Thursday, December 29, 2011

To the birds

Please pardon my absence from the interwebs these past five weeks. No, I didn't heed Anonymous of Wellington's advice to STFU, I got married and have been honeymooning/showing my German friends around the North Island of New Zealand since I last posted.

Over 3,000 kilometres later, here I am back in Wellington, back at my PC. I'm not quite clear of the Otherwise-committed Woods (got to visit family in Chch in a few days), so THE NOVEL will have to idle for a little longer. But here are some photos from my honeymoon...

Person's eye view of kereru in flight
Shining cuckoo, Mt Taranaki
White-faced heron, Pahi, Kaipara Harbour
Kokako #1, Tiritiri Matangi
Kokako #2
Kokako #2 in flight
Rifleman, a.k.a. Difficult Buggers to Photograph Well
Saddleback in flight
NZ dotterel, Front Beach, Coromandel
Dotterel chick, Cooks Beach
Male dotterels in territory dispute, Cooks Beach
Blue penguin at Cathedral Cove
Black-billed gulls, Taupo

Monday, November 21, 2011

Barnes v Trapido / Conductor / Offshore whore / Lockout poetry

Recent reading

I recently finished listening to Barbara Trapido’s novel Sex and Stravinsky on my iPod and quickly followed this up with Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize this year.

The Sense of an EndingTrapido’s novel clocked in at a normal 11 hours and change, while Barnes’ was over half the time. It was a nice feeling to finish two books in quick succession after two and a bit months of listening to Nicholas Nickleby (however much I enjoyed that book).

The Sense of an Ending worked magnificently as an audiobook. There’s a single narrator, Tony Webster, who recalls specific moments in his life relating to a particular strand of memory: those relating to his friend, Adrian, who committed suicide in his early twenties. Tony weaves in and out of memory, digressing often on just what memory is and how it changes with time, but also finds the time to muse about the modern world, retirement, divorce and self-delusion. This is the kind of novel some agents might describe as quiet or slow, if you were to query them as a no-name writer, but I found it a thrilling and engaging story – thrilling, I guess, because it felt so intimate and real.

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky on the other hand, was not as well suited to the audiobook format. Trapido’s third person narrator inhabits at least eight different character’s perspective during the novel, and while the third person is kept up throughout, the voice of the narrator often transmutes into the perspective character’s voice (especially when we’re following the two adolescent girl characters). I found this mix of third and first person techniques confusing in an audiobook, as the narrator adopted the voice of the difficult teenage girl while still referring to the girl as Kat/her/she. Also, the reader, Jan Francis, had the difficult task of managing English, Australian, South African (three sorts: English settler, Afrikaner and Zulu), French and Italian accents.

The most engaging part of the novel for me were the parts about Caroline’s mother, who ranks up there with Mrs Nickleby in the pantheon of aggravating mothers in fiction. Unfortunately, after Caroline’s mother dies (to the delight of the reader), Francis's voice for Caroline alters and becomes a bit too similar to her shrewish mother. This is no fault of Trapido, of course, but it is difficult to think about the text objectively without thinking about the slips and tangles in the audiobook version.

Having said this, I’m still a big advocate of audiobooks. In my experience there are far more successes (like Barnes’ and Dickens’ novels) that problem children.

Still a paperboy

The ConductorThe paper book I’m reading at the moment is The Conductor by Sarah Quigley. I’m about halfway and have to say I haven’t really been sucked in just yet. Perhaps it’s the musical chairs the narrative plays with it’s three perspective characters (of which only Shostakovich was known to be beforehand). Perhaps it’s the fact I’m saving the CD recording of The Leningrad Symphony until the point it appears in the story. Perhaps it’s that I’m not really in the reading headspace all that often at the moment with all the wedding guff that crowds out my leisure time?

For completists

Last month I blogged about the bad review I received (belatedly). I also wrote a column about it for the Dom Post but it wasn’t posted online (there’s no real logic I can see to what is and what isn’t posted on I include a scan of it here for posterity's sake.

Common ground

You’ve got just over a week left to submit your short story for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, for which I am one of the judges.

For those who’ve submitted or are still thinking about it, I wrote something about my experience with prizes for the Commonwealth Writers website: basically, don’t just enter competitions, revise your stories, submit to journals, get better, get published. Simple, eh?

I also wrote about my favourite bricks and mortar bookshop, Unity Books on Willis Street, for which I expect at least a high five next time I come a'browsing!

Offshore whore

I spoke to Julie Green of the Griffith REVIEW about my story, ‘Offshore service’, and my time spent in Queensland. You can read the interview here.

Side-effects of the NBA lockout

It looks like the chances of an NBA season this year are slim to none. This is terrible news for arena staff in the states and some lower level employees of the teams who rely on basketball games for a paycheck. Spare a thought also for the basketball journalists, who have had to stake out bargaining sessions between the players and the owners which have stretched into the wee small hours (and inevitablty end with both sides unwilling to make detailed comments at the ensuing press conference as negotiation is still ongoing).

Some writers are turning their attentions to other basketball leagues around the world (where a small number of NBA players are also looking to supplement their incomes). They appear heavily reliant on Google Translate to file their updates – today Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Houston Rocket’s Marcin Gortat had signed with a Turkish team, then hastily tweeted a retraction that the two parties were in fact still negotiating and the confusion stemmed from Google Translate.

Much more exciting to me was the news from SB Nation blogger Tom Ziller (@teamziller) that when you throw a Chinese box score into Google Translate it tells you there is a statistical category “was invaded” ('turnovers' to you and me). Ziller also points to a headline which translates as "Yi Jianlian floating in the sky watching JR violence of his four years of a button changes."

I’m feeling a James Brown- (NZ poet not US soul singer) style poem coming on.

Novel update

I heard back from my editor last week after she read the first c.50,000 words of THE NOVEL. She referred to it as the embryo of my novel, which might be another way of putting it. Anyway, she liked it (it would be unfair to quote embryonic praise as there’s a lot that can go wrong between now and the final manuscript) and I am to push on and finish the beasty but it looks like it won’t come out till February 2013. This means I’ll only get to publish one book in my twenties. Oh well. It does give me a few extra months next year to really make it the best book I can. And to write some short stories and find them homes before the birth of THE NOVEL. And find a friggin' title.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Looking for the next best thing

Blue Friday

I got up early this morning to go blue penguin spotting at Tarakena Bay. Turns out it's light already at 5.30am.  I'm still not sure about the local blue penguins nesting cycle, but I think I'll have to be there by 5am if I'm to spot one ambling down the beach to go fishing.

It was a beaut morning anyway and I went up the Poito Track, passed Poito Pa and Rangitatau Pa, though both were destroyed by raiding Northern iwi in 1819-20 and no obvious traces remain.

I suspect one of the pa sites is now this flat area covered with wild fennel and the woody stalks and umbels of last year's flowers.

Looking south from Palmer Head to the Cook Strait
Looking east.
Ataturk memorial (left) and Baring Head (right)

Low Self Estima*

M. and I bought a '92 Toyota Estima van on the weekend. A bit early in life for a people mover, granted, but we intend to sell it again after the summer. Will be great to tour the North Island in while on our double honeymoon with our German friends. Even better when we're joined by two more friends for the Northland leg.


I just wish this wedding thing was over with...

*I stole this joke from a Facebook friend.

Some fennel facts gleaned from Wikipedia

The town of Marathon, which gave its name to the long distance run, means 'The place of fennel.'

Prometheus used a fennel stalk to steal fire from the gods.

The type of bulb-like fennel you buy from Moore Wilsons and slice up for salads is the inflated leaf base of Florence Fennel or finocchio. (Something Wikipedia won't tell you: Finocchio is also Northern Italian slang for a homosexual - not sure about the link between the two).

Fennel was once one of the three main herbs used in the production of absinthe (the others being grande wormwood and green anise).

Antlered antics

Tomorrow is my stag do. I don't know what we're doing because my brother/flat mate/best man (same person) won't tell me. We need to be at the Porirua Train Station at 10am and a change of clothes would be a good idea.


Hopefully it's more fun that the other pre-wedding activities that have been keeping me from writing this past week: making a slideshow, doing the music, finding a reading for my step-sister to read at the ceremony, writing the vows (or thinking about it deeply, or thinking about thinking about it), sorting out where people will sit, re-arranging the table settings, picking up my wedding ring, filling out forms for the wedding licence, re-re-arranging the tables.

Wild South

Though progress on THE NOVEL's wordcount has been non-existent since I sent what I had to my editor to have a read (still no word back), I have had two great research moments in recent weeks.

The first was finally getting around to reading Phillip McCutchan's Tall Ships, which I bought at the Downtown City Mission's annual second hand book sale over two years ago. Since then, I've read over a dozen books about sailing ships and left McCutchan's languishing on the shelf. Sigh. I could have saved myself so much time leafing through books that weren't quite right.

Tall Ships has lots of pictures and includes chapters on tea clippers, the 'Australian route', and the Roaring Forties.

Better late than never I guess.

The second hallelujah moment came on Volume One of the Wild South series on DVD. The very first episode, first broadcast in 1980, is called 'The Island of Strange Noises' and focuses on Antipodes Island (one of NZ's subantarctic islands). Half an hour of squawking and close-ups of light-mantled sooty albatross: not as good as being there but the next best thing.


Addendum at the eleventh hour

My gran always used to ring me up on days like today and ask me what the date was. I remember a lot of calls in 1991, the year of the palindromes...

After I posted the above I was reading through a friend's poetry manuscript and I looked down, noticed the time and date, then noticed the page I was reading.  Had to screenshot it.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

A place I have been and know well: an interview with Breton Dukes

Bird North and Other StoriesBreton Dukes’ first book, Bird North (Victoria University Press), is a collection of seventeen short stories. The blurb on the back cover isn't shy about promoting the maleness of the collection: “Breton Dukes stands in the great tradition of New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall—who have looked at men’s lives.” There are several other interesting things going on in these stories, so I thought it was about time to add to my series of published email conversations with Kiwi short story writers (click these links for interviews with Pip Adam, Tina Makereti, Sue Orr and Anna Taylor).

But now, time to talk to Breton...

CC: There are a few common strands I see running through your collection, one of them being a preponderance of male leads, but there’s also a starkness to the stories, one that is perfectly matched by their stripped down style. All but three stories are narrated in the third person, readers are granted little access to the thoughts of characters and small things like the repeated use of a character’s names instead of a pronoun create a distancing effect. Was this a style that came naturally to you, or did it evolve out of the stories you were trying to tell?

BD: I've always written in a stripped down style. I started reading Hemingway and Carver pretty early on, so I guess that's where it comes from. I try and make my descriptions as clear as possible. Same with dialogue. And as you say I think that style fits with the tone of my stories, and with the way my characters would think and speak. There are a lot of action scenes in the book and I think they benefit from being stripped down. The stories I wrote a bit later on (and what I am writing now) contain a little more poetic stuff, but it doesn't come easily to me.

During my MA I experimented with a few different points of view and always seemed to find that my stories worked best in the third person. I like having that distance from character and events and then being able to dip in and out of a character's mind. I never feel comfortable writing in the first person. I get squeamish and claustrophobic - I always doubt what it is I am saying.

CC: In his Listener review, Sam Finnemore described Bird North as, “Confident, nuanced and unselfconsciously local”. Was it a conscious decision to set stories in recognizable New Zealand places like Te Anau, the Coromandel, the East Coast, Dunedin and Johnsonville, or was this more a case of writing what you know? How important is place in your writing?

BD: When I write a story I have a very clear picture of where the events are taking place. I can't write without that picture. I have to have a house or a beach, or a street in my head. A place I have been and know well. The characters can be pliable and the events too, but not place. So yeah, it's definitely a case of writing what I know. 

I figure if I am using a place like Tunnel Beach or Johnsonville as the setting, why not name it? It would seem strange to me not too. And I've always got a real kick out of seeing 'New Zealand' in movies and on telly. Maybe that has something to do with all the local stuff too.

CC: I know what you’re saying about seeing ‘New Zealand’ in movies and TV. Even if it’s just an episode of America’s Next Top Model or The Amazing Race, it’s hard to resist seeing what these unreal reality TV people think of our country. But it’s nice afterwards to watch something made locally, or dive into a book by a Kiwi author, and get something that breaks through the surface.

I’m interested in your endings. A story will often have a concluding chunk that jumps ahead in time, switches perspective or voice. Characters suddenly have children, cows fall from clifftop paddocks, pods of dolphins strand on beaches.  ‘Maniatoto’, a story set in the present day, concludes with a paragraph about the miners in that region one hundred and forty years earlier. The reviewer in North and South said something to the effect that there’s a fine line between illumination and non-sequitur, but even if some endings are more inscrutable than others, I think they all succeed in prompting the reader to reconsider what has come before it. Was this type of ending inspired by a particular writer or story you’ve read, or was it something you arrived at organically?

All Aunt Hagar's ChildrenBD: I can't be exactly sure where those endings come from. I read a book of stories by Edward P Jones (All Aunt Hagar's Children) when I was doing the MA. It had a big effect on me. There were often great shifts in time and in place. Alice Munro goes for that sort of thing too and I have read a fair bit of her stuff. Sometimes, like with the falling cow, I started writing the story having that as something that would happen, and in the writing of it, it seemed to fit best at the end. Regards the dolphin thing: I was thinking about working in the big city and the big city being so close to the harbour and the dolphins I had once seen in Wellington harbour... I don't know really. I like endings that really open things up. It's that freedom about writing that keeps me going though. 

Also what I think I was aiming to do with some of those endings, 'Maniatoto' especially, was suggest the vastness of the world. Sounds grand eh?! But I remember a Denis Johnson story, it had three guys in a car, one dying in the back seat, and they were driving this road and then there is this line which refers to their geographic location and how thousands of years earlier the valley they are driving was formed by glaciers receding. Or something like that. It lifts you out of the tightness of the short story world and makes a great sweep. In a few short pages you feel like you are really seeing something. 

CC: Have you always been drawn to short stories? Were there any writers in the early days that, when you look back now, got you hooked into fiction?

Always. Hemingway got me going I think. I liked the content of his stories. When I was very young I used to like Wilbur Smith books and the Willard Price series – South Seas Adventure, Antarctic Adventure. Roger and Hal I think the chaps names were. Ray Carver was very important too. I liked the suburban aspect of his writing.

CC: One of my favourite stories in Bird North, ‘Racquet’, starts off discussing the alterations a couple has made to their backyard. I’ll admit when I started the story I thought, I hope this gets more interesting. I only really appreciated the relevance of the opening when I reached the final scene, where the drunk husband is hiding from his wife in the backyard. I finished the story and went right back to the beginning and read it again. Do you think readers need to take a second pass with these stories to get their full effect?

BD: I guess some of the vagueness in my writing does often necessitate a second reading. I frequently have no idea where a story is going when I start. ‘Racquet’ was a good example. It initially ended with the prostitute going down on Leighton, but people told me that didn't quite cut it, so I kept writing. 

I often read a story twice. I think that is okay, even desirable. A good one should have plenty going on, plenty for the reader to think through.

CC: Yeah, I agree. As a reader, I like that sense that the writer is trusting you to work some things out. As a writer, it’s about finding that balance between giving the reader work to do and shirking work you should be doing, eh?

BD: Yeah, and I have been guilty of shirking in the past. That criticism in North and South got to me a little – because I agreed with some of what the reviewer said. I do worry my work is too bleak and that the stories have no purpose. But then, even if I don’t always get it right, I feel I am on the right track, that my method of storytelling is valid and interesting.

CC: You’ve spoken about your desire to avoid clichés and male stereotypes in these stories (like in this Radio NZ interview). When the reviewer, Nicholas Reid, wrote about your collection on his blog, Reid’s Reader, you posted a comment listing the nine inaccuracies in his review.  In subsequent comments it seems you and Nicholas agree to disagree on the importance of these smaller details. Why is it important that you to steer clear of ‘grotty student flats’ and ‘cheap motels’ in your stories?

BD: Ha! My first ever review. I couldn't stop myself from replying to that one. I actually really liked the review - he was complimentary about my writing, but hated the content. I didn't mind that at all. It's my first book and what I feared most was people pointing and laughing and saying, "You write like a child!" Anyway, I think in the mistakes he made and in his language, 'grotty flats' etc I felt my writing was being pigeon holed as a certain kind of fiction: bleak crap that trades in shock and testosterone. I don't like stories where characters fit into the stereotype of drug user or whatever. What I like most about my stories is the humour, unpredictability and their openness. What he wrote seemed to be squashing that stuff, so I had to speak out!

CC: Good on you. I know of a few writers who got a vicarious thrill from that wee exchange (me included). How’ve you found the rest of the post-publication world?

BD: Very strange. A friend sent me this by AL Kennedy: it sums it up for me. 

CC: What next for Breton Dukes the writer?

BD: At the moment, thanks to Creative NZ, I am working on a second collection of stories. Fairly similar to Bird North, but I am hoping to write some stories that are longer and have stronger plot lines.

CC: I look forward to reading them.  Thanks for the chat, Breton.

You can read Breton's story, 'Johnsonville', here.

For more info on Bird North, check out VUP's website.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wellington and Perth Festivals / Chairs / Nautical Superstitions

Get with the programme

I went to the launch of the 2012 New Zealand Arts Festival's programme last night at the Opera House here in Wellington. You can now view the programme online here.

There's a bunch I'm looking forward to, including Britain's all-male theatre company Propellor performing The Winter's Tale (my novel-in-progress features a Vaudville vignette of Act Five Scene Three, so will be interesting to see it performed live again).

The music portion of the programme looks particularly strong, with banjo and piano accordion maestros, indie darlings Bon Iver and the 'desert blues' of Tinariwen.

That Deadman DanceAnd of course there's Writers and Readers Week 9-14 March. I'm stoked to be appearing in sessions at The Embassy and in Masterton, in part because it means I'll get to go and see Tim Flannery, Germaine Greer, Thomas Friedman, Jo Nesbo, Alan Hollinghurst, Kelly Link, Ron Rash and others... for free. Hopefully I'll bump into Kim Scott again too, after hanging out with him a bit at the Sydney Writers Fest (and now that I've read and loved That Deadman Dance).

The full programme for Writers and Readers Week doesn't come out till January, but there's plenty in the main programme to salivate over until then!

Out West

A couple of hours later, the Perth Festival launched it's program(me), which is also exciting for me as I'll be flying over there to take part in the writers festival. Again, the full programme won't be released until Jan, but there is info about the event I'm most looking forward to, The Feast of Words on 25 Feb:
Indulge in a gourmet three-course feast of food and Watershed wines as literary stars complement each dish with specially chosen readings. Set by the Reflection Pond at UWA's beautiful Whitfeld Court, Feast of Words has all the ingredients for a perfect summer night: good friends, great food and some of the world's most intriguing authors.
Join UK novelist Barbara Trapido (Sex and Stravinsky), Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll (Weather Permitting), NZ's 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Craig Cliff (A Man Melting) and Norwegian sensation Johan Harstad (Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?)
Now that's something to salivate over!

Some nautical superstitions (via

Never start a voyage on the first Monday in April. This is the day that Cain slew Able.

Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August.  This is the day Sodom and Gommrrah was destroyed.

Starting a cruise on Dec. 31 is bad. This is the day Judas Iscariat hanged himself.

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey. Red heads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the red-head before they speak to you.

Never say good luck or allow someone to say good luck to you unanswered. If someone says “good luck” to you, the only to counter the bad luck is by drawing blood. A swift punch in the nose is usually sufficient to reverse this curse.

Behind the scenes

Now, for those of you who think the life is a writer is all trips to Perth and Masterton, think again. It involves a lot of sitting at your desk. A lot. The back of my desk chair broke last week and I had to run out an buy a new one the next day after an eight hour writing session killed my back.

M. encouraged me not to skimp on the cost of a replacement, considering the amount of time I'll spend sitting on it, and I gravitated to those leather 'executive' chairs with the high backs. I ended up finding a comfy one that didn't cost the earth, got it home and found it was too wide to fit under my desk. It would fit if I took the handles off, but the handles held the back on. Disaster.

I've since taken it back and purchased a bog standard office chair. No arm rests. No leather. I think it's for the best. The closer my set up at home is to the set up at my day job, the easier it will be to slip into 'business mode' when writing. That's the theory anyway.

Who wants to read something someone wrote in an executive chair? Next think I'd have a Newton's cradle on my desk.

Bullet dodged, I reckon.

Just because I can...
Tuatara that I spotted today at Zelandia
Female papango (scaup) just after a dive (notice the droplets of water on her feathers).

Plumb (Popular Penguins)I also spotted the above plaque at Zealandia. Harvey McQueen was a New Zealand poet and anthologist who passed away last year. He kept an entertaining blog in his final years, which often reminded me of Maurice Gee's Plumb, if George Plumb had a blog (and was less irascible). This is a compliment, in case it doesn't read like one.

Nameless purgatory

I mentioned last week that I'd be sending a chunk of THE NOVEL off to my editor on the first... well I did (at 11:31pm). I gave it a working title. It sucked. Back to the drawing board. And back to the grind... plenty more to write before I hear back whether I'm wasting my time or not.

But enough of me

Tomorrow I'll be posting my interview with Breton Duke's, author of the story collection Bird North.  Check back after 2:30pm...

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.