Friday 1 February 2013

#FridayFlash - Broken Bracelet

In the days following The End, a lot of people learned the value of what they'd lost. Law, order, social niceties, even electricity - all gone. Those disenfranchised by the old system turned feral, and formed the Riot Boys. The police, overrun and overworked, just gave up. It got worse. Even death offered no eternal peace, as the dead began to rise. It wasn't radiation, or a virus, just some quirk of reality that reversed some of the natural laws. Some of the revenants retained their previous selves, and went home. Some of them...well, they copied whatever behaviour they saw, and a lot of them saw nothing but Riot Boys. Humanity was beset on all sides - for the first time in my life, I was glad not to be human.

Oh I looked human. Most of the time. For three days out of the month, we were something else entirely. My family were Wulfen, and given there haven't been wolves in England for centuries, we'd become adept at avoiding detection. Being smaller and lighter than my brothers, I trained as a Tracker, and I was good at it. Very good. My brothers could have been jealous, but they had no other sisters, and protected me as the Warriors they were.

So it was that I came to be skirting the remains of an old village, late one spring evening. Some of those places avoided much trouble, being so far out of the way, and the inhabitants continued on much as they did before, growing their own food and bartering goods. They were always happy to see me, bringing with me news of the 'outside world'. Not all villages escaped, and the burnt out buildings of Woldendale put me on my guard. Riot Boys had been here - and might still be around.

I found myself in a pub car park on the edge of the village. The pub wasn't gutted by fire, but the windows were full of broken glass, the walls coated by thick graffiti. The Riot Boys probably drank it dry before they moved on. I lifted my head and let the scents of the air wash over me. Nothing - human or undead. I didn't think there was anything worth salvaging in Woldendale but I had to check.

I picked my way across the car park, and something shiny caught my eye. I padded closer, and saw the remains of a bracelet lying on the ground. Several cracked beads still clung to the nylon thread, although most of them had scattered across the tarmac. I picked up the fragile remains and sniffed, but heavy rain had washed away any traces of its owner. Now the bracelet just smelled of bad weather and petrol. I didn't have to be clairvoyant to see how it ended up here. Some hapless girl, perhaps eager to meet a boyfriend, ignored curfew and crossed the car park. With both revenants and Riot Boys in the area, she stood no chance. She encountered one or the other - or in a worst case scenario, both - and in the ensuing scuffle, the bracelet broke, and spilled its beads on the ground. I sighed. Nothing I could do for her now.

A scent caught my nose. Rotting flesh and hair gel – particularly cheap hair gel, considering its pungent aroma. I froze, trying to gauge the direction. Someone shambled out of an ancient lean-to at the back of the pub. He cut a strange figure, with his disintegrating skin, bloodshot eyes, and hair thick with styling product. He sported the typical spiky crop favoured by the Riot Boys, and was even clad in their tracksuit and trainers uniform. I could see acne scars among the patches of rot on his face – he couldn’t have been more than fifteen when he died.

He uttered a single moan and lurched towards me. I cursed myself for not keeping a weapon to hand, and scrabbled at the buckles on my bag. I backed away across the car park as the revenant ambled closer – not quite hurrying, but not taking his time either. I fumbled with the strap and the buckle finally gave. My foot caught on a pothole in the tarmac, sending me sprawling backwards. The flap of my satchel opened and scattered the contents of my bag across the car park.

The revenant smiled, a horrifying sight of missing teeth and misshapen lips, and bore down on me. I scrambled backwards, and my hand found smooth wood. My fingers curled around a handle and I swung upwards with all my strength as the revenant pounced. The head of my hammer collided with the revenant’s skull in an explosion of bone and blood. My would-be attacker keeled over, the hammer still buried in his brain.

I pulled the hammer free and wiped it clean on the revenant’s tracksuit top. I gathered the rest of my things and dumped them back in the satchel, ever mindful that where there was one revenant, there would no doubt be more.

A low moaning erupted within the lean-to. I recognised the sound – humans might think it a sound of mourning, but the moan, interrupted by snarls, was a revenant argument. They likely didn’t know I was there, but if they came outside, they would. My brothers would storm the building, slaughtering all the revenants they found, and they’d celebrate later with a feast of venison and ale.

But that was my brothers. I was on my own. I may be Wulfen but I wasn’t stupid. The revenants of Woldendale could wait. So I did the only thing I could. I ran.

* * *

Bracelet by L1l1th, tarmac by Blackcatm, edits by me. Concept of a broken bracelet in a car park from Nerine Dorman.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

What writers can take from Django Unchained

I finally got to see Django Unchained at the weekend, a film I'd been looking forward to for a long time since a) I love Westerns, b) I like Tarantino and c) I love Leo DiCaprio. My review is over on my film blog, but I had a few thoughts about what writers could take away from the movie.

1) Do your research.

The world of Django Unchained felt very plausible, and very real. At no point did I look at anything and think it was anachronistic, although while checking things for this post, I discovered that Tarantino has included dynamite some eight years before it was invented. Still, fiction is allowed to take some liberties, as long as they're within the bounds of possibility. The costumes were fabulous, the set design had a real attention to detail that period pieces always need, and Tarantino had clearly researched the social situation of 1858. No matter whether you're setting your story in 2087 or 1887, it needs to feel real to a reader. Even futuristic pieces need research to extrapolate the likelihood of possible inventions becoming reality.

2) Don't be afraid of controversy.

Don't feel you have to court controversy - for every person who reads your work out of genuine interest, you'll have another who reads it for its reputation, and that's a Pandora's box you don't want to open as you scrabble to top each controversial outing. Having said that, don't shy away from a topic because you feel it is, or might be, controversial. Fiction will always need brave authors willing to talk about things that no one else will discuss, and if you have an original, fair, or unique take on a subject, why not try it out? Tarantino certainly did. Whether he was right or wrong to do tackle the subject of slavery using the generic conventions of both the Western and the Revenge film so is not for me to decide, but kudos to him for having the balls to raise the topic in the first place.

3) Know when to end a scene.

There were more than a few scenes where I found myself mentally screaming "CUT! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, CUUUUUUT!" Tarantino's often had the tendency to ramble, letting scenes go on far longer than they need to, while the additional running time does nothing to further the story (although it may increase your need to duck out to the bathroom). As a reader, if you feel that a scene is going on too long you might just skip to the next one - or worse, you might put the book down altogether. Writers need to know when to stop a scene, or cut it entirely. If it doesn't further the plot or illuminate something important, lose it. If it feels like it's running out of steam, cut and get on with it.

4) Using up your big finish too early.

It wasn't one of his biggest hits but Death Proof got it just right when the climactic set piece, that epic car chase, was at the very end of the film. Likewise the fight sequence between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill Pt I. Trouble is, I felt like Django Unchained's big shoot-out was the big set piece, as opposed to the actual climactic ending...meaning that the film after said shoot-out sagged a little. That would be like Luke destroying the Death Star and spending another forty five minutes wandering around. Keep your big finish for the end.

5) Give your hero flaws...but don't make him easy to dislike.

I think my biggest problem with Django Unchained is that I warmed to King Schultz very easily, and I really liked the character, but I found it nigh on impossible to root for Django himself. If your sole presented reason for me rooting for someone is how badly they've been treated by someone else then you're not exactly presenting a rounded character. Likewise, making the guy a natural shot so he's a better gunslinger than Wyatt Earp without any practice just makes me too incredulous. His motivations were understandable, and possibly even commendable, but as a character, I just didn't like Django. I know that, in places, Django himself was playing a character in order to further his own ends, but it didn't feel like Django was stretching himself too much to play a bastard. Schultz had flaws, but they were there to make him human. By contrast, Django's flaws just made him into a cartoon character. So by all means give your protagonist flaws - after all, we don't want yet another Mary Sue - but don't make them unlikeable in the process. Even anti-heroes like Snake Plisskin are likeable.

What do you think?

Monday 28 January 2013

National Novel Reading Month

John Wiswell has reminded me that National Novel Reading Month begins on February 1st. It's quite simple - you choose a classic you've never read, read it in February, and then talk about it.

As I'm looking at the Gothic as part of my PhD thesis, I think it only right that I choose a book related to my topic. I've chosen Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. I've been meaning to read it for months now, but this has given me a very good excuse!

The Castle of Otranto is largely considered the first Gothic text, and was originally published in 1764 as an alleged translation of an ancient text. Walpole eventually acknowledged authorship by the time the second edition came out. It's available for the Kindle for free through Project Gutenberg but I'll be reading the paperback version, a book I bought at an art exhibition about his rather stunning house at Strawberry Hill.