Wednesday, December 12, 2018

*Dusting hands with a satisfied smirk*

The titular saint, rising, Osimo.
The last six weeks I've been working with the freelance editor engaged by my publisher to knock my second novel, NAILING DOWN THE SAINT, into shape. 

This was a different editor to the one who did my last book, THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS. As I remember that process (late 2012, early 2013), it was enjoyable - though re-reading the post I wrote in March 2013, time may have smoothed some of the rough edges. 

Getting edited is a bit like receiving the worst review ever. That one you dream about the night before your book comes out, where someone you respect has mercilessly picked at the minutiae as a way of proving THIS WRITER IS NO GOOD AND NOT WORTH YOUR TIME. There’s no time to talk about the story because there’s so much else wrong with the book. Look, they don’t even know when to use ‘lay’, ‘laid’ or ‘lain’!
But, you remind yourself, this is not a review. There’s still time to make these changes and save face. You convince yourself this, but as with a bad dream, you still carry it round with you the rest of the day — that sense of shame. 

The process this time never felt like getting the worst review ever. It felt like getting notes from the one person in your writing workshop who gets what you're trying to do. Which is funny, as I haven't been in a workshop in twelve years and have kept this current manuscript closer to my chest than anything I've ever written. I was ripe to feel exposed.

Unlike last time, when I had weigh up whether to change how a third of the novel was narrated (I stuck to my guns), but agreed to rewrite the final section -- and every page of the manuscript had at least one marked up comment or change (and just four pages had only one change), the edit for NAILING DOWN THE SAINT was reasonably light. As in, multiple pages with nothing in mark-up!

Some of this is down to the reworking I did in August and September after receiving comments from my publisher, so I brought some of the work forward. Which might explain why the process with the freelance editor reduced from three months to six weeks this time around.

Also, THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS was historical. NAILING DOWN THE SAINT is - mostly - contemporary (there are some excursions to the seventeenth century and the near future). There's just less to question (and it's harder to stuff up) when you stick in the now.

The manuscripts were a similar length (finishing up at 105k and 115k words respectively), but I spent longer on this new one. I'm not just talking about the six year gap between publications. One day I might do a deep dive into the analytics (I recorded my daily wordcounts for both novels) but the sense I have is that I wrote less per day when drafting the new book, while having MORE TIME (i.e. I was a full-time writer in 2017 as the Robert Burns Fellow, whereas I worked three, four and five days a week the entire time I worked on THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS). More time and slower progress - it's no surprise the manuscript was tidier.

This is not to say I didn't have tics and snafus. From my commissioning editor pointing out how many times someone nodded their head (a shit ton) to me noticing how many times I used the word "crumpled" (10!) in my  final read-though, the last six months have made the manuscript infinitely less grating.

There's still scope for readers to dislike the book, of course - but the hope is that they're disliking the choices I've made, the story I've decided to tell and the way I've told it, rather than the fact I can't make it through two pages without someone nodding or crumpling.

One final observation about this editing process versus the last: I like receiving the editor's comments in chunks.

Last time, I got a long email (while I was in the delivery room with my wife - don't @ me, it was a induced labour with a lot of downtime) with high level comments that started a back and forth to inform how the editor would mark-up the manuscript, which I then received in one go and worked through it.

This time there was a much briefer initial email, we agreed to work in chunks and I received the first 50 pages, so we could each get a feel for the process, then received three more chunks. It took me 2-4 days to turn each batch around, by which time another one was ready. After the last batch, I got the whole manuscript for one more read-through. In less that six weeks we'd gone from hello to best wishes. The process and timeframe works best when it's a light edit, of course. But I think batches helped keep my anxieties in check. It felt like a collaboration. I never felt blocked or frustrated or intimidated by the process.

It's funny to be writing such a rose-tinted post about this novel after not so long ago rambling about being "tender", and feeling "exposed, misunderstood, worthless, frustrated and tired".

There's plenty of time for those same anxieties to rear up between now and the August 2019 publication date (and the process of trying to get it repped and published outside of NZ and Australia). But for now, at least, I'm happy with the work I've done and look forward to seeing this next 300+ page fever dream make it out into the world.


PS - but don't get me started on the cover design process!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Consumption diary: September & October 2018

MUSIC: September

It seems likely a couple of old timers will crack my top ten albums of the year list, namely Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Thompson, both of whom released cracking efforts in recent months. I've also been listening to St Lenox's new album, Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love, since I got sent an advance copy in early Sept. It didn't grab me as quickly as 2016's Ten Hymns from My American Gothic, but it's definitely a grower. Sometimes it takes a while for a cold fish like me to get love songs.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel, audiobook)

I loved this.

A couple of years ago this would probably have ticked too many of my pet hate boxes. Protagonist is a writer? Check. Revealing who the narrator is as a twist at the end of the novel? Check.

Maybe I'm softening. Or maybe the charm of Greer's novel was sufficient to overcome my native cynicism.

It's comic without being silly. Romantic without being gaga. So: like life, but better.

Highly recommended.

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson (novel, audiobook)

An Australian crime novel that is getting a big push on Audible. I liked the sound of the set-up: true crime podcaster turned TV producer gets embroiled in the case that made his career.

Unfortunately, the podcaster/producer aspect was quickly backgrounded and it became a pretty standard affair.

Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing (memoir, audiobook)

Rausing, the publisher of GRANTA, writes about her brother and sister-in-law's drug addiction, ending in the death of her sister in law.

But there's very little about the addicts, and a lot about  addiction and its impact on family, and Rausing's own life and memories.

All finely told, but stringing out a GRANTA-style personal essay to book length memoir made it feel a little... thin.

How to write about music, Edited by Marc Woodworth and Ally-Jane Grossan (non-fiction)

Subtitled "Excerpts from the 33 1/3 series, magazines, books and blogs with advice from industry-leading writers", I bought this book because I wanted to submit a proposal for the open call for the next batch of 33 1/3 books. There's a whole section at the end called, "How to pitch a 33 1/3", which was helpful (but probably not essential).

Despite loving the 33 1/3 series (pocket-sized books about a single, significant album) I was pleased by how much more wide-ranging the sources were, and fairly steamed through the book.

Great writing about music is great writing.

Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (non-fiction, audiobook)

The audiobook is read by the author, and I can't imagine receiving the content without Coates' delivery, which sounds a little like slam poetry, only tolerable. The only times I cringed were at the truths Coates delivered with such clarity.

While not everything about US race relations can be applied elsewhere, at a little over 3 hours, it's essential reading/listening for anyone.

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick de Witt (novel, audiobook)

The narrator here, Simon Prebble, is one of Audiofile's 'Golden Voices' and one of the 'Best Voices of the Century'. I'm not sure how many books I've had him read to me, but I know for sure he's narrated Dickens and Jasper Fforde, and it's the echoes of these two authors that I struggled to shake when listening to de Witt's take on a vague bygone European fable. It's not as obviously funny as Fforde, and not as gripping as Dickens - the stakes never seemed that high - so I never felt swept away.


Better Call Saul (Season 4)
Get it to Te Papa
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
Dark Tourist - Season 1 (finished the season after not being that taken with 1 ep in August)
The Most Unknown
Definitely Maybe
The start of the NBA season (can it be the Kings are not a complete trainwreck? current record 4-3 with another game this afternoon... I still think Bagley over Doncic was daft, but let's see where they stand at the end of November).

MUSIC: October

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Production diary: September 2018

Kowhai season, Dunedin Botanical Gardens
September was a busy month. So much so I'll defer my usual Consumption Diary for another day and just cover what I got up to.

*Spoiler alert* There's no major news on the novel front.

As of Monday, the manuscript is back with my NZ publisher, after working through a useful set of comments over the past few months.

I feel better about the whole process than I did at the start of August.

Pretty much from then on (with the exception of my Dunedin-Feilding Writer-in-Public long weekend, see below) I got up at 5am seven days a week and every day I did at least one small thing to make the manuscript better.

That incremental betterment leads to a funny kind of high. Maybe it's the lack of sleep, or the lack of free time, but I felt I was riding a wave of dopamine to this latest finish line. Not the kind of offshore break you'd see Kelly Slater ripping back and forth on. More like the glorified ripple on a lake from a dingy with an outboard puttering by in the distance. But when there's not a lot of other excitement knocking around, it's noticeable. And now that I've sent the manuscript back and I'm faced with three months of deferred life admin, it's sorely missed.

What am I going to do next? Well, life admin aside, I'm working on a pitch for a 33 1/3 book because #lifegoals. The pitch window closes at the end of October and I have to submit a sample chapter and a whole bunch of other peripherals.

What album am I writing about? You'll just have to wait and see.

Young Old Writer / Old Young Writer

Earlier on in September, I went to Dunedin for the 60th anniversary of the Robert Burns Fellowship.

It was weird being back in Dunedin eight months after I left: it felt both longer and shorter at various points over the weekend. I also felt like maybe every time I go back it will make me sadder and sadder because the place will be so tied up with my 2017 experience, when my kids were 4 and 2. And even now they're just 5 and 3 and it's ridiculous to feel time slipping away, for the first time I did understand the impulse to have more children: it's nothing about the children per se, it's just your own devious plan to never grow old, or at least, never stop being the parent of preschoolers.

When I wasn't totally overthinking life, mortality and fatherhood, I had a blast.

It was cool getting to hang out with such a distinguished bunch of writers as was assembled for the Burns thing.
A freshet of Burns Fellows

It's not often that many writers get together outside of writers festivals, and even then its only the writers with a new book to shill (and who festival-types deem bookable). But there was no need to shill anything this time. Very little ego involved. A lot of generosity. The dinner on the Friday night was such an uplifting experience. It got me wondering if a true writers' festival (emphasis on writers and that possessive) would ditch the punters completely...

Not that there wasn't a bunch of things put on for the public. There was a big lunchtime reading and two different exhibitions were launched that related to the Burns in some way (one at the Hocken, the other in the Uni Library's Special Collections).

NZYWF workshop
I ran a workshop/AMA session with some third year writing students and did two events that were claimed by both the Burns festivities and the NZ Young Writers Festival, which was running at the same time: a workshop about writing machine-assisted poetry, and chairing a panel on the scariest children's books ever.

It wasn't that hard to jump between the older, more distinguished world of the Burns Fellows and the younger, more ragtag world of the NZYWF - I'm used to not really fitting in. Too square, too edgy, too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too white... too conscious of whiteness.

Too Wellington, too Manawatu

On the Sunday morning I flew from Dunedin to Wellington and drove straight up to Feilding as I was appearing on a panel at the Manawatu Writers Fest at 4pm.

(My two outings as a writer this year just happened to be on the same weekend. I didn't realise until after I'd double-booked myself, but it all worked out.)

My panel was about getting your manuscript to the finish line and I managed to make it to the starting line with an hour to spare. The next day I ran a workshop about how to write short stories that stick with a reader.

It was disappointing to learnin the days leading up to this year's festival, that their efforts to have a sizeable Maori component of the programme fell through, and as a result the remaining sessions did look overwhelmingly white.

The whole thing seemed to be run on a lot of goodwill and volunteer commitment. Organisation didn't strike me as a strong point throughout my engagements, so I can see how the whitewash happened. But as I boarded my flight from Dunedin I did strongly consider not even driving up to Feilding. At one point, the tougher decision seemed to be whether I'd say something online about why I pulled out or if I should just keep it to myself and be comfortable with that choice.

Because there's no excuse for a festival to be that blind/that naive in 2018.

Okay, so you wanted to have a half-day hui on Maori lit, and yeah, maybe it was a bad idea to just have one person responsible for organising that part. But surely Maori writers shouldn't have been ghettoised in their own panels outside of the hui. And what about the Pasifika writers, the Asian New Zealanders, the immigrant and refugee writers? Where were they? (If you want to play that game, there were a couple non-Pakeha writers on the programme, but really, you want to die on that hill?)

But in the end I did go. Because I wanted to see what it was like, and I wanted to see my mum, who lives in Palmerston North. And from what I'd read, the festival had tried and had admitted its failure and committed to do better next time, so what would me acting all superior have achieved? Bupkiss.

The festival was as lax as I'd supposed, organisationally. But the audiences were incredibly engaged (and pretty diverse). And the vibe wasn't fraught. There was an energy you don't always get a literary events. Avidness? Voraciousness? They seemed to be savouring every minute, and drawing links between what people had said in different sessions, like the secret to great literature had been broken up and tiny fragments given to every published author and the secret to joining their ranks was to gather as many fragments and arrange them into your own cogent structure... Which doesn't sound that ridiculous when you think about it.

My short story workshop probably had 40 people in it and we managed to make it work.

And it all made me feel a little bad for wishing for a Writers Festival without the public.

Maybe I'm just over Wellington and how self-important everything is here...

Or maybe there's something special about regional arts initiatives, where events are low-cost or no-cost (everything at MWF was FREE), and they don't get things right but they try, and so long as they learn from their mistakes and are better next time, maybe we shouldn't get all Wellington on them.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Consumption diaries: June, July & August 2018

Here's what I've been reading and watching, and what music has delighted me, as I've trudged through the last three months...



Motherhood by Sheila Heti (novel, audiobook)

For a writer that struggles with over-thinking things (me), Heti's reconstruction of the novel form as something based on thought and deliberation (in this case, whether it's okay not to have kids), rather than drama and conflict, is both appealing and incredibly dangerous.

For all it's seriousness, I found it incredibly funny. Especially the way the adapted I Ching (the writer tossed three coins to determine the answers to YES/NO questions and plugged the answers straight into the text) gives the novel a feeling of being written in real time. Even though it's random, so many of the responses are so perfectly mischievous and gnomic (like a good piece of AI poetry) that I couldn't help be tickled.

Pops by Michael Chabon (non-fiction, audiobook)

From motherhood to fatherhood, from innovative to pedestrian: Chabon's collection of essays makes some attempts at being 'woke', and it contains a few genuine moments of truth/power/heart-string tugging, but it still feels incredibly self-centred and as a whole it doesn't really know what it is or what it's saying.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (novel, audiobook)

Loved it.

The kind of book you nestle into, not because the content is comforting, but it;s clear from page 1 you are in the hands of a master and you can just let yourself go with it. 

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (novel, audiobook)

Loved this, too, for quite different reasons. All those extended sequences that fly the geek flag high (the immersive world of the Three-Body Problem game; the challenge of unfolding a proton into an 11-dimensional shape and then folding it back up again).

I'm not sure how this gets turned into a TV series, or if I'll ever get around to reading/listening to the next book in the series (now that we know the aliens are real and what they want, I'm not sure where the mystery lies except whose gonna win).

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (novel, audiobook)

Since finishing my undergrad degrees, I probably only read 2-3 "classics" a year. Which is a small enough number to be frequently surprised by how different the received version of a story is from the original book.

What you probably don't know if you've never read the book: there's a series of nested narrators and the Frankenstein's monster gets a turn at the mic. And the horror is mostly metaphysical.

The scariest thing: that Mary Shelly wrote it in her teens. Or, forgetting myself and looking beyond the date of publication: the miserable run of miscarriages and dying infants and her own health battles (smallpox, brain tumor) AND YET she wrote more books (!) AND YET she was seen as her husband's wife for so long and she's remembered mostly for this (very good, if misappropriated) teenage novel.

Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen (novel)

Apparently this is considered a classic in Canada.

Huck Out West by Robert Coover (novel, audiobook)

I enjoy Coover's short fiction. And I enjoyed this novel in chunks, and appreciated the corrective lens Coover provides to Huckleberry Finn's (later) life and times, but I typically struggle with the picaresque -- it so often feels like a TV show in it's third season with no idea where it's going but knowing what it has to do to keep it's core fans and knowing what it can't do if it's to get renewed and having something to write about in season four.

And I struggled with it here.

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (short stories, audiobook)

I really didn't take to the titular story, which opens the book, but from then on Haddon's stories grew on me. I liked the way he took ideas or set-ups that might be considered a bit disposable or "popular" (a mysterious man interrupts a family gathering at Christmas; the misery of a morbidly obese man) and just goes with them, lifting them above a Dickensian knock-off or a story buried in the centre of a woman's magazine, through depth of characterisation and generosity of spirit.

Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories by Thomas McGuane (short stories, audiobook)

Another story collection by another dude (sorry). This one contains a lot of stories and I had to break them up by listening to other books in between, as they do start to run into each other.

And the non-ending endings can get a little annoying.

But taken in small doses, one can appreciate the artfulness with which McGuane gently skewers his men in quiet crisis.



Silicon Valley (seasons 1-5)
The Big Sick
Thor: Ragnarok
Print The Legend
The End of the Tour
Into the Inferno
Date Night
Baby Driver (yawn!)
Westworld [TV show] (abandoned after season 1, episode 1 - I don't want to see extreme violence, even if it's upon robots - it feels like a way to pander to base instincts while dishing out moral get-out-of-jail-free cards... At least crime dramas are willing to be upfront about their (and their audience's) fascination with a female corpse) 
Dark Tourist (also abandoned after the first episode, but I might return to it one day)

MUSIC: August

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The empty chalice

So it’s the first of August, which means I owe cyberspace two months’ worth of consumption diaries and probably a whole lot more.

Like, what’s going on with my novel? The one I had 12 months full-time to write in Dunedin in 2017 and for which I am leaving money on the table in 2018 to work part-time and finish the f**ker off.

Well, for starters it’s called Nailing Down the Saint. For now at least.

In May I sent the manuscript to one of the US agents who came a’knocking when The Mannequin Makers started getting good reviews in the States. I also sent the manuscript to the publisher here in NZ that’s put out my first two books.

I have comments from the NZ publisher, which translates to a bunch of small tweaks and some more fundamental questions that I may or may not have to action (I’m doing the tweaks first and hoping for a eureka moment that tells me exactly what I should change and how). If I can turn around the next version of the manuscript by mid-September, then it’s on track to come out in July 2019. No contract or anything yet, but that’s the pipeline. My experience of these processes is that the publication date inevitably gets pushed back. And I’m not going to send something off in September if I don’t feel happy with it.

Right now, I’m a little tender about it all. I find it hard going through the edits. I could tell when I got my wife to read the version before the one I sent to the agent and the NZ publisher that she wasn’t that into it. And there’s a lot of “I didn’t get this” or “explain this for the reader” type comments on this latest version that I have to weigh up. Which I might ordinarily find helpful, but at this stage in the process I’m like a baby rat: pink, hairless, vulnerable. Any breeze is chilling. Any light too bright for my still-sealed eyes. I feel attacked. Which is weird. I’ve written before about how necessary and, ultimately, positive the editing process is. Even with this perspective, I feel an uneasy and contradictory mixture of exposed, misunderstood, worthless, frustrated and tired.

Mostly tired.

(Meanwhile at my day job, I’ve spent the last six months trying to get the green light for a multi-million dollar change project. A green light I received in July, about the same time I got my NZ publisher’s comments. However, trifling things like the budget and resourcing are proving harder to nail down than “Approved” might have you believe.)

It doesn’t help that it’s radio silence from the US agent. Of course she hated it. Look at everything that was wrong with it. All those basic errors: “bought” instead of “brought”, “disinterested” instead of “uninterested”. The slow patch in the middle. The too-fast, too-oblique patch towards the end (okay, the whole last forty pages).

At times like this I feel like I should never write a novel again. The short story is so much more forgiving. My writing muscles are fast twitch, meant for sprints not a marathon. When I look at my manuscript, all I see is text. Words placed for manipulative purposes. No matter how much I want it to be a story, to have narrative, to be an immersive experience for the reader, it’s the opposite.

The Chalice
The image in my head is Neil Dawson’s sculpture, ‘The Chalice’, which stands in Cathedral Square in Christchurch. The words are the structure of the chalice, starting solidly enough at the base, but getting more and more sparse as it rises. And at its centre? Nothing. The further from the base you get, the clearer the nothingness is.

Writing a novel is a confidence trick twice over. First, you need to trick yourself, then you need to trick your reader. Right now, I’m falling at the first hurdle (albeit with a 110,000 word manuscript to wring my hands over).

I keep saying things like “right now” and “at times like this” because I know it’s just a mood. I’m at a low ebb. It’ll get better. But the peril is real. This book might suck. The tweaks to make the intended meanings more clear might just bring out the suckfulness. The wordiness. The nothingness.

A lot of this stems from how and why I attack the novel form. I do so as a short story writer with oodles more space. I want a patterned, complicated web of meaning. I don’t ever think in terms of “theme” while plotting or writing, but the best term I’ve come up with for my novelistic approach is “thematic maximilism”.

I begin to build a novel around two unlikely elements. With The Mannequin Makers it was shipwrecks and department store mannequins. With NDTS, it’s Hollywood and a levitating saint. I then build a bridge between these two elements, which inevitably centres on characters.  For TMM the most obvious bridge is The Carpenter/Gabriel Doig, who goes from being a figurehead carver to a mannequin maker, via a shipwreck and extended period as a subantarctic castaway. For this current novel, it’s my protagonist, who is a floundering Kiwi filmmaker in Hollywood, given a lifeline in the form of a location scouting gig for film about the life of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Once I have the two poles and the character-based bridge, I go about filling in all the blanks that are necessary to translate my daydreaming into something that might be meaningful and enjoyable for another human being. So characters need other characters to interact with, they need jobs and motivations, passions and secrets, they need to have a look and a way of talking. When searching around for one of these things, let’s say it’s a job, I wait until I hit something that chimed with, or off, an element that’s already in the novel.

In TMM, when I was looking for what Eugen Kemp would be after he left New Zealand, and I came up with a surf lifesaver, that clicked because of the link with physical culture and the teachings of Eugen Sandow, and also the idea that he would spend the rest of his life trying to save people after not being particularly save-y (and in one case, being the exact opposite) in his teens. With surf lifesaving in place, the final section began to echo the first and second, while also pushing the interest in physical perfection (which might get called a “theme”) somewhere a little different.

In this next novel, there are clusters of association around scepticism and belief (Catholic saints, the feats of mystics, a modern cult; but also: Hollywood visual effects). The process of writing the novel was one of challenging my innate scepticism and the general laziness of my generation when it comes to anything beyond the superficial and instantly gratifying. The surface of the novel is still papered over with scepticism and contemporary references (the playlists the characters make for their roadtrip, the machinations involved with making a Hollywood movie), but underneath it there should be something more timeless, more confronting. I want people to see both the surface and the subterranean. I don’t want the chalice to be empty. But I don’t want to be too obvious about it. And that’s where I’m mired at the moment: an endless string of decisions about what I spell out, what I foreground a smidgeon more, and what I let lie beneath.

All the while having more instantly gratifying and superficial pleasures like playing Fortnite or watching Netflix instead of the mental gymnastics required to decide what are my minimum requirements and what are my readers’.

At the moment, I’m questioning if my imagined reader really exists. Like, there are people who’d get the references to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Wolfenstein, but do they read for pleasure anymore? Do they?

Should I spell things out for a more likely readership, and in the process alienate the one or two readers who come closest to what I’d be like if I was to pick up this book with no prior knowledge?

I don’t want to write something for Boomers or even Gen X. If they get it, great. But I wanted to make a book for cuspers like me, with one foot in the digital but one back in the analogue. People who vaguely remember having a rotary telephone, distinctly recall the first time they used the internet (that dial-up modem screech!) and spend most of their waking life trying to be good people on an ever-shifting identity playing field.

I’ve tried to write a novel about (inter alia) being a middle class, cis, heterosexual, pakeha male; one that is honest about the blind spots such characters can possess and acknowledges the bar must be raised for what passes as good enough when white dudes grab the mic; that suggests passing the mic down the row without adding your self-aggrandising reckons is acceptable without having to make it heroic (aside: how fucking hard is it to make your protagonist do the right thing in a traditional Western narrative from without it having to be heroic?)…

But at the same time I wanted the book to challenge where we draw the line about what’s important and what should be re-evaluated. If levitation is possible for some people (I know this is a big IF, but if it helps to suspend your disbelief try and think of this as a metonymy for anything the conventional materialist worldview dismisses as paranormal) does that mean there’s a kind of psychokinetic fluidity? How would you respond when asked to consider this possibility in the context of a traditional quest narrative?

Maybe I should just give up trying to order this spider’s web of words and meaning and just pass the mic down the row. Because Fortnite and Netflix and spending time with my kids and taming my garden and delivering a kickass change programme for the way we measure the quality of learning environments at schools is a pretty full and potentially fulfilling life… if I draw the line short of where I’ve gotten to in my head and step back over it.

Maybe I should just write about the music, books, film & TV I’ve consumed these past two months and pretend everything is hunky dory (when it’s more Aladdin Sane).

Or maybe I should give it a day, let my baby rat eyes open, my translucent skin toughen, and get back to nailing down this novel that keeps threatening to float away.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

April and May 2018 consumption diary

To start, a bit of news masquerading as an excuse (or vice versa):

I sent the manuscript of my location scout novel off to an agent today.


I've been head down these last six weeks, moving through draft after draft after finally penning the ending in mid-April. Which left little time for reading or watching (or writing about my paltry intake). But all that time writing means plenty music has been consumed.

My plans after today? Keep going hard. When I had a sleep in two weeks ago, after a string of 10+ 5am starts in a row, I felt awful all day. I'm going to tinker with a few short stories and update my CV (shh, don't tell my boss), while I play the waiting game on the novel -- I'm fully prepared to make the required changes through the publication process and am kinda of enjoying the sick-to-my-stomach anticipation this time around.

Give it a week, though...


April playlist

April's concert

Camp Cope, with Bad Friend and LEXXA, at Caroline, Saturday 28 April

Camp Cope's debut was one of my top ten albums of 2016. Their new album, How to socialise & make friends, was only a couple of weeks old when their first ever NZ tour rolled around, but I was there, not-quite-front and very-much-not-centre for their Wellington gig.

It was a great show. Barring the anthemic 'The Opener' off the new album, the highlights tended to be all the old stuff, including 'Keep Growing' and 'Footscray Station' from their Split EP with Cayetana (by old, I'm talking about songs released in 2016 and 2017).

So the moral of the story is they need to come back next year, too, though the greatness may be fatal.

May's playlist


The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (novel, audiobook)

Weirdly, I'd only ever read Ford's short stories before (I like them individually but his collections tend to get a bit samey).

I liked this, the first of his Frank Bascombe novels, though it took an absolute age to get through. And something bugged me about it, too. I think it's that Bascombe sounds like an Obama speech writer, which the present moment tells us isn't the worst thing in the world to sound like, but that jagged, grandiose grammar is just as much an act as the deliberately typo-laced tweets of the current POTUS.

The Cage by Lloyd Jones (novel, audiobook, NZ)

This is a book no one seems to be talking about - or maybe I missed all the talk? I can kind of see why it didn't have the penetration of Mr Pip or even Hand Me Down World. It's deliberately vague about time and place. It's dark as fuck. And, as often goes hand in hand with such darkness, it's about urgent matters (people fleeing unspeakable atrocities and being treated unspeakably) that both seem to be over- and under-covered at the same time.

And, perhaps understandably, it feels a bit joyless.

Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (novel, NZ)

Firstly let me say I hate Brannavan for publishing an ungodly amount of books in an unreasonably short amount of time, while having a day job and a family, and doing it outside the usual routes (no VUP/IIML associations here).

This was a worthy short-listee for the big fiction award this year (which Pip Adam won and Bran graciously responded with this review of The New Animals).

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (novel, audiobook)

In an all-too-believable near future, the US has outlawed abortion and IVF and is in the process of banning unmarried people from adopting kids. Four women (a pregnant teen, a 40-something trying to get pregnant/adopt, a mother of two, a wood-dwelling healer) navigate these waters, while we also get glimpses of the life of an historical Faroese polar explorer.

Where The Cage goes for fabular and generic, Red Clocks is specific and familiar and just as scary and urgent.

The Philospher's Flight by Tom Miller (novel, audiobook)

An epic historical fantasy according to the blurb. I got bored and abandoned it before the midpoint. Soz.


Wild, Wild Country
Atlanta (season 1)
How to be single
Monty Python's Holy Grail*
Funny People*


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Deliverables and milestones

Second draft calls for a second screen
(NB: that's the Productivity Commission's draft report on Low-Emissions Economy to the left, not my novel.
And yes, I get the dissonance of printing a 500 page report on low-emissions economy.)

So I finished the first draft of my location scout novel 11 days ago. “First draft” is an accurate description of the last maybe ten pages. The first ten pages are more like “thirty-seventh draft”. Everything else sits somewhere in between.

How’d it feel to reach that point? 

Well, I used to feel stink that I had all year in Dunedin to finish it and I didn't, but that pity party petered out.

There was some elation 11 days ago, but it was specific to having had a successful day’s writing.

Back in Dunedin, I had jumped ahead and written most of the final chapter, with a square-bracketed statement at the end that indicated a one-off shift in perspective that’d last a page at most. It took me months to fill in the other blank spaces and get to that last, unwritten passage, but on the morning of Thursday 19 April, I’d reached that point, but still didn't really know how to pull it off.

It was a strange ‘writing’ day for other reasons. I had to go in to my dayjob for two meetings that were two hours apart, despite it being one of my days off, and I decided to write in town before, between and after the meetings to be efficient and avoid school holiday distractions at home. When I got set up in town, I decided to do some automatic(ish) writing to lower the stakes in a brand new environment and maybe get into this new perspective for writing later in the day. But straight away the voice just clicked. I wrote two-thirds of a page and pasted it wholesale into the end of my novel. Re-reading it after my first meeting, I repeated the first three lines at the end, wrote a better transition between the old and the new, and just like that, I was done.

Only, I wasn’t’. I’m not. But I’ve reached a milestone.

After finishing the first draft, the first thing I did was go back and change the first sentence, which alluded to a scene that no longer occurred in the novel. After that, I spent two days going through all 170 notes I’d made in Evernote, from the first one in April 2015 about what I thought might just be a short story through to notes I’d made a couple days before about things to address in the next draft. Now I have a 120-row table in Excel which I'm working my way through.

It was interesting to see that it was three years, almost to the day, since I started on this path (sometimes it feels longer - there were the two years between finishing The Mannequin Makers and the idea for this novel occurring to me; sometimes shorter - I basically started afresh in late Feb 2017). However I accounted for my time, I now had a 105,000 word manuscript to show for it. 

The quantity is there, now it's a matter of making sure there's quality, too. 

I made a mistake last week with my one pure writing day (my other day off work was a public holiday spent with family). In the spirit of gearing up for a great, systematic, enriching second draft, I decided to re-read Michael Grosso’s The Man Who Could Fly, which, despite the fact I read it two years into the project, represents a kind of ur-text for my novel. The problem with re-reading this book a year later was it was the same slog it was the first time (though without as much of my own cynicism getting in the way). Whatever momentum I’d worked up with my string of 5am starts, with every session at the keyboard moving the book forward, with the small sense of accomplishment of finishing the first draft and surprising myself with a passage that clicked this late in the process… that all drained away as I slogged through the first 100 pages of Grosso’s book.

So I put a stop to that and I’m back into my text. Making it better. Or making it different and then letting time tell me if it’s better or worse.

I’m not sure if there’ll be a clear demarcation between a second and a third or a fourth draft. Between now and the end of May I’ll go through it as often as I have to, making sure character X’s motivation is consistent, the logic for twist Y is embedded in earlier moments, the chapter titles are that right mix between intriguing and meaningful, that all the references to music on the roadtrip are absolutely necessary (my wife’s main suggestion when she read the manuscript in January)… and then I’m going to let a second person (and maybe a third) read the thing.

Maybe then, to bide my time, I'll return to Grosso...

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

March 2018 consumption diary


(A heavy weighting to the old timers this month, thanks to road-tripping to the Taranaki in an old-timey mood)


Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow by Noah Yuval Harari (non-fiction, audiobook)

I've recommended this book to three people since I read it, each for different reasons (the link between the science behind our soullessness, animal suffering and veganism; the future of automation/an algorithm for everything and what it means for education; how it uses Kahneman and Fredickson's peak-end rule to explain how unreliable a narrator we are of our own lives) - but each time with the caveat that the book is confusingly structured.

I get that it's a bunch of conjectures that spring from the central premise (homo sapiens has done a good job of minimising the impact of famine, plague and war and is able to focus elsewhere for the first time in forever), so it was never going to be the most cohesive thing, but it has a couple of (long) false starts and, while it builds well in each chapter, the book itself never seems to culminate. It's definitely more rumination than fulmination.

Still, it was the right mix of a secondary explainer of the work of others and more adventurous, more challenging thinking.

Good stuff.

Sex Object: a memoir by Jessica Valenti (non-fiction, audiobook)

The pat thing to say here might be: this is the kind of book all fathers of daughter should read if they want to understand the world their daughter is/will be part of. But I think fathers of daughters are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to activating their empathy for females. The challenge is to get to the budding dudebros a decade before they procreate, just before they leave their first half-cocked abusive message on social media.

But then again, isn't it wrong to talk about this books value in terms of what it can do for (or "to") men? Yes. Yes it is.

It's clearly a bit of a tangle for me to talk about, briefly. But the book is its own tangle.

Yep, here comes that word again: structure. I felt off-balance throughout, the way the present and a variety of past eras intermingled, and how the same incidents (eg Valenti, as a schoolgirl, finding cum in her backpocket after a subway ride in a crammed car) are referred to multiple times, which seems to lessen their impact.

Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

I feel like I've been on a run of these books the last 12 months or so. Trees, cephalopods, Noah Yuval Harari's long excursion into the immorality of factory farming, and now this. Young doesn't just talk about cows, there's sheep and chickens in her book too. And it's a fine addition to this genre which I call: Make Craig go vegan.

But I am incredibly lazy and am able to shoulder incredible amounts of guilt and shame if it means my comfortable life can be maintained.

I'm not sure if this genre needs to throw more books at me, or if the books I've read just need to sit with me a little longer...

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (short stories, audiobook)

Like everyone whose ever done a creative writing course (it seems), Jesus' Son when I first encountered it, and still do I guess. I loved Train Dreams, too, which felt more like a long story than a short novel. I wasn't so fussed about his 2000 campus novel, The Name of the World (also short for a novel: only 144 pgs), and didn't finish his biggie, Tree of Smoke (pace Denis).
I loved

Johnson, of course, died last year, and Largesse was published posthumously in January this year. The title story originally appeared in the New Yorker in 2014 and you can read it there. Seriously, read it now. It's the absolute stand-out of the collection. Somewhere between Train Dreams and Jesus' Son. There are only four other stories in the book (three previously unpublished) and though nothing else quite reaches the same heights as the opening, it's required reading for everyone who had Denis Johnson phase and needs some reacquainting.

Saga Land by Kári Gíslason and Richard Fidler (non-fiction, audiobook)

Gislason and Fidlar blend travelogue, contemporary family saga, retelling of medieval Icelandic sagas and a biography of sorts of Snorri Sturluson.

I was into Norse mythology in a big way in my early teens and was therefore familar with Snorri as the author of the Prose Edda, but didn't know that much about the sagas of more contemporary (for the time) Icelanders. Saga Land provided a good background and a taster of the sagas themselves, but I don't feel sated in the least. MORE SAGAS PLEASE!!

But all of the components of the book held my interest, and were stitched together well. The ending of the contemporary story (which also served to conclude the book) was missing the bloody end of the sagas, but again, that's non-fiction for you.


Midnight Special
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Derren Brown's The Push
In Search of Fellini
Atlanta Season 1

Monday, March 12, 2018

February 2018 consumption diary

Joe Casey, late blooming rock star, Valhalla, 20 Feb 2018

The absolute highlight of the month was seeing Protomartyr at Valhalla.

Like many bands I fall in love with, Protomartyr make good music for solitude, headphones and repeated (if slightly distracted) listening. And like many of these artists, who I like and then eventually get to see live (semi-recent examples being Parquet Courts and Courtney Barnett) there's a period of readjustment at the gig, with the music going from intimate to intimidatingly loud. And, I mean, of course Protomartyr thrash it live. That makes total sense.

But hearing them go hard showed me new sides to the songs (even if the lyrics were harder to parse) and I listened to their last three albums just as much the week after the concert as in the weeks leading up to it - a sure sign of an awesome live show.

A few days later I was talking about Protomartyr to someone who'd never heard them and I described them as a combination of young Nick Cave doing Joy Division covers backed by The Stooges. I'm not sure how I would have put it before seeing them live, but it wouldn't have been that.

Anyway, here's a playlist of my Feb faves, with more than a little of my favourite Detroit post-punks...


We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (novel, audiobook)

I feel like I should have read this twenty years ago. I also feel like, resist as I might, I'm gothic at heart.

The Clasp by Sloane Crossley (novel, audiobook)

This was fine. My negative reactions were me projecting the current failures of my own incomplete novel onto this one. I think.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (novel audiobook)

I read this because Tregillis was coming to Writers and Readers Week (which ended yesterday) and it sounded like it was about Project Mistletoe (Ian Fleming and Aleister Crowley vs the Nazis), which I got interested in for about three hours a couple months ago, but it was much more outre than that. I guess I like my fantasy elements suppressed.


The Good Place - season 1 and about 5 episodes of season 2 before getting bored.
The End of the F***ing World - season 1 (basically just a feature film split into eight 22 minute episodes)
...and finishing off Easy season 2 and Black Mirror season 4.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

January consumption diary



As I mentioned in my post about my reading in 2017, one thing I wanted to do in 2018 was read less white dudes, especially anglophone ones. 

Nothing against them -- some of my best friends are anglophone white dudes! -- but, y'know!

I started out four-for-four in 2018, then read three straight anglophone white dudes... BUT I didn't break my hard rule about about no physical books by white dudes. 


Four of these books (Batuman, Whitehead, Stephenson, Hodgman) would have contended for a spot in my Best of 2017 list, if only I'd read them before New Years. 

Oh well, hopefully this bodes well for a killer Best of 2018 list!

Looking ahead, I want to keep posting consumption diaries, if only so I can remember what I read a couple months down the track. 

But this is the last from my blessed Burns year, and I'll be much briefer with my notes about each book in future. 

Partly because I feel I never really do justice to individual books by spewing forth 100-300 words on them at the end of the month (in some cases 4 weeks after finishing them), but also because I can't see myself having the time to do even that when my writing days are squished down to two.

So make the most of the spewing while it lasts...

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel. audiobook)

The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.

I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

The novel's appeal rests on how the reader responds to its protagonist, Selin. She's a freshman at Harvard but she's the idiot from the title (or at least the main one), spending most of the novel baffled - whether she's in the US or in Hungary. Her love story, with the post-grad Ivan, stumbles at almost every hurdle put up by the romance genre. And yet she is pleasant company. She's the well-meaning friend, the younger sibling. There's the sense that she might get it right one day... But the bigger question might be, what is lost when she get's it right and slips into line with everyone else's way of thing?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (novel, audiobook)

This is the kind of novel you need to read around as well as read into, and then re-read.

Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal underground railroad, carved out of earth and rock by nameless men and presumably a few women (the novel is deliberately vague about the builders).

It's the kind of high concept fulcrum point upon which a lot of alternate history novels are built upon.

But to me it felt less important than, say, if the Jews set up a nation in Sitka, or if the Berlin Wall never fell or whatever it is the Game of Thrones producers are set to do with the Civil War.

Which is both a compliment and the nub of what gives me pause before praising this book unreservedly upon a first reading.

There's a tension throughout between the plight of the slaves, the moral implications for the whites who help or hinder their passage to safety -- all of which is meant to conjure the same emotions as the historical reality -- and the novelist's decision to warp this vision of the past in one particular way. It has to be for a better reason than just to give the novel a 'hook'... Right?

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (non-fiction, audiobook)

This hardly counts as a book in its own right - it was adapted from a TEDx talk / the audiobook runs for less than an hour. But Wikipedia describes it as a book-length essay, so...

Maybe the fact it was rushed out on its lonesome, back in 2014, rather than bolstered by other pieces of fiction, says something about the appetite (perceived or real) for bold statements such as the one encapsulated in the title.

Although, it isn't that bold, is it? Indeed, the whole thing felt a little de-clawed, a little dated. It doesn't touch on intersectionalism, and even its discussion of feminism is narrow and dislocated from much of history.

But again, it started as a TED talk, so.

Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (novel, NZ)

I read this to review, so my lips are sealed.

61 Hours by Lee Child (novel, audiobook)

If you're gonna read a white dude, why not the ultimate white dude? 

The number of literary types who've tweeted gleefully about reading Jack Reacher novels over the summer (and Danyl Mclauchlin's piece at the Spinoff) wore me down, alright?

I mean, I'm not against genre. See hard sci-fi below. But also crime and thrillers. I've read Elmore Leonard and Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin and (pauses to think of a female crime writer) Vanda Symon (double points for being a Kiwi - yus!). But I'd never read a Reacher book (though I'd seen the first movie and now understand how ludicrous it is to have cast tiny Tom Cruise in the role).

Anyway: 61 Hours. It was brisk, brash and blokey, but not so much that I couldn't see my wife enjoying it while in a bach one rainy weekend. 

I figured the mystery out early (please, hold your applause) and so the twist fell flat, but it all happened so swiftly I could hardy feel miffed. 

The brevity is what makes having a twist such a challenge - only a handful of characters can be introduced in any detail, and even then those details tend to weigh heavily on the memory. A longer story would be able to throw up more red herrings (I'm thinking about all those The Killing-esque shows) but then it would just take longer. 

Get in, get out - that seems to be Child's/Reacher's M.O.

Fair enough.

Will I read another? Well, summer's pretty much over...

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, audiobook)

This is the first book by Stephenson that I have read, though I've been vaguely aware of him and the fact he's lauded (in certain) circles for the scientific veracity of his fictions.

In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.

So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.

But I like a strong brew.

I could poke holes in things like character development (actually, handled well for the most part) and perhaps some of the higher level things the second half implies about genetic and racial predispositions. But most times I felt he was wading into territory I felt I was about to be blessed with that modern tonic -- a dose of moral superiority -- the narrator acknowledge my facile point and undercut it with science or philosophy or -- shock horror -- a dramatic sequence.

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Vacationland by John Hodgman

If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.

Structurally the book was a little misshapen. But Hodgman was such good company. I might have to read him again in 2019.


Um, honestly, I can't remember watching much. I took my kids to Ferdinand, which was average. Where was that blockbuster kids film over Christmas? And I've watched most of Season 4 of Black Mirror, which seems to have tailed off. I mean, the episodes get more and more beautiful, but my responses to their conceits are less visceral.

Oh, and I finished Werner Herzog's filmmaking masterclass and feel like he's my gruff-but-well-meaning German uncle now. He's gonna regret doing that gig now that thousands of nobodies will have spent so long sitting at his feet listening to his stories about guerilla documentaries and fighting with Klaus Kinski.

Next up, Marty Scorsese and Ron Howard both have new masterclasses. Scorsese looks like he'll just be doing his usually thing about classic films that have inspired him, while Howard's looks to be more technical and workmanlike. Both (or neither) may be worth the time.