Monday, May 31, 2010

I drink to forget...

The temptation to get absolutely stone-cold skull-fucked every night of the week has never been stronger.  After two rounds (more accurately, two bouts of twelve three minute rounds, Queensbury rules, etc) with the Chiropractor, my back still feels rubbish, although I'm prepared to admit that this may in some small part be contributed to by my insistence of cycling 170k in the last few days.  Cycling's usually an activity that helps the back get better, and I may - just possibly - have erred in my thought that more of the same delivered quicker might supercharge the healing process.  So I still feel at least a week away from being anywhere near ready to get back in the sea; a sea which is cooling all the time.  And of course, once you've had time out during a cooling period, getting back in - and on a regular basis too - becomes that much harder, as if the time out instantly turns you into a giant cold-fearing pussy.

The thriller too, has ground to a halt.  Part of me thinks good thing too, it bloody stinks, although this doesn't in any way diminish the temptation to get wildly pissed on that account.  I've started revisiting another novel that I ran out of steam with a few months ago, and I'm pleasantly surprised by what I find: even if I say so myself, some of it's really rather good.  Having something good to work with might just be the kick up the arse I need to get something constructive done, so I'm now comfortable putting the thriller aside for now and working on this.  Who knows, when I get round to looking at the thriller again, perhaps a few months in the wilderness of my hard drive will have knocked it into shape - is that how these things work?

Now, if only it also worked for my fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It never rains but...

It pours.  An hour before I was due to jump into the bus for some me-time down in the Catlins, I decided it might be a good idea to have a quick play with number one son.  Within five minutes I was flat out - my back decided that eight o'clock in the morning was too early for such shenanigans, and so not only did I not go to the Catlins, but I've also spent the better part of this week walking like a question mark in and out of Chiropractors.  And it's pissed down, all week.

Being flat on my back you'd think I had nothing better to do than write, but uh-huh.  It doesn't work like that.  Misery loves company, so my muse fled out of the window along with my disappearing surf trip.  Only in the last couple of days have I even felt like making progress.  I'm still in a semi-stuck phase, but I can definitely feel an unglueing going on, even if I'm only managing 500 words a day.

At least the surf hasn't done its usual trick of absolutley pumping while I've been out of the game.  A huge rainstorm and howling southerlies have swathed the south island in rain and snow this week and kept the surf utterly forgettable.  The forecast looks good for next week though, and I'm just come from spending an hour on the stationary bike (my road bike on a turbo trainer, a true invention of the devil) and some gentle yoga.  With a bit of luck and some more hard work hopefully I'll be in shape to hit the water again just as it comes good.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A hump in the road

Everything is slowing down.  I haven't posted all week, but worse, the novel is stuttering to a crawl.  700, 900, 500 words in a day: it's a far cry from the good progress of a couple of weeks ago.  I think the slowing down is for two reasons. Firstly, I've reached a crossroads where several things could happen and I can't decide what to do, and the reason I can't decide what to do is because of the second reason, which is that the story in its current form feels waaaayyy too linear for my liking, and this is frustrating because this is always going to happen given the way that I write - chronologically.  The mixing around of time lines and viewpoints etcetera comes in the second draft and is (as far as I'm concerned) an editing job rather than an imaginative one but right now it's interfering and REALLY PISSING ME OFF.

Part of why I'm slowing down is that there's an irresistible urge to meddle creeping up on me - to chuck more spanners into my hero's path.  This may or may not be a good thing, but I'm reluctant to do it if I know part of the reason for me wanting to do so is that I'm - well, essentially getting bored of telling this story in its current form.  It has to be right for the story - I think it is, but I need to clear my head on this - on my reasons for doing what I'm doing.  Authoring is supposed to be an act of giving, after all - not one of getting sidetracked solely for my own entertainment.

So off to the Catlins I shall trip this weekend.  I've fixed a couple of leaky pushrod seals and fitted a new dipstick boot, my loving wife has supplied me with a roast chicken flavour dehydrated sick-in-a-bag, and I've caved in and bought a hooded undervest thing for keeping out the cold water.  The swell forecast looks reasonable, the weather not too horrible.  Hopefully my laptop battery will last through a long evening and I'll break the back of this blockage before the reconstituted roast chicken gives me a blockage of another kind entirely. 

Oddly, given the progress on the writing front, I seem to be much happier down here this week.  I had a wonderful surf the other day at small Murderer's and had a couple of hilly bike rides over towards Blueskin Bay where I felt genuinely contented, for a bit.  The impending arrival of the ski season is starting to give me the odd heart flutter, and this morning I saw a Hector's Dolphin playing in the harbour at the end of the drive. Yes, I'm missing my friends up North, but the urge to run back with my tail between my legs screaming "take me!" has faded.  Give thanks, Taranaki.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting ready for roadtripping...again

I had another OK day of writing today.  I'm still at a point where I'm going over what has gone before - no teasers yet - but where I'm laying foundations for what's happening next.  Seeing as how I really haven't mapped this bit out, it's exciting, although slow writing.  The plot as it stands so far is pretty detailed and intricate - there's a lot of historical references, which I hope both add interest and authority.  The need to appear authoritative isn't a vain thing in writing, it's essential - it establishes the trust the reader has in the author; and also, as Flaubert said, God is in the details.

I picked up some oil and bits today for servicing the kombi.  I'm planning a roadie on my own down to the Catlins sometime in the next couple of weeks, should the surf and weather co-operate.  The days are pretty short and the nights long, so it'll probably be a one or two night deal, I think.  I'll take the laptop and write while the battery lasts.  My writing career began travelling: I consciously started pursuing this writing dream when I worked out at sea as an observer on Spanish fishing boats on Newfoundland's Grand Banks.  Over four months I penned the bones of what is probably the world's worst novel.

I vividly remember taking this photograph after a morning's writing; on the morning of the first day of the new millennium, feeling the ache of missing my eighteen-month old daughter and wife. I finished that novel two years later, and it occupies a proud position on my bookshelf from where it never moves.  It sits there taunting me really - I am your work.  As a motivator it's quite powerful:  there's a strong sense that in this awful work is something I have to atone for. Yet I'm equally proud of it: it's the stamp that marks the beginnings of my apprenticeship.

The first sketches of that novel were done a couple of years before, on my own again in a plain pension on the small island of Graciosa, just off Lanzarote. In between picking urchin spines out of my feet and trying to stem the flow of blood from scalp wounds - all marks of honour from tackling a heaving left-hander five miles daily walk away - I started writing out characters.  I would never have thought then that Graciosa would be the birthplace of something that would stick with me and possess me like writing - trying to tell stories - has done ever since.  Funny and powerful things happen on the road.

So when I travel solo I always look for and make room to discover new things in my writing.  Hopefully it'll be the same going down to the Catlins.  I'm timing this because I think that I'll be running into blockages soon, and the trip might just head those off.    But before then, I need to change the oil, adjust the valves, fix a couple of leaking pushrod seals and change the dipstick boot, a task which promises to have me swearing in new and interesting ways.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Slowly goes it...

It's definitely shaping up to have been something of a slow week.  I think I'm going to have averaged about a thousand words a day, which isn't really where I want to be but progress is still progress.  I've been distracted by many things: money worries - which aren't immediate yet but who I know are lurking somewhere over the horizon, my wife's job interview, solo care of the kids for a couple of days, and staying up together with all the things I've been selling off on trademe / ebay - so that the first worry stays less immediate; and also that when we come to move back to Taranaki we take a whole let less crap back with us.

As far as the book goes, it's been a relatively easy last couple of days as I'm at a point where I'm essentially recapping what has already been.  I'm feeling the breadth of choices I have from here spreading away in front of me like an ocean: wide, intimidating, and constantly shifting.  If it's not to labour a point too hard - which it is - my confidence in my literary sextant is wavering somewhat.  Best hurry up and get lost, I think.

I've finally accepted that I won't ever build another darkroom and put all my film stuff up for auction, so I've been playing around with black and white conversions in Photoshop to see if I can get anywhere near what I can do with my hands.  Not yet, but I'm excited by the potential.

I've also been trying to evaluate freelance web writing opportunities like  Some people seem to say OK things about this sort of thing, but it seems to be a second income strand rather than the main one which I know I'm going to need before long.  Still, I won't get anything if I don't try, so they're on the to-do list for once this first draft is done.

And finally, the surf's crapped out.  I had a fun wave down the coast yesterday, all to myself.  That little right point is, I think, going to be my salvation while I'm here.  The work I've been doing on my core strength seems to be paying off - I feel like I'm moving lighter and quicker than I've done in - well, years really.  I've frightened myself too, with just how quickly I'm losing pounds now I've decided to watch what I'm eating.  I think I may have more to come off than I thought, although judging by the way it took me ten minutes to get my claw-like hands to cooperate in taking my contacts out when I got out of the water, I'll be burning a few extra calories staying warm real soon...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Flying along...

I rediscovered my writing mojo today.   I sat down at nine and got up at quarter past eleven having written a whole chapter - it felt almost like a stream-of-conciousness style vomiting of words onto the page.  It came as a surprise because I was reluctant to settle, kept on finding other things to do to avoid starting - usually the precursor to a bad day.  After two slow days it was nice to get something feeling like rhythm going again.  I've hit 30,000 words now, which is kind of a milestone in that it marks the end of the beginning, and the starting point for where other projects of mine have run into trouble.  I think I'm clear for the next week at least on where I'm going - after that I guess we'll just have to sit down and grind it out.

Didn't surf today, even though there were good waves on offer.  It felt more important to crack on.  I got out in the afternoon for a "relaxing" cycle, which took the form of a 500m climb (over about 6 k), followed by a descent that bordered on the terrifying, given the cold and greasy roads, then a half-hour bash into a howling headwind.  Yes, I reckon I lost weight today, fo' sure...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Perfect waves...

The great run of surf has continued - more waves out down towards Brighton today.  The peaks were shifting a bit, so I got a good workout out of it, as well as a couple of lil' bombs.  My backhand still feels like it's permanently in panic / survival mode, and I'm waiting for it to loosen up miraculously of its own accord.  What might help is that I've resolved to lose some weight - I'm probably carrying 5kg more than I really could do - so I've decided I'm going to cut bread from my diet and not eat anything between meals except fruit.  I've been trying to avoid empty calories at mealtimes too.  Basically, I'm trying to do all the things I kid myself that I do do, but don't.  I'm trying to cycle more  - I know from past experience it's great for losing a couple of the pounds that are hardest to shift, also fantastic cardio-vascular training for being in the water.  I did 50k on Sunday morning in 1h40, the fastest I've been over that kind of distance in a little while, so I'm not riding too shabbily.  I've also been quite good about keeping up with my core exercises and yoga regimen - the prospect of coming on here and confessing I've dropped the ball is a great motivator.

So hopefully that works for tomorrow as far as the writing's concerned, because I had a slow day today.  I got a little bit done at the weekend, but the overall feeling was one of swimming through treacle. For one reason or another I've been feeling low, and maybe that's why I've been so focused on exercise, as a way of fighting it.  Not getting my words in for the day doesn't help, so tomorrow I'd better fight a bit harder for them.



Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A New Day...

I was full of trepidation this morning, after the scare of finding myself so blocked yesterday.  I sat down at 9 am this morning wondering what the hell I was going to write about.  When I looked up an hour later, I'd done a thousand words. Another half-hour and I'd added another four hundred.  Amazed, is the word. 

And yet something's changed:  I know full well from past experience that nothing is guaranteed in writing, certainly not that a stories' end will ever be told.  Yet I'd begun to imagine that this one was so different.  So yesterday was a wake-up call - never to take another day's writing for granted. 

I'm telling myself too, that I can't go back to Taranaki until this book is written, trying to use my homesickness positively.  The temperatures are dropping outside, down around the freezing point at night.  The ski season can't be far off now: once that's started it'll feel like only a matter of weeks before we're getting ready to head north again. 

Small waves again at Blackhead this morning - weak, clear and cold.  I felt cold for the first time in my 4/3, and questioned whether I'd really be able to keep the motivation to keep surfing through the depths of winter.  Fielded phone calls from friends up north last night, stoked that the drought up there has finally broken: surfing good sized waves, warm in their summer suits, well into the twilight.  It's enough to turn anyone into a wuss.  One of the benefits of taking a camera with me is that I can sit and look again at the waves I'm surfing now, in this life, in the warm.  And I really mustn't grumble, must I?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ice cream headaches and stumbling blocks

It was a beautiful, clear morning, so I fired up the bus and headed down the coast, laden down with all the crap I need for a day out: laptop to write, camera, surfboard, wetsuit (and gloves and boots and hood and surf wax and comb etc...), thermos full of coffee, fruitcake, dog, lead, bags for the dog's shit.  It's a wonder the thing moves.

There used to be a rule I lived my life by, when I lived in the UK.  Never, ever wait for the surf to improve, because 95% of the time it'll crap out instead.  Maybe it's something about facing east instead of west, but today I preminisced (is that a word?  Should be, dammit!) that not only would the day warm up if I waited, but the unruly , dropping swell would clean up.  So I found myself a nice place to park and write, walked the dog, took a few pictures.

Writers read, don't they?  I started rereading Robert Harris's wonderful Archangel last night, and in doing so I made at least two fatal errors: One - when creating, never read anyone who writes that bloody well!  Every sentence screams think you're this good? Still think you can do this?  And in Robert Harris's case in particular: So how are you going to research this well?

So I struggled today, toiling long and hard for a measly 700 words that seem thoroughly unsatisfying, but now, in the evening, reading them again, I can see that's thanks to the other error I made:  I let reading someone else influence how I was writing.   

So Robert's gone back on the shelf for now.  I picked it up because his knowledge and depiction of modern Russia is unrivaled, within my reading, and I wanted to bravely steal some of his detail, some of his approach.  I probably wanted to steal too much, so it's going into the after-the-first-draft research pile. 

As for the surf, it was OK. The water definitely seems to be cooling down apace - my fingers felt almost arthritic after being out for a while.  I could tell that I've had three big days of writing when I haven't made time for yoga or exercise, but made plenty for cake and biscuits.  I'm going to have to pull my focus together, on lots of different fronts to stay positive. One thing, I'm learning, does not come without at least one other...or two...or three...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Biorhythyms and back-stories

The last couple of days have got me thinking about the way I write. 

The thing that's really got me thinking about this is word count, that dreaded measure of how well (or otherwise) a story's going.  I seem to be flowing along quite well at the moment by that one metric, but like all statistics, within lies another story.  My usual writing day goes something like this:

0830 - pack the kids off to school, fire up the laptop, and make a cup of tea.  Open the current file, wonder about where to start today.  Check my email, then the weather, then the news.  Then my email again.

0900 - finally get down to actually working.  The first hour always feels like swimming though concrete, until at:

1000 (ish) - review what I've done so far.  This is usually pathetic.  Get depressed, eat biscuits, drink more tea.  Go away and do something else for twenty minutes.

1030 - Come back and sit down, telling myself not to worry about it, and that what I'm looking for is just over there, somewhere - and I'll find it if I keep looking.  This is usually - 75% of the time - my most productive hour of the day.  AT about 1130 my body starts telling me it's time for lunch, time to walk the dog, time to leave it alone for an hour - after which I'll come back to it with renewed vigour.

1300 - come back to it, have another great 30 minutes, and then quickly tire.

After that I usually wind up doing my writerly housekeeping - backing up files, checking email, thinking about blogging. 

What's strange is that these rhythms seem to be set in stone.  Occasionally I manage to break the cycle, but it usually involves more coffee than I'm entirely comfortable drinking in one hit, and is subsequently disrupted by my needing to piss every five minutes and / or my bouncing off the ceiling.  I'm wondering if by challenging myself in the times that I write - I might find myself producing something different to what I would have done otherwise.  What might I produce, for example, if I got up at three in the morning?  Next time I see that on the clock, I just might find out.

                                  *           *          *          *          *

Another thing I've been thinking about today is back-stories, and specifically within the thriller genre, how we introduce and develop them.  The primary duty of a thriller writer, I reckon, is to keep the pages turning, the suspense high.  That precludes long, languishing expository passages, so we've got to fill in the detail in other ways.  This poses problems.

If you're moving the action on, chances are that before sooner or later, some twist in the plot is going to depend on where your character's coming from.  Where are you going to put that in?

You could drip-drip it in.  But then, your reader finds out in chapter ten that Merv has a mustache like a walrus, when all along they've imagined him to be a clean-shaven silky boy.  If they're having to re-imagine - every time they do that, you lose them a little. 

Is there an answer?  I don't know.  Personally, I'd say that it's just "music" - you have to listen again, to your writerly inner ear, and recognise when you need a cup of tea, a walk with the dog, a struggle with a rusty bolt: whatever cures tone-deafness for you...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Unsatisfying interior adventures

Yes, that title's just one of the many reasons I should never try writing erotica.  Went for a spin on Sunday looking for inspiration.  Drove through a beautiful landscape, so different from what's outside the door, only an hour from home.

Gravel roads, beautiful hills, almost no traffic - it was old volkswagen heaven.

Except you can't go near any of it.  We drove for nearly a hundred miles through stunning scenery and saw not a fence, not a lay-by, not one foot-track - just mile after mile of barbed wire.  Finally got to a place called Middlemarch and found a footpath, but couldn't take the dog on it.  Maybe the Taeri council - if there is one - might like to put up a giant sign that says simply: Fuck Off.  It's in the subtext anyway.  If I had an ounce of her talent I'd be doing a kiwi version of Fay Godwin's Our Forbidden Land - someone needs to, before it's too late.

On a happier note, the book's been going very well.  I haven't felt any of the symptoms of running out of steam: I still know where I'm going tomorrow.  I'm annotating my first draft with comments in Word, highlighting all the little things I'm spotting as I'm going that I need to do better or find out:  do Royal Jordanian Airways, for example, serve Alcohol?  (I doubt it.)  Is all their in-flight food halal?  Have I shown my hero's back-story enough - shown that he's made of the right stuff?  (Not yet...) As it is, I'm currently confining my research to establishing the points without which I can't move the story on.  It feels like the right thing to do - to keep the flow going...