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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Year of Eight Hundred Thousand Words - - Summary Extravaganza

800,737 words

My total has not moved since 20 December, but I have. I've spent Weihnachten / Christmas in Northern Germany, and now I'm in Florence for Anno Nuovo / New Years. I'll be in Rome and Cairo for my birthday (I wonder if any customs officials will wish me happy birthday?), Honduras for Waitangi Day, and probably Argentina for Easter.

I haven't arrived at any New Year's Resolutions for 2009 yet as I'm still getting over 2008's.

Which brings me to:

How I Got To 800,737 words...

From 2 January to 22 March 2008 I was ahead of target. Those were the days. The blue flatlining at the end of the year is a bit depressing / misleading. I recommend you focus more on the steepness of the section that just precedes it.

Breaking it down further...

And further still...

(Week 50 stands out, don't it?)

And further still? Okay...

It was neck and neck between Sunday and Tuesday for a long time. In the end, Sunday contributed 420 more words than it's weekday rival. I'm still shocked that Tuesday did so well. I guess it's because there's never anything to do on Tuesdays except write, and I still have a bit of energy left from the weekend without it being a Monday...

By taking out all the days I was away from home, Sunday clearly outperformed the rest (adjusted average of 2,807 words versus Tuesday's 2,619).

But it would be remiss of me not to address the fact I was aiming for 1,000,000 words and not 800,000.

As Mike LaFontaine would say, Wha' Happened?


2008 contained no less than seven international trips, ranging from long weekends to nine day absences from my desk: Madrid, Norway, Paris, Turkey, Greece, Estonia/Latvia and now Germany/Italy (and beyond). Then there were the trips within Scotland exploring the Highlands and Hebrides, and the day trips, and the shows during festival...

The link between travel and the ever-widening gap between me and my target was summed up pretty well by this graph from back in week 39:

But travel wasn't the whole story. There were 43 goose eggs in 2008 (days when I wrote no words) - - all travel related. But if I had those 43 days again, I'd still need to write around 4,600 words a day to crack the million. The longest span over which I averaged that many words was eight days => Verdict: unlikely.

There was, of course, the dreaded day job to contend with. Or day jobs. After an extended Christmas break, I started a six-week temp job in mid-Jan. Queue first drop-off. Then, in March, I moved straight into a more difficult job. I still spent the same amount of time away from home, but I was left with much less energy in the evenings (and less time to dream up things to write about while filing...).

But travel and employment aren't really excuses. I don't regret the places I've been or the money daytime drudgery has earnt. I always knew writing had to fit in around life: the Quest For A Million Words came about as a way of shifting writing up the list of priorities (however artificially), and in that respect it was a success.

But there were other 'contributing factors' to my failure to reach one million words:

My inability to commit to, and finish, a novel-length narrative. Perhaps it was due to the pressures imposed by this scheme (which I devised to force me to finish another novel). Perhaps it was the difficulty inherent in writing a novel in evenings and weekends? (If and when I jump back on that Clydesdale, I'll look long at hard at doing it without working a day job).

Or perhaps I wasn't ready to write another novel? Perhaps I'm just not built for them?

Related to my cooling off with the novel as a form, was my increasing interest and passion for shorter forms, both in prose and poetry. Short stories yielded me my biggest success of 2008 (though my collection won't be published till 2010), and they made up the biggest chunk of my writing pie this year (see below), but I don't think I could have written much more that 300,000 words of short fiction this year, or any other year. There are only so many ideas you come up with, and only a percentage of these stand up to being put on the page, and only some of these warrant sticking with and revising...

Same goes for poetry, though it's more pronounced due to the lack of WORDS in them...

I don't regret any of the time I spent on poetry or short fiction, so I cant turn around now and say I wish I tried harder with Novel A and Novel B. They'll still be there when I'm ready.

Recipie for an 800,737 word pie

Blogging is a rather large constituent. I expended about as many words writing about my travels for friends and family on my travel blog as I did on Novel A. I probably didn't put as much care and attention into those posts as I did in my rock'n'roll novel rewrite, but when I read over some of the 'improvements' I thought I was making to the novel, I was clearly way off base. On the other hand, when I read over some of my travel blogs, I don't cringe as much as I would suspect (typos aside), and find that without churning out 2,000 words of "We did A, then went to B, then had C for dinner..." I would have forgotten some details which might one day wriggle their way into my fiction (or poetry).

The moral: travel blogs (and update-type emails, see larger green segment) contain some value and deserve to be included in the word count.

As for blogging here, sometimes it has been a postive, sometimes a negative. The weekly wordcount updates helped push me along, but sometimes it all felt a bit too public. I'm liked having a place to air my thoughts about short story competitions, or the evolution of my musical tastes, or nuwanubianism... but wonder now if there shouldn't be a cooling off period before some things get posted, and an expiry date after which some posts cease to exist.

And since this blog, with it's quest-y title and optimistic and soon-to-be-outdated url, is so 2008, I have a decision to make: continue to blog here, create a new blog (with another gimmick?), or lapse into silence...?

It's a decision I am yet to make.

For now, the Quest For A Million Words remains open. I will appear at random intervals to post photos and perhaps even anecdotes from my travels. When I have a job and a place to live back in New Zealand, and have sent of the final manuscript for my short story collection (title still to be determined), things should be clearer.

But for now, here's some photos from Germany...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Status Report: Week Fifty-One

[Since my landlord's laptop has OpenOffice software rather than Microsoft Office, the graphs look a bit different this week.]

Week Fifty-One – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 13,957 words (compared to 30,863 words last week)
Average: 1,994 words per day (compared to target of 3,001 words/day)
Most productive day: Monday 15 December, 4,141 words
Least productive day: Sunday 21 December, 0 words
Year-to-date: 800,737 words

This post was written on Saturday, but, thanks to the wonder of post scheduling, is appearing on Sunday: technically the last day of week 51 and the last day I woke up in Edinburgh.

Hence the goose egg for Sunday.

Apart from the occasional post on my travel blog and an email here or there, it's going to be goose eggs all the way to April 2009.

No fiction. No poetry. No rambling blog posts about Muriel Spark or The National.

I don't know if I can go cold turkey.

I may have to write hundred word stories on restaurant menus, sonnets on ticket stubs, grand ideas for Novel C on the back of my hand...

Week 51 was quite a come down from the record-breaking of its predecessor. Too many errands to perform. Too many people to catch up with one last time. Too many things I never got around to fighting for my attention.

Seems a shame to end 2008 on a downer, writing-wise.

But hey, I made it to 800,000 words. That's 80% of a million words. Or 2,188 words per day. If you take out the 46 days (past and future) in 2008 when I was unable to write due to being outside the UK, the average becomes 2,502 words per day.

But I'll hold back on further number crunching until my graph extravaganza.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Well, my laptop has just gone bye-bye. Don't worry, I'll see it again in 150 days, give or take. Along with other possessions Marisa and I can't bear to part with but can't lug around four continents in our packs, my laptop will be cruising the high seas back to New Zealand. Barring catastrophe(s), the box will beat me home.

I'm using my landlord's laptop to type this, if you were wondering.

I could have knuckled down and written on this computer this morning after taping the box shut, but I couldn't face it. It felt unfaithful. Me and that black slab of increasing obsolescence have been through a lot these past twelve months. Sadly, it won't be around to see my eight hundredth thousand word of 2008.

That should come later today when I start my big wordcount summary...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best of Edinburgh

'Tis the season for heavily subjective lists...

Best view:
“You take the high road and I'll take the low road…”

You can keep your Arthur's Seats and Carlton Hills, give me a glance down Dublin Street towards the Forth. [It doesn't photograph so well, especially on a rainy day in December, but humour me.]

I still recommend every visitor climbs Arthur's Seat and Carlton Hill, but I always feel underwhelmed by views from on high.

Stand on the corner of Dublin and Queen Streets and you're not even at the top of the slope (that would be further up towards Princes Street). But the view has it all, Georgian architecture giving way to greenery (the Botanical Gardens lie somewhere within those trees) and the normally-blue streak of the Forth and the evergreen streak of the Kingdom of Fife. The view is best appreciated after first looking down Howe Street towards St. Stephen's Church and a hidden Stockbridge (best place for quality bread, cheese and seafood) - - something about the withheld promise of the Forth being delayed until Dublin Street. Even though I walked down Queen Street ten times a week for nine months this year, I never tired of this fleeting view.

Best place to go on your lunch break:

Having just bagged it, I'm recommending Carlton Hill here. Two of my three jobs were within range so that I could climb Carlton Hill and have the breeze blow work from my brain for half an hour. It helped remind me that I was still a tourist, that I still had things to explore and discover. I imagine it would reenergise a lifelong resident in a similar way.

Best place to read a book:

Despite the above, I spent most of my lunchtimes reading a book in the breakroom at work. As a place to read a book, the breakroom (three floors below street level) cannot compare to sitting on the grassy slope of the Princes Gardens in the sun. The thing is, you probably only have three chances a year to do this [hence no photo this time], so have a book at the ready!

Best month:

It’s a toss up between August and December.

So what if Summer 2008 came and went on a Thursday? August is still the most interesting time to be in Edinburgh. Comedy, theatre, music, busking, street parades, and more free events than one could possibly attend, you've no excuse to be bored.

In December, on the other hand, no one expects the weather to be nice, so there's no tinge of disappointment, unless you're hoping for a decent snowfall. Princes Street and the Gardens are again the place to be with the German Market, ice skating rink, and fairground rides. And then, of course, there's Hogmannay on the 31st: hand's down the best New Years I've ever had.

Best place to go every month

The Scottish Poetry Library, of course. On my first visit, I felt a bit of an imposter. I was the only person there apart from the librarian, and she didn't seem keen to acknowledge my presence. The floor creaked terribly. I was looking for an anthology of modern Scottish poetry, which I found, but also left with five volumes of New Zealand poetry. Again, I felt an imposter: a NZer borrowing NZ books from the SCOTTISH poetry library, but I learnt not to worry (it always seemed to be a different librarian issuing my books). A more correct emphasis would be: the Scottish POETRY Library.

At the beginning of 2008 didn't see the need for a library dedicated to poetry... now I write the stuff with my serious writing face on. Be warned: the same could happen to you!

Favourite Building

Another tie.

West Register Building, Charlotte Square

St Mary’s Church, Palmerston Place

This church features in Novel B, despite the story being exclusively set in New Zealand. I'm not really a churchy person, but I suspect my affection for St. Mary's began when I noticed that at dusk it looks like Gotham City's take on the Disney Castle:

As I walked around town today, the weather was miserable and so was I for the most part. Why can I not find risoni in any supermarket all of a sudden? Why do people say they'll buy something off you but never arrive to pick it up? Why does my iPod run out of battery just as I leave the house? Edinburgh isn't so great a city that it makes bad moods impossible - - heck, it's probably caused a few - - but, if you walk around long enough, you'll find some sort of rainbow.

Sorry, that was a bit cheesy. But I'm leaving in two days. I can barely see the keyboard for the nostalgic mist that has set in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One Revolution

In January this year The Lumière Reader's creative writing page published my sort-of story 'The Kick Inside'. This was the first time words written during my quest for a million words were published outside of this blog.

Now, to close out 2008, I have three poems (all written during '08) over at Lumière. Go symmetry!

This comes close on the heels of my poem 'Himalyan White' appearing in Turbine 08.

Hold on a minute. Poetry was never in my plans this year.

But looking back, the signs were there early on that a change was coming.

On the 19th of Jan I had already owned up to writing poetry when my primary objective was Novel A. At that stage poetry was primarily a rebellion: when faced with a blank page, writing 'poetry' (blather with line breaks) could fill the space without having to worry about quality or the chances it would be published -- because I had zero expectations.

But around the same time, my interest in reading poetry was revived. I tackled Paul Muldoon's 'Sillyhow Stride' (on the pretense of being a Warren Zevon fan). The Best NZ Poems 2007 arrived at the end of March when I was getting NZ Lit withdrawal, then I dove into Best Scottish Poems to compare and contrast.

My experiment for the month of April evolved not only into one poem, but a technique which yielded dozens more. ('Josephine', which appears on Lumière, began life as The Tragically Hip's 'Goodnight Josephine' [video below], and 'Himalyan White' was inspired by mangled translations of Procul Harem's 'Whiter Shade of Pale' and The Moody Blues' 'Nights in White Satin', though it piggybacks off my Bhutan research for the perpetually abandoned Novel A).

And then I went to the Scottish Poetry library for the first time, and the second, and the third...

I can't see myself ever becoming more than a dabbler in poetry, which is still more than I envisioned at the start of 2008. But the ability to write something complete in a day holds a strong appeal while surrounded by works-in-progress (or works-on-hold). And, thanks to the internet, to be able to unleash these dabbles upon the world provides the ever-needed reminder that there are readers out there, and writing isn't always an elaborate form of self-flagellation.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Status Report: Week Fifty

Last night I saw a fox in Princes Street Gardens. I tried taking a photo but it was too far away, the park too dimly lit. It was a fox though. It wasn’t just me who saw it. We followed the fox for several hundred metres until it disappeared on the Lothian Road side of the Ross Bandstand.

I’ve seen squirrels in the Gardens (though not lately, it being winter and all), but it’s not exactly a haven for wildlife. There may be wild foxes around Holyrood Park / Arthur's Seat, but to Princes Street from there, it would still have to go 500 yards through the centre of Edinburgh (or along the rail lines)...

I must do some research on whether foxes are a common sight in the gardens, excuse me a moment…

Okay, I’m back. I couldn’t find anything about foxes in the Princes Street Gardens anywhere on the internet. Has Google let me down? Or am I the first to mention it? If so, is it less than noteworthy, or inconceivable? Will I be spotting Yowies next?

Anyway. This is just to prove that life can contain its excitement while writing a considerable amount*…

Week Fifty – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 30,863 words (compared to 12,085 words last week)
Average: 4,409 words per day (compared to normal target of 3,001 words/day; ambitious target of 5,000 words/day)
Most productive day: Wednesday 10 December, 6,376 words
Least productive day: Saturday 13 December, 2,796 words
Year-to-date: 786,778 words

QFAMW Records Achieved:

Highest single day wordcount: actually reached twice, first on Monday 8 Dec with 5,335 words, then smashed on Wednesday with 6,376 words
Highest weekly wordcount (previously held by Week 3: 22,409 words)
Highest Least Productive Day
(if that makes sense)

As I mentioned last Sunday, when I set target of the 5,000 words a day, it was with the knowledge that everything was in my favour in Week 50. No work, defined project(s), looming deadline. Add regular doses of caffeine and not-so-nice weather to reduce the temptation to venture outside, and voila, a truckload of words.

This graph show nicely how much not working a day job affects productivity:

Wordcount is one thing. But I’m also pleased with what I’ve managed to produce so far.

A new 12,000 word (and growing) short story.

A new 4,000 word short story (almost finished).

Expanding an existing short story from 3,000 words to 6,000 words (in progress).

This next week is all about tying up loose ends, backing up documents in multiple places, and getting ready to go cold turkey on the (creative) writing front for four months.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves…

2008 Writing Days Remaining: 6
Required daily wordcount to crack 800,000 words: 2,222 words per day


* Other excitements this week:

Seeing a floppy disc on the footpath and getting that reminisce-y feeling;

Playing Risk (did you know that in mission risk these days you have to achieve four missions of increasing difficulty?);

A guy was supposed to come to collect my printer today but his sat nav was broken, I gave him directions, but he panicked on the phone and said he would drive back to Livingstone and get his wife’s sat nav… still no sign of him.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best Books of 2008 (sort of)

It seems everyone is unleashing their best of 2008 lists at the moment. Unfortunately I’ve only read (slash listened to) three books that came out, in one form or another, in 2008 (The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif (audiobook), Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk), and none of them are close to being in the top ten books I’ve read this year.

Which exposes the big lie of most of these year-end lists: that the best books/music/films people have read/listened to/seen that year were all there in the new releases section. The motivation is clear: these lists help move units and solve the ‘what do I get my step-brother for Christmas?’ dilemma. But how many truly great books come out in a given year? And how many of these books were on best of lists in their given year?

So, with that pointless proviso out of the way, here’s the list of the best books I’ve read this year:

[(A) denotes audiobook]

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I blogged about it here soon after finishing the book and my opinion has not changed. Neither has my opinion of the book I compared Brodie to: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (A) (good but not top ten material). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie experience encouraged me to read some more Spark (I’d read two of her novels previous to Brodie), but The Driver’s Seat was an exercise in frustration and The Comforters went soft after the first few chapters. Still, Brodie will always be a book I remember fondly, especially due to its close ties with Edinburgh.

Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions was the first Vonnegut book I read in 2008 (perhaps my fourth or fifth overall) and like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, it encouraged me to read more of this author. I think, upon reflection, Cat’s Cradle was my the favourite of the 2008 batch (others in order of appreciation: Galapagos, Hocus Pocus, God Bless You Mr Rosewater). I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times this year, but it’s KV’s voice that gets me, and it's there in all these books. Breakfast and Cat's Cradle are just that bit more memorable in terms of plot and inventiveness.

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore
Another short novel (so far, only Breakfast of Champions was over 200pgs, and that included illustrations), but the behemoths are coming. Not that Who Will Run The Frog Hospital felt light in any respect. Tight without being stingy. Witty without being cynical. Elegiac without being morose. Moore walks many a sharp edge and the result is a book I will read again.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

I had read ‘City of Glass’, the first novella in the trilogy, before this year, but (inexplicably) never got around to reading the next installments. So when I got ahold of the book in 2008, I read ‘Ghosts’ and ‘The Locked Room’ and then returned to ‘City of Glass’ which leads off the collection. Auster is a seriously smart man, and sometimes the strings of his smartness show, but I can always forgive the slips for what he says about the acts of writing, reading and living. I also read The Brooklyn Follies (A) this year, and liked it until the end, at which point its significance sort of dissolved, rather than crystallised.

Disgrace by J.M. Coeztee (A)

I’d studied Coeztee at university and found him too stark, too academic, but Disgrace was a revelation. Perhaps it was the short time I spent in South Africa last year, or all the mongrel dogs I saw as I listened to the audiobook on the walk to work, but this was a book I connected with. I love the way it insistently tackles the questions at its heart, but never truly resolves them, and never devolves into polemics.

Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (A)

The first longer novel on the list (the audiobook was 21 CDs). This will be another novel forever linked to my time in Edinburgh (I blogged about my listening experience here). Complex and riddled with intractable questions, but frequently funny, always inventive, and, most important, interesting. I went on to listen to A Wild Sheep’s Chase (A) a few months later, which now reads like a dress rehearsal (in terms of themes, character, narration, you name it) for Wind Up Bird.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (A)

Another fatty which I listened to while filing in my third best (read: worst) temp job in Edinburgh. It took me a while to get over Franzen’s showy, almost smarmy style, and longer still to warm to it and his characters, but I got there in the end. Not quite the era defining doorstop it hopes to be, but despite all the backhanded compliments, this book refuses to be left off this list.

Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

I remember over at the Millions earlier this year when a teacher asked if this book would be suitable to teach in his high school English class and someone said no. Not because the book is bad, or difficult, but simply because you really need to have worked in an office (perhaps any sort of full time work) to get the most out of this book. Some of the plot towards the end was a bit “first book” (I hate myself for using that term and those quotation marks, but whatever), but the third person plural narration is genius, and more importantly, executed so that doesn't stand out like a genius idea. Did I mention it was funny? Probably the funniest book I read this year.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Okay, so I’ve only just started reading this book, but sometimes you can just tell. Like, if you think about slowing down so you can savour each page, that’s a good indication. If you think about actually buying a copy (mine’s from the library) so it can be the book you take around the Americas with you, that’s another sign. Something tells me I don’t have to worry about the ending messing anything up (see Brooklyn Follies). Perhaps it’s Kurt Vonnegut calling it “The Great Gatsby of my time” on the front cover.

So that’s ten. There’s a second tier of books which I would recommend people read, but for some reason they just didn’t squeeze into the top ten. For example, I really enjoyed George Saunders’ The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil / In Persuasion Nation (which I read in the single UK edition ----> ) and his earlier short fiction collection Pastoralia, but they kind of cancelled each other out.

Then there was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (A), which I had in my top ten for a while until I remembered Joshua Ferris. It seemed to have everything—strong, believable narrative voice, interesting premise explored with restraint—but it fell off at the end (again).

Sometimes, books suffered by comparison to the one I had just finished or was reading concurrently (see Wasp Factory). Sadly for Lloyd Jones, I read Mr Pip after Then We Came To The End. Whereas I shared the office experience of the latter, I didn’t share the love of Great Expectations with the former.

Then there were books that were good, but paled in comparison to their author’s best work (see The Names by Don DeLillo, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon).

Okay, well, for completeness, here’s a list of the remaining books I haven't yet mentioned that I read this year (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some… I need to write these things down somewhere):

Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Money by Martin Amis (A)
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen (A)
The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood (A)
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley (A)
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
World Made Flesh by Jack O'Connell
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
Casino Royale and Moonraker by Ian Fleming

This list excludes poetry (I’ll post about the Scottish Poetry Library, again, next week), and literary journals. If I did not appear in The Best NZ Fiction Volume 5 I would have put that in my top ten by virtue of it being The Best Reading Experience of The Year.

Compiling this list has really bought home how much I’m looking forward to returning to NZ and diving head deep into some local literature. A couple of years ago I was lukewarm on NZ fiction, and stone cold on NZ poetry / all poetry. Things change, eh? Call it what you will (maturity, homesickness, brainwashing), but next year’s list will look quite different.

Other observations:

Okay, so there are only two female authors in my top ten, but this is a vast improvement on a couple of years ago. Making boys read Jane Austen before they’re ready probably does more harm than good. Again, it’s a maturity thing. You can keep your Couplands and Palahniuks, give me more Lorrie Moore!

Three of the top ten were consumed as audiobooks. As I’ve said before, reading and listening to books are different experiences but in the end, you should still be able to say you’ve ‘read’ The Corrections or whatever. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I would have read a third less books this year than I did. It’s something I’ll continue to do as long as I have my hearing.

Until recently I was always guarded about I'm reading certain books. Not that they were embarrassing in guilty pleasure kinda way, but that, as someone who claims to be an aspiring writer, I had only just read Kafka's Metamorphosis or the biggest book to come out of NZ in the last decade (see Mr Pip). But I'm learning, slowly, not to take myself so seriously. There are more books out there that you absolutely must read than you could physically read (and/or listen to) in a lifetime, so you gotta get selective. Sure, you'll make a bad decision here and there, but the fact no two bookish people have read the same books is what makes that booky conversation tick.

Finally, given this site is all about me trying to write a lot of words, it’s probably worth reflecting how the above reading list impacted, if at all, on what I wrote in 2008.

Well. There’s a short story which will appear in my short fiction collection to be published by Random House in 2010 which bares many similarities to Galapagos. But I hadn’t actually read that book when I wrote the story, and it was more of a general Kurt Vonnegut vibe I was channelling. I then read Galapagos as a sort of compare and contrast (I’m satisfied they’re different animals). And re-reading my story, I think it sound more like George Saunders than KV, so…

The story I’m working on now may or may not sound a bit like Who Will Run The Frog Hospital. I can’t tell, I’m too close to it at the moment.


When I was doing my hundred word stories (November experiment) I often found myself starting in the third person plural, so maybe that was Joshua Ferris coming through?

But that's all I can really think of.

When I was younger I found it difficult to write and read at the same time. Well, not simultaneously, that would be extremely difficult—but to be halfway through a book and in the midst of writing my own story. I remember once trying to write a workshop exercise while reading Huckleberry Finn and producing this kind of Southern-inflected voice. Another time, I gave Marisa a copy of Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland and she said, “It sounds like the stuff you write” (or something like that).

Now, after years of practise, it’s easier to sit down and write in the voice I intend, rather than unintentionally mimicking someone else. I think. Part of that is actually reading more than I did, say, six years ago. Being used to different voices in my head than my own.

That’s why I’m glad I’ve gone through and done this summary. Because a) there’s no way I’d be able to remember all of this in a couple of years, b) it acknowledges the important though difficult-to-place role reading has played in the Year of Eight Hundred Thousand Words, c) this summary itself constitutes 0.25% of my yearly wordcount.

As Tesco's are constantly reminding me: Every little helps.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Status Report: Week Forty-Nine

Weeks Forty-Nine – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 12,085 words (compared to 16,163 words last week)
Average: 1,726 words per day (compared to target of 3,001 words/day)
Most productive day: Sunday 7 December, 3,117 words
Least productive day: Friday 5 December, 703 words
Year-to-date: 755,915 words

Week forty-nine was a paltry one, there’s no escaping the fact. But whatever. I still have a long list of things to sort out before we fly out on the 21st, BUT I don’t have that pesky day job any more. Suddenly, time is less of a problem. It’s just a matter of finding the motivation, inspiration, and perseverance to write 2.5 short stories and sundry summary materials I deem appropriate.

Additional Number Crunching

2008 Writing Days Remaining: 13
Required Daily Wordcount to Crack 800,000 Words: 3,391 words per day
Target for the Next 13 Days: 5,000 words per day (why the heck not?)

So what if I haven’t written over 5,000 words in a day since the first of March? I have all the ingredients: defined project(s); defined goal; deadline; time... I feel I should be knocking wood as I type this, but I can’t risk a knuckle injury at this late stage!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The drum roll has begun.

I have one day of paid employment left. It will probably contain far less than a normal day's work as my replacement is pretty well trained up, and an early knock off is likely as people need time to "dress to impress" (that's the dress code according to the invite) for our Christmas Party in the evening.

The earliest I will be in paid employment again is April 2009. I wouldn't like to go much longer than that (especially with the constant devaluing of the GBP in the places we want to spend it!), but who knows how long it takes to find a job during such times as these?

Whatever it is, I sure hope it's permanent. If it wasn't for my nights spent writing, my days spent reconciling one penny transactions would have driven me balmy. Balmier, perhaps.

What am I looking forward to most about not working? No more papercuts? The chance to write full-time for two weeks? The months of travelling that will follow? No, right now is just the thought of being able to sleep in during these sub-zero mornings the arctic is inflicting on us. And when I do need to venture outside, it will be in comfortable shoes. Ah. Don't let anyone tell you I'm a man of complicated needs.

Or complicated tastes...

[my favourite sign from Tallinn]

Monday, December 1, 2008

November Experiment – A Post-Mortem

[to go along with number 21.]

It’s strange to sit down at my computer today and not need to get a hundred word story out of the way. Throughout November the task was a millstone. I couldn’t start working on a longer story until I’d done my hundred word one, and despite the length, they weren’t that quick to write. First there was coming up with an idea: either a plot (such as the ribcage on the beach in 13), an image (e.g. “full flame” in 30), or an arbitrary rule (e.g. using every letter of the alphabet except “A” in 20). Then there was writing a story. Then there was making it work in one hundred words. Most of the time this meant cutting. A couple of times this meant looking for another sentence.

So I should be relieved to not have to write another tiny story today, right? Except I feel I’ve got another story in me. I’ve overheard snippets of dialogue that could be the beginnings of a hundred word story. Images have popped into my head that could be chiselled away to reveal their clovis point. The palindromatic and 7th person singular stories I never got round to writing are still waiting in the green room, reading magazines with the covers ripped off, hoping their name is called next.

The November Experiment is, at least in this respect, like a micro version of my yearlong experiment. Creative writing is habitual. Ideas come when you have somewhere to put them. Words come when you have something to sit down for. The way to get over whatever hump you’re at, so it appears to me, is to write regularly. Whatever it takes to sit you down -- a blog, a competition deadline, a book contract – you gotta milk that for as many hours as you can.

I think it also speaks back to my post a fortnight ago on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the fact a writer needs to put in around 10,000 practice before their genius will show. I don’t think my hundred word stories became demonstrably better as the month went on, despite knowing more about what the form can do (and what it can’t). But I feel like I could, if my life depended on it, write a better hundred word story today than I could on 1 November. Or perhaps just write one quicker. I’d be able to recognise the false starts and the blind alleys, having come across similar before. I’d be able to choose the best suited of available ideas.

The same goes with short stories (over 100 words): the more stories I write, the more I can see the roadmap before I begin and can choose a more direct route. The story itself may not be the best I’ve ever written as I write it, revise it, or even after I’m finished and satisfied with it, but that may not be the fault of how much practice I’ve put in. That may be a failure of genius.

FOOTNOTE: According to wikipedia, a hundred word story is called a drabble. I just found this out.

Thirty Ways of Looking at a Blank Page

November Experiment – Hundred Word Stories


1. IVF

I can't eat this,” she said, and removed the half-chewed segment from her mouth.


It has seeds.”

So? Spit them out. So we bought seeded by mistake, it's nature's way, y'know?”

They didn't have seeds on Saturday.”

I don't remember.”

They didn't.”


So the seeds, they've grown in these mandarins since we bought them.”

I guess. As they ripen...”

She pushed the segments and peel further away from her.


I can't stand the thought of the things in my fruit bowl... struggling. Not rotting but fighting for life. To make life. It seems so...”



2. Half-life

I like bullet points, meetings with agendas, stationary cupboards, walking down the hall to collect something from the colour printer, holding it against my cheek, warm and smooth. I’m not built for construction or sales or science or medicine or piloting any sort of vehicle: I’m built for office work. I like semi-colons and ampersands and control-shift-8: the reveal key. If only there was one for life outside. Too much to absorb, filter, guesstimate. Give me a box of paperclips and a slow Thursday afternoon. Give me a farewell morning tea with sausage rolls and talk about the weather.

3. Medium

The television waited till everyone was in bed before it snuck out the kitchen window. It was rooting through a dumpster when the rain began. Under a cardboard box that may have once held another TV — the television couldn’t read — it hummed the theme from Bonanza. The same faint grey image continued to flicker on its screen: a young boy halfway up a hill of bison skulls. (The family had briefly switched over to a history of the Midwest while X-Factor went to a commercial.) The cardboard began to sag. The rain beat harder. The television resolved to stay.

4. St. Mary’s

I am standing in front of a huge stone cathedral. There are no paths. Grass is growing halfway up the door. It’s as if this building was moved here but never re-opened. Beneath the highest spire I find a man in a brown suit pressing a palm to the stone exterior. His head is turned towards me, one cheek hovering just off the pressing hand. His eyes are closed. It looks as if he is humming, but I can hear nothing. He opens his eyes, stares straight at me. His lips are moving, but I can hear nothing.

5. Soft

There were too many women talking at once for Chobe to understand a word of it. He did his best to look like he was listening, not wanting to appear rude. To keep a focussed expression on his face, he listed his favourite animals:

* Wombat
* Beaver
* Bison
* Kodiak Bear
* Highland Cow

He wondered why they were all so furry? And where were the animals from his own country?

Someone said his name, or so it sounded. He looked from face to face, but there were too many women talking at once for Chobe to understand a word of it.

6. The Six People You Meet Called Steven

The kid who taught you the fingers.

The learner driver who knocked you off your bike.

The video store clerk who always recommends Jules et Jim even though you always tell him you’ve seen it (and didn’t rate it).

The guy drinking at an airport bar who ends up asking you for a kidney.

The friend of your partner’s brother who does that thing with his eyelids, y’know?

The doctor who asks you to use his first name, but you persist in calling him Doogie, even though he’s too young to get it.

7. Leitmotiv

When I was a student, there were only a limited number of flats close to the university which landlords would rent to undergraduates. Somehow, I always missed out. Forced to live further out in the suburbs, the rent was cheaper but I still could not afford to catch the bus. Everyday I would walk passed houses that had passed me over, and houses that were deemed too good for my kind. But what really annoyed me were the vacant lots.
The effrontery.
After graduation, after marriage, the years of fidelity and filing, my memory is crowded with vacant lots.

8. Keynesian Slips

Any prolongation of the work will exacerbate an already alarming rate of deterioration.
The policy analyst read over this sentence a second time.

He control+C and control+V’d the sentence into an email and wrote: If I ever start talking like this you have my permission to kill me, pressed send and moved on with his life.

At the trial, the prosecution argued that the email did not represent a legal contract as it involved an illegal act.

The defense couldn’t think of any witnesses to call. He was too preoccupied with avoiding any prolixity in his spoken communications.

9. The Truth About Honesty

The morning after you lost your virginity, I was there. I wanted to ask how it went, but didn’t.

You bared your soul to me once, but I drank so much the black spots ate the whole conversation. You would never tell me what you said, just that you said it.

We drifted apart.

I feel I should apologise, but it may seem like I expect some apology in return. Like, for not replying to my emails. For having a secret that doubled with importance the second time you bottled it up. Perhaps I do.


10. Inventory

My knuckles have been replaced with grapefruit. My fist feels crowded. I expected this would come, one day. But my feet? The hinge between my foot and toes has rusted, the bolt buried in the middle aches to be released.

Grapefruit and rusted bolts.

My shoulders rattle like those hand-cranked cement mixers. My shoulders weigh so much. They never used to weigh at all, did they?

Perhaps this is the body’s way of taking an inventory. This is what you never knew you had. This is what we won’t let you forget again.

Grapefruit, rusted bolts and cement mixers.

11. Nodes

John looked up from his sandwich. “My kid, you know what he did? He went one better. He has this friend who moved away. Went to live with his mother in Auckland. But they kept in touch, you know, texting. Anyway, one day, this friend, his cellphone dies. His mother, she’s still finding her feet up there and can’t afford to buy him a new phone that minute. So he can’t text my kid. You know what he does, my kid? He writes a message on his phone, puts it in an envelope and posts it to bloody Auckland!”

12. Hear No Evil

This woman comes on the train with one of these modern prams with the oversized, off-road wheels. A real effort to find somewhere to park the thing, but she manages. Then I see the kid in this pram. It’s gotta be five years old. “You want to sit next to mummy?” she asks the kid, and hoists it out the pram. It’s wearing a fake fur coat, jeans and white boots with wee heels, listening to an iPod. The mother places her on the seat next to her and the kid just sits there, holding its ears.

13. Scandal

A ribcage is found washed up on the beach. A child, or perhaps a woman — it’s hard to tell. After a head-count, the police are called. The townsfolk watch them bag the ribcage — from a distance their care and precision looks like squeamishness. It is sent for testing. Days pass. The ribcage falls from conversation, though the antique dealer exhibits an unnatural interest. It’s not like C.S.I., he is told. These things take time. Eventually, he reads of the results in the local paper. Chimpanzee? People come to his store, eager to gauge his reaction. No one buys anything.

14. Three Friends

What are ten year olds like these days?”

Oh, you know.”

No, not really.”

Me neither.”


When I was ten I thought sex was like pumping petrol — you put the nozzle in and leave it there till it’s done.”

When I was ten my only concern was making a pottle of yoghurt last an episode of HeMan.”

When I was ten I got sick of waiting for my parents to buy me a Ken to go with my Barbie, so I cut Barbie’s hair off and drew on a moustache.”

And then?”

Ken-Barbie was just as lonely.”

15. Lecture Theatre

I had this psychology lecturer who was always drinking from a Pump bottle. One day I was late and the only available seat was on the end of the front row, right by where she kept her water. I didn’t think I was that late, but the bottle already looked empty. I was surprised, then, when I saw her walk over and attempt to have a drink. I figured she’d forgotten it was empty and pretended to drink to avoid looking foolish, but then, a few minutes later, she returned and had another drink from the empty bottle.

16. Hallway Sentence

Neil had come to the conclusion that whenever anyone asked How are you going? they didn’t really care — it was just a turn of phrase like gidday — and as such he ignored the question whenever it was posed and jumped right into his prepared conversation, which normally related to variance reports (with a hand shake for favourable variances and hands in pockets for unfavourable ones), though this one time, shortly after being promoted, he held up his hand like he wanted to high five me, but I just coughed and in the end he let the hand drop.

17. First Order Of Business

Ned suggested that, as an homage to Nirvana, they chose another Buddhist word. After trawling a website on Buddhist doctrines, Joel recommended they check Google for any existing bands with those names. Samsara? Melboune hardcore band. Bodhi? Exeter Jam Band. Kilesa? Students from Carlow, Ireland. Moksha was actually two bands, one in England, one in India. ‘What about Bad Karma?’ Neil, the band’s Warren Zevon fanatic, suggested, but another Melbourne group beat them to it. “The Dharma Bums?” ventured the Kerouac-enraptured Clayton. When the page loaded, Shawn suggested maybe they weren’t ready to form a band.

18. Switch

The problem bear turned out to be a Newfoundland named Waldo. The Missoulian couldn’t resist running the headline: Where's Waldo? along with a big photo of the rascal dog looking down the lens, his paw resting on the rim of a silvery rubbish bin. The photo later appeared with thousands of Lol Catz style captions around the internet. W.I.S.P.A. ran the photo as a full page ad in national papers with the caption: If I wuz a bear I wld hav been shotted. Waldo appeared boisterous but loveable on Letterman, while a man was being mauled back in Montana.

19. Hangovers

On my second Friday I went for a drink with my workmates and I found myself swearing a lot. I changed the topic away from my last job but the swearing continued. Conscious of the impression I could be making, I opted for silence. I looked over at the bar, to a woman with a black handbag the size of a For Sale sign and just as thin. A workmate tapped me on the shoulder. The bald buy in the corner was staring at me, apparently. “Fuck him,” I said. “Have you seen the size of her fucking handbag?”

20. _BC of Life (a pangrammatic lipogram)

In the spirit of George Perec, who wrote one complete novel without the letter 'e', this story does not use the first letter of the, um, list of letters in its common order. Without further fuss, the story goes like this: guy, girl, drive-in; necking, petting, cooling off; more necking, more petting, no cooling off; zygote, foetus, birth; teething, toddling, speech; primmers, juniors, high school; long locks, short locks, locks left on pillow slips; blue pills, red pills, purple pills; rest home, hospice, exquisite urn; silence/trumpets, void/cherubs on puffy clouds, nothingness/bliss.

21. If Six Was Nine

I can't believe you had the balls to meet his wife!”

I've had 'Ironic' by Alanis Morisette stuck in my head all day.”

You deserve to suffer.”

I wonder if it will rain on our wedding day?”


Mine and Brian's.”

You're unbelievable.”

Oh! O-o-o-o-o-o-o-oh, so you're unbelievable!”

Who sung that?”

Jesus Jones?.”

No, they did ‘Right Here, Right Now.’”

Second single?”

I’ll have to wiki it.”

Props bet?”

It’s not Jesus Jones.”

Whoever it is, it beats Alanis.”

Woe, you’ve just invited her back in.”


I can see you want to hum it.”


22. In certain weather, all you can see on the footpath is chewing gum

I decided economics was not for me today. Rudy Valentine was talking about sanctions, how they can have unintended consequences. His example: if you increase the sentence for rape from ten to twenty years, the penalty for rape is now closer to murder and may lead to rapists murdering their victims. “After all,” Rudy Valentine said, forcing his hands into his pockets, “it would eliminate the witness…” Bad example, sure, but it was the shallow laugh that we budding economists gave off that made my stomach slouch.

23. Memoir

The vice-principal’s rubbish bin. Too many pub bathrooms to list. Behind the recycling bins on Caledonian Place. In my mouth (swallowed). Every toilet in every house I’ve ever lived in. The path from the library to A Block before the debating final. The ferry back from Zanzibar. A truck somewhere in Northern Malawi. Over the side of a fishing boat off the Gold Coast. Outside a fish’n’chip shop in Taihape. The Kaimais. An ice cream container. A mixing bowl. An empty coffee mug. My hands. A plastic shopping bag. In the shower. Out the window of a moving car.

24. The Pohutokawa Wars, Pt I

After the flood there were potatoes and kiwifruit and onions over everyone's lawns. It seemed a kind of surreal pickmeup until it was discovered they were rotten. Nature continued to taunt with possibilities. The top half of Mr Jenkins’ pohutokawa, snapped free by the floodwaters, flowered gaily in the now-streaming sun, wedged between Mr Kellum's woodshed and back fence. Kellum left a note in Mr. J’s letterbox: Extricate your g-d tree from my g-d property. Miffed, he researched tree-related torts online. Extricate your head from your arse, he replied. The reply: a volley of onions.

25. Extra-curricular

Where’s Ernesto?”

Didn’t you hear?”

He wasn’t fired?”


Another job?”


He was too young to retire… So what?”

He finally sold a patent.”

No kidding. Which one exactly?”

You know how he was always walking into those Slippery When Wet signs?”

Oh yeah.”

And how he always said one day he’d make those signs a thing of the past?”

Sort of.”

Well, he did.”


He invented linoleum that changes colour when wet. Sold it for millions.”

Ernesto, eh? Geez.”


So what you up to tonight?”

Karaoke competition. You?”

Might take another look at my screenplay.”

26. Degradable Bio

When I was ten I had a calendar on which I crossed off the days till Disneyland. If there was a switch to skip the intervening months I would have flicked it.

When I was sixteen I had a journal in which I tallied my situps, though sometimes I just scribbled the whole page black. If there was a switch to stop existing I would have flicked it.

When I was twenty five I had a blog where I posted graphs and made nonsense calculations. If there was a switch to slow time it would be long flicked.

27. Workie

I pulled a workie today. I just couldn't face another day on the couch. I put on my black slacks and polo, walked down the road to the big Tesco and straightened shelves for four hours. After a cigarette and a Yorkie by the loading bay, I straightened shelves for two more hours until a guy with bluetooth earpiece asked me if I was able to work a double shift. I told him my kid was sick -- he looked disappointed -- but my wife was a doctor. He gave me a huge smile, and two jars of Dolmios.

28. Cliffhanger

but he was only clinically dead. Paramedics managed to revive him after fifteen minutes and six broken ribs. The doctors were amazed he wasn't a vegetable, and warned Sadowitz, Mendez and the band that his brain function would be reduced. “Reduced from what?” we asked with straight faces which evolved to tense-but-smiling faces. Two weeks later Robbie returned to the studio to work on Live And Let Dog. Little did we know he would be dead in six short months. Skin cancer. From a mole he never got checked. A crummy way to go. So uncool it killed us.

29. Solitude With Options

The comedian was a regular on celebrity quiz shows, well known for his garish shirts, buggy eyes and knack with accents. One day, he appeared with a ventriloquist’s dummy that looked just like him: same buggy eyes, same orange shirt. His normal voice was the dummy’s voice. Snippets of this particular show became popular on YouTube for the wrong reasons. The comedian refused to appear without the dummy. The shows acquiesced. The comedian hid behind the desk, refusing to show his face. The dummy remained a regular on celebrity quiz shows. The comedian was never seen again.

30. Curtains

You could see his tragedy coming a mile off. He’d worked up this momentum and there was nothing that could stop him, except, you know, the big full stop. Like how with some gas hobs you have to go though “full flame” to get to “off”. The last time I saw him, he was in full flame. It was probably the alcohol, poisoning from the inside, which made him sweat in the cool of the corridor. “I want to change,” he told me, stroking my lapel. All I could think was: A snowball’s chance in hell. A snowball’s chance.