How I Wrote A Novella In 2 Hours With ChatGPT

How I Wrote A Novella In 2 Hours With ChatGPT

I awknowledge that the value proposition is a bit ridiculous. Could I write an entire novella in a day? What, in fact, is the potential of artificial intelligence to accelerate the pace of fiction writing? I had a free Saturday morning so I poured myself a cup of coffee and decided to find out. The result was "Undead University: A Professor's Journey Through the Zombie Apocalypse."

First, let me note that I am not a fiction author. I am a professor who has done a lot of non-fiction writing as well as an avid consumer of fiction. However, this was my first shot at any length of fiction writing (at least for the past three decades). I have a not-so-secret love of zombie apocalypse movies so figured that would be an easy place to start. Also, once you read the book, it will be obvious that I was sourcing some material from my person life. I wasn't interested in world-building. Remember, this was an excersise in using technology for efficiency. Also, it as an experiment to see how ChatGPT did writing fiction.

What was my experience with ChatGPT? I have actually been working with OpenAI tools for at least 6 months, including using both text-to-image and their previous iterations of text generation systems (GPT-3, etc.) I'm no expert, but at least had a sense of what I had to write to get a response and what some of the limitations were. Also, notably, I used the Pro version of ChatGPT. The free version would have been too slow and I didn't have to waste time getting an account and things set up.

What was my approach? I did not start with an outline or anything. I had a vague idea regarding a professor who was confronting the start of the zombie apocalypse and mostly wanted to see what ChatGPT would do. Would it follow over-done plot and character tropes? Would something unexpected happen? I basically just started with vague descriptions and asked ChatGPT to write section by section until I reached a logical terminus. It was a bit like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure approach to writing a book. As each section came together, I would just copy and paste it into a Google Doc to keep things organized.

As the process continued, I did have to ask ChatGPT to rewrite sections and, in particular, to add details and even modify plot elements, characters, and other things that I did not like. I found that the biggest problem was that vague instructions would often lead to vague results. Similarly, it would rarely come up with specific character names, locations, and other proper names unless I told it to. Again, it is very capable of generating fictional elements like this, but you have to be specific about asking it to create names. This was also the case with dialogue. I had to be very specific when it came to creating dialogue.

I tend to edit as I go anyway and the process was definitely not linear. As I kept copying and pasting sections into by master document, I had to go back and ask ChatGPT to write sections that I would add in the middle. Often this had to do with adding details, introducing new plot elements or character, or even more detailed action scenes. Again, when given vague instructions I tended to get responses without much detail (yes, it does help to specifically ask ChatGPT to provide lots of detail, but the effect is still limited).

The other problem I encountered is that ChatGPT can get caught up saying the same thing over and over again so many of my sections ended in exactly the same paragraph as the prior section. I had to either delete those entirely or rewrite them. ChatGPT was mediocre at best when it came to transitions. Even exluding the paragraphs that I left out, I was generating useful text at the rate of approximately two to four paragraphs per prompt. Given my prompts were generally two to four sentences, you can think of this as a rough approximately a 5X return on writing speed.

In the end, I did write over 10,000 words in about 2 hours. I was done before lunch. I think that I could probably cut that to 1.5 hours, now that I have a sense of the rythm and perhaps even 1 hour if I had an actual plot and characters figured out ahead of  time. Not bad at all and I would definitely do it again, although I think that significantly more work would be necessary for a fictional work that was longer since ChatGPT did not go a good job of keeping track of plot elements. As others have noted, it's memory is not long.

In complete transparency, it probably took me another 4 to 6 hours to revise and edit it into something that I felt was fully coherent. In particular, redundency continued to be a problem even after my first round edits and I was not always happy with some of the transitions (or lack of transitions). One section had verb tense that was entirely wrong and I added some much needed dialogue for depth.

Do you want to know how it turned out?  You can buy a copy of it on Amazon here: I consider the experiment a success although I think that it will be a long time before AI will be replacing authors. It still lacks the creativity and coherence necessary for good fiction. In particular, I still don't see the creativity coming from ChatGPT. It was great at fleshing out my ideas in text, but not generating them. Still, I found it very effective as a text multiplier allowing me to rapidly turn ideas into text. Just make sure that you understand that ample editing will be necessary and not all the text you generate will be usable..

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