The Art of Making it All Up
Verb and the Power of Computer-Assisted Writing
Last year I was faced with the most daunting task of a writing career that is entering its second decade. I’d written thousands of blog posts and hundreds of interview features— but never anything quite like this. Normally I jet into a city (or hop on a call), meet for a day with a famous athlete and his hanger ons, then return home to massage the fiction they’ve concocted about their lives into something reasonably resembling the truth. It’s both fun and rote at the same time, a challenge and something I could pull off with utter and complete confidence in the result, even on the shortest of deadlines.
Now I was being asked to do something entirely different.
Instead of wading through someone else’s personal hagiography, I was going to make it up myself for a change. Using nothing but the power of my own brain, I was to bring forth life like old man Zeus himself. In this case, in the form of a washed up pro wrestler called Buddy Jacobs. If you follow this space, you may have seen the eventual result, a short story in the w(m)ildly popular short story collection The Territories.
I’m super proud of how it turned out but, even today, I can remember the feeling of pure dread as I stared endlessly at the blank screen, the blinking cursor taunting and damning me as a fraud. The rest of the book was basically complete, filled with wonderful stories by real, established fiction writers. I was the last man standing, a story floating in my head that I didn’t quite know how to offload for others’ consumption.
For years, like so many of us, I’d fantasized about a career creating stories and characters that leapt off the page. Now, given the opportunity, I was trapped in a doom cycle, either staring at the emptiness of a blank document or pressing select all and sending the passages I found wanting to writer’s hell, deleting my failures en masse to end up right where I’d begun—sitting and worrying and wondering how to bring the ideas that were lurking on the edge of consciousness out into the open and onto the page.
Thanks for reading Hybrid Shoot! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
That fall I had a chance to spend a long weekend with my brother and his lovely family, in from London for the first time since COVID, at the beach in Florida. He’s a bit of a mystery to me, always involved in the most fascinating projects. One year he was redesigning the look and feel of a classic newspaper you’ve likely seen on the newsstand. Then he’d be off to Africa to help establish a functioning press in countries without a tradition of journalism, adversarial or otherwise. Boots, eyeglasses, publishing, web design—his talents were multitudinous and his successes so outlandish they were often hard to believe.
I’d seen his latest idea take various forms. At first, after seeing how haphazardly his friends in publishing chose the books they’d eventually drop off at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, he was looking for a way to help agents and houses sort through the piles of manuscripts they are sent every day, searching for a way to identify writers with potential and help them find their way past the gatekeepers and into the hands of readers.
Along the way, that idea morphed. Instead of looking for ways to identify good writing, he was interested in helping prospective writers create it. That weekend we took a look at a tool that can help make the dream of writing a story a reality—for the first time I put my hands on Verb. Like most “professionals”, I was skeptical that a computer could do what I could not. I’d seen and worked a little with other AI based writing programs, watched for years as programmers tried and failed to create systems capable of writing even the most most basic news stories or listicles.
This was different. It could be used to either create a short segment of a story from a written prompt or to continue the story you’d already begun, taking the idea in both familiar and completely insane directions depending on your luck.
At first, several glasses of red wine into the evening, we sat and had Verb create passages about friends and family doing increasingly goofy things. But occasionally the laughter would be put on hold and we’d all agree a passage the computer created was lovely. Sometimes it felt a little too real. Now and again I’d think “wow, I think I could use this.” Not to do any writing for me. But, rather, to help breathe life into a story that I couldn’t honestly describe as dying because it had never truly been born.
I left the beach that weekend with new hope and a login for a very early beta version of the program. Shortly after, I had something even better—a complete first draft of my story.
Verb isn’t an artificial intelligence program like the kinds you’ve probably seen in the news recently. It doesn’t take a prompt and spit out a finished draft. Instead, it’s like writing with a very smart friend at your shoulder, one who has read every book of note and has a gift for language and pithy phrasing.
When I was stuck, or even wanted to see if there was a better way to re-work a paragraph I was generally happy with, I’d ask Verb for help. Sometimes I’d take several sentences it offered, plug them into my manuscript and breathe a sigh of relief. More often I’d borrow a phrase or even a word, the computer’s creativity prompting my own, helping me articulate what I was thinking with a clarity that was missing before I got my robot friend involved. Lots of times I’d reject Verb’s offerings completely. Luckily it is a collection of ones and zeros and no feelings had to be massaged or friendships managed.
Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different writing software. Right now on the bar at the bottom of my MacBook I see Vellum, Pages, Scrivener and InDesign waiting for me to open them.
Instead, I’ve been writing in Verb.
It has many (but not all of) the tools you’re familiar with from these other programs, including the ability to outline your story in a visually appealing way. What it offers that they don’t is a significant super power—the ability to ask for a helping hand when you get stuck without sending out an email to writer’s group or support network.
Not sure how to describe what it feels like to sit outside in the park smoking a cigarette? Verb can help. Unclear how to move from one set piece in your story to another? See if Verb has an idea. Along the way it will learn your characters right alongside you, making the computer’s suggestions and prompts even better as you go. Eventually, the program will even take a look at your story and tell you how it’s working out based on the kind of work that is most often chosen for publication.
All of this, of course, is by request only. If you don’t want or need a friendly boost, you can simply create your story in a user-friendly online writing software. But when inspiration refuses to strike, Verb will be there, indefatigable and filled with endless ideas you can plug in or reject as you see fit.
Verb can’t make you a writer—but it can damn sure make you a better one.