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Channeling Mark Twain: How I edited a crowdsourced novel (once)

The lead writer of CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel echoes one of his favorite authors to recall the inspiration for the project and how it came to be.

Looking back on what I learned from crowdsourcing an entire science fiction novel for CNET, I was reminded of a short story by Mark Twain. Titled "How I edited an agricultural paper (once)," it's about the mishaps involved in taking temporary editorship of an agricultural paper in the 19th century. It's a silly satire worth reading in full here that starts like this:

I did not take temporary editorship of an agricultural paper without misgivings. Neither would a landsman take command of a ship without misgivings. But I was in circumstances that made the salary an object. The regular editor of the paper was going off for a holiday, and I accepted the terms he offered, and took his place.

Reading that story again after our months-long crowdsourcing experience, I found myself relating to the experience of Twain's character, who is in way over his head. In fact, I was so inspired by the similarities that I decided to emulate Twain, one of my literary heroes, in recalling how I crowdsourced a science fiction novel (once).

We still ride the Twain train.

Library of Congress

Much like Twain's narrator, I did not undertake the crowdsourcing of a science fiction novel without misgivings. Neither would an Uber driver take command of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner amid a near-vertical takeoff without misgivings.

But I was in circumstances that made the recruiting of strangers to assist in the writing of my novel quite appealing.

My novelist wife had encouraged me to complete the annual National Novel Writing Month challenge of drafting a 50,000-word book within the bounds of an invisible concept that calls itself November. Being a prideful man with not nearly the imaginative capacity or discipline to complete such a task on my own, I placed my first few frail chapters online and invited all those within reach of a public Google Doc to help me complete the thing.

Naturally, my wife thoroughly chastised me for embarking on such a fool's errand, declaring that what seemed like a shortcut would ultimately create a chaotic mess and require 10 times as much effort to edit into something halfway meaningful. Being a prideful man unable to imagine the distant challenges of which she spoke, I ignored her and proceeded.

The sensation of composing fiction again was luxurious and I wrote the first week with unflagging pleasure. I placed the first chapters and an outline of the entire story online, then waited with some solicitude to see whether my effort was going to attract any notice.

Very soon all sorts of experienced and aspiring scribes started to come around my document's little corner of the cloud, making up for my shortfalls in imagination. I had presumed that my planned plotline -- involving technology to halt aging, revelations about the true nature of the afterlife, and espionage on a global scale spread across not just one universe, but two -- was sufficiently marvelous. But the crowd quickly demonstrated that my initial instinct to distrust my creative powers was correct.

Contributors from as far and wide as Nepal, Brazil and the overflowing brain repository better known as the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology leaped into the fray, pointing out myriad inconsistencies in my premise and constant confusion at the nature of the parallel universe serving as half the setting for the story.

"I don't understand...are there physical bodies on (the parallel Earth in the story)?" one baffled contributor wrote in the margins of the Google Doc.

"If people don't age they won't reproduce. So children will have another status than they have now. And pregnancy would be really weird," mused another in our Facebook group.

Eric Mack/CNET

Scenes that casual, skimming readers could understandably interpret to be examples of futuristic zombie erotica appeared in the document and isolated instances of trolling and vandalism were also visited upon the draft.

I felt a little uncomfortable about these additions, for I could not help feeling remotely accessory to them. But these thoughts were quickly banished as my global crowd of relentless editors and contributors took to excising these sections and trolling the trollers into submission.

Click on the book cover to read "Crowd Control."

Sam Falconer

By the end of November a nearly full draft had emerged by the keystrokes of hundreds from around the globe. I declared the experiment a success and gloated more than a little bit around my wife, who had warned that I was only creating a literary Frankenstein no editor would be able to control.

She was, of course, correct. Toward the end of the crowdsourcing process there was still no agreement on whether the main characters on a parallel Earth were walking around in physical bodies, floating about as "energetic particles" or using some sort of body docks to ambulate. There were also a few missing scenes, a house cat left alone to starve for no good reason and some clear violations of the canon of Einstein that I continue to hope no one notices.

Yet, there was undeniably a story with a beginning, middle, end, compelling characters and interesting settings. The entire National Novel Writing Month challenge is intended to do no more than produce a very rough draft of a book, and our crowd had most certainly achieved that.

To get that draft into a final form that could ultimately be published here did indeed take at least 10 times more effort, as my wife had warned. But at the moment earlier this year when this reality was becoming apparent, I reminded my wife of her promise to me to be the first one to read and edit the thing into something readable.

"You are the loser for the moment here, not me, Frankenstein's Editor. Adios."

I then go sleep alone on the couch.