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, October 30, 2008

Halloween Story

[I wrote a story earlier this year that featured Halloween. While I don't have stories stashed away for all the forthcoming holidays, I thought I'd post this one:]

Somewhere in Southern California...

When the power went out, the writer’s sister went to bed early. The writer did not. She lit a candle and dusted off the old Underwood Five typewriter someone had given her as a joke, or perhaps as objet d’art.

But it worked.

She found herself clacking out a story about a woman roughly her own age — which was forty-two — who lived alone — as the writer had until her sister moved in — preparing for the trick-or-treaters on Halloween. This woman had bought a wide variety of candy for the occasion and placed it all in a glass bowl with a wide circumference so the children could select their favourite types of candy without having to dig around too much. The woman in the story, who had not been given a name and perhaps never would, feared digging around could lead to children knocking pieces of candy onto the floor, and then, as she stooped to pick them up, the children — dressed as pirates, werewolves and stormtroopers — would surge into her apartment and begin listening to her record collection with unimpressed werewolf faces, grinding black pepper from her ornamental pepper grinder all over her salt and pepper shag pile carpet, unzipping the backs of her sofa cushions, and changing her answer phone message:

The lady with the big butt is not home. Press 1 for the Pirate. Press 2 for the
Werewolf. Press 3 for the Stormtrooper.

Even with the bowl with the widest circumference she could find, the woman in the story no longer felt comfortable opening the door to trick-or-treaters. She sat on her sofa in silence, waiting for the doorbell to ring, and when it did, she would let them ring and knock until they gave up and went to the next apartment. To calm her nerves while the trick-or-treaters hounded her, she ate candy from the bowl with the wide circumference.

The writer, punching this story out on a typewriter by the light of a candle, suddenly had an incredible urge to eat a Mintie, which is a hard, white candy popular in Australasia. The first time the writer had a Mintie she was on stage for a panel discussion at a book festival in Sydney. She was rendered mute by the chewy mass in her mouth while several topics she was dying to discuss arose and sank, only finishing the Mintie as the chair brought the session to a close. She was then ushered by festival staff wearing headsets to the book signing tent. If it wasn’t for these people wearing headsets she would have slipped away to the airport. Despite her silence during the panel discussion, there were six people already lined up in front of the signing desk. A woman in a headset waved the man at the front of the line forward. The writer asked the man’s name after he placed the opened book before her, but he said, “You can just put, ‘Dear Reader.’”
The writer looked up at this man. He was wearing a blue baseball cap which said, “Seaworld, Gold Coast,” and had not shaved for many days. She looked back at the book he had placed before her. She closed the cover and looked at the spine.

“This is a library book,” she said.

“Yes it is.”

“And you want me to sign it.”

“Yes please.”

She looked at the bag of books the man was holding. “You’re going to take this book back when its due?” she asked.

“I’m the librarian,” he said.

The writer read over what she had written so far of her Halloween story, pulled the current page from her typewriter and inserted a fresh one.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thirty Ways of Looking at a Blank Page

I haven't had any public experiments for a while (I think April's was the last). Whatever have I been up to? But do not fear, November will be different.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) but I've already sworn off novels for the rest of the year. Rather than go nuts for a month and produce one 50,000 word narrative, I'm going to think small. I will write a self-contained story in one hundred words every day and post it in the sidebar. At the end of the month I'll compile the stories into one 3,000 word post.

[Technicalities: 1) As I'm away in London, Estonia and Latvia in the second week of the month, I won't be able to post every story on the day on which it was written, but I'm sure I'll find the time between sub-zero tourism and stoner rock concerts to jot down my daily dose. 2) I've chosen to post in the sidebar initially as I still intend to post status reports and ad hoc items, but I don't want to break up the flow of wee stories...]

As with my 8-words a day story, I'll try my hardest to write fresh everyday: that means no jotting down ideas for later use, not drafting seven stories on a Sunday afternoon and polishing one up a day for the rest of the week.

As fond of graphs as I am, I think this might provide a more interesting way to chart my moods and muses through a thirty day period. We shall see.

Vaguely related YouTube of the day: 'Ahead by a Century' by The Tragically Hip

Monday, October 27, 2008

Status Report: Week Forty-Three

Week Forty-Three – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 10,908 words (compared to 16,099 words last week)
Average: 1,588 words per day (compared to target of 3,001 words/day)
Most productive day: Monday 20 October, 3,308 words
Least productive day: Saturday 25 October, 756 words
Year-to-date: 673,606 words (146,066 words behind target)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Week Forty-Three Fug

>>Wake up tired.
>>Slog through morning, regain a bit of energy by lunch-time. Think of something which might be a suitable blog post.
>>Energy ebbs away in afternoon.
>>Get home from work, begin drafting blog post but give up after half an hour and watch TV.

This pretty much describes every day this week.


Tuesday’s abandoned post:

Why Day Jobs Are Good For Writers

* Money (and the things that money can buy like shelter, baguettes and over-the-counter painkillers)
* Time away from fiction (that isn’t tainted with “I should be writing” guilt)
* Time with people: A: because they are much better at coming up with quirks, foibles and faux pas than you. B: because they remind you how few people will actually read your work. (A+B means you can steal whatever you like from the workplace for use in fiction)

(Post video of 'Take Stuff from Work'...)

The Downside of Day-Jobs

[no energy to tackle this topic]


Wednesday’s abandoned post:

Great Moments in iPod Shuffle: A Rebuttal

To prove that the quality of last week's shuffle playlist was more down to my mood than any sentience on the part of my iPod, here is an equally good list of songs thrown up by shuffle yesterday which I skipped:

[list never compiled]

In all I managed to cycle through 110 songs in an hour and a half of travel-time (usually about 20 tracks worth). I was totally over music, yet I couldn't bear to resume listening to The Blind Assassin, either. No doubt the lingering effects of the week-end's piano drop were to blame for such a mood. I am only now returning to normal.

[Oh really?]


Thursday’s abandoned post:

"I sing as well as I can and I dance as well as I want."

The title for this post is a quote from Warren Zevon, and I hereby adopt it as my motto for writing. That is, I'm trying my darndest to construct the best sentences and paragraphs, but I'm going to have fun with it.

I don't really feel like I've been dancing at all, let alone to my own tune, lately. It's been a grind.

I know I said I wouldn't. I know there are lot's of good reasons to keep keeping on. But I'm chucking in Novel B, again. In fact, I'm done with any project beginning with the N-word for the rest of the year.

I've come to the conclusion that I am unable to sustain the energy and attention required to write a novel whilst working full-time.

[And, it seems, I no longer have the energy to finish blog posts… ]

[File this under: Troughs]

Monday, October 20, 2008

Starred Reviews or Saggy Books?

Rating a film or album out of five stars is ham-fisted, but the practice still pervades the industry. Books, on the other hand, have largely avoided a rating system being incorporated into their reviews. Is this due to snobbery on the part of reviewers/books editors or perhaps even readers? Or is there something that sets books apart from other rateable commodities?

Perhaps the first place to use star ratings was the military. Senior ranking officers such as brigadiers and commodores received one star, and as they progressed further up the ranks they gained more stars until they were top dog (Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal, etc).

In 1926, The Michelin Guide introduced a star rating for exceptional food in the restaurants it reviewed, expanding its rating system to three stars in the 1930s.

Around the same time, accommodation started to be rated. Nowadays, many organisations, such as the AA (or in the US, the AAA) review both restaurants and accommodation using a star system (although often they aren't stars but diamonds or rosettes...).

Film and music reviewers have also taken liberties with the 'star' system, from Siskel and Ebert's Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down to Robert Christgau's report card grading (A+ = Marquee Moon, A = Born To Run, etc). Gimmicks aside, it seems the urge to quantify and compare certain types of media as one would a restaurant or a hotel is strong.

Is it really the case that a good movie is as easy to distinguish from a bad movie as it is to tell a dive from a deluxe suite?

Of course not. Reviewers disagree all the time. In fact, it makes great TV when they do. While living in Australia, one of the few TV shows I watched with any frequency was the ABC's At the Movies with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz. Despite the fact I was seeing less and less movies at the cinema, the show was at it's most engaging when one host was bowled over by a film and the other was left untouched. When they both loved or loathed a film, there was always a sense of disappointment, of dead air being filled with uh-huhs and oh yesses.

Review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes seek to remove the subjectivity and twist reviewing back to quantitative blacks and whites. 69% of reviews were favourable for I Am Legend, so it must be okay. Really?

Book reviews (at least the reviews I read in print and online) don't bother with stars or rosettes or coronets. But why is a book less like a hotel room than a movie, especially if that movie is based on a book?

I think it has something to do with the complexity of books. I'm talking here about both novels and short story collections. The way you gather together threads throughout the reading process may differ from book to book, but the fact still remains that after you finish the final page, your work as reader -- as audience -- is not over.

The amount of work required after finishing a book is often a good measure of its worth. Having now finished Ian Fleming's Casino Royale and Moonraker, I can say they aren't very good pieces of literature, comfortable in the knowledge I'm not being undeservingly snobbish. The only thoughts I was left to work through at the conclusion of these books was how they tied in with the films and the overall Fleming/Bond legacy.

Several other books I've read in the past few months have, on the surface, and even while reading them, seemed good enough. It was only when I finished them and moved onto the next book in that particular pile (home, travel or lunchtime) that I realised how little I was thinking about the book outside of reading it. And how little it came back to me after having finished it.

Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes was shortlisted for the Booker this year, and made me realise how little I knew about Pakistan's role in the Soviet-Afghan conflict of the 1980s. But the story itself (narrator is arrested on suspicion of involvement in assassination plot...) went in one ear and out the other (excuse the cliché: it was an audiobook).

Another audiobook, The Brooklyn Follies, was more engaging whilst I listened to it, but, strangely for something that ends on the morning of September 11, it seemed to ask no questions of me as a reader after the final line. Stranger still since I am an Auster fan, and expected something to chew on. Perhaps it was because I knew 9/11 would be the terminus at which the book got off, so as I listened, it seemed 'The Times They Are A'Changing' was playing in the background?

Other books I have not enjoyed reading but for some reason they stuck in my throat. After raving about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I approached The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark with high expectations. And after two pages my expectations were being met. Sadly, the rest of the book (it was only 106 pages, I think) were an exercise in disappointment. I was reminded of the first book of Spark's I read (The Public Image) and why it took me so long to get around to reading another of her books.

The graph of my reading experience for The Driver's Seat would looks something like this:

However, my negative reaction stuck around in my head for the next week, forcing me to ponder what Muriel Spark was doing. In the introduction John Lancaster suggested The Driver's Seat was not one of Spark's most popular books because of it's unrelenting darkness. Indeed, it only shows one side of everything. In many ways, it felt less substantial than a short story, let alone a novella, let alone a novel as it purports to be in some places. And while I dispute Lancaster's claim, that it's a masterpiece, I can't help feeling now that it builds, rather than diminishes, my estimation of Muriel Spark.

So, to add in the chewing over period, the graph now looks something like this:

For comparison, this is what the graph of my reading experience for Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut would look like:

This is pretty typical for my relationship with Vonnegut. The voice usually kicks in straight away and gets my respect as a wannabe writer, but it's not until maybe twenty pages in that the story gets true momentum and I'm hooked. From time to time, the voice, or perhaps the things it has to say, strangle the plot (and my enjoyment), resulting in the judder bar effect. But, ultimately, it's the messages (both proclaimed from the mouthpiece narrator and limned by the plot) that linger long after finishing the novel, continually lifting my regard.

I know some films have continued to affect me long after viewing them. Fight Club (as a well-adjusted, angry teen). Easy Rider (that LSD trip in the cemetery...) Um... There might be a few more.

But for the most part, movies end for me when the credits roll. Okay, I may have a wee discussion about how (*spoiler alert*) Verbal was Kaiser Soze, or why those virgins killed themselves, but it's different to a book. Even a good attempt at turning a book into a movie, like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, leaves me feeling like I have been gliding on the surface of something, whereas the book had penetrated the meniscus.

Albums certainly grow (or shrink) in import with time. I wasn't so sure about Fully Completely the first 10-12 times I listened to it (over the space of 2 years), and then one day it clicked (I've been earworming 'At the Hundredth Meridian' for the last three weeks). But that's the nature of albums: they are constructed to be engaged with repeatedly. Bad albums (and almost every double album ever made) ignore this fact.

Half decent films, especially in this age of dedicated movie channels and DVD/Blu-Ray, also invite repeated viewings.

And, while we're at it: hotels are there to be stayed in whenever you need, and restaurants shoot for repeat custom.

All these rateable commodities seem to share this possibility of return. The reviewer has only seen the film once or twice, or listened to the album for a week. They visit the hotel every six months, but haven't seen in every room, nor have they tried every dish on a restaurant's menu. But they still feel confident they can recognise a 4-star experience when the have one.

But books. They seem to be a different creature.

I know some people do re-read their favourite books with regularity, but not me. There's too many possible favourite books out there to discover. Something about the architecture of a book, its length and the level of engagement required, means that a once-through is as much as can reasonably be expected. (I know many novelists and academics would disagree...). But because of what has gone into the experience (all those words, scenes, characters, experienced in different sized chunks in different places at irregular intervals), it takes more to unpack the book and evaluate its lasting impact.

All this is to say two things:

One: I wouldn't want to labour book reviewers with a star rating system, because they may not have "finished" the book by the time they submit their review. That is, they would have read the final page, but who's to say they don't need another week (or month, or year) to discover what they really feel about it. I think this is where criticism and review part ways.

Two: I do think keeping a personal rating system for books would be interesting, and perhaps useful. If I continued to do my little graphs of the reading experience for a given book, and how it performs once the covers are closed for good, patterns would no doubt emerge. Is there, in fact, an ideal worm? I believe a novel has to build, but it also has to start big to grab the reader. But you can't aspire to write a saggy, U-shaped, book. Same goes for short story collections. The first and last stories usually have a bit of tangy zizzle about them, but you can't hide poor stories in the middle or get away with too many of the same story.

I probably won't graph every book I read (I get enough graphage on Sundays), but it would be interesting if the 5-star system was overthrown and instead people talked about a saggy movie or a judder bar meal. It might help remind us that every reader/viewer/diner/guest's view is different yet valid.

As for Generals and Colonels, I think they can keep their stars.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Status Report: Week Forty-Two

Week Forty-Two – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 16,099 words (compared to 16,815 words last week)
Average: 2,300 words per day (compared to target of 3,001 words/day)
Most productive day: Saturday 18 October, 4,786 words
Least productive day: Sunday 19 October, 1,387 words
Year-to-date: 662,698 words (137,489 words behind target)

I had such a good day yesterday. I went to sleep confident I could replicate it today. But I woke up feeling drained rather than recharged. I could feel from the tightness of my jaw and the faint metallic tang of my mouth that I had been clenching my jaw all night. As I lay in bed, feeling like a piano had fallen on me, I ran through what I could recall of my night. Had my sleep been broken? Not that I remembered. Had I dreamt? Yeah. What about? Writing. What did you write? Everything I planned to write on Sunday (next scene in novel A, a poem based on this video and the fact the guy survived the Hindenburg disaster by similar means, this status report... though it was much more positive).

The problem with writing in your dreams it's gone when you wake up.

Occasionally a whacked-out image or a line of dream dialogue will be useful for conscious writing, but I have decided to bar my sub-conscious from the serious work of composition. By night, the daily grind of 4,500 words is just too much for my body, and teeth, to handle.

I still feel like a piano-drop victim as I type this...

But I still managed to knock up some graphs:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Great Moments in iPod Shuffle #6

Elvis Costello - Tokyo Storm Warning
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Heavy Metal
Tonic - Casual Affair
Sleater-Kinney - Funeral Song
Oasis - Roll With It
Black Sabbath - Odin's Court
Gordon Downie - Into The Night
William Shatner - That's Me Trying
Deja Voodoo - Today, Tomorrow, Timaru
The Wallflowers - The Difference
Pixies - Velouria
The Lemonheads - Style
The Kinks - Good Day
Spoon - June's Foreign Spell

Not a gimmicky as previous entries. Just the songs that played from the moment I left my flat to the moment I arrived at work this morning. Normally I'd skip one in every two-point-five songs, but didn't push a thing today. Was it my mood? Or was my iPod making an effort (seeing as how I rarely ask it to shuffle anymore with all the audiobooks I listen to)?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The leaves are turning
Time to write another Autumn poem

The leaves are falling
Sit and watch; wait for a simile

The leaves have fallen
Better luck next year

Monday, October 13, 2008

Status Report: Week Forty-One

While not as bad as last week, number forty-one was another sub-par effort, though for different reasons than those I wallowed in last week. No, I actually felt stories bubbling up inside of me. I was less tired. My time was more my own. The problem, this time, was reading.

I am normally reading three books at once. One is the audiobook I listen to while travelling to and from work. One I leave at work and read during my lunch breaks. Another I read at home. Now that we have our own bathroom, I have split the last category in two, leaving one book in the bathroom, and one beside my bed.

On a given week, I would expect to read 100-150 pages of my lunch time book, anywhere from 50-200 pages of an at-home book, and listen to about 7 hours of an audiobook (which corresponds to 180 pages at a rough guess). That’s an average week.

I don't think that's a lot. In fact, when I allow myself to think about life after this million words malarkey, I usually feel that I could pull back on some of the writing (less blog posts and graph making, less rookie poetry), and spend more time reading books.

But, even in the Year of Circa 800,000 Written Words, all it takes is one book to bump writing from my top priority.

On Monday I finally received my contributor’s copies of The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume Five. They were posted a month ago, but to my old address. So the anticipation had rather built. In fact, it is now more than a year since I got an email from Owen Marshall asking if I would like to submit anything, so the arrival of the finished product was a long timing coming. (I once had a dream that a full-blown Scot from work who’d never been to NZ also got a story into the collection, and I was outraged…)

After scanning the introduction for the appearance of my name (I’m only human) I quickly got sucked into the other stories. One of the first things I noticed was BNZF5 is ordered by author’s surname, as was the last edition of Sport. This is fine. I tend not to read short story collections or literary journals in a linear fashion. The beauty of such books is that you can jump around. You have 15 minutes left of your bus journey so you flick through and find a four page story. You aren’t really in the mood for a story in the second person, so you read instead about a trip to Morocco. Having an arbitrary order seems to encourage such behaviour.

Jumping in and out of these stories got me excited about reading again. Every spare moment felt like a book should fill it. I looked at the poetry I was bashing out and decided I’d rather be reading finished products from better poets than myself. On Saturday I went to the Scottish Poetry Library and again struggled to limit myself to six books. (Along with this exercise, the SPL is one of the main offenders when it comes to explaining my sudden obsession with writing and reading poetry).

The books I am currently reading now looks like this:

The Blind Assassin is my audiobook. The two Bond novels I found in the closet of our new flat and they had been my bathroom and bedside books until BNZF5 arrived, and they look set to be relegated further with all that poetry around. The one book not pictured is Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, which is in my desk at work.

With any book, but especially with poetry, I can’t stand to have it lie around without at least having read a few pages. With the Miłosz and the Geoff Cochrane, this ended with me reading the whole books through. (I have now read all of GC’s poetry collections from 1992 to the present; again, thanks to the SPL).

So my reading is all over the place. Writing seems less exciting: I might not know exactly what’s going to happen, but I at least have a modicum of control. This week, at least, control was something I could do without.

At some stage, I hope to talk about what’s actually gone on inside some of these books…

But until then…

Week Forty-One – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 16,815 words (compared to 12,007 words last week)
Average: 2,402 words per day (compared to target of 3,001 words/day)
Most productive day: Sunday 12 October, 3,347 words
Least productive day: Wednesday 8 October, 1,458 words
Year-to-date: 646,559 words (134,822 words behind target)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award... Top Ten

Further to my post last week on the 2008 BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards 2008 , I received an email this evening... Apparently my story ('Oh! So Careless') was in the top ten in the Open Section. So, from top novice last year to top ten among the big kids this year. I'll take that.

Here's what the judge, Peter Wells, had to say:

“Overall, I looked at more than 230 stories so a good story really had to stand out. The nine finalists caught my attention. Sometimes a story grabs you with its content, but usually it is the combination of content and style. There were many stories which seemed thinly disguised memoir. I didn’t feel this with the nine finalists: they seemed self sufficient stories in their own right. Each writer had gone that extra mile to make the story stand out. Even the title is important - it’s like looking at a menu and from what’s written you have to imagine the taste. I think the nine finalists could improve their work by reading short stories by acclaimed writers - people as various as Tolstoy, Elizabeth Bowen, Alice Munro as well as contemporary short story writers who appear each week in the New Yorker magazine, for example. It’s not an easy artform at all. And we all learn and become more enthusiastic about the short story by reading the great writers. But each of the finalists should feel heartened by the fact, in a such a big public competition, their work stood out. What separated their work from the winning entry? I would say the winning entry had more observation of the foibles of the way we interact as humans. It was quietly, even sardonically humorous. It was well tailored overall. Sometimes, strangely enough, if you relax with the medium, ie not necessarily try to tell 'big stories', you come up with a better result. But be encouraged. And dream up further stories.”
Since my last post, the three winning stories have been posted on the BNZ's site. I've read them. Novitz's story probably does observe more foibles than mine... And his title is probably a better menu entry... Though I'm not sure, if given a contents page of twenty stories I'd turn to a story called 'Three Couples' first (or fifth).

More on reading habits and contents pages tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Last night while trawling the internet I discovered...

Dave Wyndorf got fat.

The last time I saw a picture of him, he looked something like this:

I assumed he still looked like this, subsequent to his 2006 overdose, seeing as how his band, Monster Magnet, released a new album in late 2007. I figured I probably seen recent pics on their myspace or something. But no.

In June 2008, he looked like this:

[Not the best shot I know... Not many photos about... More here if you're interested]

[Edit: here's another one:

Positive spin: a lot of people put on weight after kicking drugs. Kicking drugs means no more overdosing. That's a good thing. And heck, the guy turns 52 at the end of the month!

According to a message Wyndorf left on the Monster Magnet message board on 30 June 2008, the "chub" was the result of "3 years of reading and eating chocolate", and he declares he "[b]ack on track now, though! "

The significance of the above before and after shots, beyond the usual women's mag voyeurism, may be lost on non-Monster Magnet fans. But it's thrown me. Wyndorf has always been a leather clad panther. Even with the overdose and the layoff, I didn't expect to see him wearing hoodies and what look like a cross between a mumu and pirate shirt and generally frumping it up, surrounded by a band that, apart from a few more lines around the mouth and one or two tidier haircuts, looks as generic rock'n'roll as it did throughout the nineties and the first half of this decade (and numerous personnel changes).

I did detect a possible change in the tenor of his songwriting on last year's 4-Way Diablo, but I wasn't expecting this. There was too much of that old Monster Magnet swagger. I just can't picture the chubby Wyndorf delivering the line, "I got a cock made out of platinum"
(from 'Wall of Fire').

[But two lines later Wyndorf does exclaim: "I got the world's last piece of chocolate"...]
This is not a personal attack against Wyndorf - this isn't about him personally at all, it's about Wyndorf the image. From the half-gibing declaration on the inlay of MM's first full length album (It's a satanic drug thing, you wouldn't understand), the band has wedded musical substance with chemical, aural entertainment with visual. Without the image of the band, and Wyndorf especially, as rock extremists (well beyond cliche: where sex, drugs and Hawkwind covers are all), the music loses something. Those ah-huhs and aw yeahs are no longer beyond cliche, but sit squarely within its realms. Dave Wyndorf can't be a sad, chubby, and ultimately human character and continue to front the same sort of band.

He's vowed to lose the weight, and he may have already made strides. All I know for sure is this has added another element of intrigue to the shows I will be attending in Eastern Europe next month.

It's also added another slew of possible cliched rock'n'roll deaths for Wyndorf (think Elvis, think Mama Cass). One thing's for certain: when it's all over, it'll be a hell of a biography. I'm officially starting the queue for those who want to write it. (Hopefully the final chapter isn't for another few decades).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Status Report: Week Forty

Week Forty – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 12,007 words
Average: 1,715 words per day (compared to 2,529 last week)
Most productive day: Tuesday 30 September, 3,660 words
Least productive day: Saturday 4 October, 283 words
Year-to-date: 629,784 words (132,511 words behind target)

Last week was a down week, no denying. There are plenty of things at which I can point my finger, both mental and physical, but it felt as if something else, something less definable, was enveloping everything. Here’s my attempt to put it into a graph:

It’s the grey ring that’s the real problem. I’ve called it Cyclic Intangibles because I feel it is part of a cycle. At a writing high (see Week 35), it feels as if the planets have aligned. I have time and space to write. Everything feels settled. I have motivation, perhaps a specific, achievable goal. But there’s something more. As if planets really have aligned and all that astrology carry-on is the business. As if there really are muses. As if the universe wants me to write!

At the lows (see Week Forty), it feels as if the universe thinks writing is a monumental waste of time. As if, just to spite me, the transit of Venus is messing with my Feng Shui and all that carry-on is the business. In a low the obstacles to writing are more than the sum of the constraints on your time and energy. On top of everything -- or more correctly, surrounding everything -- is a fine mist of ugh. Trying to write (meaningfully, purposefully) in a low feels like Saturn trying to burst through its own rings of ice and dust.

But for some reason, I can write poetry whilst surrounded by a ring of ugh. *Brief pause to consult first pie chart.* I think this is because poetry is used to being surrounded.

SCENE: Half a dozen squad cars pull into a motel carpark, sirens blaring. Novels and DVDs and Playstation Games get out of the squad cars, guns drawn, and encircle a single sheet of browning paper. A ghost-written James Patterson Novel with a megaphone: “Alright, Poetry, we have you surrounded.”

But poetry doesn’t care if it’s in a parking lot or juvi. It doesn’t seek to capture the universe. Instead it withdraws to its safe place and captures the inside of the turtle’s shell. Inside this shell there’s no thoughts about publishing (I’m such a rookie poet it’s not funny), and certainly not making money (not even the Galapagos Tortoises of poetry can manage to live on verse alone). Inside the turtle’s shell, it’s dark. For prose, I am constantly trying to build a big enough fire to see my way through the darkness. With poetry, I am happy to sit and wait for my eyes to adjust. Slowly pin-pricks will appear. There is, it turns out, a universe within that turtle shell.

That is my overly poetic mixed metaphorical explanation of the number 12,007.

I am not going to abandon Novel B. It’s just a low. These things are cyclic. In five weeks, I’ll be high on words, the muses will communicate by RSS feed, the planets will slow their orbits in awe, and, for the cherry on top, I’ll get something accepted for an online journal I had forgotten I submitted to. But first, I need a good night’s sleep!

Friday, October 3, 2008

BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards 2008

It's official. I am no longer the reigning Novice champion of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition. That honour now belongs to Joseph Ryan.

Story here.

Congrats to Julian Novitz for winning the open category and joining "the literary heavyweights".

I haven't seen the stories up on the BNZ site just yet... if you go searching, you'll still find my story, Another Language. How unfortunate.

If you hurry, you might still be able to watch this video cobbled together with footage from the 2007 awards and, if I'm not mistaken, 2001. I was in Germany during the 2007 ceremony, but you can see my mum standing next to Carl Nixon at 1:04-1:10. Go mum!

Okay, off to see Ladyhawke at Cabaret Voltaire... Got to support those 80's obsessed Kiwis, eh?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Rejection

I've read two quite different articles about rejection (of the literary kind) in the last two days.

The first, via the IIML's newsletter, an editor and writer's thoughts on rejection in the latest The Kenyon Review.

The second, via Beattie's Book Blog, a humble bookkeeper saves editors time by rejecting manuscripts.

I haven't thought a lot about rejection lately, as I haven't really been submitting things. But earlier in the year I had a patch. I wrote a story about it...

Perfectly Crafted

Mitzi Visitacion had done everything right.

She had the pseudonym, randomly generated from to U.S. Census Data.

She had the MFA.

She had permission to quote her manuscript assessors’ words of praise (“Ms. Visitacion writes like English is our second language…”; “Blue Belly Blues is unforgettably… memorable”).

She had the perfectly crafted submission letter.

And of course—of course!—she had perfectly crafted stories.

But all this got her was rejection. Rejection letters, rejection slips, rejection emails, rejection text messages, rejections scrawled on Denny’s napkins and slid under her bathroom stall, rejections instead of prizes in her cereal box.

When she received a rejection note from a journal she had never submitted to—she’d thought she was signing up for an annual subscription—enough was enough.

She opened a new Word document and typed:

Dear Famous Writer,

We here at Xyzphage are looking to publish writers at the peak of their powers, though it is admirable you are still toiling away. So it’s a no from us.

Yours in pre-emption,

Xyzphage Editorial Board

She looked up American Writers on Wikipedia and copied and pasted the names into an Excel spreadsheet. One by one she tracked down each writer’s email addresses and rejected them. If she could not find their email address, she left a comment on their website or advised their agent of their rejection. Rejections for deceased writers were sent to their estates.

It felt good to reject Ernest Hemingway (“not butch enough”), Hunter S. Thompson (“too constricted”), and Grace Paley (“reads like another writing workshop prodigies’ pale imitation of Grace Paley”).

If a writer was really old, but still writing, like John Updike or Elmore Leonard, she still addressed the rejection, “To The Estate Of…”

She was surprised at how many replies she received to her rejection emails. The audacity. It had never occurred to her to respond (let alone object) to a rejection email. Maybe this was what was holding her back.

But she was having too much fun writing rejections to worry about her own perfectly crafted stories.

When she finished the list of American Authors, she broadened her horizons.

Dear Midlist Author,

Someone told us to check out your most recent short story collection or novel, which we did. Unfortunately we here at Xyzphage do not consider your writing to be an appropriate fit with the current direction of our publication.

Yours in pre-emption,

Editor X

Then she began trawling the internet for e-zines, noting down the contributors and rejecting them when they least suspected it.

Dear Emerging Writer,

We here at Xyzphage have noticed your writing around various journals and websites but you have a ways to go before you should think about approaching this publication.

Yours in pre-emption,

Uncle Xyz

To add sting to these rejections, she created a website for Xyzphage, complete with submission guidelines, and posted some of her less-than-perfectly-crafted stories under various randomly generated pseudonyms.

“They think this is good?” she imagined the Emerging Writers thinking. It made her feel warm. Physically warm. The word that seemed to fit best was Chuffed.

But then Xyzphage began to receive submissions. Why she used a real email address, she couldn't remember.

Mitzi Visitacion was forced to stop sending out random rejections and focus solely on rejecting Xyzphage submissions. Soon she could no longer personalize her rejections—there were that many submissions.

So she sent out acceptance letters instead. What was stopping her? She accepted anyone who sent her an email. Even eBay’s ‘Summer Savings’ and Rudolfo Zurich's ‘Cheap Cheap Cialis’ made it onto Xyzphage.

But why stop there? She went into her sent items and retrieved every rejection letter and changed a few words.

Dear Writer,

We here at Xyzphage have noticed your writing around various journals and websites and consider it an appropriate fit with the current direction of our publication.

Yours in prevarication,

Uncle Xyz

For some reason, this got her more irate replies.

Writers emailed asking to have their stories removed from the site. Submissions dried up. The hit counter for Xyzphage stopped ticking over.

The flare up had fizzled.

And all Mitzi Visitacion was left with was her perfectly crafted, unpublished stories.