My Big Think on Generative AI and Human Artistry’s Death

In a parody of Michelangelo’s "Creation of Adam," a human hand reaches out to touch fingertips with a robotic hand.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For maybe as long as I’ve been published (a decade this fall!), I’ve used the line, “Timothy Johnson fears nothing more than the future, so he writes about it and hopes he’s wrong.”

I think that’s important contextualization for who I am as a futurist and precog (admittedly, I don’t think I’m a very good one), but I think it’s good to frame all of this with the sentiment that I hope I’m wrong about generative AI, or large-language models (LLMs), which is a less-sexy name but probably a more accurate and responsible one we should be using (and I will use for the rest of this post).

I struggled with this post because not only is it a very complex issue (one I’m betting the non-artist techbros will challenge), but I think I had illusions it would be my definitive take on LLMs and its position in art. I’d write about it once, and that would be that. But, I know these can’t be my last words on the subject because, well doggonit, I’m a human being, but more to the point, LLMs are still so new and changing so rapidly that my takes on it are evolving, too.

Suffice to say this post may exhaust you (it exhausted me to write it), but it won’t be exhaustive.

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How to Develop Your Characters on the Page

A doctor shows a patient a chest x-ray and points approximately to where the heart is located.
“You see, your character’s heart should be right about here.” (Photo by Skintone Studio from Freerange Stock)

My last craft post covered how to develop characters for your understanding as the writer. I’ve split this crash course in character development into two parts because characters develop in two main spaces. Well, three, actually: the writer’s head, the page, and the reader’s head. Your perception of your character is inevitably different than the one that exists on the page and is further invariably different from the one that the reader comes to know. I won’t be going into readers’ heads because that would be presumptive and rude.

In my previous post, I made another critical separation. I split you planners and pantsers into your respective groups, and I gave the former a whole heap of questions to consider in your logic-centric minds. For the latter, I gave you some tips that almost resemble exercises, and they are focused on helping you get the feel of your characters. For both groups, it all was work for you to do for yourself, work intended to pour the foundations for your characters so you could write from a place of intentionality instead of wandering and wondering what the heck you’re writing about (an affliction that plagues us all, I promise).

Now, let’s look at developing your characters on the page for the reader’s understanding. How does character development actually work on the page anyway?

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We Are All Thieves of Somebody’s Future Available

Hey there. Just swinging by to let you know We Are All Thieves of Somebody’s Future—the anthology that has a neat little sci-fi story by me in it—is now available. Remember, this is a limited print run, so if you want one of these beauties gracing your eyeballs and then your bookshelf, order one before they’re sold out. Future you will be delighted.

My story is called “Starlight Vigil,” and it’s a funky one in which time moves both ways as we follow the story of an engineer on a generation ship bound for the stars in search of a new home for humanity. I hope you check it out and it doesn’t completely baffle you like most of the people who read the first draft.

The cover of this anthology depicts a young person in the foreground gazing in wonder at a large deer with antlers before a foreground of mountains.

How to Develop Your Characters off the Page

A black cat reaches out to touch a human finger in a reference to the Creation of Adam painting
Photo by Humberto Arellano on Unsplash

Last time I wrote about craft, I directed you to the starting line. In that post, I wrote superficially about getting to know your characters, kicking off the plot, building your world, and the search for information. Someone asked me about developing that stuff, and I realized I’d glossed over it. I’d told you it was important work but took for granted you’d already done it.


So let’s talk about character development. When we talk about character development in a story, we typically refer to the ways in which that story develops its characters on the page. How do the characters develop for the reader? What does the reader come to learn and understand about the characters, and how do the characters change through their arc? What story does that arc tell, and what significance can the reader derive from it? Those are questions I won’t be addressing in this post but will in a later one. This time, I focus on developing your characters off the page for your understanding. How do you create a character so that you understand and know them well enough to then insert them into a story for the reader to meet and follow?

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Everything Ends: The State of Apocalyptic Fiction

In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh lays out the case for climate change and charges contemporary fiction writers with the responsibility of writing about it. But why, Ghosh wonders, aren’t our fiction writers writing about it? Ghosh condemns contemporary fiction writers for a failure to address climate change. 

I found it an interesting accusation because, in my experience, fiction writers were, in fact, writing about climate change and had been for years. Ghosh proposed the idea that writers in the literary mainstream would tend to be relegated to science fiction when writing about climate change, and considering the realities of western literary culture—where we tend to draw lines of artistic merit between literary traditions—I think he had a point. To me, though, a good story is a good story.

Regardless, in the eight years since Ghosh’s book hit shelves, I think we’ve seen a more widespread willingness of writers to go there.

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Review of Between Days by Nick DeWolf

The cover image of Between Days by Nick DeWolf depicts a disembodied eye at the center with the onlooker's face disintegrating into pieces. The title has a distressed and fading-away treatment.
Cover design by J Caleb Designs

When I picked up Between Days by Nick DeWolf, I had no idea what to expect. I’d read his novels but only one of his short stories, and I certainly didn’t know what a collection of dreams was. What I found was a cool collection of tales full of wonder, horror, imagination, and heart.

Between Days is a collection of short stories based on dreams, and it’s notably filled with variety and diversity of thought. Each story has its own identity and an apparent reason for being, but more than that, the sheer breadth of aesthetic is impressive. Many writers have trouble writing anything that isn’t literally inspired by their daily lives or lack the ability to imagine themselves as anyone but themselves, but this book demonstrates Nick DeWolf’s imagination knows no boundaries. I didn’t realize until this collection that what I’ve always wanted from him is a book full of his stories. This book shows what his beautifully unique brain can produce when it is unrestrained and empowered to follow its muse. It’s a wonderful thing to behold, and while his novels are magnificent descents into living, breathing worlds full of intriguing characters and compelling plots, this collection allows him to play with his extraordinary imagination in many different ways.

Between Days is kind of like going to Nick DeWolf’s fro-yo shop where the fro-yo is his imagination and you can stick your head under the spouts at will. Toppings are free. Go ahead and heap them on. Nobody’s going to weigh your bowl at the end.

I think most readers look to stories primarily to take them somewhere alluring and to be with people who are interesting. Nick DeWolf has a creative mind that is uniquely suited to satisfy these desires. As a means of escape, Between Days grants readers worlds and realities to wander and wonder about. Moreover, I think most readers are looking for experience, vicarious living through empathy, when they pick up a book. I think most readers are looking to feel something, and in that regard, I think this collection is full of successes. 

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Finding Your Story’s Starting Line

Track athlete in a light blue track suit crouching at a starting line and preparing to run
Photo by Gratisography / Ryan McGuire from Freerange

I was on a panel once that was taking questions from the audience, and a guy raised his hand and asked how to know when to start a new chapter. He said he’d written hundreds of pages, and it was only chapter one. A silence fell over the room as the audience waited with rapt attention and those of us on the panel had no idea how to respond to that. Without seeing that guy’s manuscript, I was certain his problem was he hadn’t found the beginning of his story yet.

To the guy’s credit, he’d started writing his novel, and that’s admirable. Moreover, he’d started doing the work, and that’s progress.

I don’t remember how we, the panel, responded to him, but the point here is, again, without seeing that manuscript, I would expect to find pages and pages and pages of world building and information about characters, places, customs, traditions, etc. That stuff is important, but it’s not the story.

Finding the starting line is a very common problem for us writers because we are (and this is true—unless you’re using generative AI, which is bad and I’m going to get to someday) human beings, and it’s natural for human beings, when beginning any creative process, to search for information. Even legal cases start with a discovery process. As storytellers, we begin by asking questions like, Who is this person? What is this place? We build a foundation.

I’m here to tell you, while that stuff is incredibly important and you need to work on it because everything rests on it, the story starts elsewhere.

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The Best of Gamut Chronicles a New Movement in Dark Literature

Illustration by Luke Spooner, Design by Todd Keisling

In 2017, author and editor Richard Thomas assembled a staff of other writers, editors, and artists to pursue a new venture in dark speculative literature. Backed by a Kickstarter, the project aimed to pay competitive pro rates, putting creators first in a business that often privileges virtually everyone else.

That year, Gamut Magazine was born, and over the course of twelve issues, it published some truly pivotal work for dark-leaning literature, pushing genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction into new realms. Unlike many other literary magazines, Gamut’s only aesthetic was that the writing had to turn its gaze to dark things. Seemingly everything else was not only fair game but encouraged.

Thus, Gamut succeeded in removing many of the stylistic and creative guardrails for contemporary genre literature. Unfortunately, after its inaugural run, the choice was made to close Gamut Magazine.

But it turns out Gamut didn’t die. It just went to sleep for a while.

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2023 Year-End Wrap-Up and Glance Forward

This year was a bit slow on the publishing front, but I did have two short stories get out there in the world. The first was a post-apocalyptic tale about unlimited power over finite resources, good intentions, and robots, appearing in Haven Speculative’s June issue. Read “Touch of Ruin” here

The second is a more personal story about grief, loss, and brotherhood, and it won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Short Story contest in September. This was a bit of a milestone for me, and I was touched and honored the story won the contest. Read “A Winter Bloom” here.

Aside from those two publications, this year has been another one chock full of rejection. So it goes, right, Kurt? However, I did finish my next novel, titled American Spirits, and I’m seeking representation for this one. If you know any agents who might be interested, send them my way.

My Favorite stories of 2023

This time of year, I see a lot of favorite lists getting passed around, and I thought it was high time to do that myself. After all, I’m nothing if not a fan of other storytellers’ work.

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A Circuit Closes and Feels Like Completion

Tim reading an excerpt of his story behind a podium and beside a cutout of F. Scott Fitzgerald looking especially dapper
Scott and I hanging out and similarly stylish, though his hair was way better

Last night, I gathered with other members of the DC-Baltimore-area literary community at the Rockville Memorial Library to celebrate the winners, runners up, and honorable mentions of the 2023 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Short Story Contest. It was refreshingly wonderful and an all-too-rare reminder why I sit alone and confront blank pages.

Contest Judge Nate Brown said many inspiring and kind things, but one of the sentiments I know I’ll keep with me is the idea that, after everything, what matters most is the writer and the page. There is a lot of good in everything surrounding what writers do, and last night’s celebration was a testament to that. Nate also spoke about the baggage of doing this writing thing, such as all of the rejection many of us face. Most important, though, is that we keep sitting down with the pages.

I like that idea because it so often feels like success in writing is entirely beyond our control, but doing the work is something we can absolutely control. Yes, writers are people, and every person has much to contend with (jobs, families, relationships, illnesses, disabilities, etc.), but because we have control over whether we sit down and write, it’s something we can lose without accountability. It’s easy to do it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

But if we do it today and today and today, success—however we define it—comes.

This today, I’m riding a high and feeling good because, last night, alongside some very impressive and brilliant writers whom I was grateful to meet, my story, “A Winter Bloom,” was recognized as the contest winner.

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