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 and 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 – since it prioritizes a creative, free-wheeling approach to ideas. You will discard most of them, but they tend to be fleshed out. Perhaps its 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 blog because some of the software being reviewed is still in beta.

Intro

Short stories are ubiquitous, both easy and less sensible shapes to recognize - they can come out of anyone's mouth at any given time. They shape up in our heads as we live through them and gain muscle and form as we tell them to people, put them down on paper. They are comfortable blocks to build a narrative existence.*

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. Its concision is clever but not personal. Universal to a fault, it's almost a gimmick. But, this doesn't detract from its virtue, brevity. 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)**

Damn! The story is alive, and in-the-moment, and so lived-in. 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. The goal was to approach maybe the elegance, lived-in textures, originality (and coherence!) of Davis' prose. The ratings for each A.I. writing assistant will focus on their identity, coherence, price, U.I., and how well they mesh into work as writing assistants.

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

* 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.

** eds note: our automated editing feedback tool got quite grumpy at this sentence

*** No wonder Lydia Davis is an absolute master, one of the GOATs.

Reviews

It's worth mentioning that even though writing assistant software has grown more sophisticated, its still distant from the human writing experience. At least for this snapshot in 2021, and the ones I tried, the fiction bot sits still needs a human hand to guide it to make any sense, form any single idea more than a couple of sentences, and jump from concept to concept. If left alone to its devices, the tools, even the best ones out there, become unintelligible after two or three paragraphs. With that said.

Sudowrite

"Sudowrite" moves like a regular word processor and starts with an interactive tutorial that explains all its functions. Writing, for many of us, is in two major stages: thinking and re-writing. First drafts are what happens when you're in between those two states. Sudowrite is aware of this – its U.I. has functions that are both very creative and practical for a fiction writer. They range from full character creation options to plot twists to a "describe" button that describes anything in your story, with the sense of your liking (touch, sight, etc.).

Also, you feed it some writing and offer multiple possible pathways into the next thought. 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 the story as hard 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., and Holo A.I. with it, feel like 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 come up with ideas. They feel designed to tinker rather than for actual writing.

Novel was the first writing assistant I worked with, and it overwhelmed me with its fussy interface, jargon relating to the "A.I. writing community" that wasn't my cup of tea. There are plenty of tools for giving the A.I. context for your story, but no clues on how "Author's Note" differentiates itself from "Memory" or "Lorebook," how many decimal points I should lean towards on my "Trim Direction." Or how "Context" changes from "Ephemeral Context" – and 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 generation options. It offers a decent range of author modules, different types of "voices" the A.I. can try to emulate, and a bunch of options such as "Repetition Penalty" and "Randomness" that can you can fiddle with to the decimal point. But even if these knobs make you feel like you're calibrating the A.I. to your liking, in practice, it goes off the rails more than I expected. At the end of the day 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, especially in the context of the comparison.

Holo A.I.

Holo A.I. is Novel's leaner, younger brother. The U.I. looks almost the same as Novel, down to the layout, but it simplifies some functions and softens the jargon. The "context" tab is clearer, and the "knobs" on the A.I. generation functions are more hidden in the system menus. Still no tutorial, though. 

What Holo put's front-and-center here is a far more built-out "dataset" the A.I. can draw from when generating thoughts. You can choose from many authors, genres, and even publication years 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. changed that much – and whenever I asked for an output that was longer than 200 characters, the thoughts would get lopsided very fast. The more bare-bones visual approach in Novel didn't deliver as much. The end result for me was a harder-to-use writing assistant.

Hyperwrite

Hyperwrite has some good ideas-as-functions, aka nice new ways to spin text, but the dramatic limits on its output are a hindrance. 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, short articles, or blog posts.*

It's has a clean U.I., and it starts with a friendly tutorial, but its also quite buggy – the machine often generates babble in the context of my story, or stated that it generated "potentially unsafe content," and thus, gave me nothing for my work. Being able to highlight things and the tool suggesting ways to make them more "formal" or "casual" is nice. Again though, the limited output and design choices (it even has an "auto-complete" mode!) make it not our favorite choice for fiction writing.

*eds note: we'll re-review it for this purpose later

Inferkit

Inferkit and Shortly A.I. look are bare-bones as writing partners, they take on the guise of word processors with different function tabs. Inferkit seems to be at a later stage of U.I. gloss when compared to something like Novel, but thanks to some other deal-breaking flaws, it feels unusable.

Another sparse-looking writing assistant. Inferkit is consistent in the content it generates, and it produces voluminous output: it spits back up to 1000 characters! As a trade-off though you can only modify the output parameters, in particular, limited ways.* You can throw "words" at it to incorporate into the output, but this only went so far as to produce usable ideas and thoughts. 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. 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, on the steepest price tier, you still don't have "unlimited" access to the software since you can still run out of available monthly characters and need to get a "refill." The sneaky payment plan and the major U.I. flaw make me caution against an Inferkit recommendation at the time of publication. 

* eds: mumble something incoherent about systems and databases

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 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 counts, 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. Shortly came up with some of my favorite thoughts and ideas and would have been my favorite A.I. processor, but Sudowrite takes the cup for its more vital functions.**

* eds: more intuitive than specifying character counts for output if you're not writing content marketing

** And also, the paywall: 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.