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Thu, 25 Mar 2010

Five Years of Iron Writing

Four years, eleven months, have passed. I've written 195,557 words, Rich has written 199,513 words. At long last, barring an unanticipated eleventh-hour SNAFU, at the end of this month the five-year Iron Writing challenge will reach its conclusion. Rich and I will have both met our commitment to write and publish at least 3000 words a month for five straight years.

First, I'd like to congratulate to Rich Stelt for his shared victory and sportsmanlike camaraderie during the competition. Rich is no doubt the best wordsmith among our group. (Don't deny it, you know you are.) I was very nervous that my work would seem shabby compared side by side with his. No doubt he was tempted to raise his chances for solo victory by pointing out my work's evident inferiority, thus psyching me out. Yet he never did so. On the contrary, he always had a word of praise for my hollow monthly efforts. And with a straight face, even! I hope I returned the favor adequately in my own regular words of sincere admiration for his writing. He wrote some really good stuff, even if half of it seemed to be about his ex girlfriend.

Shiloh and Borah also wrote some good stuff. By far my biggest disappointment in my iron writing experience was their early departure from the contest. It would have been infinitely more harmonious had all four of us stuck it out. Their two voices were missed; two part harmony doesn't quite cut it. Still, their limited collection of opi do them proud. I hope they continue their writing work in other contexts. I know it will be excellent wherever they take their trade.

Although not required to write as bailee in this contest, Myron deserves honorable mention as an independent iron writer. He only published one article here, but I suspect seeing our work on this site may have been partial inspiration for the prolific writing he's done in his own personal blog. Damn, that boy can crank it out! I don't know for sure what his blogging word count has been over the last five years, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was twice the combined word total piled up by Stelt and I at ironwriters.


Now this I've provided the necessary award podium speech, I'd like to finish up this final month's three-thousand word quota with self commentary and critique of some of my writing efforts dedicated to this contest.

First off, if I say so myself, I do think I took the spirit of the contest seriously. I always tried to write at my best. I never merely babbled stream of consciousness to fill the page. Yes, there was some circumlocution and redundancy (i.e. invert Strunk and instead add needless words) that were deployed in the satisfaction of that pesky three thousand word limit. Still, each and every one of my efforts were fundamentally serious.

I attacked a wide range of topics and styles. There's a lot of fiction, adventure, sci-fi, and horror. There's travelogue, war stories, some tutorials, and the inevitable rant. I even wrote on the self referentially easy topic of writing about ironwriting, but mercifully I only pulled this trick three times. My very first essay, this last, and the allegorical Five Kings are my only meta-ironwriting.

The Alan Campbell Saga

I never wanted my writing here to devolve into the bombastic rants that are so typical of today's bloggers. Ranting is as easy as it is pointless. Did a rant even serve to convince someone that initially disagreed with the point?

Nor did I want to write strictly non-fiction essays. Rich Stelt tells me that he finds fiction easier because it's free of the constraints of true world fact. He claims one can take a made-up story anywhere. Me, I feel the opposite. I find the constraint of the factual essay comforting, and the freedom in fiction daunting.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. Why choose the easy path? Thus, I wanted to write some serviceable fiction -- or at least to try.

This desire, combined with my knowledge and interests, led me to cobble together a Michael Crichtonesque series of episodes that follow the trials and tribulations of a protagonist named Alan Campbell. I had a general idea for a story arc in mind. Alan would be a level headed IT guy who was battered by the various radical factions found in and around cyberspace. There would be extremist libertarian netters that see the net as its own sovereign place that needs to grab political power. There would be establishment corporate types fiercely defensive of their dominance. There would be criminals, martinets, G-men, hippies, weirdos, jerks, and damsels in distress. Ultimately, everyone would win something, and everyone would lose something. Money, specifically the secret of a viable e-cash, would be the McGuffin.

In my opinion, this work managed some moderately amusing dialogs and unusual plot details, but overall I think I failed to make the larger story coherent. As hard as I pushed, the damn story didn't move in the direction I wanted it to go. Funny how a writer's stories seem to have their own momentum and his characters seem to have their own intentional will. I was incredulous when I heard authors talk about this in the past. Now that I've felt it myself I can testify that these imaginary entities do have a stubborn life of their own.

To achieve success with Alan and his world, I felt I had to find a way for the freenetters to win independence on some realistic level, but I never could imagine a path to their victory that was believable -- or at least I never could imagine anything I would believe. That self imposed criteria may be too high a standard given what passes for believability in typical tech fiction, but I was conceited enough to think I could do better than the average.

I wanted some economically plausible equilibrium to be achieved in which meatspace was forced to talk turkey with the freenetters. Perhaps the reason I couldn't imagine such a thing is because such a thing necessarily can not exist. No matter how much we computer geeks want it to be otherwise, cyberspace is not a "place". It does not have secure borders. Anonymous, anarchist netters have no independent yet unified political power, or at least nothing that rivals the trivial meatspace power of an on-off switch, reset button, or firmware upgrade. Nor does cyberspace have its own economic power beyond its inbred gift economy. Even if a true e-cash can exist (and I do believe it can), it remains the case that without some "natural resource" or other item of inherent value that freenetters can trade for real-world goods, they remain without a way to prime their economic pump. Imagining otherwise is, to use Myron's word, wishful voodoo economics. Still, I imagine that in 1725 the English would have thought US independence to be equally impossible.

One angle that might have worked would be that the freenetters terrorize, steal, or extort their way to economic viability. Initially this was my plan: a cyber-revolutionary war. To be successful, revolutionary states need some secure resource with which to fuel their campaign. Yet the net is in an untenable strategic configuration. All its resources are located in enemy territory. Talk about overextended supply lines!

Possibly a more plausible alternative is if the ruthless capitalists would do the stealing and extorting for them. This could lead to a satisfying irony. Perhaps Carla's greedy plans to corner the market on perfect counterfeit dollars would backfire in some way that would hand the freenet people an economic resource they could build their nation on.

Massive plot hole notwithstanding, I did manage to burn over 36,000 words on Alan. If the work did nothing else, it moved me closer to this final ironwriter day, as it gave me some experience writing adventure fiction with dialog. In my day job I write technical papers and essays. I found my first foray into fiction writing difficult, but not impossible, once I had fully visualized the story line of the episode.

Unfortunately, the set of Alan Campbell stories don't exactly fit together in any medium-range way either. If I ever decide to turn them all into a single novel, they will need considerable trimming and glue even beyond solving the central problem of how to get the freenetters to win their independence. If I do this, I'd have a viable 50K word novel. That would be a nice outcome from ironwriters.

The best Alan-story sequence, short-range-fit wise, were the last episodes written. I rather like these, as they follow Alan and the bad gal Carla through their 'fleeing the scene' experience near BWI. Maybe these work so well because I based their details on a true-life story. Even though the larger context is fictional, unbelievable as it may seem, most of the details of those stories are exactly as they really happened. Yes, even those details.

Of course, these shameful things didn't happen to me. They, ummm, happened to this guy I know.

Beta Sigma

Inspired by such great retellings as West Side Story and The Magnificent Seven, I wanted to simplify my fiction writing task by retelling a proven story, reworking it with new characters and new setting of my own invention. This tried-and-true strategy for churning out "new" fiction relieves the author of the difficult problem of crafting a decent story arc -- something I, for one, certainly am not very good at. Instead, authors have the firm skeleton of a dependable "trope" on which to hang their flabby text. As a side benefit (or liability, depending on your point of view), when we're done, we can compare our result with a master's result to see how well we did.

The Elmore Leonard story The Boy Who Smiled is one of my favorite novella masterpieces and I based the Beta Sigma episodes squarely on this classic revenge plot. Apache Indians in Arizona became relocated Nepalese Sherpas on Mars. Wolves became terraforming robots. Greed, cruelty, prejudice, anger, revenge, and justice stayed the same. In the end, I think I didn't totally embarrass myself with the Sci-Fi adaptation of Leonard's tale, but my cover is in most ways inferior to the original. Leonard is such an inimitable master. He somehow packs more into a paragraph than seems possible.

Notwithstanding some geographic traits that are comparable, routine activities on frontier Mars must be necessarily different than on frontier Arizona. Consequently, although the plot arcs are basically the same, much of the setting and technical detail in my Beta Sigma story doesn't directly follow Leonard's. I believe there's only one paragraph in exact homage.

Compare my paragraph

Only now did Beta Sigma begin to move. Slowly and carefully he loaded his last 2 gram, hollow point flechette into the chamber of his FCA-26. He aimed at the man's head and fired without pity.
to Leonard's

Finally Mickey Segundo stirred. He broke open the 50-caliber Gallagher and inserted the paper cartridge and the cap. Then he eased the carbine between a niche in the rocks, sighting on the back of the man's head. He called in a low voice, "Tony Choddi..." and as the face with the wide-open eyes came around, he fired casually.

Even though I struggled to equal him, I think Leonard's version is clearly better than mine. I intentionally left out the details of the aiming -- modern weapons practically aim themselves -- and calling out a name in the thin air of Mars as implausible. OK. But I should have found some replacement to build tension in the middle of the paragraph. And I should have found some device to have Fagan be alerted and have his head turn just before being shot. Particularly irksome for me was Leonard's word "casually". The masterful incongruity of this relaxed final word in such a tense scene gives Leonard's finish an impact that my "without pity" does not achieve by half.

Even though I feel my efforts "work" on some level, I think they generally fail to attain the same intensity of narrative that Leonard achieves. This was not for lack of trying. Practice makes perfect. I think I'm now a better writer for having tried and failed. I'm also humbled by the experience.

The Last Evil Man

Another failure in my fiction writing was the "Last Evil Man" theme. The problem I was unable to solve in this story concept was this: how to hit a subtle mark with details sufficiently different that the 1001 other blatant tropes that crowd around nearby. My exact idea was to depict a progressive view of evil as something provisional in today's ethics. I imagine good and evil someday to be replaced by a more workable concept. The problem with this is fundamental. I don't know what that replacement looks like. Consequently, what I ended up with was a relatively typical horror theme.

Of course, my derived result may be telling me something about my postulates. Maybe the brave new world we enter when multi-millenia old concepts like good and evil are revised truly is horrifying.

The closest I got to my original LEM intent, I believe, was with Evil is Born Again. Although it has a satisfying (to me) plot, this story is very wide of the intended mark. It also drifts into prior art, with a necessary nod to Bradbury's Pillar of Fire that inspired the approach.

I also found the second LEM story to be a bit wordy and over-explained. If I didn't have a 3000 word quota, I could probably improve ...Born Again by chopping it down to half its current length. This is true of most my ironwriter works, actually. The length requirement gave me the bad habit of fluffing up paragraphs with a few extra glue words or parentheticals -- a habit that will be hard to break. Then again, one of the reasons Crichtonesque writing is popular is its intensity of technical detail.

Other Fiction

The story Twelve Eyes is one of the few cases where (in my opinion) I nailed my mark. Surprisingly, it was written early in the ironwriter term, month number three to be exact. In my opinion, nothing in the fifty odd pieces written afterward surpasses Twelve Eyes in terms of unity of mood and singularity of purpose. The story is also complete -- a rarity in my fiction that typically lacks finality.

My idea here was to write a horror short story in first person psychopath, something along the lines of King's Strawberry Spring, where the reader gradually realizes that the author has some serious issues. As I read it today, my story's mood seems more akin to Iain Banks' disturbing Wasp Factory than to King's less unsettling horror yarn. I had not read Banks' work prior to writing Twelve Eyes. If I had read Banks first, I probably would not have written my story, feeling unequal to the task. Attacking it independently, I see that I didn't do too bad, relatively speaking.

My second and third Last Evil Man (LEM) stories are also somewhat first person psychopath, but they don't have the grisly feel I achieved in Twelve Eyes. Eye gouging tends to trump most anything else when it comes to the gristle factor. Also, I don't think LEM comes across as psychopathic, he's merely amoral.

There's no doubt that Twelve Eyes taps into my personal anxiety over losing my right eye to cancer just a few months earlier. At the time it was written, it was uncertain if I would live to finish the ironwriter term. I don't care to estimate how much a role my cancer diagnosis played in my dedication and ultimate success in this writing contest, but I'd like to think that having a long term goal such as ironwriters contributed in some tiny way toward keeping me alive.

Another story that I think hits its mark is Repudiation. I often thought about a sequel to this, exploring its strange world. Does our hero get his rep back? Does he remain a rep-zero? I imagined a place where reputation had become an explicit possession, almost like a bank balance, that you could consciously and responsibly trade away for gain rather than lose through wantonness. My idea is an extrapolation of the eBay reputation number and other budding reputation systems popping up on the net.

The story Contact First was inspired by a suggestion from my son (who also collaborated on the second LEM story). After watching Mars Attacks for the 99th time, he asked why it was that first contact stories always seemed to be told from the point of view of the contactee humans, not the contactor little green men. Thinking about his point, I set out to write something to fill the gap. Sadly, I couldn't decide how to take the narrative forward (I guess this is my greatest weakness).

Recently I learned that my Schneier contest entry, Last Call, was undercut by an even worse Stephen King novel Cell. The other entry, Last Call (redux) falls even lower in quality. Maybe my absolutely worst story is Geocorpse, which has hardly a redeeming feature in my view.

Travelogues and War Stories

Several people have told me that I'm good at writing about things I've done or places I've been. It's true that I find these sorts of things very easy to write about, but the work is not particularly satisfying. Most of my ironwriter contributions in this category were written entirely in the last day before the end of a month. Back against the wall and lacking for a good fiction idea, I'd retrieve one of my oft retold anecdotes from memory and write it down. Done.

My anecdotes roughly divide into three categories, corresponding to my three outdoorsy interests: biking, hiking, and paddling. Of these, I personally like the hiking sagas the best. One reason for this may be that they are taken from the relatively recent events, hiking being my most recent avocation. Another reason may be that the slow pace of hiking lends itself to depiction in prose better than faster sports. Or maybe it just better matches my skills.

Some of these apparent travelogues drifted in the writing, becoming more like topical essays. One work in particular, Riding a Bike Across the USA was written prior to the event in question and therefore can't really qualify as a travelogue or war story. This piece is unique in another way, as it's the only ironwriter work that I ever significantly itched to change immediately after the writing.

I'm not talking about little edit corrections or typos. Almost every story I've published here could be improved by more polishing. Rather, in this case, I wanted to trash the whole thing and redo it from the top. The site still has the original, of course, but after the contest is complete the original will vanish, someday to be replaced by the corrected version that avoids some unfortunate nuances that irk me.

Other than this, I wrote very little about bicycles. Given the years I've spent riding bikes, you'd think I would write more about the experience. Only a few cycling war stories were captured into ironwriter essays. Despite the limited quantity, the quality is good. Out of my vast collection, I think these are my best cycling related war stories. They were reasonably transcribed into text.

I had several ideas for canoe stories, but never executed any of them. My only attempts were How to Succeed in Tandem Canoing Without Really Trying and Philadelphia Treasure, and these aren't exclusively paddle prose. The essay Activity Buddies mentions paddling, but as with the other two, is really about something else.

On the other hand, I did write a lot about hiking. My favorites of these are No Bridge, Treeline, and the Brunswick Mountain series. The pattern here is easy to spot: me scared shitless in an intense situation. The remainder of the hiking essays are far less intense.

In the essay The Walking Purchase -- Curiosity I did preliminary exploration that lays some groundwork for a larger treatment. Among the potential follow ons to ironwriters that will likely transpire, I think my engaging in additional research deep into this topic is near certain. The history of the "Indian Walk" fascinates me.

Reviews

As with anecdotes, I find reviews very easy to write. Movie reviews are the easiest. The only pity is that, to my mind, there are so few decent movies worth reviewing. I have a very narrow criteria defining what constitutes a "best film" for me. Based on this filter, I couldn't even come up with a top-10 list of my favorites. Nevertheless, I did write reviews of the eight that passed muster. I also managed to harness a couple of inferior films, Avatar and The Golden Compass, into service as the fulcrum of a political rant. That was fun.

I only did one book review: Restoring the Lost Constitution by Randy Barnett. Generally, I read either crappy fiction not worthy of review, or advanced non-fiction just outside my grasp that I would be unqualified to review. I think I'm well out of my depth to be commenting on US constitutional law, but I liked Randy Barnett's book so much I was willing to embarrass myself in an attempt.

Opinion

In the end, I managed to keep my direct punditry in check. Somehow I limited my explicit editorializing to relatively small minority of posts. So much the better. The world already has too much of this bombastic crap. The less I add to it, the better.

Not that fiction, reviews, or even travelogues aren't fertile ground to plant political opinions. My opinions and prognostications are liberally sewn into nearly everything I wrote here. I think it's impossible for anyone to do otherwise -- or at least it's impossible to do without turning ones writing into a nebulous haze without a point of view.

I certainly do have a point of view. Like many netters, my politics tends to be fundamentally libertarian. As a first principle, government is to be minimized. However, I recognize the cost and benefits of externalities, the possibility of efficiency by collective action, and the need for responsible stewardship of a fairly shared commons -- views that separate me from the two main political party platforms.

I also fancy myself a bit of a rationalist scientist and philosopher. As such, I won't tolerate slapdash technical reasoning or reckless math. That doesn't mean I can't be comfortable with irrationality, I merely have trouble mixing the two. Above all, I absolutely detest hearing the word "belief" used other than as a synonym for "hypothesis". My epistemology is not perfect, but at least I have something of a system for accurately recognizing when I know something, when I don't, and for changing my mind.

I did not write anything purely political, in the sense of hyperbolic rhetoric and bombast -- or at least I hope I didn't. Instead, I tried to only tackle specific aspects of issues to which I felt strongly about and could honestly contribute a unique view based on personal knowledge. Examples of this are Ending Discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America, and Abolish the FCC; Save the FCC; Which?.

Conclusions

Lesson's learned? Well, for one thing, omit needless words dammit! I hope I never have to write for a word quota again, something that that that that that ... bugs me.

The deadline, on the other hand, was a good thing. I've worked for deadlines in the past, generally job proposal or conference paper deadlines. I powered through those with coffee, mining the needed content, cutting and pasting from previous work.

The iron writer "time of the month" was something different entirely. The content had to be new, and the short, reoccurring gestation interval was brutal. Oh, how I hate February! Yet, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I now know a lot more about how to efficiently put together material.

From our discussions I've come to believe that Rich and I approach the process differently, but we both do have a process worked out. Me, I do a series of drafts. I start by dumping a bunch of related crap into a file: fragmented sentences, research, thoughts, titles, and even isolated words I think might be cool to use. I do this without prejudice. I may have five or ten of these embryonic works sitting in my "creative womb" at any given time. Then, when the moon is right, I'll focus one of these to develop into a more coherent draft. Push! Then a polished draft. Push! Then a fluffed draft if the word count is short. I can see the head! Spell check. Post. Revise HTML issues. It's a girl! Somehow, a new ironwriter opus is born.

The process is humbling. I may be proud of my achievement in this contest, but the literary world is vast, filled with giants, and I remain a peon. If I've learned anything I've learned how hard it is to write anything that could be considered objectively good in any large sense. My increased familiarity with the tricks authors use has not diminished my admiration for the masters. Quite the contrary, the more clearly I see authorial artifice, the more I appreciate the skill with which the best authors apply these manipulations. As with all the arts, you can't be a fully appreciative audience unless you've tried your hand at being a performer. My love of reading and literature has been immeasurably amplified by my work here.

Posted Mar 25, 2010 at 14:25 UTC, 4307 words,  [/danPermalink

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