Sunday, November 19, 2017

Cream of the sun: Fortnight 21 of The Burns

Sandfly Bay
Fortnight 21 wordcounts
Total words: 10,945 (81% on the novel, 16% on this blog, 3% on non-fiction)
1st week: 6,113
2nd week: 4,832

My son was sick all last week, so I had Monday off to care for him (after taking the previous Monday off to be with my mum & step-dad), and the rest of the week my wife and I split time with the sickie   so I could put in 3 or 4 hours on the novel each day and she could keep her experiments on track at her job. There wasn't any sort of manuscript-magnetism at play. It's a slog, but the only way to rekindle the magic is to grind until the next breakthrough, and that means making time when suddenly time is sparse.

If I'm sounding like a stuck record, good. That's how I feel.

The good news is that on Thursday last week I got to the end of tweaking earlier sections so that I can rewrite completely the last 30 pages of the manuscript-so-far (which is to say this won't be the last 30 pages of the novel, but maybe falls somewhere in the 3rd quarter). And I felt positive for the first time in maybe three weeks. Like, maybe people will read this far without throwing the book (or their device) across the room.

So: progress!

The challenge will be keeping up any momentum over the next couple of weeks, with a trip to Wellington to take my daughter for 2x school visits before she starts on day one next year, and then when I get back it's the Creative Cities Southern Hui. I'm also talking to a group of English teachers from Otago/Southland on 1 Dec, so that's another talk/presentation I have to prepare this fortnight. Plus there's more logistics to sort for the move back to Wellington, including what I'm gonna do when I go back to the Ministry of Education (my manager has resigned so Gord knows who I'll be reporting to come February).

And then there's the growing trauma of having to leave this bloody wonderful part of the world.

Today we went to Sandfly Bay, which is only about 15 minutes by car from our house, but thanks to a pretty crazy, duney path down to the beach, is dominated by sea lions rather than humans.

My son pointing (not shooting, no, never shooting) at a sea lion
from a respectful distance.
Yesterday we went to Mosgiel. I know, Mosgiel. But the playground at Memorial Park there was great, and we found a great dairy with real fruit ice cream (we found one in Green Island two weeks ago... tis the season for tracking down real fruit ice cream).

And the only way to get my son to nap these days is in the car, and being sick, he really needed the rest in the middle of the day, so I've been slowly clearing the fog of war from every corner of the map of greater Dunedin. It's crazy how quickly the city ends and you're suddenly atop a hill with a great view of the city, the harbour, the peninsula or some combo of the three. 

Luckily my son was better by Saturday night as my wife and I had been booked in for a degustation dinner at Bracken for months. This was the first dinner out as a couple we've had this year/in Dunedin, so it's only fitting we crammed in seven courses...

The verdict: there were two deserts, but neither compared with the mini pavs I made for the English & Linguistics Dept morning tea on Friday.

I know, photos or it didn't happen, but I was preoccupied with constructing them on site, and then wham, people arrived and I forgot all about it.

But here's a shot of my trial personal pavlovas (which I decided were too big for single-serve morning tea eat-with-your-hands fare, but my wife's colleagues loved them):

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Wet matches: Fornight 20 of The Burns

I did some graphs back at the end of Fortnight 10, and should probably do some again now, but it's already Tuesday (I had the day off yesterday to spend with visitors) and I don't really want to diddle round with Excel right now.

Better to open with Dunedin and its surrounds!

All photos from the last fortnight.

Yellowhammer in the gorse, Tunnel Beach

Fur Seal, Aramoana
Sheep, blocking the way to Cape Saunders, Otago Peninsula
(no metaphor intended)

Fortnight 20 wordcounts
Total words: 11,034 (60% on the novel, 26% on this blog, 14% on other non-fiction)
1st week: 5,524
2nd week: 5,510

Two equally disappointing weeks, symptomatic of the slough I’m in with the novel. For weeks I’d persisted in moving forward, trying to get a first draft done before Christmas, but as the section in San Marino continued to grow, I could feel the tension and interest (mine and the imagined reader’s) trickling away. Something was wrong back at the beginning of the Italian section, but I wasn’t sure what.

So I printed out the 84,000 words I had and read through from the beginning.

Last time I did this (about two months ago), I was pleasantly surprised how much fun it was to read. This time, the first section remained unproblematic, but the laws of diminishing marginal returns had sapped the fun from it.

I managed to find a number of things at the start of the second section that were sapping the potential of the later chapters (and promised to unbalance the whole shebang).

As always, it boils down to a protagonist being too passive, or his/her intention not being clear enough or believable.

I’m in the midst of rewriting these early chapters now and the process will take weeks for me to get back to where I was mid-October.

It’s a pain in the butt, but I think it’s far more efficient to do this work now than keep rambling toward an unsatisfying and ultimately arbitrary finish line.

As for the ending of the book, I see that quite clearly (it’s a shorter section, maybe 10k words, set two years ahead of the rest of the novel) and it hasn’t changed since I dreamed it up back in July.

So it’s really just the large middle section that’s causing all the problems. But nothing is fatal.

Just more work/rework/binning/recycling.


Hoopers Inlet, the peninsula
Short Story Club

From the files I have with me in Dunedin, I can only ascertain that I wrote the story before July 2008 (when I submitted it to Sport). I’m pretty sure this is one of two stories in A Man Melting that I wrote before I did my MA in 2006 (the other being ‘The Tin Man’, though it had a different title). Around the same time, I moved from Hotmail to Gmail, so the trail goes cold in my online archives then, too.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure ‘Manawatu’ is it at least 10 years old. It definitely bears the marks of being written while I lived in Australia (and by an angst-ridden twenty-something).

Re-reading it now, and hearing it be discussed, I’m pleased with how it goes about its business (that very interior, very analytical beginning, carried on to the point it feels confronting, to then have some external action, which is only fully explained when the interior is understood). Not bad for someone a year or two older than the protagonist.

It’s the story I’ve thought about the most this year while writing my location scouting/levitation novel. In part it’s to do with the incredibly close 3rd person narration, and in part the fact my protagonist is a year or two younger than me and there’s that tension between loading him up with autobiographical elements and letting him realise his true (and truly different from me) character.

So ten or twelve years or whatever it is later, I’m back where I began, angst-ridden and uncertain.

Yep, feels about right.

Mist on the water, Kaikorai Estuary
Creative Cities Southern Hui

I was on RNZ National myself on Sunday, along with Nicky Page, to spruik the Creative Cities Southern Hui which takes place in Dunedin at the end of the month.

Details about the hui here. (It’s a pretty cool lineup when I follow [alphabetically at least], Hera Lindsay Bird and Shayne Carter).

And on my bio page for the hui (and in the radio interview above) I hint at what I’ll talk about. For now the working title is: ‘We are all storyteller: analogue and digital perspectives on narrative’. It basically takes some of the deep thinking I’ve been doing about NBA 2K18 and similar games, and looks at the crossover between writers/readers and game designers/players, and what we could learn from each other.

For the birds

Shags and gulls, Andersons Bay inlet
The raw materials of a short story set on the Andersons Bay inlet and adjacent playing fields are slowly gathering. I seem to add to the store every time I bike passed.

Birds play a big part in this not-yet-story. There's a grandson and his grandpa. And the grandson twenty years later watching his son play cricket, which is to say, not really watching his son play cricket. And birds. Did I mention birds?

The photo above was taken on a cold and rainy day last fornight. It was rare on that account (the weather last week was AMAZING, and though the temperatures have tailed off since Friday, it's still been suitable for outdoor adventures). And perhaps because of the weird, icy late October downpour, the inlet was alive with dozens (possible more than 100??) shags and a similar number of gulls (both black-backed and the smaller red-billed). Based on the group feeding and appearance, I'm 90% sure the shags were Otago aka Stewart Island Shags, most likely from the population that breeds at Harrington Point. They're stunning birds and seeing that many after some kind of feed in the inlet, and being pestered by the gulls, was quite a sight.

My tally of other species seen on or around the inlet in recent weeks includes: grey duck/mallard hybrid with nine ducklings, paradise shelduck, royal spoonbills (up to half a dozen at one), white heron, white-faced heron, white-fronted terns, sparrows, chaffinch, goldfinch, blackbirds, starlings, welcome swallows, variable oystercatcher, spotted and little shags (far more common than the Otago shags). 

Completists only

Or you could go for a walk!

Tunnel Beach

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

October Consumption Diary


While I read nine books in October, music was the real highlight. Without a consistently compelling 'Working' playlist, a mix of old and new, upbeat and down, I'm not sure I would have spent half as much time plugging away at my novel, especially with the heatwave we've been having this week.


RedEdits by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, NZ)


Ever since I read all of GC’s poetry collection in existence when living in Edinburgh ten years ago, two years has felt a long time to wait for a new book. 

Then again, it’s kind of amazing GC is putting out collections every two years (both on demand and supply sides of the equation). Fanfolks like me are the beneficiaries of this universal oversight, so let us not speak too loudly of this.

Diesel Mystic by Gregory O’Brien (novel, NZ)

I hunted down a copy of this book after I read about how it featured two churches on either side of the road who competed for believers by publishing ever more exaggerated bios of saints on their feast days, including one St Joseph of Copertino. Turns out, this takes up all of four pages (it’s fun while it lasts!).

Over the thin narrative skeleton (a young guy is driving back and forth between Dargaville and Ruawai) O’Brien throws dozens of prose flights of fancy, some poems, some monochrome paintings and even some painted poems.

Some of it is great (the feral kids in among the carbodies who lock a policeman in a trunk; the rival churches); a lot of it washed right over me.
(Rather than making me want to write a novel like this, it just made me hanker to write short (and very short) stories again, or be at that point where I can piece together a new collection.)

Oh, and I’m totally jealous of that title.

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (novel, audiobook)

Image result for i the jury audiobookMike Hammer, eh?

My first Spillane novel. It’s so stark, in terms of style and substance. No wonder it’s over so quickly.

It’s always hard to judge crime fiction from an earlier era (this is set just after WWII), especially from writers that later writers in that genre have read and admired (not to mention people behind films and TV shows). So I guessed the twist by the midpoint? Big whoop. Would I have done that in the fifties? Who knows?

Will I read another one? Maybe not.

Image result for zink nicotineNicotine by Nell Zink (novel, audiobook)

This one never clicked for me. 

Zink is doing a very deliberate, very cool, disconnected narrative voice thing. Which can work if the subject matter is strong enough to pull me in, but I never really go the answer to So What?

Maybe this was a case of racing through it in audiobook form not really being the right vehicle for the work?

How to Stop time by Matt Haig (novel, e-book)

Image result for matt haig time
I read this as an e-book on my phone, which is a first. Again, maybe this was not the best way to do it (and maybe I'm just projecting my own misery re: my cockamamie novel-in-progress), so take this with a megabyte of salt.

I first came across Haig as a writer of massively retweeted tweets. Then read a few of his longer thinkpieces in The Guardian. But I’d never read any of his novels.

How to Stop Time is high concept, alright: the narrator has a genetic condition which means he ages far more slowly after reaching puberty than the rest of us. He was born in the 1500s but looks in his early forties in the present day.

The problem is the book never really gets out of blocks in terms of developing character or forward momentum. Or maybe the problem was the writing felt so facile? He does use italics a lot. I mean, a lot.

Compare this with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (which I didn't love), which also features long-lived others. Mitchell is always prone to over-doing it (whether that’s narrative shifts, verbal pyrotechnics or mystical underpinning), but after reading Haig, I think that’s preferable to workmanlike execution. 

But again, grain of salt!

Autumn by Ali Smith (novel, e-book)
Image result for autumn ali smith
The second book I read on my phone, and hey, this was great. Better than Lincoln in the Bardo (sorry Booker judges).

Smith’s staccato prose and frequent paragraph breaks really suited the format. And it felt right (in an oh-so-wrong way) to be reading a post-Brexit novel on a phone. That early scene in the post office, trying to get a passport renewal form pre-checked, sheesh!

I also have a copy of Knausgaard’s Autumn (like, an actual, physical, real life book) on my to read pile. Both authors are working on seasonal quartets (though given the translation lag, I think Knausgaard started first and is further ahead). We’ll see who does it best in about four years.

And you know what they say in Autumn? Winter is coming (sorry)...

A Game of Thrones (part one) by George RR Martin (novel, audiobook)

Image result for game of thrones audiobookThis seventeen hour audiobook is only half of the first book in the Song of Fire and Ice saga, but I’m counting it as a book in its own right. (I have part two on reserve, so should knock that of sometime in November).

I once tried to read this book on a plane. Someone lent me their copy. I got about fifty pages in: so far, so much like the show. After the flight, I never felt compelled to go back to the books.

But with the TV show wrapping up sometime in the next two years, and a steady dose of book-only content from The Ringer’s 'Talk the Thrones', I thought I’d try listen to the first book.

And it took some getting over that first hump again. The déjà vu was hard to kick. So was the very Swords and (suppressed for now) Sorcery feel of Martin’s prose. But then it clicked and I listened solidly and knocked the thing off in four days.

It was nice to jump around and inhabit different perspectives. And the novel was able to work the historical information into the flow of the story better than the TV shows (where it’s either signposted to hell or breezed over so that only book-readers would get it).

So yeah, bring on the gazillion other hours of audio that remains in the (incomplete) saga.

Bark by Lorrie Moore (short stories, audiobook)

Image result for bark moore audiobookI'd read/heard the first story before, and the second, and the third. I knew for sure this last one had been discussed by Gary Shteyngart on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and guessed I'd read the others in the The New Yorker (or heard them on the author's voice podcast). But there was that nagging feeling I was having one of those ‘Oh, I’ve seen/read this before’ moments that parents have an impossibly long way into a movie/book, and as a young’un, you’re like, That’d never happen to me…

To have this happen to me now, at 34 (albeit technically a parent), is kind of terrifying.

(And Moore is terrifying for other reasons, as a writer reading her. Especially someone mired in the second half of a novel that feels too boring and procedural, and would give anything to just riff the way Moore’s characters do, except Moore’s able to make it all stick together.)

But story number four didn't ring any bells, so I was safe.

I mean, I love Lorrie Moore. Her stories especially. I’d remember reading a whole collection, wouldn’t I?

Then the last story was familiar too, but only when the bikers showed up at the wrong wedding. So I'd forgotten the non-memorable parts of a standalone story I'd read a couple of years ago. Big deal.

But that lingering dread! The terror of turning into my mother / step-dad / father-in-law (now there's a fearsome-yet-forgetful troika).

So I search my own blog (!) and found that, yes, I had listened to this entire collection back in 2014 (!!!) when the book came out, and wrote about it disparagingly (!!!):
… I felt the collection was uneven. The stories themselves shifted between classic Moore sardonics and a kind of creative writing student's knock-off version of Moore sardonics.

Not only had I consumed the same audiobook twice without cottoning on to it, I'd come out the other end with different opinions each time. Maybe this isn't a big surprise. (Any writers I've slagged off above, you can take solace in this fact... maybe in three years I'll totally love your book).

At the risk of further providing evidence for whoever holds my power of attorney and wants to send me to the looney bin and claim my millions (ha!), this time around, when I thought I was listening to the collection for the first time but in some cases it was the third time I’d heard individual stories, I thought it did hang together and it was great. GREAT. 

As for the state of my memory… less great.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (novel, audiobook)

Image result for manhattan beach eganThis book just came out, so I’m confident this was my first time reading it (phew).

This profile in The New Yorker was interesting and confirms a lot of what I surmised, like:
The novel is a conventionally structured work of historical fiction set in Brooklyn during the nineteen-thirties and forties, a period that she became curious about in the wake of 9/11. The attacks felt like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world, snug in its supremacy. “And that led me to think, Well, what was the beginning of that something?” she said. “Somehow it felt like it was World War Two, this violent conflict in which we played a critical but relatively small part in such a way that it left us quite unscathed and tremendously dominant.”
While this might seem fascinating for Americans, it can feel very insular for those of us elsewhere.

The shipwreck/lifeboat survival sequence was really well handled, and there’s some real subtlety in terms of the structure (like the presence/absence of Anna’s father and Dexter, her father-proxy/lover), but it never took that next step from being highly proficient to become enjoyable or challenging or fresh.


High and Low & The Hidden Fortress – the start of my wife’s Kurosawa education
La Strada - the start of my Fellini education
Spectre (James Bond, yawn)
Rick and Morty, Season 3
Stranger Things, Season 2 (incomplete, possibly permanently)
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron about a million times and Spirit: Riding Free, Season 1 about five times through (my son’s into horses at the moment)