By J.D. Lasica
There are some things that don’t seem to go together. Yogurt and Tabasco sauce. Dad riding along in the back seat on a first date. Novel writing and artificial intelligence.
Well, a couple of years ago a group of bestselling fiction authors got together with Dr. Matthew Jockers, co-author of The Bestseller Code and a pioneer in machine learning. The result was Authors A.I., a venture with the heady goal of using A.I. for good – namely, helping authors improve their storytelling, gain more readers and sell more books.
Today, authors have run more than 3,000 manuscripts through the A.I. critique service. And it’s fair to conclude that the organization’s fiction-loving A.I., Marlowe, has no ambitions to displace Stephen King or Nora Roberts atop the bestseller lists.
Instead, the online service (with free and paid tiers) provides a comprehensive full-color analysis of any uploaded manuscript within five minutes. And as a bonus for Kobo Writing Life authors, you can run a Marlowe Pro analysis at no charge by using the coupon code KWLIFE.
Story beats, narrative arc, pacing and more
When Authors A.I.’s founding authors started putting Marlowe through its paces, they noticed that Marlowe knew how to produce beautiful graphs and data-rich charts based on books that became bestsellers … but didn’t know how to make that information actionable. So the authors helped train the algorithm. The A.I. now includes a “How to use these data” passage in every section — practical advice that every author can understand.
The result is a sort of instant critique from a writing partner that doesn’t judge the quality of your work but offers suggestions that could make your story resonate with more readers.
The section of the report I find most useful is the one on narrative beats. These are the twists and turns in key scenes that take your plot in a new direction. Marlowe calls these “positive beats” and “conflict beats,” and authors will recognize them as the barriers your protagonists must overcome to reach their scene goals and overall story goal.
Space these out too far apart, and your reader may lose interest. It’s akin to an electrocardiogram for your manuscript – if you flatline, it means there’s not much is happening in your plot. So Marlowe’s depiction of your narrative beats come in handy during the rewrite process when you’re deciding where that key action scene ought to go.
Narrative arc is another fascinating section. Does your storyline hew to one of the seven classic “story shapes” that bestsellers seem to adhere to? In Marlowe 2.0, released last month, the A.I. will compare your story’s narrative to one of thousands of bestsellers in its database.
Pacing is an area that authors get a natural instinct for, especially after one or two books. So it’s a bit jarring to see it represented in a cold blue graph. But this, too, is useful, as writers can see whether the rhythm of their writing reflects the expectations of readers in their genre.
One section I find useful is what I call the “naughty words finder” (Marlowe calls it “explicit language”). It makes for a good reality check on how often you really want to use that expletive, or whether an f-bomb somehow slipped into your final draft. Or, if you’re a romance author, maybe you want to see how you and Nicholas Sparks compare with your blue streaks.
Marlowe saves the best for last: your book’s comps! The A.I. provides two different kinds of comparisons: subject matter and stylistic comps. I was gratified to see that the closest subject matter comps to my thriller were books by Tom Clancy and James Patterson. And because there’s a dash of near future sci-fi in the book, the stylistic comps were a mix of thriller authors (Patterson, Brad Thor, Clive Cussler) and science fiction authors (Neal Stephenson and Hugh Howey).
Some of Marlowe’s feedback is similar to what you might find in tools like Grammarly, Pro Writing Aid or Hemingway: summaries of overused words, cliches, misspellings – but the bulk of the reports are distinct from anything else in the market.
So, what say you? A.I. isn’t for every author, but it turns out to be less scary than you might think.
J.D. Lasica is a thriller author, former newspaper journalist and Editor in Chief of BingeBooks, the sister site of Authors A.I. He was one of the authors who helped train Marlowe.