HR People

I’m a fan of Scott Adams’ ‘Dilbert’ cartoons and I particularly like his view of HR people. One quotation goes something like ‘I hired a new director of Human Resources to handle the downsizing. I needed somebody who acts like a friend but secretly delights in the misery of all people.’ I know people regard the transformation of personnel departments in the 1980s into Human Resources departments regard this as a metaphor for a shift from paternalistic employers of the post-war corporatist era into Thatcherite sweatshops that regard humans as machines (or resources). All the while the managers (and HR people) proclaimed ‘people are our greatest asset’ (until they don’t want them when they become an expensive liability). I liked the Dilbert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss suddenly admitted that people weren’t the company’s greatest asset — they were sixth. When asked what was above people, he revealed it was carbon paper.

I guess most HR people go into the career with the best of motives but they must get pretty brutalised by the calls on them made by many managers. At the top level they are often drawn into highly secret board level plans to take an axe to the workforce (and to advise how to do it as cheaply and quickly as possible while remaining within the law) but at a lower level they will have to work to expedite the petty vindictive feuds of bad managers who decide to persecute someone they don’t like. In this case they’re between a rock and a hard place — incur the wrath of the manager if they don’t sack someone or join in with the bullying. No wonder they’re so keen to try and do the nice, fluffy things like dreaming up company-wide motivation programmes where employees (usually managers) are sent away to hotels for interminable Power Point presentations, after which they are given the opportunity to either drink themselves stupid in the free bar or engage in casual sex with each other (or both).

I think my somewhat cynical view of the typical relationship between employer and employee — or between the serfs and global capital — is showing through here! (This is a view, by the way, that has been confirmed by having done an MBA ). However, it’s all great stuff for a character in a novel. Emma will work in HR and the requirement for her to go and stay over to organise these shindigs in country house hotels will allow a bit of freedom for James and may also give her an opportunity to get a bit of revenge in kind for what she suspects (wrongly, at least at first) her husband is up to with Kim.

I was able to give Emma a bit of thought as I happened to attend a workshop run by The Corporate Infrastructure Forum on ‘Involving the Business In IT’ (something that IT people, generally being more sensitive and reflective souls than other professions like accountants or lawyers or HR people, often sit around navel gazing about: ‘Why does no-one love us?’) This started with a presentation by a chirpy researcher (with a PhD) who’d been working on a project called ‘Sustainable Organisational Performance: What Really Makes the Difference’ for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which is the professional organisation that any self-respecting HR person belongs to (Emma will, of course). It’s all very admirable stuff, which will probably come as a revelation to many managers, about how happy and motivated employees will tend to work harder and so their employers will have consequently better businesses — aligning objectives, balancing short and long-term objectives, concentrating on the employees’ ‘locus of engagement’.

While the presenter didn’t look particularly how I imagine Emma, it gave me quite an opportunity to pick up on the vocabulary of the field, current thinking, even things like how she would use her hands to make points quite empathetically, as the speaker did. Overall, despite her faults, Emma will be professional, conscientious and good at her job — even if does involve delighting in all human misery. I had another thought, which I must add was entirely unrelated to the woman making the presentation, that Emma may have a fondness for having sex in public places — which will be good for a plot device and I think she’ll also be quite voracious. Also, it may help James introduce Kim (and the reader) to the geography of the village and its locality — I’m thinking of places like stone circles or iron age hill forts as Emma will also have a bit of a new-age side to her and like to tap into the energy of these places.

A Less Fraught Workshop?

Yesterday was the fourth of our five Saturday ‘workshops’ (I rather agree with Alexei Sayle’s famous quotation about the word — that anyone who uses it ‘without referring to light engineering is a tw*t’). As things worked out it was the first time that I wasn’t doing a reading. (We got a chance to sign up for our readings and tutorials next term. I made sure I didn’t do consecutive reading this time, although I only get two goes.)

This meant I had seven pieces to read and make comments on in advance — which takes a surprisingly long time. What also took quite a long time was the workshop itself. We over-ran by nearly an hour which was ironic as Alison asked us all to be brief and succinct in our comments. (I’m getting a little paranoid that whenever a reminder is given about concise comments it invariably seems to come just before I speak even though I’m pretty convinced that I’m not one of the worst culprits in ploughing through every single annotation they’ve made on the script.) She also didn’t stop anyone reading their piece in the middle unlike last time when Michael B was cut off in mid-flow and I sabotaged myself my making it clear when about three quarters through that I was moving to a new scene which was completely different. I’m still a bit piqued by being stopped from reading (I’d only got to 1,750 words) and it must have made the subsequent discussion a bit incomprehensible to Alison herself as there were as many comments from everyone else about the bit that wasn’t read out as the stuff that was. Maybe this was why everyone was allowed their full allocation this time, although I thought it was a little unfair on Guy that he had to read after a few people had to leave for other commitments. It’s a good job his piece was so accomplished — and funny.

Hopefully my comments will have been of some use to the people who did the readings but I had the opportunity to think of what I got out of the session myself. It’s interesting to compare the development of others’ novels compared to my own. There were a couple of people whose work didn’t really give me much scope for offering feedback — not only was it generally very good and polished (revealing the work that had gone into it) but it was also consistent with what they’d produced previously. The feedback is really — ‘it’s very good, please carry on and do more like this’.  There are also cases where I’m not sure soliciting feedback from the whole group is particularly useful for the writer because of it may be in a style that is not to everyone’s taste and one or two people, with the best of intentions, like to offer suggestions to the writer of how that piece of work could be transformed into something the person giving the feedback would prefer to read. This can be a bit destructive if the writer has the whole novel planned out and is writing the start of the novel in a particular way for a specific reason that is yet to be revealed. I’m reminded of the Thomas Hardy novel  — ‘Return of the Native’ I think — which spends a whole chapter at the beginning describing the landscape of Egdon Heath. Imagine if he brought that into his creative writing workshop — ‘The setting is great but I think you’re lacking a bit of characterisation’, ‘what would work for me personally is a bit more plot’.

There are also some works-in-progress that seem to make most use of the workshop by bringing in experimental and less well-developed pieces that invite opinions from everyone else because the writer hasn’t fully decided in which direction to go. I may be a bit guilty of wanting to shape other works to my own preferences with some of my comments but there were a couple that I thought — ‘yes, this could be really, really good if only the writer put a bit more x,y or z into it’.

A few of us had an interesting discussion over lunch about sex scenes. I’m a little surprised that we’ve not had anything more explicit in our workshops. My description of James’ imaginings of Emma’s naked (upper) body probably lead the field jointly with Nicole’s excellent Gypsy girl seduction scene, which I thought was great. Jennifer has also put in a couple of honourable mentions with Connie standing starkers on the balcony and Peter greedily ogling the doctor’s receptionist. This might be something to do with us having to read the material out loud. However, I know this is an area that I’d probably have substantial difficulty with in my own novels — and I’ve put off writing them. I have plenty of ideas about what I might imagine writing but it’s really an area that, if I’m honest, I would benefit hugely from having some frank feedback about. Some genres aren’t going to go into this territory but most modern novels will deal with relationships and readers are going to expect the author not to shy away from sex scenes and discussions if the characterisation and plot seem to suggest that’s where the novel should be heading. I think I may have to pluck up the courage to bring something like that to one of my two remaining readings as I’ll either get some valuable feedback or have my confidence boosted in having made a reasonable job of it (hopefully).

Silly Love Songs

In the reading I’m doing for the workshop on Saturday I mentioned a couple of pieces of background music that set the mood in a tastefully refurbished pub (‘marinated in a knowing, post-modern irony). These happened to be playing on shuffle on my computer as I was writing it. One is ‘Amoreuse’ by Kiki Dee, which is a song that few people probably know by name but most people will recognise. It’s actually a French song to which Gary Osborne put English lyrics (who wrote ‘Get the Abbey Habit’ and the lyrics to Elton John’s ‘Blue Eyes’ if I remember correctly).  

The other was one of my very favourites (and not just because of its drinking related title) — ‘Love Hangover’. I like the Associates version but the original Diana Ross recording is both incredibly seductive (in the opening) and then has the most incredibly charged erotic energy — the hi-hat making it pound along. I think I remember some Paul Gambaccini programme on Radio 2 describing how that Diana Ross was reluctant to record such a blatantly sexual song at first and the producer had to seduce her into it with the lights turned down very low.  (There’s something similar about it on this website.) It’s unusual as it’s written by two women — Pam Sawyer and Marilyn MaLeod.

I came back to try and find it on the laptop and did a filter for everything tagged with the word ‘love’. I don’t consider myself to have a collection with loads of soppy songs and it probably removed about 80% of the tracks. However, I was stunned by how many of those that were left were tracks that I really like. Having ‘love’ in the title almost seems to be a predictor of quality. Of those that are on the playlist are gems like ‘Big Love’ by FleetwoodMac, ‘I’m in Love with A German Film Star’ by the Passions, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ by Tears for Fears, ‘Love at First Sight’ by Kylie, ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘Friday I’m in Love’ by the Cure, ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc, ‘Justify My Love’ by Madonna, ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s, ‘Love is the Drug’ by Roxy Music, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppellin, ‘Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding’ by Elton John,  ‘Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover’ by Sophie B Hawkins, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ by Whitney Houston, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar (I Love That) and, of course, ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings…though I wasn’t so enthused by ‘Boys (Summertime Love’) by Sabrina.

I’m not arguing the self-evident point that lots of pop songs have ‘love’ in their title but that I’m far less likely to skip to the next track when I’ve filtered for the word. This makes me think that. perhaps, that for a lot of artists that they are more confident of titling a song with a potentially ‘cheesy’ like ‘love’ when it’s a strong, good quality track (i.e. because it’s good they don’t need to be defensive about it). Paul McCartney’s lyric to ‘Silly Love Songs’  sums up this critical tendency. This is less true of the likes of Diana Ross but very true of the more macho male groups and singers. I think that may be a lesson for writing as well — if you’re dealing with emotions then it will work if you do it directly and confidently then that will be the best remembered of your work.

A Useful Resource for Novelists?

“Most of the time I just lie there and make lists in my head. I grunt once in a while so he knows I’m awake, and then I tell him how great it was when it’s over.”

I was watching an old edition of The Book Show with Mariella Frostrup and they asked novelist Tony Parsons what was on his bedside table.  Among other books he said he found ‘Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivation from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between)’ by  Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss to have been a fascinating and invaluable resource, particularly for a male novelist (and it’s not just about women it has plenty in there too about men).

I found this interesting review from The Guardian — which cites the above quotation from the book, which I thought might not be out of place in a novel.