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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?
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
- 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?
- 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.
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.
A long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, my greatest fear was not that I would not finish it, but that I would suddenly find after a couple of years that someone else was ahead of me in looking into my area of research and what had seemed an original idea would suddenly be blown out of the water. Back then, checking such things on the internet was still in its relative infancy so there was an element of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. It turned out that nobody else seemed to have been interested in East German journalists so I was fine.
Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m just hoping that someone hasn’t had a too similar idea to me for a novel.
Then I came across Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair.
East Germany in the 80s, a Westerner going there to university, an East German linguist desperate to escape to the West, and some pretty unpleasant Stasi people along the way.
Phew. Not even superficial similarities unless you think that every story set in the same country will be the same.
So, what of the novel?
The most striking element from the start was that half of it is written from the second person perspective. ‘You see this,’ ‘you walk there,’ and so on. It’s not for me and there’s a good reason it’s used so sparingly. Stephen King started Needful Things with the second person perspective and it stood out immediately. I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read which uses this perspective. But despite my personal preferences, after a while I got used to the language and it almost faded into the background.
I found it gratifying that Rintoul gives a more nuanced view of East Germany than the all too easy ‘East bad, West good’ cliche. One of her two main characters, Magda, wants to escape because her earlier enthusiasm for the East German system has turned into disillusionment, and she has enough minor characters who are able to argue for what was good in the country to give different perspectives. Her other main character, Robert (Bob), comes from Scotland to Leipzig to study and this allows Rintoul to give an outsider’s view on what the country was like, and what it felt like, including his constant faux pas. She based his experience on her own when she studied in Leipzig in the 80s, which came across as a good dose of authenticity and provided a very different narrative. Another big tick there.
The overall story contained a good number of uncertainties, doubts and machinations to keep me wanting to keep going. The fact that I knew pretty early on what the big reveal at the end was going to be is more because it was probably the one way it could have worked and I read novels with one eye dissecting and the other just reading. Sometimes the reading eye manages to cloud the vision of the analytical one (Gone Girl and Fingersmith spring to mind – both surprised me).
I enjoyed reading something on my home turf and seeing how someone else combined a few facets of the myriad possible stories and created characters and a narrative which worked for me. And which were entirely different from the strands I picked out to tell a different story.
For the non-pedants, you can stop here. For those who have any interest in dealing with writing in one language and setting the book in a country with a different language, I have a couple of additional observations.
Dealing with non-English language is always a question for the author. My impression is that there is an assumption that everyone speaks enough French so that dialogue can have entire sentences with no explanation or translation, even if they are important. I have to say that I find that annoying. When it comes to German, I think it’s right that we ensure the reader understands the German dialogue if we are going to use it, even if we use a phrase particular to an area or time that it hard to render exactly in English. I am less keen on translating street names (which Rintoul does). And if I were translating Edinburgh’s ‘Princes Street’ into German, I would not call it ‘Princes Strasse’ or ‘Prinzenstrasse’ because I think it is clear that it is the name of a place. But that’s my preference. So that’s just my preference. What does get to me is when the language is just wrong. If I’m using another language, I think it behooves me to make sure it is correct. Either I am absolutely sure it’s right from my own knowledge, or I check it with someone. And if I’m translating something into English, it also has to be right. And there was one thing which did annoy me in this novel.
You might know the German word ‘bitte.’ It normally means ‘please.’ But it also means ‘you’re welcome.’ As in, if I pour you a drink, you say ‘danke’ and I say ‘bitte.’ It does not mean ‘please.’ Rintoul has waiters putting a plate of food in front of someone and saying ‘please.’ No. ‘Bitte’ cannot be translated as ‘please’ in that context. What beats me is that Rintoul is a translator from German to English, so I have no idea why she would get this wrong, which means that I don’t think she did get it ‘wrong’ in the sense of not knowing what was correct, but that she consciously chose to use that translation. I just don’t know why because it makes no sense in English.