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Writer’s Cramp: Rewriting (Literary) History

Just in case you don’t know, writing is a bitch.

Whatever one writes, be it a story, reportage, poem, novel, job application, or even a personal email, haunts its author with lingering doubts over whether it was good enough. No matter how many re-readings and revisions one suffers through, one’s sense of satisfaction is never complete. Perfectionism and self-deprecation feed literary insecurity and rejection letters redouble it. Given how few details are typically provided, the real reasons for rejecting a manuscript are usually ineffable. Is it them or me, authors futilely muse before promptly answering in the first person singular and going on to redraft their query letters to a marketplace desperate for blockbusters.

The problem with waiting to submit a long-suffering manuscript until it has a gleaming patina is that it will likely take half a year to be accepted and yet another year to be published. In the case of pitching my recent novel I made the mistake of prematurely submitting a work-in-progress to agents and publishers. Even though I knew it could and should be improved (and continued to work on it), I vainly hoped that some assigned reader would find it irresistibly unique and sufficiently captivating to take a chance on it. Wrong.

The rejections weren’t about literary merit, I rationalized. What was scaring off the industry was my even-handed take on my subject matter (terrorist activity). Convinced that my novel would forever face censorship, I hastened to issue it, imperfect though it be, through a hybrid publisher (whom I recommend) under my own imprint (not hard to do). Ours was an amicable and efficient relationship that led to distribution less than three months after submission, but the burden of PR fell to me. And even after mustering some and launching the book at my own expense and suffering, the work attracted less notice than I had hoped for. Marketing was never my thing. Nor fame or fortune, it seems. So it goes and so be it.

But these days it’s possible to revise a book that’s published only on demand in short order. I can edit my novel and reissue a “new and improved” version whenever I want to, but should I? Could I tolerate a relaunch? Should I hire a publicist? I haven’t decided, but am considering such a project and could use your advice, should you care to comment.

Here’s what I have done so far. After the tedium of publishing, publicity, and launching shuddered to a halt, I once again had the luxury of reading books. And so, I sought out my muse, one David Cornwell (a.k.a. John le Carré) for inspiration. I picked up his Absolute Friends from where I’d left off last summer. It gripped my attention because, like my own opus, it puts you in the shoes of radical leftists to suffer their fate. My self-assignment ended by writing a book review of sorts, after which I devoured several more of his spy tales (he’s written two dozen, most still in print), studying his turns of phrase and his characters’ awkward interactions. His stories are all, like mine, in one way or another tragedies; things rarely end well for characters he induces one to care about, even should they survive.

Whatever their fates, his character insights and literary flourishes made me hanker to polish my style. Not having any fiction on the burner at the moment, I decided to pick a passage from my novel and give it a le-carréian twist. I vowed not to deploy any Briticisms, ape his droll character assassinations, or flip locales through time and space as is his wont; my goal was to learn to write with more expressiveness and nuance. The passage I chose to rework appears early in the book (ch. 5) and could be called

The Swiss Miss,

in which Iraqi dude Mahmoud and Swiss transplant Katrina first encounter one another. This scene takes place later on the same day he washed up in Piraeus and was remanded to the care of Austrian social activist Andreas. He and Mahmoud are ensconced in a funky Piraeus café, where the Greek hacker and confederate Ottovio has just presented Mahmoud (who has presented himself as Peter) with an encrypted smartphone before taking leave.

Read the rewrite on the right while referring to the original in the left column. Try not to think about le Carré as you consider the pluses and minuses of the result; just let the words roll over you and leave a comment, if you would, appraising the effort.

Published Version, 8/4/18 Edited Version, 12/26/18

He downed his tea and said, “Peter, wait for me here while I change your money. Should only take about twenty minutes.”

“Don’t you want me to come with you?” Mahmoud asked, his dark eyes darting around the room.

“Your company’s fine, Peter. I just think you should keep a low profile. Have some tea and cakes while you’re waiting.”

As Andreas beckoned the waiter, a young woman entering the café hailed him. She smiled and approached their table. Dressed in black jeans and a navy blue pullover, she was slim, no more than thirty, with honey-blond hair that fell in loose curls around her neck. Wire-rimmed glasses framed her light blue eyes, giving her an intellectual look.

“Salut Andreas,” she said, and in German asked “Are you okay? Every time I go by your shop for a haircut it’s been closed.”

Before Andreas could answer, her gaze flicked to Mahmoud leaning back in his chair, arms folded. “Oh excuse, me, I see you are occupied. Maybe I should check in another time,” she said, just as Mahmoud rose and offered her the empty chair. Accepting it with “Vielen Danke” she asked Andreas “Wer ist Ihr sehr höflich Freund?

Andreas surveyed the room through narrowed eyes and replied in German “Salut Katrina. My polite friend is Peter, recently escaped from Syria, trying to connect with his family. He’s staying with me before moving on.”

The only words Mahmoud could understand were “Peter” and “Syria.” He greeted the woman with “Inni mushtaaqun ilaykii” and then asked Andreas “Does your friend know any language besides German?”

With a smile dimpling her cheeks, her gaze lingering, Katrina replied in English “Yes—English, French, some Italian, and Greek. And I hope to learn Arabic. Perhaps you could teach me if you have nothing better to do.”

Andreas got up, saying, “Sit tight, Katrina, keep Peter company. I have brief errand. Back in a few minutes,” He motioned Mahmoud to follow him to the door, where he told him the story he had given Katrina. It was okay to sit with her, he said. “She’s one of my customers and an ally in the resistance. But she’s not aware of our group, so keep the talk light.” Mahmoud nodded and said he would simply socialize with her until Andreas returned from the bourse. He returned to the table to find Katrina toying with his new phone. “Is this yours?” she asked. “Very nice. My phone is really old.”

He told her he’d just gotten it and wasn’t sure what it could do. She volunteered to explore its features with him, but soon set it down and asked him what brought him to Piraeus.

He related his more or less veridical but unpracticed cover story: Fleeing to Syrian Kurdistan from ISIS; living with a family there until fighting drove them away, ending up in a Turkish refugee camp; hitching a ride to western Turkey; buying passage on a rubber boat to Chios. Getting put on a ferry to Piraeus by international aid workers who didn’t want single men mixing with families in their camp, mentioning he had a cousin in Germany he was trying to reach. She understood his situation, she replied, having been an international aid worker. Mahmoud took the opportunity to prompt her for her backstory.

She was Swiss, she began, from Basel, went to University there, and then signed on with a Geneva-based NGO that provisioned health care in developing nations. When their mission in Senegal needed an assistant, bored and sick of office politics, she jumped at it. With little to prepare her, she was told to organize logistics for public health campaigns like immunizations and malaria prevention. Then, when Ebola emerged, they tasked her to set up supply chains for field hospitals that were often attacked by Muslim insurgents. A few months of that were enough for her. She bailed.

Mahmoud asked if she left Africa because of Ebola or insurgent activity.

“Not really. I simply couldn’t take the graft, corruption and predation any more. Local officials were lifting supplies to sell on the black market, pocketing funds, and constantly hitting on me. Our leadership was lazy and incompetent. The top people were overpaid and took holidays on the organization’s tab. So I quit, but I never made it back Geneva. When I had to lay over in Athens I got caught up in the resistance to austerity and the sell-out Greek government, and I’m still here.”

“I see. So how do you know Andreas?”

First as a customer, she said, but in their inevitably political discussions in the salon, they discovered that they were both fighting the same enemies. Even though he was a committed socialist and she kept the company of anarchists, they mostly agreed on what should be done and sometimes did it together.

“So what have you done with him?” he asked, ears growing warm thinking she might consider his question improper.

Apparently not. “We help each other organize protest rallies and politicize frustrated workers and unemployed youth,” she responded. “Besides being very dedicated, he’s a wonderful man. I’m glad he’s helping you out. Anyway, enough about me. Tell me more about what you’ve been through. It must have been very tough.”

Mahmoud leaned back, searching for words, just as Andreas returned, flourishing an envelope onto the table. “Here’s your euros and transit card. How are you two doing?” Not waiting for an answer, he said, “I must go to my shop now. Peter, why don’t you come with me? Katrina, we’ll get together another time.”

Mahmoud hastily complied, telling Katrina “I’m sorry but I must leave. It was nice to meet you.”

“Same here, Peter. Don’t forget I want you to teach me Arabic,” she said with a smile, thrusting at him a napkin on which she had written her phone number.

975 words

 

 

 

 

Moments after the Greek Geek took his lumbering leave, Andreas’ phone chirped up a message from him. Hellenic police were hassling some unfortunate fellow down the block, it seemed. Wanting to check out the scene without putting his ex officio guest in jeopardy, he downed the rest of his tea and arose, instructing “Peter, wait for me here while I change your money. Back in about twenty minutes.”

Mahmoud’s dark eyes darted about the busy café. “Don’t you want me to come with you?”

“Your company’s fine, Peter. I just think you should keep a low profile. Have some tea and cakes while you’re waiting.”

As Andreas beckoned the waiter, a young woman entered the café. Returning the wave not meant for her, she smiled and made her way to their table. Dressed in black jeans and a field jacket to protect her navy blue pullover, she was slim, of medium stature, no more than thirty. Honey-blond hair fell in loose curls around her neck. Oval wire-rimmed glasses framed her light blue eyes, intimating curiosity.

“Salut Andreas,” she said, inquiring in German, “Are you okay? Every time I go by your shop for a haircut it’s been closed.”

Her gaze flicked to Mahmoud leaning back in his chair, arms folded. “Entschuldige mich,” she murmured, adding that as they seemed occupied, she would check in later, just as Mahmoud arose to offer her the empty chair, half bowing. Accepting it with “Vielen Danke” she asked Andreas “Wer ist Ihr sehr höflich Freund?

Glancing furtively about the room, Andreas replied in German “Salut Katrina. My polite friend is Peter, recently escaped from Syria, trying to connect with his family. He’s staying with me before moving on.”

Hast du Pläne für ihn?

No plan, came the Austrian’s measured reply; he was simply providing food and shelter.

The only two words passing between them that Mahmoud understood were “Peter” and “Syria.” He greeted the fair-skinned woman with “Inni mushtaaqun ilaykii” and and turned to Andreas. “Does your friend know any language besides German?”

With a smile dimpling her cheeks and a lingering gaze, Katrina replied in English “Yes—English, French, some Italian, and Greek. And I hope to learn Arabic. Perhaps you could teach me some if you have nothing better to do.”

Stroking his unadorned chin in an effort to coax out words, Andreas settled on “Sit tight, Katrina, keep Peter company. I have brief errand. Back shortly.” He motioned Mahmoud to follow him to the door, where he recounted what he had told Katrina. It was okay to sit with her, he said. “She’s one of my customers and an ally in the resistance. But she’s not aware of our group, so keep the talk light.”

Mahmoud nodded and said he would simply socialize with her until Andreas returned from his errand. He returned to the table alarmed to find Katrina toying with his new phone. “Is this yours?” she asked. “Very nice. My phone is really old.”

He told her he’d just gotten it and wasn’t sure what it could do. After volunteering to explore its features with him, she set it down, raising her steel-framed eyes to inquire “So what has brought you to Piraeus?”

A pause and a clearing of throat before relating his more or less veridical but unpracticed cover story: Fleeing from ISIS to Syrian Kurdistan; taken in by peasants until fighting drove them north and him west to a Turkish refugee camp; hitching a ride to western Turkey to ride a rubber boat to Chios, where aid workers who didn’t want single men mixing with families in their camp put him on a ferry to Piraeus, alluding to a cousin in Germany he hoped to reunite with.

She understood his sad situation, she replied, having been an international aid worker. Mahmoud used the opening to prompt her for her backstory.

She was Swiss, she began, from Basel, went to University there, and then signed on with a Geneva-based NGO that provisioned health care in developing nations. When their mission in Senegal needed an assistant, bored and sick of office politics, she jumped at it. With little to prepare her, she set about organizing logistics for public health campaigns like immunizations and malaria prevention. Then, when Ebola emerged, they tasked her to set up supply chains for field hospitals that were often attacked by Muslim insurgents. A few months of that were enough for her. She bailed.

Mahmoud asked if she left Africa because of Ebola or insurgent activity.

“Not really. I simply couldn’t take the graft, corruption and predation any more. Local officials were lifting supplies to sell on the black market, pocketing funds, and constantly hitting on me. Our leadership was lazy and incompetent. The top people were overpaid and took holidays on the organization’s tab. So I quit, but I never made it back Geneva. When I had to lay over in Athens I got caught up in the resistance to austerity and the sell-out Greek government, and I’m still here.”

“I see. So how do you know Andreas?”

First as a customer, she said, but in their inevitably political discussions in the salon, they discovered that while he was a committed socialist and she kept the company of anarchists, they mostly agreed on what should be done and sometimes did it together.

“So what have you done with him?” he asked, ears warming thinking she might consider his question improper.

Apparently not. “We help each other organize protests and politicize frustrated workers and unemployed youth,” she responded. “Besides being very dedicated, he’s a wonderful man. I’m glad he’s helping you out. Anyway, enough about me. Tell me more about what you’ve been through. It must not have been easy.”

Mahmoud leaned back, scanning the tin ceiling for imprinted words just as Andreas returned, flourishing an envelope onto the table. “Here’s your euros and transit card. How are you two doing?” Not waiting for a reply, he said, “I must go to my shop now. Peter, why don’t you come with me? Katrina, we’ll get together another time.”

Mahmoud hastily complied, telling Katrina “I’m sorry but I must leave. It was nice to meet you.”

“Same here, Peter. Don’t forget I want you to teach me Arabic,” she said with a smile, thrusting at him a napkin on which she had written her phone number.

1060 words

Thanks for reading thus far. Having gotten here, has the revision improved upon the original? What works and what doesn’t? Does it go on to long? Did it already? Please have your say, because I can’t go on without you.

 

 

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