By J.D. Lasica
Like other members of the author community, I’ve long been intrigued but skeptical about the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence. If the AIs from Netflix and Amazon can predict what kind of movies and books I’ll like, could an AI really tell me anything useful about the thrillers I’m writing?
It turns out that Marlowe, the artificial intelligence created by the new startup Authors AI, can offer fiction authors quite a lot – though not everything they need. Let’s unpack what Marlowe can and can’t do. (Disclosure: I’m on the startup’s editorial side while Marlowe was built by the team’s data scientists.)
First, let’s take some mystery out of the process. Don’t think of this fiction-reading AI as an all-knowing arbiter of what goes into a great novel. At its core, Marlowe is doing something fairly straightforward: It’s looking at the patterns found in fiction bestsellers and comparing those attributes to your novel. You upload your manuscript, fill out a few fields, and within 15 minutes Marlowe will email you a 25-page full-color analysis of your work based on other works that have proved popular with readers.
Does Marlowe know why certain storytelling techniques work better than others? Nope. Does Marlowe suggest alternative plot lines or tell you to jettison one subplot in favor of another? Not at all. Instead, the author remains at the center of the creative process. Marlowe is another tool in your writing repertoire – think of it as Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid on steroids.
I’m halfway done with my third novel in the Shadow Operatives thriller series, and here’s how I’ll soon be using Marlowe during the revision process after running my past novels through it.
Plot structure & narrative arc
Probably the most instructive section of the Marlowe Pro reports is the assessment of your story’s
plot structure and narrative arc. Beginning writers sometimes break out in a rash when the conversation turns to narrative arc, that mysterious quality that all stories must have, unless you’ve written a novel with the emotional heft of a phone book. Here is how Marlowe sized up the plot of my last novel, Catch and Kill:
Most authors, it’s fair to say, don’t visualize their plot on a graph — certainly not in quite this way. The graph was designed to depict changes in the emotional valence of the work – the emotional highs and lows, the peaks of triumph and valleys of despair experienced by the main characters, the plot turns, reversals, revelations, inflection points and events that we authors sometimes call “progressive complications” that put the protagonist through sheer hell on his journey to set things right.
And, doggone it, Marlowe picked up on all of this. The generally positive opening chapters gave way to scenes that propelled Kaden toward her task of rescuing her sister and thwarting the bad guys. But her moments of victory are short-lived as the set pieces become darker (a brief torture scene) and darker yet (a firing squad).
Narrative beats and pacing: The rhythm of a story
One of the toughest challenges for any storyteller is in plotting her novel — spacing out the critical scenes just so. This is where I would have loved Marlowe looking over my shoulder as I conceived and hammered out my last thriller, and it’s where I’ll pay the most attention as I’m revising my next one.
This strikes me as one of the cumbersome parts of the rewrite process, deciding how much texture to add, how much to let the characters regroup and breathe before plunging them into the next harrowing scene. Marlowe makes it much easier for a storyteller to go in, flesh out some sequences and cut out some of the dead wood that doesn’t drive the story forward.
Every book contains at least a few clichés, and that’s good — after all, these common expressions form the social lubricant that binds different people together and forms a common lexicon. But pepper your novel with too many clichés and readers will conclude the author is too lazy to search for a fresher turn of phrase.
Still, I was a bit nervous that Marlowe may have picked up on a host of cliches that I and my beta readers had overlooked. Here is what she found:
Had I run Marlowe before publishing Catch and Kill, I would have gone back and looked at where I popped in “stubborn as a mule” or maybe “spitting image” to see if another description might work better. But if that’s the worst you can throw at me, Marlowe, I can only imagine what you’d turn up in a Jackie Collins or Tom Clancy novel.
There’s lots more that Marlowe tells you in its 25-page critiques – choice of subject matter, use of expletives, overuse of adjectives, adverbs and the passive voice. But an AI can only do so much (at least today!). I believe you still need beta readers to tell you whether the story resonates and where it fell short. A human editor can provide more thorough and detailed feedback. And you, the author, are the only one who can bring the spark of imagination to the page.
Still, the more tools that help authors enhance our craft, the better our stories become.
For a monthly plan, the discount only applies to the first month.