Day 59

Author Big Year

I’d love to be immersed in 1957, writing up German post-war reactor efforts, but today is urgent editing of Gentle & Tusk #2. I’m always surprised by how long it takes to process editing input – in this case from a hired copyeditor and six “beta readers” – and how unenjoyable the task is. But it must be done. And soonest!

Days 45 to 58: An unequal struggle but keep going

Author Big Year

Another 14 days and much the same story, tracking at 6 hours a day, not the minimum of 6½, definitely not the preferred 8 hours a day to compensate for non-working days. I have to say it’s a tough issue, squeezing out the hours. Grandparenting duties have begun and they’re so joyous it makes no sense to resist them. Friends needed help. The sun shone and I’m trying to get back my running mojo. Red wine… well, what can I say?

I’m still on the case, however, and the next week should see me alight with purpose. I’m aiming to report back on progress more often, in more detail, to really hammer out what it takes to meet this onerous Big Year’s strictures.

Author Big Year: Monitoring

Author Big Year

The dynamics of this 13-month Big Year, in which I aim for 6.5 hours of quality writing work every day, require me to monitor more closely than I’m accustomed to of late. You’d think that after three decades in the corporate world, I’d be scrupulous at measurement and feedback, but in fact I tend to get lost in the days and the work.

So let me take a quick look. I’ve had a month and a half. I’m aiming for 6.5 hours/day but need more hours now, before interruptions like travel cut the hours, so a “clean” day should deliver 8 hours. What have I achieved? The bare minimum of 6 hours. I should be happy enough but need to work harder. This issue is important because a poor start will ruin me. I’ll try to check in more often. Wish me luck!

Wings Big Year: How many families?

Wings Big Year

When I tick sighted birds off a list, I’m ticking off a species. But species fit into “families.” How many families? In 1984, Simpson and Day showed this map. It’s interesting that the most number of families in one continent is 86 in South America, which also has a staggering number of 31 families found on no other continent. Australia has the second largest number of endemic families, namely 15.

Here I’m merely nibbling at the edges of the question of how many families exist, and will need to find a different book/text. I hope I don’t get confused.

What a bird isn’t

Wings Big Year

Such a pleasure putting everything else aside each afternoon (or sometimes at night) to spend my Wings Big Year hour musing on this:

What’s a bird?

When we were holidaying recently, we stumbled across a copy of the Simpson & Day bird guide incarnated in its 1984 edition. Here’s the start of its influential words and I like the practical orientation: “When you see a bird, it is going about one aspect of its day, its year, its life.” A bird is a bird. It is not “cute” or “friendly” of “happy” or any other human-oriented adjective. Birds are birds and humans are humans.

Wings Big Year: What then is a bird?

Wings Big Year

That’s the quandary to ponder an hour each day. When I begin on something like this, you’d think I’d use a systematic approach but no, I stab at the topic.

Why not use a “proper” approach? Under such an approach, I might go to Wikipedia or a dictionary, or I might Google looking for a reference work or textbook. In other words, find the definitive masterpiece tackling the topic. I’d then examine its bibliography and select a dozen books that address the topics I’m interested in exploring. I’d buy them and get to taking notes. Great, yes?

No, not great, at least for me. It seems far too daunting to tackle a big reading list. Instead, I seize a book I have or have glanced at or have heard about, and just zip through it. If it’s a waste of time, I try something else. If it adds something, I rather haphazardly pick one of the references in the book and repeat the process. In other words, I “have a go” and flail away. In my experience, what then happens is that my brain starts ordering my activities. Over time, some kind of logic of data collection or of initial thinking reveals itself. Over time, I become more organized. Over time, order emerges from chaos.

Does this method waste time? You’d think so but no, again in my experience, this process is pretty efficient. It gets me into the meat of the subject fast, it produces data fast, it gets my thinking up fast.

Anyway, that’s my methodology and I’m sticking by it.

Wings Big Year: An hour’s work

Wings Big Year

Let’s zero in on this exploration of what a bird is. What is a crane? With only fifteen species, I’ll see what I can do as fast as I can. A summary, that’s what I’m after. The go-to book (though not necessarily the best kind-of-textbook; we shall see) is The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by legendary naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen. This hardcover, which I bought when it came out in 2001, is one of my few remaining physical books.

First things first: 11 of the 15 are of the species Grus, 2 are Anthropoides, 2 are Balearica. 14 of the 15 are called “crane,” while Australia’s predominant species is the Brolga. Andres, memorise, please.

The first notable in the book is a map inside the front cover, “Cranes in the Western Hemisphere,” which is essentially North America and some of Greenland and Siberia (why isn’t South America included?). Only two cranes appear, the Whooping Crane, shown as breeding only in a Canadian national park; and the Sandhill Crane, of which Matthiessen says it breeds from Eastern Siberia to Canada and northern USA, plus a few permanent populations shown down eastern U.S.A. The map shows eight protected sites and six other locations with unfamiliar names.

Inside the back cover is the flip map, “Cranes in the Eastern Hemisphere,” which is far more busy. Europe has the Eurasian Crane (or the Common Crane, the one we probably noticed in kids’ books), possibly more in the Urals than in the populous areas. Africa has the Black-Crowned Crane up in the northwest, in countries I know nothing about; the Gray-Crowned over in Ethiopia and down south; the Wattled all through the south and east; and the Blue only in Botswana. Australia has the Brolga (this is the only crane I’ve seen!) and up in the remote north, the Sarus Crane. The Siberian Crane is where you’d think it is. Mongolia is where you’ll find the Demoiselle (what a name!), go to Afghanistan or Nepal for the Black-Necked, the Hooded is near Lake Baikal in most remote Siberia, and the White-Naped seems to be in most northern China. The only crane I’ve read a little about, the Red-Crowned Crane, is in a couple of spots, north and south, in Japan. Confusingly, this map says “winter ranges not indicated” (more complexity!) Triumph! After an hour, I now know something. If I’m bored tonight, I can memorise and mentally recreate maps. Tomorrow: how many of each of these 15 species fly the skies of the world?

1,000 Big Year: The final reckoning

1,000 Big Year

My last drafting words for the year. I abandoned my 1,000 Big Year back in November. Let me now sum up what I achieved over the year, and you’ll see why I call this Big Year a failure.

The year slumped and then died because it was too ornate, insufficiently focused. As can example, its essence, its foundation, was to draft 1,000 words every day (“each and every day” as I’m wont to repeat ad nauseum). Well, you know what? I didn’t even keep track of word count, other than for a few isolated periods. Word count can be tough to enumerate, because of editing, but clearly I didn’t put the basic machinery in place.

I can tell you I worked 1,900 hours over maybe 40 active weeks, or 48 hours a week. I wasn’t slacking. But the driver for the Big Year, to get the damned book finished, was word count. And I failed.

I did try to track if I honored another commitment, to resist the devilish allures of Facebook and email before lunchtime. Probably I did that for 75% of the time. I woke up early half my days. I did some kind of daily planning and monitoring maybe half the time. Complexities, complications… none of which ensured I meet my main aim of 1,000 words on the page.

Again, as with the Freshness Big Year, I shouldn’t castigate myself too much. I made huge strides with the book. I put in place better habits. This “failed” Big Year took me a step further towards my goals. But hey, I needed to define and execute better.