Feedback: stay clear of false compliments, white lies, and set phrases
I’ve been on the hunt for a day job for some time now. With my disqualifications (age, immigrant, gay), not an easy task in a country as obsessed with young blonde people as Sweden. There’s a fear (so HR professionals have told me repeatedly) that immigrants just don’t blend into the Swedish “fika paus” (coffee break morning and afternoon) because they don’t understand the culture or the language. The fact that the “fika” is almost gone from Swedish workplaces is beside the point. Sadly the attitude survives. As a gay man, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re discriminated against because people these days know better than to say discriminatory things openly, but some employers are still disturbed by it, and as a married man with son, it’s hard to hide, lest I lie, and I just don’t lie. I once had a manager ask me (on our first business trip after his third beer) if it wasn’t disgusting “to take it up the ass”… Today I’d probably fire off a witty retort, but back then (twenty-one years ago) I just wanted to disappear into a hole in the ground, blushing all shades of crimson. But alas, not the topic of this post…
Age is a bigger problem. Sweden is extremely ageist. You can read job ads seeking managers with ten years experience from managing and still expect the candidate to hold an MBA and be between twenty-five to thirty years old. How that computes is above me, but it’s what you read, again and again. Not to mention that us old geezers are often considered too expensive. Why hire us when you can get a young moldable mind for less? There’s a certain logic to it. And there’s a reason we are more expensive. Experience is also a form of competence… What remains is this weird feeling that you miss out on great opportunities for all the wrong reasons, but you can’t prove it.
Anyway. I recently received feedback from a company where I had applied for a position, and it reminded me of what you shouldn’t write in a feedback message. Having worked in this field for some time, I’m still surprised to see senior managers make such colossal mistakes, lying through their teeth. Here’s a key paragraph from their message, and my interpretation what they “really” tried to say…
You have a super CV and a very broad experience. We need someone who can be very hands-on [apparently, in their view, I’m not] right out of the gates, understand the advanced technology [am I considered slow? dumb?] and work with “ordinary” tasks [ouch!] before we grow further. We believe that you are too “academically advanced” [this is just so wrong in so many ways, I don’t even know what to say…] for this position.
First of all, you should always, always provide feedback to applicants, whether they are called to an interview or not. Kudos for that. So many employers do not afford applicants this basic courtesy. It doesn’t make them more attractive, quite the contrary. Employer Branding is 99% about walking the talk and 1% about advertising the talk…
When it comes to actual feedback, personally, I believe that oral is better than written. That way you can avoid quotation marks… I mean, really? I remember the interview very well, and I know it wasn’t one of my best. Both my dad (skin cancer) and my MIL (blood clot) were admitted to the hospital that day, and I was preoccupied, worried. Things went downhill when I looked at my watch after one of the interviewers had been yawning for some time (it was a Friday afternoon) and I mistakenly thought it to be 4:45 pm rather than the actual 3:45. New watch and I wasn’t accustomed to the face yet. I rushed the interview and didn’t realize my mistake until I was in my car in the parking lot at 4:20, not 5:20 pm like I thought… Yeah, that happened. Needless to say, I immediately apologized, without mentioning the half-asleep manager stressing me. Decorum! 😉
About ten minutes into the interview I learned that both managers interviewing me had come from the same company, and it was the tell-tale sign that they were looking for someone with a background like their own. When a high tech company hires its staff from the same high tech company, they’re likely “set” in their views on what the most important competencies are: engineering, and here in Gothenburg, Chalmers. Don’t fit that profile, go on, look elsewhere. I knew my chances were minimal. When it took three months to finally get feedback, I had long ago realized I’d lost. I’ve been in this game long enough…
BUT, while I realize that, you don’t have to insult people’s intelligence with quotation marks and thinly veiled insults. Clearly, that paragraph was just intended to let me down gently. And it makes me wonder how they view engineers. Aren’t they academically advanced? LOL Last I recall, they study as long as everyone else to get their master degrees.
Here are some recommendations if you respond to applicants:
- Do it, do it as soon as you possibly can. To let people wait two to three months is rude. Not to respond at all is a disaster
- Be courteous
- Don’t lie. If you feel that what you want to say is “sensitive”, don’t say it.
- While I appreciate the attempt to provide feedback, if that feedback is not in any way helpful or constructive, don’t. I would have omitted the entire paragraph above and just left it at “you have a very impressive CV, but ultimately we decided that another candidate was a better fit given where our organization is currently at” and then move on to the blah, blah about keeping them in mind and yada, yada. After all, these aren’t unintelligent people. It would’ve said the same without the hollow compliments and white lies.
I’m always amazed how organizations don’t consider the wider impact of their messaging. How do they think I will talk about their company to friends? My engineering friends (I don’t live in an author bubble 24×7)? Suppliers? Customers? You never know who people know…
What is your take on this? HR professionals? Let’s hear it! How do you coach your managers in how to write feedback letters? I don’t often write about my coaching/consulting career, but I still have it. LOL To learn more, head on over to my company site for further information. Feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good week.
Humans are never perfect. To put them on a pedestal as statues risks whitewashing their less than clean traits as well
Statutes, flags, historical monuments. We’re talking a lot about statues these days, or to use the great bard’s words (this is a literary blog after all): “to be, or not to be…” Statues, currently those raised after Confederate combatants and leaders in the U.S. have already caused the death of three people and several injured. So why are statues so controversial? Why do people care about a bronze statue of people long dead? Allow me an attempt to explain.
Humans are complex, statues aren’t
In order to understand a statue, we need to understand humanity. A human being is a complex creature. Few humans are perfect; if any. We have good sides, we have our bad sides. Allow me to exemplify: George Washington, first president of the United States, a war hero and a successful general. So far so good. But he was also a slave owner, and yeah, today, we don’t see that as a positive trait. Something the current president tried to exploit in one of his asinine press appearances. I’ll get back to that later. Most of us still see Washington as worthy of being a statue, name-giver to the capital, an entire state etc. Adolf Hitler on the other hand, the greatest villain of our times, he will never be cast as a statue, even though the man loved dogs and animals in general. Why wouldn’t you name a kennel after him or a dog shelter? The Adolf Hitler Dog Rescue Society? Nah, right? His name is just too tainted by the bad he’s done.
So what about good people?
One of my heroes, or idols, Nelson Mandela, serves as a beacon of light in this book. But in general, I’m wary of using real people as symbols. You never know when it comes back to haunt you…
I have very few idols, if any, but Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. I don’t know much about Mr. Mandela’s life before Robben Island except what you read in articles like the one quoted above, but I guess there was a reason he ended up there. His life in older years is well known to me though, and I’m sure there are plenty of schools named after the first freely elected president by all South Africans, and probably some statues, too. I even enshrined his nick name “Madiba” in one of my books (Willem of the Tafel). But it is not the human Mandela we praise. It’s the public persona, the president, the leader of a crucial time in South Africa’s history. And we do that not only against the backdrop of history but – much more importantly – in the context of how we interpret the present times. And while Mandela symbolizes South African freedom and democracy, Frederik Willem De Klerk, his predecessor as president, and also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate probably won’t get many statues, simply because he represents the old South Africa, the oppressor.
What about General Lee?
The big question here is why people created statues of General Lee (et al) in the first place. And why are statues of him criticized while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who even had illegitimate kids with his slaves) are okay? Again, history, and historical context. When Jefferson and Washington were active in society, Americans by large had no qualms about slavery. Remember, this is almost a century prior to the civil war. So while the vast majority today condemns slavery, nobody did so during the first years of the new republic. It was normal, just like women didn’t have the right to vote and gays couldn’t get married. That’s why it’s not really a factor in the equation. You can deplore that, but that doesn’t change things.
As a member of the LGBT community, I could decry every statue on Mount Rushmore, any statue anywhere really, because of their stance toward LGBT rights, but the general consensus back when they lived was another one. You could say the same about women’s rights. Which is why it’s so important that the constitution of a nation, particularly one as old as the U.S. one, is always re-interpreted and read against the backdrop of the current times (or it becomes as useless as reading the bible literally, and who does that?)
General Lee is THE figurehead of the Confederate States, more so even than their president. He symbolizes slavery because that was the #1 reason the southern states tried to leave the U.S. He is pretty much the poster boy for slavery, as the oppressor, just as Uncle Tom et al are poster boys for the victims. To erect a statue of General Lee (or defend it today) is therefore equivalent to condoning his stance on slavery, which basically means that you do not afford all humans the same value. That makes you a racist, a white supremacist (in U.S. terms), at least in today’s views. Was General Lee a good man? I’m sure. I’m sure he was a great husband and a devoted father, but that’s not why he stands as a statue, at least not today. So why did they erect statues of him? That’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I have the correct answer (in fact I know I don’t), but I would guess that – again – the answer lies somewhere in the historical context of a nascent civil rights movement. While blacks had been freed all across the Union in 1865, they had few civil rights, and in real terms, few things changed for them in the South. As the African American community began to voice their concerns and their claims to equal civil rights, this must’ve alarmed those who opposed equal rights. And therefore, symbols like General Lee or the Confederate flag resurfaces, even though, after 1865 they’d disappeared, symbols for loss and capitulation. Statues may have been raised to honor his valor, his strength, the loyalty to the state, etc. Sadly, it’s difficult to see such nuances in historical people. Even a statue of Hitler kneeling next to his dogs would do little to redeem him in the eyes of the public.
How statues and their perception changes
To the common people of the Soviet Union, statues of Stalin and Lenin were probably always seen as symbols of oppression. When the Stalinist era had ended, the Stalin statues vanished, by government order. After communism had collapsed, statues of Lenin disappeared almost throughout the entire empire, a symbol of the oppression of the past 60 years. Which is odd, because they had once been raised to honor the man who’d freed the Russian people from the Tzarevich oppression… The irony of history.
I’m convinced that statues, buildings, streets etc named after Confederate fighters were always a blight in the eye of the oppressed, but they didn’t have the means to do anything about it. Imagine how it must feel for a black student to attend Robert E. Lee High (exactly the same way it would feel for a Jew to attend Adolf Hitler High), and while I’m not comparing the two on equal footing, the analogy serves to drive home a point: history and our perception thereof changes, and it is interesting to see that while the civil war freed slaves on paper, the United States as a country didn’t begin to address its racist underbelly until the civil rights movement, and even then only reluctantly. Which is why racism in that country is so deeply rooted and institutionalized. Far too many people still believe that while slaves may have been freed, they’re still not treated/seen as equals, but that’s an entirely different post.
Yeah, Henri Guisan has statues of himself. Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Roland Zumbühl (CC 3.0)
As new documents come to light, and we learn new things about historic people, our view of them might change. Let me exemplify with an example from my birth country, Switzerland. During WWII, our armed forces were led by General Guisan, a four-star general who was specifically appointed to lead the country’s defenses. Normally, Switzerland only has three-star generals. Anyway, about fifteen years ago, new research into General Guisan revealed him to be an anti-Semite. This led to a huge outcry and many in the older generations were deeply offended by how these young “socialist historians” soiled the memory of the greatest soldier in recent Swiss history. Well, here’s my take. When Hitler took power in Germany, most Europeans and Americans held anti-semitic views. It’s been that way since the beginning of the church. It was after all the Jews who were responsible for killing the founder of their church. Hardly an endearing act. However, Guisan, while probably sympathetic to some of Hitler’s views, was also first and foremost Swiss, and just because he (and most likely Lenin, and many other leaders of the time) felt the same way about Jews, there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and eradicating them. And there’s a huge difference in defending your country against a foreign oppressor, no matter what his views. And the Swiss have always been wary of Germany and the power it wields. Not to mention the fact that Guisan was French speaking. This doesn’t “excuse” his views, but explains them in a historical context. His actions speak for themselves, just as General Lee’s (despite privately opposing the secession) chose to actively fight for a losing cause.
Yet when it comes to statues and monuments, we must also see them in the light of when they were erected, and why. Which is why the men on Mt. Rushmore rest safely, even from BLM, feminist or LGBT activism, while the statues of southern fighters do not. Because what they stand for was disputed even when they were alive, not just today.
Echnaton, displayed at a Cairo Museum, not in public. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Néfermaât
Why weren’t they removed before? And why the fights now?
America is undergoing a rough patch in its history, having for the first time elected a racist and white supremacist to the presidency. While few people who voted for Trump share his vile views, racism is a red thread throughout his entire life, from the earliest days when he learned from his father not to rent to African Americans in New York, to his remarks about Mexicans “they don’t send their best people…” and finally to the comments (or lack thereof) last weekend. Suddenly, race is an issue on every news show, something that began with the Obama presidency, only now, we see the backlash, we see the ugly head rearing itself. For decades, white southerners walked by those statues not even thinking about what they meant. The Confederate flag was seen as a symbol or rebellion, of being an outcast, a southerner. All the while the black community didn’t have the voice to speak up, because they always felt the same way, and they still do, of course. Imagine seeing a police patrol. As a white person, you see them as a protector, no matter who sits behind the wheel. As a black person, you see the potential for being abused. Sometimes, you have to see things from the perspective of the minority, because the minority has always been told how the majority views things. The most interesting aspect though is that what we see in America now, is the majority becoming a minority. But, as was the case in South Africa, the minority is still in possession of the majority of power and money which enables them to hold on to power longer than they rightly deserve. What happens in the U.S. now is the white race’s final struggle as the “dominant” power. And unless they somehow manage to completely disenfranchise colored voters, this will resolve itself within a generation. Thank gods for natural selection…
But surely, every statue represents history? Mustn’t they be preserved?
I hear that argument from time to time from racists (45 using particularly loathsome “esthetic” arguments) and others, although I haven’t seen any blacks using that argument (yet). Two things: first of all, that’s not been the case, historically. In ancient Egypt and many other similar cultures, a new ruler might destroy any traces of his predecessor. Sometimes because they tried to revolutionize something, Echnaton is a great example, sometimes because they were defeated by another country etc. This has always been how humans have done things. New rulers, new statues, old statues destroyed. It’s only in very recent decades (and in democracies) that we’ve seemed to have changed our approach and somehow attribute statues artistic and historic value, rather than symbolic. And the answer is yes, absolutely, any statue represents history, but you won’t see statues of Hitler on display in German squares or statues of Pol Pot in Cambodia, but you’ll find them in museums, where their historical context is discussed. And that goes for a couple of artistically or historically valuable exhibits, but you can’t exhibit all of them. Some will forever be stored in warehouses, some melted down.
Statues, flags and historical symbols are a complex issue, for sure, and most certainly something I wish I could revisit the “outcome” of the current U.S. struggle in retrospect. It’s difficult to see all the complexities and all the finer nuances when you’re living in such times. The present serves badly as history commentator. No wonder they say “hindsight is the wiser”… What is your take on this? I’m curious to hear what your insights are. Anything I’ve missed? Interesting points of view? Particularly from the oppressed and I don’t mean white supremacists, because you’re NOT oppressed. You may see your privilege vain, but that’s hardly considered oppression. While other people gaining equal footage may hurt you emotionally, you don’t lose anything physical, no rights, nothing. So stop whining and grow a couple…
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I’m at a point where even talking “reviews”, “PR”, “marketing” or “sales” makes me depressed…
You’d think that being an author is about writing books, poems, plays or stories. Alas, like in any job, that’s only part of what we do every day. And for every book we write, there’s a cycle to follow: inception, research, writing, editing, proofing, marketing, selling. You could of course infinitely detail my description, but it’ll do for the sake of this post. And in order not to attract unwarranted critique, some of these things concur simultaneously, some continuously. But let’s keep it simple. Right now, as I type these words, I’m in a state of limbo. The official marketing & PR activities for my recent book, Last Winter’s Snow, are long over, and I’m in this waiting room at my publisher’s, waiting for my edits back from my editor. So I begin to think about marketing it. I’m in no place to write right now (see other posts about why or what it takes to get into the zone) so I try to spend my time planning for the next release.
The joy I felt when Natasha Snow and I were working on this cover is all but gone, replaced by an emotion, not unlike that conveyed by the cover image…
Disease is scheduled for an October 26th release. In indie publishing, that’s a long time. I know people who put out two novels or more in that time. By then, I need to have a plan for how to make the biggest possible splash for my budget. Over the years, I’ve learned what works for me, and what doesn’t. To make it easy, lots of (good) reviews early on is a good thing, book tours on the other hand yield no tangible results. I blog a bit here, I will attend one more big convention (the book is scheduled to release timed for that), and I’ve already put out a trailer, as I always do. Not that it sells copies as such, but I find it a valuable tool to convey the atmosphere of the book. Images and the musical score help me paint that picture. Hopefully, it doesn’t scare people away.
However, as I tackle each of these tasks, I feel a dread, a sensation as if I were dragging my feet through newly poured concrete. I have no energy, I don’t enjoy it, and I sure as hell am not looking forward to the tasks at hand. I go through the motions of it, but even going on Facebook and seeing my author friends out there pouring their heart and souls into marketing and PR, some more eagerly than others, some taking steps I wouldn’t dream of, is becoming something laden with negative emotions.
Convention will have you know that you need to be out there, or you won’t sell. And I guess it’s true enough, but I just don’t want to anymore. I am tired of the conventions, the round genres this square peg is hammered into, I’m tired of perfect naked bodies everywhere, I’m tired of having to put myself and my family out there all the time, and I feel a sense of shame and guilt for doing it. Before you judge me, I know that I have a choice, and no one is forcing me. Also, this isn’t some insane plot to make people “pity buy” my books. I am well aware that doesn’t work, at all.
I know all that, and if anything, that makes it worse, because I really do not have anyone else to blame but myself, but oddly, it is the reality of the industry, that readers are more interested in our personal lives, and the drama we endure/create than our books. They read those in a handful of hours and then quickly return to the drama online.
This year’s publications, one’s out, the other one is yet to be released.
I have been following a new author in recent weeks and was able to partake in their joy of the early and fast success of a great debut. I feel no such thing with regards to my coming book. Dread, yes, joy, none. And I’m not sure if this is something we all go through at times, if it is the lack of success finally taking its toll or if this is simply me, being tired of it all? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that while I go through the motions of my marketing and PR, plan for a successful (as it can be given my tiny niche) release of Disease, my heart’s not in it. It was when I was working on the cover with my cover designer, but that was a couple of months ago. Something happened, something I can’t quite put my finger on. There are things already planned for my release I wish I could avoid, and I’ve made some tiny adjustments to e.g. my GRL costume, to make it a bit easier for me given my current situation, even though, as a whole, it is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in terms of transformation. I may (or may not) tell you about it some day.
For now, a question, to other (more seasoned) authors: have you been in this position? Have you had this dread of having to go through another release? How does one get over that? What pointers can you provide to work through it? Hopefully, your insights might help not only me but others who feel the same. And if you’re in a similar place like I am right now, know this: you’re not alone. There’s two of us now! 😉
As always, your insights are welcome. Feel free to comment or share. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good week.
Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
I am who I am, and I expect people to accept me as such. Why can’t we grant each other that same courtesy? Photo: Alina Oswald
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
In this book, there is an entire chapter dedicated to change management, what works, what doesn’t and why. Have a look if you’re interested. Lots of other smart tips included, too.
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.
I’m not sure who profits more from my writing: me or my readers…
We often talk about how a writer’s life affects their writing, and you know that I think this question to be boring, irrelevant even. Alas, we still keep talking about it. But the opposite? The question of how writing affects me or other authors came to my mind (again) this weekend. It is somehow tied to the question of why we write, but not only. Here’s the thing: I know that a great many of my colleagues write because they don’t have a choice (to make a long answer short and simple), the words just keep pouring out and we find ourselves vessels to hold them in our novels, stories, poems and plays. For some of us, writing is deeply therapeutic, a form of cheap psychotherapy. But that’s not what I had in mind today. No, I wanted to talk about something else entirely, based on my trip to Sápmi this past weekend. Care to join along?
The cover for my novel Last Winter’s Snow.
I know an author for whom writing was a form of working through her childhood (sexual) abuse, others (myself included) write about things that have touched us personally in one way or another, from abuse to illness, relationship conundrums and family challenges including the death of loved ones. Stories are woven from our lives’ experiences, so far so good. But what about the opposite? How do our stories affect us? I’ve just returned from a four day trip to Sápmi, to the land where my latest novel, Last Winter’s Snow plays out (in part). I had already traveled to Ammarnäs in January for research, and I had to promise my Sami guide and my hotel manager to return in the summer. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I try to be a man of my word and I did return last week, as promised. I also took along my own extended family for the trip.
What I found has had as deep an effect on me as my first trip, and I’m not entirely sure (in fact I can’t make up my mind) as to which is better: Sápmi in the summer or in the winter. What I did learn however is that the two places are completely different. It’s like coming to a different world altogether. Here are two pictures to highlight this difference, although I’ll be honest and admit that my phone camera, as good as it may be, doesn’t do reality justice:
There are traces of Sami cultures everywhere, but they’re invisible to most of us. This, for instance, is a trail marker. Photo: Private
Another Sami marked birch, but look at how different the forest looks… Photo: Private
The summer in Sápmi is very short, as there’s still snow in April and well, the first snow can easily fall in late August. Mother Nature is rushed and it seems as if life virtually explodes all around with dozens of different varieties of colorful flowers, grasses etc. Up on the mountain, the birds are nesting, and there is a sweet fragrant smell in the air, mountain flowers needing an extra strong scent to attract pollinators.
I took my husband on a long hike to visit the lake that is prominently featured in my book, and the sight took my breath away. I feel extremely fortunate that my writing has taken me to such a beautiful place, again. And it’s not just Mother Nature putting on a display to leave eternal marks in my memory, the people of Ammarnäs are still as friendly and welcoming as then, and it may not come as a surprise that we are already planning our next trip. The journey hasn’t just affected me, my entire family was taken by the ethereal beauty of Sápmi. My dad, normally not very fond of Sweden and our rigid DIY attitude to service and our cool approach to each other, was almost in a trance state the entire weekend, his emotions deeply affected by the landscape, and it was he who wanted to see this in the winter. Needless to say that it made me happy to see him and my family so content. Even my husband, normally not the emotionally outgoing person (he dreams of achieving a Vulcan Kohlinaar) thanked me profusely on one occasion for having taken him and our son along on the trip. Another ego boost for the author.
I am lucky, and this really isn’t the first time I’ve been to visit a place of my writing to complete my journey with my characters. Here’s a photo my dad took three years ago, as I reached a very important point in Haakon’s journey in The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. You can tell by my self-embrace how emotional the moment was for me (unaware of the picture being taken):
From this jetty, my protagonist travels to his private island, an inheritance of dubious character… Photo: Private
And just last Christmas, while in Cartagena, Colombia, I visited the beach where two of my characters had an important philosophical argument about the limitations of “for better or worse” in a relationship:
On this beach, Jonathan’s grandson and his boyfriend have a very important discussion about what they expected each other to do in case of a severe illness or accident. Jonathan’s Promise. Photo: Private
But that’s not the only thing. I also learn from reading other authors, from having my own views and preconceptions challenged. I’m no perfect being, far from it, and while I read my colleague’s books, I learn a lot, not just professionally about the actual “craft” or “art” of writing, but also philosophically. Reading about other people’s point of view, seeing life lived through someone else’s lens is extremely valuable. Be it the experience of coming from a slightly different culture, or a radically different one. But also what it means to have a completely different human experience. I’m readily admitting to being small-minded and conceited at times, and reading (as well as my own writing research) helps me become a somewhat better person.
Last, not least, I also learn from my readers and my author friends, as well as other people I’ve met through my work. Things I never knew I needed (wanted?) to know, from fat phobia to the impact of living a life caught between gender expectations and your own reality, how to be a better chef, the impact of large breasts on your body, to being sexually or psychologically abused as a child, to risking to lose your child to your own rapist or, to complete this kaleidoscope of lessons, living life in a wheel chair, getting a little worse, day by day. No one mentioned, no one forgotten, but thank you to all for your stories, your experiences. Somehow, they all find their way into my subconscious from where my brain will knit all new stories.
I may not earn money as an author, but writing and being an author has certainly not been a vain exercise. I’ve learned more than I have in many other professions before, not just about other people, but also about our planet. Allow me to finish the post with the usual question about your experiences and a couple of photos to really drive home the point of just how lucky I am to be alive and being able to travel and learn:
Isn’t this gorgeous? Just a simple stream, but absolutely breathtaking. Photo: Private
The mountainous region of Sápmi is breathtaking, with lakes, moors and tundra, and always a slightly sweet scent from all the flowers. Photo: Private
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week. If you want to comment, go ahead. I like to see my posts as conversation starters, so let’s talk to each other…
PS: Speaking of “talking to each other”. I saw this commercial for Heineken today. Have a look. You may agree with me, that it is something worth sharing…
The parenthesis about editing shouldn’t be necessary, but sadly it still is, because far from all authors edit their work
I am curious: how do authors and writers edit their work. But sadly, I’m aware that a lot of people don’t, at least not by a second set of professional eyes. I can’t believe that there are still books published that have not been properly edited, but alas, just last week, I had the following exchange with a friend who recommended me to read the book of another author. This is what she said about it:
“…he finally self-published it, in the end, which is a shame, because it needs another round of editing…”
Self-publishing has (had) a bad rap because of sentences like the above for a long time, undeservedly, because let’s face it. A lot of great books aren’t published through traditional models because most larger publishers today are too niched. If your story doesn’t fit the mold, you won’t get it out. Self-publishing is, therefore, the answer for a lot of authors. However, editing isn’t just a problem for self-publishers. I know at least one publisher I will never read again, because of how bad their editing is. So, once and for all, here’s my recommendation to authors: edit, edit, edit, and make sure you proof your texts, too!
My next novel, my eleventh, took me a lot longer to write than the first. New doubts and lessons learned needed time to be applied. And I self-edited more than ever before. The manuscript is now with my external editor.
But how do you edit? There are of course many ways to edit your work, and in this post, I’ll let you know how I’ve worked, and how my process has changed and hopefully improved. Mind you, and this is the only time I’ll say this: editing is not a one-stage rocket. You can edit your own work to a degree, but EVERY work (no exceptions!) needs a second set of eyes. And I am sooo tired of hearing people saying they can’t afford a professional editor. What do you do if you can’t afford the bus ticket? Ride it anyway? Or do you abstain and walk? Take the bike? Not even a professor in English can edit their own work, simply because you lose sight of your own writing, you can’t see the individual trees in the forest anymore.
Now, how do you edit? I’ll start with my own process. When I first began writing, I had no clue about editing or proof reading. I wrote my texts and sent them off to my editors, and eventually got back their comments and fixes. Trust me, no fun. English isn’t my first language and yeah, I am definitely not one to see trees in the forest. Wow! But, I knew that my language skills were limited, and I had learned from a publishing debacle in 2010 (a book that had been edited and proofed by a professional publisher, or so they claimed) that bad editing won’t primarily affect the publisher, but the author. I took the hit. The comment about the first edition of Common Sense is still up there on Amazon and it hurts, still, after seven years! To fix those errors was one of the main reasons I decided to put out a second edition…
So I learned, hired editors. For my fourth novel I even hired two editors (just to be really, really sure), which turned out to be a really bad idea, because the two editors, as good as they each are, have different ideas about how to structure things, how to polish a text, and I almost ended up losing both of them in the process. These days, I use my publisher’s editor(s), which simplifies things for me, and I trust them implicitly to bring out the best in me, not to push their own agenda. However, I learn from the feedback from them and try to put that feedback to work in my future writing. We literally talked about literally once. The word is virtually gone from my writing today, to just make one concrete example.
Here’s my workspace as shown in my current novel. Manuscript to the left, the support document with the timeline & notes to the right.
In the last couple of novels, I made sure to not only work on my manuscript, but I also keep a second document open, with notes. I know that some writers swear by Scrivener to do this, some use the header and footer section, but none of that worked for me. The second document side-by-side to my manuscript on a full screen helps me to keep time lines straight, names and places right etc. Because here’s the deal, an editor will look at several things (this list isn’t complete, I’m sure):
- consistency: does the manuscript make sense, is the overall story tight, interesting enough, are conflicts resolved etc.
- continuity: does the same car return which left in the morning (I’ve seen the opposite…), do people age accurately etc.
- plot holes: do people disappear without explanation, what do you see when you stand and look out over a place, etc.
- Grammar: yeah, they do look at your language, your sentences, structure, dialogue, repeated words etc. As I write in American English, my editors use the Chicago style guide. There are other style guides, particularly if you use other flavors of English or other languages.
- Typos: yes, even that, if they catch them, among all of the above…
Let’s face it, editors are humans, too, and much of what they do above isn’t always guided by the AP or Chicago style guide, but often by preference. You can resolve consistency issues several ways, and the same is true for continuity, and yeah, preference is very individual. These days, when I work on my own stories, I try to make sure to send a manuscript without consistency or continuity issues, or plot holes to my editor. For my latest manuscript, I even used grammar tools to try and minimize the work for them. Have I been successful? That remains to be seen. We haven’t really begun the editing process yet. But Debbie is welcome to comment. I do know that I will have missed grammar and typos, and I know that in the editing process, words are added and dropped, leading to new issues to look at.
I do try to put the lessons from the previous manuscripts to work in my next story. I really do, and for every book, I edit more and more. I read my books aloud, I even printed my most recent manuscript, for the first time, to see it with different eyes. I’m really curious to see if it’s made life easier for my editor. But, no matter what, an external edit remains a given!
The writer of this post in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017. Photo: Alina Oswald.
Once we are done, the manuscript is proofed, by at least three sets of eyes. Again, “trees in the forest”. After working on a manuscript for a few weeks, an editor will lose perspective. That’s where proof readers come in handy. We all put it aside for a while and then read it again. My publisher uses reading software to have the novel read out loud as a tool. That way, they hear instantly, if something is amiss because the software will mispronounce misspelled words. A great tip. Do we find all typos in this process? I hope so, but I also doubt it.
However, and this is really the main point here: editing (and proofing) isn’t about finding that last typo, it’s about getting rid of a text’s big and small problems because they are the ones you want to catch. You want to read about them in e-mails from your editor, not in reviews from readers. By then it’s too late and your reputation damaged. This is my process, but how do you edit? How do you work with your texts to make sure they are the best possible versions of themselves before they reach your readers? Tell me, because I’m sure there are other ways that I might profit from, not to mention the fact that my blog is read by a lot of new writers. I’m sure they’d appreciate hearing about other people’s processes, not just mine because what might work for me, might not work for you…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week. If you want to comment, go ahead. I’d like to see this post as a conversation starter, so let’s keep talking.