The Two Lives of Ezekiel Van Cleef is the greatest novel ever written by AI. Why? Because I helped write it. While this sounds arrogant, I think any novel that has 10% of the writing done by a human is better than any novel written 100% by AI. In fact, productivity aside, I would say 93% of all writers and wannabe writers are better than AI. But let’s be honest: as I stated in my previous blog about ChatGPT, AI is a problem solver and not a creative genius. So, when I decided to experiment writing a novel with ChatGPT, I didn’t ask it to come up with a story idea. I knew exactly what story I wanted it to tell.
It all started when…
When I was 17, the movie Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows was released in theaters, and my Sherlockian heart was furious. Tony Stark as Sherlock Holmes was the worst casting decision since John Wayne played Genghis Khan! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be rolling around in his grave at the idea of a kung fu fighting, steampunk version of his story. “If they wanted a steampunk mystery, why didn’t they just write a new one?” I said to no one in particular. But then a little voice in my head whispered, “Why don’t you?” Why my brother was so creepily whispering in my ear, I will never know. Freaky.
So, I cranked out a 1,791-word outline for a steampunk mystery story I titled “The World Gazette” which later became “The World Chronicle” and finally, “The Two Lives of Ezekiel Van Cleef.” This 81-beat outline sat on hard drives collecting digital dust for over a decade. Until now. I plugged in this outline and told ChatGPT that I wanted to create a detailed, 40-chapter outline for this story in the style of Jules Verne. After all, I had outright stolen the name of my hero from a Jules Verne short story “In the Year 2889.” That’s when the fun began.
The Plot Thickens.
The story opens with the Bank of Von Gilham being robbed by the notorious criminal Ezekiel Van Cleef. No one can bring this criminal to justice. No one that is, except the editor of the World Chronicle, Benedict Pierre Smith. He chases after the criminal, but tragically, they both fall into a lake, never to be seen again. Twenty years later, Smith’s son Fritz Napoleon Smith has taken over his father’s newspaper business and is the most powerful man in the world. But rumors have spread that Ezekiel Van Cleef has been raised from the dead, and is now committing crimes all over the city. Fritz, a skeptic of the supernatural, is faced with not only the question of resurrection but whether or not a certain carpenter was resurrected centuries ago.
The story is full of mystery, cane sword fights, glorious ballrooms in ginormous blimps, hot air balloons, pneumatic tubes for mass transportation, and a steampunk video chat device. To my utter delight, it reads like a dime-novel adventure story. Thanks to ChatGPT writing this one chapter at a time, there is little character growth, and the entire book is one hair-raising adventure after another. It mimics certain elements of Jules Verne’s writing style to give it that classic adventure feel that I could not have replicated on my own, and if you took one sip of soda every time someone has “a mixture of” two different emotions, you’d fall into a sugar coma.
Computers Can’t Banter.
It only took a few days for ChatGPT to pump out an entire draft, one chapter at a time. I would give it the prompt, copy and paste the results into my Word document, then rinse and repeat. What was even better was that once I told it to write it, I could work on my college classes, and then check on it later. Within a few days, I had a 40k-word draft of a story that I had given up long ago. I find it fitting that a story surrounding the question of scientific discoveries being able to bring people back to life, was given a second life through new technology. However, there was work to be done.
For one, the dialogue stunk. Thanks to AI’s problem-solving skills, every conversation was wrapped up in a few lines of dialogue. Everyone is polite, intelligent, and is inspired by the tritest of sayings. When I say I rewrote all the dialogue, that would be an exaggeration. 97% is probably more accurate. I am a stickler for dialogue. It is the first thing I notice in any story, be that a book, screenplay, TV show, play, or film. If the dialogue isn’t any good, I’m not interested. While I’ m not great at it, allow me to brag about how much better I am than ChatGPT. The characters may not have the sharp wit of Niel Simon, but at least the dialogue sounds better than George Lucas. After a long process of correcting the dialogue, I had a polished manuscript.
Allow Me to Illustrate my Point.
But I didn’t want to stop there. You see, I yearn for the olden times when adult stories had illustrations. Dickens, Conan Doyle, Verne, and Twain all wrote stories that were read by adults, yet they had beautiful drawings. And thanks to AI, I would illustrate my story as well. While I tried different AI art generators, I discovered Bing’s Chat creates the highest quality. But it’s not enough to tell it to create “a steampunk-looking city.” You need to know what style of art you want to emulate.
It took a lot of research to realize that “a lithograph with scratchboard elements” would give me the look I was going for. And so, over a few months, I created over 40 illustrations for this story. It wasn’t easy. I learned early on that it couldn’t create faces very well, or consistently give people all ten of their fingers. So, I gave it instructions like “with their back to the camera” or “a silhouette style of __.” But most of the time I chose to use lots of exterior shots of buildings.
The best thing about Bing’s AI image generator, is that you can add more instructions like “Can you make it at night?” or “Add the glow of a Gaslamp.” Because AI only creates square ratio images (for now) it would be harder to create a full picture book. However, these 3-inch images really help the story come alive, as well as add more than 40 extra pages!
I designed the cover photo to mimic the simple Dover Thrift Edition paperbacks that many classics are printed on. In a few days, I held in my hands a brand-new take on a story that had been living in my head for over a decade. So, if you have the time, and want a story written in a style different than yours, or just to have a few copies with friends and family, you might consider using these resources. For me, it was an experiment in learning about the “competition” that human writers are facing. If this tech had been around when I was 17, I would have easily self-published a book a year. It really only costs time, and there’s something special about having a book that no one else has.
You can read “The Two Lives of Ezekiel Van Cleef” on Amazon either on Kindle or as a paperback. I have adjusted the prices so I get exactly $1 no matter how you buy it. If you want to see how good AI can write, or just want a fun steampunk adventure, you can check it out here.
If you could have AI write a book in any writer’s style, who would it be, and why? Let me know in the comments!