How To Write A Book…
A Short First Hand Story by Courtney Hunter
Author of Sentience
Sentience follows twenty-four individuals as they travel through a contained natural preserve to participate in a Turing Test conducted by a tech corporation willing to do anything for monetary gain. Throughout their journey, they face obstacles designed by the experiment controllers to elicit human response and emotion. However, four of these individuals are not human. Romance falls together as the world around them falls apart, revealing the lengths people will go to protect those they love, achieve success, or simply survive. While the humans involved wrestle with where they stand on the polarizing issue of artificial intelligence and its applications, the AI in the experiment must prove their humanity to leave the experiment unscathed. The experience of those within the experiment is juxtaposed against those running it, some of whom struggle with the corporation’s intentions for the AI that pass the Turing Test. All of this leaves readers wondering what truly defines humanity and consciousness.
Start. At least, that’s what I did. Technically, I started in the fall of 2017, but in truth, I started a while before then. I just hadn’t realized it.
Now, when I think of the beginning of the project, I think of a creative writing class I took during my sophomore year of college. I powered through the beginning of the course, turning in shitty poems about the cigarette-yellowed lights in my grandmother’s old kitchen until it came time for the final assignment on the syllabus.
That short story assignment was the first time I met Leo, the now protagonist of Sentience. In her first evolution, she was a cop with Erin Lindsay grit who recently returned to work from a jarring injury and inconveniently fell in love with her partner. Her partner was a hybrid of Jay Halsted (I was big into Chicago P.D. at the time) and Avery and Luca from Sentience. He had a bleeding heart, a past, and a temper. My favorite kind of fictional triple-threat. Even after the assignment was printed and stapled, I couldn’t keep the characters quiet in my mind, so I kept writing.
Eventually, there wasn’t time to put pen to paper or, rather, fingers to keys, and I put down the story. That didn’t stop the characters from rattling around in my mind. I spent a good portion of my college career in my car, driving from class to boutique job to unpaid internships and back again. Because of this, car rides became my creative space. My internship with a PR company, with sliding glass office doors so pristine I walked straight into one on my first day, was one of my favorites, because I was treated as a glorified, nay, free courier. This meant ample long drives where I could listen to a handful of songs on repeat and flesh out the characters further in my head. With no accountability of a cohesive story, they could do or be anything. I could pepper in as many random excuses for characters to don some black-tie apparel as I wanted. The pair of murder detectives I created had a hell of a lot of galas to attend. I suppose that comes from the CW fan in me.
Soon enough things got crazy and first-generation Leo was quitting the police force and heading to her hometown only to get sucked back into her family’s motorcycle gang that she fled some years ago. You guessed it, this times up exactly with my binge of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. To this day, I still am in awe of the way that show made me feel such empathy for people who had done such awful things. It’s something that I’ve found so impactful that I’ve tried to emulate it in my writing, but I digress.
As layered as I like to think my characters were back then, they were only as strong as the story they were grounded in and they didn’t actually have one. I had picked up the computer a few times over winter and summer breaks, one time getting far enough to have the beginnings of a draft of a story about a nationwide cyberattack that sent the country into anarchy. (It was in that story that I first called the character that became Avery by name). But no matter how many times I picked up the MacBook that would eventually meet its untimely end during a Sentience bathtub writing session, I couldn’t quite find a world that would stick.
The lives of the characters stayed an alternate reality in my brain that I would tap into when life got quiet, and they’d stay that way, until one day it changed.
My point with all of the above is, if you’re someone who says they want to start writing a book, you probably already have. The only real “hard part” of the matter is that your fingers can’t type as quickly as your brain actually writes and that you’re probably terrified of what people will think. I was too. Honestly, I still am.
I’ve always been drawn to anything Promethean in nature. Jurassic Park was my favorite movie as a kid. And for the record, it’s still my favorite movie. When Ian Malcolm chastised John Hammond saying, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should” it was like a switch flipped in my head. Even as a little kid, it just hit different. I got that feeling years later watching a movie about Artificial Intelligence called Ex Machina, during which a character similarly asked “wouldn’t you if you could?” in reference to creating sentient AI. Those five words flipped the switch again, and I knew that I wanted to make something that would make people ask themselves questions like Jurassic Park and Ex Machina made me. I turned to the first medium I could think of: dance. If you know me, you saw that coming. If you don’t, well, that’s a big part of how this all happened. Dance was where I learned to tell stories.
I started dancing when I was two and kept up with it through high school. After graduating, I joined a company creatively directed by two of my former teachers and it was there that I really began to understand how to tell a story through movement. They invited me to be a part of pieces that told the stories of suffragettes, zombies, demons, and breast cancer survivors. The things they created could fill a room with so much energy and emotion it would feel like it was ready to explode. They did this all without words. After a while, I wanted to take a stab at making people feel the way their work made me feel. The impetus to do so timed up nicely with the culmination of season one of Westworld and it was settled. I needed to make something about robots. In 2017, I decided to choreograph and produce an Artificial Intelligence inspired contemporary dance production for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. At last, it was my first forte into doing something that I didn’t view myself as “qualified” to do.
Flash forward to today, I know that I’m the signee of the permission slip to anything life has to offer, and I hope that anyone reading this believes the same of themselves.
The show concluded, and it was one of the best learning and creative experiences I ever could have dreamed of. But once the lights had faded and rehearsals were over, I still found myself unready to separate from the world I had created. Then it hit me, this was it. I found my story.
Synapses connected at the speed of wildfire. I saw inspiration in everyone and everything around me. The book wasn’t “something” to me yet, and I got lost in the depths of unbridled creation. This period of my life is one of my favorites when I look back and reflect; no obligation, unlimited exploration, and learning, coming right off of a project that turned out more successfully than I thought possible. I also moved into my first apartment with my partner, Will, which only heightened the feeling that I had finally hit my stride in life. Things were finally making sense. I felt a little bit invincible.
I finished my first draft just about one year later in the fall of 2018 and decided it was the right time to share with the world that it was done. Looking back, it probably wasn’t. At the time, it felt like I had climbed Everest, and I wanted people to know. In my head, this moment was everything. Unfortunately, I had to learn a hard lesson that it wasn’t.
I came crashing hard when there was no gratification past that of roughly 120 social media likes. I was still very much living in a space where my own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment meant nothing without the praise and recognition of the outside world. Full transparency, I still am in a lot of ways, but it’s something that I’m working on. The “this is it?” feeling that accompanied my announcement, coupled with an increasingly strenuous work situation that left me feeling undervalued and overworked, the general feeling of “holy shit, I’m an adult,” and a move into a new home that couldn’t even qualify as a fixer-upper it was so bad, sent me into chaos. I’ve always struggled with my mental health, I received an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder diagnosis at the age of sixteen, but I never really wrestled with depression, not until last fall. It hit hard and fast, and as much therapy as I had been through, I simply didn’t have the tools to climb this hill.
So how did I handle it? I launched a manic and obsessive first edit on my book to the point where my laptop was practically pulled from my hands by my therapist, partner and friends. I was reluctant to see that pushing myself that hard while only functioning at less than 50% wasn’t getting me any closer to my end goal, but after a lot of talking to, I finally, and thankfully, did. I put a pause on the book, put myself back together, and came out stronger in the Spring.
The time I spent working on myself, that I would have once viewed as a waste because I was not working, got me to my end goal quicker than if I would have kept pushing. Understanding this was huge for me. Doing the work wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always fun, but I learned a big lesson in finding peace while being a work in progress. I’ve always been the type of person that’s had the mentality of “I’ll be happy when this next goal happens,” and because of this, my life has been a lot of hard, steep climbs, with major emotional drop-offs waiting for me at the summit. I learned (and am still learning) that this type of thinking is simply not sustainable.
If I could tell my younger self anything, I would tell her that all of the things she wants to be are within her already and that she doesn’t need the affirmation of others to validate that.
In March of 2019, once I felt whole again, I gave the content a good, hard edit. I let myself laugh at how ridiculous I can be instead of forcing myself to focus on grammar, because well, I’m trash at it. I’m a creative writer, not a technical writer. And, I’m learning to be okay with that. Once I was through, I partnered with a professional editor. Hiring an editor was costly, but the expense was worth it rather than me sustaining the emotional abuse I inflicted on myself for not being able to write flawlessly the first time. After she read it, I shared with friends who still found mistakes. After those edits, I made my best friend, who is the smartest person I know, read it. She STILL found mistakes and had comments on how to improve my content.
Implementing that round of edits was a melancholic experience. I originally planned to have my book out at the time I was making them, and it was a bit of a knock to not have it be so. But at the same time, I was so aware of all the work that I poured into it, and I knew that rushing to self-publish it would ultimately be limiting its full potential.
Disclaimer: This post was actually originally written for my website back in January of 2020, and I specifically chose to rewrite for this post to remind myself of all of the feelings I was feeling back then. I’m currently editing it just four days away from my publication date, and I am so proud of how I’ve evolved as an artist and a writer since this was originally written.
Since the aforementioned editing stage, I’ve edited two more times. However, before those edits, I tried my hand at querying agents. Oh yeah, the very kind agents that requested full manuscripts got a version that still had imperfect grammar. Hey, it was my first time doing this all on my own, okay? The short of it is that they passed on it, and I’m glad they did, because the remainder of the journey of getting the book to where it is now has taught me so freaking much.
This project is a culmination of a lot of things and in a way, I guess it’s been a long time coming. It is arguably one of the largest, most important, and most formative parts of my identity over the last three years. It’s all of the feelings I experienced and all of the things that unfolded around me as I wrote it. It’s me, and I can’t help but want something to show for that.
It’s me, and I can’t help but want something to show for that.
I cringe a little at that last sentence. That was how I ended the previous paragraph in my original version of this post. As cool as it would be to have my book end up in the hands of people besides friends and family, I feel so much differently today. Sentience is me, and I can’t help but feel honored that it’s me that gets to carry it to the finish line. No publisher. Me. All me.
It’s me, and I like it. It’s me, and I’m damn proud of it. And that, even during the darkest of days during this process, is more than I ever could have imagined.
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The door opened again, and in walked the three doctors that interviewed her to be a part of the experiment: Dr. Asha Keida, Dr. Jake Oldoney, and Dr. Elodie Teter. From some half-assed midnight research the night before her obligatory interview, Leo knew that Asha Keida and Elodie Teter founded the company, which, with the help of an angel investor, was now AlgorithmOS, the organization conducting the experiment. Together, the three doctors created the four AI that sat among the group. They were conducting a Turing Test.
“Welcome to the AlgorithmOS field office,” started Keida. From the moment Leo met her, she liked her. If she wasn’t there out of necessity, Keida could have convinced her to participate. Her voice was soothing, and her words always seemed carefully chosen. Something about her made Leo feel like she could trust her.
“It’s nice to see you all again,” interjected the second woman. “In case you have forgotten, I am Dr. Elodie Teter, Co-Founder of AlgorithmOS and Co-Director of Programming. Dr. Asha Keida is my Co-Founder and Co-Director. Together, we have written the code that operates the AI you are about to encounter. Dr. Jake Oldoney is the Head of Robotics. He is the great mind behind their humanoid vessels.”
“Today, we make history,” Keida resumed. She paused to scan her audience, making eye contact with each of them. “Four of you are not human. Four of you are manmade. With our deficiencies in mind, you were crafted to do what humanity is incapable of doing. You were designed to be the things that we are not. At the same time, you were intentionally forged to be indistinguishable from humanity, in a way, making you almost superhuman. We printed your flesh and programmed you with an identity and an entire moral framework, both of which will influence how you make decisions inside of the experiment. We bestowed upon you the capacity to think, to feel, to dream—”
“Now it is time to see if the four of you are truly indistinguishable,” Dr. Teter interrupted her abruptly, stepping forward. There was now a palpable tension between them. Dr. Keida stepped back and let Teter continue.
“We are conducting a Turing Test to see if you can think, decide, and act in a convincingly human way,” she paused. “Should you prove inadequate for this challenge and reveal your true nature, you will remain in the experiment until its conclusion. We hope that’s not the case. Unlike Turing, we’re targeting a 100% pass rate.”
Teter flashed a cocky smile as she moved across the stage.
Leo thought back to when she first read the words Turing Test in the project scope document that she received after being selected for the experiment. She had never heard them before. She remembered staying up almost until morning, a tumbler of something strong and brown in hand, clicking from one link to the next to learn more. The original Turing Test was a test in which a human and a computer were interrogated by another human. The nature of those being interrogated was concealed during the process, and at its conclusion, the interrogator was responsible for determining the nature of the participants on the other end. If more than 30% of the interrogators were incapable of making a distinction between man or machine, the computer was said to have passed the test. While Turing’s Test had the same objective as Keida, Teter, and Oldoney’s, this was on an entirely different level.
“Dr. Oldoney?” Teter gestured for the man behind her to step forward.
Oldoney began with the logistics of the experiment, reiterating what Leo had read over and over in the experiment information they provided. The group would enter a contained environment, referred to as Eden, where they would be tasked with reaching a designated destination as a group. There would be tasks and checkpoints along the way. They would encounter obstacles, deterrents, and situations that would provoke human emotion and require strategic decision- making throughout their journey. The experiment would last a maximum of two weeks, concluding when the group reached the extraction point, or when the two-week limit expired. The entire experiment would be monitored remotely through stationary surveillance and drone cameras, but under no circumstances would there be any intervention from the outside world.
About the Author
Courtney Hunter is a serial creator from Philadelphia, PA with experience in writing, the fashion industry, and live performance. After eighteen years of studying contemporary dance, she set out to carve herself a path in fashion and retail buying. Upon graduating from Philadelphia University and settling into her career, she turned back to dance. While working as a retail buyer for Burlington Stores, Courtney began producing contemporary dance and burlesque performances under her production company Stolen Fire Collective, aptly named after Prometheus the fire-stealing god. Sentience, her debut Science Fiction novel, is a written extension of a contemporary dance piece that was produced for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2017 based on artificial intelligence.
A lifelong Sci-Fi fan (her favorite movie as a little girl was and still is Jurassic Park), Courtney loves anything Promethean in nature and her favorite books, movies, and television shows are the ones that challenge the ethics of the future that we are rapidly heading towards. Some of her favorites include Jurassic Park (obviously), The 100, The OA, Westworld, The East, and Ex Machina.
She still resides in Philadelphia with her partner, Will, and her rescue pups, Rickie and Billie. In her free time, she records a podcast called The Sentience Podcast, which started as a behind the scenes look at the making of her novel and has evolved into an auditory hub for all things science fiction, creative process, true crime, and the occult.