Sunday, June 29, 2014

Do-overs

Being a writer has certain advantages. You get to hang out with the cool kids in the back of the bus. You get a sweet membership card, get to learn all the crazy hand-shakes and secret signals, acquire awesome tattoos full of rich mythology and symbolism. You get a secret road lying under the normal roads you can drive on with no speed limits--wait, no, that's the Stonecutters.

Actually, being a writer doesn't give you many advantages. You dress weird, you don't get out much. You hang out with weirdos, imaginary and otherwise. You talk to yourself way too often for normal society. Occasionally you smell funny, particularly when you're three hours out from a deadline and your engine has been running for days on strange cocktails comprised of 90% caffeine and 10% desperation.

But there are perks. Nearly unlimited do-overs, for one.

The French have a phrase, "L'esprit de l'escalier," which sums this up. It means "staircase wit" and it's that moment when you've just gotten your ass handed to in an argument, you've JUST made it to the stairs and you think of the perfect retort...which would have been great fifteen minutes ago. This is one of the few cases where the French word is catchier than the Yiddish one: trepverter? That sounds like some kind of kitchen gadget. "Hey, Marge, put the rest of those carrots in the trepverter. Don't forget to rinse the grubber yung. Thanks!"

There's also a German version, "treppenwitz", which--in a complete upset--doesn't sound sinister, like most German words tend to do. But the French one is the best. Like most everything in French it sounds vaguely adventurous, something you'd say while flipping a long silk scarf over one shoulder after kissing a heart-stoppingly-beautiful member of your preferred gender goodbye before embarking on a multi-continent adventure, possibly to unearth a hidden city of some sort.

Never mind that staircase-wit tends to deliver those words you usually wind up regretting if you ever utter them out loud to the intended target. Biting wit is almost never something you just want to unleash without careful consideration of all branching futures, particularly the ones involving you getting curb-stomped by angry thugs or having to live with the consequences of having mouthed off to much-more-vindictive-than-you older relatives.

But you always fantasize. You wish you'd uncorked the gem you've just cooked up on the way out of the argument, damn the consequences. In your mind, you imagine all onlookers giving you polite applause or you hear a soft ding as you level up. In reality, it's usually followed by stunned silence and maybe a pink slip followed by weeks of being shunned. Trust me on this one.

But as a writer, you can do that. Until you pull the pin on a draft and send it to the presses, you can do over, and over, and over, until you get it just so.

Case in point. Yesterday I hit a point in the story where I bulled through that day's word count. Just put in the miles, so to speak. The bit I was writing looked kinda cool on the outline, but in practice that morning it was just lay-over C on the way from Point A to Point B. Kinda like the Hoboken Station on the New Jersey Transit of my story.

I pulled the pin, having put in my six hundred words or so and got on with the morning. I had errands, some running around to do (literally, in my case--the day was far too beautiful to not go outside and get some exercise in). But the entire morning, it gnawed at me. The actual text didn't really match up to my expectations. I'd been looking forwards to writing that bit of the outline for weeks.

I worried at it like a rotten tooth, probing away endlessly at the strangeness with my tongue. Finally, I sat down and reread it. It wasn't bad. It wasn't great either. So I started tweaking. Redid half the dialogue. Made the character they encountered weirder. Tweaked the flow. Added a bit of foreshadowing. Gave the main character a slightly different internal monologue to bridge the beats. Completely recast the scene. Now it works much better. And I had more fun writing it.

I can't really think of any other endeavor where you have this kind of control over the output without wasting any sort of materials. You can't rebake a cake--you have to do it over from scratch. Painting? There's only so much paint you can slather over whatever you do before you have to get a fresh canvas. And there are no do-overs in sport, professional line-dancing or cliff-diving.

Writing's kinda cool that way. You can polish and polish and polish until what you write is scrubbed bone white and then release it to the public. Then you pretend it was no big thing, that this is what everything which comes out of your head is like.

Totals:  649, 681, 517, 820, 694, 663, 833. Not a bad week!

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