Category: Selfie

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.

My Top 5 Novels Of 2012

This year has been a big one for me and books. Part of my New Year’s Resolutions included seeking out the best possible sources for filling up the upcoming reading list, and, as a secondary directive, to try to keep a good flow of material coming through from authors whom I might want to be like, should all those theories about osmosis hold true.

As a result, coming up with a 2012 Top 5 has proven a little more tricky than in previous years, as apart from a few obvious disappointments (eg. Room by Emma Donoghue seemed like a great premise, but damn if she killed it in the execution) I’ve walked away from most books this year with at least a rating of “meh”, with a good 80% landing squarely in the category “would recommend to a friend”. Of those, a good ten or so were outstanding, this list then becoming more culled down based on the sorts of characters I tend to fall in love with in a book: highly-intelligent and focussed yet intensely flawed in some (largely) uncontrollable or irrational/erratic kind of way. A good story with an ending that stuck with me long after I’d put it down never goes astray either.

Here’s the cream off top of the pile which went through my iPad this year:

A Fraction of the Whole

By Steve Toltz

A Fraction Of The Whole (Steve Toltz)

This was by far my favourite read this year, and almost, I dare say it, a contender for “current all-time favourite”. A rambling series of tall-tales based around the lives of a father, a son, and an extraordinary set of circumstances. It’s like a cross between the best bits Forrest Gump, Ned Kelly, Underbelly, and anything great that’s ever been written about Australian suburbia, the madness of crowds, and the complexities of how you end up loving the people the way you do.

What I loved about it the most was how much of the internal monologue – the voice of the author himself – matched my own thought processes. Especially the secret, maddened stuff, and the random mocking observations about people, especially Australians. This book felt like home in a way I can’t easily describe.

It’s a hard book to sum up, so I won’t try any further. Just read it.

Capital: A Novel

By John Lanchester

Captal: A Novel (John Lanchester)

This one I enjoyed the way I love a good Robert Altman film : a huge swag of characters and lives, entangled in unpredictable ways (or perhaps not even entangled much at all) and playing out multiple, occasionally-overlapping stories from several different angles. That, and it felt like London. The language, the snobbery, the filth, the racism, the unfathomable love of football, and the occasional terror plot.

The characters and stories, while essentially linked geographically by the one street they all live (or work) on, manage to cover an awful lot of ground, make a lot of good commentary, and make for a cracker of a good read. Couldn’t put it down.

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt)

A classic journey tale set in the wild west, but do leave your preconceptions at the door. I’ll be honest, I was dubious that I’d enjoy this as much as I did – the premise of a couple of gunslingers on their horse-bound way to hunt down a man for cash – didn’t have much appeal to me. Very glad I went there. You fall in love with the main character. Sharp, obligated (often brutal) actions keep the story moving forward at an enjoyable pace, while underneath, so many moments of regret, sadness and the sort of quiet three-dimensionality you don’t expect from such a simple tale. Reminded me very much of how a Coen Brothers novel would go if they ever decided to stop directing and start writing books.

The Teleportation Accident (Ned Beauman)

This book is crazy. So much of what kept me ploughing through the pages at an epic pace I can’t really speak of here without giving away what’s great about it, but suffice to say, it ticked all the right boxes for me regarding nuttily brilliant central characters marred by one central immovable flaw. With a curious story quickly hopping between decades and centuries, time and time again repeating the same themes, jokes and coincidences, I loved that it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous, setting up for several pages something which  firmly resorts to the impossible for the sake of slipping in a good one-liner. I didn’t think I liked it at first, but once I got a few chapters in (then definitely confirmed by the very last paragraph of the book), I was completely hooked by the cyclic madness of this odd, 2012-Man-Booker-longlisted tale.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

Hardly a new book (written in the late-60s, author committed suicide in 1969, his mother posthumously getting the manuscript published in 1981) this easily slips into my top 5, primarily for the belching/flatulence. Centred around a wholly unlikeable, overweight, gassy, smelly, arrogant and decidedly delusional main character, this picaresque tale hooked me early and never let up. The world revolves around Ignatius J. Reilly, and no matter how much distain or disgust he treats it, somehow everyone’s life he encounters is irreparably changed, while he largely stays the same. I kept waiting for massive u-turn character development, but it never comes, and I love that : sometimes being an asshole is ok, cause sometimes the assholes win…

There were plenty of others that nearly made the list this year, both new and old: The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch), Union Atlantic (Adam Haslett), Gone Girl (Jillian Flynn – actually really good, even with all the hype!), The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett), Solar (Ian McEwan), Great North Road (Peter F. Hamilton – still reading it now, but loving the living shit out of it as epic holiday sci-fi..) and definitely, definitely Reamde (Neal Stephenson). (Additionally, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami would’ve made the list for sure except as I finished reading it on December 31 last year, so can’t be permitted!). So much good stuff, especially once I began trawling the Man Booker long-list for ideas – there were a few not to my taste in there, but hitting up the award-nominations are always a great place to start if you’re stuck.

The only other significant thing I have to say regarding books this year is that this is the first year I’ve not read a single novel in paper form. That’s right : 100% ebook, baby. While I agree there’s something nice about holding a book in your hand (and all that usual stuff about “smell” and “feel” I keep hearing), I don’t think I’ll be turning back now. The benefits of digital far outweigh the nostalgic stuff (or the visual/spacial clutter), and things like tap-to-define-tricky-vocab and the automatically-collated database of colour-coded highlighted passages waiting for me at the end of each book are things I can’t imagine reading without anymore. 

Whatever your poison, I just hope you’re all reading your hearts out. Flipped through anything awesome? Let me know – always on the look out for anything new, unique and interesting….

Eight Pairs of Legs

They say to be a better writer it helps to be constantly on the look out for new material, sponged from daily life. For a while now I’ve had a cloud-based folder in on my phone, crammed full of mysteriously-titled files covering all sorts of random topics. Brave. KP2. Double-cross. Winning. Details. Each one of them a list of sentences or paragraphs, mostly unconnected, describing something I’ve either seen on the street, or pertaining to an upcoming project or kernel-of-a-project which I simply had to write down before it evaporated.

A couple of weeks ago, just after we temporarily moved into the colourful neighbourhood of Surry Hills, I started one called Crazy People. The mission: writing down anything I happened to catch, uttered by the local vagrant or special population, of which there seem to be quite a strong showing of in the area. Not surprisingly, this file is filling fast; so fast it’s becoming clutter, especially as I have no current project where this anthology of nuttiness will end up finding a home.

What I’m also discovering is that the more I’m listening to these people – not only writing down whatever hollered sentence they happen to utter as I mosey by, but also details about what they were doing, how they looked, and what might have caused their outburst – the more some of them are starting to make sense. When I started, my intention was to capture the strange things these often-disturbed people said, thinking there’d be some comic value in it somewhere, especially if it had originated in an authentic place. But now that I’m actually trying to document, most of them just make me feel a bit sad: there’s often a lot of logic behind their apparent madness.

Like yesterday. There was a 50yo man in a filthy blue polo shirt, holes in his shoes (though not a vagrant), his wild eyes and sweaty features asymmetric enough that you could tell at a glance he wasn’t all there. He was walking down Bourke street, shouting: “Eight!! … Eight!!! … EEEIIIGHT!!!”, over and over, with unintelligible muttering in between. Curious about the muttering, I got in close. In between the eights, he mumbled : “Two, four, six, eight. Eight pairs of legs. Nice legs. Summer legs. Two-four-six-eight.. EIGHT!!!” Turns out he’d just passed a bunch of girls, farther down, all still laughing at having dodged a crazy man, each of them wearing tiny denim shorts to match the summer weather. Eight legs, all in a row.

He wasn’t crazy. Well, not completely. Sure, he was bad at maths, but it’s not like I hadn’t noticed the same group, both of us reduced to being just a couple of dudes noticing a bunch of pretty girls. The only difference between us was that I kept my mouth shut about it, and my shoes were clean. Nearly every one of these people I could’ve said the same about; all larger disability issues aside, in the one-on-one isolated incidents I’ve been documenting, nearly every person has been motivated by exactly the same things as the rest of us would, the only difference being their method of expression, their hygiene, and how the world bluntly responds to their presence, usually putting distance between them.

Whether there’s been any deep understanding gained from having noticed, I don’t know. I’m still going to keep writing down their pearls of wisdom, still for exactly the same self-serving reasons as before; there’ll be no human-interest, life-changing-experience paragraph to end this tale. But if the observation has left it’s mark on me at all, perhaps it’s that I’m now listening for stories, not soundbites. That, and for any helpful crowd-sourced tips on whether there are any beautiful women in the vicinity…