Friday 18 June 2010

Friday Flash - The Key

A draught blows into the room, teasing the flames. The candles flicker, making shadows dance across the walls. The frenzy of their cavorting echoes her tumultous thoughts. Candlelight seemed so ostentatious a choice, but she remains resolute. An occasion as important as this demands no less.

The light seeks the thick chain twisted in a loop around her neck. The dark metal ignores the caress of the candlelight. Specks of rust flake away as she moves. A heavy key hangs from the chain, dull from disuse. She bites her lip, toying with the key. It is rough and cold beneath her fingers. She is unsure; many years have passed since she last gave it up. She feels uncertain about doing so now.

She turns to face him. He sits on the edge of her bed. His tousled black curls frame his earnest face. Hope fills his green eyes, and she basks in the warmth of his love. Her doubts melt away, and she lifts the chain over her head. She takes his hand, and presses the key to his palm. His fingers close around the ancient metal, and she sighs.

She has given him the key to the Pandora's Box that is her heart.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Why A Netbook Makes Me More Productive

Way back in April, I posted a snippet of my handwritten scrawl, lamenting the reliance of a lot of writers on technology. Well, I'm about to do a complete U-turn and announce that this entry was written on a Netbook, while I enjoyed a mocha and a chocolate muffin in a particular coffee store that shall remain nameless as I don't want to advertise them (even though the gentleman barista did make a damn fine mocha).

My Netbook is great. I bought it so that I had something far more portable than my laptop in order to write during my commute to and from work. That's a good forty minutes of just sitting there, which I considered to be writing time wasted since my handwriting is entirely illegible when done on a moving train. My Netbook makes sense. I type faster than I can write, illegibility is no longer an issue, I can work on stories I've already started on my laptop (typing directly into a document is a lot easier than scribbling on a print out) and I save oodles of time by writing my blog posts on here and then uploading them when I get somewhere near an Internet connection. Typing out what I've written by hand just seems to be a waste of time.

I actually feel more productive, too. I wrote the next instalment of my web serial during my morning commute (which is far more satisfying than simply completing the sudoku in the paper), and I made my edits to my contribution to the Chinese Whisperings anthology during lunch. Now I'm writing this over dinner (yes, my dinner is a coffee and a muffin) and I intend to start work on the short story for my title swap with my good friend Sophie Bowley-Aicken on the way home. How's that for a day's work?

If you're interested, I got myself an Asus Eee PC 1001ha netbook. I love it. It's small and light, and it has a very comfortable keyboard. It's also got an Intel Atom processor, meaning it zips through tasks in no time at all, and the LED backlit screen makes reading what I'm writing a doddle. It's not too brilliant at playing back videos I've downloaded from the BBC to watch on iPlayer, but I do that so infrequently, it's not even an issue. As a laptop, it would probably be a poor investment, but as a Netbook, it's fine. Why would I want to run Adobe CS3 on a Netbook when I already own a laptop? No, this is my digital notebook that allows me to access the Internet. Can't say fairer than that.

I think it's fair to say that I'm converted. Now I can write in public. Doesn't that make me a real writer?

Monday 14 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me - A Review, Not A Confession

I'm not entirely sure why, but I've wanted to see The Killer Inside Me for a few weeks now. I saw it had garnered a few decent reviews, and seeing as how serial killer films are something of a specialty for me (my undergraduate dissertation compared three of Hitchcock's serial killers with that of contemporary cinema), I like to see them when I can. The only problem is, having forced myself to sit through a hundred and nine minutes of dross, all I want to do is hurl more than harsh language at Hollywood.

There are a myriad of ways to approach the serial killer film. You've got your slashers (or post-slasher...or even neo-slasher), your exploitation flicks, your psychoanalytical films...amazingly, The Killer Inside Me fails on every count. Even a Eurovision voting card for the UK gets more points than this. Casey Affleck's poor imitation of an upstanding Texas gent grates at every turn, and any film that stars both Kate Hudson AND Jessica Alba should already be on my avoid list. Why? Well they're two actresses who are to serious acting what a cheese grater is to a balloon.

The Killer Inside Me, for those of you who might vaguely care (and I pray you don't), is set in the 1950s, in a small west Texas town. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, the unassuming deputy sheriff. Generically Southern and almost instantly forgettable, Ford has no sooner started batting those baby blues of his, than he's visiting the local prostitute, Joyce (Alba) and beating her up. Most women would go, "Er, excuse me, get out of my house, you filthy arsehole" after being violently assaulted, but not Joyce. They embark on an illicit affair, with Joyce (almost painfully predictably) putting pressure on Lou to leave town with her. Elmer, the son of a wealthy local construction tycoon, is in love with Joyce, and when his father offers to pay Joyce off, they initially plan to steal the money and go. Lou decides he'd be better off killing both of them, and just continuing about his business. Why? Because he's "crazy". Cue the eye rolling. Apparently, doing something for no logical reason constitutes madness. If Spock's reaction is anything to go by, then Captain Kirk must be the biggest psychopath in pop culture.

But I digress. Things go slightly awry, and Lou finds himself killing people to cover up the fact that he's killing people. Trouble is, that's actually logical in a freaky kind of way, which just proves that Lou isn't as mad as he thinks he is. With the local DA Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker, better known as TV's The Mentalist) breathing down his neck, Lou starts to unravel. Or does he? Well no, not really. He just gets even more dull. Director Michael Winterbottom seems be aiming for the kind of 'quietly understated' pace that gets described as 'magnetic' or 'powerful', only to have it end up 'dull' and 'unappealing'. The film coasts along to its inevitable conclusion, and by the time they reach the 'dramatic finale', you'll be left wondering who got turned down for the role for Casey Affleck to end up with it. Winterbottom meanders along, punctuating the boredom with tedious scenes of women being beaten up. Given we never see Lou's violence towards males, one can't help wondering if this says more about the director than his main character.

Having the serial killer himself narrate the film is nothing new. I'd argue that the best example is still American Psycho, in the way Mary Harron manages to blend graphic violence with understated menace. You couldn't make the film without Patrick Bateman's narration. His inner monologues about business cards, hair cuts and skincare routines underscore the senseless nature of his savagery, contrasting his superficial obsession with his total lack of human emotion (except, as he admits himself, for 'greed, envy and disgust'). This link between the killer and the audience was originally intended to be a way of forcing us to rethink cinematic boundaries, although now it has become a 'controversial' tactic aimed at putting the viewer inside the serial killer's world, forcing a collusion with him. The problem is, this will never be anywhere near as shocking as the POV shots in Peeping Tom, and that came out in 1959!

As it stands, serial killers may be attractive (Patrick Bateman), charming (Hannibal Lecter), unknowable (Michael Myers) or even funny (Freddie Krueger) but they CANNOT be dull. Unfortunately, Lou Ford is exactly that. I have a feeling Affleck is aiming for 'the boy next door gone bad', but no one will ever be able to nail that quite as well as one of cinema's most iconic serial killers - Norman Bates. We didn't need any narration, or POV shots. We just needed those subtle facial tics, that nervous behaviour around Marion, his calm appearance in the aftermath of the murders - and the final reveal. Nothing fancy, just solid storytelling.

I conclude this rant/review with one very simple thought. If you really want to watch a serial killer movie that is both well-made and quietly understated, you could do no better than seeking out Mr Brooks. Ignore the fact it stars Kevin Costner - it's everything The Killer Inside Me wishes it was, but sorely isn't.

Is writing really worth the trouble?

I apologise for the recent lapse in blogging - aside from my Friday Flashes and my foray into vlogging, I simply haven't been posting as much as I would like. Allow me to rectify this forthwith by having a little discussion about publishing. This is a writer's blog, after all! Well this evening, I came across this article ( via the Dystel & Goderich blog) by Erin Brown, that aims to unpick various publishing myths.

Now, I love to read these articles by 'insiders'. The information is invaluable, but in a lot of cases, it can also serve to beat down the spirit. Is it me, or does writing sometimes seem like a truly monumental struggle? It can be difficult to simply enjoy the act of creating, since the difficult task of actually getting something written is not the end of it. If anything, that's only the beginning. Next comes repeated revisions, not to mention queries and submissions. Can you really ever stop to enjoy your writing if you've always got part of your brain going "Will this sell?" Writing has become as much of a commodity as anything else.

It is a peculiar state of affairs. In this post, thriller writer James Scott Bell advises that writers don't necessarily have to write from the heart, but they should at least "find the intersection of the market and [their] heart, then get that heart beating". Would you ever go up to an artist and tell them NOT to make the art that inspires them, but rather make something that would sell? No. You'd let them get on with the art, and let the buyer decide if they're interested. Of course, art and writing aren't ideal bedfellows in this sense, since a work of art is a one-off product, available to only one owner. Writing is aimed at a mass market, available for consumption by many. In this way, writing is a lot closer to design than it is to art - the function, its marketability, becomes more important than the form.

I am not for one moment suggesting this is actually wrong. After all, publishing is a business, and like any business, it seeks to make money. It needs money in order to function. I am not going to condemn it for doing so, any more than I would condemn many other industries for making money. The only thing that does concern me is how discouraging I think all of this is to new writers. I understand that editors, agents and publishers are looking for new work, and that agents especially have an incredibly tough, often thankless task in sifting the literary wheat from the chaff. They want to encourage writers to keep going - after all, they need writers otherwise they have nothing to sell - but they also want to introduce an element of realism to proceedings. They don't want to peddle false hope.

But the pain doesn't even end with the querying process. If you're lucky enough to get representation, and your agent manages to sell your book, you then find that even the marketing and promotion is left to you. Again, I can understand this because publishing houses simply don't have the time and resources to devote to the work of untested, new authors any more. But at the same time, how can an author new to the world of publishing, who probably also has a day job and maybe a family to juggle, possibly know enough about marketing  or promotion to make a success of their book? Obviously most authors are quite savvy, realising that it's vital to build a platform before they even begin the querying process, and the wealth of blogs and advice available online are probably a great help, but the point remains. (By this point, I'm beginning to see why e-books are such an attractive prospect. But that is a subject for another post.)

Chances are, you aren't going to be the new JK Rowling. Your book won't attain dizzying Twilight-esque levels of success. It'll probably take the better part of your patience, not to mention sanity, to even get an offer of representation, if that happens at all. You'll need to be marketing savvy as well as an accomplished writer even if you do get published.

But you know what? Don't let any of that stop you from pursuing your writing dream. I know I won't.