Thursday, 23 May 2013

Calum Kerr Interview: Flash Fiction

I’ve been pretty disillusioned with writing short stories and thinking of novels lately, preferring to write poetry instead. Every time I go on one of these ‘poetic breaks’, however, I always notice that I start to miss writing fiction, and this time has been no exception. To get back into the swing of things I entered a couple of FlashFiction competitions, figuring I’d be pretty good considering I didn’t need to write as much as usual, and didn’t win. I read over some of the other entrants’ work, though, researched the form a little more, and it became very exciting, making me want to write more. I realised there’s so much more to their creation than simply cutting out words. Flash Fiction is still a bit of a strange beast to me, but luckily Calum Kerr, author of Braking Distance, 31 and Undead at Heart, editor of Gumbo Press and director of the National Flash Fiction Day, has given up his time to talk with me about his thoughts and experiences.

Martin Palmer: Welcome to Blogtastic, the occasional home of useful and interesting things, as it is today. How did you get into writing Flash Fiction in the first place?

Calum Kerr: I was at a conference and in between all the papers with people talking about what they were currently working on, there was a workshop in this thing called 'flash fiction' which I had never come across before. It was run by a writer called Vanessa Gebbie. This was at the end of a dry spell for me where I had not written anything for nearly a year. In the space of that one hour workshop I wrote two short pieces - 'Salt' and 'Pluck' - both of which have since been published. After the workshop another attendee came up to ask if I had really written those two stories in the short time we were given, and to tell me how much they had enjoyed them. That was what started me off. After that, inspired by NaNoWriMo, I started embarking on projects to write lots of flash-fictions in set times, and I haven't really looked back.

MP: Why is Flash Fiction important for readers?

CK: It's short. Sounds simple, but in this day and age, short is king. A lot of people don't want to devote time to reading a whole novel, and something like flash is perfect for the bus journey, the tube ride, the few minutes that can be snatched between this appointment and that one. 

That much is self-evident. But more than that, flash is a perfect form for a society which is so saturated with narrative. We have novels, TV series, films, computer games and more. All of these have created a readership who have a great understanding of how narrative works. In this culture flash works by presenting just the tiniest snapshot of a story and asking the reader to bring their knowledge of narrative to bear on it, filling in the gaps, finishing off the story, providing the backstory. And there is something very satisfying for a reader in that - in part they get to write the story as well as read it. Despite its short length, I think reading flash can be a very satisfying experience.

MP: Why is Flash Fiction important for writers?

CK: It allows you to experiment in a way that even a short story doesn't. A story of, say, 5000 words, might take you a few weeks to write. A novel will take months. However a flash is something which can be written in a single sitting. It means you can try out something that you haven't done before, or something which you aren't very comfortable with. If it's good, great! you've written a new flash. If it's not good, never mind, bin it and do another one, you haven't lost anything!

Additionally, there is a control which is required by flash. Like with poetry the words have to do a lot of work, each one carrying a lot of baggage. It makes you more conscious of what each word is doing, and how the whole piece works together to construct your meaning. As such it makes you a tighter writer and a better editor.

MP: How do you manage to pack such a potent punch into so few words?

CK: For me it's about having a clear image of what it is I want to say. This rarely means plot, it means the 'theme' or 'idea' which underlies the story. The words are then a way of conveying that meaning, and in writing it you gear all nouns, verbs and adjectives (I try to avoid adverbs...) to that one idea. In language studies this is sometimes called a 'semantic field' where the various terms in a piece all belong to the same context. If you do that within a flash you can push forward your idea without ever mentioning the concept. One example would be a flash I wrote recently. It was a love story between an older couple. The man was making a wooden box as a present for his wife. I refer to two of the pieces 'marrying' together. It is a common term for two piece of wood meeting up, but it's other meaning also carries the 'love' part of the story forward. Now, if I can just write a piece where every word does that much work...

MP: What was it like working on your Flash365 project, how did you keep yourself motivated?

CK: Sometimes it was great, sometimes horrible. Very often this depended on the prompts that I had chosen. For those who don't know, Flash365 was a project to write a flash-fiction every day, for a year, and post them on a blog. I chose different prompts for each month, such as film titles (really good as prompts) or book titles from the Old Testament (really bad as prompts, avoid, avoid!). 

The other thing that kept me going was the process of doing it on a blog. I promoted it, linked it to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, and generated an audience who, if it was nearing midnight and no story had been posted that day, would actually start chasing me up. That kind of pressure - like any deadline - is a great motivator. 

Also, and this is personal, I suppose, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I did! (And then my wife did too. Check out for hers).

MP: You started National Flash Fiction Day as a way of spreading the word about the form, are the people getting the message do you think? What’s next in the campaign?

CK: Yes, it was about spreading the word, and I think that has happened, at least a little. New people are still coming along and saying 'what's this flash-fiction thing, then?' and getting involved, which is tremendously exciting. Something unexpected has also happened, which is that the Day brought together all the various flash writers who were working in isolation and a small community has been formed. All these people who thought they were alone now have colleagues, and considering the lonely nature of writing this is something I'm really proud of.

Next? Well, we have the second Flash-Fiction Day happening on 22nd June this year, and then we need to look to the future. In my personal campaign I am currently working with a publisher to produce 4 pamphlets of stories from flash365 and elsewhere which will also be released as a single collection. I'm also working on my novels (writing, editing, seeking publication), so really very busy.

MP: Thanks for your time, Calum, Blogtastic appreciates it.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Not My Card

I just watched Scott Ryan's The Magician (nothing to do with magicians, by the way). Its main claim to fame is that Michele Bennett also produced Chopper an also amoral antipodean anti-hero. Is anti-hero generous? Yes. So sets the tone for the rest of my overly-cynical 'review' of this short-of-the-mark film. The whole reason I bought it was because of its comparison (by what critic I don't know...) to Man Bites Dog. The idea should be that it's an exploration of documentary TV 'objectivity'. With things feeling so staged most of the time, it was always hard to 'let go' and believe.

The Magician's biggest problem is that it thinks ad-libbed dialogue is good dialogue, or even good anything. Even amongst decent actors, it's a tough skill, but I think this project didn't have the time - and probably therefore money - needed for the re-taking of scenes (the shooting equivalent of re-drafting) to make it better. There is so much 'dead' dialogue, nervous actors saying 'y'know' so much, trying to second-guess in the moment, where more rehearsals could've produced a much more believable scene.

Now I'm not saying I know what'd be credible in the world of Australian assassins, but so many things stretched my credulity too far. I immediately thought Ray's captive is too eager to get into the car, cuff himself, dig his own grave etc. NO resistance whatsoever. There would be at least SOME kind of discomfort with being asked this. And there was that scene where Ray decides to avenge his documentarist's previous grievance where, at the second time of asking, he gets him back some of his stolen goods. If you think it's lame the way I'm describing it, well, it's not far off in reality. Maybe if they'd set up Ray's character as the world's best assassin, then people would be almost glad to follow his orders (maybe even in a tongue-in-cheek style, like they're just glad to be with a celebrity though they know it means their demise), but this is never established. Maybe they tried to with that initial in-the-first-five-minutes execution, but it wasn't enough. I'm not being pernickety, I really was extremely conscious of it.

The second main problem is that there's no decent 'showing'. There is a LOT of clunky exposition. I'm really not sure how it came to be produced in such a professional way when the project is clearly quite rough. It's not terrible, and I can see how this would be - as an 'on the job' project - very useful to an individual, learning what they think works and what doesn't. Its shortcomings are so horrendous though. The documentary format should be liberating, not a 'tick box affair' of storytelling. I felt there were so many aspects of Ray's character that they shoe-horned in through exposition, such as his army career, his possible homosexuality and then a brief flicker of family life NO! You don't have enough time in a film to tell a whole life-story, that's the point, that's the art! You have to be careful with the documentary format. It should totally liberate you but Ryan (as writer, director, actor, producer and editor) hasn't thought enough. He's cut the worst bits out, as his extras show, but what's left is below par for today's please-don't-patronize-me audience.

I think it's a poor experiment with character over plot. I'm not just judging, I've written similar things myself where I've put in an ill-fitting scene because the theme it addresses helps the story. But in The Magician, it was basically a way of spelling out beyond all doubt something like [read with robotic voice] 'he is not comfortable with not being the most alpha of men and any challenge to his masculinity makes him feel not so good'. In the past I thought an 'issue' like this advances the plot/character, but it should all be there from the start, and be there so much that the ways you show it can be extremely subtle. If you're showing a truth, you shouldn't need to tell people it's true (sorry that's probably quite patronizing in itself).

We get told clunkily at the end that the only reason we're seeing the documentary is because Ray is dead. I don't care. I don't feel close to the character, don't care he's dead. I actually care more about the documentarist, who drives on the story, despite his questions clearly lacking an appropriate level of tact. Apparently he's given no thought to the fact he is interviewing a psychopath. You don't goad one about being wrong about whether or not Clint Eastwood was in The Dirty Dozen (one of the two of three instances of humour that one can excavate from the footage) when you're dealing with a killer. Judging him about his views on homosexuality too: question him, yeah, but this interviewer is doing the equivalent of waving a red cape around a bull, then blowing raspberries. Yet the 'big killer' hardly gets angry, let alone doesn't pull a gun out and threaten him to shut his mouth.

It isn't really explained why there's such comfort between the man with the camera and the man with the gun. The Independent describes Ray as a "swaggering psycho" on the promo part of the box, so my guess is that he's so egotistical, he doesn't want to kill the cameraman or else his story won't get told. That just doesn't hold much water though. If he was so narcissistic he'd hire another crew. Nothing's really explored all that well, and I don't mean in a pleasant 'I have unanswered questions to ponder after the film's over' like you do when you consider, for example, who might be infected in John Carpenter's The Thing.

Basically I'm bitterly disappointed (as if you couldn't tell). In order to try and redress the balance, I'd like to genuinely say that acting in general, aside from of course the ad-libbed bits, weren't that bad.Still, if you think my 'review' is bad, you should read this from The New York Times.