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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?

Does it matter?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one of the fears when writing a book that makes unreasonable psychological demands of the author – that someone else will get there first. The other fear for me is whether I can answer this question about the book: Does it matter?

Does it have to?

For me, yes. I’m not going to get all existential about it, though, and delve into what even the question means. Matters to who(m – pedant)? How do you decide if it matters? Define your terms, man! Actually… no.

It has to matter to me first and foremost. Which means it has to be more than ‘just’ a story. But let’s wind back a bit first… it has to be first and foremost a story. That’s what my current edit is about. If the first draft is finding out what the story is (believe me, I wasn’t sure for a long time…), or telling yourself that story, the second is about telling the story to someone else. And doing it better. A lot better. And – this, I suspect, is the real bit – getting out of the way of the story.

Seriously, you would not believe the amount I can cram into one book. Cryptic references that almost nobody else will get. Oblique parallels between different cultures and societies. Specific words and phrases that mean way more than anyone is going to twig. All of which means that in my first draft, way too much of it was my voice. Yup, pretty much all of what I just listed off. It’s not that I don’t think that’s fascinating and everything, but it’s not Natalie’s story, and that’s what I’m writing. Her story. Not mine. (Note to self: got that yet? – and yes, just take that other line out that you liked so much. Or the paragraph. Actually, that whole scene isn’t actually doing anything, is it? Honestly, it can go. Highlight. Control-X.)

So is that it? It’s just a story?

Not for me. It can be enough, though. Some stories ‘just’ entertain us. Nothing wrong with that and I’ve read and enjoyed many books that are not trying to be anything more. Others are written in a way that challenges us with the writing itself. Fine, if that’s your thing. 

And me?

It has to be a story I think needs to be told. There are so many that could be told. Someone else can write them, and I’ll be happy to read them. But the ones I need to write? – I know them when I see them. They just out at me when I read or hear or see something. There are enough other fragments of stories kicking around in my head that I know I’m not going to end up sitting down and writing, but there are four that I’m pretty sure are going to make it into a full blown story. Because I think they tell us something about ourselves. Which starts with – they tell me something about me that I need to figure out.

What did I need to figure out in the current novel? Ah, that would be telling. But don’t worry. I know. And now I am busy taking that back out again and letting Natalie tell her story. Because it’s way better than anything I could tell you. 

Will anyone else care? I hope so. But I’ll write the story either way. And that’s because I also know why I am writing it. As Simon Sinek says, you have to ‘Start with Why’ you are doing something. Once you know that, you’ll figure the rest out. And that’s a lot of fun.

Building a house – or a book

The work on the house is now almost done. We have been saying this for a few weeks now and each time it has been true. On reflection, I think the process of creating a book is a lot like a building project.

When you first start, it’s a total mess:

 

Ideas everywhere in no discernible order. At least with a house, you have an architect who knows what is going on. With a book, you are architect, builder, project manager, joiner, plumber and general gofer. Sometimes all at once. Mainly unpaid. No, scrub that. Entirely unpaid.

Then you start to put things together, but it’s still not looking like anything you would want anybody else to see. For good reason. And it does feel like you are wandering around in the dark…

So you carry on. Just keep going. No matter the weather or your mood, you have to persevere. Then something starts to take shape and you think, maybe this isn’t going to be so bad after all. Just don’t focus on all that mud.

But that’s just the framework that’s in place really. There’s still a lot to do behind the scenes – the bit nobody else ever sees.

Eventually, it’s done. The first draft. And you think, that’s looking pretty decent. I can’t see anything wrong with it.

So you fire it out. And you get a snagging list back. So you start to go through it, and pretty soon…

Yup, you’re back to the drainage. Because it isn’t right. And the walls are the wrong colour. The radiators are leaking. And the shower doesn’t work because the water pressure is too low. To be honest, you always knew it was too low. You just hoped it wouldn’t matter. But when one shower doesn’t work at all and the other one manages only to drip out of half the nozzles, you know something has to be done. You can try denial, but after a while it will be you that is stinking if you don’t get that shower working.

Right now, I’m sorting the metaphorical drainage, walls and painting and hoping the pipes don’t suddenly spring a leak now there is real pressure on them. Once you’ve been away from the house or the book for a few weeks, you come back and you see everything that’s wrong. But you still love it. And you know all those things you’re now spotting can be fixed. It just takes time and patience and a large dose of honesty. It’s going to look lovely, inside and out. It’s just not quite there yet.

 

And when a neighbour clears away an acre of trees and you are left with this view from my desk, you can start to believe it will all be worth it in the end.

 

On being edited

Here’s one piece of advice you will receive when you have written a (draft of a) book. Don’t ask family and friends what they think.

Why not, I hear you cry? Surely you can trust them to give you an honest opinion?

Yes, you can. And I have absolutely sent the first draft to a few people either whose opinions I wanted as readers and/or because after all this time, I thought they deserved to see what has come of it.

But the truth is that it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. Not to make a book as good as it can be – however you want to determine that.

The scope of my first solo edit of the book achieved… not a lot. I got rid of (most of, I hope) the blatant inconsistencies in the plot. The things that changed later on and I had to go back and change earlier in the book. All of which was necessary, but not sufficient. I was – and knew I was – still far too close to the text. I couldn’t see what was wrong with it, what needed to be changed, and what was redundant. And, critically, I think, I couldn’t see the problems with the style of writing I had slipped into over time. The repetitions of phrases, the words that should never be there in the first place, the excessive philosophising. It all matters, some more, some less, but it all makes a difference. 

If you want real feedback, you have two options.

Ask an editor.

Or ask another writer.

Yup, we writers can tell you everything that’s “wrong” with someone else’s writing – or rather, what jumps out at us. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. Everyone will write differently but knowing what someone else with an understanding of and feel for writing helps us to make sure our own writing decisions are conscious.

Remember my blog on ballet corrections? This is the same. Specific correction is what really helps.

“I liked your book.” “It was rubbish.” Not so helpful. Why is it good or rubbish? And where did you see that? And what, exactly did you like or hate? I could go on…

So I gave it to a writer. Here’s what the first page came back looking like (the next 79 were similar):

 

Wahay! Now that is helpful (and what a professional editor would do – there’s a reason they get a mention in authors’ list of thanks). Do I agree with every comment and every suggestion made? No – and I was not supposed to. But every one is valuable because at the very least the text with comments needs to be re-considered. In the case of my prologue, re-written. But here’s the thing. I kind of knew that already. I knew it wasn’t quite right, I just couldn’t put my finger on why. Now I can. The voice wasn’t quite right. So I’ve changed it. The story isn’t (much) different, it’s just told better.

So what else have I learned from being edited to exhaustion?

  • I was concerned that I was writing too much dialogue, so I dialled it back. Too far, it seems.
  • Two lines of dialogue can replace a paragraph of description – and be much more effective.
  • I have way too much philosophising in there…
  • And way too many stray comments and descriptions.
  • And boy do I drag some stuff out. Cut it down, man!
  • I know the theory of writing fiction. I’ve read the books. What I needed is the comment in the margin that says “show, don’t tell” against a particular section. Then I’m fine, I will change it.
  • Cutting a 5,000 word scene down to 500 is sometimes the easiest thing in the world to do. When you have enough emotional distance, you know when a favourite passage or scene just isn’t needed. A holiday will do that for you.
  • After 80 pages of detailed comments, I’m making the changes myself (which was the point). Remember the adage about teaching a man to fish? I had to be taught to edit. And now I’m seeing what’s wrong and hacking it to pieces. This has the secondary benefit of reducing the word count. It’s just too long in the first draft. Which I also knew. But now I can see what to slash without losing the bits I care about because they are worth keeping. And along the way, some tiny themes are slipping away because I originally included them because I wanted to, but they don’t add anything and in some cases detract from what the story is really about.

All of which just goes to show that everything I said about correction in ballet applies to editing fiction. When it’s done well, it’s beyond valuable. I guess that makes it invaluable, then.

On I go then…

And it’s done…for now

There is a reason for my blogging silence for six weeks. That, it turns out, is how long it takes me to write the first draft of the novel from beginning to end, and it doesn’t allow for an awful lot of head space devoted to anything else.

Right now, I’m back in Berlin for a week. It gave me the total space I needed to do nothing but write and walk (not at the same time) for the first few days, eating when I remembered to and just doing one more scene…and one more…and just one more…maybe one more before I stop… then it was done.

I spent a long day walking through Leipzig reacquainting myself with the city where Natalie (all names you’re hearing for the first time are of characters in the book, and all bear no similarity to etc etc etc) went to university, and finding the place unrecognisable from when she was there (because it was unrecogisable from when I was there – they have been knocking down all the parts I knew over twenty years ago). I could still retrace her route between the two university building she was in, but as for the rest – too much has changed to be able to see where anything else happened, until, with an hour before my train back to Berlin was leaving and a 45 minute walk from the station, I finally found the place I needed, unchanged in forty years and exactly where she would have gone with…ah, no, not telling you that bit. The lights, I admit, are a modern addition, but this was what I had been looking for – the kind of thing you know when you see it:

Today, I walked for hours through Berlin tracing routes to make sure they worked, to see what became obvious only when I actually retraced someone else’s steps, and then I checked what I could see when I stood on the corner of a street I had previously only imagined, and saw that it was slightly different when I got to the spot. Ninety something percent will never get written down, but I will know that the descriptions I do include will be right, even if I am not going to start listing off every street name (seriously, some people do that, and when it’s set in Berlin and they get it badly wrong, I get pretty grumpy). 

I think I am finding that this part is also helpful to allow me to let go of some of the characters. I have way too much invested in them and spend too much of the last couple of days of writing bursting out into tears as I got towards the end. I’m sure I’ll go over it again and think, what was that bit meant to be about?, but right now, I’m just reliving events that happened here when I was only just born.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the process of getting this far:

  • No matter how good or bad any of this turns out to be (and everyone’s going to have an opinion!), it took me a lot longer to get it even this far than I had ever imagined. A lifetime – and a career – of writing non-fiction is not a good preparation for writing fiction, except for the part that means I get a kick out of the research!
  • Over the last few years, I think I have probably written around 500,000 words. That’s five times the length of To Kill a Mockingbird (told you I liked the research part) and most of it will sit in a folder stuffed full of handwritten pages or in computer files – but all of it was useful because all of it was part of the learning process.
  • In the process of writing all that, I gave up twice. As in, totally decided this was never going to happen and I should just accept it and move on. Then the next day, I decided to have another go. Dealing with the emotions of this kind of writing is part of the challenge.
  • You can spend a lot of time finding out how other writers ‘do it.’ Stephen King, for example, says write 2,000 words a day, no matter what, then leave it. It works for him, not for me. But what all successful writers say is read a lot and write all the time. It turns out that, for me, I scarcely read anything else once I’ve started for real, and all I do is work from beginning to end, getting down 8-10,000 words a day towards the end of each of the main sections because I just could not imagine stopping for anything. I had to find out what happened (there were some things which only came out towards the end, which answered questions I had been trying to figure out since the beginning) and I just had to get to the end of the story.
  • Plot it out. Oh my goodness did I fight against that one. Many, many times. Then I saw a plot outline which James Patterson did for one of his novels, and something clicked. It worked for me. I just opened up the outline and wrote what I had said happened in that scene. No worrying about whether it worked or not, because I knew I had already dealt with what came next, and that there was an ending it was all leading up to. I did change the odd thing as I went along, but that was more as I was finding out things myself. But even with that, I kept telling myself, I don’t know how this works out – then I went through all the scenes ahead of me and realised that I did know. It turned out that I actually plotted the whole thing while I was ill for two months and thought I had got nothing done at all, then I had a look and saw that, somewhere in that time, I had managed to get from beginning to end. I had just forgotten that I had done it.
  • Fast works for me. I probably already knew that, but I did try being disciplined, along the lines of so many words a day and then stopping. And it did help on the days when it just wasn’t working and I said, you just have to get it down and change it later. But I found that too many days were either, I don’t know what to write for this scene, or I don’t want to stop now. So I accepted that I was always going to have to up the intensity massively and immerse myself in it. It’s addictive. Deal with it.
  • Write every day. Sorry, family. Yes, on Christmas Day as well, but it was only about 1,000 words.
  • Yes, you will start to think and feel like your character sometimes. Note to self: stop writing characters who like cigars and French wine. It’s not my fault, it’s just who Theo was. And I dealt with Theo’s character not by drinking and smoking but by telling LoLo what Theo had said recently and judging whether it would stay or not by how much she laughed. When she said weeks later, ‘what was that thing Theo said?’ and laughed all over again, I knew I had at least one line that was a keeper. When your teenage daughter goes around quoting what one of your characters said…wow.
  • Delegate. Yes, seriously. I wrote a lot by hand until I simply could not write fast enough without every word looking like a line with a few bumps, and I paid the girls to type it up for me. They almost got it all done as well. As I said to them, at least someone is making some money from my writing. Pity it’s not me!
  • All those words I wrote along the way… there’s at least one other book in there and I figured out on my long walk today how I can use it. I have a good chunk of the next book sitting there, and it’s something I care enough about, I just needing to turn it into a proper story and written like that now. And then there’s the other book I plotted out in the course of a 14 mile run a few weeks ago. Running is good for that. Got the main character, got the set up, got an idea of how it might play out, and got the historical (1800s for a change) period it might mirror. Oh, and a title for that one. Emma. I tried writing a few scenes the other day to see if I had her voice, and I started to like it. So there’s a pipeline for the future.
  • The main thing I think I’ve learned is that it’s the story that matters, not everything you know. You want to show someone how much you have learned about the facts, write non-fiction. You want to tell a story which brings it to life? – write a novel. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was memorable for me for the writers’ comments on the final episode where they said something along the lines of, We knew it was all about the characters, and that final episode is just beautiful as a result.

So, first draft done, now it’s on to the editing. Which I keep saying to myself is ‘rip it all to pieces.’ I already know (because I peeked) that I am going to hate some of what I wrote at the beginning, and that’s fine. I have a better sense of the characters at the end than I did at the beginning, some things have changed along the way, there’s the odd plot hole I created later on that I need to fix now and I already have one character who is just going to disappear, that you will never know anything about. Sorry, Max, love you but you didn’t add anything I needed, and did I mention that the first draft is waaaaay too long for you to be in the next version? 215,000 words is too much. So now I get to be ruthless. I am so looking forward to that.

See you again in another six weeks when I’m through with the big edit. Then I get a holiday. Literally. In the meantime, I get to eat again. And read books. This is going to be weird…

Distraction nightmare

Distraction is my biggest enemy at the moment.

 

Wake up.

Bit early. Need to let myself come to for a minute or two.

Isn’t the shipping forecast interesting?

And Farming Today… should really be up by now.

Sit down to write.

Need a drink.

My pencil needs sharpening.

Where do I put my mug?

Need to clear a space for it.

Bit cold, should put a sweater on.

Is it that time already? I could have slept a bit longer instead.

Oh look, that book seems interesting, I must read it at some point.

And that one, I started that one, must just remind myself of where I got to.

Write a sentence.

That clock ticks quite loudly at this time in the morning.

Must just check my e-mails.

Write a sentence.

Oh, wonder if anything interesting came in on Facebook?

Another sentence.

Think those pencils should sit in a different place.

Another sentence.

I’ll just play a quick game of Solitaire.

Right, time’s running out, I’d better get down to this.

Wait, I’m hungry now, I should eat some cornflakes so I have enough energy.

Write several sentences. (OK, maybe a lot of sentences by this time – do you know how little time I have left – the pressure is on).

Time to get ready for work (you know, the paid kind), children to school.

I’ll finish my word count tonight.

Tomorrow I will be better.

 

Stephen King has the solution to this, or at least something that will help deal with all the distractions that otherwise seem so uninteresting, pointless or simply futile:

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.

He wrote this before the internet appeared in full force with its unlimited distractions.Distraction

This, I can safely say, is not conducive to getting any writing done… It’s also not what I told myself my iPad would be used for…

So as of a few days ago, the iPad, phone and laptop are left overnight in a different room on the other side of the house. Fetching any one of them would involve waking the whole family and that ends badly.

The ticking clock might be next.

Choices

My temporary enforced break from running is the longest period in a few years that I have spent not being out on some road or other. And it brought me to a simple realisation – I’m going to have to choose. This year was to be about a new marathon personal best and getting my novel finished. After two weeks of not running (the good news there is that I’m planning on going out tomorrow and seeing how it goes, I haven’t had a twinge in about a week now so think it’s good to go) I found myself with both more time and more energy because I was no longer doing runs that really tired me out and meant I needed to sleep for a while afterwards. Like the 16 mile ones that start off nice and slow and then build up with a few miles at fast pace towards the end and sprinting as fast as I can at the end. After one of them, you can pretty much forget about me for the rest of the day. Of course you get a lot faster over time doing runs like that once in a while, and they are great marathon preparation, but even with a proper programme with enough recovery time built in, at the level of training required to run marathons in under 3 hours, you are pushing your body a lot over a period of months and I find it does limit what else you can achieve.

The other extreme of that level of training, of course, is a lot worse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s the mental and emotional benefits which physical exercise also bring with it. And anyway, I couldn’t imagine not running now.

But my plan for the year has changed.

I used the extra time and energy I had in the last couple of weeks to write (and read) more, but mainly write more. And I think the better balance is entirely beneficial for my writing. Thoughts are coming to me which I can immediately jot down, threads of the narrative start to emerge, and I am happy to tweak the story as I go along, knowing that I can go back later and sort out the earlier part which now needs to change. The biggest sign of something having changed is that I will get to the evening and realise I haven’t eaten anything since the morning, and hadn’t noticed.

Last night, I decided to go to bed earlier in preparation for a more normal work schedule and was reading a Hemingway short story. That lasted for all of about five minutes before I thought of how I should write a scene I had been struggling with. I think it helps that Hemingway manages to write in one page what it takes me ten to say, and when you read the way he does it, you know he’s right. I tried jotting down the idea and put it to the side again, but I realised I wasn’t paying any attention to what I was reading, so I gave up, got out my pen and pencil and wrote it down (adopting the Hemingway trick of leaving a sentence mid-way through so you can go right back into it again the next day.) So much for the earlier night though.

So my new plan is not to run any races this year (OK, maybe a half marathon or something for fun, but not for a fast time) and to be (very) happy with running for the fun of it, enough so I get all the benefits, including thinking time, but not so much that it distracts from writing. And we will see how that goes.

What to do?

You might have noticed that, as well as thoughts on running and writing, I also write here about random things that interest me or that concern me. I think I’m probably meant to stick to one subject for a blog, but I already know that I would get bored very quickly if I limited myself in that way. I think that was somewhere between an apology and an explanation for the randomness.

So what’s bothering me this week? Democracy, really. Or how on earth you can have either meaningful engagement in the political process. Or accountability of politicians. You might remember Winston Churchill’s observation on forms of government, which should really be slightly longer than the more commonly seen soundbite:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I liked the bit about “this world of sin and woe.” I’m trying to think of a current politician who might say that.

Leaving aside the question of whether things would be better if everyone agreed that having me as a benign dictator would be preferable (history suggests not), I’ve been asking myself what my role in the current system should be. I have voted in every election since I was eighteen, for a range of individuals who happened to be members of different political parties. Maybe that makes me a floating voter. At the last general election, I read every manifesto of the main parties. One of them was even well written. The rest were somewhere on a spectrum of dreadfulness. How many meaningless soundbites can you string together to create what is, technically, a sentence? A lot, it turns out. But understanding what the high level policies will mean in practice seems to be a task which eludes most of us, me included. But we have to decide what we believe would be best and put our cross in the box. So I did that.

And I was pretty unhappy about this process. What do you do when the person whose policies you most agree with/least disagree with has no chance of winning and you cannot in good conscience vote for any (either) of the parties who could win in your constituency?

I got annoyed. I had in my entire life only once written properly to my MP when the government decided to cut the tariffs for renewable energy generation with very little notice. In the end, the government lost that one in court. Not that my MP was interested. That was a good few years ago, but then two things happened and I went from annoyed to angry because they were both issues of principle and then my moral compass jabs me in the ribs and I know I can’t leave it be. One was the Assisted Dying Bill which I blogged about at the time, where my MP seems not to have understood either the question he was being asked to vote on or the parliamentary process involved. I’m still trying to engage him on this. I might return to it here in the future. But I think the other example is worthy of more comment.

In October, you might remember the visit by China’s president to the UK. China is not known as an example of democracy. But what really troubled me was the way in which one protester in particular was treated in London. Let’s just rewind a few years though, because the context matters here.

The Tiananmen Square massacre is something that those of us around at the time can never forget and the image of one man standing in front of a tank has been used ever since as a symbol of protest. Shao Jiang survived that protest (and you might remember that even mention of it is banned on the censored version of the internet available in China). He spent months in prison in China for his role in the associated opposition movement. Since then, he has been a prominent campaigner for democracy in China. When the Chinese president visited London, Dr Jiang ran into the road where the motorcade was to come and held up two placards. One said “Democracy now,” the other “End autocracy” in both English and Chinese. For doing this, he was arrested. The legislation he was arrested under is targeted at two or more people acting together to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” Right. The president of China was harassed, alarmed or distressed by this?

It gets better. His laptop and phone were taken by the police when his home was searched (“raided” is the slightly more emotive word for that.) And he was banned from being in a few places, including within 100 metres of Xi Jingping. The reason for that was “to prevent further offences and to prevent further harassment of the victim.” Wait. When did Xi Jingping become a victim in all of this?

As well as concern about this specific case, I also realised that I couldn’t say why I wouldn’t be arrested and have my home raided and my belongings taken if I went to, for example, another climate march. For all I know, a visiting politician might feel harassed. Do I think that likely? No. But if you can be arrested in London for being, at worst, a nuisance to a politician we are supposed to be being nice to, and a member of the cabinet doesn’t feel he can express a view, is that the end of the right to peaceful protest? Where do any of us stand now?

March

Ready to be arrested and have your home raided?

Oh, and I also wrote to David Cameron. Summary of responses:

MP (highlights are mine):

The operational policing of protests and the use of police powers are entirely matters for Chief Constables in the United Kingdom, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on specific individual cases.  Similarly, the system of policing complaints in this country is an independent one, to ensure that officers and staff are answerable to the public.

I am a strong believer in the peaceful right to protest and as I have said, the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts.

So – (1) no comment – fortunately other MPs have expressed their view in public, (2) violent, threatening behaviour is not acceptable (guess what, I agree – what it has to do with this case escapes me).

Civil Servant (I didn’t expect to get an answer from the prime minister – for transparency, I will include the full reply on this one at the end as I’m including only two lines here. It’s also almost amusing to see how it takes five paragraphs to say nothing about what I wrote about):

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police.

Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.

Wait – didn’t I just read that? Oh yes, that must be the standard explanation being given then – word for word in the second part.

I’ve written back to my MP. No reply after a month. Starting to feel like I’m talking to myself. That’s normally reserved for long runs.

There is, in my view, something seriously wrong here. I am, however, pleased that Dr Jiang has now complained to the independent IPCC about the way the police behaved in this case. And optimistic that the important questions which it raised will be dealt with properly.

So I’m left with one unanswered question – what do I do when I think something is badly amiss and when genuine questions are met with non-answers? Stand for election myself? I can’t imagine anything worse. But if everyone said that, where would we be left? (Don’t say “where we are now,” that’s not helpful!).

There is one thing I can do. I will engage in another “first” for me and go and see my MP at his next surgery. Of course they are all during working hours so that will have to be holiday time. But I cannot accept that not replying to a constituent gets an MP out of engaging on an issue.

Democracy. Loving it. Need to fix it. This might take some time.

 

 

 

 

And here is the full reply from the Home Office on my Shao Jiang question – which in my opinion does not even touch on the question:

Thank you for your email of 24 October to the Prime Minister regarding your concerns.  As I hope you will appreciate, the Prime Minister receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each piece individually.  Your email has therefore been forwarded to the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office and I have been asked to reply. 

Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society.  It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable these may be to the majority of us, provided that they do so within the law.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck.  Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.  

The law has to balance the need for the police to have powers to prevent and deal with disorder at demonstrations, with democratic rights to peaceful protest.  This includes rights to express views that are within the law but which we may find uncomfortable or distasteful.  However, if individuals cross the boundary into criminal acts including public order offences, the police will take action.

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, in line with their duties to keep the peace, to protect communities, and to prevent the commission of offences, working within the provisions of the legal framework set by Parliament.

I hope you find this reply helpful.

This might be progress

It’s a good thing I am not superstitious, or I might regret writing this for fear of jinxing something. Don’t say it too loud, but I think I am making progress with the writing.

After a year of trying out a lot of different approaches and (with hindsight) allowing myself the liberty of not worrying too much about it, I think I have got some way towards ridding myself of the overtly academic, philosophising, over-thinking-it writing which I knew I was unconsciously but constantly reverting to. Given that I’ve spent decades writing like that, I am not surprised about that, but it takes a lot to start to overcome that natural tendency. Over the last year, I have started to recognise what works and what doesn’t when I read other people’s writing. Now that might be helpful, and I think it is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can do it any better myself.

But this time round, it feels different. I decided essentially to start again and write a novel, not just a semi-fictitious way of writing about what was bothering or interesting me. Big difference. It means I have had to catapult a lot of hobby horses and random facts, but so far I’ve done so happily. I’ve also taken a step back and asked myself how best to tell the story. I had been pretty fixed on one point of view for a long time, and I don’t think it works. So this time, it’s multiple first person voices. Oh dear. That’s potentially a recipe for disaster. Still looking for someone who has done it really well, I’m sure they’re out there. But I think it’s what’s needed. And it’s also quite a bit more fun to move around and see how another character views the same thing. Time will tell how it evolves.

I’ve finally admitted that the only way for this to work is to get away from anything that can connect to the outside world. It turns out that I was – a big surprise to me – happiest writing during the last year when I was writing with pen and paper. I was also writing a tangent that was one of the character’s backstories and I probably won’t use any of it, but it looks like the first draft will be now handwritten. I have a stack of my favourite Rhodia pads, the paper of which is insanely smooth for writing on, and my heavy Pelikan fountain pen. It’s a combination that works for me. And this novel will be in “Amazing Amethyst” ink. I’m allowed to be geeky about such things given the amount of time I am spending with them. You can, of course, write anywhere with such advanced technology, although apparently I should use a pencil on a plane as the ink might leak, and I should actually have two pencils in case one isn’t sharp or breaks. Good job I have a supply of a hundred Ticonderoga pencils courtesy of Costco.

Pen and paper

And then there’s the whole switching off thing. One hour and thirteen minutes is the answer. That’s how long it takes me to be running until I have gone through everything I’m worried about, thinking about or preoccupied with. Then I’m done and can just keep running and my imagination and body both get to play. There is definitely something about the combination of running and writing, which is one reason why I find having a run in the middle of the day helpful.

Stephen King writes with heavy metal playing in the background. I don’t. But I do have the beginnings of a theory about this. I think it’s perhaps a little similar to the practice of repeating a word or phrase over and over as part of meditation. It frees your mind. I’ve found that by having the same song (in my case, by U2 but that was just because I heard it, liked the guitar part and played it a few times) repeating over and over again is immensely helpful to allow me to present in the story I’m trying to tell. I am now and again aware of the song, but it’s the exception.

When it comes down to it, though, the writing is back to being fun again. And it really needs to be fun. It’s hard enough even then, but it’s nice to want to be doing this again every day. Fingers crossed… no, wait, that would be superstitious.

One year down…

One year.

1,500 pages.

350,000 words.

That was year one then.

1500 pages

I think I have done two things in the right order. Run a few marathons. Then try to write a novel.

It feels similar. Both are painful, for one thing. And year one of running was trying things out, not worrying too much about it and getting to the end of the year and realising that there had to be a better way of doing it.

That’s about where I am now with the book. And I’ve just re-read Sol Stein’s book on writing because now I see what he’s talking about. I didn’t get it the first time round, I was too dead set on just writing. But since then I’ve read some excellent novels… and some pretty poor ones, but I can now see what’s wrong with them. I haven’t dared read through any of what I’ve churned out this last year.

So I’ve gone back to the absolute basics of my characters. I’m stopping myself from going any further until I can see a difference in them when I write from their perspective. It might still not be good – but it’s definitely not as bad.

It all just takes time. And patience. And definitely a good dose of bloody-mindedness.

There are more than enough days when I think I could happily chuck it in. It’s hard work, lonely, and you spend far too much time doubting yourself for it to be a healthy way to spend your time. But I don’t stop mid-marathon either because I know it will be worth it when I cross the finish line. And anyway, I couldn’t really stop writing.

George Orwell understood it well:

Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And, having waded through more than a reasonable amount of Thomas Mann’s incredibly long books in which not a lot happens, I am glad that at least it wasn’t easy for him:

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

So… on with year two. Year two of running was the year of breakthrough. Here we go then…