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, May 29, 2008

The Shame of Naming

The time has come to think about a title for my short story collection. To the right you will find a poll. These are five titles that make some sense to me. The three with asterisks double as titles of stories in the collection. I'm not going to explain what each title means, or how it fits with the rest of the collection - this is just to gauge reactions on first blush. A bit of fun, that's all.

Until now, I've never had to come up with an umbrella title. When I did my MA, I wrote a novel, and I had the title from early on. Even when questions were raised about the title and I went looking for something better, I only had to think about the one story (a long, complicated one, but one story nonetheless).

But there were others in my class writing short story and poetry collections, and I remember well the time toward the end of the year when they were all furiously trying out titles for their manuscripts. In workshops, others would have their say, and I certainly offered a few potential titles, argued for and against some alternatives - but it was different then. I hadn't written the poems or stories. I wasn't clouded by parental attachments.

But now, as I play around with which stories make the cut, and the order those that make it will appear in the manuscript, I have a serious perspective problem.

I've leant towards a different title each of the last four days. Tomorrow I will think of something new, and convince myself it works with all the stories. But that's the thing: with a collection of twenty stories (with another ten sitting on the sidelines should they be a better fit with the new title...) you can usually find enough evidence of any theme.

For example, I'll just turn on the news and see what they're talking about... Golf. Okay, well there's a reference to golf in this story, and I could be smart and have eighteen stories to represent the eighteen holes of a golf course, and order the stories like a good course: opening with a straight-ahead par four (4,000 words), then a dog-leg par four (a story with a sudden change of focus or direction), a sprinkling of par threes (2,000-3,000 words) and rounding out the front nine with a massive par five (12,000 words)... I'd probably need to write a story explicitly about golf to open or close the collection, but I sit down and write every evening, I should be able to knock something decent out in a fortnight...

That's what it's like in my head at the moment. Not that you'll be seeing Love on the Links and other stories by Craig Cliff in any book store soon.

It's almost a shame to have to name the thing at all. No name will tick every box without setting of some unintended firework halfway through story and ruin the spectacle of the end. I can almost understand how bands come to release self-titled début albums.


I'm not about to do a Michael Martone, though.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Kink in the Armour

On Friday Marisa and I watched The Darjeeling Limited on DVD. It was okay.

I think I belong to the uncool crowd, in that I think The Life Aquatic was Wes Anderson’s best film (rather than Rushmore). Despite a high quirk-quotient in Darjeeling, the film felt like Anderson was rounding back to themes already covered in The Royal Tenenbaums and even Bottle Rocket.

But the one thing you can count on in a Wes Anderson film is a great soundtrack. Unlike Anderson’s first four films, Darjeeling wasn’t scored by Mark Mothersbaugh (who some might know of as the dude from Devo), but from the opening scene (Adrian Brody running to board the eponymous train) the music is a perfect fit.

The song is ‘This Time Tomorrow’ by the Kinks, who I liked to think were one of my favourite bands… but I had never heard this song before. Two more songs, ‘Strangers’ and ‘Powerman’ from the same album, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970), feature in the film.

As the final credits of Darjeeling rolled, I was thinking about The Kinks more than the film or Wes Anderson. How I only owned three discs worth of “Greatest Hits” material, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968). I did borrow their first three albums from my local library for a week a few years ago… but this is a band that released 23 albums. A back of the envelope calculation reveals, as of Friday, I had not heard approximately 300 songs by “one of my favourite bands.”

I am in the process of rectifying the situation. I’ve started with Lola Versus Powerman… and Arthur (1969). [I suspect I’ll have to download some of the later albums as they’re rarely on the shelves at the local CD store.]

So, as with Warren Zevon and the Tragically Hip, prepare for a lot of Kinks references over the next few months.

But on Lola Versus Powerman… : it’s a great listen! The three tracks featured in Darjeeling are great (‘This Time Tomorrow’ has shot to five stars on iTunes after 3 listens), but you can add ‘A Long Way From Home’ and ‘Get Back In Line’ to the list of ‘greats’. The big song on the album, ‘Lola’, is actually a sore thumb, not really jiving with the rest of the album, which can be broadly called “media industry satire.” Sometimes the satire usurps the song, like in ‘Moneygoround’, but that’s something I already knew about Ray Davies as a songwriter.

I suspect when I get familiar with this album and the lyrics start to sink in, the bitterness that is in 90% of Davies’ songs will rise to an uncomfortable level. Just like in his semi-autobiography, X-Ray.

But ultimately, this is a band that produced flawless rock songs like ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day and All of the Night’; flawless songs full-stop like ‘Days’; and ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and great satire like ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Plastic Man’.

If the unheard gems on Lola Versus Powerman… are anything to go by, I should find another fifty favourite Kinks songs as I do the discography.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Status Report: Week Twenty-One

Bit a strange week this week. I broke a tooth at an All You Can Eat Mussels evening at my local French Restaurant (it’s so local, it shares a wall with our flat). Quite how you break a tooth on mussels, without eating the shells, I’m not sure. I think it was the crusty bread that did it, though I didn’t notice till later.

I was already booked in for the dentist at the start of June, but because it will be my first visit, I’m not officially a register patient of that practise, so I can’t jump the queue. There is an emergency dentist, but it’s only a week to go now till my appointment, and it doesn’t hurt. But it’s just strange to have a hole in one of my molars. My tongue keeps forgetting and getting surprised and fascinated by the new topography of my mouth.

Then there’s this weekend, which is a long one thanks to the bank holiday tomorrow. We were supposed to go away, at one stage it was Budapest, then Dublin, then Manchester, but nothing ever panned out and we decided to be tourists from home. So yesterday (Saturday) we went to Rosslyn Chapel, which I had avoided till now because I imagined it would be full of Dan Brown fans. It was actually the urging of my Scottish flatmate that Marisa and I finally caught the bus down there, and he hates Dan Brown. It was interesting for sure, but kind of sad too. The whole chapel is full of sandstone carvings (they make a big deal of the “Bible in Stone” appellation in the brochure and information boards around the chapel) constructed in the 15th Century, but in the 1950s everything was covered in a fine layer of cement to protect the carvings. Apart from the fact it has lessened the detail of the more intricate pieces, and turned the chapel’s interior from pinkish red to dull grey, the cement trapped all the moisture inside the chapel’s walls and in the 80’s it came close to falling down. Steps have been taken to right the mistakes make in the 50’s (the canopy constructed to dry the chapel out comes of in 2 years, then the cement will be removed), but it strikes me as just another well intended fuck-up from the twentieth century.

Sorry, I’ve gone off track a bit.

Today we went to Cramond, which is still pretty much a suburb of Edinburgh, but it’s on the Firth of Forth. We walked out to an island at low tide (there’s a concrete path, but I left it in pursuit of a photo and lost a shoe in the mud), then walked/hobbled along the coast a few miles to Granton, then caught the bus home.

Tomorrow we’re going to St. Andrews.

The upshot of all this travelling from home is that we get see feel touristy and blow out some work-work-work cobwebs, but have the bonus of sleeping in our own bed (and all the money that saves). The bonus-bonus is that I’ve still had a few hours each evening to write. It’s not deficit-decimating, but it’s a damn sight better than the goose eggs I’d be producing in Budapest.

So, prepare yourself for some underwhelming stats…

Week Twenty-One – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 15,935 words (compared to 22,455 words last week)

Average: 2,276 words per day

Most productive day: Friday 23 May, 2,833 words

Least productive day: Monday 19 May, 1,230 words

Year-to-date: 381,475 words (17,432 words behind target)

Adjusted required daily word count: 2,811 (so a slack week has added 16 words per day)

I said at the start it has been a strange week, well, having just compiled the above, I have no recall of Monday and why I only wrote 1,230 words. Sadly, I only noted down “excuses” for that one week last month.

I blame work.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"...and Grace too" : How Grown Up Songs Make Me Behave Like A Teenager

Today is the final matchup of the Hip64 tournament for 2008.

Emperor PenguinversusGrace Too’.

What exactly is the Hip64 tournament? I hear you ask.

64 songs started out two months ago and rounds of head-to-head voting have whittled them down until there is only two. Tomorrow there will only be one.

Last year (the first year the Hip64 was run) the winner/survivor was ‘Nautical Disaster’, which I blogged about in February.

Sure, it’s geeky, artificial, solipsistic, and probably pointless in the greater scheme of things (though if it makes the Hip play Emperor Penguin live more often, it will have made the world better place)… but it has been fun.

I voted for Grace Too, by the way. It might not be my favourite Hip song at the moment, but it was the first song I heard on the first Hip album I listened to, and I knew after sixty seconds that this would be the beginning of a beautiful thing.

Being marooned in NZ, then Australia, as I discovered the Hip (who themselves are marooned – the only place they are “big” is their native Canada) meant I developed attachments to songs based purely on the songs. I didn’t know which tracks were released as singles, which ones were played to death on Can Rock stations, which ones were mainstays of their live show -- I didn’t even know which of the faces from the album covers actually played which instruments.

Looking back, I could have found all of this out on the internet (as I have subsequently), but back in my first 24 months as a Hip fan, there were still albums to buy off eBay, still new songs to discover and absorb – this other information wasn’t necessary.

And one could argue that it isn’t necessary to ever know anything about who makes the music you like, or what other people think about it. Just as you don’t need to know what an author looks like, or what a politician does behind closed doors.

Those who take the pursuit of secondary information about an artist to the extreme – let’s call them superfans – always seem immature. Adolescent. Even when it’s with obsessing about Chopin or Proust.

But to ignore all the other factors at play and just listen to the music – that too seems like adolescent behaviour. A failure to grasp the whole. It speaks to a more innocent time when all you knew about the Beach Boys was the tape your parents played whenever you went on a long drive.

Somehow I have gone from innocence to superfandom with the Tragically Hip. My response has been, and will remain, adolescent, even when I go ahead and analyse a song with a serious expression on my face...

[I’d actually never seen the video until today. It’s not very interesting, but at least it doesn’t bombard you with unnecessary secondary information, eh?]

As I type this it looks like it will win the Hip64 2008, but to look at the lyrics, the song seems thin and insubstantial. Aside from the epigrammatical “The rules of engagement are hard to endorse / When the appearance of conflict meets the appearance of force,” the song looks like a dialogue between two people.

He said I’m fabulously rich
C’mon just let’s go
She kind of bit her lip
Geez, I don’t know

But when I began my relationship with this song, I was not reading the lyrics, I was listening to the song. The 45 second intro is a great album opener (and live opener) but foremost it leads the listener into the sort of world where someone could say, “I’m fabulously rich. C’mon just let’s go.”

The dialogue is highly stylised (who would ever profess to being armed “with skill and its frustration” in real life), but embedded in this song, in this aural template, it works.

The one area where reading the lyrics mirrors the experience of listening to the song is the confusion of who says what. Just as there are no speech marks on the liner notes, there’s only one voice (Gordon Downie’s) on the track. Downie doesn’t make a point of differentiating the speakers because a) this is mid-nineties rock not Queen at it’s campest and b) it isn’t supposed to be clear cut.

The opaqueness of the lyrics means that it takes several listens for the scene in the song to congeal, but also that you could listen to this song forever and not be entirely sure of your footing.

Here is my reading of the scene. There is a man, probably a pimp or a wannabe pimp, who is trying to coerce a girl into doing something (a life of prostitution or a one off? with the fabulous rich man or one of his clients?).

But, if you attribute everything from, “Geez, I don’t know,” onwards to the girl, the scene is more like: rich guy propositions prostitute, she plays coy for a moment, then talks shop.

Either way, this seedy, cinematic tale is the perfect opener to an album (Day For Night, 1994) which is full of film references (including the album’s title) and dripping with that other cinematic term: noir.

It was Hunter S. Thompson, I believe, who coined the term Song Noir, and this is as apt a term as any for ‘Grace Too’ and it’s Day For Night brethren.*

Thompson was actually referring to the songs of Warren Zevon when he came up with song noir, and there is one particular Zevon song with which Grace Too shares some striking similarities.

In ‘French Inhaler’ the woman is a wannabe actress, and the persona Zevon adopts for the song suggests the actress will have to put herself “up for sale” to “make her way in the world.”

Basically: another case of a man trying to cash in on the sexuality of a woman. Or perhaps: a man seeing the cash value of a woman’s sexuality.

In terms of lyrics, ‘French Inhaler’ is a longer, more complete song than ‘Grace Too’. Whereas the Hip’s song is essentially two repeated sections of eleven lines each (the last seven lines of each section being virtually identical), Zevon’s song sets its scene, builds to a climax (“When the lights came up at two / I caught a glimpse of you…”), and even has a kind of dénouement (“She said, ‘So long, Norman’…”).

I am not going to take a (maple) leaf out of the Hip64 tournament’s playbook and vote for which is the better song: ‘Grace Too’ or ‘French Inhaler’. What I’m interested in is this concept of song noir. And that two of my favourite songs feature men trying to turn women into whores - - What does that say about me?

Well, um, back to the song noir thing: the appeal of darker, more twisted songs is in no small way related to the alternative on offer in the mainstream. When Zevon wrote ‘French Inhaler’ the kids were lapping up Abba and Chicago. When the Hip released Day for Night the grunge flare up had already made its way to the mainstream (flannel shirts in JC Penny’s etc) and the two biggest selling singles of the year were from movie soundtracks. As I type about these songs, the video playing on The Hits (UK Freeview Musioc Channel) is September ‘Cry For You’ (I’m not sure if I got the artist and song title the right way around and will be damned if I’m going to look this up).

Sexuality has never been more pronounced in popular music, but it also has never been more adolescent. Music videos are the same kind of ‘You can look but not touch’ as being a geeky kid at high school and ogling the pretty girls. Quote-unquote love songs in popular music rarely strive for more than a memorable hook (2008’s biggest selling example: ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis).

It is with all this noise in the background that one stumbles across a ‘Grace Too’ or a ‘French Inhaler’: songs which deal with love, sexuality, or mortality in adult ways. ‘Adult’ here doesn’t mean right, or even clear-cut, just as being an adult doesn’t give you all the answers. Adult just means something you probably weren’t interested in when you had bad acne. I can’t speak from everyone, but when I was fourteen, putting myself in Zevon’s shoes was beyond my ken.

I touched on this distinction between adolescent and adult themes with reference to Monster Magnet, a band whose songs oscillate between the two worlds. As I drill ever deeper into my musical tastes, and their evolution, I always seem to strike this adolescent/adult vein…

Which brings me back to the Hip64. There may be intellectual reasons why I the Tragically Hips’ songs, but the reason I love them, and constantly return to them, goes beyond the intellect - - or more correctly, kicks in before the intellect even gets a chance. The themes of ‘Grace Too’ may resonate because they speak about something that is elsewhere unspoken, but they ultimately lead me back to the form of adolescence that is fandom.

*Appendix: An incomplete list of noir-ish elements in Day For Night

@ The pessimistic coda of Daredevil: “And the real wonder of the world is that we don’t jump too.”

@ “Greasy jungle, metropolis noir,” and the ensuing song about a grieving friend in ‘Greasy Jungle’

@ Again, the whole of ‘Yawning or Snarling’, which features the line “Night time when the shadows cough”

@ “Just then a stripper stopped in a coughing fit / She said sorry I can’t go on with this” (‘So Hard Done By’)

@ “Everyone's got their breaking point / With me it's spiders and with you it's me” – the first lines of ‘Thugs’ which are taken straight from a film called "The People That Time Forgot"

@ The nautical disaster in, uh, ‘Nautical Disaster’, and it’s echo in ‘Scared’: “Defanged destroyer limps into the bay / Down at the beach it's attracting quite a crowd / As kids wade through blood out to it to play.”

@ ‘Emergency’ and its scungy diner scene: “We're sitting in the Baby Bar bereft / at a shadowy table out past the sentence’s end.”

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Status Report: Week Twenty

Week Twenty – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 22,455 words

Average: 3,208 words per day

Most productive day: Today (Sunday 18 May), 4,545 words

Least productive day: Wednesday 14 May, 2,485 words

Year-to-date: 365,540 words (14,241 words behind target)

Adjusted required daily word count: 2,795

Verdict: doable

Managed to shave a day’s worth of writing off the deficit this week, thanks to some pretty ruthless revision on my short stories (I’m a few weeks away from spruiking my collection to publishers) and feeling my way back into Novel A, which I’ve spoken about too much already.

That was a long sentence.

Word I’ve Known For Quite Some Time, But Am Yet To Hear Anyone Else Say

Bouleversement n.:
Complete overthrow; a reversal; a turning upside down.
(Literal French translation: ball rolling over)

How you might use this word in a sentence if you were F. Scott Fitzgerald:

For the second time in his life Amory had had a complete bouleversement and was hurrying into line with his generation. (This Side of Paradise)

Modern equivalent: backflip (I guess).

But backflip (the sound and the manoeuvre) is too angular for the process of gradual but significant overturning. Bouleversement (\bool-vair-suh-MAWN\) is more rounded; the image of a ball (or planet) rolling over more apt for what I touched on in last Sunday’s Status Report. My bouleversement on Novel A.

In that post I discussed my waning enthusiasm for Novel B and alluded to my preference for the kind of fiction Novel A aspires to, but I omitted one important, specific point.

Here’s that point:

The book I had been listening to on my iPod was Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), as read by Rupert Degas. In January/February this year I listened to Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1997), which I blogged about here.

From the first words of A Wild Sheep Chase the similarities to the later novel started to spring forth. Both novels have a male, late 20’s/early 30’s, passive, detatched (etc etc) first person narrator. The voice of narrator—his way with words, the way he manoeuvres through a story—was almost identical in these early passages. I thought perhaps this was due to the same person, Rupert Degas, reading both audiobooks. This may have alerted me to the similarities sooner, and underlined them, but it was not the ultimate source of the similarities. Perhaps, if it were just the voice of the narrator, I could also point a finger at the translator, Jay Rubin, but it was not just the voice of the narrator, it was his character. And the similarities between the books did not end with the narrator. Oh no. That was only the beginning.

Structure: Sheep Chase evolves into a quest for a) a strange looking sheep with a star on its backside, b) understanding what lies behind the quest itself and c) understanding what lies behind life itself. Wind-up Bird is a series of quests (finding a lost cat, discovering why his wife left him…), each one supplanting by something bigger, until the quest is, once again, to attain understanding.

Characters: the narrator’s unnamed girlfriend with the magic ears is split in two in Wind-up Bird to become Malta and Creta Kano; the boss with psychic/supernatural powers becomes the Okada’s brother-in-law Noboru Wataya.

Style: There are chapters in both books in the form of letters from other characters to the narrator (the Rat, Mei Kasahara); historical information/anecdote is crowbarred into both contemporary narratives (both books feature the Manchukuo episode in WWII).

Minutiae: in Sheep Chase the narrator describes a bird’s call as being like the winding of a watch spring, and darkness as like “the bottom of a well”.

It was sort of fun to find these parallels, but a ‘sort of fun’ game is not enough to usher me towards a bouleversement.

Wind-up Bird is more than twice as long as Sheep Chase, and is more than twice as good… No surprise given Murakami had fifteen or so years to think about the re-imagined passive divorcee on a reluctant quest story, and the lessons learnt writing four more novels before Wind-up Bird (one of which, Dance Dance Dance, was a non-contiguous sequel to Sheep Chase).

This was the important thing for me. That Murakami essentially rewrote a story because he knew it could be done better. No matter that the first book was already out there and people could accuse him over going over the same ground.

Perhaps it was all the similarities I was finding while listening to Sheep Chase, but it only seemed natural to look at what Murakami did and compare that with my situation. I had a manuscript which garnered me praise from agents and publishers like, “I really like Craig Cliff’s brain” and “terrific set pieces”, but these were the blow-softeners for the inevitable, “Who would buy this book?”, “I don’t know how to cope with this book”, “it never quite came to life for me as a novel.”

[These are all exact quotations. I’m not one to burn a rejection letter.]

When I tried rewriting in late 2007, I changed the setting and re-focused the narrative, but it there was still something off. I had that sinking feeling that I was throwing bad money after good (or should that be the other way around?): the changes I was making would not make it a sellable proposition.

So I stopped working on it.

The more time that passed, the better I was able to align the flaws I saw in the novel with the problems important publishing people had with it.

Then I had an idea for a story that bore some striking resemblances to my shelved, semi-butchered, manuscript. It was the same, but different. But I was afraid to go back there because I had roped that whole mental area off with Danger Keep Out tape.

Seeing Murakami write the same novel, but different, gave me the kick up the bum I needed to return to Novel A. I haven’t left it fifteen years and written four novels in between like Murakami, but I think I’m a smarter writer now than I was fifteen months ago.

And my other learnings from the last few months (my heart isn’t in cut-and-dry realism; I can write 3,000 words a day if the planets align) help set the ball rolling over.

So here I am. At the beginning of a new Novel A. I have the advantage that my Wild Sheep Chase was not published, so I can borrow liberally from it and no one (except my gran and my girlfriend) will call me out for being a dried up hack.

But I am changing most of the character’s names, if only to convince myself that they are different and this is a different story.

And I’m on the look out for a snazzy working title. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the book. Just something I can name the folder in which I save everything related to the novel.

I can’t believe I said “snazzy”. I sound like a drunk version of my mum. It must be time for bed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Fern and The Thistle

This from the latest International Institute of Modern Letters’ newsletter:

A press release from the Scottish Poetry Library:

New Zealand is about as far as it’s possible to get from Scotland. Yet there are strong cultural links between the two nations, and a new initiative is bringing them together online.

Organised by the Scottish Poetry Library, The Fern and The Thistle will feature writers based in Scotland introducing their favourite New Zealand poets. The SPL hopes this will evolve into a poetry exchange, giving New Zealand readers the chance to discover Scottish poets in their turn.

As well as discovering New Zealand poetry online, Scottish readers will be able to borrow some of the best contemporary New Zealand poetry ­– the Scottish Poetry Library has recently acquired a new collection of over 60 books, thanks to funding from Creative New Zealand, and will be adding to this collection over the next few years.

The Fern and The Thistle will be launched with a live reading from Scottish and New Zealand poets Andrew Johnston and Gerrie Fellows, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh (29 May) and New Zealand House in London (28 May).

There are probably only a handful of people who receive the Wellington-based IIML’s newsletter in a position to pop along to the Scottish Poetry Library on a Thursday evening in late May… and I’m one.


I have been dipping in and out of the Scottish version of Best Poems 2007 ever since I read and blogged about the NZ version.

The truth is, I wasn’t grabbed by any of the poems in Scotland’s 2007 edition. I think this is purely a reflection of the editor’s taste and mine not meshing. That’s fine. I’ve started going back through previous years (well, I’m halfway through ’06) and already I feel like I’ll be coming home from the Scottish Poetry Library with more than NZ writers.

One area I feel prepared to make a comparison (and the inevitable value judgement) in regards to NZ vs Scottish Best Poems is the additional material. When you click on a poem from the contents page of the NZ site you get the poem, plenty of space, and links to an ‘Author’s Note’ and ‘Sources’. The Author’s Notes are generally brief, incorporating a few lines from the poet regarding the chosen poem – a glimpse inside the process rather than a historiography.

This layout achieves two things. It puts the poems in pride of place. And it acknowledges that this is a jumping off point for readers hoping to discover more about NZ poetry and/or find a new favourite poet, and equips readers with the knowledge to find more by the author.

When you click on a poem on the Scottish site, you get it all on one page. First there’s the poem, then scroll down a little and there’s the source, then an ‘Author’s Note’ (which almost always exceeds the size of the poem itself). After more scrolling (some of these Author’s Notes are looong), there’s an ‘Editor’s Comment’, then ‘Biography’ (of the poet, not the editor), though if you scroll down some more… no, just some Related Links.


The problem with all this extra information is the poem invariably gets dwarfed by this other information. This is most pronounced on the page for Leonard McDermid’s poem, ‘Night River’. The poem is 21 words long. The Extras run to 693 words.

Too often information is repeated in the Author’s and Editor’s comments, and some of the poets – perhaps giddy at the freedom of prose and no word limit (?) – over-explain their own work. Rather than illuminate, these long notes threaten to extinguish the wonder and mystery of the poems.

Look back again at the NZ site. For the Author’s Note to my favourite poem of the bunch we geta one-line bio of Geoff Cochrane, then:

Cochrane comments: ‘The “Nigel” of the poem is the novelist Nigel Cox, author of Tarzan Presley.

New Zealand is a place of beaches and bays; Nigel did his dying within a stone’s throw of the sea, and I thought that sane and smart. His remarks about writing (his writer’s takes on writing) are also sane and smart – some of the smartest ever made.’

That’s what I mean by illuminating. That’s what I mean by not extinguishing wonder and mystery.

Perhaps this is overstating things.

What about: It's like the build up and post mortem of a football match: a little might be enlightening, but too much and it’s tedious.

I’m not bagging out the Scottish poems, just observing that the layout and peripherals of the NZ site do a better job of highlighting poems and poets worthy of further exploration.

The 2006 edition of the Best Scottish Poems shares the all-in-one-page format and includes editor’s comments, but it’s all a lot more succinct. I like the poems more in this edition (so far), but I think this is mostly due to my tastes being closer to Janice Galloway’s (2006 editor) than Alan Spence’s (2007 editor).

If I ever wind up unemployed in 2008 (and not shackled to my desk, chasing insane daily word count targets) I fancy holing myself up at the SPL and coming up with my own list for 2008.

The SPL also stocks NZ poetry, so I'll probably have two lists to compile. Before I started reading the Scottish edition, I thought I could maybe eek out a few generalisations about poetry in one or t’other country based on their 'Best' sites, but as Janice Galloway says in her 07 introduction:

On comparing these collections to draw national conculsions: In this age of ready translation, international web access and mass publication, poetry need have no nationality… Whatever the hell we like enters our thinking and motivation as writers, thinkers, believers. Our truest work is to say so. The poets here are too full of other things, wider things. More humane, more humble and yet more confident things. More thrawn things. Here's to that.

Yes, here’s to that.

Word I Didn’t Understand Until I Looked It Up #5

Thrawn, adj. chiefly Scots

1. Crooked, twisted

2. Contrary

[Full Definition]

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Status Report: Weeks Eighteen and Nineteen

Weeks Eighteen and Nineteen – The Stats

Fortnightly word count: 31,266 words

Average: 2,233 words per day but if you exclude the four days in Paris you get 3,127 words per writing day

Most productive day: Tuesday 6 May, 4,371 words

Least productive days: 2nd, 3rd and 4th of May, 0 words

Year-to-date: 343,085 words (17,571 words behind target)

That last graph, well. I had been noting down a score out of ten to describe my level of optimism. But when it came to today, “optimism” didn’t seem like the right word.

I didn’t really think about writing while in Paris, so rating my optimism regarding my own writing seemed pointless… but I think the dotted line tracks the growth of my Self Belief over those days away quite well.

Being in the pessimistic mood I am today, I can’t resist observing that I have more self-belief when I’m not writing than when I am.

What’s got to me today? Numbers. And not the deficit. I’m beginning to harbour an affection for the burrowing worm. No. My problem is how large some of the numbers are getting. Like 61,000+ words expended on Novel B. Surely that’s something to be proud of, or at least encouraged by, right? Not when the definitive file is only 3,500 words long. This is about the seventh definitive file. Each time I start from some other point, some other angle. Each time it feels right. “This could be the one” (to quote my own characters from a wee story I should submit somewhere on the internet before I forget it exists). Speaking of forgetting, that’s one of my strengths as a writer/fool. I keep forgetting how far I actually got with my previous definitive versions (a.k.a. false starts). I opened one up today and was shocked to find it was 45 pages long. And there I was languishing on eleven.

I’ve struggled before, but never so prolifically. 61,000 words to get 3,500… it just doesn’t seem right.

I am working on too many things at once.

I am thinking too far ahead of myself too often.

I will regret writing with so much candour on this blog tomorrow.

Do you know what? I’m thinking of returning to Novel A. The last time I touched it was a 3 day spurt 20-22 Feb. And before that it was 18 Jan.

What is Novel A? It’s a complete rewrite, refocus, resetting of my MA thesis/novel written in 2006. It was about an indie rock band composed of four members, all of whom were opposed to becoming famous as it would destroy their credibility as musicians… but then something happens to each individual band member and they need to become famous to achieve something in their private lives. A comedy of cross purposes, a satire of musical affectation, a cautionary tale about seeking the limelight.

It had its upside. But it had its downsides. I look back now and I can see I didn’t quite know what I was writing. Or: I couldn’t decide which of four books to write so I wrote all four of them as one. Even as I tried to rewrite Novel A in Nov-Dec-Jan-Feb I think I was still muddled by the possibilities. I wasn’t ruthless enough.

I am prepared to be ruthless today.

The only problem is, I’m not sure what will be left when I’m finished sluffing the deadskin, and what I will be able to add that is new.

But I look at the some of the scenes and characters I had in previous drafts of Novel A and compare them to Novel B (which is better written, but you’d hope so when every for every word there are twenty discarded ones) and think: this is the stuff I love to read. Novel B is the stuff I like to read.

The like/love distinction. The number of false starts. The three-weekly crisis of confidence.

It’s all telling me something.

Why I need to share this, I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m just doing this to add suspense to next week’s status report.

Will he or won’t he work on Novel A?

If only creating a climax in fiction were as easy as making a pie chart…

Compare and Contrast

103 A Medical Opinion on the Effects of a Writer’s Strike

...‘I’m thinking of calling a general strike of all writers until mankind finally comes to its senses. Would you support it?’

‘Do writers have a right to strike? That would be like police or firemen walking out.’

‘Or the college professors.’

‘Or the college professors,’ I agreed. I shook my head. ‘No, I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.’

‘I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems…’

‘And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?’ I demanded.

‘They’d die more like made dogs, I think – snarling and snapping at each other and biting their own tails.’

I turned to Castle the elder. ‘Sir, how does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolation of literature?’

‘In one of two ways,’ he said, ‘putrescence of the hear or atrophy of the nervous system.’

‘Neither one very pleasant, I expect,” I suggested.

‘No,’ said Castle the elder. ‘For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!’

Cat’s Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Novelists Strike Fails To Affect Nation Whatsoever

LOS ANGELES—The Novelists Guild of America strike, now entering its fourth month, has had no impact on the nation at all, sources reported Tuesday.

The strike, which scholars say could be the longest since 1951, when American novelists may or may not have voluntarily committed to a six-month work stoppage, has brought an immediate halt to all new novels, novellas, and novelettes from coast to coast, affecting no one.

Bookstores across the country saw no measurable change in anything.

Nor has America's economy seen any adverse effects whatsoever, as consumers easily adjust to the sudden cessation of any bold new sprawling works of fiction or taut psychological character studies.

"There's a novelists strike?" Ames, IA consumer Carl Hailes said. "That's terrible. When is it scheduled to begin?"

"If this situation is not brought to a halt soon, it could have serious ramifications for, you know, literary culture, I guess," said Kyle Farmer, a Phoenix-area real estate consultant and avid golfer. "It would be tragic if we had to go a whole year without a new novel from Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer," he added, unaware that both authors died in 2007.

The Onion, March 15 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I just saw lightening and heard thunder for the first time in maybe a year. When I lived in Brisbane thunder storms were as common as stubby coolers (why stubby coolers don’t have their own Wikipedia page is beyond me). In summer, you could set your watch by the storms (start at 3 o’clock, done by half past).

But thunder and lightening in Edinburgh? It just doesn’t seem right.

The downpour that followed the flash’n’crash lasted 6:40. I know coz I was listening to Tool’s ‘Ænema’, which is a great storm song.

[Aside: In 2002, Tool came to Wellington. A university acquaintance asked me if I was going to the concert. I said yes. He said, “You are so Palmerston North.” By-the-by: I didn’t rate the concert, and haven’t listened to Tool’s last few albums, but every time I listen to Ænema (the album) I’m not disappointed.]

I’ve been slowly but persistently reminded this week that I don’t know much about Edinburgh. I arrived in autumn, I’ve done winter, am ensconced in spring, but summer promises to be something quite different. Just this week there has been an explosion of people dining al fresco, wearing shorts, and playing frisbee in St Andrews Square at five o’clock. This is a side of Edinburgh I don’t remember seeing when we arrived in September, even though the weather was reasonable. I guess there’s a big difference between a good day in spring (after the slog of Winter) and a good day in Autumn (after better days just weeks before).

This also reminds me that I haven’t had a proper summer in over a year. We were in Australia/NZ/Southern Africa for the Southern Hemisphere’s winter 07, then switched hemispheres in time for the tail end of an Indian Summer in Italy/Croatia, but it quickly went to pot as we ventured further north through Europe.

I’m not sure what to expect from summer in Edinburgh. I should probably expect everything: shit days, sunny days, storms, floods, midges, sunburn, windburn, frostbite…

As long as I can wear my jandals once a week, I’ll be happy.

PS: I lied. I witnessed a storm in Venice in August. My brother the photographer took this photo:

Friday, May 9, 2008

Blank Hippo Blank

I've been looking through the word documents I have created so far this year. Specifically the ones that never became anything.

The Quickly Abandoned.

The outlines for unwritten novels; ways to link short stories. The snatches of dialogue overheard at work that could be something more. The first person rants which I couldn't bring myself to fictionalise, nor could I bear posting them here as "What I Actually Think."

Even though it's only been a hundred and something days, I had already forgotten some of the things I'd written. That's what happens when you don't revise something. It is only once I begin revising that a piece begins to assume any importance.

Revision is what separates writers writing for themselves and from writers writing to be read.

But, having said this, some of these unrevised snippets are interesting -- in an archaeological sense. I've been writing all over the place (short stories, novels, poetry, blogs, memoirish indulgences), and these Also-Wrotes fill in the gaps of the story of this year.

The piece I'm about to cut and paste below was written on the sixth of Jan, so very early on in the Year of a Million Words [sic]. At the time I didn't really know how to go about writing circa 3000 words a day, every day. I was half drunk on the challenge, half baffled by the numbers.

The 532 words were the last I wrote that day. An effort to pad out the numbers, sure, but I thought they could be useful for something (perhaps that should be: something *big shrug* ?)... but now, four months later, I know these words are better left where they are.

Rest in peace, casualties of the War of Words.

Blank Hippos Blank

We were walking along the beach at Portobello.

“If I had to describe it, I’d say fizzy.”



“I don’t understand,” I said. “You can’t just start a conversation like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re continuing a conversation. What’s ‘It’? You said, If I had to describe it… ‘It’ is only a placeholder for something the other person already knows.”

“They do it in short stories all the time. You do it in your short stories. I remember.”

“This is real life.”

She made a snickt sound; suction between tongue and roof of mouth. Said, “My life is like one long short story.”

I laughed.

“It. Was. Fizzy,” she said. “My stomach. Last night.”


“When you go to the library next, get me Moby Dick.”

“You won’t like it.”

“It sounds like I’d like it.”

“The plot is like the tiniest part of the book.”

“What’s the rest?”

“Stuff about whales. Whaling. Ships. In the 1840s.”

“Could be interesting.”

“It’s great, but I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“What about that other book?”

“What other book?”

“The one you mentioned last night. It probably doesn’t have hippos in the title, but that’s what I’m getting.”

“I don’t remember mentioning a book with hippos in the title.”

“It didn’t have hippos in the title—”

“You could make a great title with hippos somewhere.”

“It was three words.”

“I don’t remember.”

“I didn’t dream it.”

“Hey, I just remembered a dream I had a few days ago. I was forced to eat human flesh.”

“Yeah, you told me.”


“You told me.”

“But I just remembered.”

“You must have told me when you weren’t awake yet.”

“Did I recommend this hippo book when I wasn’t awake yet?”

“It was night. We’d just turned the light out.”

I shook my head. “Blank.”

“It was three words: blank blank blank.”

“Blank blank hippos.”

“Hippos blank blank.”

“Blank hippos blank.”

“I like that one. You should name a story that.”


“Can I be in it?”

“But your life is one long short story. If you turn up in one of mine, it’ll be like plagiarism or something.”

“No it won’t.”

“Or fan fiction.”

“I don’t have fans. I’m destined to be ignored in life, mourned in death, remembered in eternity.”

“Sounds like the best kind of short story. Was it Gogol?” I pronounced it Gaw-gol, the way Nabokov says to.


“The book I told you about.”


“You should read some Gogol. ‘The Overcoat’. ‘The Nose’.”

“I prefer ‘Blank Hippos Blank’.”

“Only coz you’re in it.”

“Yes! I’m in your story, I’m in your story.”


By this time we’d walked up and down the promenade. It isn’t very long.

“I used to hate stories with writers in them,” I said.


“And then I realised everyone finds writers fascinating. Everyone thinks they have a novel in them.”

“Or a long short story.”


“I don’t mind that you’re a snob,” she said. “I’m not a snob, but I don’t mind you being one.”

“I am a snob. I am also white trash. I am a long short story, too.”

“Home time?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Guess what? So am I.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Running on Empty

Last night I returned from a long weekend in Paris, exhausted.

[Aside: I like the fact the French have put up some resistance to the Englishisation of Europe. I like that you are still expected to have a go with the bon soir monsiers and the un bagette s'il vous plaits. Most of the time, the person serving you knows enough English to understand what you're after, but people who expect to be able to get by without giving the local language annoy me. I've been that annoying person enough, that I feel okay saying this. Of all the places I've been in the last 12 months (I think the country count is in the twenties), France was the first place I felt like the language was part of the adventure. Part of the foreignness.]

Needless to say, I didn't do any real writing over the four days I was away. But I took down a few random thoughts in my moleskine and probably acquired dozens of memories/experiences which will enter or enrich my fiction at some stage down the line. Paris took a lot out of me physically, but it added a more than commensurate amount mentally/spiritually.

Today as I walked to work I felt excited about getting back to writing!

I had not one but two projects I was itching to return to:
* a short story about extinct animals
* Novel B, which I continued to chip away at last week and finally seemed to be rounding into shape.

But then, of course, I arrived at work.

It was worse because someone else stepped in to do my repetitive and unrewarding tasks on Friday… I don’t blame them for doing a half-assed job, but today it felt like I was doing two days work instead of one.

Come the end of the day -- "now" -- I don't have that same effervescent feeling when I think of sitting down and writing the next chapter of Novel B (which will probably need to be revisited 17 times before it sits properly), or writing the final scenes of my extinct animal short story. I'm tired and cranky and have other things to do, like break in the running shoes I bought on Thursday (my motivation must be low if exercise ranks higher than writing).

I also feel obliged to write an entry on mine and Marisa’s travel blog for the benefit of the whanau back home. The words will count towards the million, but I don't feel like I ever get to the heart of an experience in a travel blog. I just don't feel right talking about the importance of speaking a foreign language in too much detail when I know my readers will be grandparents and de facto in-laws (if that makes sense).

If I lived in a vacuum -- a place without physical or monetary needs, but also without stimuli -- I would still write. It's in my blood. But I would not feel the same highs of anticipation and optimism as I felt today as I walked to work; nor would I feel the lows of guilt and exhaustion brought on by other obligations which take me away from the great white page.

I guess that's what being a writer is about: juggling the input (ideas/experience/money) with the output (words).

I might not feel like it any more, but I'm going to open the word document for Novel B or the extinction story, or both, now. I'm going to do this because I know I will get lost in the words after writing a couple hundred of them (and maybe a cup of tea), and because if I don't write, I will sink even further behind the word rate, leading to more excuses and rationalisations offered to the ether.

PS - I will roll this past weeks stats into this coming Sunday's status report. Expect a new type of graph... a "for a limited time only" deal.