I’ve begun rewriting that early story of mine, “In Real Life”.
(The new cover is better than the old, don’t you think?)
It was published in 2012, but it was written, to the best of my recollection, in late 2010. Maybe I’m wrong and it was early 2011, but it’s no more recent than that. That wasn’t too long after I took up writing again – by that time I had worked the most egregious bugs out of my writing, I think – but I temper that thinking with the fact that it’s something of a yearly affair to look back at what I have written and think, oh, I wouldn’t have written it that way now. I could have improved on that. Go ahead and read it with a critical eye, see what you think.
I’m helping the last customer of the day pick out a low-end cosmetic skin for his personal Heads Up Display when my PayDayFeed blinks three times and turns yellow. That’s the signal that I’ve gone into overtime. The dollar counter speeds up, reflecting time and a half, and the HUD Gear corporate overlay adds a digital countdown to the icon population floating in my view. I’ve got half an hour before I get a disciplinary notice; the company is very serious about limiting overtime outside of major shopping holidays. I perk up my tone as I list the features of the skin the lean pimple-faced boy seems most enthusiastic about, guiding him to a quick decision. We ShareSpace our HUDs through the retail interface, and I nudge his skin’s icon over to his side. He double clicks it to accept, and his account transfers the $119.95 to the store account. The receipt icon appears and I move it over for him to acknowledge. I’m loading my closing checklist at the same time I’m walking him to the door. It’s going to be close, the counter is down to 00:24:36 when the lock clicks shut.
It clicks shut again, behind me this time, freezing the countdown at 00:04:09. Good. I still have 42:21:55 working time until my last OT warning goes inactive. I really don’t want a second one. I smile as I slide behind the controls of my aging Honda/soft three wheeler…
As I read over that, making mental notes about where to make changes, I thought, this is not going to be a cosmetic rewrite. I am going to rework this sucker bigtime. I haven’t developed just in terms of story mechanics or of smoothly communicating the story and scene to the reader. My style has changed. I have (I hope) a better feel for what needs to be explained overtly and what can be left to the imagination or assumption. Yeah, this story is going to change a lot. And that affirms my idea that the original text will be included after the rewritten story when I create the ebook. The reader ought to have the opportunity to see what the new edition sprang from.
Picking out details as I tackled the rewriting, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a miss in terms of writing, but in terminology. “Heads Up Display” (HUD) isn’t the worst way to describe “augmented reality,” but it’s not really very good, either. I hadn’t yet encountered the term “augmented reality” to describe the species of virtual reality in which the user sees the physical reality around himself, but with a visual overlay or modification added. A “skin,” to borrow a term from videogaming. HUD usually refers to a similar idea in which the augmented reality is projected on a transparent surface like the windshield of a car. So one of my first changes is to replace HUD with augmented reality and introduce my own take on the inevitable slangification of technical terms with “augreal.”
I also thought I leaned a little too hard on the details of how the transaction was navigated. Other things I changed were based on subjective feelings – I felt the flow of the original was a little choppy. I think I paid more attention to describing the action and being linear and chronological, and less to how the language sounds – I bet I didn’t read the first version to myself out loud. Now I pay more attention to that aspect. Prose may not be poetry, but it should be good storytelling, and good storytelling engages as much through the feel of the words and sentences as it does through definitional means of describing the setting and action the writer is imagining. At its best good storytelling prose feels a bit poetic in a way, transmitting something emotional and subjective, not just a dry description. Did I hit that mark? I don’t know, it’s notoriously hard for a writer to judge his or her own work. Did I at least get closer? I’m pretty sure I have.
These kinds of conversations with myself (is this good storytelling?) remind me that it’s easy to be a perfectionist in theory. I’d love my writing to be “perfect,” whateverthehell that is. In reality, indulging perfectionism kills productivity. No writer is perfect. Every writer misses the mark sometimes. No writing is ever loved by everyone who reads it. So I have to set myself a limit – I’ve tinkered with this enough, now I’m no longer improving the prose I’m delivering. I’m just tweaking the arrangement a bit, changing for the sake of changing.
Perfection is an illusion. Always strive to improve, never expect to be perfect.
Here’s the rewritten opening:
I’m already trying to hurry the last customer of the day through his purchase when the world grows a blinking yellow border – I’m now trespassing upon the dread domain of overtime pay. My bank balance, always present in the lower left of my augmented reality, ticks over faster with time-and-a-half. Glowing red digits appear in the center of my vision, ghost-translucent over the face of my customer – the Worktime corporate skin on my augreal counting down the half-hour of OT I’m allowed before I’m written up.
I resist the urge to talk faster – nothing turns a customer off like feeling he’s being rushed – and pour on the persuasion. He’s a kid, pimple-faced and gawky, self-consciously coolish, browsing first person shooter skins for his augreal and avoiding the ones with the highest user counts. But he skips past the lowest, too, and I get it: the key to hurry him out the door. He’s a safe player, looking for the middle ground between Popular Fanboy and Ironically Uncool. I lean in, tipping my forehead toward his, the universal gesture: merge our augmented realities? He nods and I zip through the advanced search options too fast for him to follow – I’ve been here ten years; jobs for humans are rare and precious; nobody leaves one on purpose. I flip through three skins like the ones he’s been lingering on, heavy on reds and flamethrower effects, and repeat the magic words to death: you can exchange it within seventy-two hours, FREE, if you don’t love it. Finally he taps one of the skins. I pass him the TOS icon and he taps agree without reading just like everyone else, even me. Nobody reads the TOS. He passes over his $119.95 – cheap skin, lousy commission, but you don’t try to sell a cheapskate a rich skin. I give him the exchange period countdown widget and open it for him in his augreal. I’m already opening my closedown checklist as I give him the thank-you-come-again. Time is slipping away fast and I don’t need another OT writeup – a quick peek at that widget tells me I’m still three workdays away from the last one dropping off. I rush through the closedown and freeze the OT countdown at 04:09 by locking the steel security gate over the store’s door on my way out. Victory.
One: This immediately became a complete rework of the whole text. It’s basically as time-intensive as writing a brand new story. I may not do this again because I’d rather be writing something new. If I wanted to revisit this particular story, I could do just as well coming up with a sequel or a second story set in the same universe.
Two: I do like the new copy more than the old. And of course I do. I’m taking something that 2011 S.A. Barton liked and making it into something that 2016 S.A. Barton likes. People change, likes and dislikes change; this is just another illustration of this.
Three: I’m going to keep going on with this exercise, but it’s going on the back burner. It will be a fine thing to tinker with when I’m feeling otherwise uninspired. And it has inspired me to critically look at myself as a writer – that’s almost always a good thing. Also, I said I’d rewrite the whole thing, and followthrough is good – mostly. If I find it’s eating new work, it’s going to have to go in the trunk. Sure followthrough is good – but on the other hand there’s no need to go down with a sinking ship but pride, and if life as a poorish person has taught me anything its that you must choose what you take pride in with care because pride is a luxury in most cases and luxuries are simply not in the budget.
Four: Rewriting those couple of paragraphs led to this (longer!) post PLUS a few clarifications of my priorities when it comes to writing. Part of my slow progress as a writer is due to the volume of other things that occupy my attention: life in general, children, mundane chores like cooking and, soon, moving household, online classes because grad school loans are part of what supports me having a home and internet access with which to pursue matters of education, family, and self-publishing. Interruptions of writing, unless you’re a monomanac, are going to happen, and many of those “interruptions” are GOOD THINGS. I don’t want to miss playing with my kids and private time with my wife because writing. But part of my interruptions spring from lack of focus. I’m especially prone to defocus because I’m worrying about X, Y, and Z current things going on in my life. The usuals, like keeping vehicles running and people fed and what if a hurricane or tornado comes this year and what if there’s a bureucratic snafu or something and we can’t pay rent and what if my last story sucked and, and, and… and I’m guessing plenty of you reading this can identify with worry as an enemy of focus to one degree or another. I worry about things, it’s what I do – and I remember being a small child and my grandmother saying “we are a family of worry-warts.” Worrying about things is apparently genetic. But I worry, worry, worry. I worry that slow sales of my work stems from older, less attractive stories that turn readers off, for example – rather than the idea that short story singles are limited sellers and novels, or at least novellas, are where the sales are at in self-publishing 999 times out of 1000. Actually, is that the figure? I’m not sure I’ve EVER heard of an author, self-published or other, making a self-supporting income out of solely short stories. At other times, I glom on to other ideas. I’m pissing readers off with my tweets or my blog posts (and I’m sure I have, because having ANY opinion will piss SOMEONE off – you can’t please everyone, ever), but most readers look past differences of opinion with authors and save “I’m not reading that person anymore” for REALLY HUGE UNFORGIVABLE stuff like kitten-eating.
Still on point four: so it turns out this rewriting exercise wasn’t as much about rewriting and getting a few blog posts about the process of rewriting as I thought it was.
It turned out to be about settling some of my internal conflict over my successes, failures, and in-betweens as a writer and self-publisher. Just taking action on the start of this old story plus the thought behind writing this post led to what I hope are some positive conclusions. Writing new things is more important than rewriting old things.I recently wrote a post in which I said unpublishing is a giant pain in the butt and you should consider everything else, including rewriting, before doing it.
Well, I may be best off unpublishing a few things. I don’t know yet – it IS a pain in the ass – but it’s on the table for those stories of mine that aren’t my favorites. We’ll see. Having some short freebies, as I do, remains a good idea – the free story has been the centerpiece of self-publishing marketing/selling strategy for a long while (comparatively long in this young current and extensive incarnation of self-publishing). Keeping my longer novelette and novella singles is a good idea – long stories are more likely to sell. Shorter stories that are neither freebie or novelette, neither the fish nor fowl of the world of self-publishing – I need to take a close look at those. If they’re already in a collection, maybe that needs to be their home instead of living a dual existence as a 99 cent single AND part of a collection. If I drop the unpublishing axe at all, it’s going to be on some of those awkward short stories that are not also flash fiction, novelette, or novella.
I have a lot of thinking to do as a result of this exercise. That makes it already successful, in my book. Some of the points above are me thinking ‘aloud’ on the page – and I’m inviting all of you who have read this far to tell me what you think.
This post has been as long as some of my short stories. If you read it all, you are definitely one of the people I’d love to hear a comment from – you were interested enough to stick with me and my thoughts for quite a while, in reading-on-the-internet terms.
See you in the comments section.