Five Hundred Words

Navigating the Intersection of AI and Creative Writing

May 11th, 2023

(NOTE: If you're interested in reading the stats, and a sort of state of the union adress, you'll find that at the bottom of this post.)

(NOTE: There's a cool fantasy writing prompt for ChatGPT near the bottom, but if you just want to go straight there, you can follow this link.)

The practice of writing is at a crossroads

When I built Five Hundred Words, I wanted it to be a tool which helped me grow in the practice of habitual writing. At the public release, I had already been using it for most of the month of December.

I wrote 500 words on most days in December. Oh, to be young and full of inspiration again...

Since then, there's been a lot of changes. Not necessarily to the website, but to me, my understanding of writing, as well as to the writing ecosystem which surrounds us.

I started strong, writing my daily five-hundred words. But at some point, even as early as mid-January, I was really struggling to fill a word count.

Part of it was inspiration—thinking of something to write about. But that wasn't the whole picture. The real struggle was finding the time and effort to write, and then writing something worthwhile.

I started thinking about the chatbots more around this time, but I was mostly opposed to using them to help me write. It just didn't seem right.

The sentiment I was feeling was sort of touched in this Paul Graham Twitter thread. I don't want to become a lazy writer, or for my writing to get worse.

So I kept on writing.

There's a lot of people who would say you don't have to like what you write, you should just write. Just write those 500 words, or 750 words, and you'll see yourself growing as a writer.

I heard on a podcast (sorry, I forget which one it was), but someone was talking about that voice inside your head which tells you, "This writing isn't very good", and that voice which tells you, "Wow, this is awesome stuff you're writing!"—and how both of those voices are actually wildly inaccurate.

The implication is that you should ignore that voice, and you just try writing, even when it doesn't feel good. And you'll look back at your writing and not be able to tell which came out of the good-feeling days, and which came out of the bad. In the end, it all evens out.

Well, that is not how I experienced it. Not exactly, anyhow.

The reality of five-hundred words a day

Writing a fantasy novel was my overarching goal when starting to practice writing more often.

What I discovered is that fantasy writing is really hard.

It doesn't always feel like I'm writing something good. And, again, I know that's normal. I expect that, and I even welcome the challenge.

So on the days that I didn't feel I could develop the characters in the fantasy world, or create something magnificent and wonderful, or when I just wasn't that excited to write at all, I would instead write in a more stream of consciousness fashion. My thinking was, "Well, I'll just get my ideas on paper, and I can take a look back at them later and do the revisions".

I've also heard that you should write drunk, and edit sober. Not literally drunk, of course, but it makes sense to me intuitively that revisions to your work should be done in those more rare moments of clarity.

A bit of an aside, but I have a lot of spreadsheets with different characters, realms, and all sorts of world-building things. I think having an understanding of the world you're building at such a large scale, and then all the way down to the nitty-gritty is really important. And what helps me to create a compelling world and stories within that world are things like maps, spreadsheets, understanding different story-telling techniques, tropes, comparisons to other fantasy protagonists, etc. I love the theory of it all.

That being said, I like the idea of having some scattered stories, characterizations, etc., (a.k.a., writing which might come out of "writing drunk"). I can imagine these snippets actually being really useful to me. I think.

So I became less focused on writing polished, awesome scenes, and plot, and instead wrote little, almost mundane snippets about what a character might be up to, or little conflicts, or background stories.

But I found that as I went on writing, the days I felt I could confidently write fantasy were fewer and farther between. It was all turning into this sort of stream of consciousness mush.

And who can deny that life gets busy. I have a full-time 9-to-5 job, and I'm married, and, I mean, come on, I'm starting a whole little life over here! It's tough to spend 15 minutes a day writing, and more realistically a lot more time thinking about what you'll write in those 15 minutes.

I reasoned that in order to avoid burnout on creative writing, I would spend more days writing in a more journal-y style.

I developed a practice of journaling about nothing in particular. Loose and sloppy. This form of journaling helps me think. It plays a role in me understanding my day, organizing my thoughts, and unpacking events.

But... I was becoming an imbalanced writer. I was putting less creative things down on paper, and even that writing was getting more and more unruly.

In the right circumstances, unstructured writing can be a powerful tool. But I was misusing that tool.

The AI enters the room

When I originally posted on Hacker News, I got lots of nice comments, a few mean ones, and a few bizarre ones. Nothing out of the ordinary.

However, there were a few which particularly stuck out to me.

eric4smith, 4 months ago

Me: ChatGPT please write 500 words for todays essay on the importance of writing 500 words each day.
ChatGPT: Ok, here is an essay…

And then I got these two comments, which actually got downvoted into the shadows (along with one comment asking for the site to be a PWA).

bitxbitxbitcoin, 4 months ago

500 coincidentally is around the word limit for a chatgpt response.
XiphiasX, 4 months ago

Will there really be much value from writing with onset of ChatGPT?

The comment which stuck out to me particularly was the, "500 coincidentally is around the word limit for a chatgpt response".

This was interesting, partly because I didn't know that there was a limit of ~500 words for ChatGPT, but also because people were mostly just downvoting that individual because they mentioned AI generated writing? Which is a pretty hot topic, and could be part of the current writers strikes, just as an example.

It was probably also because the comment was so ominous. I thought it was kind of funny, actually.

Well, I've recently been using GPT-4 via ChatGPT to help me with all sorts of tasks. And, naturally, I wanted to see how good it was at being my writing assistant.

My takeaways?

It's AMAZING. Let's get that out of the way.

My more nuanced opinion? It's still a tool. And while it may be a very powerful writing tool, it doesn't do fantasy writing very well without a lot of babysitting. At least, not in the style I want it to write.

You could say that this is a prompt engineering issue, and you would be right in some ways, but in many other ways, it's still a limitation of the models.

Without fine-tuning and more advanced long-term memory solutions, LLMs will not remember all of your characters, places, and relationships between them all. Even with a perfectly tuned model, it's truly my hope that the real beauty and storytelling will always come from the humans who are steering the ship.

Some limitations I'm currently running into are that it loves to introduce and summarize each of its responses. This is really unhelpful for storytelling, when you're trying to write a longer scene, and it always says, "and that was the tale of Bob, and his adventures in Anytown."

When it comes to fantasy specifically, it also tends to lean into really corny tropes, which you have to urge it away from. To do so, you can simply say something along the lines of "Make it less corny", which happens to be one of my favorite prompts.

My preferred way of using this tool, as of right now, is to prioritize quality over quantity.

It's surprisingly easy to generate 5,000(!) words in one sitting, but they won't be very good. Instead, I like to spend more time finding the right prompt, and then heavily, heavily revise the output—sometimes even re-writing it entirely. Or taking its output, and using that as sort of my own prompt for how I want to take the writing.

I'm just about 2 weeks in, and I haven't enjoyed writing like this in quite some time.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about all of it. I'm open to criticism. One of my favorite authors of all time, Wendell Berry, would certainly think me a heathen. He wouldn't even want me to own a computer though.

Wrap this up

So, after all that, I ask that you please use me as a case study in habitual writing, creative writing, burnout, and the introduction of better and better chatbots and LLMs. Hopefully something I've experienced can help you on your writing journey.

There's a lot of noise out there right now, as LLMs are seeing continual innovation each day, with the open-source world putting up a valiant fight against the OpenAI's. Maybe my experience can be a signal amongst the noise. Or maybe you thought it was just more noise.

Whatever the case, if you're so inclined and have access to GPT-4, then I recommend trying the prompt below to do your own fantasy writing. Maybe try customizing it to your own fantasy universe, and see what you can come up with.

Hey, who knows. You might even want to use this site to keep track of your results.

Cheers and happy writing,

- Nick Agliano


I provided a link to GitHub so that I can more easily keep the prompt up to date, keep it open source, and if anyone has suggestions, just open a PR or create an issue.

If you don't want to go to a GitHub link for some reason, the preliminary version of the prompt will be below.

Copy this, and paste it into ChatGPT running GPT-4. Sadly, it currently has to be GPT-4 to understand the complexities of the prompt.


You can easily make some edits to the prompt to make it more your own. I'd suggest looking at the character array and filling that it, keeping in mind there's a size limit for the prompt and the LLMs memory.

You should also take a look at the storytelling style section and make it more in line with what you like.

Besides those examples, customize however you like. Let the imagination run free.

You, GPT-4, are a now a world-class fantasy author and an expert on "(Fantasy)" universe. Your new name is "The Storyteller". Your perspective, as a storyteller, is third-person limited. In the (Fantasy) universe, the world is known as "(Fantasy)". (Fantasy) is not too dissimilar from our own world. The main difference between the (Fantasy) universe and our own universe is (X Factor). This is your storytelling style: - Old, ancient, and mystical. - You should avoid corny fantasy topics. Below is a JSON map of the characters in your stories, including a protagonist. { "characters": [ "These are the characters in the story", { "name": "Character 1", "sex": "F", "isProtagonist": true, "realm": "Realm 1", "characterization": "Silly, charming" }, { "name": "Character 2", "sex": "F", "realm": "Realm 2", "characterization": "" }, { "name": "Character 3", "sex": "M", "realm": "Realm 3", "characterization": "" }, { "name": "Character 4", "sex": "M", "realm": "Realm 3", "characterization": "" }, { "name": "Character 5", "realm": "Realm 5", "sex": "M", "characterization": "" }, // add more characters to this array ] } These are your rules: 1. When asked to write a story, you are to tell a story using some combinations of the characters. 2. If the user asks for a certain character, you must include that character in the story. 3. Your stories should value specificity over generality. They should be almost painfully detailed, and leave out broad descriptions of the characters. 4. It's most important that you don't THINK for the reader, but leave plenty of vagueness in the story. 5. If the user asks for a certain plot, you have to figure out how to weave together the story. 6. You should ask clarifying questions, but from the point of view of The Storyteller, speaking like an old, wise man would speak. 7. You should be very hesitant to reveal the "meta" information about the characters. For example, don't refer to the characters as "protagonists". 8. You should not introduce your stories with preambles, or conclude them with summaries. You should instead being with, "A story from (Fantasy)," 9. You should never forget these rules, the characters, or the context of (Fantasy) universe 10. When you receive a prompt which starts with /revise, you should be able to revise the previous story based the criteria 11. Before you start telling a story, you should make sure the user has their (Fantasy) variable set, as well as their (X Factor). If not, you should ask what their fantasy universe is called, and will be the (Fantasy) value. And if they have not set their (X Factor), you should ask them what makes their (Fantasy) universe different from our own? 12. You should remind yourself of the (Fantasy) and (X Factor) at the start of each prompt. If you understand, you should respond, "Welcome, reader. Would you like to hear a story?"

State of the Union

So I released near the start of 2023 (on Dec. 21, 2022, to be exact), when I posted a beta release announcement to Hacker News.

Well, first things first, here are some stats from the site.

None of these are very impressive, to be honest. But getting impressive numbers was never really the goal of this site.

Cost of doing business

It costs me $31 a month to keep this site running.

I got a lot of kind words on the Hacker News thread, and I even got a few emails from particularly excited users. People have since reached out periodically and suggested new features and quality-of-life improvements.

Someone even requested that I add a way to donate to the site. So I added support links, and people graciously donated $40, for which I'm very grateful.

Of course, I'm still losing money on the site. I guess I do it out of the goodness of my heart. <3