Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cold winds, yoga, and writing by the fire

The run of good surf has continued over the last couple of days, although I managed to ruin one of them by getting myself caught in an offshore drift and having a thirty minute paddle back in.  My routine of core exercises and yoga's paying dividends - I'm feeling much sharper this week than the same time last.

The water continues to cool, and the weather is - well, getting colder than I'm entirely happy about, and it's really only mid-autumn.  God knows what mid-winter and spring are going to be like.  I'm staying happy by planning our return to the 'naki, thinking about the skiing, and ploughing into the book.

Usually, me and deadlines are unhappy bedfellows, especially if they're deadlines I've set myself.  For once, though, I'm keeping up with the work-rate I planned. (When I plan a work-rate, I'm usually drunk, or in a wildly optimistic mood.)  I'm not having any difficulty at all in sitting down for three or four hours straight and knocking out the words, and when I start again, the story is still coming to me easily.  This will change, for sure - every story I write has a sticky patch that becomes an elephant in the room - something I know has to be dealt with, but just can't.

So elephant-free, on I go.  Sometimes I struggle to understand why we do certain things.  For example, when I worked in IT I had a kind of epiphany, a real on-the-road-to-Damascus thing where I realised that I just didn't give a shit, and that I would have to, inevitably, change career.  I couldn't see what good I was doing in the world.  Well, I found a reason for copywriting today.  If you're a copywriter, you could stop things like this appearing.  You could stop my breaking out into giggles like a fourteen year old whenever I see them.  You would make my wife much happier...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Head down...

I had a long day the other day - I did a good day on the novel, took my time over a blog posting, and investigated various stuff on the internet around with the business of being a writer - by which I mean other outlets for writing that I might or might not pursue at some point in the future.  By the end of the day I was almost depressed:  there's so many opportunities that one could pursue that it's almost impossible to sift out the good from the dross.

It did do me a favour, though - I realised just how long I could spend attempting to get a handle on what other people do or don't do, the whole web content thing.  The novel will have to come first, second and last until it's completed.

So I've been cracking on at a reasonable, though not startling rate.  A horrible storm helped keep me indoors and focused, then I got frustrated.  M wife and I have also realised just how much we're missing Taranaki.  After a childhood as an army brat and having been on the move most of my life, it's quite odd to find there yes, there is a place I'd like to call home.  We've been plotting and planning how we're going to go back, and importantly, how to have the most fantastic time we can while we're in the South Island.

And I had a fantastic time today:  Murderers finally turned on, for the first time since we've been here.  Right now I have noodle arms and pumped up thighs, and I'm still seeing that little triangular section in front of me as I raced that last wave.  My backhand's still mostly missing in action after nearly four years with my pick of lefts, but it was nice to get it together and have a magic moment.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trying not to get fat(ter)

It's a cold, grey day in Dunedin.  The rain is gently falling, the fire is lit, and the dog's absorbing as much of the output as possible.  I think she's half-lizard, but that's by the way.  It's definitely a day for writing, and I've had quite a productive morning.  What it isn't, yet, is a day where I've tied up lots of loose ends - where I've done all those nagging bits of research that are hanging over me, waiting to be done.  Things like studying street maps of Jerusalem, investigating Israeli laws on firearm ownership, which of Israel's borders are open and to what...and that's just what's been thrown up in the last two days!

No, I'm firmly resisting getting on with that, telling myself that it's all detail, to be added and verified in the next draft, that I don't want anything to interfere with the gestation of this - certainly nothing as mundane as facts!  I'll do anything to keep this flow going, and that includes consuming tea, biscuits and chocolate as and when required.  'Ze muse, she only dance when I feed 'er.

So I'm having to be a bit rigorous about finding time in my writing schedule every day to exercise.  I've discovered before that I write - well, utter shite, really - when I'm depressed, or under the weather, so maintaining a healthier body is also maintaining my writing.  Also, the waves down here jack up a whole lot quicker than the ones I came from in Taranaki.  That means I've been doing a whole lot of core exercises and stretching, trying to be quicker to my feet and into it.

For the core stuff, I've been doing some of the exercises in Surf Flex
, a manual of how to ruin your afternoon.  It's bloody good value, though, if only because it will remind you again and again that there's absolutely no point in going to a proper gym until you can do the basics - push-ups, sit-ups etc - properly at home, and then proceeds to demonstrate that you can't.  It'll save you a fortune.

As for stretching, I've been muddling around with yoga for years.  I've never been to a class, as such - I'm far too much of an egotist to go and grunt and struggle in front of a room full of impossibly flexible and serene women, and deep down, I know I'm probably - definitely - enough of a pervert to spend most of the class checking out the scenery.  One day I'll get it together to go - but not yet.  It's the mantra for the last ten years, by which you could correctly assume that I'm not terribly serious about it.

Wii Yoga is just about perfect for me, then.  It keeps me safely away from those that need protecting, has a top score thing for me to fulfill my ego thing by beating the kids,  and on days like today I can stoke up the fire and call it Bikram, just about.   I've been doing it most days for the last two weeks:  my back pain is down, my sleep is better, my balance is slowly improving, and the rest of the family have been happily ripping the piss out of me, safe in the knowledge that the bloody TV will tell me off if I put a foot down to chase 'em...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Quarantine Island...

A few weeks ago I went to Quarantine Island for a writer's workshop - in fact, I went there to lost my writer's workshop virginity.  It's a faintly bizarre place, to be honest.  It's run by the St. Martin's Community, modelled on the Iona community and with strong links to them.  I didn't twig the faith connection until after I went there, and although it wasn't rammed down my throat or even mentioned, I was still surprised at how uncomfortable I am with the whole organised religion thing, maybe after years of living in Cornwall and Wales, where - in my admittedly somewhat biased view of the world - the Wesleyans and Presbyterians have managed to make hard lives worse for generations. 

Anyway, it's a fascinating place, and I got a couple of good pictures out of it, as well as a reminder of how fucked up I probably am when being surrounded by a room full of thoroughly nice people sworn to eternal gentleness makes me break out in a cold sweat.

5 reasons that old school thrillers rule!

I had a mild moment of panic today, thinking through my plot:  It's all very old-fashioned.  By this, I mean that there's bangs and car-chases, phone-calls and dossiers.  Not much goes on in cyber-space, which is where I would, personally, take great care to commit most of any crime I might happen to get involved.

I wondered why this is, and pondered for a minute if it would make an agent throw it back at me, it all being having done so many times before.  Then I decided that no, it wouldn't, for the following reasons.

1) Things that go bang are inherently more exciting than things with keyboards and USB ports. And things with keyboards and USB ports that go bang after someone's put a bomb in them just plain aren't as exciting as a red convertible blowing up, or an evil henchman's black limo.  It's true.

2) Computers are dull.  I know this, because I made my living working in IT for quite a while. By extension, the internet, while a great extension of our social tentacles, is mostly unexciting too, in the thriller sense. The knowledge it contains, the people who inhabit it - they - you - are exciting, but as a fabric or an entity - it's dull. 

3) Thrillers inhabiting computer-world are shit.  Read Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, if you can bear it.  Case closed.

4) The Conspiracy theory has never been more relevant.  After all, never before in the history of man have the workings of commerce done more to try to prove that maybe, Marx was right, as demonstrated by the last two years of banking crises, and the associated amoral bleating of the super-rich.

5) James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher - battle scars - yes, RSI in their mouse-finger - no.

I could add to this another personal reason, too - I grew up in Germany during the last days of the Cold War.  I remember school trips to the East German border, massive Allied exercises that took in most of North Germany, and just what a proper enemy the Soviets were:  they goose-stepped, had big parades of missiles, and their leaders were ugly and had no dress sense.  Mrs Thatcher almost looked good in comparison, for christ's sake.  No school like the old school, I say...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jelly-shouldered and running out of steam

More waves today. I felt tired as soon as I woke up this morning: I think I must have - quite uncharacteristically - caught so many waves yesterday that my arms and shoulders did their week's quota of paddling in one hit. In situations like this I can usually expect the sympathy from the rest of the family to manifest itself as an evening of being called upon to change light-bulbs, fetch things off high shelves, or serve tea with my feet while doing a handstand - anything for the thrill of watching me cry, in fact. I'm not the world's fastest paddler - in fact it's safe to say that if you ever find yourself being out-paddled by me, you need to get your fat arse in a swimming pool, pronto. As for me, I'm not fat. Just insulated.

I don't feel as if I'm running out of steam with the novel, exactly - more that I'm hitting the technical bits which have got to be got right, inevitably making the going somewhat slower. So my word count for the day is pretty modest and I'm going to have to find some time this weekend to ensure that the momentum that I have is conserved. I'm not working to any hard and fast deadline for the first draft, but I want to have the luxuries of putting it away between drafts, of taking breaks when it gets a bit much. If I'm going to get to the final finish line of a finished article within the year, hitting walls is a luxury I can't afford.

I can afford to run the bus, though. For some reason, after having the rear suspension set, it's decided that not only does it enjoy keeping up with the other traffic really, but that it'll do so while doing 23 to the gallon. For an old VW bus, that's almost the height of parsimony. Of course, it's made up for this by springing another oil leak, but with a sheet of newspaper and a squint I can be in denial for months - not a strategy that works for premature ejaculation. Apparently...

On a lighter note, the main highway in and out of Dunedin is closed by the city's second bomb scare in 24 hours. I wonder if it's anything to do with the latitude - do Dunedinites have the same kind of pull that leads Swedes to kill themselves like lemmings, or Finns to drink more meths than water? Well, there'll be plenty of material for another book, anyway...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Not the day I expected...

There I was expecting a beautiful, sunny day - like yesterday. I had visions of hiding from the sun in the van after a nice, sunburney-face kind of a surf, willing myself to get something done before I reluctantly trudged home.

Instead it was grey and cold, and I had the heater running at full blast in the van, which is to say that I had a faint trickle of warmth on the downhills and a blast of the good stuff on the ups. I found a little right point down the coast with one guy there, getting out pretty much as soon as I arrived. The pictures are from later on once it got a bit of wind on it, and you can't really tell that it was nicely overhead. But when I arrived it was sheet glass perfection, zipping down the sandbar. My backhand's usually left on the beach, so it was a double pleasure to actually have it in the water with me today.

Then afterwards, I drove down towards Taeri and found a beautiful place to park up and write. I poured myself a cup of coffee and that was that - next thing I knew I'd knocked out a thousand good words and left it right where I knew I could pick it up. How's this for a view from the office?

I thought today was going to be a good day, but it was better. It was one of those that'll have an index card all of it's own in the surfing ledger, to be pulled out and enjoyed again and again. Suddenly, the homesickness for Taranaki and warmer waves I was feeling seems to have dimmed. How much are those electric suits again?

Slow day...

The writing hasn't really happened today. Before I explain, I suppose I should introduce the book I'm writing, and why I'm writing this book, not looking around for another one.

It started life, really, as something between a short story, an aborted novella, and an overlong character study. The original character was a Norwegian returning to his homeland after serving in the first world war. I had all sorts of visions of knitting this character into some kind of cross between a quest-for-the-kraken (with deep meanings throughout, although I never got round to establishing what they might be) and a satirical romp through the last days of the golden age of exploration, maybe with a look at the deeper meanings of brotherhood chucked in, too.

Mercifully, that soon died, but the character stayed with me. Now he's knitted into the background of what's unashamedly being designed as a commercial thriller. I'll say that dirty word again - commercial! I've always enjoyed reading thrillers - John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum for occasional brainless fun, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, some of Jame's Patterson's stuff for young adults (my daughter's 12, and I keep up where I can. I managed about five chapters of Twilight before all the sidelong glances and pent-up vampire lust got too much). So, when I decided to take a year out, writing a thriller was on the short-list of things to write. I'd also contemplated a novel commenting on the themes coming out of brotherhood, and polishing my short story writing, an option I quickly discarded: it had only made the list as a means of avoiding what I really wanted to do - write a novel.

When I researched the options, cast around for storylines, and tried to envisage what a finished version of this book might look and feel like, I quickly found out just how huge the thriller market's become in the last few years. I'll be totally unashamed about this - if I can make some money out of doing this - make it my living, then I'll be a happy man. I also like the constraints of writing to a genre - the conventions we expect to be there when we pick up a Lee Child or a Tom Clancy.  There's a set of rules there to stop me from disappearing up my own arse.  From an artistic point of view, too - there's much to like:  I've always had a special kind of loathing for the most self-consciously literary verbage that could have been designed only for the appreciation of those that work in other English departments. (A.S. Byatt, take a bow...)

I've got to admit to having had a few qualms about developing the mechanistic approach that writing a thriller calls for, versus the short stories I've been writing -with their evolution from pure language - what we might recognise as a more artistic gestation. There's enough stuff that that throws up to deserve its own posting, so that's what it'll get, next time I'm stuck for a subject.

Meantime, I'm going to take the dog, the van, the laptop and the board on a mission down the coast tomorrow: catch some waves, watch the dog dig to Alaska, and hopefully find a big bundle of inspiration while I'm at it. Today was another bitty day of fatherhood and frustration - tomorrow is all for me, and I've got a wife-pass to prove it!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I scored yesterday, against all my expectations. I arrived at the beach to see it looking gloriously flat, then wondered to myself exactly how far up round the rocks I could go at low tide, and whether the southerly would maybe be wrapping in a bit better further up. Just as I did so, a surfer appeared from around the corner - and she said "Yeah, there's a few sizey ones up there..." Looking at the picture below, you could understand why I thought she was full of it, but she wasn't.

Solid three-four feet sets, barreling down the sandbank, in the lee of a sunlit-orange cliff. Perfect - and I enjoyed it, despite finding myself too slow to my feet, or trapped behind the section, or picking the wrong one, time and again. Relearning the beachie skills after three years on the mechanical points and reefs of taranaki is all part of the fun. Surfing in beautiful places like this is compensation enough, anyway.

Monday, April 19, 2010

This could be the first day of the rest of...

Firstly, I suppose I'd better deal with the hanging chad I left in yesterday's posting - about acquiring wisdom.

Before I began writing full-time (allegedly), I always thought of an introduction to an Evelyn Waugh novel - Men at Arms, I think it was - but that's incidental. It was one of those typical written-by-a-professor semi-autobiographical introductions that I seldom bother starting, and finish less often than that. This one had some merit - probably brevity - but there was something in it that stuck. This was to the effect that old Evelyn used to sit down at nine in the morning, have an hour for lunch, and knock out three thousand words a day with the greatest of ease, always amazed at how all he had to do - as he saw - was set the characters in motion, after which his job was merely to follow their lead.

So the first piece of wisdom I've acquired is that this isn't going to be the way this book gets written, and it didn't take very long to find that out, either. After a couple of weeks getting the new house in Dunedin sorted, it was the school holidays. (I'm fairly prepared to bet the farm on myself being rather more of a hands-on Dad than Evelyn was to Auberon, so this is my first get-out.) Even so, I managed to lock myself away every morning for a couple of hours and get enough of a start to be fairly frothing to jump right in, the first day of term. Cue my son, J, waking up at one o'clock with the kind of cough you'd get from an elephant in a tobacco lab. Here endeth the first lesson: this book's going to have to be fought for, line-by-line and one cup of strong coffee at a time.

And there's also the second lesson - I also have to make room for other things, such as sick kids and, almost as importantly, surfing. (You'll note there's no surfing in Brideshead Revisited - maybe there's a lesson there, too, but I'm going to ignore that one.) As I write this, there's a solid south swell hitting the coast: too big for the exposed beachies, which are all I really have had the chance to get to know so far.

(If you're wondering why I'm not frothing to jump into six-to-eight foot beach-break in a twenty-knot side-shore wind and 50 degree water, all I recommend is that you find someone who does, and then diagnose what's wrong with them, because it's probably medical.)

One of the good - and bad - things about moving locals is getting to know where works when. Be prepared to piss away several tanks of fuel, an afternoon or ten, and manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time more often than not for months. I'm already well into this modus operandi, and I guess that a repeat of this is probably what's going to happen today: the swell model says it'll be big enough for the swell to wrap into Aramoana enough for it to fire around lunchtime; the webcam isn't showing anything yet. Somewhere near here, someone will be getting some great waves today.

But probably not me.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What's in a blog?

So welcome to the first day of my new blog. I'll be writing here about pretty much whatever comes to me - which is, I know, not the recipe for commercial or critical success in the blogosphere,( if that word's not soooo Web 1.0 - but then, so am I really, eschewing as I do both applications in the cloud, and twittering when I shit.) From what I can make out, the sure-fire way to attract an online following is to pick some obscure niche - the more obscure the better - and blog about it and nothing else in excruciating detail. Devoting any of my time to writing about Nike Air Max's in the 1995-1996 model year is not on the cards, though.

Instead, I'm going to be - boringly, writing about writing, largely. This'll be a diary of the progress of a novel I'm writing, and more interestingly, the ways in which I avoid actually working on it. So - list time - you'll also find me blogging about:
  • A year surfing in New Zealand's deep south,
  • My '73 VW, the places it takes me, my mechanical disasters and associated mental scars,
  • Feeding my face, and if I remember, maybe the kids, too
  • The continued cycling career of a dismally failed road racer, still sadly besotted
  • Any/all other business - things I find funny, sad, pathetic. Hopefully more of the former.

Basically, this is a diary of a sojourn in Otago where I plan to write, explore, raise my kids and maybe come out of it a little wiser. As you'll find out tomorrow, that shouldn't be too hard.