July, 2017

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What’s in a year?

Well, this is it then. The last day of my sabbatical. Hard to believe. Which means it will soon be time to go back to the real world of finding time to read, write and run alongside a full time job and two dance daughters (we have a plan – it involves a complicated set of algorithms for who takes who where and when – and yes, I do know it’s ‘whom’ and I don’t care).

Was it what I expected? Not really, but then I wasn’t expecting it to be what I was expecting because since leaving university I haven’t known anything other than being in an office working environment and that being how I spend most of my productive (honestly) waking hours.

And guess what? As well as paying you (yay!), employment gives you an endless stream of social interaction, opportunities to learn and challenge yourself, and maybe even a drinks machine. It’s not a bad deal, really. Of course, not all of the social interactions are positive ones and not all of the challenges are ones you might have chosen. And sometimes the drinks machine breaks down. Such is life.

Focusing for a change on writing was a fascinating experience. Here’s a little of what I learned:

  • I wrote the book I wanted to. No question about it. Super happy about that. Now I’m focusing on turning it into a book that can be published. I think I’m glad overall that I did it that way. It feels a bit like this – remember the book you read that they turned into a film? It’s probably got the same basic story and characters, but it’s a bit different. Not all of the scenes made it into the film, which might have meant part of the story weren’t as they were in the book. Maybe you preferred part of the book, maybe the film brought out something that the book didn’t. Currently, I’m taking the longer, more complex version of the story and turning it into the simpler one. Some people fall by the wayside (ready for resurrection at another time and in a different story, perhaps), many scenes you will never know about, others are appearing that weren’t there before. I have the advantage that only a few people know what the original, detailed, story was so only they can tell me they hate what I’ve done with their favourite character or scene.
  • I can be happy spending most of my time with the people that you might say are made up characters and I would call Natalie, Theo and Alex. I know them better than I know most other people. They also only annoy each other and not me, and for that, I am very grateful.
  • There was a lot of trial and error, and still is. I suppose that’s called learning. But if there’s one thing I’m now better at, it’s knowing how far to go before pulling back. To begin with, I just wrote a scene because I liked something about it. It might have been 20+ pages on that one scene. It might then eventually get whittled down to one paragraph. Or end up being cut completely when I realised it didn’t go anywhere, fit in with any of the other scenes I’d written, or was just yet another book I was effectively starting from scratch with no idea of where it was headed. Doing that can be fun for a while, but it’s not exactly efficient if you want to finish a book. As writing practice, it’s just fine. Instead, I now do two things, which I think count as having developed a process that seems to work (for me):
      1. I don’t now allow myself to start writing properly until I have figured out how I get the story from the beginning to end. Not every detail, but the sequence of scenes. That’s not to say it won’t change later (because it does, all the time) but it means I know that if I start writing the first scene, it will end up somewhere. There are still times when I realise – wait, that doesn’t work in that order, or it’s moving too fast or too slow, or they wouldn’t do that. But that’s then a matter of sorting something in the middle rather than going off on some tangent, because I still know where I’m going to get back to.
      2. Instead of writing a 20 page scene that I then decide I can’t use/doesn’t work, I might write a paragraph and then stop if it’s just not going to work. Sometimes it’s a sentence that I don’t like. Sometimes I’ll start writing in the middle of the scene and then figure out how to wind back. Or just keep it starting in the middle of something. It’s a lot, lot more efficient. Better to stop something that doesn’t work as soon as possible and have another go. It might take me several attempts to find what I think works, but I think I’ve developed a better sense of when I’m barking up the wrong tree and need to pull something else out of my writing toolbox. Like not using mixed metaphors, for example.
  • Some days you need to sit down and just write – you can edit it later. Other times the answer is to get away from the desk and let your subconscious work for a while instead. The trick is to know which to do when. Still working on that one.
  • It needs a lot of discipline. Not only to get something down day after day, but to edit, change, remove and then do it all again. Which means also that…
  • You have to love it (despite everything). It’s not like anyone’s paying you to do it. I don’t think I had any days when I was working for more than 16 hours, but there were more very long days than I think I’ve ever spent doing anything else. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep because something in the book needed to be sorted. I wasn’t going to get anything else until I had dealt with that so I just bashed through the problem until I could at least see a potential way through it.
  • It’s emotional. Ask my family.
  • It’s also fun. Sometimes. Actually, quite a lot of the time.
  • You learn more about yourself than you might have wanted to.
  • When it comes to reading, a Kindle is generally the answer. Kindle for fiction, physical books for non-fiction. And I will sometimes buy a hard copy of the novels I’ve really liked reading on the Kindle.
  • For everything else, chocolate and tea are the solution. If nothing else, it means I have eaten something (I can forget) and have to take a break to fill up the kettle.

Along the way, we lived in the city centre for four months, missing the only winter with virtually no snow out here in the last 15 years, had the house redone (hello, little office!), fell in love with New York and got to survive on my cooking for a year (which had phases of being recipes from whichever country my current scenes were set in). I was stuck in bed for more weeks than I’d like to remember while the NHS sorted me out and discovered only afterwards that I had somehow plotted the entire novel in that time. I read more than a few books, some of which were worth the investment of time, and still have even more that I have yet to get to or through. And I cycled more on my Brompton than on any other bike in over a decade and discovered parts of Edinburgh during long runs that I didn’t even know existed. And, for a few weeks, I started work on the next novel, with some learning of Ukrainian thrown in along the way. But that’s literally a story for another year.

As for returning to work? The girls just want the drinks machine back, really.

Feedback? – yes please!

At work, giving feedback on performance is a constant issue. Lots of ‘I never get feedback on my work’ and ‘my manager doesn’t know how to give feedback.’ There’s might be some truth in that, but on the principle of it taking two to tango, feedback also takes two, and both of them have to be committed for it to be effective. Here’s what can happen when we receive feedback that isn’t ‘you’re wonderful’:

  • ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’ We take the correction and throw it back in the person’s face. ‘Well, you would say that, because you don’t know how to manage/made decisions/go to the toilet by yourself.’ Anything to deflect the feedback.
  • ‘If you think you can do my job better, why don’t you?’ Right, because that’s helpful.
  • ‘I hear what you’re saying, but…’ Really means, ‘Having taken no time to reflect on what you just said, I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong. When I said, “I hear what you’re saying,” I meant that purely in the literal sense. I heard the sounds, but I don’t agree with any of your comments. I will now proceed to tell you why I reject all of it.’
  • ‘You don’t understand…’ Variation on above. 
  • ‘What you’re forgetting is…’ Variation on above.
  • ‘You’re just saying that because you don’t like me.’ Yeah, putting it back onto the other person. Best defence is offence kind of thing. 
  • ‘You just want me to fail.’ Ditto. Accusing the other person of suspect motives is really helpful in this context.
  • ‘I didn’t ask you for feedback.’ Yeah, that’s part of the problem.
  • ‘Are you going to fire me?’ Slight overreaction.

How about this for an alternative set of responses:

  • ‘I hadn’t thought about that.’
  • ‘Nobody’s ever mentioned that before, I had no idea.’ 
  • ‘Can you tell me more so I understand better what you’re saying?’
  • ‘Thank you, I might not like it, but I appreciate your honesty.’
  • ‘Did you have any thoughts on what options I might have to do it better next time?’

Here’s a thought. Let’s assume the feedback is fair and accurate and delivered in a reasonable way. The first bunch of recipients are probably not going to learn very much from what they haven’t got quite right. The second lot are probably going to get better at what they do.

Right, so that’s work. There’s no easy way to say what I have to tell you know. You have no idea. What you think of as difficult feedback at work? Chickenfeed.

Try this. You spent a very long time writing a book. And editing it. And editing it again. And seriously, it’s good. You just know it is. And then you actively seek a full-blown professional review, with feedback. And there’s a lot of feedback. I mean, almost 25 pages of it. And it’s everything you need to sort/change/do differently.

There is only question. What are you going to do about it? Make the d@&$ book better, of course. Once, that is, you have mentally gone through every one in the first list above, even the ones that make no sense at all, just in case. Then you realise that yes, this is what you asked for, yes, it’s helpful, and yes, on reflection, it’s nothing you didn’t already know, you just didn’t know it applied to your book. But you know what? As well as marking every single thing you need to sort, you also highlighted the other bits, and these are the little bits tucked away which you go back to when you run out of things to smash against the wall:

‘You have a stylish literary voice… you have talent and should be very proud of having created such an intelligent and often moving novel…I don’t often feel an author has the potential to play at this level.’

So apart from halving the length, taking out two of the main characters, cutting the bits you liked the most and restructuring the whole thing, nothing to be done, really.

So one room in the house looks like this:

(no, that didn’t help either, or going for walks, or a long drive in the car), and the girls aren’t dancing until this is sorted! Nor, by the way, am I going to be sleeping very much. Or writing blogs. Oh well, maybe that, then. 

Feedback? Pah, who wants that?

Been here before

I recognise this scenario:

Idea for book – yes

Research for book – yes

Characters – yes

High level idea of what happens – yes

Story – ummm, no. Not really.

Frustrating – yes, just a bit…

Do I just want to get on with the writing… oh, do I ever.

So I’m the ‘this is a total mess’ stage again. But at least I know this is normal (for me, anyway). I have a new stack of books I’ve ploughed through that get me maybe a third of the way there. Another stack for the next part, and about five more coming that might give me a different narrative thread. And I have sheets of paper with scribbled notes to myself. Like ‘Леся [I’ve just ordered a second keyboard and these little sticker things so I have have a Cyrillic keyboard. Going to save me so much time with character names – don’t worry, they’ll end up Anglicised, I’m just reminding myself all the time who these people are…wow, that was a long note] has something of value?’ ‘What’s the hook for the narrative?’ ‘Need a thread to pull through the first part.’

When I said ‘not really’ to the story part, it wasn’t quite accurate. What I don’t know is how to tell the story. Here’s what’s on the menu at the moment:

  • Twin narratives of two characters living on different continents at first – from their perspective or all in third person? What do I want you to know when? What do they know when?
  • Or three characters – but then I lose the sense of two stories heading towards each other. Unless, of course, I decide that they never meet. Just to annoy you.
  • How many sub-plots can I juggle (a lot less than I 
  • Two time periods – no, done that. And not right for this story anyway
  • Have overlap with character whose story comes out in another book

The biggest two lessons I’ve learned from writing the first book are probably

  1. This bit takes time, for a reason. Rushing doesn’t help. Drinking cups of tea does. Plus this is the part where I get to read loads, so who cares if it takes a bit longer?
  2. It’s a lot easier to write out the outline of a series of scenes and then think, nah, that doesn’t work, let’s try it a different way and see if that’s better. Writing out those scenes in full turns into folders full of scenes that don’t go anywhere. I tried the ‘write by the seat of your pants’ approach and it doesn’t work for me. I do need to know how I get from beginning to end. If I then change things (as I will, probably many times) along the way or afterwards, that’s fine because I have the main narrative to keep me straight. And the ending can always change anyway.

I will still cheerfully say to my family every morning, ‘Right, today I need to get this plot sorted,’ and every time, I fully intend to. Fortunately they don’t ask me how that went in the evening. As long as dinner is on the table, I can ruminate to my heart’s content on whether Serhii is going to be dead or written out the next day. And nobody will ever know what might have become of him.

And I get to learn some Ukrainian along the way. I’m still trying to figure out this alphabet and prove that the certain letters are most definitely not pronounced the same every time. Seriously, И sounds different every time I come across it. And I haven’t even got started on the grammar yet. Or verbs, for that matter. As I am patiently reminded, I’ve only been doing this for two weeks. This too, needs its time.

The defining book

I have a theory. Actually, I have a lot of theories and enough wisdom to know to keep most of them to myself.  This is one which I’ll put out there anyway.

For my first novel, I must have bought about fifty other books. There were a few novels in there, but the books were mainly non-fiction across the whole gambit of East German society from food to design to political structures and a few books with photos (if you can’t actually visit the place, there’s nothing like hundred of photos to get the right images in your head.) But one defined the society:

Over 1,000 pages of detailed descriptions of pretty much every aspect of the way the country worked. Somehow it seemed to encapsulate the stifling control exercised over so much. And the book itself was very German in the way it was organised as well as the technical brilliance of the sentence structure. German seems to work beautifully for this type of theoretical analysis, with its compound nouns that save all the explanation English needs, as well as the way in which multiple descriptions can be nested around one main concept.

So my theory is that there is one (large and expensive, it seems) book which exemplifies the world my stories are set in. For East Germany, that was it.

Now we come to the next novel and my new obsession. 1930s Ukraine. I’ve never been there (and obviously I will never go to 1930s anywhere). I don’t speak the language. After a week, I’m still trying to get my head around the alphabet and the vowel sounds. It’s always the vowels that matter. I’m pretty sure there’s one vowel sound in particular that can help distinguish an American from a Canadian, but that’s another of my theories I’m not supposed to mention in public. Anyway, back to Ukraine. In printed Cyrillic, my main character’s name is written леся. Just that little thing is a constant reminder that I am stepping gingerly into a different world, where that writing is the norm, and the English ‘Lesya’ would look entirely wrong.

But I’ve found the one book that has helped me to gain a foothold in the world I’m beginning to explore from afar. And it’s a book of poetry this time, because it seems you can’t separate Ukraine from Тарас Шевченко. See my problem already? I’m too used to dealing with a language I can work in.

Not helpful. At all. The good news is that there is a (relatively) recent translation of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry which I can use, because otherwise it would remain inaccessible to me, at least in its complete form.

The Ukrainian version is available for free in electronic format. The translation is (quite rightly) not free – all 404 pages of it. From the introduction (excerpts):

‘Born as a serf in 1814 and orphaned by the age of 11, paras Shevchenko was taken by his owner to St. Petersburg, where prominent intellectuals recognised his talent as an artist.  They bought Shevchenko’s freedom and he soon began writing vivid poetry that abounds with patriotic references to Ukrainian history, geography and culture, as well as devastating portrayals of imperial Russian authoritarianism. This led to his arrest and exile to Russia’s desolate Asian frontier. Czar Nicholas I personally prohibited the poet from writing and painting.’

Oh yes, Shevchenko was an artist as well as a poet.

This is where I confess I’m not big on poetry. There are some exceptions, but not many. Michael Rosen springs to mind. I tried Ted Hughes. Not my thing. Ditto a few others. But Shevchenko… I like him.

Here’s one of his poems from 1848:

Come on, let’s write some poems again.

Secretly, of course. Come on,

While something novel forms a basis,

Let’s refurbish God’s old tale.

Or… how to tell you,

Without lying. Let’s again

Curse fate and people.

People, so they’ll show respect

And know us.

Fate, so she won’t slumber,

So she may take good care of us.

But you see the fix she’s put us in:

Indifferently, she left a child

At a crossroads,

And he’s poor, young

But with whitened whiskers, —

Just a kid, of course, —

And he softly hobbled off

To live beneath a foreign fence

Far beyond the Urals.

He found himself amid a desert,

He found himself in bondage…

How, cruel fate, can one not curse you?

I won’t curse you, fate,

Instead I’ll hide behind the ramparts.

And I’ll secretly write poems,

I’ll roam the world,

And I’ll expect you, my fate,

As a guest in bondage

From beyond the mighty Dnipro!

I already have the ending of this next novel (all right, so the current ending, it will probably change). It’s basically a few lines of a poem of Shevchenko which, when I had Lesya say it and could picture where she was at the time, made me cry. I just have to figure out how to get her from where she starts the story to that place, but it seems it will be Shevchenko’s poems which accompany us along the way. Something I could never have imagined when I started this book with the thought ‘that would be an interesting story’…

Now back to that infuriating alphabet. Or Абетка.