You are not sure if you dreamt it. It’s dark o’clock. The duvet is toasty warm and the pillow has a you-shaped hole cuddled into it.
You tell yourself that it’s a one-off. It won’t happen again. Maybe it’s a noise from outside the house. A truck reversing perhaps? A friendly neighbourhood burglar who has forgotten to switch his phone into stealth throb mode?
The penny drops. It’s one of your smoke alarms telling you that the battery is nearly dead. Not only are you risking your family going up in smoke, you also have to submit to the water torture of a bleep every five minutes or so. Which only ever seems to happen at night. Funny that.
Now comes the difficult decision. Do you ignore it, roll over and try to go back to sleep? Or do you get up and fix it there and then?
It’s a tricky call. If you get up, you might wake the entire house. You almost certainly won’t get back to sleep yourself. And if you are clumsy with the battery-changing you might set the alarm into deafening scream mode.
But if you don’t deal with it, that bleeping will continue. All bleeping night.
So what do you do? Deal with it or roll over?
I sometimes have a similar dilemma in the waking world. Because I write books, sometimes I get asked to review someone else’s writing. That’s not unusual. Most of us in this business give and receive feedback on each other’s work.
The last three books I have reviewed have all had “issues”.
Don’t get me wrong. All three were enjoyable reads. All were creditable novels that I would have been happy to pay for. On several occasions I found myself saying “Ooh – I wish I’d said that”.
But then comes that bleep in the night. And that awful choice. There was something in each book that didn’t quite work for me. Do I say something or do I try to ignore it?
In each case, there was a question of balance. Too much of one thing, not enough of another – for my tastes at least.
One of the books was heavy on character. We had a lot of quite well written scenes where a group of characters went about their daily lives. Going to work. Updating their Facebook page. Going to work again. All very charming but not much happening. The plot bimbled along with the amp turned to one for 90% of the book, then exploded into an eleven for the last chapter or so.
Another book was heavy on realism and exposition. The author had clearly done a lot of research, and had transferred that to the page. I could believe in his world, in a way that I could not believe in a lot of Hollywood or pulp writing. But this was at the expense of character. The book told me more about the world than about the people in it.
The third book was chock full of interesting ideas and imagination – a fascinating flight of fantasy. But there were passages with nothing but dialogue. Two characters standing in a room talking to each other. And while the conversation was interesting, I couldn’t help longing for the characters to react to what each other was saying, for someone to show an emotion, for something to happen.
And that gets us to the fire-alarm-in-the-night dilemma. Should I say anything? It might hurt their feelings if I give them feedback that wasn’t 100% positive. And these were only my opinions. Other people might have a different experience of those three books.
But if I don’t tell them what I felt, how would they be able to improve? All three had asked for a review. They hadn’t asked for a five star glowing review.
A man could go mad listening to bleeps like that.
So I put the question back to each of the three authors. I said to each that there were bits about their books that I really liked and some other bits that I struggled with – “Would you like some feedback?”
In effect, I was transferring the bleep dilemma to the authors. Did they want the feedback or not?
Their different reactions were fascinating.
All three recognised the broad issues I was raising. They had heard it before from other reviewers. All three also had a good reason why their book had to be written the way it was.
One wanted more feedback. One didn’t want any at all. The third reluctantly accepted the offer of feedback, but was scarred from previous negative feedback of the “your writing sucks” variety.
It was also interesting to hear what their plans were for the future.
One of the three said that he wasn’t going to change. He didn’t worry about the feedback. It was his writing style and he was sticking to it. Another said that he would do something very different next time. He would try a totally different style. The third was somewhere in between – torn between defending his writing and going in the opposite direction.
And that got me thinking. The fire alarm bleep is a binary choice. I either get up and deal with it, or I don’t. Black and white. Yes and no. There are no shades of grey options – unless you include the choice of asking my wife to get up and deal with it.
And – believe me – that is most certainly not an option. Not if I want a reasonably pleasant day to follow the broken night.
Some people also think that giving feedback is also a binary choice. A book is either great or “it sucks”. Someone either can write or they can’t.
By the same token, some authors also tend to see feedback as a binary choice. They either take notice it or they ignore it. They either carry on regardless or rip it all up and start again.
But life isn’t usually so clear-cut. Our choices don’t have to be binary:
- I liked some parts of this book, but I didn’t like others
- It’s only my opinion – someone else might have a different opinion.
- It might sell a gazillion copies to the people who like it or it might only appeal to a niche market.
- You don’t have to change style totally – sometimes all you need to do is tweak your writing to accommodate the points made in feedback
- Your writing might not be the finished article just yet, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve and learn
- If lots of your reviewers are saying the same thing, then maybe … ahem … just maybe …
What did I do about the bleeping in the night? I got up and took the battery out.
And wrote this blog. Sometimes choices are binary.