While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Audiobooks vs Traditional Books

I’m a big fan of books. I like their weight, texture, smells. I like looking at what other people are reading in the park. I like the feeling of achievement as your bookmark moves through a large tome. I like the covers (which its okay to judge books by, most of the time) and I like bookstores and libraries. If I had to be incarcerated in one building, I would have a hard time choosing between a bookstore, a library… or maybe a basketball gym.

But the thing is, I also like listening to audiobooks.

In practice, these are books on CD which I turn into mp3 files and listen to on my iPod.

I began listening to audiobooks while living in Brisbane. I had a 35-45 minute bus ride every morning and every evening, and very rarely did I get to sit down for the duration of the journey. As such, reading a book was very difficult.

It helped that the Brisbane City Library had a pretty good selection of books on CD, so I could start off listening to things I had wanted to read but hadn’t yet got around to.

It took a while to transfer everything from the CDs onto my iPod the first time (and I guess every subsequent time) and back then I didn’t know if I could actually listen to a book. Could I concentrate on the story while being jostled on the bus? Would having someone else read to me remove too much of the wonder of books: the power to decide what so-and-so sounds like, or even the emphasis on a word-by-word basis? Indeed, listening to an audiobook, you can’t go at your own speed. You can’t skim over a dull patch easily, just as you can’t linger over a marvellous passage.

It seemed the deck was stacked against listening.

But then I actually listened.

Perhaps this is a good time for a list of the books I have listened to over the last two years.

* Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

* Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud – Jonathan Safran Foer

* The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe

* The Closed Circle – Jonathan Coe

* Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Letham (what a lot of Jonathan’s)

* Cocktail Time – P.G. Wodehouse

* Saturday – Ian McEwan

* Dirt Music – Tim Winton

* The Big Over Easy – Jasper Fforde

* Classic Russian Short Stories – Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev.

* Exit Music – Ian Rankin

* The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

I have probably left one or two out, but that’s a good enough indication.

I have also listened to the following plays on my iPod:

* Timon of Athens

* The Merry Wives of Windsor

* Loves Labour’s Lost

* Two Gentlemen of Verona

* Measure for Measure

Plays are a bit different, given they were written to be performed. If I stop to think about the difference, I’d actually say that plays feel like they lose more as an audio file than books do, especially if the book has a strong narrator, usually first person. A good narrator, 1st or 3rd person, will always let you know how many people are in a room – an audio file of Shakespeare can’t always do this.

Anyway, I have listened to everything listed above in their entirety. I have attempted to listen to the three books, but failed to complete them. They are:

* Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

* Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

* Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

The first two I had read before, and loved, but my familiarity meant my mind often drifted off, and eventually, I gave up listening to both. You really need the element of suspense for an audiobook to work.

Middlesex was a technical problem: some of the discs were scratched and so I had to give up.

Of course, over the same period of time, I have still read books – that is, held physical books in my hands and used my eyes to send images to my brain.

Physical books still win in a leisure situation: bedtime reading, lazy Sunday afternoon reading, etc.

But during the daily commute, be it by bus or foot, the iPod is the undisputed king of literature dissemination.

Only recently, when my temp job turned out to be 90% filing, did I start listening to books at work. It only works when doing mindless, repetitive tasks, but…

*Hold on, just remembered another book: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.*

Okay, where was I? Yes, listening to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at work helped me finish what would have taken several months of commutes in only two weeks. (At 21 discs, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the longest book I have listened to so far.)

There are some problems with listening to books.

First: supply. The selection of audiobooks is much narrower than paper ones. Most new books these days are coming out with an audio version (often a few months later), but they cost a fortune. So, if you’re like me, you only get to choose from whatever your local library has on offer. As I said, Brisbane was pretty good. Wellington and Palmerston North in NZ weren’t so great. Edinburgh’s selection is okay. Quantity is pretty good, but the quality’s a bit iffy.

Picking up on my fears before diving into the world of audiobooks, I find it a breeze to concentrate on, and absorb, the story, so long as I don’t know what’s coming next.

*Hold on, remembered another one: Notes on a Scandal­ – Zoe Heller (Watched the film after hearing the book, it was the worst book-to-film experience of my life…).*

Some of the narrators take a bit of getting used to (the over the top Brooklyn accent of the guy who read Motherless Brooklyn for example), but others are absolutely brilliant. Reading an audiobook is a real feat. There’s probably an equivalent of Oscars for audiobooks (note to self to Google: “audiobook awards”). I’d love to be on the academy, though I’d have to go for a lot of walks (or do a lot of filing) to get through all the nominees.

It is true that you can’t skim or savour as you can when actually reading, but it helps that you’re normally listening to the book in half hour bursts in the morning and afternoon. There’s usually enough in any half hour burst to make you want to plug the earbuds back in on the way home.

I feel like my comprehension of a book after listening and reading is actually pretty similar. Maybe listening has 90% the comprehension of reading. The things I struggle to recall when listening are chapter titles, epigraphs etc. Sometimes I get a bit confused which chapter I’m in – a function of listening in 30 minute bursts and not being able to flick back with ease – but this usually works itself out with a bit more listening.

That’s one of the strengths of audiobooks: the relentless pace. There’s no time to get wrapped up in structural nuance. And you’re completely excused from the concerns of line- and page-breaks, typeface, and glued together, torn, stained or missing pages. The narrator just powers on, if you’re with them or not, and most of the time, you’re with them baby.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have finished reading Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club if I was actually reading the book. It took hold of me so incrementally, I only felt bonded to the characters by the very end of the book, by which stage I was glad to learn that the library also had the sequel (The Closed Circle) on CD also.

And I think I might have actually enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s two novels more because I listened to them, than if I had read them. I’m just not sure about all the trickery he layers on top of the stories: the pictures of men falling upwards and tortoises having sex. The stories had enough trickery (perhaps “inventiveness” is a more generous term) without these extras. But, I can’t say for certain. I’ve flicked through the books after listening to them, but this flicking probably exacerbates the kookiness of the type-settings and pictures. I think I’ll read his next book when it comes out, just to see what happens.

I don’t feel like I’m a second class citizen because I listened to these books I’ve listened. In fact, I feel perfectly comfortable engaging in semi-intelligent discussions about books I have only ever listened to. I’ve already done so here (when discussing Ian Rankin).

To prove my point, tomorrow I will write about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I only finished listening to today. I promise not to look up anything on the internet to beef up my discussion. (Usually, I would read around before trying to write a review of any sort, but this will be a special case.)

I guess tomorrow’s experiment will be most revealing to those who have read (with their eyes) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before, but I really enjoyed the book and will try to convince every one who isn’t familiar with it to should seek it out, in whatever format they please.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Mute That Wasn't

I am still feeling my way into ‘Novel B’ -- the one about alternate realities without being the least bit science fiction.

Today I want to open a window into the process of writing a novel -- this particular window being one week since I started writing sentences as a narrator rather than a guy with an idea (or a conglomeration of ideas).

However, I feel conflicted about putting too much of this project out there before its written. I remember reading a book by the New Zealand playwright Roger Hall about, funnily enough, writing plays. Hall advises all writers not give the slightest mention to anyone of what your are currently writing until you finish it. I have never followed this rule -- it would be impossible to write a novel in a workshop situation that way -- though every time I “speak too soon”, I think of Roger Hall waggling his finger.

So, forgive me if this is terribly vague, but I’m trying to satisfy both parts of me, the documentarian and the superstitious writer.

I have been referring to one of the main characters in ‘Novel B’ as “The Mute” throughout my notes, for want of a better word. He is, in fact, more than mute. All his senses appear unresponsive to the normal stimuli of our world. He is a kind of a local celebrity-cum-oddity (like Wellington’s Blanket Man) and it is the locals who, until today, have been misleadingly referring to this man as “The Mute”.

However, in the course of a labyrinthine Wikipedia session, I began stumbling across multiple “mute” characters in fiction, particularly New Zealand fiction. The biggest, I guess, is Simon in the bone people. I remember getting this out of the library for Marisa when we lived in Wellington and I think she read the whole thing. I picked it up once, skimmed a little, but it was not this kind of book you can read if someone else is reading it.

So I haven’t read the bone people, one of the best known New Zealand novels OAT (soon I will post about acronomics, which I use with tongue firmly in cheek, but for now: OAT = Of All Time, but you say “oat”).

Then, I guess the other well known mute in a New Zealand setting is Holly Hunter’s character in Jane Campion’s film, The Piano. Again, I have seen bits of this film, but have not watched the whole thing.

(I don’t think this is a cultural cringe thing – these works just fall outside the sphere of my usual tastes.)

Anyway, I know enough about these two examples to predict that if I wrote a novel set in New Zealand with a character called “The Mute” – and it got published (!?!) – there would be reviews which drew parallels between this and other mute-d works.

So, first question: Is this a problem?

Well, NZ is a small country. Successes like the bone people and The Piano are rare. I’d rather not appear to tread any ground already trodden. Especially when I haven’t read/seen them fully and came up with all these ideas completely without their influence.

Perhaps I should mention/admit/confess that the idea for the “Mute” character came, in part, from the character of Enrico Fermi (based on the real physicist) in Lydia Millet’s Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart, which I read about this time last year and really enjoyed. Millet’s Fermi was not mute, but he certainly was taciturn. The writer in me swelled with admiration for the way Millet crafted Fermi from so little, and this withdrawn, quiet man became the emotional heart of the novel (no pun intended) for me. It got me thinking about what it takes to make a character sympathetic, and how the less there is of them, the easier it is for other characters and the readers themselves to write over this quiet character.

I filed this thought away, and undercover of darkness this thought started associating with other filed thoughts. The result: well, it could have been yoghurt, but it was actually this character referred to (until today) as “The Mute.”

As I said at the top, my “mute” isn’t just a mute, he’s completely untethered from reality. A better comparison might be the Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (which I have seen – i.e. the film – though I haven’t read Kensey’s book), except he’s not faking it (I think).

This whole comparison thing is a mine field, I tell you.

And it happens with any piece of writing. You name a character Colby, then you discover Donald Barthelme’s story ‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby’. (This happened to me; I’d named my character after the cheese). Or you write a novel-length manuscript about a rock band involving misappropriated lyrics and then Johnathan Lethem releases a novel about a rock band and misappropriated lyrics. (Yup, me again).

The irony with this last one is Lethem’s essay in Harper last year, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, which is composed almost entirely of other people’s words, often unattributed. The essay was one of the best things I read in 2007, fiction, poetry and greeting cards included.

Despite Lethem’s argument, I do not want to pick up and run with someone else’s ball.

So at this early, early stage, I am taking extra care to finesse out elements which others may misconstrue as derivative or cliché or au fait. In this instance, it’s as simple as coming up with another name the local’s give the character formerly known as The Mute. Perhaps he should be known by a symbol a la TAFKAP? Suggestions welcome.

Looking over what I’ve written, I see the added benefit that if people do start berating me for writing about another mute, I can try and win them over with my (by then, historical) honesty.

Take that, Roger Hall!

Status Report: Week Four

I just noticed that I went a whole week with two posts called “Status Report: Week Two”, even though these two posts are seven days apart and the latter has stats and graphs referring to Week 3.

I have fixed the oversight now.

Still, it feels like Week 4 has snuck up on me.

To mix things up, let’s get right into the stats:

Week Four – The Stats

Wordcount: 21,611 words

Average: 3,087 words per day (compared to 3,201 last week)

Most productive day: Saturday 26 Jan, 5,260 words (first day over 5,000 words!!! Today is the second!!!)

Least productive day: Tuesday 22 Jan, 1,577 words (no excuses)

Year-to-date: 79,796 words (that’s a two day buffer against slackness and/or travel)

So, after a string of under-par weekdays, I made up for it with unprecedented numbers in the weekend.

Sadly, if I was suddenly without work again, I would not be able to crank out 5,000 words seven days a week. That’s just not the way it works. Even with a new novel on the go, as alluded to on Thursday.

The other point of note is that fiction made up three-quarters of this week’s word count compared to only a third of week three’s pie. The 75:25 split is about right, I think. Hopefully I have enough ideas to keep the fiction rolling.

Oh, well, it’s off to bed for me. Big day of filing ahead of me tomorrow!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Defence of Monster Magnet; and 4-Way Diablo: a Review

After my accidental review of the Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, I thought I’d try a repeat of the Album Review Written Whilst Listening To Album for the First Time style… only sober this time.

The album I chose was Monster Magnet’s 4-Way Diablo.

The problem was, I wanted to say too many other things as the album’s 57.7 minutes sped by.

So I’m not going to subject you to the 2177 words I wrote during those 57.7 minutes (actually, I wrote and intro and a summary either side of listening to the album, so it took slightly longer) – instead I’m going to try and organise my thoughts on this one.

The first thing you need is some background. For a chronological run-through, Wikipedia does a pretty good job, but chronology is over rated. Especially when it comes to fringe bands who have a commercial flare up mid career, which may or may not have corresponded with an artistic low.

For example, my first Monster Magnet album was their fifth (the only thing I’ve ever won on a phone in radio competition), then I bought their fourth, third, first, second, sixth, then their early EPS… and now I own their seventh. So while the story of how a band formed and the various membership changes is interesting, it doesn’t really speak to why this band would capture my imagination and hold it through nine years and hundreds of dollars (and now some pounds) of expenditure.

I had to wait a long time to own this seventh album, the follow-up to 2004’s Monolithic Baby, which I bought from the Ukraine because it was released in Europe long before making it to Australia (where I was living at the time). An unnamed album was supposed to be released in March 2006, but the lead singer, Dave Wyndorf, overdosed on prescription sleeping pills on the eve of Monster Magnet’s 2006 European Tour and everything was put on hold.

For over twelve months, monstermagnet.net was not updated. I wasn’t sure if this unnamed album would ever be released, or even if Monster Magnet was finished. I checked the net from time to time, but no one seemed to know anything.

Then, earlier this month I discovered a new Monster Magnet album had been released in November 2007. It took a bit of searching in Edinburgh, but I didn’t need to go to the Ukraine this time.

Looking back at the other bands I’ve mentioned on this blog (George Harrison, The Tragically Hip, Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, Radiohead…), Monster Magnet is a sore thumb. The music sounds different, the lyrics come from an entirely different place (more on that later), the album covers look different… yet I have 9 hours of Monster Magnet on my iPod.

People with no knowledge of Monster Magnet could probably still deduce a few things from the title of 4-Way Diablo. "Over-the-top," they might say. "Sexual and/or satanic content" (yes to the first, no to the second).

Then, when shown the album’s cover, the impression already building in the MM neophyte’s mind will sharpen.

[It may be useful for this new-comer to know that five of the seven LPs have some variation of the Bull God design on the cover - six if you count God Says No’s Bull God reappearing on the back of Monolithic Baby.]

This latest cover, at first similar in proportion and placement to God Says No manages to integrate missiles, celestial bodies and naked women – all integral aspects of the Monster Magnet universe.

Out of context – that is, without having listened to the music – all Monster Magnet cover art is a bit immature. The sort of stuff a thirteen year old boy who’s just discovered pot would draw on the inside of his English folder. But the covers are part of the package with Monster Magnet, a package that includes songs with names like ‘Pill Shovel’, ‘Cyclops Revolution’, ‘Slut Machine’, ‘Dinosaur Vacuum’, and (best name in the Monster Magnet catalogue): ‘Baby Götterdämmerung’.

The reason I love Monster Magnet is their songs fly so close to ridiculous but avoid it, most of the time. Not just the songs, but the whole ethos of the band.

But I can understand that people standing on the outside, those who’ve heard the title, seen the cover and read the tracklisting, will have pretty low expectations from this band. And I can understand those people who let all their prejudgements get in the way of enjoying the whole package.

But, if you are a neophyte, I’d recommend you seek out a Monster Magnet album and listen to the lyrics while jumping up and down in your bedroom remembering what it was like to be thirteen.

The lyrics really are the key. While Monster Magnet albums are always interesting musically, with the occasional transcendent moment, the thing that sets this band apart is the lyrics, which hold true to the look of the album covers and sound of the song titles.

I think of Dave Wyndorf the lyricist as being like the older brother who returns from college to regale his younger sibling with (exaggerated) tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll. A Monster Magnet album is like a wormhole to your experience as an uncertain adolescent when sex was a quest and music was an escape.

Wyndorf’s lyrics draw both from the older brother’s world of drug-references (‘Nod Scene’ is a classic example) and seedy sexual innuendo (‘Heads Explode’ and fifty others), and from the younger brother’s safer world of comic books (‘Melt’, ‘Superjudge’), horror flicks and hidden pornos. More recent albums have added another layer: an almost self-conscious hard-rocking-ness ("baby", "alright", "come on", "oh yeah").

With these Oh Yeahs and the cruder sex references, Wyndorf verges on the tongue-in-cheek, but he wants you to take him seriously when he says, “I got an itch in my cosmic pocket, and it won’t go away.”

It’s this adolescent take on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that ultimately makes Wyndorf and Co. endearing rather than alienating.

But again, it’s all a question of perspective.

When Monster Magnet hit the big time with Powertrip and its lead single, ‘Space Lord’, they were the first rock band (to my knowledge) to make a hip-hop bling video. One person could see this video and think "what a bunch of sell-out tossers". Another person could think they were being ironic. But me, I see a bunch of guys living out the dream as any thirteen year old boy would, without being arch or satirical about it.

I’m not saying that Dave Wyndorf has the intelligence of a thirteen year old, or that the band’s music is a kind of novelty act – Monster Magnet mine a vein in human (masculine?) experience without being either sarcastic or simplistic. The problem with a lot of contemporary quote-unquote rock music is the bands try too hard to distance themselves from the ideas and emotions that first attracted them to rock music.

So, having thrown some words at why I love a lot of what Monster Magnet has done, the time has come to appraise the new album: 4-Way Diablo.

Just like the newcomer to Monster Magnet, the avid fan has reactions to an album before listening to the music. The album art comforts me. The song titles like ‘Cyclone’, ‘Blow Your Mind’ and ‘Little Bag of Gloom’ suggest the vein of adolescent material has not yet been entirely tapped out.

And there's a cover in the prime position of track six of thirteen: the Rolling Stones’ ‘2000 Light Years From Home’. This is another comforting sight. Monster Magnet are a great covers band because a) they have great taste and b) they always twist a song to their own means (see the way they hacked up David Gilmour’s ‘No Way Outta Here’ on Monolithic Baby, axing the limp chorus in the original and using one of the verses instead). Thanks to Monster Magnet covers, I was introduced to, or encouraged to take a second listen to, Hawkwind, Motorhead, Grand Funk Railroad, The Stooges, MC5, Black Sabbath, and The Velvet Underground. I owe them an amazing debt.

When it finally came time to listen to 4-Way Diablo, I was expecting a solid but unspectacular effort, treading similar ground as their releases before Wyndorf’s overdose. Indeed, in listening, I was able to pick out songs which sounded like they were recorded B.O.D. (Before OverDose) and A.O.D. The difference being one of tone, both lyrically and the sound of Wyndorf’s voice (which, if I’m picking B.O.D. and A.O.D. songs correctly, is not in the best shape after his recent troubles).

It’s a two faced album in many respects: riffs versus psychedelia, B.O.D. versus A.O.D., excess versus penitence.

There are some low-points (the “You’re alive, you’re alive, baby, you’re still alive” chorus to ‘You’re Alive’) and some lyrics that are too much, even for Monster Magnet (Killing Nazi Zombies in a German Town… I got a cock made out of platinum). Overall, though, it’s the constant mix of styles and registers which makes this a good-enough album, but also hold it back from being a great album.

Most promising for this fan are the hints of a new maturity in some of the songs, which surprisingly can still coexist alongside the Sabbath-comics-and-playboy material.

This maturity could very well have been like introducing a cat into an aviary. The refrain of ‘Cyclone’ – Your soul can blow me away – combines the tropes of space rock with a sentiment which isn’t too far away from adult-contemporary.

Thankfully, when the soppy sentiment reappears in ‘Solid Gold’, Monster Magnet are now channelling the funk of Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones, and Wyndorf sounds like he’s having a blast, replete with back-up singers.

You really are the rising sun /
You and you’re solid gold…

Goddam you’re a sight to see /
I ain’t never felt this before

It is a song unlike any other Monster Magnet song, but, through little things – the rattlesnake tambourine at the end of the bridge, Dave’s groans and oh yeah’s, the concession to a minute long guitar solo at the end – it’s still unmistakably a Monster Magnet song.

Then there’s ‘I’m Calling You’, which uses the same first person address as 2004’s stand-out track, ‘Monolithic’, but instead of taking down “the Suck Generation”, this new song seems to attack Wyndorf himself.

The world is dead, The world is dead /
What crazy shit is inside your head?

The final track, ‘Little Bag of Gloom’ again addresses a “you”, with Wyndorf’s voice high in the mix, with just a synth organ to for the first half of the song. Wyndorf sings:

But you never want to row towards the origin of storms /
And you’ve locked away your heart one more time

*enter guitars, eerily reminiscent of the theme from The Princess Bride*
So take you books, take your broom, take your little bag of gloom /
And I’m lost and I’m through, and I’m crying out for truth /
Maybe when you’re all alone you’ll realise where love comes from /
But until you take that time, you’re just blind

One reading (which I don’t think is stretching too far at all) is that this “you” is actually Wyndorf himself. Just as he has played the big and little brother, now he’s playing the role of wreck and saviour.

It is probably asking too much that Dave Wyndorf could have written an entire album which packed the emotional resonance of these lines, these glimpses into his A.O.D. state of mind, whilst maintaining the adolescent field of reference from his B.O.D. days. I’m not sure if that would work over an entire album anyway. But 4-Way Diablo has enough solid tracks and surprises to satisfy this fan, and ensure he’ll buy whatever Monster Magnet offer up next.


What I thought when I first listened (excerpts)

01. 4 Way Diablo : Starts with a great riff, sounds a bit like Turbonegro. Lyrics: pyramids, gods, cigarettes – classic Monster Magnet. Not sure about the strength of Wyndorf’s voice. Something’s off.

02. Wall of Fire : Another riff-driven song, a long way from Spine of God territory. 3 stars nothing more.

03. You're Alive : Terrible chorus… just sounds thin.

04. Blow Your Mind : A change of tempo … not before time. Still sounds more like Monolithic Baby! than Superjudge. I suspect this is a ‘before OD’ song.

05. Cyclone : Another mid-tempo number. Vocals higher in the mix. Simpler, more direct lyrics. Dave Wyndorf from the pulpit.

06. 2000 Light Years from Home : Rolling Stones cover… but the song pumping into my ears right now sounds like it could be nothing but a Monster Magnet song. And yes, it has that space-rock wormhole-of-sound thing going on. Dave’s voice doesn’t sound strained for probably the first time on the record.

07. No Vacation : It’s like ‘Kiss of the Scorpion’ except I don’t think he’s being intentionally difficult with this one.

08. I'm Calling You : This song grabs me. Not through riff, but through voice. I’m Calling You, I’m calling you Back to the airy/eerie sound of tracks 05 and 06.

09. Solid Gold : Crickey, this is something new. Funk. Dave opens with a “Woo!”…Quite romantic. In sleazy way. But this is infectious, feel good music.

10. Freeze and Pixillate : Sounds a bit like previous instrumentals… not different enough. Though Monster Magnet do know how to mix screaming into an instrumental better than anyone.

11. A Thousand Stars : Some of the lyrics are quite good... And a nice MM bridge... Still something missing though.

12. Slap in the Face : Starts with a good clean riff, dirties it up, then there’s a pause and Dave says, “Ahhh… Go!”. I like it. It’s been done before but I like it… Surprising funk-type break to lead into the second verse... Thumbs up.

13. Little Bag of Gloom : ...Oh my god. It just finished. Quite a stunning effect. Who’d have guessed that song was only going to be 2:18?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Routine Report from the War on Words

At least that’s how it has felt lately: like a war against words. I am also fighting a simultaneous war against cardboard cuts (like paper cuts but wider and easier to reopen) from excessive filing.

But I may have turned the corner on the writing front.

Some of you may have noticed I haven’t blogged as much as usual this week… no rambling treatises on time/travel… no (very niche interest) essays on elegiac poetry…

Well, that’s because something has come along. This something will be referred to as ‘Novel B’ in the pie chart breakdown of this week’s word count.

Yes, a new book-length fiction project (or BLFP, pronounced Blifp!, like when the television turns off suddenly because someone has knocked out the plug).

Something fresh to throw words at.

And throw words I have. Indiscriminately, in fact.

The biggest problem at the moment is the method of narration. I’ve tried third and first person. It means a lot of writing the same thing twice. Good for daily word counts, bad for making quick progress – but I feel like the voice will fall into place tomorrow.

‘Novel B’ (feel free to submit alternate working titles) is about ‘alternate realities’ without being ‘science fiction’.

The genre is fabular-meta-hardboiled-baroque-thriller.

The main character is male and was born in Palmerston North.

The other main character has no distinguishing features and will not have a single line of dialogue.

The final word on the final page will be enchilada.

Some of the above is true, while the rest is not untrue, exactly… unlikely is the best description.

Just thought I’d check in. Y’know, commemorate the moment when I still stood at the foot of an Everest (God rest your soul, Sir Ed) that could have been a fabular-meta-hardboiled-baroque-thriller, since the whole reason I’m keeping this blog is to track my progress. If you’re reading for very niche essays, I’ve got half of one on Monster Magnet’s 4-Way Diablo. Watch this space.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mirrored Dates

On my desk at work there is a calendar with a quote from Herman Melville, but it wasn’t the quote that got me thinking, it was the dates beside his name: 1819 to 1891. There’s a harmony in those dates: the almost symmetry, the fact he lived to a goodly age. I was born in 1983, and although 1983 to 2038 isn’t as pleasing to the eye (damn millennium, what a let down that was), there is something appealing about the thought of dying then.

That is, as far as thoughts about dying go.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thinking about dying that much, and I’m not planning to any time soon, but the more I thought about 1983-2038 as I punched holes in reports and filed them, the more sense those dates made.

2038 is thirty years from now. So, if this little dyslexic prophesy is true, I only have thirty years left on this earth, which is only slightly more than I’ve churned through already. Thirty years. It could fly by.

Maybe I’m having the occasional morbid thought because the skull on the cover of the Penguin edition of Under The Volcano stares at me from the corner of my desk (at home) every time I get up from the computer. His mouth is open. He might be saying, “Write now, for tomorrow we die.” Or not.

I’m not one of those young bucks who would rather die than turn sixty – I have nothing against hanging around to see the grandkids grow up, and Philip Roth has show that you can still crank out a novel a year in your seventies.

But I am a fan of goals, targets and motivational ploys (if you hadn’t guessed, look around).

It’s not exactly Carpe Diem, but You have thirty years left could be useful in squeezing more out of howeverlong you get.

This is not a fully formed thought. I am only test driving it on the information superhighway on the off chance I do cark it in 2038 and people will have one of three reactions:

1) Wow, he must have had psychic abilities.

2) It’s sad he died, but at least he died at his perfect age.

3) Who?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Status Report: Week Three

Today I heard two songs mentioning Lichtenstein – Warren Zevon’s ‘Seminole Bingo’ and Fountains of Wayne’s ‘New Routine’. I’ve been to Lichtenstein (& took this photo). It doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned in any more songs.

With that public service announcement out of the way, time for week three’s status report.

Well, looking at the numbers, it wasn’t too shabby. But as I alluded to yesterday, I haven’t really been rocking the fiction boat. In fact, fiction only took up a third of my words this week, with much more being spent on non-fiction. If any one goes through the effort of counting how many words I’ve posted on this blog and how many I’ve attributed towards my weekly word counts, you’ll see something is off. This is because some entries take a few days and a few false starts. I’ve been trying to write something about cover versions all week, but it just hasn’t crystallised yet.

The real story is I wrote only 359 words on what is supposedly my main project (Novel A). So thumbs down there, but otherwise, the numbers look healthy.

Week Three – The Stats

Wordcount: 22,409 words

Average: 3,201 words per day (compared to 2,205 last week, though I did go to Spain for the weekend)

Most productive day: Wednesday 16 Jan, 4,426 words (the day before starting work)

Least productive day: Thursday 17 Jan, 1,806 words (the day I started work)

Year-to-date: 58,185 words (a day and a bit ahead of target [54,845])

Note: "Other" consisted of emails to individuals (I'm sticking to that 'email=letter writing=part of a writer's work' theory for now) and actual letters (cold contact and luke warm contact approaches for jobs... I can't be a file clerk for ever).

Resolution for week four: more fiction!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Writing Poetry Instead

It’s dirty little secret time.

I’ve been writing poetry instead of powering ahead with the enigmatically named Novel A (it has a real name, I’m just being cagey in my weekly updates).

Of course, poetry alone is not enough to keep up with the targets, so I’ve plodded away at short stories, long short stories and memoir-ish stuff not fit for the light of day. But generally, I’ve been in a funk for the last string of days. The word counts are there or thereabouts, but it’s a slog.

Except for poetry that is. Even if it’s very straight forward, prose-like poetry (see example below), it seems less like work. It’s a bit worrying that I’m sick of writing sentences about made up stuff this early on, but… Well, there is no But. It’s worrying.

I think the thing holding me back from working on Novel A is that I badly want to get it published. Publication is also the ultimate aim with the short stories I write, but the obvious difference is: it’s a lot less work, blood, sweat and teas (not a typo, I’m a chain tea-drinker all of a sudden) to finish a story than a novel. It’s easier to accept a story being filed away than a novel.

This is the voice of experience. I have two novel-sized manuscripts filed away. They are in the back of my head when I work on Novel A. It’s worse because Novel A bares a striking resemblances to one of the failed & filed manuscripts.

It feels sometimes like I’m one of those foolhardy restaurateurs frittering money away until Gordon Ramsay comes along to save the day. Except, I’m one of those ones who go back to making the same mistakes when F---ing Gordon and the F---ing cameras leave and there’s this quaint epilogue at the end of the episode: Novel A was filed away two months later.

Anyway, there’s a glimpse into my neuroses.

They come and go.

I think it’s worse now that I’m working and have so long to think about writing whilst not writing (I did filing all Thursday and Friday and feel a “Tips for Temps and Employers” entry coming on).

Here’s a poem I wrote which kind of needs to be posted on the internet for it to operate as it hopes it might.


I heard your mother died

but the message had passed

through too many mouths

for me to feel comfortable going

straight to you with condolences.

Words are frail but they are all

some of us have –

limited by physical or emotional distance.

Some, like me, cannot even send the words

to you direct,

we must file them away

or fire them out into the atmosphere

and imagine – for it is only in the

imagination that this could work –

that these words will one day reach you

when the pain has faded

but not the memories

and these words will not remind you of pain or sadness

but just that other people were thinking of you

in that time of pain and sadness.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I like free stuff...

Found this in my inbox today from the Edinburgh: City of Literature

There’s Nowhere to Hyde This February...

This month, we’re gearing up for One Book – One Edinburgh 2008, and aiming to get the whole city reading Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Free copies of the book will be distributed to high schools in the city, to every public library and to partner organisations and from 22nd February members of the public can drop into their local library and claim a free copy while stocks last. All city libraries will stock copies of the book which can be borrowed for free once all the One Book – One Edinburgh copies have been claimed.

I’ll be one of those scrambling for a free book on the 22nd. What can I say, I like books and I’m cheap.

I started another day job today, so I’ll be squeezing out (or trying to) 3,000 words in the dark hours before and after work – my own Jekyll and Hyde existence if you will.

Will blog about Stevenson’s book in due course.

Insider’s tip: expect some Jekyll and Hyde influenced prose to appear on the blog too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Great Moments in Shuffle #2

Bob Dylan – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Jimi Hendrix – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

FOOTNOTE: My iPod did not see fit to throw up either Paul Weller’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (from Studio 150) or The Fratellis’ (from the Radio 1 Establish 1967 compilation). That would have just been too trippy.

What’s strange is that I have four versions of this one Dylan song, which is okay, but isn’t his best by a long way. Dylan himself said that Hendrix’s version was superior (the only cover of one of his songs which he bestowed this honour upon, at the time)… and yet the Weller and Fratellis versions hark back to the Dylan more than the Hendrix. I guess no one wants to stand in Hendrix’s aural shadow. A pity, I think.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Falling Flat: Forced Reference in Paul Muldoon’s ‘Sillyhow Stride’


I came across Paul Muldoon’s elegy for Warren Zevon, ‘Sillyhow Stride’, as a Warren Zevon fan first, a reader of poetry second. This is kind of like a pottery expert seeking out ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or a scuba enthusiast reading ‘Diving the Wreck’. Niche interests are seldom catered to by poetry because poems and poets tend to have other things on their minds.

And so it was with ‘Sillyhow Stride’.

What drew me to the poem – the references to Zevon, especially his songs – were, in fact, the parts I enjoyed least.

When I read Paul Muldoon poems in the past, I often felt like I knew too little to appreciate fully what was going on.

Reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’, there were still moments where I felt ignorant, but, when the song references started to pile on top of one another, I actually felt like I knew too much.

The poem abounds with references, but here are just a few:

that excitable hula-hula boy

(reference to the songs ‘Excitable Boy’ and ‘The Hula Hula Boys’)

all those years of running amuck in Kent

(lifts lyrics from ‘Werewolves of London’)

you tipped the scales
for the Everly Brothers,

Frank and Jesse, while learning to inhale
through a French inhaler

(reference to ‘Frank and Jesse James’ and ‘The French Inhaler’)

And my reaction to these references: cringe.

For me, renaming Don and Phil Everly as Frank and Jesse to echo Zevon’s ballad of the wild west outlaws is a contrivance. Perhaps Muldoon’s whole poem is a contrivance, I simply am not clued in enough to get all the references to 42nd Street and diacetylmorphine.

It is this tension between knowing too much and not knowing nearly enough which tainted my first few excursions into ‘Sillyhow Stride’.

But is my cringe reaction a valid reading of the poem? And why am I cringing?


The following was an ad featured under ‘Sillyhow Stride’ as it appeared on the website of the Times Literary Supplement:

Choosing a religion.

Which religion should I choose to believe in?


The ad is funny taken in isolation: the way believing a religion is made to sound like having car insurance. (Then again, not all of us have cars...)

But it is also comic in the context it appears. I suspect readers of the TLS, readers of Muldoon’s poetry, and/or admirers of Warren Zevon are not the easiest people to usher into religion with a handy pick-one-and-be-done-with-it website.

But you can forgive ‘Ads by Google’ for throwing up www.peace-of-mind.net when faced with a page featuring the phrases:

dragging a full-length cross… on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Such a pilgrimage … the blood-bath / at my Twin Towers… our mother’s death from this same cancer… as Christ broke with Iscariot… in the afternoon, televangelists, / push up and bench press with Buddhist and Parsi… the Everlasting Life we bargain… your Russian Jewish father…your Scottish Mormon mother…

Indeed, the other two ads at the bottom of the page (as it appeared for me) seem much more tangential:

* an ad for “Horse and Rider Performance Analysis” (presumably because ‘Sillyhow Stride’ comes from Muldoon’s 2006 collection: Horse Latitudes); and

* an ad for Bad Drawn Boy’s new single, ‘The Time of the Times’.

It has always been easier to get laughs with the unintended. The funniest home videos, the Freudian slips of newsreaders, watching your mother learn to ski. Some movies – I’m looking at you, post-1990 Jackie Chan – I have endured purely for the promise of the outtakes at the end.

And it was the same intentions that I signed up for Google’s AdSense on this blog. Before I even had content, I had ads. This was not, and will never be, a pecuniary measure (no one has ever clicked an ad – why would they when it would mean tearing themselves away from my riveting discussion of word counts?). I was simply curious what sort of ads my ramblings would call forth.

Sometimes the ads on the top right have been mildly amusing, but it has mostly been the sort of ‘Get Your Novel Published’ ads which always make me feel like I'm discussing writing with my mother.

Aside: I fear I may be contravening the terms of my AdSense contract by discussing this, like talking about the future after a one-night stand will doom a relationship. But I guess that’s my policy: if something is going to do me in, it might as well be my own words.

There are deep thinkers out there who describe laughter as a response to the perception of incongruity. While this doesn’t cover contagious laughter or the fact babies laugh before they can speak, it does explain the little chuckle I get from incongruous ads thrown up by well meaning machines.

The thing is though, the incongruity must appear incidental, otherwise, the response is not to laugh but to cringe. This is why great comic writing is harder, and infinitely rarer, than great serious writing.


As someone reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’ for references to Warren Zevon songs, it is no wonder they fall flat. I’m expecting them. And when they come, often they feel random. Like I am reading Google’s first foray into poetry.

The references do not appear seamless because they are surrounded by flashing lights. Some of this is my own fault, but some if it is Paul Muldoon’s.

I feel okay pointing the finger at Muldoon for the ‘excitable hula-hula boy’ type references because he illustrates elsewhere in ‘Sillyhow Stride’ that he can weave Zevon references into his poem in an unobtrusive and enriching way.

As a rule, the Zevon references work best when they are set lower in the mix.

The young John Donne who sets a Glock
on his dish in the cafeteria

(A reference to the image of the inside cover of Excitable Boy, though it was actually Zevon's .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver resting on a dinner plate filled with his wife's cooking…)


realized it ain’t

that pretty, ain’t that pretty at all
to be completely wasted when you’re testing your chops, hint hint,

on a Gibson Les Paul
overdriven through a Fender Vibratone,
ain’t that pretty to crawl

to Ensenada for methadone.

Here, a Zevon song title and refrain (‘Ain’t That Pretty At All’), is worked into a powerful passage which, in its spirit and content, echoes Zevon’s own oeuvre: the humour and pathos of an addict-drunk.

The reader is not being asked to compare Phil and Don Everly (the brothers responsible for ‘Wake Up Little Suzy’) with Frank and Jesse James; nor are they bombarded with two song references in one line (“excitable hula-hula boy”).

The conversational nature of ‘ain’t that pretty at all’ probably makes it easier for this reference to appear seamless in contrast to others. Indeed, it’s hard enough to work Hula-Hula or French Inhaler into conversation, let alone a piece of serious poetry, but let us not forget: Warren Zevon is the (immortal) king of the implausible lyric.

In ‘Play It All Night Long’ he manages to cram incest, cancer and another name for undulant fever into the second verse.

Daddy's doing Sister Sally
Grandma's dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We'll get through somehow

Then, to close the third and final stanza, Zevon manages to transform the scatological into a timeless epigram:

There ain't much to country living
Sweat, piss, jizz and blood

Of course, Zevon has the benefit of music and his own delivery behind these words as they are presented in their intended form (1980’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School), whereas Muldoon’s elegy must live and die on the page.


In researching this piece, I came across a discussion of Muldoon’s poem on the bulletin board at Warren Zevon’s website. The fact the bulletin board is still alive and kicking today is, in itself, a testament to the enduring appeal to Zevon’s songs, while the educated dissection of the non-Zevonian references in the ‘Sillyhow Stride’ thread is testament to the intelligence of his fanbase.

The discussion is notable for a total lack of criticism of ‘Sillyhow Stride’. Either no one else felt let down by the 'excitable hula-hula boy' insertions, or they didn't feel it was important enough to put into words.

While I have taken the time to try and pin-point the 'what' and the 'why' of my cringe response, I agree that it is wrong to dismiss this poem as a failed joke. It is clearly more than that.

There is the fact it is an elegy addressed to Zevon – someone Muldoon knew personally and professionally, co-writing many songs with him, including the title track on My Ride’s Here – and here I am, someone who only discovered Zevon’s music after his death.

But this is the nature of elegiac form: the turning out of the private for the unknown reader to remember that which they never experienced.

In terms of elegy, ‘Sillyhow Stride’ succeeds on many counts. It is at times powerful, hypnotic, poetic, heart-rending and appropriately inappropriate.

Without the pressure of squeezing in a song title, Muldoon turns several brilliant phrases to evoke the tragic side of the musician:

…that dank
spot on the outskirts
of Jerusalem where the kids still squeeze between the tanks

to suck the life out of a cigarette

Reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’ aloud - giving Muldoon the same odds as Zevon with his musical backing - there are moments of brilliance, like the blend of pathos and aural pleasure in:

I knelt beside my sister’s bed, Warren, the valleys and the peaks
of the EKGs, the crepusculine X-rays,
the out-of-date blister-packs

When, at the poem’s mid-point, Muldoon writes, “The flesh, Warren, is but a bruise on the soul,” the poem reaches its zenith, but this phrase could equally excuse, in epigrammatical form, the poem’s failures. The flesh of this elegy may not always work – the odd reference may be clumsy or Google-esque – but ultimately, the spirit is there.

I just have to swallow my inner pedant and believe.

New Stuff: 'The Kick Inside'

I have a story on the newish Creative Writing page at Lumière.

'The Kick Inside' was written in 2008. Its words appear under 7 January 2008 on my spreadsheet and are the first 2008 words to appear outside of a blog.

Something extra for readers of The Year of a Million Words: 'The Kick Inside' is also the name of Kate Bush's 1978 début album, which featured the single 'Wuthering Heights'.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Status Report: Week Two

Well, what a difference a week makes. After a rough start on new years day, week one was typified by 3000+ word days. In week two I only cracked 3000 twice. There were several factors, not the least being the fact I flew to Madrid on Friday and returned this evening (Sunday) and wasn’t stupid or masochistic enough to write in Spain. As a result, Saturday 12 Jan became the first goose egg of 2008.

On the plus side, Madrid’s given me something else to write about. Week two really was a struggle, an ebb week on the shores of creation (partly caused by self-loathing when I read over terrible metaphors like this).

48 hours away from this computer and this room were just what the doctor ordered, methinks. Bring on week 3.

Week Two – The Stats

Wordcount: 15,435 words

Average: 2,205 words per day (compared to 3,345 last week)**

Most productive day: Thursday 10 Jan, 3,590 words

Least productive day (excluding Saturday’s zero): Wednesday 9 Jan, 1,484 words (mostly revision)

Year-to-date: 35,506 words (just, just behind target of 35,519)

** I think there was a glitch in my spreadsheet and a small degree of double counting occurred. This has been ironed out and reflected in this week’s graphs.

I’m still oscillating between including and excluding personal emails. As of today I think that emails are like letters, and writers have their letters collected and made into books all the time (well, sometimes, and once their dead), so why shouldn’t a classic piece of Craig Cliff be included in my quest for a million just because it’s targeted at one lucky recipient?? As the Split Enz song goes:

I will always be a man who’s open to

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blast From the Past: Scaling Fish Island

The other day, Marisa asked if I could get her out Moby Dick the next time I visited the library. I tried to explain that it won’t be what she’s expecting, having grown up on cartoon versions of the hunt for the white whale. She still seemed keen, so who am I to stand between her and great literature?

When I bought her home a copy of the Everyman edition, she began flicking through, randomly announcing chapter titles as if continuing my argument that the book was more of an encyclopaedia than a novel.

I have quite an involved relationship with Moby Dick. Back in 2004 I tried to write my first novel. It was an ambitious proposition: on the surface it was a road trip from Wellington to Auckland undertaken by two flatmates, but underneath it lay a retelling of the Maori myth of Maui pulling up the North Island combined with Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick in Melville’s book.

It plainly didn’t work.

I still like some of the ideas in the manuscript, but it’s an absolute muddle, full of disjointed scenes and plain bad writing.

To open the book, I chose to echo Moby Dick by having an Etymology and an Extracts section, putting space between the front cover and the narrator’s first words (my version of “Call me Ishmael”). Reading over this now, three and a half years later, I can see all the ambition and verve I had when I set out to write Scaling Fish Island. I can also tell by the voice of my etymologist (who only appears in this section, the rest of the novel is much more 21 year old Kiwi male narration) that I was still very much under the spell of Vladimir Nabokov (words like ‘homunculus’ and ‘petty bureaucrats’).

Am I a better writer now? Hard to say.

The real question is, am I still as ambitious?

Just the kind of question to ponder on a weekend jaunt to Madrid.

*sardonic chuckle*

Anyway, here for your reading pleasure is the Etymology section of the never to be published: Scaling Fish Island.


The poetically named North Island of New Zealand is located approximately 1600 kilometres southeast of Australia. It is not easy to discover just who christened the world’s fourteenth largest island “North”. In fact, this humble researcher has failed in his endeavour – the namer appears to have slipped (wisely) into anonymity, sparing their family name an immemorial association with one simpleton decision (two if you count the naming of the South Island). Perhaps I am unkind in placing fault upon one homunculus – the North/South names could just as likely stem from a drawing room full of dusty maps, wherein a dozen petty bureaucrats opt for the least offensive names and hastily depart for constitutionals in Menton and Dover to stifle their escalating hayfever or shake the jejune cloud of the industrial metropolis.

Happened upon by Abel Tasman in 1642, New Zealand has suffered its fair share of taxonomic oscillation at the hands of Europe. One needn’t wonder long why the three main islands’ nouveau-Irish monikers – New Ulster (the North Island), New Munster (the South Island) and New Leinster (Stewart Island) – were short lived. Even the present scheme has not been static – though North has always been North: the South Island was initially referred to as the Middle Island and Stewart Island bore the southern title. But alas, the Middle Island was decommissioned, and we are left with North, South, Stewart – the two largest islands left referring to each other, swirling in a vortex of incestuous representation, inadvertently implying a body of water (the blustery Cook Strait) is the heart of the nation. It is unfortunate these handles persisted as the Maori already had numerous more descriptive terms for the islands they had inhabited for several centuries before Abel breezed past.

Aotearoa, nowadays widely applied to the whole of New Zealand, was originally a term for the North Island. Oft translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, there are a variety of other interpretations, many of which relate to the longer daylight the Polynesian explorers experienced: ‘Land of the Long Daylight’, ‘Long Bright World’, ‘Big Glaring Light’, ‘Continuous Clear Light’ – I think you get the picture.

Another enduring Maori name for the North Island is Te Ika a Maui, ‘The Fish of Maui’. According to the myth, the demi-god Maui (a key figure throughout Polynesian mythology) pulled up the island whilst fishing. When looking at a map of the island, one may be able to see the resemblance to a skate: the head situated at the southern tip, the mouth Wellington harbour and the eye Lake Wairarapa, the East and West coasts the fins, and the North Cape the long narrow tail.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Young Man Writes About Writing

I have, amongst other things (understatement), been working on a longer shorter story which I intended to submit to the BBC National Short Story Award. I had read the fine print, which stated that writers need to have been previously published. Turns out, I needed to read read the fine print, because entrants must be published in the U.K.

Drat. There goes my shot at £15,000.

On one level, I can see why the competition has this clause. It’s the biggest short story prize in the U.K., established with the express purpose of helping raise the status of the short story. (I’m not sure I entirely agree with some of the people behind the scheme’s arguments about the health and importance of short stories, but I think anyone who puts up money for writers has their wallet in the right place.) By rigging the draw so that only published authors can win, it means they will have someone with a track record to spruik, rather than doing the Pop Idol thing and launching someone to the top of the list without the experience behind them to keep them there.

But then there’s the purist in me who says it should be a competition for the best short story, not the best short story by a writer of XYZ description. If a story is great, it deserves £15,000 and the wide exposure a competition like the BBCNSSA would bring, even if the author doesn’t.


I know it seems difficult in today’s age of author events at literature festivals, full page author photos on back covers and celebrities-turned-paperback-writers to conceive of books without their authors. Even harder when you consider this proposition for other media. Praising a movie without considering the actors behind the characters or the director behind the camera. Talking about a song without talking about the performer. (I plan to write about cover versions in the near future, so take note).

I believe all literature prizes should be judged on the work and the work alone. This shouldn’t be a problem. As the novelist Jim Crace said, “If a novel's any good, it will be more interesting than its author.” Based on his wikipedia page looks like he’s lived by that maxim. Anyway, I agree with what the man said. It may be naïve and suboptimal, but if I was giving away £15,000 I’d want to give it to the best story possible, meaning no criteria at all. No word limits, no entry fee, online or paper submissions accepted, published or unpublished, UK citizen, transient, terrorist or alien authors: come one, come all.

But instead every competition has to have an angle, and every book needs a photogenic author.

Meh. That’s life I guess.

When I realised I could no longer submit my 6,000 word story I was a bit bummed, because there aren’t many journals or competitions which accept pieces of this length. I really want something in the Edinburgh Review or Chapman before I leave Scotland, but they both have word limits around the 2,500 mark. D’oh.

BUT... I’m glad to be in the situation of having a longer story which, had I not misread the rules of the competition, I may not have completed. The sudden revocation of my BBC eligibility also presented the opportunity to stop and consider what factors had influenced the beast my story became.

Like most stories, it began life as an idea. The first night I spent in Zanzibar, there was a strange ticking noise which I couldn’t place. I thought this could be a good metaphor for something, but didn’t know what, filed it away in a notebook and continued travelling.

Then, in about November, I was looking at all the stories I’ve ever written to see if I had enough to cobble together a short story collection. In collating the stories, I wrote a little summary sentence along side each, like so:

A young boy tries to figure out if his grandfather really stutters in another language

A young university tutor becomes obsessed with one of his female students

A young man tries to reconcile memories of his father and his own looming fatherhood

The misadventures of an ambitious but limited man who becomes mayor of a fishing town

A courier loses his licence and his job and must rely on his grandfather for transport and conversation

A day in the life of a single sex (male) high school

A young man returns to home for the holidays and plunges into depression

…& so on…

It wasn’t all “young man” fiction, but there was certainly a distinct lack of female characters. So, when it came time to turn the mystery sound in Zanzibar idea into a story, I thought, Why not make the main character female?

Was this a cynical decision? I don’t think so. Perhaps if I’d said: Having a female lead will give me a great chance of winning the BBC comp, but I didn’t know about the competition at this time.

When I did discover the competition, mid-November, it may, however, have encouraged me to write the female in Zanzibar story over, say, a young man who builds a shrine in his department’s men’s room story. And the 8,000 word limit definitely gave me the freedom and imprimatur (Word I Couldn’t Define Until I Looked it Up #2) to make it a long short story.

To go into any further detail about this story which you won’t see until it finds a home is a bit mean. I will say that I don’t think my decisions were any better or worse intended than those I make when writing fiction with no specific competition or publication in mind. The great thing about fiction is, if you’re doing it right, it’s all you in the end, regardless of word limits, themes, format or trends. Even the best need boundaries to work within or goals to work towards.

Speaking of which, I just cracked the magical 3,000 for today. Boom Tho!

Footnote to self: define, then sing the praises of the word 'spruik' one day.