Archive for July, 2009

Outrage!

Posted by on July 28th, 2009

You know what happened today? You’ll never guess. I went into Leeds, is what happened, to pre-order my eagerly-anticipated copy of Dan Brown’s next novel, The Lost Symbol. And out of all the bookshops I could have picked, I went into W H Smiths. Don’t ask me why. (It was because I also needed some sellotape, a jotter and a copy of Timecop for £1.99 … but anyway, that’s not the point). The thing is, I went in there. And I took my order form to the counter – a pre-order for this book I know isn’t going to be published for, like, fucking months – and then the woman at the counter said “Do you want this for free?”. And it was a new Dan Brown book called Simon Kernick: Deadline.

And so I said “Yeah, I will have that for free actually, now you mention it. Thank you very much.” And I was thinking to myself, well, maybe now I don’t have to pre-order The Lost Symbol at all, because I’ve got the new Dan Brown novel, but the woman said “Well, no, you do. You just get this book for free … it’s not by Dan Brown. But you might like it while you’re waiting for the actual new Dan Brown novel”. And so I said all right.

Imagine my disgust when I got home and found it wasn’t the new Dan Brown book for free at all, but a free Simon Kernick book! (And it wasn’t even fucking well called Simon Kernick: Deadline. It was just Deadline).

So anyway, I called up W H Smiths, and the phone was answered by Hitler, and he said “… Well, you will get the Dan Brown book. The one you actually … you know, pre-ordered, but this is just a free book by another author in the meantime”. And even though it was free, and I hadn’t lost anything at all, I said “Well, you’ve, like, totally misled me,” and then he said “Hang on – why are your pre-ordering books anyway when you obviously can’t read?”, and then I said …

Oh, I can’t do it anymore. Jesus wept, honestly.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Posted by on July 20th, 2009

… wails “broad-minded” and “strongly libertarian” twat Christopher Hart in a Daily Mail article about Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist.

They have given the film an 18 certificate. As we all know, this is meaningless nowadays in the age of the DVD because sooner or later, thanks to the gross irresponsibility of some parents, any film that is given general release will be seen by children … As soon as it’s released on DVD, Antichrist will harm children anyway, deeply and irrevocably.

So, in other words, we need to move towards a bland world containing no adult material whatsoever. Now normally, when someone urges a film to be banned, I get in a huff because it means someone who’s seen a film  thinks he or she is superior to everyone else and that, although they can watch it without turning into violent, slavering perverts, a certain other section of the community isn’t up to it. But in this case I can’t even do that, because he hasn’t fucking seen it!

You do not need to see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (which is released later this week) to know how revolting it is.

I haven’t seen it myself, nor shall I.

Well, good for you. The film is violent, of course, but the Mail seems mostly concerned by the “many” “grotesque” sex scenes, for which it provides a handful of stills of Defoe and Gainsbourg having what looks suspiciously like normal sex to me. The horror! Hart goes on to hang the entire future of the world on this film:

It doesn’t shock or surprise me in the slightest that Europe now produces such pieces of sick, pretentious trash, fully confirming our jihadist enemies’ view of us as a society in the last stages of corruption and decay.

And then has a pop at Bruno for containing “pictures of babies in the bath with a group of gay men”. I haven’t seen Bruno, but I can imagine the scene might be there to play on exactly the kind of stupid, latent homophobia that Hart is displaying with that very comment. But I shouldn’t comment because I haven’t seen it.

Oh god. You’ll notice there isn’t any kind of coherent thesis to this post, by the way, and that’s because the article has pissed me off so much that I’m incapable of logical thought. “Isn’t that good enough reason to ban it?” asks Hart. Cover your ears, children. No – it’s a reason for banning you, you patronising, dickless fuck.

Aaaargh!!!!

EDIT TO ADD:

It’s kind of gratifying to see the top-rated comments on the article think it’s as stupid I do. But I particularly like this one:

To be honest, its not the fact that there is violence or sex or murder or intensely graphic horror (why wasnt there this outcry at the Saw series then? – which by the way I enjoyed thoroughly) that would put me off seeing this movie. Its Willem Dafoe…

It’s connected to the last post, for obvious reasons, but deserves its own little slot. Conventional modern wisdom on writing, especially within the crime genre, seems to be chipping away at various components of the fictional landscape. For example, you’re not supposed to use adverbs. Which is fine if you think “whispered” is a synonym for “said quietly”, but it isn’t. Nor is “leaning in” or “lowering your voice”. Sometimes people just say things quietly. (You should hear me, for example, when I read someone telling me not to use adverbs). They’ve been around a while, you know? It’s probably you that needs to justify picking up a pen, not the adverbs justifying why they should flow from it.

But I’m – possibly – in a bad mood, so let’s move on. What I’m most concerned about is the ton of shit advice you can find about how you shouldn’t use prologues. What a waste of time, people seem to think. Just call it ‘Chapter One’, or cut it. Why are you slowing me down? What is this – why am I not being launched into the middle of the action? And so on. (I’m not talking about you, incidentally). But I like prologues, and so I thought I might as well blog about some of the perfectly acceptable situations in which you would choose to use one, regardless of the fact you will then be villified for doing so by brainless idiots who should really be killed.

1) Prologue as flash-forward

Your book doesn’t start with a bang, so you might want to develop the characters a bit first. In the meantime, the prologue gives the reader a taste of some terrible situation they’re going to find themselves in later, and the more convoluted and ‘impossible’ it appears to get out of the better. Fight Club starts this way; Palahniuk calls it ‘chapter one’, but that’s really just semantics. If you think it would diminish the overall story to call it ‘prologue’ instead then you’re an odd person and no mistake. And must presumably hate the film. And many other films and books. And yourself.

2) Prologue as loop.

Like Scream, basically: a microcosm of the plot played out before the main story begins. In a crime novel, it might be a ‘previous victim’ scenario. Lots of cool uses for this, not least of which is a bit of initial excitement (it’s a flash-forward, to an extent) and foreshadowing. At a basic level, this says: a) this isn’t the main character; b) this is the main bad guy; c) the bad guy is pretty scary, and the main character is going to have to deal with this. I’m a low-brow guy: think of Serenity (which, if you haven’t seen, you fucking well should) and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s little pointy-finger nerve twist/seppuku riff. How hard is he? Well, we’ll find out.

3) Prologue as flash-back

Some key event in the past. Think of the beginning of Cliffhanger (which, if you haven’t seen … well, that’s totally up to you, to be frank). Examples within crime fiction are too numerous to count. The prologue here is giving you bits of background information on the plot, which will become variously relevant as the book goes on. Why not include this as backstory? Firstly, because conventional wisdom derides backstory anyway, so you honestly can’t fucking win. More importantly, because backstory is usually told, and showing tends to be better, and you may not be able to tell. And – while we’re at it – why not tell Chapter One as backstory too? And then Chapter Two? Carry on that way and we can all go home, can’t we. (Which makes me think of this).

But most importantly of all, why should you? Which leads us on to…

4) Prologue as punctuation.

Very few people have a go at chapters, do they? Section breaks tend to escape unscathed too (although people will sometimes have the whole ‘should it be a chapter break?’ conversation). And nobody sane – absolutely nobody sane – ever has a genuinely-felt pop at full-stops and commas. The lesser-spoken truth is that we all know the white space in a book can be as important as the words: because it’s part of the rhythm, and it helps to communicate to a reader how you want the text to be read. Why have a break between Chapters One and Two at all? It’s punctuation, that’s why. It implies a pause – signals a disconnect. And that’s exactly what a prologue does too, only the rules are slightly different. It tells you it’s separate from the main narrative – doesn’t share the same beat as chapter-to-chapter breaks –  but connected enough to justify inclusion, and sooner or later you, as the reader, will work out why. That’s a pretty special type of punctuation to have at your disposal, and it really does seem a shame to throw it to the floor and stamp on its beautiful face out of spite.

None of which is to say you should include a prologue in your novel. But please, for the love of Christ, don’t listen to the people who say you shouldn’t. Do what works. And include one in your short stories by all means. In fact … well, you know. Do it for the sake of it.

Rant! Story Beginnings!

Posted by on July 8th, 2009

I’m never sure how I feel about Joe Konrath. On the one hand, he has some good advice for new writers on self-publicity; on the other, this advice is generally a hook to hang his own self-promotion on, and if you asked people who’d heard of him what they associated with him, they’d probably say “oh yeah, he’s the salesman guy” rather than “he wrote the Jack Daniels novels”. There’s no doubt he’s successful in the US. But then he funds his own book tours, handselling copies, and I question whether that makes much economic sense in the long-term or, overall, increases the readership. Never mind your sanity and happiness.

That said, it obviously works for him. I just don’t like the idea that, because it works for him, it must work for everyone. A sale is not necessarily positive. A sale created by physically spamming someone isn’t, for me, a good sale. It counts on the spreadsheet, but tells you nothing. And I don’t know about you, but if someone comes up to me in a bookshop and says “You should buy this!!!”, then I generally don’t. Bookshops are for browsing; if I want that kind of shit, I go to Dixons. Spreadsheets don’t record those lost sales.

Anyway.

I’m having a bit of an argument with him. The original post is here (although he posted it last year too).  The background is that Joe is judging a short story competition (he’s paid; the entrants pay). And he’s come up with some superficially appealing rules that I don’t, on the whole, agree with.

You can read the original post at that link, including the rules he gives. And then my replies start close to the bottom.

What do you guys think? Are there rules for short stories? Are there rules for fiction in general? Is the hook a necessity in terms of literary value, or just as a market commodity? What is the answer to life, the universe and everything? Knock yourselves out. Either here, there, or in your own heads.