Friday, October 28, 2011

Both ways is the only way I want it

Checking In

It’s been a bit quiet here ever since I lost my mind.

I don’t think I’ll ever try to write 6,000 words on the one piece of fiction in one day again (though I may achieve the fact unknowingly). I’ve hardly written a fresh word since. I’ve either been too zonked to focus or forced to jigger with existing parts of the novel to make sure my giant jenga tower of words doesn’t topple over (much like this extended metaphor promises to if I go on any longer).

I’ll be sending off the first chunk of THE NOVEL to my editor next week. (I may have come up with a title for it today, though it may just be another working title.) By the time of my wedding/the general election (it’s the same day, David) I should have a new roadmap for completion… just in time for a non-metaphorical roadtrip around the North Island.

You may be pleased to know that I intend to post at least one interview with a Kiwi writer next month.

I’ll also work on my annual ‘The Best Books I’ve Read This Year’ post, which will pop up here in December. I might even be in a position to do a similar post about music; the first time in three years I could probably say this. See my Dom Post column from last year for some background. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m working on the playlist for our wedding day (big moments, background music, dance floor boogie), which involves listening to a lot of Billy Joel and Elton John and asking myself, ‘Is it really worth it?’

Recent Reading

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want itBoth ways is the only way I want it by Maile Meloy (short stories)

Great stories in the Richard Ford mould -- there was even a preponderance of male protagonists / male perspectives, despite Meloy being female -- but I didn't tire of the collection in the same way I do (used to?) when reading large numbers of Ford's stories in one hit.

Only one sore thumb story, 'Agustín', which is set in aristocratic Argentinean circles (the rest are set in contemporary USA, often Montana). Not quite as out-there as Wells Tower's Viking story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but 'Agustín' still struggled to hold the ground its fellow stories had won.

Meloy has some interesting things to say about the ordering of short story collections on the book's Amazon page.

Nicholas NicklebyNicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (audiobook)

Technically, I have 27 minutes left to go, but it's been a marathon 30 hours to get to this point and all the plots are being wrapped up. I can't remember laughing out loud this much when listening to an audiobook (to be fair, it's three times the length of the standard audiobook, so maybe I've LOL'd this much with three books, but I try not to make a habit of looking like a crazy person on the bus). I'm filled with glee whenever the boring, satisfied counting house clerk Tim Linkinwater appears. Perhaps if I hadn't done my share of drudgery in financial services I would not warm to Tim as I have.

M. is also listening to the audiobook on her iPod, though she's about ten hours behind me. We talk about the detours into the lives of the Kenwigses and the Crumleses, the lesser villians like Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby and the novel's great villain, Mrs Nickleby. It's all great fun, but is it great fiction?

I think so. It's too flabby by modern standards. Far too many adverbs. I suspect if you cut and paste the text into Microsoft Word most sentences would have a green squiggly underline for committing the (perceived) sin of 'wordiness'. But it's a pleasure to spend thirty hours of bus journeys and waterfront walks with Dickens' narrator (and Robert Whitfield, the audiobook's 'narrator').

The question is, what can I possibly load on my iPod next that'll be this much fun?

A surplus of sentimentality

If finding the right songs for THE WEDDING (yes, it's officially become as ominous as THE NOVEL) was a tricky, it seems finding some words without music to beef up our non-religious, not-overly-sentimental ceremony is bloody hard.

I've got to find something for my step-sister to read out, but it seems it's either God or schmaltz when looking for 'wedding readings' (what a terrible, repulsive phase to be Googling; surely I should have a piece of writing I cherish which will suit such an occasion... um... can't think of one...).

Ugh.  For now, thought, I'm running back to music:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Live blogging the Day of (at least) 6,376 words

Background in yesterday's post.

8:20am: Wordcount: 1,247. Was at my desk at 6am. At this pace it'll take about ten hours to reach 6,376 words. Best not to think too much about it. Better to think of all the bird photos I'll post late this evening!

Typos made and detected: 'allowed' for 'aloud'. Typos made and not detected: TBA.

Hot drinks: one cup of tea (large mug, double-bagger).

Times checking emails: two.

Musical accompaniment: The Zombies, Begin Here. Bob Seger, Greatest Hits vol. 1.

10:46am: Wordcount: 2,775. 44% of the way there. Time elapsed: Four and three quarter hours. Time remaining if current pace holds: Six and a quarter hours. Expected time of completion (allowing for meals, sanity breaks, etc): 8pm.

Drinks: one large cup of green tea. Cold water.

Snacks: two prunes and four pieces of chocolate.

Musical accompaniment: Foo Fighters, Wasting Light (aka Wasting Everyone's Time), The Outfield, Big Innings.

Square brackets left so far: twelve, the longest being: "[whatever it’s called when they rappel down the side of ships to paint them, etc]"

Time for a shower.

1:18pm: Wordcount: 3,610. 57% complete.

Slower progress the last couple of hours as I've run up against a few question marks that cannot be square bracketed. Plus got a bit distracted by

Also, general sitting-on-my-butt-for-seven-hours fatigue.

Recent distraction: our bogan neighbours in the downstairs flat have moved out (yay) and left the place in such as state that the unseen owners have had decorators around most days the last two weeks. Yesterday they ripped all the carpets out. Today there's a lot of banging I can only imagine means they're tacking the new carpet down.

Musical accompaniment: Kaiser Chiefs, Entertainment, Kyuss, Blues for the red sun.

I'm off for a walk and a bite to eat, then back to it.

2.35pm: Wordcount: no change.

Back from a walk down to Lyall Bay, listening to Nicholas Nickleby on my iPod. Beaut day out. Hard to get back into it.

Checked my emails. Checked twitter. Seems I've been found out:

Guess I have to push on.

(I'm honestly not doing this as an attention grabbing exercise -- I don't even think it's very interesting, someone writing about how many words they've written -- but it sure is a good productivity tool...)

4:07pm: Wordcount: 3,780.. so hardly anything. Still 2,600 words to go before I can post bird photos / go to sleep.

Musical accompaniment: Spoon, A Series of Sneaks. Spoon, Transference.

Yeah, I totally blame Spoon for me only writing 170 words in the last three hours.

What have I achieved since lunch: inserted a chapter break. Read the first story in Breton Duke's collection, Bird North. Washed the dishes.  

Yeah, cricinfo's got nothing on me!

5:17pm: Wordcount: 4,507. 71%. 1,869 words to go.

Ugh! Brain-mush. Lemon and Ginger Tea. Inappropriate Capitalisation. The Stone Roses, The Complete Stone Roses (I'm not sure how I feel about them reforming; in isolation I think it's cool, never having had the chance to see them live the first time around [not that I'm planning a trip to Madchester anytime soon], but along with every other fucking band from the last thirty-eight years that ever released an LP...). Finger fatigue. Poor paragraphing. Can you get cauliflower ears from headphones? Time spent on Flikr looking at Rockhopper Penguins (can't link, bird photo). I have some great NZ Falcon shots, dammit. Back to work.

8:06pm: Wordcount: 4,841. 76%.

Um, yeah, so that bit back at 10:46 where I gave my ETC as 8pm... I was wrong.

Which means we've come to the point in the evening where I look to bend the rules and find easy ways to increase the word count (this post is about 700 words long at the mo, and would have counted under my 2008 rules, but not today). In the words of Mr Mantalini: 'Demnition!'

I took a sizeable break to cook tea (pasta with basil and fresh tomatoes). I like cooking but I loooove cooking when I should be writing.

But I've been hard at it the past hour or so. The problem is, I've written eight pages of text today and I'm having trouble keeping all the implications of the decisions I've made to put those pages together in my head in order to make the next set of decisions. For example, the main character met a character today who seems nice but this could just be an act. I wrote the scene so it could go either way, thus giving the reader a bit of intrigue. Now that things have moved on a bit, I'm at that point where the new character reveals if he is   nice through and through or a duplicitous bastard. I wrote a couple of sentences with him as a baddie, then decided maybe he can be nice [like the Cheeryble Brothers? Newman Noggs? Kate? Nicholas? Smike? Nicholas Nickleby has a lot of pure-hearted characters, they almost seem to outnumber the blackhearts].

Anyway, I've been re-reading a lot of what I've written to make decisions like this.

NB: He either needs to be a blackheart and live or a pureheart and die. That's fiction folks.

Musical accompaniment: Television, Marque Moon. Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog.

Thanks for the comments and encouragement along the way. My better half even kept herself scarce this evening (actually, all I got was a text saying she'd be home late... if I wasn't so written out I might have gotten the wrong idea).

10:27pm: Wordcount: Ahem... 6,425. Yes, that's more than 100% of 6,376.

You know what that means?

Karearea (NZ Falcon) at Zealandia
Musical accompaniment for the last push: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dulcinea. Vampire Weekend, Contra.

Sustenance for the last push provided by a vanilla cornetto (thanks Daz).

Inspiration (if such a lofty word can be applied to an arbitrary achievement / incremental progress on a novel that might be total tripe [or maybe just the 6,000 words I wrote too quickly today...]) provided by my kindly commenters (and the other silent visitors, all 63 of you... even the one from Miami who came here after Googling ""Billy Preston" AND "Nothing from Nothing" AND "play list" OR playlist AND party -lyrics") and... BIRDS!!!

Mummy karearea being swooped by recently fledged karearea chick (it was hungry).
Some conclusions: It's sixteen plus hours since I first sat down at this computer. That's far too long. I think if I stopped at 10:46am that would still have been a solid day's writing SO LONG AS I sat down the next day and churned out another 2,775 words. But that's just not how things have been going for me and THE NOVEL lately. I needed to beat it into submission. My poor fingers certainly feel as if they have administered a beating to something.

The question remains: how much of today's 6,000 or so words will remain after the final edit? Right now, they're all my babies. And I need some sleep.

Fledgling karearea.


I just consulted my wordcount spreadsheet from 2008 and it turns out of the 6,376 words I wrote on 10 December that year, only 3,374 were on short fiction (presumably all on 'Unnatural Selection'). The remaining 3,002 words were expended on blogging (my best books of 2008 post I guess) and poetry! What a rogue I am. Spending twice as long on the one project than is healthy in the one day! (I kinda suspected this might have been the case, that's why I didn't check until just now).

(Wordcount of this post: 1,256)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Judge, Jury and Executioner

In Her Majesty's Service

The Commonwealth Writers Prize has relaunched in its amended form, along with a new website,, with some content from past winners. There’s even an online writer in residence, fellow short story supremo Katrina Best.

I’m really excited about the revamped Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It used to be a 600-word limit (winning entries were intended for radio broadcast) but now the canvas is much larger: 2000-5000 words to be exact.

I’m honoured to be one of this year’s judges, which means I’ll get to read the freshest writing from Africa, the Caribbean,  Canada, South Asia, the UK and of course the Pacific.

NZ is also represented in the Best First Book judging panel, with Emily Perkins signing on (where does she find the time?).

Turn The Page 

I’m already in two minds about Bob Seger after Friday's hasty declaration.

Reprint! Reprint! Reprint!

Random House is reprinting A Man Melting. A modest number at this stage using a short-run system, so the foil on the cover will just be printed in colour. It'll be interesting to see how much of a difference this makes…

There’s still some foil first editions in NZ/Aus bookstores if you want one, but get in quick! For the rest of the world, it’s a matter of taking your chances ordering online (see info in the sidebar ---->) or buying the eBook (definitely no foil).

Bang Bang Bang: Musical interlude

Promises, promises

Tomorrow, Thursday 20 October 2011, I will write 6,376 words of THE NOVEL. 

I know I can do it. I wrote 6,376 words on Wednesday 10 December 2008, that being the year I tried (and failed) to write one million words in a year, and the 6,376 words being my best word count for a single day

That day I was working on the short story which became 'Unnatural Selection', which closes A Man Melting. So it's not like I was writing total nonsense (though I can't say for sure how many of those 6,376 words survived in the final 10,000 word story; the first draft was a flabby 13,000 words).

Why am I setting myself this lofty goal? Because I'm spinning my wheels at the moment, spending hours inserting historical detail and agonising over how Scottish my Scottish characters should sound (must I type 'doon' for 'down' whenever they speak?), and I really want to break new ground.

So tomorrow I will rise at 6am, slip on my slippers and write like stink, leaving square brackets willy-nilly and powering the story out into the open seas and closer to the inevitable calamity in the Southern Ocean.

And if I fail? Um. If I fail I promise not to post any bird photos on this blog for 12 months! Yeah, I know! The things I must resort to.

Excuse me while I erect my petard.

Other things I need to do in the next few weeks:

  • Come up with a title, even just a working title, for THE NOVEL, by 1 November (suggestions welcome, the less relevant the better). 
  • Submit something to Turbine by 21 October.
  • Get a haircut.
  • Buy a wedding band (M. has hers sorted already)
  • Give Bob Seger another chance.
Bob Seger during his short-lived Snuffleupagus phase

Friday, October 14, 2011

Griffith Review / Bob Seger / Travel Pity

Islands in this dream

A thick package containing two copies of Griffith REVIEW 34 (the annual fiction issue, the theme of which is 'Islands') arrived yesterday. My story, 'Offshore Service', leads off the issue, which also features Favel Parrett, who I saw talk about surfing and fiction at the Melbourne Writers Festival last month, and Amy Espeseth, who I shared a jug of Pimms with one evening during the festival, as well as a bunch of other Aussie writers who I haven't seen in person but I'm sure are lovely...

I'm stoked to be in this issue for a number of reasons. Firstly, Griffith REVIEW is, in my view, the most consistently engaging of the Australian literary journals. Secondly, it's always nice to have a little coverage in Australia... I had two stories published in Etchings a few years ago, and my story 'Touch' from A Man Melting is supposed to appear in Sydney's HarbourView at some stage, but I've always felt that the line in my bio about having fiction published in New Zealand and Australia was cheating slightly. Not now! 

And it's always nice to be paid for a short story in Australian dollars.

But I must damp down these feelings of Trans-Tasman Brother-and-Sisterhood for the footie on the weekend! Here's hoping my fellow Manawatuvian Aaron Cruden has a flyer.

Still the same?

At the risk of sounding like a Michigan steel worker (are there any primary or secondary industries still going in Michigan?): Bob Seger is awesome.

No, not his hair. Or his backing singers, which seem to up the schmaltz-quotient both live and in the studio. But when you get past these trifles... woh!

I got his greatest hits CD out from the library yesterday and it's funny how many songs I knew and were suddenly great when listening to them on a CD rather than hearing them on 2ZA or Solid Gold, or whatever radio station plays Bob Seger these days.

'Night Moves'. 'Still The Same'. 'Against The Wind'. Three of the greatest songs ever written right there.

Plus there's 'Hollywood Nights', 'Mainstreet', 'We've Got Tonight' and 'Turn The Page' (which Metallica rocked-up and, though I'm not a big Metallica fan, I have to concede is probably a notch better than the original...). Oh, and the second most popular jukebox song of all time: 'Old Time Rock & Roll' (a bit too obvious for my tastes, but it does what it sets out to do).

I see what's going to happen now. I'll go and search out Seger's studio albums and litter blog posts with Seger YouTube clips for the next six months.

Where will he sit on the podium of American singer-songwriters when this honeymoon period of discovery/rediscovery is over? He won't topple Warren Zevon, surely (I also borrowed Insides out by Zevon's son, Jordan... one day I might write something about the children of artists and how we respond to their works...). Will I realise how uncool it is to proclaim my love for a middle of the road seventies mid-Western rocker and issue a retraction? Nah, I'm beyond caring if other people like what I like, or trying to have a cohesive record collection iTunes library.

Travel Pity

I wrote a column a few months back about travel envy. This morning I picked my brother and his friend up from the airport after their three week jaunt in China. They were tired and smelly and had a load of washing that had been rained on on their last day in Beijing that they needed to get out of their packs and re-wash. 

It was nice to sit on the couch as they sorted out their gear, did some final accounting about who paid for what and who owed whom, and began to sort through the masses of photos they'd taken to ensure they both had copies (and they can subject me to a slideshow later). 

Staying home has it's advantages. 

If M. and I end up buying a house I might have to re-read this post often to soothe my itchy feet...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bird / Hip / List / Book

Okay, that’s long enough to have that review at the top of this page...

Time to say something worth the price of admission*...

But first, just to annoy Laura, a photo of a kereru eating broom leaves:

Putting the poaka in kereru
Does this photo (taken Sunday at Zealandia) remind anyone else of those pigeon gangsters on Animaniacs?

Tragically Hip thematic link: Pigeon Camera (1992)

It wouldn’t be a blog post without a picture of a bird and a YouTube link to a Hip song...

I guess that means it's now time for a list...

To Do List: By 2016

  • Get a poem included in Best New Zealand Poems 
  • Get a story published in The New Yorker 
  • Watch another Sacramento Kings game (Damn you David Stern!
  • Write a thriller featuring a forensic document examiner and an expert in animal DNA using a pseudonym
  • Write a children’s book featuring magical beings that live in flax bushes
  • Write a blog post that compares all of the covers of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights that are available on YouTube
  • Earn as much money in a year as I did when I was 22 and working in an entry-level public service job in Brisbane 
  • Go on a junket... anywhere 
  • Photograph a rifleman (and a tomtit, and a black-billed seagull) 
  • Turn something down 

Speaking of To Do’s

It’s less than three weeks to the first of November. Back in March I kinda sorta committed to send my publisher a first draft of THE NOVEL on 1 November. This still left a few months for “refining” before “serious editing” (i.e. someone else holding the red pen) and hopefully publication “towards the end of 2012”. A month and a bit later I went down to two days a week at my day job, but also got a bit distracted by my first two writers festivals (Auckland and Sydney) and some of the stuff that came after that. But still, I managed to make some good headway with THE NOVEL.

When I gave my editor (and y'all) a status update on 1 August I said, “I should have between 70 and 80,000 words by the start of November. The question is whether 70-80k will represent a finished draft, or if the novel will be a bit longer (it won't be War and Peace or anything). As I get further into the next section, I should have a clearer idea of the shape.”

Soon after this I cut 7,500 words from the opening and found out my second section was actually my third and had to write a new second section, which poured molasses all over the momentum I’d built up.

This past week I have been forced to research things such as the symptoms of lead poisoning, what cargo, if any, tea clippers took to China and whether figureheads were hollow in the 1870s. The research is still kind of fun, which makes me think I must be doing something wrong. The fact I’m not adding to my word count significantly most days is a frustrating, though. And if it all means I miss my window and the book isn’t ready in time to come out in 2012, that’d be a bit stink. But all these current labours are necessary. Cutting those 7,500 words back in August was necessary. The massive rewrite of some section I’m currently okay with but will wake up one day and realise needs to change will be necessary. Because there’s no way I’m rushing this story between two covers if it isn’t ready. If it isn’t right.

Or as right as I can make it.

*Although, as many tweets proclaimed after the latest raft Facebook changes, ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product’... In this case I think it’s more likely: ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product of my imagination.’

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Breaking Bad: A "new" review from 11 months ago

Okay, so turns out I have some connected people who read this blog (well, at least one) and now I have the full text of the Taranaki Daily News’ review of A Man Melting that ran on 6 November 2011, which I mentioned yesterday.

To refresh your memories, I got a Google alert last week saying there was this review from back in November, but the link didn’t work.

The question is, why had no one brought this review to my attention? It couldn’t be bad, could it?

And it’s not, insofar as the review is clearly written, doesn't sit on the fence and is full of strange, eminently quotable put-downs...

A Man Melting, Reviewed by James O'Sullivan, Taranaki Daily News, 6/11/2010 
This is the first collection of stories from up-and-coming New Zealand writer Craig Cliff. Cliff is another product of the Bill Manhire MA writing degree in Wellington. Debate lingers as to the merits or lack thereof of such institutions. Do they nurture original and thought-provoking writing, or do they create a processed Mc-Literature? Reading this book, I am surprised I wasn't asked if I wanted fries with it. 
Cliff writes well enough. At least he steers clear of the literary excesses that plague a lot of New Zealand fiction. But too many stories in A Man Melting left me wondering what Cliff is trying to say, or even what he is trying to do. Stories ramble and go nowhere, leaving hapless readers wondering why they invested the time and cash into this book. 
Cliff's angle is realism; stories include couples having relationship troubles, a young professional having a career crisis, kids suffering from the bullies at school and so on. Some of the stories reflect Cliff's personal experiences, travelling, working in offices and living in Scotland. But there's another element. In one story, a man starts to melt. In another, extinct species start to come back to life. The thing about writing these "weird" kinds of stories is that if you're not Franz Kafka, you're probably not going to pull it off. Cliff is no Franz Kafka.
A typical story from this collection is Fat Camp, where a couple start up a camp for overweight children in Scotland. It's long, meandering and offers nothing more than the trite "trying to get through to the difficult kid at camp" storyline. 
Cliff does have writing skills, but he seems betwixt and between with this collection. There's just not enough in these stories for them to be good literature and yet they don't have enough dramatic plot or action to fit into a safe genre. Cliff needs to figure out what he wants to say and find the right way to say it. 


Actually, I laughed out loud a couple of times when I first read it.

My reaction might have been different if I’d read it back in November, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

I’d just like to thank James O’Sullivan for holding no punches and giving me something to write about in my next column (I’ve already Googled Mr O’Sullivan and it seems he's written a few short stories in his time...).

For now, I just have to decide which quote to put up on my website...

‘Cliff is no Franz Kafka,’ perhaps?

‘I am surprised I wasn't asked if I wanted fries with it’?

Or the delightfully backhanded, ‘Cliff writes well enough’?

All gold.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

JAAM 29 / Book Groups / RWC2011 / Odd Names

JAAM time

My copy of JAAM 29, edited by Anne Kennedy, arrived today. It features my short story 'The Bartender's Glass.' It's the detective story I mention sometimes when I talk about the stories I liked but couldn't find a way to include in A Man Melting as they didn't 'play nice' with the other stories...

Anyway, JAAM 29 looks like it has some great stuff inside and I look forward to reading it properly over the next week.


Attention book groups

You can now read online the Book Group Compass piece on A Man Melting that featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Booknotes.


New item for to-do list inspired by a tweet on Sunday: write the great rugby league novel before Pip Adam does.


You learn something every day

The Niagara Falls did not look like this when I visited in 2009. In fact, it looked like the banner at the top of this page (it’s a photo of the horseshoe falls, taken near the gift shop on the Canadian side).


Sport, take II

I went to the Argentina vs Georgia Rugby World Cup 2011 game in Palmerston North on Sunday. My one and only RWC game I’ll go to. (Mostly went up to Palmy to visit whanau and check out the Argentinean asado, but the barbeque wasn’t ready when we had to leave the square).

Great atmosphere in FMG stadium and the Square beforehand.

The Square being invaded by Pumas supporters.
The Argentinean supporters got quiet in the first half when their team kept knocking on and missing their penalty kicks (Georgia led 7-5 at half time), but Los Pumas picked it up in the second. Phew!

Lots of handling errors, lots of scrums, lots of hands on hips.
I haven't been to a rugby game for a while,
but the amount of non-players on the field was ridiculous.
But in the end, a good time was had by all.


From the archives

I was looking through my emails from a few years ago and found this…

Top 10 CDs I borrowed from Brisbane City Library in 2005

1. Sleater-Kinney 'One-Beat'
2. Bob Dylan 'Highway 61 Revisited'
3. Iggy and the Stooges 'Raw Power'
4. Rolling Stones 'Let it Bleed'
5. Television 'Marquee Moon'
6. Elliott Smith 'XO'
7. The Fall '50,000 Fall Fans Can't be Wrong' (2CD best of)
8.  Love (best of)
9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (best of)
10. Elvis Costello (and the Attractions) 'Best of'

Clearly my musical education was a work in progress in 2005.


New-old review?

There might have been a review of A Man Melting in the Taranaki Daily News on November 8, 2010. Yep, that’s almost a year ago, but I just got a Google alert about it now. Sadly, the site it links to doesn’t work. Did anyone read this review when it came out? Do I need to go for a road trip to the New Plymouth library, or is there some other way to get a hold of a copy?


What the Dickens? II
The names conjured up by Dickens are more than matched from the subscription list of a certain New York newspaper : — Maria Pickles, William F. Peterfish, John J. Cowhog, Laura Loofborrow, Maggie Mussmaker, J. Tyranny, Minnie Bighost, Fannie Vinegar, Susie Souse, Nora B. Freelove, Mattie B. Toogood, Mollie M. Whiteneck, Phenia Sufficool, Effie Blunk, Cora Coon, Viola Eyestone, Raytie Shivers, Pearl Shad, Frankie Somple, John George Dingledog, O. D. Pancake,Dick Turnipseed, and Cynthia Neiderfrankensteinhauser.
Article from Evening Post, 6 November 1886, via Papers Past.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Some things I wrote about writing a novel over the last week and have decided to finally post

A writer who knows what he is doing isn't doing very much -- Nelson Algren

All images in this post by Jean Lowe, via Juxtapose

Looking Back, Looking Forward

No one ever asks me, ‘Why do you still keep a blog now that you have a column?’ Maybe I'm the one one who wonders about this sometimes. Because for long stretches of time there’s not a lot to write about in a writer’s life. At least not this one’s.

When I go to work for my 2-day working week, people often ask me how THE NOVEL is going, which is a fair question, but difficult to answer, especially if they’ve asked you this the week before and again the week before that. I think they’re all waiting for the day I say, ‘It’s finished’ and they can ask about the sexy stuff like covers and sales figures. Hell, I’m looking forward to the sexy stuff. But for now it’s drudge drudge drudge, and there doesn’t seem a lot that’s blog-worthy (or column-worthy) about this.

Something I can talk about with a certain amount of perspective is my old book (it’s only in the last four months that A Man Melting has felt like my old book, not my only book). I received a royalties statement from my publisher a few weeks ago that made interesting reading. The statements come every six months and this was my second one, covering sales from Jan-June this year (so sales from 6-12 months after A Man Melting was released, but covering the period I won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize [March] and the overall Best First Book [May]).

The good news: I’ve earnt back my advance and last week got a small (3 figures) royalty payment.

The rub: This isn’t saying much when my advance was very small to begin with. To put it in perspective, I’ve earnt less (advance + royalty payment) from 12 months of sales of my 320 page, 18 story collection than I have from selling one 6,000 word short story to the Griffith Review in Australia. Of course, A Man Melting opened a lot of doors (it helped get me my column, it’s taken me to Australia three times and Auckland twice, it won some prize money, it helped get a Creative NZ grant to assist with writing THE NOVEL, etc etc) but in pure sales terms, it’s small biscuits. Which is fine. For some reason people don’t buy short story collections in the same numbers as they buy novels. Maybe it’s because after reading a collection of short stories it’s hard to read novels as they seem so flabby and gratuitous… Maybe that's just a reflection of where I'm at with THE NOVEL.

More good news: I’ve sold roughly as many copies of A Man Melting in Australia as I have in New Zealand. Not many first time NZ authors can say this.

The rub: Australian sales are classed as exports, so I get a smaller royalty percentage. (Also, NZ sales figures are relatively small, so it's not that hard to equal a small number). But I’m grateful to have had the support of Random House Australia when I’ve been over there the last two times and it seems there are some of my books in Aussie book stores, which is pretty cool.

I keep having to remind myself that I didn’t expect any Australian sales when the book came out in July 2010. I've mentioned on this blog already how I expected the whimper of noise around the book to die out back in November 2010 and that it was time to muscle up with the next book. But I’ve been lucky and A Man Melting kept popping up in various places.

I was looking forward to the post-publication world and it hasn’t disappointed. The scary thing is meeting raised expectations (mostly my own) for the next book. It seems wrong to think about the post-publication world for THE NOVEL right now and use it as an incentive to finish the damned thing, but I’ll take whatever works. And thinking about finding the right title and giving it the perfect cover (no long haired women in period costume!!) and talking about it as a finished piece of story telling… well, that does just enough for me to stop blogging and return to 1919…

Delivering the Goods

To counter the sense of drudgery and general mire my novel writing had entered, I started mixing up the music I listen to while I write.

You can get a sense of what's generally on heavy rotation as a write from the playlists I post here from time to time. As a rule: not a lot of heavy metal.

To counter the general seriousness and po-facedness of how I've been feeling, I went to the Wellington City Library and got out Best Of compilations for Judas Priest, KISS, Iron Maiden and Rush, as well as Iommi featuring Black Sabbath axeman Tony Iommi with various vocalists.

And you know what? It seems to be working. The music is bold and adolescent enough to loosen the tension I might have felt had I been persisting with Radiohead (I honestly haven't liked an album of there's since Amnesiac, but I can't delete anything off my hard drive because I think I might one day come around) and Bill Callahan and Wilco.

Playlist for a teenager trapped in a novelist's body

Run to the hills - Iron Maiden
Flame on - Iommi and Ian Astbury
Love gun - Kiss
Breaking the law - Judas Priest
Limelight - Rush
Heaven and Hell - Dio

What the Dickens?

Last year I wrote about those cloud-burst moments while writing a novel when everything becomes clear and you know which way to take the story (see here and here). It's worth noting that these two posts were in relation to ‘Novel B’, which I later abandoned (actually, I’ve decided to carve it up into a couple of short stories, the literary equivalent of selling a car for scrap).

Work on THE NOVEL, my current beast of burden, has been quite different from work on Novel B. For one, THE NOVEL is historical and required/requires a lot of research, whereas Novel B was contemporary and stuck pretty closely to what one might expect of the experience of a middle class NZ male in the 21st century.

The roadblocks I encountered with Novel B were related to narrative voice (the narrator was fine for a 8-10 page short story but he wasn’t built to carry a longer narrative, he enjoyed stopping and ruminating too often) and a gnawing concern that as I writer I was taking the path of least resistance.

The roadblocks with THE NOVEL have been more to do with a lack of knowledge of time and place or not quite knowing how to tell the story (rather than one first person narrator, there’s a mix of first and third person from varying perspectives).

Some weeks, when I’m in the first draft flow, I can churn through scenes quickly, happily littering square brackets throughout the text where period detail needs to be checked or an example found. For example, there’s a scene in the first historical section where there’s a vaudeville show, which includes two real-life singers performing a duet. When I first drafted the scene, I was happy enough to write something along the lines of: “And then they sung [song title] as a duet.” A few weeks later I spent a day finding the details to fill in all the square brackets in this scene.

At other times, I seem to get stuck on these small details and can’t push on with a scene without filling in the blanks. Whether or not I get stuck seems to be more to do with my mood/headspace than the details themselves.

Sometimes the things in the square brackets are more significant than a song title or a type of horse-drawn carriage. Last month I was working on a section which is told in the form of a diary, written by a sixteen year old girl. She’s led a cloistered life and most of her knowledge of the outside world has come from books. I knew that on top of describing the action of this part of the novel in daily chunks, she’d also be reading a book in the downtime and would be likely to remark on it in her diary. So as well as adding sense of realism to the diary and consistency in her character, I thought this 'ther book' could be a useful tool to a draw out some of the substrata of this diary section (and/or later sections).

At first, I thought this other book might be one that I make up, so that I could make it link to those parts of the diegesis I wanted. I got as far as coming up with a name, The Voyage of The Penobscot, and liberally sprinkled square brackets through the diary entries saying: "[something about reading Voyage of the Penobscot]".

Aside: I had a little internal battle over including a character reading another book, real or made-up, in my own novel, because I know it happens too often in fiction and can be symptomatic of what you might call exogenous writing (writing that draws it’s power from the outside associations it draws into it’s own frame) rather than endogenous (writing powered by its own motor, though it can certainly make connections to other works). In the end I felt satisfied that I’d been led down this path of having a character read a novel by the fact my character is a novel-reader, and this character trait is a direct result of the cloistered upbringing, which in turn comes about as the result of a decision of her father, which is the key decision in the novel and the motor that drives the plot).

One thing that happens all the time when writing, but especially when writing longer works, is that you find what you need from what’s going on in your real life at the time. Having written a few failed novels already, I know to be wary of incorporating too much fresh thinking into the structure or plot of a novel that you’re part-way through. But for the small details, it’s perfectly fine to mention a TV show you’ve been obsessing over in your time away from the desk (if you’re writing a contemporary story). A novel is a patchwork of real-time thoughts, ideas and associations thrown over the pre-erected framework of your story. Sometimes you need to bend and adjust the framework so it supports the patchwork you’re creating, and that’s fine so long as it’s being driven by the characters you’ve created and the decisions they’re making, rather than your fervent desire to write something about ponaturi (sea fairies).

So I've been listening to Nicholas Nickleby on my iPod these past few weeks and noticing how certain elements mirror, albeit imperfectly, elements in the diarist’s life. And I thought: 'Could she be reading Dickens’ novel rather than The Voyage of the Penobscot?' In many ways her reading her own life into Nicholas Nickleby would mirror my own reading/listening experience, looking for points of similarity and difference with the novel I'm writing.

There are pros and cons both for using q real book and q made-up one. But right now I feel like it’s better to have the book she reads imperfectly reflecting her life than risk it being too perfect for the novel (even if she doesn’t pick up on the true significance of everything at the time).

Serendipity, controlled imperfection, drudgery: three things that should be on your shopping list if you plan on baking a novel.