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

Monday, March 31, 2008

March Experiment - - a 248 word story

A screaming comes across this guy.

"Call me an ambulance."

There is no blood.

"Oh! Isabella."

There is no Isabella.

We think he's crazy.

We give him our shrinks' phone numbers and offer generic antidepressants but he just keeps screaming, "Ambulance! Isabella!"

"Some people," the guy next to me says.

"C'mon," someone else says, "let's get frozen yoghurt like they do on Full House when things get too real."

So we stick our hands in our pockets and turn away from the guy, who's still shouting, "Isabella!"

"She's not coming, pal," someone says in a fake New York accent. Some of us laugh.

At the frozen yoghurt vendor the queue is long. "Lot of people," says a woman with thinning hair. I agree.

They are out of wildberry when I get to the counter.

"I wonder if that guy is still screaming?" a woman asks.

People shrug.

"I once fell in love with a beautiful woman," I tell the man with a tub of apricot beside me.


"You can probably guess what happened."

He nods. He knows.

"That Isabella must be something to behold," I say, then, "Isabella!"

People look around the frozen yoghurt vendor’s store.


"Hey, are you alright?" the guy asks.

"Oh!" is all I say.

"Oh!" groans someone behind me.


"You've flipped," says a woman with a fleck of frozen yoghurt on her top lip.

"Isabella!" another woman cries.

Outside it is raining. A dog leashed to a lamppost begins to howl.

About the March Experiment

When pondering the affect of the extra day on my quest to write a million words in a year, I decided to see what 8 extra words a day really meant by writing a story in 8 word instalments over the month of March.

I set out with the intention to write with a blank slate each day. The first few days the idea of writing only eight words was full of possibility, and I played around with how much meaning you could pack into those words by referencing other works (see the first line of Gravity’s Rainbow, Neil Young’s ‘Ambulance Blues’) and using cliff-hanger endings (e.g. on the first day, there was an incidental reference to Blondie’s ‘Call Me (Theme from American Gigilo)’).

But after a few days, I realised I had to actually write a story, and without the ability to go back and change the foundations, I just had to forge ahead with this story of a screaming guy and sceptical onlookers.

And upon my return from Norway, I realised I had to wrap this thing up somehow.

I had to edit a bit as I went as I often slipped into past tense some days. And today I noticed when I exported the whole story into Word and did a wordcount, there were 250 words rather than 248 (31 x 8). So twice this month I screwed up the simple task of counting to eight… some accounting graduate, huh?

So I’ve gone back, identified the culprits, and massaged the text slightly so it’s 248 words.

I don’t think the story itself has much to redeem it besides the story behind the process. Like most experiments, it was more Learning Experience than Significant Achievement.

Ah well.

Time to come up with my next experiment.

I think it might have something to do with translation. Watch this space.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Status Report: Weeks Twelve and Thirteen

Based on my targets, I should be writing my 250,000th word on Tuesday 1 April.

Not likely.

[The usual slew of graphs and figures will follow, but permit me a few words to reassure myself.]

Four days in Norway put me behind the run rate for the first time, but that’s not the only reason I’m struggling at the mo.

The whole of March has, in fact, been a struggle. It’s no coincidence I started a new job at the beginning of the month, and am only now beginning to settle into a routine where I have the energy at the end of the day to write and write until I crack 3,000 words.

There’s also the general fatigue from having spent so long (91 days and counting) writing, thinking about writing, and obsessing about word counts. I would have given up long ago if it wasn’t for this blog—which is pretty much why I started it and why I mention it in all the bio notes I send to publications. I have to keep going, even if I fall horribly short, because giving up in March or May or even September looks bad to someone who googles “Craig Cliff” or “Bend Sinister Ekwilism”, or someone who reads ‘Copies’ in the Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 5 (forthcoming from Random House) and thinks, “I’d like to know more about this writer and his foolhardy quest,” -- and what they find is someone who gave up part way.

The statement at the top of this blog reveals the point of this project is not to write one million words (an arbitrary figure) but to see if it is possible. And behind all this is the fact that having a target will light the fire under me (and keep it stoked) so that I write every day, in a variety of moods, in a variety of styles (and with varying degrees of success).

I am soliloquising here. Permit me this To Write Or Not To Write moment.

It is okay to flail in 2008. To fall behind what is, I now know, a hellish pace for someone with a day job and a continent to explore, is sub-optimal, but it’s okay. My bio notes in 2009 can read: In 2008 Craig Cliff tried to write one million words, but only managed 850,633. If I give up now, there’s no way I’m going to mention a three month spurt where I wrote 238,697words.

This is not to say that I have resigned myself to falling short. I know that if I ever get the engine built for Novel B and place it on the tracks, I could crank out four to five thousand words a day. I also know that, thanks to my visa situation, there will be a month or two in the second half of the year where I will not be working. I’ll probably travel some, but I’ve learnt the value of a free day since late January, and I could make up some serious ground.

This quarter-quest crisis has helped to crystallise my real goals for the year. As mentioned above, the million words was a means to achieve other ends, though I wasn’t sure which ends I wanted to write when I devised the plan. I’ve shelved Novel A, but I have Novel B which is a total bitch to write at the moment, but I believe its worth the grief. I also think I can get a book of short stories together by the end of the year, with some serious revising, culling, and two or three new stories which strike me down in the middle of running a macro at work and appear magically a fortnight later in my “Short Story Collection” spreadsheet with the word “Completed” in the status column and highlighted yellow for inclusion in my collection (which I am calling Copies for now).

And who knows, maybe the seeds for Novel C are already sown…

Week Twelve and Thirteen – The Stats

Fortnightly word count: 25,280

Average: 1,806 words per day (compared to 2,417 in week eleven)

Most productive day: Tuesday 25 March, 3,576 words

Least productive day: Sat 22 and Sun 23 March, 8 words (noted in my journal for 8x31 story… to be completed tomorrow)

Year-to-date: 238,697

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Millennium People... shelved.

A footnote to my post on
audiobooks vs traditional books.

I started listening to J G Ballard's Millennium People, read by David Rintoul, today. I listened for 25 minutes as I walked to work and 25 minutes as I walked home.

Tomorrow I am going to listen to something else.

This will be the first time I will not listen to an entire audiobook (which I haven't already read or had insurmountable technical problems with).


It's nothing to do with J G Ballard (I felt the story had potential; the prose was assured) and everything to do with David Rintoul: the reader.

Here are the problems with his reading:

1) Entire sentences are often inaudible, while other chunks are indecipherably quiet. The volume I was listening on, my headphones, or external noises aren’t to blame - - I was fine hearing the normal parts, but for some reason, Rintoul uses the whisper-mumble for emphasis.

2) Speaking of emphasis, besides dropping the decibels, Rintoul does not vary his voice enough to be an engaging reader, which makes it hard to concentrate.

3) There is virtually no effort to distinguish the voices of different speakers in dialogue. This problem is exacerbated by Ballard's lack of dialogue tags (usually a plus in a written work). Again, it’s not Ballard’s fault, it’s Rintoul’s: the requirement to put on distinct (yet tolerable) voices to render a traditional book into a comprehensible series of sound files is one of the basic requirements of anyone voicing an audiobook.

I am still an big fan of audiobooks as a form of entertainment on the move (I still prefer books if I'm stationary) - but this experience does make me weary of ever purchasing an audiobook (rather than borrowing it from the library). So much is dependent on a reader (or a half decent reader), which you can't determine from a box of CDs on a shelf in Waterstones.

Digital downloads will eventually be the only way audiobooks are distributed, and I hope publishers are smart and make the first few tracks available to download for free to sample a) the story and b) the quality of the reader.

PS I’m still waiting for that invite to judge the Audies.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I'm back

Four days away from the computer has done wonders for the ol' motivation, but took a whack at the word counts. The buffer is now a deficit, meaning I am behind the eight ball for the first time this year. Just like how expensive every thing is in Norway, the best way to deal with this word count situation is not to think about it.

For this reason (and my own laziness) I'm going to roll the status report for weeks twelve and thirteen into one so you'll have to wait till Sunday to see how bad it really is (was).

For now, here's a holiday snap from Norway.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Got a million dollar bill but they can't change it

I’m still on my Warren Zevon earworm bender. One song in particular: ‘The Rosarita Beach Café.’

This song sat in a trunk in a storage space from about 1976 until Zevon’s son discovered it (and a hundred other recordings), and it was eventually released on last year’s Preludes – Rare and Unreleased Recordings compilation.

The song itself is a gem. The lyrics are in a similar vein to ‘Desperadoes Under The Eaves’ (drinker drinking in a bar, mordant sense of humour):

I've got a million dollar bill but they can't change it
And they won't let me leave until my tab is paid
So I might as well settle down
And buy the house another round
You can send my mail to the Rosarita Beach Café

I find it encouraging that this song sat in a trunk for thirty years.

Either it got forgotten or Zevon didn’t rate it.*** Either way, I love it, and this reminds me that with songs and short stories, taste is everything. An unconvinced creator can pull of song that others respond to. That story at the bottom of your desk drawer could strike a chord with someone if it ever made it into print (though this would require finding an editor with whom it strikes a chord…).

Back in June I gathered up all my finished short stories, including four that were at least three years old, edited them a little and sent them out to New Zealand and Australian literary journals before I switched hemispheres.

I think I liked these older stories well enough when I wrote them originally, then entered them in competitions in which they didn’t place, and I moved on.

It took The Big Move to make me send them out again.

So far, I’ve had two appear in print and one more is forthcoming. The fourth I never heard back from the Wellington-based journal that has a history of not responding to my submissions (they’ll never hear from me again). So, ignoring this last one, that’s a 100% success rate for stories I had effectively locked in a trunk and thrown into storage.

This post is in the interest of balancing out my last one where I complained about having written nothing in 200,000 words. There is a part of me (temporarily in ascendance) which believes all the stories I’ve worked on so far this year (guesstimate: eight) will have their day in the sun. But for now I’m back to Clydesdales.

A.K.A. the novel.

The problem with novels is an unconvinced writer can almost never produce a novel that strikes a chord with a half-decent reader.

A novel is like forcing a person to eat the same dish every day for a week. If there’s something slightly off, they might notice the first time, but it’s no biggie, they’re hungry and they come back the next day… but with every plate, the ‘off’ elements become more pronounced until that’s all they can taste.

That’s why I could only write bad things about The Gum Thief. The epistolary approach might have worked for those characters in a short piece, but being forced-fed their “letters” for 260 pages gave me indigestion.

Sorry, I’ll put that extended metaphor to bed now.

I don’t have much confidence in the two novels I have “in storage” ever making it into print and striking chords. Not in their current states.

And Novel B? I’m just diving back into it now, so thinking all these straight-backed thoughts about believing in your narrative is probably bad for the nerves, but it’s better to think about these things now than afterwards.

I’ll be taking a pen and paper with me to Norway over the long weekend to a) keep Novel B ticking over and b) avoid some goose eggs on the word count front.

No promises though. I hear it’s beautiful


***A third option exists. ‘Desperadoes Under The Eaves’ is actually an evolved form of ‘Rosarita Beach Café’. They are quite different, but so are a puffin and a stegosaurus.^^^

^^^Preludes does include an alternate version of ‘Desperadoes’ so maybe they were contemporaries: dinosaurs and crocodiles…

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Status Report: Week Eleven

So this week I cracked 200,000 words. This did not give me a sense of achievement or increase my happiness.


Where are these 200,000 words now?

A fair chunk are suspended in amber on this very blog. Occasionally someone will google “George Harrison All Things Must Pass” or “Rorschach Tests Steven Hall” and read something I threw words at. But.

I really really really want to dive back into a novel. Not Novel A. I’m done with that for now. I vow not to touch Novel A again in the 00’s.

[Serious Question: what will we call the decade 2010-2019? The Teens? No thanks. The person who comes up with the best alternative may just be suspended in amber on Wikipedia… I think this is something to aspire to.]

Which leaves Novel B. Or Novel C, which does not exist, even as an idea.

I watched ‘Awakenings’ (1990) on TV yesterday and it got me interested in Novel B again. There’s brain damage in Novel B, you see (but no parts for Robin Williams or Bob DeNiro).

I also read that Jermaine Clement wrote a cover blurb for Duncan Sarkies’ new book. This made me feel like writing a book was an okay thing to do in 2008


I find it hard to write long, continuous narratives while working a day job. My new job is good, relative to other day jobs I’ve had and could have, but still. Good jobs take more energy than bad jobs. I can’t think about brain damage and the Wellington Visual Arts scene while I’m occupied (damn occupations).

I admire writers like Nigel Cox who had day jobs and never begrudged the world for the financial realities of being a novelist. I don’t want to begrudge the world. I just want to write another novel. I don’t even care if it gets published (I don’t clench my teeth nearly as much now that I’ve let that balloon drift out of sight… Another balloon man will come in time).

I am a book-shaped person in a credit card sized world.

That’s all.

I am going to Norway for Easter. Before then I am going to get books by Oliver Sacks M.D. out of the library. After Norway, I am going to blog less, review less stories on Zoetrope, write less flash and short fiction, and work on Novel B.

For serious.

Week Eleven – The Stats

Weekly word count: 16,920 (lowest weekly haul to date)

Average: 2,417 words per day (compared to 2,662 last week)

Most productive day: Sunday 16 March, 4,254 words

Least productive day: Friday 14 March, 316 words (this is not a typo… work drinks etc)

Year-to-date: 213,417

Saturday, March 15, 2008


As if you haven't heard enough of me talking about music for one week (lifetime?)... But if you go to SwissToni's Blog you'll find my effort as guest editor of his Earworms of the Week feature.

I managed to not mention a single Tragically Hip song (having done so here), but couldn't exclude Warren Zevon as well.

I think April will be the month I get into classical music, just for something new to talk about. Any recommendations on where to start?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Uncovering the Secret to... Covers

Today I would like to talk about cover versions. Specifically covers recorded and released by artists, as opposed to covers performed live, which are slightly different beasts.

I’m not going to make a numbered list of my favourite covers because a) I change my mind every ten minutes and b) it’s been done a million times elsewhere. But for those wanting a list, this one of the100 best (courtesy of RetroCrush) is pretty good. I agree with Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’, CCR’s ‘Heard it Through The Grapevine’ and a Johnny Cash cover making the top ten, but Joe Cocker’s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ (8th) would be even higher on my list. There’s also a list of the 100 worst covers. All entertaining reading, but what is it with covers? Why do some work and some tank?

Here’s my thoughts.

There are two types of bad covers:

1. What’s The Point? covers (versions too close to the original); and

2. Just Plain Wrong covers (versions that sound like crap).

Both of these are subjective classifications, though the level of overlap (agreement) with the first is likely to be larger than with the second.

The rules for what (I think) makes a good cover are the inverse of what a bad cover is. A good cover has something new about it to justify its existence and works as a stand alone song (i.e. it sounds good).

The reason a good cover can sometimes be better than a good new song is the way it works on two levels – speaking back to the original while rocking your socks off in the present – while a new song is like a first line of dialogue. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to covers.

But even bad covers have their place, like tourists in your hometown: even if its just for those moments when you’re walking home and someone is taking a photo of a building you walk past everyday and this rekindles a little wonder in your environs.

A cover of any sort, good, bad, or forgettable, should at least make you think about the original. A What’s The Point? cover may sound the same as the original, but something will be lacking. What’s that something? Well, it’s whatever made that band special. Britney Spears’ cover of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ sounds quite similar to Joan Jett’s, but everyone knew Britney didn’t love Rock and Roll, whereas Ms. Jett pulled off her leathers with aplomb (minds out of the gutter, please) - - but of course the original was by The Arrows, which sounds a bit flat, revealing a) The Arrows weren’t cut out for rock and b) they still managed to write a great rock song.

A Just Plain Wrong Cover will remind you of the aural pleasure contained in the original. Compare and contrast Madonna and Don McLean’s versions of ‘American Pie’.

A good cover will always bring something out of the original version the next time you hear it. A great cover will show you things in a song you never knew were there.

But covers don’t just happen. An artist (or producer, or someone in the A&R chain) must select a song to cover from the millions available. The aim can vary: to make a hit; as a b-side to reward fans and attract trainspotters for particular artists; to mix things up on an album; to make link the cover artist and the original (or highlight the differences)… but there is always an aim. There are no accidental covers.

Which leads me to define the following cover categories:

1. Artist Covers a Well-Known Song by a Similar Artist
(similar could be in terms of style, genre, fame, or era)
Paul Weller covering Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ (Craig’s verdict: Great cover; sadly missing from the internet)
Flying Burrito Brothers covering The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ (Craig’s verdict: Passable cover)
Fastball covering Elvis Costello’s ‘Out of My Head’ (Craig’s verdict: Terrible cover –sounds just like Elvis Costello)

This first category is actually quite rare. I struggled to think of a terrible cover, a) because it’s hard to completely screw up a song similar to what you’re used to, and b) there aren’t that many. Most covers belong to this next category:

2. Artist Covers a Well-Known Song by a Dissimilar Artist
(again, difference could be in terms of style, genre, era, gender)
Sugababes covering the Artic Monkey’s ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ (Craig’s verdict: Great cover)
Chris Cornell covering Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ (Craig’s verdict: Passable cover)
Scissor Sisters covering Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Craig’s verdict: Terrible cover… why does it make so many Top Cover lists? Why?)

The reason most covers come from here is it’s easier to make the song your own if the original is nothing like your normal sort of music. But there’s also more potential for this to blow up in your face.

You could break this category in two if you wanted: pop artists covering songs with integrity and artists with integrity doing pop songs… but let’s just leave it there for now.

Sometimes a song will fall somewhere between categories 1 and 2, like The Futureheads’ cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ (Craig’s verdict: Great cover), which is a completely fresh angular rock take on an off-beat pop song, BUT you can still see some parallels between the Futureheads and Kate Bush as artists. This might actually fall into the next category for some people…

3. Artist Covers a Little-Known or Forgotten Song
This could be a forgotten album track by a well-known artists, or a song from a band that never quite broke into the mainstream or didn’t age well.
Gary Jules covering Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’ (Craig’s verdict: it was great cover until I got sick of it)
Wet Wet Wet covering the Troggs’ ‘Love Is All Around’ (Craig’s verdict: it was a passable cover until we all got sick of it)
Pearl Jam covering J. Frank Wilson’s ‘Last Kiss’ (Craig’s verdict: I have no idea how this song can be Pearl Jam’s biggest selling single… I could never stomach it).

This can be a trixy category to pull off, but when it works, the songs usually go stratospheric. These are the songs where you find out one day ten years later that they were covers. See also: Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’; Aretha Franklin’s ‘RESPECT’ and The Black Crowes’ ‘Hard To Handle (both originally by Otis Redding); Kylie’s ‘Locomotion’…

Sometimes the motivation of artists performing Type 3 covers can be genuine: trying to introduce listeners to bands they personally admire and their listeners might not have come across (e.g. Monster Magnet’s covers). But not often.

Flight of fancy: I think it would be cool to have a band which had a narrowly defined cover criteria, such as songs from albums which artists which have disowned (implicitly or explicitly). Might I suggest, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ from Pablo Honey, ‘Burnt’ from News and Tributes, and ‘One Night in Copenhagen’ from In Between Evolution.

Back to earth:

What all this categorisation illustrates, to me at least, is that intention is the most important factor when weighing up the value of a particular cover. I like the Sugababe’s pop-ing the heck out of the Arctic Monkey’s indie smash. I can’t stand Jessica Simpson pop-ing out all over what was essentially a novelty song for Nancy Sinatra.

Sometimes a cover can leave all the boxes unticked and still deliver. Warren Zevon’s cover of Bob Dylan’s covered-to-death ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ sounds superficially similar to other versions, but because he was literally knocking on heaven’s door when he selected this song and recorded it (for his final album, The Wind), it’s incredibly powerful. It is also a great compliment to Dylan that he could write the song to sum up this moment in another wonderful songwriter’s life when he was decades from death’s door (and writing for a movie soundtrack to boot) – this is that “speaking back to the original” thing I was talking about earlier.

Now compare Zevon’s version (sorry, this is the closest I can find) to Avril Lavigne’s. If you were to transcribe the music, or look at the graphs of the soundwaves, these songs would be very similar, but one is meaningless rubbish the other is Art. No prizes for guess which is which.

So, while I may not have given a numbered list today, I think I’ll end on some more recommended cover artists.

Johnny Cash – lots of people list ‘Hurt’ as a top cover (in the same vein as Zevon’s ‘Knocking’), but I think ‘Rusty Cage’ is cooler, and there are about fifteen other songs from his final years which meet my “good” cover criteria.

William Shatner – Some people can’t stand the fact he “ruined” (their words, not mine) ‘Common People’, but these people don’t have a sense of humour, which is something music in general needs more of.

The Foo Fighters – ‘Baker Street’, ‘Band on the Run’, ‘Down in the Park’… excellent song selection and enough new flavourings to satisfy this palate.

And my pick from left field:

Grand Funk Railroad - Would make it on the basis of their version of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ alone, but a surprising number of their other hits were covers too.

Okay campers, that’s all from me. Thanks for reading this mammoth post. I’ve enjoyed bringing it all together.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I read The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland last week and since then I have been toying with the idea of reviewing it. What use one more review, right? You can get more than you’d ever need by Googling Gum Thief Review.

And the thing with The Gum Thief is that Coupland has done everything already.

* Main characters telling stories within a broader narrative (e.g. Generation X)

* Multiple Perspectives (e.g. Hey Nostrodamus)

* Preoccupation with a looming apocalypse (e.g. Life After God)

* An essentially depressing narrative (e.g. Eleanor Rigby)

* All characters possessing the ability to riff on the flotsam of modern life (e.g. every book Douglas Coupland has ever written).

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like Douglas Coupland. His books took me by the scruff of the neck when I was a teenager and said, “Read more.” Actually, I think they said, “Books can be hip and contemporary, too,” and the “Read more,” was implied.

And I will no doubt read whatever he delivers next.


The only thing that’s really new here is the fact the novel is entirely epistolary (the instalments of the novel within the novel, Glove Pond, function in the same way as letters, both for the real reader and Bethany and DeeDee, the readers in the novel).

In the first twenty pages we read journal entries by Roger, a forty-something aisles associate at a Staples superstore; Roger-pretending-to-be-Bethany, a twenty-something colleague still clinging to her goth phase; and the real Bethany, who finds Roger’s journal and is disturbed and intrigued enough by its contents to reply.

This is the best part of the book. I was happy to suspend my disbelief at the premise (who writes journal entries with long swathes of dialogue?), and the riffs on identity, cloning, sorrow were fine with the promise of a story on the horizon.

Soon, Roger and Bethany and Roger’s schlocky novel Glove Pond are not enough to sustain this epistolary novel, so Bethany’s mother works her way into the letter-writing guild, along with Roger’s ex-wife, his daughter (only briefly), and even a marginal Staples worker (her letters aren’t addressed to any of the main characters so they shouldn’t really be allowed into the book…). And even then, the novel continues to wither away.

The problem with the form Coupland chose to tell this tale of “love and looming apocalypse in the aisles of an office-supply superstore” (from the back cover of the Bloomsbury edition I have in front of me) is that the reader is always held at one-remove from the characters. We are not privy to their thoughts, we are privy to their letters/creative writing written for someone else to read. When D.C. pushes too hard to open the characters up for the real readers, it exposes the contrivance of the structure. When he doesn’t push, real readers are cut of from mainstays of fiction like action, dialogue, tension, conflict, and any form of movement (in terms of character or plot).

So there it is. The only really new aspect of the book is its fatal flaw. That is, if we want to treat this as a novel. If we read it for riffs on McJobs and references to 11pm eBay spending sprees, it’s fine.

My suggestion: Douglas Coupland stops releasing a novel every 18 months, starts a blog where he can wow us with his riffs, and works on an original, fully-formed, novel to be released in 2018.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Status Report: Week Ten

Ten Weeks. My my.

I finished my awful six-week temp job last Friday and started a new six-month assignment on Monday. This one is far more taxing (but that wouldn’t be hard), and coupled with the fact I had a serious cold for most of the week, I’m happy to have knocked out as many words as I did. I’m not sure how I’m going to last another six months using my brain for 7+ hours at work, then doing another 4-5hours at home.

A week or two between jobs would have gone down a treat (I'm ready to crack on with Novel B, I think).

The buffer (i.e. the difference between my word count and the target word count based on an average 2,732 words per day) is still healthy, but four days in Norway over Easter will wipe that out. Those damn fjords better be worth it.

This million words thing is no doddle… I know that much after ten weeks.

Week Ten – The Stats

Weekly word count: 18,633

Average: 2,662 words per day (compared to 2,612 last week)

Most productive day: Thursday 6 March, 4,615 words

Least productive day: Wednesday 5 March, 1,371 words

Year-to-date: 196,497

The massive “other” wedge this week consists of words spent reviewing other people’s writing (on Zoetrope and people in my writing group), creating the site for Xyzphage, and the usual smattering of emails worthy of historical preservation by my esteemed biographer(s).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Orbital Resonance

About three weeks ago I mentioned something I was calling ‘Orbital Resonance.’ At the time I think I called it a love letter to Wikipedia. Well, I’ve made it into a kind of ouroboros e-book for your reading pleasure.

Read it: Orbital Resonance c/o Xyzphage

The Xyzphage thing will make sense once you read part three of ‘Orbital Resonance.’

It’s pretty much all tongue-in-cheek, especially the hyperlinking.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes stand back from the e-book and think: Wow! this is like a hypertext Pale Fire meets Cloud Atlas.

Actually, that was tongue-in-cheek also.

Happy reading.

{{If you like it, spam your friends. If you hate it, spam your enemies.}}

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Shameless Self-promotion

I have two (2) stories in Etchings 4, which is out now. My contributor's copy is currently somewhere between Melbourne and Edinburgh, but cool people would click here to buy a copy or subscribe, because any journal with 2 stories by Craig Cliff and an essay by Robert Dessaix has to be good...

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Futureheads @ Liquid Room, Edinburgh

The Futureheads, w/ The Dials, The Ads, 2 March 08

The Liquid Room was already pretty crowded when the Dials, a young power-pop trio from Edinburgh, started. Okay, so it doesn’t take a lot to crowd the Liquid Room, but it was a Sunday night.

As the first of two opening bands, The Dials did a good job. I’m listening to their songs on myspace now, and I have to say, they sounded better live. Still a long way to go, but they’re young. Give ‘em time.

Next up were The Ads from Glasgow. There was something off with the mix (someone behind me said the bass was too loud, but I’m not sure). Even so, they have some songs, those boys. The highlight was a new song which may or may not have been called ‘And so I know’, a.k.a. ‘the one where Kenny played the keyboard.’

[I hope the pen in Kenny’s shirt pocket was there because he writes a lot of things down, rather than a kind of nerd-rock affectation.]

If this were a Friday or a Saturday night, the gig thus far could have stood alone and we would have happily sprawled out onto the Cowgate for some serious drinking… but we weren’t out for a good time, we were out for The Futureheads.

Thankfully the two (Good time/Futureheads) are not mutually exclusive. They opened with ‘Decent Days and Nights’ and proceeded to mostly play songs off their first album (‘A to B’, ‘Carnival Kids’, ‘Man Ray’…) and tracks from their forthcoming, This is not the World (‘The Girl with the Radio Heart’, ‘Hard to Bear’, ‘This is not the World’…).

By my count, they only played two songs (‘Yes/No’ and ‘Skip to the end’) from 2006’s News and Tributes, which, admittedly, was more downbeat than their joyous debut, but still had some good tracks—‘Burnt’ and ‘Fallout’ would not have been out of place last night. I think Barry said it all when he introduced ‘Yes/No’: “This is a song from our second album. That is, the one none of you have heard.” It’s not so much that the crowd didn’t know it (they were singing along to ‘Area’ from an EP I’m sure would have sold less than their second LP) but that the band took News and Tributes’ cooler reception to heart.

Which brings us to their new songs, which are not simply a return to the angular guitars and four-part melodies of The Futureheads. The first two singles, ‘Broke Up The Times’ and ‘Beginning of the Twist’ are indicative of the harder, straighter punk-rock of the Futureheads circa 2008. They are good songs, but sandwiched by classics like ‘Hounds of Love’ (introduced as “a cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’”), and ‘Meantime’ (a better live song than on record) they are just that notch below (despite being that notch louder).

It didn’t help that on ‘Beginning of the Twist’, which was being recorded for release as an mp3 download on March 8 (which I pre-ordered with my tickets), Barry’s guitar died and afterwards Jaff confessed to completely screwing the song up.

And these were not the gig’s only technical difficulties—the way the band handled them however, with a mix of humour and self-deprecation, only added to the show.

It wasn’t a perfect set, or a perfect set-list (for this audience member), but it was easily eight guitars out of ten. I know this is what I gave Nada Surf last week, and it’s true that I enjoyed the Futureheads more, but like I said the first time, you can’t play half a guitar. When I see a nine or ten guitar gig, you’ll know it was truly great.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Status Report: Week Nine

Just a brief one this week as I’m on my way out the door to catch The Futureheads at the Liquid Room. Expect a review soonish.

Week Nine – The Stats

Weekly word count: 18,284 words (lowest weekly count so far)

Average: 2,612 words per day (compared to 2,860 last week)

Most productive day: Saturday 1 March, 5,070 words

Least productive day: Friday 29 Feb, 2,003 words

Year-to-date: 177,864

Words Remaining:

Days in hand: 304

Required Word Rate: 2,704 words/day or 1.87 words a minute every minute for the rest of the year.

Those last three cricket inspired categories have done my head in. I much prefer looking at graphs:

Saturday, March 1, 2008

'Untitled (Crimson and Gold)': The Process

The one thing I think that sets this blog apart from every other blog I’ve come across (due to the vastness of the blogosphere—hideous word BTW—I’m probably not alone, I just think I am) is that I try to open up my writing process for outsiders to observe. There’s my weekly stat and sanity checks (which are less to do with process than progress), my thoughts on books and music (two key natural resources for the production of my Fiction McNuggets) and, occasionally, I open up my notebooks or my W.I.P. folder and reveal the Wizard is just a man pulling knobs and twirling cranks behind a curtain.

Today I am going to walk you through the unique process I underwent for my latest short story, ‘Untitled (Crimson and Gold)’. It’s only wee (1,400 words) which should help this discussion no end. It also means I only went through two drafts, one on the seventh of February and one today on the first of March.

But before the drafts, there was an idea. I said this was a unique process, and this is because the idea was not mine. When I woke on the fifth of February 2008, I had an email from a friend in New Zealand called Laura, which, among other things, said:

it occurred to me today that if i could write, i'd write a short story about a girl who has never picked up a hitchhiker due to the horror stories about crazy psychokillers, but on a whim when she's having a good day decides to pick one up, and then kills him in a car accident.

What immediately got me thinking was not the hitch-hiker idea but the “if I could write, I’d write X.” A lot of people think they have a book in them, and keep their good ideas mum in the hopes that they will one day sit down and write. A much smaller percentage actually make it to the end of their book. A smaller percentage still will actually get that book into print. Rather than try to discourage this anti-social, anti-commercial impulse, I think everyone should try and write their story. But I also believe, with all the potholes a beginner writer must face, it’s a good idea to get people to think about certain things before they put fingers to keypad.

[I hope this blog functions in a similar way. Not that I have much to prove I have left the realms of the beginner after my seven years of writing…]

So my reply to Laura laid bare the thoughts which ran through my head as I considered how to write the story of her hitch-hiker idea.

If I were to write the 'girl who kills her first hitchhiker in an accident' story, I would have to call her Laura…

The story would probably do something else for the first few pages, probably Laura having hilarious relationship problems or feuding with her parents, which would precipitate her getting on the road and having that whim to pick up a hitchhiker. The story would be between 2500 and 4000 words. The crash would occupy only the last 500 or so words.

Alternately, the story could start with the hitchhiker in the car and be dialogue heavy. The hitchhiker would do most of the talking, initially, which makes Laura uneasy, but then sets her at ease. She confides in her passenger that it is her first time picking up a hitchhiker. She explains what precipitated her decision. There would be a hint of a love connection, of a serendipitous bringing-together, and then the car would smash into something.

Or, the story could mostly be about the aftermath of the accident. Some people would like this story for its psychological realism. But the irony of killing the hitchhiker would mostly be lost, like starting a joke with the punchline.

The hardest part with the story would be the ending. Knowing when to stop, and getting the right mix between irony/twist/punchline pay-off, and the sense that this is just a slice of Laura's life which will continue on and she was not just created for the duration of the story.

The story would probably be in third person in order to suppress elements of Laura's guilt which would realistically creep into her first person narration before the crash and spoil the twist…

To which Laura replied:

…I found your comment about 1st vs 3rd person really interesting. I guess it never quite occurred to me that when you write a character they are such a real person to you that their thoughts… could shine through without you necessarily intending them to.

Anyway, that's all really interesting - and if you do seriously want to do anything further with it, then absolutely, it's all yours.

She actually gave me permission to write the story twice in her email… so of course, the days later when I stalled at 1,700 words for the day, I opened a new Word document and started typing.

The day Laura killed the hitchhiker began like so many other days that month. An argument with her partner – and one time fiancée – Otto. “You are the least German Otto in the world,” Laura had yelled at him once, to which he had replied, “Entschuldigung.

That German thing looked set to derail the whole story, so I quickly switched to the Laura fighting with her parents lead-in:

The day Laura killed the hitchhiker began like so many other days that month. Since she had moved back home her parents had slipped into the habit of popping into her bedroom to say goodbye before they left for work, but couldn’t leave it at that [clumsy sentence!]. Her father had popped in first this particular morning 7:15am, and said, “Good luck with the job hunt, sweetie.” She had covered her head with a pillow. She then felt the side of her bed sink as her father sat down, placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “I’m sure today’s the day.”

That didn’t really do it for me either. I switched back to the fighting with her partner, changed his name to Guy, and managed to get all the way to when she picks up the hitch-hiker before throwing my hands up and saying, “It just won’t work.”

Sometimes you have to write 948 to find out you can’t pull something off.

And so the file entitled “Laura killing hitchhiker 7 Feb 08” sat in my short stories folder untouched until today.

Had I thought about this story over the intervening three weeks? A bit. I must have been thinking of it yesterday, because I realised I could combine it with another idea, which again did not come from my own experience.

At some stage during the week 11-17 Feb, Marisa came home and told me the story about a woman breaking bottles of wine in the supermarket and just walking away (I noted down this idea on the notebook page which appears here).

Yesterday I thought: maybe the character of Laura I built up in the hitch-hiker story (whom I liked as a character) could be transplanted into in this wine smashing story as the observing narrator.

So today, after writing 500 words in five hours on my novella (working title: Fat Camp), I opened “Laura killing hitchhiker 7 Feb 08.”

I read through what I’d written. Scrolled back up to before she picks up the hitch-hiker and thought, “Right, so now she just goes to the supermarket?”

Part of me believes you should always start a rewrite from scratch. Especially if you’re doing an overhaul of the magnitude of this one (same character, different story). But I never listen to this part of me. This leads to a lot of contrivance and wasted energy, but sometimes it leads me to a third alternative.

Looking at this hitch-hiker story and this (unwritten) wine smashing story, I realised neither were strong enough to stand alone and yet they seemed to be speaking to each other. There would be smashes in both stories. In one, Laura acts when she wouldn’t normally and has an accident. In the other, Laura observes another’s accident, but this person doesn’t seem affected by her misstep. It was this gap, this yawning guilt-gap, between the two stories that told me I could write these stories as one.

I started with Laura in first person (the hitch-hiker story was in third person) talking about guilt and leading in to the supermarket scene. Then I looked back at the third person story and thought a lot of the humour would be sucked out in first person, and went through it imagining it was Laura writing in third person as a kind of therapy.

And so I came up with the new first lines:

It’s okay to attribute your memories to other people. To talk of your past in the third person. It’s healthier than not talking about it all. This is what Dr. X says.

I’ve already used the ‘first person quoting a therapist/grief counsellor in the first paragraph’ technique (in ‘Copies’, forthcoming in The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 5), but that was actually a positive because in the short story collection I’m bringing together, the idea of copies (!) and imperfect repetition plays out within and across the stories. So two therapists? Bring it on.

This essay on the process of writing ‘Untitled (Crimson and Gold)’ is already longer than the story itself (I blame all those emails in block quotes), but I should probably talk about the last key element of the composition which ties together the title and the final image of a roll of paper towels in the middle of a puddle of red and white wine. When I came to name Laura’s therapist, the first name that came into my head was Dr. Rothko, which sent Laura, our 1st person narrator, off on a run about her doubts about a shrink with the same name as the artist behind “all those depressing colour field paintings” (her words) who eventually killed himself. To fill out the detail of this run, I needed some typically vague Rothko titles and ended up here. I inserted, “with titles like 1957 #2 and Untitled (Blue, Green and Brown),” into the story, but was actually more arrested by this painting:

White Center, Mark Rothko, 1950. (Entschuldigung if I’m annoying anyone by posting this reproduction without permission… it stays till I get told off).

Okay, so it’s more pink and orange rather than crimson and gold (I’m aware of the Tommy James/Joan Jett/Jimmy Eat World echo), but if and when you read the story it should rings some bells.

Speaking of “if and when”, most publications get shirty if stories have appeared anywhere online before, blogs included, so I’ll try eek a publication credit out of Laura and Marisa’s ideas (and my elbow grease) then post the link on this blog. Deal? Check back in 6-12 months.

[This essay: 1,836 words. The actual story: 1,418]