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Month: March 2022

H is for Hawk: when words fly

I recently finished H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It’s a stunner.

I’ve read a lot of non-fiction books lately where you initially wonder how a publisher ended up green-lighting the book. Somebody’s dad dies to they buy a hawk and try to train it?

I mean, okay, sounds a bit off-the-wall, but I’ll give it a shot. It starts off smooth enough, and I thought it would be a bit avant-garde, a book about hawks that might be tenuously linked to some aspect of modern life. I was happy enough.

Then it span around and kneed me in the delicates.

The book rapidly becomes a beautiful account of a woman struggling with spiralling depression after her dad dies, as her regression into a childhood obsession with hawks. There are a lot of parallels drawn between her experiences and those of the writer T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.

The style is strange, with autobiographical elements mixed with fictionalised snippets of White’s life. But this recipe makes the whole thing come alive. The prose could cut glass.

Some favourite snippets:

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.

Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing breaks, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.

Austin Kleon interviews Oliver Burkeman

This Monday, Austin Kleon is releasing an interview with Oliver Burkeman. Two of my favourite creative voices in one conversation. Some of the best books I read last year were Kleon’s trio of books, and Burkeman’s recent book Four Thousand Weeks.

One to watch.

I also subscribe to Burkeman’s twice-monthly newsletter The Imperfectionist, which I highly recommend for anyone who enjoyed Four Thousand Weeks.

Sanderson’s Gone Rogue

A few weeks ago, Brandon Sanderson posted a video that was almost perfect clickbait. If you don’t want anything spoiled, watch the video before reading on.


Spoiler alert

It turns out it’s not a confessional, but an announcement of a bold plan. For anyone unfamiliar with Sanderson: he’s a prolific high fantasy writer. He writes big honking doorstops of books. And in lockdown he ‘accidentally’ wrote an extra five books. Five.

(Why do the rest of us bother?)

Not only is he releasing these in 2023, but he’s doing it via a Kickstarter campaign. And the books are being released with the options to go in blind: just a book that arrives once a quarter, accompanied only by the knowledge that it’s a Sanderson novel. Or you can get some juicy previews already.

This isn’t unheard of in indie publishing, but Sanderson is a trad publishing heavyweight, so the video was seen a couple million times within 24 hours. This kind of experiment is new ground: a statement that one of the most successful authors in the world is pursuing his own publishing routes, embracing the hybrid lifestyle, and retaining his IP.

Writing Longhand

Like millions of other people, I would have Neil Gaiman’s babies (we’d sort out the mechanics). His world-renown literary works aside, he also gives a bloody good interview.

Tim Ferriss recently reposted a 90-minute chat they had a few years ago. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and any other Gaiman interview you can find (there are lots on Youtube, like this one with Amanda Palmer).

Story bloat driven by word processors

What really grabbed me today was Neil’s comments on writing longhand. He always writes his first drafts out in a notebook, and it affects not only his process, but he has observed it affecting others, too.

I’ll be paraphrasing hereon, but you can read the full transcript here.

Neil notes that before PCs with word processors were mainstream, he edited an anthology of short stories. Then, the word counts averaged around 3,000 words. Only a few years later, with more computers around, he edited another anthology, only to find that the average word count has more than doubled.

On a computer screen, words are cheap. There’s no paper or ink to waste. There’s no selection pressure on the choice of words — just use them all. I wonder if short stories are fundamentally more difficult to write by computer than by hand. Does the brain process the task in a measurably different way?

Gaming environments for success

Neil has a well-known writing habit: if he doesn’t write then he is free to do nothing, but he is only allowed to do nothing. In minutes, doing nothing tends to lost his charm, and he so he writes. Procrastination is short-circuited.

But he also does something else. Neil produces his second drafts by copying his longhand manuscripts onto the computer. When he does this, if he realises he doesn’t need a page or so, he just doesn’t copy it up. Instead of deleting a whole chunk of digital copy, feeling like he’s losing work, he in fact saves himself the labour of transcribing.

This approach of using technology, environment and ritual provides an environment where Neil maximises his chance of doing the things he’d rather do. It doesn’t have to always work, it just has to be better than the default state.

Chris Clear posted something similar recently:

Prime your environment to make the next action easy.

First drafts are just meet-and-greets

In any case, Neil doesn’t try to catch lightning in a bottle. Even the master doesn’t spit out perfect prose right away (though I suspect his first go is usually still disgustingly good). I’ll close out with his thoughts on what first drafts are for.

… Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames … it is you telling the story to yourself.

Buff and rebuff

I haven’t posted since November. A lot’s happened since then, including a new job and a downpayment on our first house.

I’ve spent a lot of that time editing, rather than writing. I’ve focused on my backlog of short stories, dusting them off and buffing them until they’re like glass. The oldest of the stories was written over two years ago. Even in that relatively short span, I’ve changed as a person, and that change is reflected in each draft of the stories.

First drafts are always unrefined, anyway. It’s like firing a bow and arrow while blindfolded: you’ll settle for shooting in the right direction at first. As Joyce Carol Oates said:

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Two of the stories only needed tightening, though I’ve managed to shave them down by around 30% each. The other two required a complete overhaul; they’re barely the same stories I started with.

I’ve been submitting them, with no expectation of acceptance, taking the long view. I’m racking up the rejections already.

My short-story submission statistics so far this year (I use Duotrope to handle my submissions)

In terms of writing activities, I’ve done nothing else for almost three months. Every morning for around an hour, and in the evening when I can squeeze it in. It’s put me in an entirely different headspace: every word counts; misplaced punctuation reads like a bullet fired through a china-shop window.

It’s very different from my usual get-it-on-the-page, word-vomity method of writing fresh material.

What’s really been impressed on me is that revision can create a definite sense of peace and solitude. Like those model ships that people build inside bottles. But it can also be a bottomless pit — there’s no natural end to the process.

“A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,” remarked Paul Valéry (though there seems to be some controversy over who actually said it).

When to draw a line under a project is one of the hardest things to get right. Working on a lot of short stories in sequence seems like a good way to get better.

I’ve never revised any piece as much as I’ve revised these stories. I’m sure I could recite them from memory by now. I might even get an acceptance if I keep it up.