Tue 27

Travel Diary: Day #3 (Los Angeles, Denver)

Writing I wake at 7am and don’t feel like heaving. This is a big improvement over this stage of my last book tour. I’m pretty pleased with how I’ve adapted to the 17-hour time difference so far. The only issue I have is with my appetite: it’s coming up on 24 hours since my last meal and I’m not hungry yet. That’s just not right.

I pack up my stuff and leave my hotel, pausing only to try to check my reflection in the TV. Honestly, this thing is the size of a surfboard; I keep thinking it’s a mirror. I also swipe a hotel pen, because back home I’m running low, having by now lost most of the pens I stole from hotels on my 2006 tour.

I board my flight to Denver and settle in to my seat. The woman to my left dabs at her nose, and with dawning horror I realize: she has a cold. Over the next 90 minutes, she sneezes, hacks, coughs, and wipes, while I try to breathe through a pillow. I wish the check-in screen had mentioned that during seat selection. I would definitely have chosen the “non-virus bearing” area of the airplane. In fact, when choosing my seat I’d ideally like to see little pictures of who’s going to be seated where. That would be interesting. I would choose to sit near small but tired-looking people.

But for now, I am stuck leaning to the right, away from Cold Woman and her contagens. Then the passenger on that side, also a woman, unexpectedly tells me: “You have lovely eyes.” I don’t know quite what to say to this. But I suspect I may have been leaning too far.

This is my first visit to Denver, and I like what I see: it’s quite charming, the kind of size that’s big enough to be interesting but not so crowded that you can’t stroll down the sidewalk without elbowing somebody, or being mugged. It’s definitely spacious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ground-level car parking. I imagine that if you tell a Denver resident that in other cities they have entire buildings for parking cars, one level above the other, their eyes would widen in shock.

I check in to my new hotel and go searching for food, since it’s now a day and a half since I’ve eaten and my body has decided it’s ready for something now. In fact, in between ordering a burger and it arriving, I become ravenous. Then, eight bites in, I’m not hungry at all. I’m getting a bit exasperated with my appetite. It needs to figure out what the hell it’s doing, and get with the timezone.

My reading is at Tattered Cover, which is a completely cool bookstore in a converted theater. It’s 25 or so people, very warm and friendly, and I think it goes great. While signing books, I notice a guy still in the seats, feeding a baby, and start to get misty-eyed for home. Then the baby starts barking like a dog. It’s coughing, but seriously, in the most eerily dog-like way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As a parent, I completely understand that kids do odd things. But people in line could very well be under the impression that this guy is feeding a bottle of milk to a swaddled-up pooch.

Beth, the organizer at Tattered Cover, has a surprise for me: an Advance Reader Copy of Syrup. This is the first incarnation of my first novel ever printed, back in 1999, and I managed to lose every one of my copies many years ago. Since then I’ve been trying desperately to get my hands on one. And suddenly I’m being given one! Well, when I say “given,” I mean that Beth asks me to sign it for her, and then I tell her this sad story about not having any of my own left, and she caves in and hands it over.

On the way back to my hotel I stop off at a drugstore to load up on bio-weapons with which to fight off any viruses I acquired on the plane. There I discover that I have somehow lost my credit card. This is my second worst fear on tour, right after running out of dollar bills and having to endure the silent contempt of doormen, and I panic, because if I have no cash I can’t even pay for a cab to the airport tomorrow morning. I finally locate my card in my other pants, back at the hotel, but only after spending my last dollar bill at the drugstore. Oh-oh. Tomorrow morning could be tough.

Mon 26

Travel Diary: Day #2 (Los Angeles)

Writing Wow, I probably shouldn’t write blogs at 3AM. When I began typing up yesterday’s post, I intended to describe the rest of my day, which involved meeting NationStates admins for dinner and enjoying some ice cream that was like sex in a bowl, only creamier. But it was the middle of the night (I’d woken and couldn’t find sleep again), and after typing for a while, I started to feel like the only person on the planet. Then thinking about Fin saying “Neena, neena” tipped me over the edge, and it all abruptly ended in a very melancholic place.

On Sunday, however, I am reminded that I am actually incredibly privileged to be here, because today is my first reading. And before that, I get to do the LA thing: take meetings with movie people. First it’s the Syrup producers, to discuss the next draft, then Steve Pink, who’s writing the Company screenplay. Steve throws questions at me like, “Okay, my problem with Eve is this: in the third act does she redeem herself with Jones or should I have her sink deeper?” And I have absolutely no idea. I can’t even remember the book properly any more; I get confused between what’s in the final draft and what I threw out several years ago. I wish I could give Steve the kind of great story insights that only the original author can provide, but I’ve got nothing.

While being completely useless to Steve, I have breakfast, or lunch, or something. My body is still suspicious about what time it really is, and doesn’t want to commit to full-blooded meals: it wants to eat lots of small things, spaced about an hour apart. I order a bowl of oatmeal and an orange juice, which unexpectedly shatters my previous record for most overpriced book tour meal: it’s $53, excluding tip. Even the waitress is a little embarrassed, and this is Beverly Hills. It may be difficult to explain this one to my publisher.

In the afternoon I have my event at Book Soup. It’s at an odd time, 4pm on a Sunday, which I’m expecting will mean a smaller crowd than last time. On previous tours this would have worried me, since I’m still emotionally scarred from the experience of reading to empty rows of seats on earlier book tours. It’s pretty hard work to stand at a microphone when the only six people in the audience have all chosen to sit at the very back of the 90 seats the bookstore laid out. (Ah, Madison.) But now I think a small crowd would be fine. More personal and fun, even. I had such amazing turnouts on the hardback tour a year ago; I think it’s made me less paranoid that a small crowd means a freefalling career and crawling back to Hewlett-Packard to beg for my old job back.

Twenty or thirty people show up, which is about perfect for the space, and that’s when I realize I have to stop wallowing in homesickness. Because how amazing is it to have people actually bother to come see you and talk about how much they like your books? Most writers would kill for something like this. I get to do it for the next eight days, plus eat bowls of $53 oatmeal.

The reading has a great, casual feel; I talk a little about the origins of the book, read a few sections, then answer questions. It finally occurs to me why the publisher was a little reluctant to send me to the same city I visited on the hardback tour: I need to come up with something original for anyone who was here a year ago. So one of the things I do is read a couple of pages from the new book I’m working on, which I’m calling The Exceptionals. This is actually a little nerve-wracking, because it’s still pretty raw and almost nobody’s seen it yet. But it seems to go down very well, and a few people tell me afterward how much they liked it. So I might do that at my other readings, too. I just have to hope my editor doesn’t find out and want to know why the hell other people get to hear about it before him.

After the reading, I meet Dennis Widmyer, who runs the Chuck Palahniuk web site The Cult (and who read an early draft of Company for me, several years back). I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me at book signings that they first heard about me at that site, so I probably owe Dennis half my royalties or something. Instead I buy him a hot chocolate. Really, it is a very nice hot chocolate.

And then back to my hotel. I’ve noticed that this tour seems to have a much easier pace than the hardback one. There’s almost no media by comparison, so I have time to do things like eat and check my email. Man, that’s pretty sweet. The last thing I do on Sunday is settle down to call Jen and Fin. It turns out that Fin has just woken from her afternoon snooze in a foul mood and is screaming the house down. Yikes. When I put the phone down on her howls, I get into bed and watch a video clip I took before I left where she’s all smiley and gorgeous. Ahhh. Bliss.

Yep. Not too bad, this trip.

Sun 25

Travel Diary: Day #1 (Melbourne, Los Angeles)

Writing “Daddy!” Fin shrieks, and begins to run toward me across the airport hall floor. There are a million people around but no-one between her and me, and she runs/staggers/falls toward me with a huge grin on her face. I crouch down and she leaps into my arms. Her little fists bunch the material of my sweater, trapping it in her miniature iron grip. It’s so good to hold her again. It’s so good to smell her.

I haven’t seen my daughter since she got bored in the check-in line, about an hour ago, and Jen took her off to play near the fire engine that moves if you put in a dollar.

My quest was to avoid seat 48G. I was booked on seat 48G, but I didn’t want it: thanks to I knew it was the row behind the babies in bassinets, two rows behind the toilets, had reduced leg room, and was in the middle section. Melbourne to LA is a fifteen hour flight; you want a good seat. The only way to change it, the travel agent told me, was to turn up early at check-in.

Which I did, to find that the line is already so long that it snakes through several other dimensions. Whenever I make some progress, an airline employee wanders through the line and calls passengers on flights ahead of mine to come to the front. This continues until finally I am one of those passengers who needs to be called to the front, which occurs exactly six places before I would have gotten there anyway. By that stage, I don’t want their help. It’s like ascending Mt. Everest and then with a hundred yards to go and the summit in sight, my Sherpa offers to carry me.

The woman at check-in can’t change my seat. She says, “If you want to do that, you have to get here early.”

So it’s time for goodbyes. I kiss my beautiful wife and daughter. Fin says, “Bye-bye.” Last time, 14 months ago, she couldn’t talk. She didn’t even have teeth. Nowadays she’s smart enough to come to the bottom of the stairs, rattle the stair-gate, and yell, “Daddy! Daddy!” until I appear. I don’t even want to think about how much I’m going to miss her.

Once through security, I proceed directly to the gate, pausing only to drop into the bookstore and see if they’ve got mine. They do, but it’s on the very bottom shelf, filed under “W.” I can only presume that some unethical author has swapped their books for my prized “B” placement. Appalling. I take my books and swap them for some novel that looks exactly like The Da Vinci Code if you aren’t paying attention.

The flight itself is notable only for the fact that my seat’s entertainment system plays all dialogue at near-inaudible levels. So I can enjoy a movie for its visuals, background noise, and soundtrack, but can’t hear a word anyone is saying, unless they’re doing it off-screen. This strikes me as the kind of fault that is so bizarre someone must have carefully engineered it.

Then it’s US Customs. Ah, Customs. How we have danced, over the years. This time I notice that as a visiting alien, I am granted certain rights; in particular the right to appeal any decision by a Customs official. I know this because on the back of the Customs form, I am required to officially waive these rights. This seems a little like offering somebody ice-cream but only if they first agree to not have any ice-cream. It seems to be getting more common lately that the way I discover that I have various rights is when I’m asked to waive them.

One small thing really bugs me about LAX Customs. There are about two dozen booths, maybe half of which are occupied by officials. Above these booths are scrolling LED screens, which usually tell you something helpful, like please present these papers, or don’t drink and drive because you’ll die. (Seriously.) But on the unoccupied booths, the screens advertise themselves. They scroll messages about how many characters they can display at once (27), how vibrant their colors are, and how simple they are to operate. Not so simple to change the default messages, apparently, because it’s been this way for frickin’ years.

Customs asks me a series of questions about the purpose of my visit, including a request for me to describe the plot of all three of my novels. I’m not sure whether they guy is just curious or my entry to the United States of American really does depend on having sufficiently engaging storylines. But either way, he lets me go through. The next guy asks me about my book as well, and takes a fancy to the way I say “satire.” He says it himself, trying on my accent. On one hand, I appreciate that anyone in this Gulag has a sense of humor. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this guy can order me stripped, probed and deported if I don’t laugh at his jokes. I bet he finds his audiences mystifyingly less appreciative away from here.

At my hotel, I am pleased to discover that Los Angeles is just how I left it: all eating disorders, tiny dogs, and 70-year-old guys in baseball caps. My first job is to find one of those hole-in-the-wall stores that sells international phone cards, so I can call home without bankrupting myself. But my hotel is in Beverly Hills, and this is hard to do. If I wanted to whiten my teeth or buy diamonds, it’d be no problem. But phone cards are very thin on the ground.

I finally find a Rite-Aid (medicine and booze in the one store! What could possibly go wrong?), secure a card, and head back to my hotel for a phone interview. On the way I’m passed by a fire engine. If Fin was here, she’d say, “Neena, neena.” She likes fire engines. I wish I could teleport my girls here. I wish there was no time difference. I miss them so much already.

Thu 22

Travel Diary 2: This Time It Has Chicago

Writing So I’m going to do another travel diary. That was fun last time, and what else am I going to do in my downtime, dance around my hotel room naked and get drunk from the mini-bar? I mean, apart from that?

This will mean an increase in the number of emails you’ll get from here (daily-ish instead of weekly-ish), if you’re subscribed that way. If that will bother you, you might want to change your preferences now. (Unfortunately, no, there is no “Un-hear that sentence about Max dancing naked” option.)

[ US Tour Details Here ] <— (note change of venue in Milwaukee)

Tue 30

Sloth: the new discipline

Writing For 2007 I have resolved to make every single blog about writing. Okay, no, not really. That would be boring as all get-out. But I am still a little giddy from my staggeringly disaster-free latest effort, so I might do a few more than usual. I mean, it’s not like anyone’s forced to read them, right? If you’re here for the cutesy Finlay pics, you can skip on by, can’t you? Right. And where possible I will try to relate them to non-writing areas, in order to avoid disappearing up my own butt.

So. To discipline. I have come to suspect that discipline is a myth. These elite athletes who train at four in the morning until their toes bleed; the child violinists who stay locked in their rooms practicing while all their friends are out doing fun stuff like drugs and unprotected sex; we’re supposed to think they’re disciplined. We’re meant to shake our heads in admiration and say, “Wow, she really earned it.” But I reckon what they’ve actually been doing is having a good time and calling it work.

I’ve reached this conclusion because I have no discipline, and I assume my character flaws are shared by the rest of the world. (The good parts are just me.) I work from home. There’s nobody stopping me spending my days browsing instead of writing novels. The fact that I do manage to squeeze out a new book now and again is often interpreted as evidence that I must have great discipline. But I write books because I love it. That’s not discipline, is it? Isn’t that just being fortunate enough to get paid for recreation?

When I first decided to give full-time writing a shot—before I was published, by the way, which should tell you how very stupid I was—I was extremely disciplined. I had daily word targets. I graphed my progress. If I fell behind, I would berate myself about wasting precious time. And I did write many words. But I didn’t enjoy it much, and my output fell off, and the book I was writing turned out to be a steaming pile of crap, which I never finished.

I bet the same thing happens if you’re trying to become a professional violinist, or swimmer, or even something more mundane like trying to get into shape. Unless you enjoy the process and take pleasure from practicing, you give up.

Hmm. When I started this blog, I thought it was going to be kind of inspirational. You know, about how there’s not that much separating us normal people from world-class achievers. But now I think about it, you can also read it as a depressing indictment on how people are pathetic they can’t achieve anything unless they get lots of little rewards along the way.

Well, either way.

Note: I didn’t really mean to skip a whole month of blogs there. Sorry about that. I did get a ton of writing done, though, and played with my daughter. So, really, can you complain? I mean, and still sleep at night?

Thu 30


Writing Okay, look, I’m trying to keep low-key about this. I don’t want to make it into a whole deal. But I just finished the first draft of my new book, and OH MY GOD I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about this, because from experience I know the moment I say, “This book I’m working on is going quite well,” that’s the first moment of a week of black, empty wordlessness. You just can’t tempt the gods like that. So I have been very good. I haven’t said anything to anybody, even though I have desperately wanted to grab someone and yell, “It’s the best book ever! It’s the best book ever!

Now I should confess that I often become overly enamored with my own books while I’m writing them. It’s a good thing, because if I saw them objectively, these staggering, newborn first drafts, I’d probably be so appalled that I wouldn’t be able to keep working on them. Blind love at this point is a prerequisite.

And next, I’m sure I’m going to read this draft and discover the myriad ways in which it’s not as wonderful as I thought. But that’s also a good thing: just as I can’t write if I’m in a critical frame of mind, I can’t edit unless I am. So I need to change modes. I need to give it some tough love.

But before I do, I’m just going to say it: this has been the best writing experience of my life.

I did two things differently this time. First, I had a daily maximum word limit. I probably broke this more times than I honored it, but still, I think it was helpful. It was good to feel a little naughty when I wrote 800 words in a day. And it was good to be able to leave it at 200 words when the scene needed more thought, rather than feeling like I should push on with whatever I had at the time.

The second thing I did differently was refuse to plot. Well, I’ve always done that; this time I actively tried to destroy my own plotting. Whenever I realized I’d figured out what was going to happen next, I changed my mind. My goal was to avoid any kind of cruise mode, where I feel that the story is ticking along nicely and I don’t want to screw anything up, so I just let things play out. This time I deliberately kept messing things up. Sometimes that meant I spent most of my writing time looking out the window trying to figure out what would happen instead. And by the time I got to the ending, all I knew was that it couldn’t possibly be what I’d originally imagined.

I’m sure this helped my characters, because I constantly looked to them for the next step instead of trying to nudge them down my pre-determined path. And although I have a bunch of stuff I need to go back and insert to make the stuff I only thought up later work, I think the plot that grew out of this chaos is actually pretty good.

But most of all: oh man, it was such cool fun. I’ve had the best time.

(Note: I know somebody’s going to ask about timelines, so: at a guess, I’ll be ready to show this to my editor in maybe 6-12 months. If he decides he wants to publish it, then add about 12 months before it would appear on the shelves. I know, I know. Sorry.)

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