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Shorter and sweeter

Progress on the book… down to just over 100,000 words (think 400 paperback pages), which is 70,000 less than the last version. The truth is that there were some scenes which just weren’t working before and now that I’ve taken a lot of the scaffolding off that was (just about) holding them up, they collapsed immediately and I couldn’t ignore the rubble any more. So now (I think) I’ve sorted them and they do what I always wanted them to. I’m a lot happier with the result. 

This is also the bit where I get pretty process-focused. 

Take number of scenes.

Take number of days until I have to submit.

Divide scenes by days.

Sit down every morning and don’t get up until I’ve edited my nine scenes (again), or I realise I really have to eat something.

So far, so good, and on track.

So that’s all you’re getting this week. Like a novel, sometimes less is more. Or at least better. There’s one other thing, though…

All this rain? It’s not all bad. When you can’t cut the grass or the weeds back, you get something like this growing by the car, and then it rains…

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.

Why I run

I found myself wondering why it is that – even if I’m forced to take a break because of illness or house renovations or holidays – I seem to return to running again and again. Here’s what I came up with.

Everything comes out during a run. If I’m preoccupied with or worried about something, there it will be, right beside me. And by the end of the run, it’s dealt with. Maybe still there, but I know what I’m going to do about it – or have recognised that I can’t do anything about it. I think it’s call de-stressing. It doesn’t mean the same thing won’t crop up again the next time I’m out there again, because life isn’t as simple as that, is it? But everything looks better after the perspective of a run.

It can be pure ideas time. I could tell you the exact spots along the canal where specific ideas have come to me that have ended up in a scene or a snippet of dialogue. I’ve even worked out the basic plot and character outline for a novel during one 14 mile run. Nowadays if I’m struggling with a scene that doesn’t work, I just throw my sandals on and go for a run. By the time I get back, it’s sorted. Walking works as well, but running seems to get me there faster (in both senses of the word).

Sometimes, it’s just an excuse for a break. There are times when I forget to eat lunch (and then wonder why I’m feeling so hungry at four). If I know I’m going for a run, I also know I’ll get out of the house. And eat. And when this is your reading pile for the week, you really need a break sometimes:

Some runs are simply beautiful. Others are just a hard slog, but I forget about them soon enough. Yesterday, I had to drop Abbi off at school for a class trip so I decided to do a 16 mile run along the canal while I was there. Normally I don’t get beyond Ratho (seven miles out), and there are several miles of stillness and rarely a sign of life along the stretch leading up that part of town, but this time I kept going and it was like being in a different country. Walled gardens, low-hanging trees, a winding towpath and the peaceful water of the canal all the way. Years ago I had to do a ridiculously early run through Berlin before catching a flight, and I can still remember running through the deserted streets as the sun rose, then running under the Brandenburg Gate with not a single tourist in sight. But probably my best experience was running along the main road near our house and seeing a deer on the other side of the fence, running along beside me for a few seconds. Some runs you might even describe as spiritual.

The other reason is far less lofty. You can measure it. And your performance is down to you. Of course there are many others who help you (even us rank amateurs) but at the end of the day, when you go out there for a run, and especially for a race, it’s down to you. Sometimes ‘performance’ really doesn’t matter. I can just run for the fun of it (another reason I run!). If I’m not training for a race, I can forget splits and times quite happily. But if it’s full-on training for a race, it’s both a physical and a mental challenge. And that marathon – it’s not 26 miles. It’s not even 26.2 miles. It’s 24 miles plus about 10 more tagged on the end they didn’t tell you about. Every time I think to myself, get to 24 miles then kick hard. It works every time. Until I get to mile 24 and I think, how about I just keep going and get over the finish line without being sick, collapsing or deciding this was a terrible idea and even if I walk the rest of the way, I won’t be last and what does it really matter anyway? So I keep going and it really does feel like another ten miles later and, no matter what my watch says, it feels like I’m barely moving forward, but then the finish line comes and it was all worth it again. I won’t have been first, and I won’t have been last, so beyond that, all that matters is whether I did my best on the day.

You didn’t think running was about getting fit, did you?

End of an Era

Summers were hotter and longer, the music was better and politicians were all great. That’s my childhood dealt with, then. Maybe I still think the music was better.

Helmut Kohl was definitely my Chancellor of Germany, in the same way Tom Baker was my Doctor. Kohl was Chancellor from when I was eleven through my first (of many) trips to Germany and on to just a couple of years before Abbi was born. That was a crazy proportion of my life at that point. But when he died this week, I realised that I really couldn’t tell you much about him. Mind you, I also can’t remember a single Doctor Who episode Tom Baker was in, only the hair and scarves. It seems wrong to say I have memories of either of them, it feels more like only impressions and perhaps, like the weather and the music, those impressions are unjustifiably rosy.

Kohl was always just there, somehow. Physically imposing, he seemed to embody the strength and might of what was then still West Germany. When the East German leader, Erich Honecker, visited Kohl, the picture of this colossus of Western democracy standing beside the diminutive representative of the Eastern bloc seemed more than a little symbolic. But really, no more than another impression.

I remembered Kohl for the two big events most of us associate him with. German re-unification and the introduction of the Euro. Both examples of his politics trumping good economics in the way both were brought into being.

And that’s about it. I couldn’t tell you a single domestic German policy or change he brought in. Not one. And yet I find myself with a lingering affection for a man who seems to have had no contact with either of his sons for years, leaving behind him a divided family and equally divisive legacy which seems to reach into the present via his once protege Angela Merkel.

Last year, we went to a play about Willy Brandt’s life, his political and personal demons and the scandal of one of his advisors turning out to have been an East German spy. I went in knowing more about Brandt than about Kohl (Brandt was from an era just far enough in the past to have come up at university) but the play brought out so much of the torment of the man that could be hidden behind the persona of the politician. I wonder if, one day, we will see a play based on Kohl’s life. Until then, there are obituaries aplenty to keep us going.

However irrational it is, when Kohl died, it felt like losing a part of my past. I’m not going to risk watching old episodes of Doctor Who, that’s for sure. At least the music is still around.

Onwards and upwards

I don’t walk any more. Instead, I stroll, pace, stride, march, shuffle or stagger. There are over a hundred different ways to walk in English.

And then there’s looking. Or is it gazing, glancing, ogling or staring? Just not all at the same time.

And do not get me started on contractions. Just don’t.

Yes, I’ve been doing even more editing. Much more detailed this time. Part of the trick seems to be to visualise the scene and exactly what is happening. How exactly is that man moving, and how can I describe it in one word, giving something of the action and of what’s going on in his head at the same time? This, I think, is part of the reason Stephen King says writing is telepathy. I have a picture in my head and I want to get it into yours. Or at least the elements that matter for the story, the rest is down to your own imagination.

And it’s done for now. It’s taken up to 13 hours a day to go through the whole book again in a week and a half after finishing the first major edit, including reading it out loud over and over again to find the parts that just don’t flow. A lot of them weren’t necessary and fell along the wayside, others just needed rewritten, a few only required a word to move position.

Doesn’t look like much, does it? Wait till you read the rest of it…

In numbers, it’s now almost 60,000 words shorter than the first draft. In paperback book terms, that’s somewhere around 200 pages less. Yup, that’s a lot. I still think you’re getting a lot of bang for your eventual buck, though, as it’s still almost 600 pages, but they’re now faster, crisper pages. Or at least I think they are. I’ll find out soon enough, because today I fired the book off to an editor for another possible hatchet job. And now I can forget about it for a while while it’s someone else’s problem. Which is a good thing because my brain has had enough for now. It needs a chance of scene. That means three things.

First, clear everything away. All those bits of paper, random notes, ideas for scenes, snippets of conversations between characters, random phrases that came to me in the car that one of the girls scribbled down for me, and the large pile that is the previous printed draft.

Second, read a James Patterson book because all I want right now is something enjoyable to read. I don’t care if he goes around killing off all his characters, it will be brilliantly written.

And third, get stuck into Ukrainian history. Not the nice parts, of course, but the era where I think there’s another story that hasn’t been told. I have a stack of books to get through and, unlike last time, I think I have a better idea of what I’m looking for. I need the parts that can make a story come alive, feel real, and do the historical reality justice. The academic parts I can happily leave to one side. The good news is that I have the basic storyline, most of the characters, and absolutely no idea of how it ends. Or what exactly happens along the way. So this will be fun. And maybe I’ll even get to write something at some point, rather than just cut chunks out. Until it becomes time to do that all over again.

Getting down to business

Tomorrow I will have worked through the second full edit of my novel. In the process, I’ve cut over 50,000 words, and there is still more work to be done. I have a list of things I need to go back and change. From hunting and destroying words I use too often (‘just’ and ‘veneer’ are top of the list, who knew?), turning weak verbs (think ‘walk’) into stronger ones (‘stride’, ‘pace’ etc) and re-writing some earlier scenes. Again. They just don’t work at the moment. I probably need to go for yet another run to see if I can sort them out.

Then I get to the business part of this undertaking. Obviously it’s the best novel ever written, but until I have James Patterson on the phone begging me not to knock him off his usual Number 1 slot on the bestseller list, all it’s doing is sitting as a file on my laptop (and backed up in three different places).

So. Find an agent? How do I do that, then? Or go straight to a publisher so I can start my own collection of rejection letters? Or self-publish, because that seems to work for some people?

Hmm… lots to think about. I’ve deliberately held off spending much time on these questions because it would just have been a distraction before now, but it feels like it’s about to be the right time to get stuck into it.

While I’m doing that, I think what I also need is a second, different, external professional ripping-to-shreds of the whole thing. This draft is a lot better than the last one, but is it good enough? If you look at the people authors thank at the end of their books, there’s almost always an editor in there. And I’ve heard enough authors say at book events that their books are only as good as they are because they have a great editor. And after all this time, what’s a few more weeks to wait? Plus I can get cracking on the next book for a ‘break’ from this one.

It’s beginning to sound like a plan.

The unseen heroes

One of the many careers I never pursued was translating. This despite the best hour I probably spent at university being the one where we tried simultaneous translation. It’s fair to say that not everyone got the same buzz from the experience as I did, though. It’s something like turning your brain up to full power and then keeping going. You are hearing one thing and instantly converting it into a different language while still having to take in everything the person is saying.

Translation is as much art as science, particularly when it comes to translating fiction. We’ve all experienced what it’s like when not even the science part works – those instruction manuals where you really have no idea what you are meant be doing. But beyond that is the fun part. Where you get to think about how best to translate a word from one language into another while trying to preserve some of the associations which the word or phrase has in the original. And not give it additional, unintended (by the author) meaning in the translation.

The example we used at university was ‘cucumber sandwiches’. If you’re British, you’ve already got a picture of the exact type, feel and taste of the bread. And the butter, plus probably what kind of plate the sandwiches are being served on. Are you already at the image of the picnic or garden party or sporting event as well? Try translating that into another language. And sorry, but if you aren’t British, you probably haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m really talking about. Unless you’ve watched Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps.

And translating the simple Wohnzimmer from German – living room or sitting room? So many associations with both the (correct) English translations, none of which are there in the German. 

I’m branching out of my more familiar English or German language literature and research at the moment. Otherwise I limit both the novels I can read and the areas I can delve into. This means that I am entirely dependent on the translator to produce something that feels like it was written in English while preserving the cultural reference points that place the story somewhere specific in place and time.

And what a difference in the translations of these two books. One originally in Ukrainian, one from the Russian. One for pleasure, one for research. Both were translated into English by non-native speakers. When I was a lad (why not ‘boy’ or ‘young man’ or ‘youth’? – did I use that word deliberately, was I making some cultural reference, saying something about myself…or did I just want to use a different word for a change? – Welcome to the world of the translator), that was a no-no. You only translated into your own language (although we all learned by going in both directions). Times seem to have moved on.

Today, I’m less interested in the stories of these books than the translations. And a few examples will, I hope, show the difference between a good translation and a bad one.

‘The smell of rotting corpses hung in the air as the legal residents of Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine, carried on their plucky and brutal struggle for existence. […] They hated every person ahead of them in line with a passion that, in more normal times, would have been reserved exclusively for one’s worst enemies. Besides these “legal residents,” there was in the city that year another group of people, possibly even more numerous than the first. This was the group of people with no propyska (the registration necessary for the right to live in the city) and thus no rights.’

There were immediately three issues with this for me.

It looked to me as if the translator came up against a problem right away with these ‘legal residents.’ Maybe there’s a specific term in Ukrainian that just doesn’t work in English. But just putting in something in English, then putting it in inverted commas a paragraph later tells me I haven’t understood what the original meant. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s clunky and it stopped the story for me twice in the first two paragraphs.

‘They hated every person… for one’s worst enemies.’ Is just grammatically wrong. ‘One’ can’t refer to ‘they’. And I think you’d have to have a pretty good reason to use ‘one’ in the first place. 

And finally we have the classic ‘I need to explain this’ issue with the propyska. There’s clearly a desire to keep the Ukrainian term, and I find it helpful to keep some of the original terms. But there are simpler and better ways of dealing with them. For example: ‘This was the group of people with no propyska. Without that one piece of paper, they had no right to live there. No rights at all.’ I would have to know Ukrainian to be sure that was the proper meaning of the original text, but the sentence(s) just flow better.

You don’t notice good translations. Just as the author has got out of the way of the story, so has the translator. Every translation is a compromise because you simply don’t have equivalents for every word in both languages. But what you can do it try to keep the sense of the original. The pace, the tone, the overall feel of the language.

‘Noble scrunched up his face as if all his teeth had started aching at the same time. Tabaqui seemed to enjoy that. He even pinked up a little. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with the all-knowing smile of a veteran.’

Thank you. Much better. You just don’t notice anything. 

Translating is a tough business. I tried translating a book from German a few years ago on the basis that it hadn’t yet been translated into English. I probably still have the draft of as far as I had got lying around somewhere. There were simply so many phrases where I had to stop and think, how do you get that across in English? They went into the ‘come back to that’ category. Maybe one day. If I think a story is worth it, but it won’t be that one. It was more of an intellectual workout than a sense that the book should be better known.

So for now, I’m grateful for the translators, even the ones who aren’t as good but make it possible for me to do research in areas that would otherwise be unaccessible to me. Because learning Russian or Ukrainian really isn’t on any list I have tucked away somewhere. Thanks to these heroes behind the scenes, I don’t have to