We need to talk about the hippopotamus

Some weeks you’re moodily incubating a brilliant idea, some you’re just a surly, frustrated arsehole.

In the best weeks, it’s both.

This week, I’m bereft. I’ve surled and mooded my way through an entire week to find myself marooned at my desert island of a desk without an idea or a Man Friday to help me find one, partly because I don’t have a Man Friday but mostly because I’m pretty sure just imagining having one is quite racist.

So it’s Manless Friday, I have no ideas and I might be an imaginary racist.

Brilliant.

I have a strategy for this moment. I look up. It’s desperate and unpleasant, but needs must.

On the brick wall beyond my laptop there is a fluttering spray of curly post-it notes upon which I have written every half-formed, random and/or incomprehensible idea I ever spurned. I tell myself I keep them to remind me to be discerning.

That is not why I keep them.

I extend a hand towards them now. It means reaching over my laptop lid. If I can just do it without disturbing —

I don’t know why you think sneaking past me will work, preek.

—the plastic pteranodon blu-tacked to my laptop lid.

‘Shush,’ I say. ‘I need to do this, and I need to do it with an open mind.’

It’s not so much your scryeee belief that I’m an over-vigilant pteranodon that disturbs me, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, as your belief that my mind might have been elsewhere for a moment. Kraaaaaarg.

‘I’m not listening to you,’ I say.

Then how can I be talking? I think we need to discuss this. Kah kahkaaaaah.

‘No!’ I say. ‘Discuss it with someone else.’

Someone else? Dear oh Lord, gAAAAaaaaaahrag. You were one of those kids who wondered what Ossie Ostrich got up to during the week, weren’t you?

‘HE STAYED IN HIS BOX BECAUSE HE LIKED HIS PRIVACY. Listen, shut it. I’m done with you. You were a one-off event, a brain explosion brought on by stress and general weirdness, but I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got plenty of better ways of telling stories. Look, I keep a wall full of them.’

Ah yes, the Wall. Now, are you sure —

‘Quiet. As if I need a plastic toy to construct a narrative. I can pick from dozens. Watch this. Today’s new idea is on its way.’

I reach out and pluck a random post-it from the wall. It reads:

HE’S A COP WHO’LL STOP AT NOTHING TO GET TO THE TRUTH

— He should stop at some things. List of things he should stop at:

  • releasing sarin gas
  • eating baby
  • molesting old hippopotamus

There is a long silence.

‘Do you think imagining Man Friday is racist?’ I ask.

I think, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, that we need to talk about the hippopotamus.

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The parable of the naked smorgasbord doppelganger

I can’t make an ellipsis, and it’s killing me.

It’s usually fatal, yes. Kraaa.

I try doing three full stops. They fail to automatically team up into a single glyph. I bemoan the decline of the Spirit of the Blitz.

Oh sure, World War Two Londoners had no trouble persuading three little dots to shift slightly closer together, scrawk raag, what with their communal sense of punctuation. On their laptop screens. In 1940s England. I expect that was what kept them safe from all those bombs. This is just like that.

I try doing an em dash, and I can’t do that either. I also can’t do diacritical marks, leaving the accented words I type creepily naked, like a doppelganger eating crepes at a cafe smorgasbord. I want to kill myself.

Funny you should say that, craaaAAAaw. It’s a little known fact that keyboard gremlins are usually what set off those self-immolating Tibetan monks.

I look up. The Pteranodon of Ptruth gazes back at me from its blu-tack perch on top of my new laptop.

Sorry, was I talking out loud? Sreeg.

‘I know where you’re going with this.’

Only I was just thinking—

‘Don’t you dare.’

that there is

‘I paid good money for this thing.’

a hashtag for this. Preek.

I #headdesk. #FML, I think. #WTF. #PteranodonofPtruth.

Warmer. Warmer. Red hot. Cold. Squeee.

I lurch up from my keyboard. ‘I know which arse-bastarding hashtag you mean!’ I say. ‘It’s for people who moan about scorched latte milk or slightly inferior jalapeños in their ten-dollar food-truck tacos!’

Um—

‘THIS IS NOT A FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM. Well it is, but it’s a proper one. I paid quite a lot of money for this laptop, which I need to use for my job, which is writing. If I can’t type some characters I need … well, it’s more or less useless.’

— have you noticed —

‘Quiet, I’m monologuing. If the laptop can’t do its job, then all my first-world money, and the first-world money that went into designing it, and the third-world labour that built it, and the rare elements they dug out of third-world countries to make it, are wasted. It’s like someone bought a luxury yacht and it turned out there were no toilets on it. Yes the yacht is luxurious, but it’s still a problem if the rich nobs on board have to crap over the side—’

— would you just —

‘I’m not some frivolous roué in a … in some sort of façade of—’

PREEEEEK.

‘What?’

Say that second last word again.

‘Façade. Why?’

Oh.

‘Why’s that suddenly working?’

I think you head-butted the ‘num lock’ key before. Gräk.

‘Is that … which one is — oh. It’s quite hard to see in that corner.’

The Pteranodon of truth looks at me. Äänittäjää, it says.

‘Is that a pteranodon swear?’ I ask.

I think it’s Finnish for ‘recording engineer’, says the pteranodon. But it’ll do for now.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

I don’t know, I’m a god damn pteranodon

I just blu-tacked my pteranodon to my monitor. If this were a euphemism I’d have already called an ambulance.

It’s not a euphemism. It’s a two-inch tall plastic pteranodon. I don’t know why I’ve suddenly blu-tacked it to my monitor, and now I don’t have long to find out, because I’ve just returned from my boss’s office, where I quit my job.

The pteranodon gazes levelly at me, or at least as levelly as pteranodon can gaze who is permanently posed in a wings-out, gape-jawed, waiting-for-Ray-Harryhausen-to-call-action stance.

Are you, it shrieks cretaceously, absolutely sure about this? Raark.

‘Sssh,’ I say. ‘I’ve got all these emails to look at.’

I look at the emails. The pteranodon looks at me. It has no choice.

It’s just—

‘I’m not listening.’

Yet here I am talking, caw.

I look up from the emails. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Yes you do, screech. Just look at you, sweating, edgy, openly anthropomorphising a plastic dinosaur during work hours like a common nine year-old. You think you’ve made a mistake, graaa raark, don’t you?

I pick at a bit of nothing on my desk. ‘Actually, pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, they’re pterosaurs. You see, dinosaurs fall into two groups, saurischia and ornithis—’

You think, insists the pteranodon, that you’ve made a mistake.

I look the pteranodon in its tiny, inexpertly painted, basilisk eye. ‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Maybe. But it’s done now, isn’t it? The decision’s made, so I hardly need a plastic party favour talking smack about it.’

Hey, you put me here, scrawk.

‘And I could easily replace you. Look, this drawer has three other plastic dinosaurs in it and a paper crane my friend made out of a headshot of Kevin McCloud—’

I’m not a dinosaur, preek.

‘“Preek”? What the hell kind of made up crap is “preek”?’

Oh sure, because you know what sound pteranodons make. In the wild. Here in Parkville, in 2013, in the wild. Preek.

‘I KNOW ALL KINDS OF THINGS, YOU TINY PLASTIC PRICK. I’m clever. I haven’t made a mistake. I’m not leaving this team of dedicated health workers in the lurch, because there are loads of people who could come and write their vital online psychological interventions. It’s totally okay and not at all selfish and cowardly for me to quit now. I like me.

‘And someone else will definitely employ me. Almost definitely. You’ll see. When I leave here with my specific plan to write something and then something else and then five book deal and then something something massive success and buy a castle, and you’re a gargoyle blu-tacked to one of my lesser crenellations, you’re going to look back on this churlish doubt of yours and feel,’ I say to the plastic pteranodon stuck to my monitor, ‘very foolish indeed.’

I sit back triumphantly in my swivel chair. The pteranodon stares at me. Jaws agape.

What the hell are you talking about?

‘What?’

I was asking you, says the pteranodon, if you thought it was a good idea to stick a toy to your monitor.

I look at the pteranodon.

You share this desk. Someone called Jane uses it half the week.

‘Does she like dinosaurs?’ I ask.

I don’t know, says the pteranodon with a sigh. I’m a god damn pteranodon.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

The writer’s blog tour

Last month Chris Miles tagged me in the Writer’s Blog Tour. The idea is that Writers challenge some colleagues to answer the same four questions on their Blog, after which they are allowed to Tour the local milk bar, where there are usually at least two Lemon Calippos left, unless the damn School Kids have cleaned it out first.

Which means I need to get cracking.

What am I working on?

I once argued that typing is not writing in the same way that a bottle of tequila is not a jug of margaritas, but in both cases it seems that a really ardent commitment to the former can, in a very real sense, do the trick. So to stick to work I’m currently adding words to today, the list is:

  • a young adult novel, working title The Orchard Underground, in which a kid discovers a giant, wonderful secret under his boring home town, and then realises that one of them will destroy the other and only he can choose which
  • a children’s adventure book series, currently untitled and in its very earliest days, involving twin ten year-old detectives, a mystery granddad and, possibly, capes
  • (very much for my own amusement) a TV series in which a spectacularly inept documentary film crew follows, and generally terribly exacerbates, a series of bitter interpersonal feuds

But.

You know when you’re working hard, on something you love, and you’re totally into it, and then … BAM, you suddenly wake up to find you’ve been staring out the window for ten minutes with a completely different thing dancing around your mind?

That. All the time. So before, after, during and far too frequently instead of work on my current projects, there’s a non-stop burble of ideas, sentences, names, images, scenes, stories. Some have pretty clear shapes, but most don’t. I’m working on those, all the time, right now as I type this. While I’m toasting the sandwiches. As I’m filling the margarita jug. Which is a metaphorical margarita jug. It definitely is.

*throws hanky over webcam*

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I don’t have an easy answer to questions about genre, and it’s mostly, I think, because I haven’t got one, yet.

If I were a more ambitious, career-minded writer, I’d have a chosen a genre and readership long ago, worked hard to write good books to appeal to those readers and established myself as a known and respected writer of, say, true crime cookbooks or celebrity animal autobiographies.

I admire writers like these, both because they have a clear sense of what they want to achieve and because — and I can’t stress this enough — their books are actually in bookshops, on bookshop counters, in bags on the way home from bookshops and on nightstands, where a receipt for $24.95 makes a natty bookmark.

I haven’t worked like this, at least not yet. I’m a genre and readership pinball: to pick a few examples, I’ve written a science-fiction comedy novel, a series of columns on the subject of doubt, a children’s adventure story, a regular sports column (don’t ask) and, most recently, a three-year, PhD-length set of online therapy resources for young people who have had an episode of psychosis.

But all of those projects inform each other, and they’re all informing the YA novel and children’s series I’m working on now. It’s important to be across the genre you’re writing in — there’s nothing artistically or commercially helpful about spending a year writing a book to discover that Rainbow Rowell wrote the same thing only better a year ago — but I like my influences to be far broader. The books I’m currently writing are influenced by Axe Cop and Jorge Luis Borges and tsunami videos and a drawing my son did of a robot chicken being piloted by Princess Bubblegum and a picture I found on the net of a motorbike grown into a tree.

Someone can tell me later how that story differs from others in my genre. Although if all of that turns up in Rainbow Rowell’s next novel I’ll be livid.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I can. I am always — every minute of every day — aware of the unfairly luxurious nature of my career. I’m not working hand-to-mouth, so I can choose my projects. I can’t justify that colossal, unearned privilege, so I try to make what I do worth it. I write only what I love, what other people might love, what I haven’t already seen elsewhere and what I think I might be able to do well.

Beyond that — because of that — I don’t question. Douglas Adams once said he didn’t know what he seriously thought about something until he’d worked out exactly the right joke to make about it, and I expect I’m similarly afflicted. I can’t seem to help writing comedy, but the subject of that comedy usually turns out to be something I care about far more than I realised at the time. I think maybe I write comedy as a form of compassion, not to prick holes in something but to empathise with it, so I’m never tempted to put myself above it.

I also quite like cocks, so there’s a lot of that in there too.

How does my writing process work?

This is where, ideally, a sequence of neat, informative and confident dot points about my daily routine would arrange themselves. The first would read:

  • 5am: idea, first thousand words

and the last:

  • buy castle, retire

I’m a lot more chaotic than that, and if there’s a single most important thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer, it’s that that works for me. I plan, write and edit my current novel using a random combination of cardboard system cards, a loose, wall-sized whiteboard that sits on my lap, a folder full of scribbled notes, various files on my laptop and a wall covered in blu-tacked reference images. Some days I need them all: some I sit and type like a demon. Some days I make a hundred words in eight hours: others I watch the Daily Show and try on every hat in my house three times until I hate myself, then sit down and turn out a thousand words in forty five minutes.

If I get stuck, I change tack. If that doesn’t work, I open a new file and start typing absolutely anything until it does work. If that doesn’t work, I get the hell out of there. Some days it’s better if you don’t touch anything.

And then I keep doing that. It’s messy and unromantic, but it works, at least until I think of something better or become a shepherd.

*

Now my favourite part of this exercise, in which I get to tag three other writers to answer these questions. Here they are:

Amy Gray is the author of most of the best columns getting written round these parts, and is also my only trusted source of news on Japanese dating sims.

Siv Parker is a writer and screenwriter whose hypnotic tweetyarns have been haunting my Twitter feed in a way that makes me crazy that I didn’t think of it first.

Josh Vann is a designer, illustrator, teacher and writer currently collaborating on the graphic novel The Spider King, about which I am so excited I can barely even.

The semi-requited novelist

People are asking me questions.

‘Yes,’ they say, ‘it’s all very well, all this business with burgling and urine portage and the lesser-known works of Danny DeVito, but didn’t you used to be an unrequited novelist?’

‘Well—’ I say, but they interrupt me.

‘Didn’t,’ they interrupt, ‘you promise us a unique window into the life of a jobbing writer trying to make good?’

‘There’s no need to use bad language,’ I say, and there is a brief but animated discussion over the subtler definitions of the word ‘job’, but they have already won the argument.

I began this blog a year ago to try to describe what it is like to throw caution and a regular pay check to the wind and essay a career as a novelist, and I now feel that have somewhat strayed from my brief, in life as well as in print. Since I finished writing The Last Monk at the beginning of this year, things have changed in ways which I will shortly describe in detail in these pages, but which for now can be summed up in the following job descriptions: sport journalist, poker tournament director and, ominously, university administration flunky again.

None of this is to say, however, that The Last Monk has stalled. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and at this point I can reveal that there is a very good reason why it is today that I am returning to the subject here. But in order to explain properly, I am going to take you back two years and transport you to a truck stop just outside the rural town of Healesville, where a dozen groovy young Melburnians, an Englishwoman, my wife the Evil Sulphura and I are sat around a large table, observing with horror the coffee-table sized hamburger which has been placed before each of us.

‘What is it?’ the Englishwoman asks.

‘I’m not sure,’ says our mutual friend Iris, ‘but Noel said we would all love them. I think he might be torturing us.’

We are on a winery tour of the Yarra Valley, and Noel is the driver of our hired minibus. When he picked us up a few hours earlier in town, he gave us a look which I took to mean: ‘Huh. City folk’. We had all been very good about not asking for soy lattes and demanding to know if everything was organic, but still Noel had set us up in this giant-hamburger trap. He is standing over us now, looking grimly satisfied at our reluctance.

Being from the outer suburbs, I feel I have more experience with meat snadwiches than Noel has anticpated, and I lead the way by picking up the entire assemblage with barely a grunt and, my eyes never leaving Noel’s, taking a large bite.

The Englishwoman, whose name is Daisy, nibbles at hers experimentally.

‘God,’ she says, ‘someone’s put beetroot in this one!’

‘That’s normal here,’ Iris says.

Daisy pauses. ‘Did you hear me say beetroot?’

‘I heard you say beetroot.’

‘So it’s normal to have beetroot here.’

‘In a hamburger, yes.’

‘Oh.’ She nibbles a little more. ‘Actually, now that I try it it’s not all that — Christ, there’s pineapple under the beetroot!’

‘That’s normal too.’

Daisy levers up the pineapple with a fork. ‘I’m just checking for ice-cream,’ she explains.

Later, in the bus, while I am trying to work out how Sulph managed to switch our plates when I was nearly finished, Daisy turns to introduce herself. ‘Hi,’ she says. ‘I’m Daisy, fearless consumer of exotic delicacies. When I’m not doing that, I’m a fiction editor in London. I’m here on holiday, visiting Iris.’

I know all this, because Iris had told me the day before that Daisy would be here. Iris had also ensured that we sat in the same part of the bus. Iris is trying to set us up on a sort of professional blind date.

‘Is that right?’ I say. ‘Lovely.’

‘What do you do?’ asks Daisy.

I had told Iris I wasn’t going to mention to Daisy that I am a writer. It would, I said, be selfish and unprofessional for me to network Daisy when she was on holiday. She must get hassled at parties by wannabe writers all the time at home. She deserves some peace.

‘I’m a writer,’ I say. A few seats away, Iris lets out a moan that has nothing to do with indigestion.

‘Oh yeah?’ says Daisy.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer. A novelist. I’m writing a novel.’

‘Great,’ says Daisy. ‘Tell me about it.’

‘I shouldn’t,’ I say. ‘You’re on holidays.’

‘It’s okay,’ says Daisy. ‘Tell me about it.’

I tell her about it. ‘But it’s not finished,’ I say. ‘It’ll be better when it’s finished.’

‘It sounds good,’ says Daisy. ‘When you’re finished, send me a line, I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Wow,’ I say. ‘I will.’

‘Is this the next winery?’ says Sulphura next to me. ‘Ah yes, here it is — Kissarse Hill Estate.’

‘Wow,’ I say.

Two years later The Last Monk receives its first rejection from a major Australian publisher, I fire my agent for unrelated reasons, and suddenly I find myself searching for options. Then, two months ago, I find myself sitting listlessly in my local fish and chip shop, wondering what to do next, when the chef calls out: ‘That hamburger with the lot, mate — you want beetroot on it?’

I run out of the shop, which is presumably not the kind of reaction to beetroot the chef normally gets, and race home to write an email. Several emails later — just two hours ago, in fact — I received the following email:

Matt [instantly forgiven – ML],

Sorry not to get back to you earlier — the last few weeks have been hectic. But, I finally read your novel this week and I am pleased, and surprised (this never happens!) to say that I loved it. Congratulations! I think it’s a brilliant, extremely funny, well-plotted, clever, pacy and, I dare say it, commercial novel. I’m recommending The Last Monk to my boss Nick, who’s our Publishing Director. I’ve given you a rave review and let’s cross our fingers that he likes your stuff as much as me. Publishing first novels is a tricky business but I really think you’ve got a shot with this. If Nick decides against taking a punt, I’m more than happy to recommend you to agents over here – I can think of a few who would love your work – so keep in touch.

Keep me posted, and if I hear anything, I’ll keep you posted of course!

Daisy x.

I am publishing this (in slightly edited form for propriety’s sake) despite the gross immodesty it might imply because it simply doesn’t seem real.

I’m also worried that publishing it like this may expose me as a rank amateur to the real people involved, but the fact is I made a committment. This blog is a record of what it is like to be an unrequited novelist. There is nothing worse than one of those films where, after ninety minutes of emotional investment, the romantic leads pull down the window shade to enjoy the climactic kiss in private, and I won’t do that here.

There are no guarantees. Today I am a semi-requited novelist. Next week I might find this whole situation has an unexpected slice of beetroot or pineapple ring tucked quietly in the middle. I hope that, if I do, someone will be on hand to tell me that’s normal here.

Truth, beauty and above all quantum superposition

Suddenly I’m at an imaginary party.

‘Nice party,’ I say to a passing poet, rather lamely. She nods politely. I look around, a bit lost.

‘Listen,’ I say, ‘do you know why I’m here?’

‘I don’t even know why I’m here,’ she says crankily. ‘Why am I a poet? You’re making me up, you tell me.’

We look awkwardly into our punch glasses while I guiltily try to work out what kind of character she should be. I decide that she has just seen the film Moulin Rouge, and have her suddenly demand of me whether, like famous artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Ewan MacGregor, I am passionately devoted to Truth, Beauty and Above All Love.

I quickly nip off to the kitchen to refill my glass.

Hiding casually under a kitchen table, I consider her question and my response which, staring up at the passing knees, I can’t defend against a charge of panic. It was a fair, if slightly florid, question to ask a writer, and the kind of thing about which a writer might reasonably be expected to hold strong opinions. I run through mine.

I’m all for Love. Couldn’t fault it. And if you’re after something to put Above All, Love’s the very chap. No problem there.

And if you’re willing to accept the various crystalline glories of Georgian folk harmonies, my six-year old niece and the career pitchmap of Glenn McGrath, I’ve got Beauty knocked into a cocked hat.

I imagine some chewing gum stuck to the underside of the table and frown at it. It was Truth, then. Why?

I write fiction, which means that although much of The Last Monk, for example, is based on real things and places, it is almost completely made up. None of the people exist and none of the events ever happened. It’s fiction, and I work damn hard to make it stranger than truth.

Yet I’d like to think that when I write I am trying to find out the truth about things: about the baffling ways people act, how the world works and, in my case, the way it feels to talk to dust bunnies or start a civil war in a marching band.

So my book is simultaneously true and false, real and made-up. How?

The poet’s Doc Martens swish by the table on the way to the door, apparently fed up with being called into existence then abandoned in the lounge room. I poke my head out from under the table.

There is a theory of quantum mechanics which states that, until observed, a sub-atomic particle may be in two different states, even two different places, at the same time, and that this is nothing to worry about, even though it sounds like it should be. Think of Schrödinger’s Cat, simultaneously alive and dead in a box until someone opens the lid. Perhaps there is a way for something to be both true and fictional, at least until someone reads it and decides in their own framework of reference which it is. In these circumstances, I realise, I can stop worrying about verisimilitude and just go for it.

A giant monkey-lobster creature in harlequin tights enters the kitchen in a dune buggy at that moment and asks me what I am doing under there. I say I am hiding in a fictional party in order to contemplate Truth, Beauty and Above All Quantum Superposition.

He says great and could I pass him a Bacardi Breezer.

Small, green plastic frogs

Wordcount = 93,973

Due to recent advances, I can now reveal the first and last line of The Last Monk. It begins with ‘The house is suddenly filled with music’, and ends with the words ‘small, green plastic frogs’.

It’s a philosophical piece, obviously.

This morning I wrote the last line of the last chapter, and although I’m not completely pleased with it, I’m now so close to a first draft I can virtually taste the publishers’ advances. Over the next week, I’ll write two short chapters from the middle of the novel, and I’ll then have a first draft and a hangover, in that order. Then it will be editing time, which I hope will take no longer than two weeks.

I’ll try to get another extract up soon, which will probably be the last one before I begin tarting myself around the publishing world.

Breaking the dam

Wordcount = 92,519

Sometimes it’s a horrible job. My head has spent much of the last two days hanging low over my keyboard, trying to extrude from its depths the endless truckloads of fairy floss and navel lint someone seems to have deposited there since the weekend.

There isn’t really an effective way to describe it: I woke up Monday morning feeling positive, went through my normal Monday morning ablutions and habits in a perfectly normal Monday morning kind of way, sat down at the computer, turned it on, opened the correct file, and seized like an oilless motor.

Monday passed, eight hours without a coherent thought with which to form a coherent sentence with which to form a coherent story. I’ve been here before, and have learned that it can only be cured by sitting there, hanging over the keyboard, and possibly writing nothing at all, for as long as it takes.

It can be made infinitely worse by taking even ten minutes off. On a day like that, ten minutes away means never coming back. And then getting up the next day and dealing with the guilt.

So Monday passed. I wrote 240 words.

At 2:30 this afternoon, five hours into the second day, I’d written another 220. Three hours later, I’d added 2,250. About nine pages, and double what I’d normally write in a day.

I can’t say what happened, although it wasn’t magic, or divine inspiration. It’s just work. The right idea finally came, something tentative which broke a dam, and the flood was the rest of the climax and one more chapter.

I’ve written the first draft of the big climax, and the following chapter, which is the aftermath. I’ve now got about two chapters to go, plus two more further back in the plot which I’ll do last. It might take about two weeks, but as I’ve just hinted, it can be impossible to tell.

The ninety thousand man

Wordcount = 90,033

I’ve just passed a major milestone, namely my 90,000th word. Finally, something besides caffeine is making my hands shake. It’s ‘Growing on Me’ by The Darkness, one of the great celebratory songs, and I’ve laid the sub-woofer against the desk in a way that I’ve discovered makes the entire house throb in a very satisfactory fashion. You’ll forgive me if I pause intermittently during this post to bang my head.

Coincidentally, I passed 320 pages at the same time as I reached 90,000, and also wrote the key, climactic moment in The Last Monk, which I’ve been working towards for five years, so it’s reasonable to say it’s been a big day for milestones.

Excuse me, time to pause.

That’s better.

Milestones are a strange business. I’ve never had a problem with motivation writing this novel, except when driven to soulless despair by some of the insaner moments of a listless career in university administration, yet I do tend to go a bit wild when my word-odometer passes a number with four zeroes in it.

Early on, four or five years ago when I first realised that I had no idea what I was doing, I tried reading a few how-to-write manuals. Most of them, it should be said, treat writing as either a form of alchemy (I may have hinted earlier in these pages how much I hate that crap) or, worse, as a strict recipe, the cautious observance of which will produce something about as exciting as tea-cake (one guide actually describes dialogue as ‘the tit-bits of apple in our apple-cake’). To their credit, however, every one I’ve read has produced a rich and fertile compost.

Several suggested the same motivational tool: as soon as you commit to writing the novel, go out and buy an insanely expensive bottle of champagne. Not the kind of nice bottle you take to your parents’ wedding anniversary party, mind, but something really special.

I went to Dan Murphy’s, because as a child of the suburbs I just don’t get good taste, and in a process akin to working your way down the right-hand side of the menu to order dinner, bought the most expensive bottle of champagne I could find. I took it home, forgot about it and when my credit card bill came in, began composting how-to-write guide books.

I only mention this because passing 90,000 today has reminded me of its existence. I’ve just been out to the wine cellar (read: toilet) and there it was, lurking amongst the end-of-bin specials we can’t bring ourselves to open.

A motivational device. Note dust bunnies in residence.

If the photograph is blurry, that is because The Darkness is quite convincing, even at a distance.

The bottle is for when the book is finished. But what does that mean? When is it finished? When I type ‘the end’? Once I write all the words to have a complete first draft? When a publisher buys it?

I like the second option. A complete first draft isn’t a finished novel, but it’s a novel. That means finishing the big climax (next week), writing the aftermath and the actual end (next week and the week after), backfilling a couple of early chapters which can’t be written until after the end (about a fortnight’s work), and then sweeping through the whole manuscript to make sure it’s all there (a week).

So, barring obstacles or unforeseen building projects, I’ll be politely evicting the dust bunnies from the champagne in early August. Nice.

The cocktail shaker

Wordccount = 88,753

Halfway through the week, I’ve added a few thousand words and laid down the bedrock for about half of the climax.

These intense typing sessions are very unusual: I normally sit down to the blank cursor feeling as though I’m leaning out over a cliff and the wind is turning. I know what plot is required, but how am I supposed to make it exciting and interesting? What will people say?

A small, desperate idea comes. What if, while trying to say something, a character is interrupted? By whom, and why? Maybe the other person has something to say, and they’re both trying to say it at once? How would you do that – what would the dialogue look like, how much would each person get out in each broken sentence, and how much stage direction should be interspersed to keep a sense of where, when and how?

More importantly, how can I somehow crowbar this hoary old device into my plot just to get me going?

Let’s not call it an idea. Let’s call it an excuse.

So the typing begins, and the competing dialogue idea gets used, and now the cursor is flowing along nicely. There’s a way to get into the plot proper, and here it comes, and suddenly it’s three thirty and five new pages exist. Maybe that dialogue trick will stay in and maybe it won’t, but that’s a question for later. The question for now is: now that I’ve stopped to check the time and count pages, how do I deal with this blinking cursor?

What if …