for.

Editor's note: Tadeu will be re-reviewing this topic for the blog after some time passes so let us know if there’s anything that we can cover on the next pass. Also, this post goes under our blog header because some of the software being reviewed is still in beta.

Intro

Short stories are ubiquitous. They shape up in our heads as we live through them and gain muscle and form as we tell them to people and put them down on paper. They are the main building blocks of our story-telling nature.[1]

I once heard someone say that one of the best short stories ever written was six words long, briefer than most tweets. Here it goes: "Baby shoes, for sale, never worn." Incorrectly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the story is OK. It’s clever but not personal. Universal to a fault, it's almost a gimmick. Still, we can’t ignore its virtue: its concision. Not all stories deliver in such a meme-able form! 

But how about this one, only a few words longer: 

"An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes." ("The Outing," by Lydia Davis) [2]

The story is alive and full of lived-in texture. Suggestive so we can be hypnotized and seduced by it, but also physical, geographical; here in the world.

I used five different ML writing tools to compose and edit one story - we may not all be Lydia Davis, but perhaps we’ll get closer to it with some help. The ratings for each A.I. writing assistant will focus on their identity, coherence, price, U.I., and how well they mesh into my work-flow, how they actually work as writing assistants.[3]

The first piece was tool-free, composed by human hands. Then I used that basic story and structure as an origin text to play around with and see if the A.I. improves the world of my story or leads it in a more exciting direction than the one I came up with on my own.

Reviews

It's worth mentioning that even though writing assistant software has grown more sophisticated, it’s still distant from the human writing experience. At least for this snapshot in 2021 - and taking into consideration the A.I. I tried out - the fiction bot still needs a human hand to guide it from idea to idea. It can come up with interesting thoughts, but if left alone to its devices, the tools, even the best ones out there, become unintelligible after two or three paragraphs.

Sudowrite

Writing, for many of us, happens in two major stages: thinking and re-writing. First drafts happen almost accidentally when you're in between those two states. Sudowrite seems to be aware of this. Its U.I. has functions that are both very creative and practical for a fiction writer. They range from a full character creation module to a plot twist function, to a "describe" button that describes anything in your story with the sense of your liking (touch, sight, etc.). It helps that the first time you open the AI, it leads you through these functions with an interactive tutorial.

When you feed it input, it always offers multiple possibilities of output, not just one generated path. It also saves everything the A.I. produced on the left if you want to get to it later. It's not too precious about the quality of the ideas, but they all felt somewhat related to the world, and the A.I. wouldn't derail from the story as much as it did in many of the other writing assistants I tested.

It's still in beta, but you get seven days for free and then 20 bucks a month to play with it – which seems pretty fair. All in all, it was my most enjoyable A.I. writing experience (even if it didn't produce my favorite story).

Novel A.I. Story

Novel A.I. feels like a writing software that's more interested in how the tool reacts to certain types of world-building or how well it can emulate specific authors or modes of writing, rather than facilitating new ideas into the writing process.

Novel A.I. was the first writing assistant I worked with, and it overwhelmed me with its fussy interface and cryptic jargon. It looks simple at first glance, but proves inscrutable in practice. There are plenty of tools for giving the A.I. context for your story, but I still have no clue on how "Author's Note" differentiates itself from "Memory" or "Lorebook," and how many decimal points I should add or subtract to quantify my "Trim Direction" or how "Context" changes from "Ephemeral Context". When I would try to find explanations within the software, it wouldn't be helpful. Here's how Novel A.I. described "Ephemeral Context": 

"Ephemeral context entries let you insert context based on the current 'step' of the story. They can be entered in the format {step+delay~duration,position:text} with all but 'text' being numbers. Only the position and text are required. 
Example: The ephemeral context entry {+3~10,-2:Example} would place the text 'Example' 1 newline from the bottom of the context for 10 steps after a delay of 3 steps."

If you wade through the complexity though, Novel gives you a lot to toggle within the text-generation options. The aforementioned “author modules” - different types of "voices" the A.I. can try to emulate - are limited but fun to play with, and you have knobs that allow you to quantify things such as “Randomness” or “Repetition Penalty” once you choose your module. The problem is that all this knob-turning often derails the AI, instead of fine-tuning it. At the end of my story with Novel, more time was spent fiddling with knobs than writing. Maybe this is the way to go for AI-Writer-heads, but I felt under-prepared to deal with it.

Holo A.I.

Holo A.I. is Novel's leaner, practical counterpart. The U.I. looks almost the same as Novel, down to the layout, but it ultimately simplifies some functions and softens the jargonese: the "context" tab is clearer, and the "knobs" here are more hidden in the system menus.

What Holo puts front-and-center is a more built-out "dataset" the A.I. can draw from when generating thoughts. You can choose from hundreds of authors, genres, and even publication year to have Holo draw from while it thinks things out. Still, hopping from genre to genre, and even from fantasy authors to the postmodernists, I didn't feel like the A.I. thought process changed that much, and whenever I asked for an output that was longer than 200 characters, the thoughts would get lopsided very fast. The bare-bones approach to the UI that I had just seen in Novel AI proved unfruitful. The end result for me was a slightly more competent, but brutally undynamic writing assistant.

Hyperwrite

Hyperwrite bills itself as an A.I. Writing software built to help you write anything. But take it for a twenty-minute spin, and you can tell that its purpose is to create "content" on the internet, very short articles, or blog posts.[4]

It has a clean U.I., and it starts with a friendly tutorial, but early on it proves to be quite buggy. The A.I. often generated babble in the context of my story, or stated that it generated "potentially unsafe content," and thus, gave me nothing. In the re-write process, it offers neat little perks. When you highlight a text, Hyperwrite offers to make it more “formal” or “casual”, or to expand it, or make it shorter. But even in this regard, it would often draw blanks. The very limited output, unintuitive A.I. and design choices (it even has an "auto-complete" mode!) make it not our favorite choice for fiction writing.

Inferkit

Inferkit seems to borrow some of the design philosophies that I saw in Novel AI, but is actually far more suited to casual and first time users, and seems to have smarter A.I. at the helm. Still, because of some major deal-breaking flaws, it feels unusable.

Inferkit is consistent in the content it generates, and it produces voluminous output.

With little output, it can spit back up to 1000 characters of text. As a trade-off there are only a few limited ways [5] in which you can mess with the parameters: you can throw choice words at it and ask it to forcefully incorporate into them into the output, but when you start feeding it more than 2 or 3 of these choice words, it really loses track of the story at hand. It has a "Batch Request" function that allows you to send documents to Inferkit so it can email you back "outputs," but it felt too detached from the workflow for me to tamper with.

The deal breaker here is that Inferkit had no SAVE function, just a criminally inserted "Copy" button at the end of the text processor. I was mid-way through a story when I pressed a "help" tab somewhere on the software, and I completely lost my writing output. It is also frustrating that at 60 bucks a month, one of the steepest price tiers for these kind of software, you still don't have unlimited- access to the software – Inferkit has a payment system where you have to “refill” the AI once your “character generation” bar runs out. This sneaky payment plan and the major U.I. flaw of “no save” make me caution against an Inferkit recommendation at the time of publication. 

Shortly AI

Shortly A.I. is a leaner and friendlier version of "Inferkit," with design flaws ironed out and made more accessible. Perhaps the cleanest of all writing assistants I tried, Shortly eliminates all types of "A.I. community" jargon, and creates a straightforward and sturdy writing assistant. You set up the context in 500 characters or less, get to writing, and ask the software for help if you get stuck. You can ask for it to write "A lot," "A little," or "Somewhere in between". It tracks your page count, word count, and characters on the left. And that's it.

You also see the sentences forming as the A.I. keeps churning them out – so if you see something you like, you can stop the A.I. and pick it up before it's done processing. It helps that the AI seems to be quite sharp on this one. Shortly came up with some of my favorite thoughts and ideas and would have been my favorite A.I. processor, but Sudowrite takes the lead because of its bolder original functions and because of its price: Shortly A.I. costs a whopping 79 bucks a month which might feel like a lot for many fiction writers. You get a discount if you go for the yearly route.

Notes

[1] A novel, a song, a movie, even a poem all exist in a self-announcing vacuum; they are part of life, but outside of it. We necessarily stumble upon these objects in the world and become aware of them; there is a recognition process, and sometimes, if we pay attention, a digestive one.

[2] Editor's Note: ironically our automated editing feedback tool got quite grumpy at this sentence

[3] No wonder Lydia Davis is an absolute master, one of the GOATs.

[4] Editor's Note: we'll re-review it for this purpose later

[5] Editor's Note: shout at clouds about incoherent about systems and databases