Sunday, October 31, 2010

Drip-fed fiction – this November’s experiment

In November 2008 I wrote a self-contained story in 100 words every day for thirty days and posted them on my blog. You can read those stories here.

I enjoyed the process so much I decided to repeat the dose in November 2009, adding one further constraint that all of the stories would be set in the fictional South Island town of Marumaru South. The result was 3000 words that worked rather well as a single piece, and ’30 Ways of Looking at Marumaru South’ was published in Sport 38 in May 2010.

So what does this November have in store? Well, I have my eye on Unity Book’s competition the long and the short of it, which is open to stories under 1,000 words or over 10,000 words. I’m drawn to the over 10,000 word category but entries close on Christmas Eve and I don’t have anything on the go that fits that description. So...

November 2010’s prescription: 334 words a day for 30 days = 10,020 words.

I quite like the discipline a smallish daily word count imposes upon the writing process for a particular piece, so I’m going to try to write discrete 334 word chunks every day. To do this, I will — to begin with at least — jump around chronologically. The first day I will write a scene from the middle of the story, say, then write something that could be the beginning the next day.

At the end of the day I should have a jumbled first draft and a couple of weeks to turn it into a literary masterpiece.

Unfortunately, I won’t be posting any work in progress on my blog for this experiment as it may contravene certain rules about anonymity Unity’s competition may have (the judges aren’t supposed to know who wrote the entries). But I will keep you posted how things are going. Is 334 words a good length for this sort of exercise (this blog post is just over 334 words long)? How long does it take to whip up my daily dose? Did I choose the right story to compose using this method? What will I do next November?


October Reading in Review

Discussed already this month:
A Room with a View – E.M. Forster (novel, audiobook)
Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark (novel)
The Day Hemingway Died – Owen Marshall (short stories, New Zealand)


Self-Help – Lorrie Moore (short stories)

Self-HelpI hate most writing that uses the second person. Just hate it. But I could abide all the you’s in this book, Lorrie Moore’s first collection (1985), so that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because I was a big Moore fan already — her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital was one of my favourite reads in 2008; her 1998 short story collection Birds of America was a big influence on me the year before.


Selected Poems: Octavio Paz – Edited by Eliot Weinberger (poetry)

Again, I come to the conclusion that reading anthologies, Best Ofs and Selected Works misses the point. But how else does one begin to approach a prolific poet, especially one in translation?


Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart (novel, audiobook)

AbsurdistanI enjoyed this book immensely. The audiobook version, which I borrowed from the Wellington City Library via its overdrive online borrowing system (a fabulous thing itself), was nominated for an Audie (the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar) in 2007, and rightly so. Arte Johnson’s turn as the ebullient narrator, Misha Vainberg, unable to return to his beloved United States, could have easily been over-egged, but Johnson eggs it perfectly (so to speak). Shteyngart’s novel is funny, generous and over-so-carefully absurd. A great reading/listening experience.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Last October was ‘Owen Marshall Month’ on this blog. I argued why it was more satisfying to read Marshall’s stories in their natural habitat (i.e. the collections in which they first appeared) rather than in a Best Of anthology, discussed three collections in more detail (The Lynx Hunter, Coming Home in the Dark, Watch of Grypons), before reviewing Marshall’s latest collection, Living as a Moon.

I wasn’t as monogamous this October (see my monthly reading summary post tomorrow) but I did read another Marshall collection, which I thought I might summarise in the same fashion as last year...

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Published 1984 (Marshall's third short story collection)
24 Stories, 158 Pages (an average length of 6.5 pages per story)

The vibe

I bought my copy at this year's Second Hand Book Fair at the TSB Arena along with Tomorrow We Save The Orphans (which I may save for October 2011). I only recognised a few stories in Hemingway from previous anthologies, ‘The Divided World’ being the most memorable (more on this a bit later). 

Olive KitteridgeThe fictional New Zealand town of Te Tarehi pops up frequently in Marshall’s oeuvre, but of the collections I’ve read Hemingway visits this town most frequently. The stories are not solely focussed on the one town like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Dubliners, but Te Tarehi and its inhabitants (particularly the Ransumeens) feature in at least half the stories and act as a uniting thread for the collection.

Most of the stories are brief and realistic, but there are a few, like ‘The Divided World’ and ‘Choctaw Princess’ which are more interested in language than plot. Humour, or perhaps wryness, is at the heart of a small number of stories, whereas others feel like vehicles for astute observation and aphorisms. Often I felt the stories suffered at the hands of this tendency for sweeping statements, like “Passion has a sudden grip when you are twenty” (‘Bravo Echo Victor’). Sometimes, however, the aphorism is good enough to justify the whole story, like, “In time we all punish our parents for having treated us like children.” (‘A Town of Rivers’).

My five favourite stories in the collection

Kenneth’s Friend

The first story in a Marshall collection always seems to make my top five. The narrator recalls the summer holiday he spent with his classmate Kenneth and his family down in Queen Charlotte Sound. He’s not really friends with Kenneth, and feels bossed around and neglected, eventually deciding to take revenge on Kenneth and his father by destroying their precious shell collection—then comes the twist.

The Divided World

“The world is divided between the superstitious, and the unimaginative; between those who love men, and those who love women; between those who have witnessed Bjorn Borg’s topspin, and those who have lost the chance; between the exemplary, and the few of us who are left.” Etc.

Is it a short story? Is it a poem? Who cares. It’s a fun, brainy three and a bit pages stuffed with insight and Oxford commas.

Bravo Echo Victor

Even though I felt pulled out of the story by the odd sweeping pronouncement from the narrator, the story as a whole was engaging. It probably helped that it was one of the longer stories in the collection. Bruce invites David to spend their leave from the army in his home town of Te Tarehi. David falls for Bruce’s sister, Bev (Bravo Echo Victor), he kinda sorta sexually assaults her (the ambiguous relation of this event feels horrifyingly true-to-life). On the way back to Waiouru, Bruce and David have a fist fight because, “Bruce had taken him home as a friend on leave, and in return he’d rolled his sister.” No one really wins.

The Fat Boy

Seventeen thousand dollars worth of parts go missing from the railway yards and the workers blame the fat boy they’ve seen hanging round. McNulty’s warehouse burns down, Mrs Denzil is tied upside down in her bathtub, Nigel Lammerton beats up his wife—and each time the fat boy is implicated. “The fat boy seemed to be a harbinger of trouble”, and the townspeople set about bringing the fat boy to justice, except he’s not that easy to find. When an angry mob finally gets their hands on him, he’s a goner, though “No-one seemed to know what happened to the fat boy’s body” afterwards.
A telling social satire with some laugh out loud moments (“Nigel Lammerton, with his experience as a wife-beater, got one or two really good thuds on the fat boy’s face...”).

Don’t Blame Yourself at All

This story directly follows ‘The Fat Boy’ and keeps up that satirical edge. Julie’s husband Russell is a huge bore, obsessed with the fuel efficiency of their car and planning every detail of their holiday. On top of this, it seems he talked her into getting an abortion in the recent past. When inspecting an old Maori pa site, Russell slips down a cliff and into the sea. He calls out for Julie to get the rope from the car as the tide is rising, but she stands frozen on the clifftop, to the delight of the reader, only for a traditional happy ending for Russell (and no one else).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Keyword Analysis - a found poem

It's over a year since I stopped posting at my old blog, The Quest for a Million Words, but according to StatCounter it's still getting a lot of hits through search engine results. Interestingly over fifty percent of the traffic (an average of 500 page loads a month) comes from people curious about the weight of a certain stoner space rock front man...


Keyword Analysis
a found poem

dave wyndorf fat
dave wyndorf weight
dave fat wyndorf
dave wyndorf got fat
is dave wyndorf still fat
star wars monster
fat Dave Wyndorf
wyndorf fat
the Wizard is just a man pulling knobs and twirling cranks behind a curtain
dave wyndorf
first struggling of anal quest
dave wyndorf is fat
a kink in the armour
words of rejection
david wyndorf fat
words linked with rejection
the wonders of new zealand travel
expanding sidebar
I got a million dollar bill and they can't change it
"not for general consumption"
italy "driving tour"
has dave wyndorf lost weight?
dave wyndorf love monster blogspot
why dave wyndorf fat
The American Dream - then and now
dave wyndorf lose weight
Baby Götterdämmerung meaning
hardboiled baroque
short story with word like snack step pond luck and sick
dave wyndorf photos
"shoes drying"
shetland pony
wyndorf weight loss


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Random Roundup (including A Man Melting's first three months)

I got a package from Random House today summarising all the promo stuff for A Man Melting in the three months since its release.

There was only one review that I hadn't seen previously, if 'review' is the right word. It was in the Oamaru Mail on 15 September and was a whopping 80 words...


It seems I'm getting a lot of hits from people Googling when the BNZ Literary Award (the old Katherine Mansfield Short Story comp) is going to be, uh, awarded. And until now I've left these hopeful Googlers empty-handed.

For once, however, I'm actually in the know (sort of) and can be of assistance. The awards night is 3 November in Wellington --  so less than three weeks away.  Ooh, excitement.

Don't start thinking that I know something more / am verging on an embargo break. I get an invite every year by virtue of my win in the Novice Category in '07. At least this year when Dame Fiona Kidman looks at my name badge and asks me why I'm there I can say something other than, 'I'm the guy who had to send his mum to give his speech a couple of years ago.'

(Although I'm secretly hoping there'll be some form of humiliation that I can turn into a column.)


You didn't think I'd leave you hanging on the Oamaru review, did you?

"Craig Cliff is a modern young author who writes with flair on a variety of topics.
This collection of short stories shows his versatility in subject matter and style.
His stories are bizarre, whimsical, humorous and serious.
The reader is sure to be entertained with some amazing situation outcomes.
Cliff’s talents are well demonstrated in this anthology. The title invites the reader to open the book to discover what it means. A young writer with a future in short stories."
-- Anne McPhail, Oamaru Mail


An interesting, if slightly impractical, proposal for a Kiwi author co-op online book store (a snappier name would be the first agenda item) over at Public Address has prompted debate, as you'd expect. There's even the obligatory flame war (though still waiting for Godwin's Law to be borne out) and an argument whether using your real name online is really "a cloak of anonymity".

You stay classy internets.


Random House's list of reviews didn't include this one from the Otago Daily Times which was published over the weekend. Plus there's gonna be one in the next issue of Landfall.

Random were cheeky enough, however, to include a clipping of my first column from the Dominion Post. True, the my publishers did line up the interview I had with a Dom Post which planted the seed that I might be someone to call on one day when in need of fortnightly light-hearted reflections...  But I definitely had free reign on what that first column would be about. That it mentioned my short story collection is more a sign of my own shamelessness than any coup on the part of my publishers (who I love, honest).


iTunes shuffle seems to be lovin' the long Neil Young songs this week. 'Like a Hurricane', 'Cortez The Killer', 'Cowgirl in the Sand'... Not a complaint, just an observation.


While we're talking about short story competitions, you can read snippets of the top ten stories in this year's Sunday Star Times short story competition here and cast your vote for the People's Choice. Haven't read any of them myself as yet; looking forward to playing pick that author. [Update: the author's are actually disclosed, all female if you think that's noteworthy.]

Also, the RSNZ Manhire Science Writing Prize has its short-list online for both fiction and non-fiction. There are some knowns (Alice Miller in both categories, David Hill, Cliff Fell, Ingrid Horrocks, Serie Barford) and some unknowns (to me at least).

Best of luck to all.

(I didn't enter either of these contest this year and am enjoying being pleased for other people without that  bummed aftertaste. Um, surely I could have phrased that better. Meh.)


Excerpt from A Man Melting Marketing Strategy:
POS [point of sale]     Dazzling Debut shelftaker
If only I'd known this handy term that rolls off the tongue like, well, stewed tongue I wouldn't have wasted all that time explaining my cover to people as having 'kinda shiny lettering and a picture of a fat guy in a paddling pool'.

It sure has been a lesson-filled three (and a half) months.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

S(h)ame again? Working through an author's ouvre

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark is the worst novel I have ever finished. Thin, slap-dash, meandering... Its only redeeming feature is its brevity (if it were any longer I would not have retrieved it that time I threw it across the room).

I know that a useful discussion of this book and its failings should include a plot summary, but I just can’t bring myself to do it, so here’s a link to the Complete Review’s review (which gives the plot and isn’t negative, though you have to scroll down past a number of negative excerpts from other reviews to get there).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
is one of my favourite books, but I have also read and not-really-liked The Comforters, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat. Which leaves me with a conundrum. Do I continue to pick up a Spark novel every year in the hope of getting another Brodie (I could, perhaps, be more scientific about which books of Spark’s I choose) , or do I just move on?


The audiobook I finished about the same time as Aiding and Abetting was similar in that it was by an author I’d read before and hoped this new (to me) book would delight me as previous works had. The author was E.M. Forster and the book/audiobook was A Room With A View. I’ve read Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice (Forster’s posthumously published novel) and hold the first two in great esteem.

A Room with a ViewA Room With A View (1908) is very, very similar to these other books in terms of mechanics. Conservative, static, uncreative types (symbolised as rooms in ARWaV) versus more liberal, dynamic types (symbolised by views/the out-of-doors). Howard’s End (1910) is the book ARWaV resembles most closely, though the later book is a step up the evolutionary ladder.

In A Room With A View, Lucy Honeychurch is lured out of her conservative background and tittering girlhood by the lower class Emersons: the Communist, atheist father and the earthy, quiet, impulsive son, George. Most of Forster’s moralising comes from the mouth of one or other of the Emersons, though they spend most of the novel out of shot.

Howards EndHoward’s End, however, splits the Emersons in two, with the outré politics and moralising taken up by the Schlegels, and the earthy, lower class role played by Leonard Bast. The endings of the two books are intimately linked to this division. Lucy and George Emerson end up happily ever after (until the Appendix, “A Room Without A View” Forster penned in 1958), whereas Bast’s quest to climb socially leads to his death. It needn’t be the case that a more negative ending automatically trumps a positive one, but in the case of these two books the more successful ending is a sign that the opposing forces in the novel were positioned to deliver maximum conflict.

With this said, I still enjoyed A Room With A View very much. It was a pleasure to enter Forster’s world again and relax into his prose. This is the reason I return to authors whose books I have enjoyed (despite some, like Maurice, leaving me cold).

To summarise my view as a reader: Dear Author, please give me something similar to the book of yours I liked the most, but not exactly the same, okay? If I want something completely different, I’ll read something by someone else.

As a writer —one who, if my short story collection is anything to go by, likes to jump around — I wish it wasn’t like this. Unlike a reader, if I feel like writing something completely different I don’t have the luxury of turning to someone else. It’s just me. So I jump around.
Those of you here from the beginning, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Novel B Playlist #2

Subtitle: Songs that have struck a chord while working on Novel B this past fortnight...
Explanatory note: Links are to youtube.

Playlist #2

Hope in the air - Laura Marling
Afterglow (of your love) - The Small Faces
Bittersweet me - REM
What do I get? - The Buzzcocks
The snow leopard - Shearwater
Handshake drugs - Wilco
Anyone's ghost - The National
In hiding - Pearl Jam
Basta de llamarme asi - Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
No. 13 baby - Pixies
Surf's Up (demo) - Brian Wilson (I could write 16,000 words about how this demo is not only better than any 'finished' version but probably the fourth best track ever... but I won't)
Days/This Time Tomorrow - Mumford & Sons with Ray Davies (below)