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The Minimalist’s Guide To Email

It finally happened. I woke up this morning, flicked open my email, and had nothing waiting for me. Not a spam, not a newsletter, not even a notification for a social media service I was about to open and check anyway. Nada, nix, zippo. 


That there wasn’t any personal correspondence either could be construed as negative if we really think about it, but the delight of not getting anything else had tended to make this morning’s proverbial glass very much on the half-full side. 

Many of you will be sitting there looking at your own sparkling inboxes, shrugging: “Big deal…”, so allow me to put things into perspective: I’m not speaking of some spangly new Gmail account, practically a virgin, untouched by the evils of the world. No, in that same analogy, my email accounts are a bunch of filthy old whores. The oldest alias goes back fifteen years, slapped around the worst kinds of sites, serving me through my brief stint working for an adult site network, used as a login for every dodgy piracy site I’ve ever frequented, brazenly left hanging on robot-crawled blogs, review sites and social networks, and opting-in (knowingly or otherwise) to half a billion different newsletters. Checking my email had become something I did several times a day which essentially revolved around skimming and deleting eighty percent of what came in; boring, really.

For years, I’ve considered ditching everything and starting again, the amount of crap that flies into my inbox, deleted unread, just getting stupid. But no, that’d be letting the bastards win. And besides knowing the mess is ultimately my responsibility, I’m quite attached to the aliases in question. My attitudes in 2013 regarding media/news consumption are pretty-well a unified front: I much prefer I do be on-demand now, or at the very least, aggregated by services such as Google Reader (for news, blogs etc), Netflix & AppleTV for video etc. and keep a channel such as email open exclusively for human (or business) contact. Things like the trusty ol’ newsletter or direct marketing seems like “the old way”, and I’m just not down with it anymore. If their content is that interesting, it’ll be on their blog/Twitter/Facebook, and I’ll see it there.

In early November, as I was starting to clean house in preparation for a long-winded overseas move, I started work on my unruly inbox. The plan was simple: anything that came in which I wasn’t interested in (or which I might have been interested in but now skim then trash every time) I take thirty seconds and unsubscribe from. If there’s no unsubscribe option visible, I find an email on the website and write to it. If it’s spam, I make sure it’s been flagged as such with my mail server’s internal recognition systems. Every major (computer, not phone) email check, I have to do the same, cold, harsh and disciplined.

And guess what: it worked.

It’s taken a couple of months, but today, for the first time, I’ve woken up to zero. The morning tally has been gradually dwindling, especially during the last couple of weeks, and while I expect there’s still going to be more junk in there tomorrow, the first signs of nothingness are encouraging.

With the heavy-hitters online having already shifted away from direct mailings for most things – favouring device- or site-based notifications, and usually giving us users the chance at disabling ALL email contact from them – I’m hoping this is the dawning of a new age. Aggregation has gotten too good, and even if that contributes to the feeling of information overload many of us feel and complain about, at least we can control when and how we choose to view the aggregators. Email newsletters have long since started to feel like getting a cold-call on your landline at dinnertime; tired, irritating and irrelevant.

Time for a Do Not Call on your email too, folks. Take a look at yours: if it’s anything like mine was, give the unsubscribe route a try. One thing you’ll find is how much of your direct human correspondence has shifted to short-form and social media. I used to love writing a good, long letter – snail mail even. I’m totally down with progress, and accept that, for most people, email has become irrelevant, social media taking the full weight of their communications. But now, with this empty, glowing inbox? I’m bringing long-form back… provided I can few people left out there who scoff and “TLDR” and happy to scrape below the Likes and headlines.


219,276 words in, and suddenly I’m all finished. The big draft, at least. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a private tear of two from my lurking-place in the back corner of the café as I tapped that last word and hit “Save”, either. Whatever that feeling was that washed over me, it was intense, and I liked it. Today was a good day.

There’s a shitload to do now – in a lot of ways, the real work has just begun – but tonight, I rest. Messy, but beast now has a start, middle and end, and a distinct voice, shape and flavour. The rest, from here, is just in the details, the perfectionist’s urge, and blind luck.

The writing part has been so awesome, particularly these past couple of weeks, where it’s been my full-time pursuit. The momentum, rounding the final curve, has been incredible. My first day in the library I cracked about 3000 words, the total gradually rising, until today, running on very little (too excited to) sleep, I crashed through 6000 words to finish out the final chapter and the shorter epilogue. I knew how exactly how it was going to end – the plan drawn up 18 months ago still largely holding true; all I needed to do was stick to it, keep my ass of Facebook, and type.

In the greater scheme of things, patting myself on the back today seems a little bit premature; just a draft. But it’s a first, and anything first deserves it’s moment.

So much work to do now, still. Two chapters I’m determined to turn into one. Minor characters whose stories I forgot to lay the groundwork for in earlier chapters. Important historic strands which only sprung into life once I’d hit chapter eight, now very much needing referencing somewhere in chapters one through seven. Hacky, shitty writing in the earlier chapters which progressively found it’s form as time went on and the narrator found his true voice. A tonne of repetitive words, phrases, errors. Probably around five-hundred too many instances of the word “fuck”. Some of the smaller characters need to be smaller. Some of the larger characters need a bit more three-dimensionality. Apostrophes…

…And these are the ones I can remember, not having read the thing back yet. A mess, to be sure, but it’s my mess, and one which I’m chomping at the bit and rearing to get in and improve upon.

Hope I’ve got a great novel for y’all to read pretty soon. I’ve got a novel now, at least.

I’m tired. School’s out. Time for bed.

One Million Keystrokes

Photo: stevecadman

Photo: stevecadman

I’ve been camped out in the British Library all week, typing like a mad bastard in a dark corner of the café. There are a lot of us there, us mad-bastard typists. I’m most probably not the only person tapping away at a novel either, though from a quick glance around at the MacBooks and the old-school yellowed paper notebooks, it appears that the aspiring novelists still only make up a small portion of the rows.

What’s hitting me, now so close to the end of this draft, isn’t the usual arsenal of self-doubt. It’s not like sitting amongst the shadows of the greats has fixed my punctuation issues or repetition, or that nursing the same £1.90 cup of coffee all day has bought me the literary degree I keep hearing I need to ever be considered anybody. None of that stuff is lurking around at the moment, swept into the darkest corners by the momentum and the pace which I’m now smashing through this beast.

The thing is, I’m having too much fun right now to worry whether it’s good or not. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Part of me doesn’t give a fuck, cause part of me is all about the “Hell yeah! I’ve (sorta) written a book“, which hey, regardless of whatever comes next, is a lot bigger a deal than a million others’ dreams or talked-up talk.

I’m not there yet. Not quite. I hit 200,000 words today, so I certainly hope the finish line is as close now as it tastes, based on how far through the mega-spreadsheet I am. I couldn’t help myself, right on the ding, to take a few and check the stats. It was astounding to see that I swept past the million-character mark a while back, which ok, doesn’t really mean all that much. But think about it: a million of anything, even a thing as inane as fingers tapping on a keyboard, certainly feels like either something, or madness. 

It’s a strange feeling, galloping down the final straight after so long plodding along with the manuscript, stealing a few hours of a normal week, as opposed to the 20 or so I’ve spent writing during this one. I shouldn’t say “final” either, really, because this will most certainly not be the end of work on the book. Quite the contrary, but because it is the first time through the novel thing – and not the last – the milestones feel like they’re worth celebrating.

Not long now. Eyes on the prize.

Top 6 Things To Do To Stay Awake In London When Jet-Lag Has You By The Balls And You’re A Little Too Zombied To Go Out

1. Switch off the television, or anything serving up passive video

The only thing worse than enduring Australian freeview for so many years is arriving in London not being able to tune into and enjoy the BBC, my spanking-new Netflix account, or my long-overdue date with AppleTV now that I’m on decent broadband again, without nodding off in minutes. 

2. Turn off the heating – embrace the brass monkey

I still don’t truly get radiators. So mysterious. So few controls, so much that can apparently go wrong if you screw something up with the timing, sending the house into a tropical pseudo-daytime daze at 3am. If cryogenics is good enough for Austin Powers and Captain America, it’s good enough for me.

3. Surf the real estate porn (but not real porn)

Making lists of flats to check out in the morrow and filling bookmark folders with links to random 2-bedroom warehouse-reno’s in Shoreditch is much more constructive than spanking one out and invoking la petite mort. Sadly.

4. Curry

There isn’t a force on earth that can keep an eyelid open better than stuffing every last corner of your digestive system full of meat, chillies and garlic naan. Downside is the rectal hangover, but chances are you’ll still be constipated from the airline food, even after a couple of days, so you won’t need to worry about any of the curry fallout for a while yet.

5. Stop unconsciously doing the timezone conversion; gloat instead

Forget what time it is over there. If anything, replace time-awareness with brutal smugness. Sit on the Timeout iPad app, find music, food and theatre listings way more awesome (slash cheap) than would ever fly in Sydney, and brag about it to Aussies on Facebook. Find a window where you can see a bus route and set your watch by the ludicrous amount of them. Put those mental powers of calculation to better uses such as figuring out how many more beers you can buy with a twenty-note (both with or without conversion), then get back on Facebook and add a P.S. about it on your earlier thread. 

6. Blog about it

Working well so far. While it lasted. Oh god… what to do now… and it’s only just after nine…

Time Travel

We just got back from a short trip up to Brisbane to visit my relatives. Mission: obligatory visit “home” before the big London relocation on Tuesday.

It’s fascinating going back there. Fascinating, and a bit hard. I’m not a fan of Brisbane. Never was. Moved away, and had my reasons. But returning to catch snippets of the people and places left behind every year or two is a sure recipe for noticing the brutal passage of time and it’s various ravages and rewards. Ghosts around every corner as we drive through it. A stolen 17yo kiss in that park. A decrepit share-house now long-since renovated and sanitised. Things not where they’re meant to be. Shiny things broken, and empty things full of apartment blocks or Pieface franchises. 

It’s worse with the people. Realising the busty vixen type was actually that blushing shy little pre-pubescent primary school kid you remember. My brother’s kids old enough to put up some serious banter and dishing it hard. Feeling the empty spaces around the city where my antipodean friends used to be. Seeing the old man more grizzled and slowed by age, clasping him firmly goodbye at the airport wondering if this will be the last time.

My nostalgic demands seem unfair, as the one who left it all behind, moving on always so easy. But I wonder which would be worse: a night lingering on the upset of all the lives moving on without you, or getting to the end of a sedentary, immersed life full of regret for the chances you never took. No, I don’t wonder; I already know that answer, though knowing won’t make the lingering any sweeter.

Writing Yourself In Too Deep

Write what you know“, they said. “Look to your own life for inspiration“, they said. So I did, only to discover there was indeed a story lurking in there. But now, plodding along somewhere in my last chapter (not including the epilogue) I’ve been getting a distinct feeling that perhaps – oh shit – I’ve written far too much of me into the novel.

First-person was always going to be tough not to completely separate, but when the main character is living through a similar major arc to a chapter from my own life – a major chapter dotted with incidents and incitements whose kernels are pulled from my own memories and the collected fireside tales of my colleagues at the time – then complete isolation got tricky. Next time (and there is most certainly going to be a next time, premise and rough plan already being held back while I finish the current opus) I’m going to stay far, far away from anything even vaguely connected with my personal life or personal history. 

Why? Well, not because I’m in too deep. It’s not like there’s been an Adaptation moment where I’ve realised I’ve written myself all the way in. No, our hero still isn’t me exactly. But sometimes he thinks and speaks like me; therein lies the problem. Call me paranoid, but should this beast eventually make it out there and published, there’s enough of my calling-cards in the current draft that people who know me are more than likely going to assume it’s all me. Or worse: know it’s not, but in later years, only ever remember the fictional account of the few scenes which I did lift from real life. Or even worse: I forget how things really were, and only remember the semi-fictional account I put to page. (To be clear: lifted the setup and the scenario, but I’ve mostly let the characters play things out organically within those scenarios, without too much forcing of square pins into round holes). Then there’s the exes, the one-night stands and the crazy germans who I guarantee will read more than their fair share into some of the fictitious-but-littered-with-hints-of-memory events in the book, and very easily become enraged to nostril-flaring, forum-burning proportions.

All sounds a bit presumptuous, self-centered and delusional, but that is precisely my issue: perhaps in a completely fictional universe, I wouldn’t have any of these insecurities bumping around, because hey, who cares? It’s my book, my story. If they don’t like it? Fine. No problem. I guess it wasn’t the book for them. But once that fourth wall has been broken, even just a bit, suddenly I feel more responsibility over how it’s all going to be received. Bad enough that this is my first novel, likely to be torn to shreds time and time as it is, purely for being the first, with all the rookie mistakes.

Which is fine too. I’ve learned a lot, and I can’t wait to get cracking on the next project to put all the new lessons into practice. I don’t entirely regret the inspired by actual events path that was taken, but I don’t think I’ll do it this way again. All the normal writer’s insecurity stuff aside, I’m mostly just sick of spending so much time in my 2003-4 headspace. A fantastic, thrilling, reckless and memorable time for me, possibly the most. But in other ways, the most lonely and self-punishing. And I think what’s bugged me the most during this process: if bits of me weren’t flooding so many of the scenes and situations I think I’d be much more able to switch off and walk away from the character when I’m not typing at my desk. Instead, I’m going to sealed-off places every night, writing them like it’s still fresh and raw; dredging up real shit for the sake of dredging up real shit kinda sucks.

But hey: if it makes for a better book, then whatever. I shouldn’t complain; I should just keep typing, then vent about the murky stuff afterward on a blog. “Write what you know“, they said. So I did, only to discover there was indeed a story lurking in there.