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, June 30, 2008

A Reading Life

Today I started gathering my thoughts so that I may summarise my first six months of flailing away at a million words. In particular, I've been looking through my work in progress folders, which are a bit of a misnomer -- this is where work has stalled, and many of these documents will never be recommissioned. What these wasted raw materials reveal, when read en mass, is how much my reading influences my writing.
The effect is more pronounced this year, as I often sit down in front of a blank dodcument and think, "Okay, I just need to write 1,000 words in the next 45 minutes." And so I write. Without a key idea or a first sentence or a big moral in mind. Half of these sessions are fruitless (though they are not pointless; the act of writing fast everyday means the joints are oiled for those days when there is a fire in my belly and I have something smart/funny/important to write about). The other half of these sessions will bear fruit -- perhaps it is a line that will be excised and start it's own story. Perhaps it is an image that belongs elsewhere. Perhaps it is a character or the voice of the narrator that I want to spend more time with. But what the fruitless and fruitful sessions share is that they are not shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves.
When I was in the midst of Kurt Vonnegut back in April (books read: God Bless You Mr Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle) I opened up a file one evening and began a piss take of my own serious, literary novel (that is: Novel B). Re-reading the two pages I knocked out of Faucets of Wonder, the Vonnegut influence is clear. Preface, Intrusive narrator, irreverence... it's all so transparent. If I were to return to this document again this year (which I might, I'd say the odds are 3/1), I'd scythe away most of the Vonneguttian aspects, and focus on the story behind the narrative fireworks.
But the thing is, without the fireworks, without the bank of reading behind my imitation, all I would have is a blank page.
The process of writing, for me at least, is a process of constantly overstepping the mark, of over-imitating. It is only when you transgress, when you push the story too far, that you learn anything about writing. This is why reading is such a vital part of a writing life -- you need those other voices to rattle around in your head, those imagined lives to sit across the table from you, to push you towards a vision and a voice that is truly yours.
Aside from my fiction, I should be able to look back on this blog and trace my reading life as I can my writing life -- the two being so entwined. And I have, from time to time, thrown words at the books (and audiobooks) I have consumed. But I must confess I haven't been as assiduous as I would have liked (now that I'm trying to don my historian hat). What did I think of Never Let Me Go? Why did I not finish reading Waverly? I can provide rough answers now, but the steam has gone out of these experiences - what I write would tell me more about what I'm reading/listening to now, and my own fictions I'm working on, than what I was doing at the time.
So I shall endeavour to say more about reading on this blog in the next six months -- not because I think I have much to add in the way of literary criticism, but because it is, undeniably, a part of the year of a million words (Misnomer #2).
And even though it's still technically the first half of 2008, I'm going to get my resolution off to a running start.
Today at lunch I finished Jack O'Connell's 'Word Made Flesh'. The cover blurb from James Ellroy proclaims O'Connell is "the future of the dark, literary suspense novel." I would never read a book on the basis of its blurb (I sought out 'World Made Flesh' on the basis of a recommendation somewhere online), but this particular one says more than it seems. Yes, this book is dark and at times literary (if being about books and language makes something literary), though I didn't ever find it suspenseful. But that's okay because Ellroy says O'Connell is the future of the dark, literary suspense novel - he doesn't say this is the novel. Which is like saying, "I think David Smith will be an All Black one day." This sense of as yet unrealised potential typifies my reaction to 'Word Made Flesh'. The story frequently gets bogged down in scenes which build up his fictional New England city of Quinsigamond and its underbelly but don't actually move the story on in any meaningful way. It often feels like the crime fiction aspects have been learnt by rote, and although O'Connell is doing everything in his power to up the ante (more violence, more corruption, still more violence) he hasn't yet transcended the straightjacket of genre.
I’m hanging out for the second instalment in Carl Shuker’s Three Novellas For A Novel (available to download for “Free Or More”). The first novella, ‘The Depleted Forest’, isn’t an easy read, but Shuker’s work never is. Think Pynchon or David Foster Wallace or William Gass. But as with these writers, the rewards are there for those who persevere, or just let go and let the prose and the mysteries of scientific advances in concrete and machine translations of Japanese texts wash over you.
Then there’s Brave New World, Cymbeline, and Sport 36… which all deserve comment but I’ve done my dash tonight. This is, after all, the first day of my resolution.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Status Report: Week Twenty-Six

Week Twenty-Six – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 15,572 words

Average: 2,225 words per day (compared to 1,459 last week)

Most productive day: Saturday 28 June, 4,006 words

Least productive day: Wednesday 25 June, zero words

Year-to-date: 446,329 words (48,206 words behind target)

I plan to write a State of the Nation on Tuesday to commemorate reaching the halfway point of 2008, so today I’ll keep this brief.

Explanatory Notes:

1) The zero for Wednesday is due to a confluence of factors: I started training someone up at work that day, while still having to get through a swathe of my own work, which left me beat come five o’clock, then had to view a flat on the other side of town. When finally home and settled, watching Turkey vs Germany seemed a much more promising proposition that eking out a thousand words.

[Aside: I wanted to spell it “eeking”, but no, “eking” is correct (the gerund of “eke”). I must have been tainted by too much Eek! The Cat as a boy.]

2) The large slice attributed to poetry is due to a) procrastination (I had to two short story competitions to enter with deadlines of 30 June, so naturally, I couldn’t bring myself to work on short stories till the weekend), and b) a loose definition of poetry (writing a massive amount of words then trimming and trimming until something poetic emerges).

My writing bubble will be burst again next week when some Germans turn up on my doorstep and expect me to drive them around this fair nation.

It’s a hard life.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Why It's Okay To Take Pictures Of The Summer

After yesterday's post, I feel I should probably come to the defence of photography. After all, my brother is a photographer and I have taken in excess of 4,500 photos this year.

God, that many? Yup. I just counted on Picasa.

Sometimes photography gets a bad rap. A common claim is that it's less artistic than painting or sculpture. Any discussion of 'artistry' is a slippery slope and, in order to prove their point, people often get carried away.

Like: I remember the title character in John Fowles’ The Collector was into photography. He was also into pinning up dead butterflies and incarcerating young women in his basement. The novel was not shy about drawing parallels between the three.

[Aside/Minor Coincidence: The author of Speak, Memory (a book I read too young and is partly responsible for my obsession with memory) also liked to pin up dead butterflies. He also wrote books where not very nice things happened to young females… Unfortunately I do not know his opinion of photography.]

And I agree with one aspect of The Kinks' 'People Take Pictures of Each Other': the pursuit of the perfect photo in order to preserve a moment forever is quixotic (especially for amateur photographers) and means the photographer is partially absent from the scene itself. The photo that results does not stand in for a memory, but a remembered fiction.

Sometimes I worry that the pictures I take on my travels may be taking me out of very experience I've travelled all this way for. And worse, that they may distort my memory so that in a few years a trip to Turkey will consist of river cruises and staring up at mosaics, and I will lose the unphotographable: the taste of simit, the time I got to use Yavaşça yavaşça with our hopped-up taxi driver, or simply what it felt like to be in that place with four of my closest friends.

In some ways, writing can achieve what photography can't. It can record the internal and anecdotal – though committing these things to paper merely presents a post-factum snapshot of your already skewing memory.

But photos are useful (ah! the defence at last). Aside from something for show and tell with the whanau back home, I want a stash of photos (along with my written thoughts and the input of those that experienced X with me when we come to reminisce) because I know not to trust my own memory. I know how reckless and random it can be.

Smell may be the ultimate memory prompter (a post for a different time, perhaps), but an image runs a close second. I don’t expect my photos to prove or preserve my love for anyone or anything (and, unlike Ray Davies circa 1968, I don't begrudge photos this shortcoming) - - I don’t even set the bar that high for my writing. Yet.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sing One Thing, Sell The Other

When I first heard this song on a Sony Ericsson TV ad last week, I laughed. I thought I knew better: that Ray Davies' wrote 'People Take Pictures of Each Other' in 1968 as a criticism of the incessant snaps taken at family gatherings and their inability to truly capture important memories. He says this in so many words in his pseudo-biography, X-Ray, but a cursory read through of the lyrics makes his stance clear as well:

People take pictures of the Summer,
Just in case someone thought they had missed it,
And to proved that it really existed.
Fathers take pictures of the mothers,
And the sisters take pictures of brothers,
Just to show that they love one another.

You can't picture love that you took from me,
When we were young and the world was free.
Pictures of things as they used to be,
Don't show me no more, please.

But here was this rebuke of photography being used to advertise… photography. Specifically a cellphone that can take 8.1 megapixel digital photos. If Davies didn’t like photography forty years ago when it was a much more costly and time-consuming process, he must abhor the modern prevalence of snapshots and the every growing pictorial memory banks (facebook, picasa, flickr etc etc)… right?

Well, hold on a minute. This isn’t the first Kinks song to be featured in an ad. Let me quote from Times Online article from March 2006:

At their peak in the 1960s, the Kinks were banned from entering the United States for nearly five years because of their riotous behaviour. Forty years later, American television advertisers are paying the veteran rockers £6m to use their songs to sell washing powder, computers and pills…

All Day and All of the Night will be used by Procter & Gamble to boost sales of Tide detergent. I’m Not Like Everybody Else and Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy will feature in campaigns to promote, respectively, IBM computers and medicines sold by Abbott Laboratories. Lola, a song about a Soho transsexual, will promote La La, a company which allows subscribers to swap CDs by post.

'People Take Pictures of Each Other' isn’t even the first Kinks song about photos off The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society to feature in an ad. That honour belongs to ‘Picture Book’ which underpinned an entire HP campaign.

But again, the lyrics don’t actually endorse printing out your photos for posterity, but point to the futility of the images actually preserving emotion.

Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other a long ago…
Picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago

You were happy and people loved each other – but that was “a long time ago.” Isn’t that depressing? It doesn’t put me in a buying mood, at least. (My printer is a Canon, if you were wondering… which you weren’t).

There are two questions here:

1. What’s up with The Kinks availing their songs for use in advertising campaigns that wilfully misunderstand the intention of their songs?

2. What’s up with HP and Sony Ericsson wilfully misunderstanding these songs?

Let’s work backwards. The reason these corporations are happy to have songs that were subtle satires of the product there are flogging is: they think we’re stupid.

And they’re probably right.

A visit to songmeanings.net (like this blog, the site is rather optimistically named) yields the following appraisal of ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’:

I love this song.

It's about so many things, nostalgia, loss, the way life sometimes rushes by. It's funny how important photographs are, and how much joy and sorrow they can bring similutaneously [sic]

I need to be careful here, because my reading of these Photo songs as satirical and anti-photography is heavily influenced by a) my knowledge of the album (…Village Green…) on which they appeared, b) my recent exposure to the whole of Ray Davies’ oeuvre and the overwhelming number of soft satires therein, and c) my having read the aforementioned X-Ray. Without this bank of peripheral knowledge, I might have come up with a similar pro-photography reading of the lyrics.

Then there’s the fact that when you splice the song up for use in a 30 second commercial, it stops being satire, and starts being a jingle.

As a jingle, it’s pretty good. But there was once a lot more to the song.

I can offer a short, one character, answer to why the Kinks would allow their songs to be reduced to jingles:


But how’s this for an alternate hypothesis:

From the very beginning, Ray Davies had a chip on his shoulder. He thought he deserved more than he got in the 60’s and 70’s. See the way he vents his anger at the chew-em-up-spit-em-out machine that was the music industry in Lola Versus Powerman Versus The Moneygoround. While the song ‘Moneygoround’, specifically deals with the way artists are short changed (“The money goes round and around and around / And it comes out here when they've all taken their share”), it’s deeper than that. Remember, The Kinks were banned from the US for four years at the height of the British Invasion (for why: you can start here). That’s enough to make anyone feel the world’s against them. Again, ­X-Ray is a good place to go to hear all the ways Davies feels he has been wronged by the world.

But now that the corporations are knocking down his door to use his songs (and stuff his pockets with money), perhaps this is justice for Ray Davies?

While I doubt he’s changed his opinion of photography, one could argue that exposing the music to new listeners justifies the means. There are 12 entries on songmeanings.net for ‘Picture Book’ – almost all refer to the HP campaign as their introduction or re-introduction to the song. And, as the number of Kinks songs appearing on adverts continues to build, so too does the Kinks contemporary fanbase. There is a lot more at play here than ads, but I’d say they’ve played their part.

Or maybe, just maybe, Ray Davies has softened his opinion of photography. Maybe now that’s he’s entered his dotage, he flicks through the scrapbooks his fans have sent him and realises that, although they have their limits, photos are a useful aide memoir.

Somehow, that thought seems a little too human to be true for Raymond Douglas Davies.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Status Report: Weeks 24 & 25

Weeks Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five – The Stats

Fortnightly Wordcount: 18,221 words

Average: 1,302 words per day

Excuse: Turkey and related preparation & recovery

Most productive day: Friday 20 June, 3,980 words

Least productive day: Take your pick (six goose eggs in total)

Year-to-date: 430,757 words (44,653 words behind target)

So, in the last fortnight, I have fallen another 20,030 words behind target. Gulp.

In eight days time it will be the chronological halfway point of The Year of a Million Words. However, if I write 2,732 words per day, I will only write my 500,000th word on the 18th of July. Then again, if you halve my eventual word count, I suspect I will have already written more than 50% of my year’s words… if that makes sense.

Of course, sense for me in 2008 is a relative term.

But regardless of what measure you use, this is a transition period.

It is clear that I will not be able to write well and prolifically whilst countering the twin evils of full-time employment and regular globetrotting.

Aside: when your twin evils are a job and travel, you should not be allowed to complain. Ever.

And of course, August is Festival Time here in Edinburgh, and I be attending a number of events as part of the Fringe and Literature Festivals. Some of my circled sessions for the latter include: Doug Johnstone & Toby Litt on Music and Fiction (16 Aug, 8:30pm), Carol Ann Duffy (23 Aug, 8pm), Will Self (24 Aug, 1.30pm), Andrey Kurkov (24 Aug, 6:45pm). The big names like Salman Rushdie and Louis de Bernieres I can take or leave.

One of the joys of book festivals is discovering new writers, but at £9 per session (more for workshops & masterclasses) and so many sessions run during work hours, I’ll be relying heavily on the free readings at 10am on the weekends to get my fix of fresh voices.

Anyway, the moral of the story is: Don’t expect the Actual worm to make any ground on the Target worm any time soon.

Perhaps a name change is in order?

How about The Year I Tried To Write A Million Words And Came Up Short Because of Full Time Work and Travel? Or The Year of Word Counts? Maybe The Year Of Learning One’s Limitations? The Year of Eight Hundred Thousand, One Hundred and Six Words, perhaps?

Or simply: The Year of a Million Words [sic]?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Gallipoli Sensation

This time a week ago I was standing at the New Zealand Memorial on Chunuk Bair (Çanak Bayırı). In all, me and my four travel companions spent an afternoon visiting the various memorials on the Gallipoli Peninsula. My reaction at the time was somewhere between the Kiwi history student who was quickly reduced to tears by the reality of the landscape (“It’s such a small hill. Why should so many die for such a hill?”) and my German friends who admitted the significance of this particular campaign was lost on them. I tried to explain how Gallipoli (or as the Turks call it: Çanakkale Savaşları) was important because it provided one of the founding legends of three new nations (NZ, Australia, Turkey), even if so much of this was built on rhetoric and idealism, then and now.

Minor aside: Having lived in both NZ and Australia, I’ve seen what the ANZAC story has transmuted into in the space of 90 years. Australia with its diggers and mateship, its live telecasts of Dawn Services from State capitals, followed by rock concerts on the beach and/or a beer and a game of two-up down the RSL. New Zealand seems to have had less buzz-words passed down through the years, and there is less of a circus around April 25th (at least there was the last time I lived in NZ… these things change, huh).

That afternoon in Gallipoli I posed for photos on ANZAC Cove (not sure what sort of facial expression to wear) and with the massive statue of Atatürk, took plenty of photos of my own, read all the information panels, stared at the blueness of the sky and sea a few times and thought wordless thoughts - - and then it was over. Another experience for the travel blog. Another box ticked.

But there is a slow-burning significance of this afternoon which I am still trying to make sense of. There is something beyond the tales of nationhood, military manoeuvres, and even the loss of individual life which persists, lingers in my thoughts. I don’t know what it is — I guess a week is not long enough to provide the necessary perspective — but there is something which brings the tears close when I read about the battles on Wikipedia when I ostensibly visited for the correct Turkish spelling of Chunuk Bair. Something made me sit down and write about it now.

This feeling, of being in the midst of a slowly coalescing meaning, is a gift in itself. It is something I have probably experienced before — though I cannot finger a specific example now — but it is something I have written about. Or more correctly, it is the state one of the characters in the first draft (2006) of Novel A finds himself in. Of not quite knowing the What or the Why of his emotions, just knowing where these feelings are coming from. For Mike, it is a past relationship. For me, it is Gallipoli.

So I will take this strong-but-muddled state of emotion I find myself in and twist it into something fit for an off-beat love story. What might have been a character-building moment for myself, I will use to (re)build my fictional character. That is what being a writer is. There is autobiography in all fiction; there is fiction in every life. Writing is forgetting about these distinctions for periods of furious typing.

But Gallipoli was one afternoon of a six day stay in Türkiye. I will also be using my time at the beach to help me write the second half of a stalled short story (though the beach David Leon visits will need to be in Ecuador). And there may be more stories or poems which grow from watching one of Turkey’s insane comebacks in Euro2008 or visiting a mosque. I will just have to wait. Like my Gallipoli sensation, what’s really worth writing about isn’t always clear until much later on.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gidiş dönüş bileti

I'm back.

Turkey was hot and historic and muddled and delicious and falling down and burgeoning and sad and come-from-behind-in-the-last-minutes and apple tea and roadworks-all-night and touchy-feely-waiters.

And tractors.

Six days without writing (and all that time in airports and traffic jams) means I have things to write about again. Nothing readymade for fiction. But I'm sure that will evolve.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nirvana In Retrospect

This is what I did tonight when I had the room to myself:

Watched Portugal versus Czech Republic, y’know, to unwind after work.

Checked my emails, check my statcounter, read a few other blogs.

Opened a blank document.

Went and looked in the fridge. Decided I’d cook tea.

Ate tea in front of the TV.

Did the dishes.

Decided I should also make my lunch for tomorrow.

Opened an existing story which is missing its final scene.

Checked my emails again.

Watched this video without fast-forwarding until 2mins 45seconds.

Checked to see if Switzerland versus Turkey had started (got to do my research for my impending journey).

Turned off TV. Edited existing story from the beginning. Got distracted at page 12 by Sarah Polley’s version of ‘Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)’. Rocked out.

Tried on the suit I only wear to interviews.

Thought: You stupid procrastinating chump.

Started noting down the various forms of procrastination for use in a blog post.

Returned to existing story, read a good sentence, decided it needed to be cut.

Ate an obscene amount of dried cranberries.

Removed ‘Never Let Me Go’ from my iPod to make room for ‘The Wasp Factory’.

Continued to edit existing story with the finale of The Apprentice playing on the television, turning around when ever my boy Raef said something (sadly, it was only twice).

Swept the floor of our bedroom (something Marisa asked me to do while she was away, so…)

Ironed some shirts.

Updated my list of procrastination activities.

Checked my emails. I had two. Replied to one.

Posted this.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The (Part-)Day of Zero Distractions

Tomorrow evening I will be home alone. No house guest (Manchester). No significant other (business trip, East Midlands). The sense of excitement I feel for the span of six uninterrupted hours after finishing work and falling asleep verges on ridiculous.

Even though I have existing stories to edit (ah, the collection; I feel like I am swimming out to a boat that has come free of its moorings), I will write something new tomorrow. Not that I have any one nascent story in mind. But I want to conquer the blank page, rather than rub smudges from the faces of my misbegotten brood (they never stay clean for long).

I will write a post after my brief writing nirvana entitled "Nirvana In Retrospect" (to attract more grunge fans/90's stuck-in-the-muds to my blog).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Status Report: Week Twenty-Three

Week Twenty-Three – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 17,804 words

Average: 2,543 words per day (compared to 1,894 last week)

Most productive day: Monday 2 June, 4,427 words

Least productive day: Friday 6 June, 941 words

Year-to-date: 412,536 (24,622 words behind target)

The wheels will fall off next week.

We fly to Istanbul on Friday the Thirteenth.

Six days in Turkey equals another 16,000 words to the deficit.

Looking back, I’ve been out of sorts since mid April.

I perused the 288 page programme for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival today. There are many free events and 2-for-1 ticket deals. Part of me is glad.

I have two dentist appointments in July to fix my mouth. It is difficult to think about the future.

But. It is getting to that point in the year where I must look ahead to what I will do next year: where I will travel, where I will live, when I will write. 2009 seems like such a high number.

I bought a hat today because I am getting sun burnt in Edinburgh.

Poetry has a large slice of this week’s pie. I tried writing a lot of stuff of the top of my head one day, then culling and cutting it back to a few lines the next day and sticky taping a poem together. I repeated these steps multiple times. I counted the top-of-the-head-junk words as well as the final-poem words. I was feeling democratic.

I have to chose what book I will take with me to Turkey. I am in the process of reading five books and listening one. I am not taken by any of the physical books. I am listening to Brave New World. I’m not sure if I would be more or less taken if it was a physical book. I think I will go to the library after work and look for Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut and/or Word Made Flesh by Jack O’Connell.

There is a note in my notebook this week which reads: Saruchi Tootle. I think this is supposed to be someone’s name.

I once met a man named Pascal van Mello. I wrote his name down in case I forgot it, but a) I am unable to forget it and b) I can’t use his name because he is real. Damn him.

Someone once said I had a good name for a writer. The next week she called me Cliff Craig.

I have listened to a lot of Kinks albums over the last fortnight. Nothing as good as Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround. I do like Soap Opera a lot, though. This surprises me.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

the bungled mechanics of memory;

in its eyes: the documents it has lost

Monday, June 2, 2008

Inventory of Cuts and Abrasions Received Whilst in Temporary Employment

The paper cut

The cardboard cut, box

The cardboard cut, file

The ID card cut

The ID lanyard rope burn

The row-of-staples-yet-to-be-placed-in-stapler cut

The staple puncture, single

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Status Report: Week Twenty-Two

Week Twenty-Two – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 13,257 words (target is 19,124 words per week)

Average: rubbish (1,894 words per day)

Most productive day: Thursday 29 May, 3,049 words

Least productive day: Friday 30 May, 794 words

Year-to-date: 394,732 words (23,301 words behind target)

Shocking week. Monday (bank holiday) was spent at St. Andrews. Tuesday was spent recovering from the long weekend (and the return to work). So the word counts were already dire before our friend Laura from NZ arrived on Friday. She’ll be staying with us till she finds a place of her own…

Not having a room of my own to write was a bit of a pain before, but I can see I’m going to have to do something drastic like wake up in the wee small hours if I’m going to write anything focussed during the week.

Oh, and we went to the Edinburgh Sevens Saturday and today (Sunday) with a flock of other New Zealanders. I say flock, because, well, a picture tells a thousand words:

(NB: I didn’t actually count those “thousand words” towards today’s word count… I wish I could have.)

Crazy weekend weather-wise. Yesterday was a scorcher from the moment we stepped outside at 8:30am to when we got home after six. When I say scorcher, I mean for Edinburgh’s standards. It was definitely in the twenties centigrade. Felt like a lot more in those white boiler suits. Then today it rained… all day.

But New Zealand won the tournament (quite comfortably). Both DJ Forbes and Chad Tuoro made a point of coming over and thanking the sheep for their support. Or in Tuoro’s words, “You guys are awesome, eh.”

Sometimes it pays to be a sheep.