Do You Really Want To Know What I Think?

About a month ago a friend of a friend asked me if I would read and give feedback on his first book – a work of fantasy – not a genre that I go out of my way to peruse. A bit reluctantly I agreed and I read the book twice and conscientiously made notes.

More than anything the dialogue in the book turned me right off. I clearly had a hidden expectation that characters in a fantasy novel would speak in a certain way. Not, I hasten to add, all “thees, thous and thines” but equally not “punks and assholes” and crying “wanna play hardball d’ya” whilst riding a dragon. I found the modern idioms just brought my subconscious expectations of fantasy novel dialogue crashing about my ears and from there, I became aware that I was developing a slightly jaundiced view about the whole book. But then, since I’m not a fan perhaps am I just a gnarly old bag totally out of step with fantasy fans ‘expectations?- (Rhetorical question, no reply necessary thank you.)

That wasn’t really the problem though. In my day job over the years, I must have run hundreds of workshops on giving and receiving feedback. When I reread my notes I realised something. Except for a few editor- type points, I didn’t give this guy real feedback – information that is:
• Specific
• Objective
• Not “right or wrong” but based on facts, evidence or observation.

Instead, I gave him criticism (and praise) that is:
• based on opinions and feelings
• couched in generalities and
• as happened in this case, leads to defensive arguments about who is right and wrong.

I have to say, to my eternal credit, despite being one who loves a good battle now and then, I resisted the temptation to engage.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in giving praise and criticism, except, as I’ve said to groups over the years: “What are you going to do with it?

As more and more of us self-publish and by-pass the conventional feedback routes from agents and editors, beta testing our magnificent opera on unsuspecting friends, relatives, friends of friends has become part of the writing process. Its got me thinking – of what value is what they tell us and, more to the point, what should we do with it?

Should my friend’s friend take note of my carefully and sensitively constructed objection to his dialogue and do a massive re-write? Does it depend on whether he’s looking to satisfy existing fantasy fans or pull in newcomers? Is he breaking new ground with his style and language? Does he go with a majority vote from his testing panel? Will he feel the strength of his own convictions and hold fast to what he’s created?

I’m still trying to put myself in his shoes but it’s Friday, the sun is out as is the tide, so I think a stroll on the shoreline is called for where I can keep mulling it over.

Alternative Reality

A flare-up of wrist and elbow joints over the weekend meant that I had a quiet and somewhat introspective time. I got to thinking about some things I want to change about my life and that led me down memory lane to remembering changes I tried to make in the past. Some of these came off with a bang and some just fizzled out with a whimper. It has sometimes felt like I take several steps forward, make some progress and then end up back where I started. How come?

I think there are a couple of issues that create barriers to change. One I’ve written about before (here) is the infamous inner critic – that nagging nattery serpent in the head that hisses its poison. Listen to it too much and you end up believing the carping and criticism and so end up back where you started.

However the other issue is how our beliefs about the way the world works and how we relate to it – our mental models if you will – wield so much power. A mental model in this context includes for example, all the images, assumptions, stories that we carry around in our heads. It is our take on reality.

If when making a change in life, we do not change our mental models to dovetail with and support the change then we will always do what we have always done and receive the same results. Changing our mental models opens up new opportunities and possibilities.

When I’ve struggled to sustain a change I’ve wanted to make in my life I think its because I’ve not recognised this enough. In other words, I’m trying to do something new and different but I’m doing it same old, same old.

For example, I made a decision to spend more time writing. I even set a target of 3 days for the day job and 3 days for writing. I started off well but it’s slipped. I didn’t really think through in detail how this new reality will look, feel and sound; what the true implications are; what I will gain and what I will need to give up. With hindsight I can’t believe I was so dumb. Now I feel frustrated and trapped to some extent by the day job which is encroaching on my writing time.

On the bright side however, writing is a great way of creating an alternative reality. So, over the weekend I did just that. I’ve written it all down and by describing it in detail somehow I’ve breathed life into it. I plan to record my successes however small and in that way begin to build up a body of evidence that shows me I can live in this new reality and so helps sustain the change.

The beauty of creating an alternative reality is that it is in fact only one of a myriad possibilities. The way things are at the moment is not the only way life could be. As the saying goes – I may not be able to direct the winds but I can adjust my sails…as often as I want.

It’s not like that in the book

I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy last night – the film with Gary Oldman not the TV series with the wonderful Alec Guinness. I found the DVD in the remaindered section at Tesco and despite early misgivings born of experience thought it was worth a punt at a fiver.

As with many films of books I really love – it was a huge disappointment. I felt like a wet weekend afterwards and I had no choccy or popcorn to take away the pain – I’m on yet another expedition to discover the lost territory of the waistline.

It doesn’t help that I’m a very visual reader and have scenes and characters already mocked up so it’s the mismatch between the film of the book that’s running in my head and the by-blow that appears on the screen that causes a critical running commentary:

“That’s not right; it didn’t happen like that in the book; she would never have said that line in that way” and so on.

It’s not that I’m asking for scene by scene, word by word accuracy. I accept that the media are different and the audiences too.

It’s just the crassness of it all sometimes. For example, in TTSS here we have a double-agent, a mole who is virtually invisible as a character throughout the whole film until his unmasking when we are asked to accept him as a key character yet learn nothing of his motives – the reasons for betraying his country and comrades that are fundamental to the plot. There again…what plot? It’s absence was greatly lamented.

I wonder whether, with films of the classics, the more complicated yet still comprehensible language of the age is thought to be some sort of barrier to understanding? Do the long words and precision of speech have to be over-simplified and “modernised” for the audience? No, we’re not idiots who don’t know the difference between the 18th and 21st centuries. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility pulls it off wonderfully well without recourse to kindergarten-land. It is one of my fave classics that has translated well.

I could go on, but I won’t because now I can feel a diatribe about remakes of classic films coming on. I mean why would anyone want to make a remake of The Italian Job or…

I’m off to pick up a paintbrush.

Was it a slap in the face with a dead herring?

I was paid a compliment yesterday – at least I think it was a compliment. It was one of those things someone said that, on first hearing, makes you want to turn around, scratch their eyes out and serve ’em up as quails eggs. However, on more mature reflection, i.e. counting to ten…I pondered the possibility that this individual wasn’t trying to be offensive – but had just landed me a back-handed compliment.

I’ll give you the back story. For once I had very reluctantly allowed a friend to read a short story of mine. Normally I don’t do this unless I know it’s going to be published because I prefer to keep my friends rather than condemn them to a slow lingering death for puncturing my pride. My friend is what I call a long-distance pal; we don’t see each other very often but when we do the town sells out of red paint. She knew I was addressing the issue (adoption)and pestered me to see the final mss. Since she had helped me with a few factual questions I thought it only fair to share. I emailed her a copy and said, more out of politeness than humility, “let me know what you think”. Fatal DOS error!

A few days later she phoned me and gave me a line by line critique of my story. After some 40 minutes I confess my arrogance is such that I’d glazed over until I heard the words,
“well that’s what I think. Hope it’s been helpful. It shouldn’t take you long to make those changes. I mean it’s such a simple story anyone could’ve written it. Ciao, see you soon.”

After such a dismissive goodbye I brooded for a while, sorely tempted to fish out my Christmas card list and cross her off. However, we’ve been friends a good long while so there had to be something worth salvaging. Then it hit me – ” a simple story anyone could’ve written” that was the compliment. All the struggles I had in writing it, the mechanics of the plot – these were all hidden from her. The characters I’d created were believable; she could relate to them. Perhaps this is what short story writing is about-producing a piece that glides smoothly like the swan, yet hiding all the paddling that’s going on underneath?

Am I deluding myself? Was it a slap in the face with a dead herring after all? Is it just my bruised ego trying to rationalise? Who knows – I’ll wait for the editor’s verdict.

Silencing the Inner Critic

I feel like the wreck of the Hesperus today. Yesterday brought the first mild sunny spring day since the last ice age and I ventured forth into the garden. But I foundered on a sea of couch grass swamping the veggie plot. My pride wouldn’t let me put down the spade and fork until the job was done and now I’m creeping around like an arthritic crab.

To add insult to injury, this infirmity is accompanied by the Voice. It chimes in:
“I told you you’d never dig all that lot up.”
“You’re too old to be doing this, ha! Think you’re twenty-one again, don’t you? You wish, granny”.

I send it a pithy reply, “Ah, shut the f..k up.” (Does WordPress allow rude words?)

Me and this beastie have been at war since…well forever . It has something to say about all my endeavours. It calls itself my Inner Critic. I call it a major pain in the butt. Mostly I feign deafness but on occasions its sibilant little whisper turns into a siren song.

For example, when I go clothes shopping – not often these days and usually involving a trawl through all the local charity shops – I’ll pick something out and try it on. By the way does anyone know why shops always put those distorting mirrors in the changing rooms? You know, the ones that make you look like a grounded barrage balloon? If I’m undecided about the item, up pops the Voice:
“Ooh yeah! You look great in that. The colour really suits you.”

It sounds so sincere and flattering that I buy whatever the article is. Then, when I wear it, my friends laugh so much the tears run down their legs.

But the Voice is pure poison when it comes to writing. Although I’ve silenced it more or less when I write non-fiction (true it has had a few words to say about the less than stellar new book sales -Time for Your Life, on Kindle, just in case you’ve forgotten) but with my fiction it’s having a field day.

“Huh, so you won a short story comp. Big deal. One swallow doesn’t make a summer you know”.
“That character’s crap, totally unbelievable”
and so on and on and on.

The captain of the Hesperus tied his daughter to the mast to keep her safe. I wonder if I could rewrite the story and tie the Voice to a piece of driftwood, wait for the spring gales and then chuck it far out to sea. Probably the last words I’d hear would be:

“What are you like, woman? Rewrite the story, you couldn’t rewrite a parking sign and what sort of a knot do you call that?”