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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

My Burns Year: By The Numbers

Like I said when I did this after the first 20 weeks: "What follows is, on one level, meaningless. It doesn't matter how many words I write, or how quickly. All that matters is what ends up getting published."

But I'm gonna do this anyway.

Let's start with the biggest number:


That's how many words I wrote towards things I deemed meaningful enough to record in my almighty spreadsheet from 1 February 2017 to 31 January 2018 (a.k.a. my Burns Year).

Just how were these words expended, you ask? 

Why, here's a pie fresh from the Excel oven:

Or put another way:
  • Four-fifths of a novel manuscript (more on this later)
  • Blog: 26 fortnightly updates and 12 monthly consumption diaries on my blog
  • Essays about NBA2K18 and narrative, the moves in contemporary NZ short stories, the end of the world, Recurrent Neural Network poetry, Chris Cornell, writing my previous novel and a review of three books
  • Short stories: one completed (and submitted) story, one half-finished first draft, one quarter-finished first draft
  • A handful of poems produced used a recurrent neural network trained on Dunedin Sound lyrics.
  • Other: pitches for articles/essays/conference papers, responses to journalists, preparation for talks delivered.

All of those bullet points beneath the first one fall into the category of nice-to-have. They're what made my Burns Year fun and varied. I said YES to many, many things, and I sought out even more side-projects. Sucker. Glutton. Dope.

Because it's all for nought if the novel I set out to write isn't finished.

And it's not. Not yet.

But it's getting there!

By one measure -- the raw tally of words I added to the manuscript each day -- I wrote 142,436 words towards my novel about a dude sent to scout locations for someone else's biopic of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Taking these numbers and plotting them against time, you get a worm like this:

What happened in those flat patches? Mostly travel. And my deliberate decision to start my Burns year bashing out short stories before resurrecting the novel. And all the nonsense that happens when Christmas and moving back to Wellington and roadtripping collide.

But this count of 'added words' oversells the total size of the manuscript I printed out in early January. 

That manuscript stands at only 90,090 words.

So a better indication of my year's work on the novel looks more like this:

I can't bring myself to go back through my working versions of the manuscript to see exactly when I 'lost' large chunks of the text. In broad terms, these were times when I realised I was going off-track, or stumbled upon some change that needed to happen...and went back and changed it.  

I'm not one of those writers who can bash through to the end of a first draft with BIG THINGS left to change. I've tried that before and I couldn't unpick just one thing without the whole thing falling apart.

So my 90,090 words is four-fifths of a first draft that'll be 110k-120k words, but most of that 90k is a fourth or fifth draft. 

A lot of my two-steps forward, three-steps back moments occurred in the second half of the year. I still haven't properly cracked the section in San Marino - which is at once the most important and potentially the most extraneous. I would write a couple of pages, or a scene, or a whole chapter, then realise it had to be handled differently a day or a week later.

This is part of the natural process, so it's only fair those thousands (THOUSANDS!) of futile words count towards the blue line alongside those that make the final cut. 

Most productive day

Friday 15 December: 3,426 words (1,758 on the novel, plus work on my best albums of the year blog post and answering questions on the NZ short story from a student in Sweden)

In second place:Monday 13 February: 3,215 words (923 words on a short story - the one I actually finished and the rest toward my first fortnightly blogpost and consumption diary)

No other day cracked the 3,000 word mark all year.

Most productive day on the novel: Friday 21 April, 2,500 words (a suspiciously round number, but there you have it).

The next two most productive on the novel were  4 April and 28 March, so I must've found a sweet spot around then... before my trip to Italy fricked it all up (boo-hoo!).

Lessons in productivity

Here's something I was surprised by: 43% of the days during my fellowship, I didn't write a single word.


Okay, 84 of the 158 non-writing days were Saturdays or Sundays, and I made a deliberate effort to spend weekends with my young family and exploring Otago and beyond. When you add in my various trips (see above) and the days I spent in conferences and the like, you get 158.

The days of the week with the fewest goose eggs were Thursdays and Fridays (12 apiece). Monday (18) was the weekday upon I was most likely to leave the keyboard be.

If you take the total words written by weekday and divide by the total number of those days during my Burns year (there were 53 Wednesdays and 52 everything-elses), this is what my average productivity by weekday looks like:

So Tuesdays are King, trailed slightly by Fridays. Okay. 

And Wednesday sure looks like hump-day.

When you get rid of the non-writing days and divide only by non-zero writing days:

Monday and Tuesday are virtually identical. Friday drops back into the pack. But Wednesday still looks sluggish.

This is pretty similar to the picture after 20 weeks... so there's clearly something about Wednesdays that weren't doing it for me.

Back at week 20 I thought blogging dragged up my averages for Monday and Tuesday and this held true. I also said I hoped to get my average writing day above 1,000 for Monday to Friday (Wednesday was standing at 740 and Thursday 788), and I did this comfortably, breaking the 1,100 word barrier for all five and even getting Sunday into four figures.

(I'd forgotten completely about this goal, so there's no way I wrote something last Sunday to make this one graph look better).

Takeaways and targets

My clear goal for this first part of 2018 is to knock the bastard off and get my novel into the hands of publishing types. 

To that end, how about a completed first draft by Easter Monday, 2 April?

I'll be in paid employment three days a week from the week after next, with Wednesday and Thursday as my allocated 'writing days'. 

(I'll be treating Wednesday as my 'writing Monday' to get that productivity boost, rather than falling into a midweek slump.)

That gives me 14 'writing days' between now and the end of Easter. Assuming I do nothing on the novel outside of those days, and I have 30,000 words left to write (I could be way off, but), 
I'd need to write over 2,000 words a writing day - and all of it must count! 

If I waste a third of what I produce like I did in my Burns Year, I'll need to aim for more like 3,000 words, which I did twice all year and never on the novel alone.  

So I'll have to make progress on 'non-writing' days, too. 

Which is fine. I want far fewer goose eggs than in my Burns year, and should have fewer excuses (I've already explored Wellington; no one is gonna ask me to do anything).

Ideally I'd write in the 5am-7am slot every day -- though this relies on two kids sleeping until 7. My son (the problem) has been doing better lately, but he's one bout of sniffles away from completely changing his sleep cycle again.

But this process (a 1,400-word blog post and a few shitty graphs), which might seem the height of writerly onanism or nerdy procrastination, has helped me shape what the path to completion (no pun intended) will look like.

Now, to deliver on that plan!