…and I’m starting to write again. Healing has occupied a lot of my energy over the last couple of weeks, just as contemplating major surgery sapped a lot of my mental energy for a few weeks leading up to it.
There’s a big wad of post-surgery slacker inertia to overcome, but I’m starting to break it up the last couple of nights with some decent prewriting.
I’ve been keeping track of the Saga Of The Hip Replacement over on Twitter. The tweet below leads to the thread I’ve been keeping. There are a few tweets above and many below the one I chose to link. I chose the one I chose because holy crap look at those 29 staples I still can’t believe it.
I’m healing up nicely, though. And lots of folks have tweeted good vibes at me as I’ve been healing, which is awesome and every one of you rocks.
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.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 21st. Become a patron and see posts early, get FREE ebooks before anyone else can get them, and help me on my quest to feed a family of five with my dreams!)
For a little while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of going back and editing some of my oldest stories. I generally still like those stories from my earliest days of self-publishing — an immense five years ago, has it really been so little time? It seems like ages.
It’s exactly because it seems like ages that I want to create some revamped editions of those stories. Five years isn’t all that long ago, but it was only seven years ago that I decided it might be fun to take up writing for my own enjoyment again and only six years ago that I decided — okay, my wife persuaded me over my own self-conscious and self-deprecating protests — that I might want to write stories to share with other people, and maybe even sell a few.
I used to write in grade school, imitations of science fiction stories found in libraries and the steady stream of paperbacks my father devoured. But after placing only (!) third in a short story contest in my smallish school, I decided I must not be cut out for writing — I had absorbed, from somewhere, the idea that writing was a talent and not a skill, and I didn’t have it. I wrote a few short stories in my teens and twenties, for my eyes only. Still convinced that, though fun, I just didn’t have the talent to write good ones. The thought of writing disappeared from my horizon until my late thirties, when it finally sank through my thick skull — I think the credit goes to Stephen King’s On Writing, which my wife brought home for me from a thrift store — that writing was a skill, like any art, and takes practice and time for the skill to develop.
And so I started filling notebooks with my own writing and reading the stories I loved with an eye toward what made them fun and interesting to read.
Those early self-published works were published while my skills were still new, and they show it. Are they still good? I hope so — at the least, I think the concepts are sound and the basics of story are there. But after writing a hundred and something short stories and making my way through an English fiction writing MA (I’m in the final course of my program as I write this) I think my writing has evolved significantly in the last few years. And I think any writer who passes through the first five years of writing with the intent to be published does the same — the early years of developing any skill are the years of greatest growth.
Now here’s the bit that’s important to you if you are interested in writing and especially if you have enjoyed some of my stories:
I’m planning on writing a few posts along the way as I revise, and I’m planning on publishing new editions with the old text included after the new text for anyone who would like to compare and contrast.
I think it will be an interesting look into how a writer evolves, for you and certainly for me.
I’d love to have the old and new text side by side for easy comparison, but there are a few factors in the way, so one after another it will have to be. 1: my primary self-publishing outlet, Smashwords, doesn’t like columnar formatting. 2: even if I could finangle side-by-side columns they would look like hell on any device you’d read an ebook on, short of maybe a 40″ monitor. 3: my stories tend to lengthen with editing despite the fat I cut, and the comparison columns would soon be out of sync anyway.
But why, exactly, is any of that important?
Because as my patrons (if you’re not, I’m talking to you in the next paragraph, and this one is short, so I’ll be right with you), I’ll treat new editions of old stories exactly like new stories. You will see them on Patreon a minimum of 30 days before they appear anywhere else, and you will get a free copy in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI regardless of what I charge for the new edition elsewhere. This one I’m tackling first, “In Real Life”, is priced at $1.99.
Even if you’re not one of my Patreon patrons, you may not have read the original, and may find it best to wait and get the new and old editions together — and if by chance you bought the original ebook, once the new edition is released you *should* be able to download the new version from the original vendor you purchased it from. If not, let me know and I’ll hook you up after the patron-exclusive 30 days ends — you’re on the honor system; please be kind to this writer who needs every penny he earns to keep his 20 year old minivan running and the lights on at home.
Also, the story may get longer — at least three readers have told me that they’d love for it to be longer, maybe to reveal what happens next after the ending. Now, “tell us what happens next” is sometimes the bane of the short story writers — I, like many others, like an open-ended ending that invites the reader to imagine the possibilities beyond the end of the story — but sometimes it’s actually a good idea. I’m thinking particularly of “Isolation”, the title story of my Isolation and Other Stories collection, which ended after what became the first third of the story in the original draft. My wife read it and said, as near as I can remember, “hell no, you can’t end it there. It needs more.”
Sometimes the reader is right. “In Real Life” might need more. Or it might not. We’ll see. But like I said before, my drafts tend to grow during editing — just as, in the old saying, stories grow with the telling.
No matter how it goes, it should be fun.
Please don’t remind me that those are famous last words — let’s end on a high note.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 10th of this month — that’s right, they get to see posts THREE DAYS EARLY. When I publish an ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS BEFORE NON-PATRONS CAN EVEN BUY THE THING. So you should totally support my efforts by becoming a patron. You’ll even have my very sincere thankyous because times are tough, money’s tight, and my family of five enjoys pricey things like “eating” and “having a roof over our heads.”
Enough of that, here’s the actual post you’re here to read:
I seem to like writing about writing about food. Probably because I REALLY like good food. If I had gotten my head on straight earlier in life, there’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up being a chef instead of a writer. Both careers sound good to me — though I mostly lack the patience to make it through the prep drudgery of chefdom (at least in the early career stages). Maybe in an alternate world there’s an S.A. Barton restaurant. I hope it specializes in science fiction themed food.
But I’m WAAAAY off track of what I had planned to write here today. I’ll just mention that I’ve posted on food and science fiction before, in “Eat Science Fiction” and “Eat MORE Science Fiction“, and move along.
So, I’ve got this work in progress. Like about half of my stories, it started with a title that clicked with me. I’ll be sitting around tweeting, reading, or otherwise minding my own business and all of a sudden a phrase or word will flash into my head and I’ll scramble for a pen and scrap of paper thinking, “man, I have GOT to write a story with that title.”
This time, the title was “And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon”. I know, it’s just a nursery rhyme phrase. But this time it came to me while I was reading about machine learning and artificial intelligence.
So I had this little stub of an idea. A story about AI, and this title. The story gears started grinding away in the writers’ lobe of my brain. I sat down to try to puzzle out what to do with this thing. I picked up my pen and a pad. I stared at the blank paper for fifteen or twenty minutes — some of you may recognize this as the vital part of writing fiction that makes non writers say, “so are you ever going to start working, or what?”
DAMMIT I AM WORKING. JEEZ. SHH.
Finally I started to write. I started to write a menu for an appetizer course. Because the Dish and the Spoon suggest a kitchen, and we all know what comes out of kitchens. Delicious food.
And I like to write about food almost as much as I like eating it. A match made in heaven. So now I have a story about food and AI and a kitchen and does it really have to be a literal spoon and dish? Hmm…
…and it started to really come together in concept. I’d open and close the story with a menu card. Place a menu card in between each scene. For framing the story, for punctuation, to play with foreshadowing and tone-setting with my menu choices. Eating a meal and socializing go together all over the world, so I’ll write a story about relationships.
So now I’m fifteen hundred words into my story about AI and relationships and food. I have an AI relationship developing along with a human relationship to make the whole thing more, at the risk of becoming too repetitive here, relatable.
I’m in the middle of soup and salad now, and looking forward to the entree. I already know what dessert will be, and I think it will surprise and please the diners. Readers. Whichever.
Now, I’m sorry to say this one won’t be appearing in public for a little while. Once I finish it and bounce it off a couple of readers, I’m going to see if I can’t sell it, and I think it has a place in a new collection I’m working on. But don’t worry.
Anticipation and hunger are the best sauces a meal can have, they say.
The view from where I used to live in the fall of ’06
Above, is an image of climate change and rising sea levels. Granted, this was during a storm, and also I lived on what is essentially a large paved-over sandbar. But still, Norfolk, Virginia is one of the US cities most affected by the rise in sea levels that comes with climate change. So, not only do I see it on the news and think about it, I see it in a pretty obvious way. And it makes its way into my fiction. I have a story I’m shopping around to SFF magazines set in the near future (edit 2018: the story is Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, and I published it myself. You can find links to buy a copy by clicking here.), where the sea has swallowed up the North Carolina barrier islands and coast, and displaced residents scrape a living out of salvaging scraps from submerged towns. A half-finished story is set in an equatorial Africa where daytime temperatures over 50C/120F are an almost daily occurrence, and cities have moved underground (also, there are aliens checking out the local humans) (edit 2018: that story ended up in the trunk because I realized I was writing characters from a position of shallow cultural knowledge, and also it was kinda sucking. But, like many stories destined for the trunk, I learned some stuff writing it). Speed Glacier revolves around the adventures of a group of radical eco-warriors and their improbable craft/weapon in the war against the forces of pollution. Yet another story, My Name is Gerald, is not actually about climate change, but the background descriptions are of a Midwestern USA where the crops have moved north and hot, dry, dust bowl conditions reign.
Climate change has altered the world slightly over just my lifetime to date, and humans, let’s face it, don’t live very long in the perspective of events like global climate shifts. It’s changing fast. And that makes it a hell of an element for speculative stories. Don’t get me wrong, other authors are not particularly missing the boat on this. I have seen climate change as a plot or background element in a number of SF short stories (my primary reading material — I don’t take in novels half as often as I used to).
But I’ve been mulling writing some more stories focused on what the future world might look like in different circumstances. The screw-it-burn-all-the-coal future. The holy-crap-lets-ban-fossil-fuels future. The amazing-new-carbon-sequestering-technology future. The we-tried-to-fix-it-and-screwed-up-here-come-the-glaciers future. The possibilities are endless, which is a quality that endears SFF to me.
I’ve even considered, despite never having done such a thing, the possibility of soliciting the stories of others and building a climate change themed anthology. I’m a bit scared of the prospect; I hear it’s a hell of a lot of work for a group of people, and I can’t help but observe that I am only one person, and one without experience in that area to boot. But it’s something to consider.
Also to consider: will my eventual grandkids or great-great grandkids end up emigrating to Canada to escape the tropical heat of middle US America? Hmm.