26 Oct

Enduring Vague Curiosity

After seeing the new Bond film, I’ve just noticed on IMDB that Ben Whishaw, who plays Q, was in the film of Enduring Love, which also starred Daniel Craig.

This caught my attention mainly because I developed a very slight fixation with Enduring Love after seeing the trailer as a teenager. Fixation is of course a rather appropriate response to have to Enduring Love, but I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t have any lasting impression of what the film was about. Despite that, it somehow caught my attention, even as I completely failed to fix in my memory what it was called. I remembered the scene with the hot air balloon, and (entirely mistakenly) that it featured Jim Carrey in a rare serious role. The first of these might just have been enough for me to track down the film; the second neatly sabotaged my efforts.

Nothing came of this until I found a copy of the novel on one of my parents’ bookshelves. It had a balloon and a reference to a major film on the cover, which was basically enough to confirm that this was the book on which the film I had sustained a nagging interest in for a few years was based. By this time, that interest had decayed into curiosity about what the film was. The cover was enough to resolve that, and some rudimentary Googling was enough to disabuse me of my notion that the part of the mentally ill stalker was played by Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Some time later, I finally got around to reading Enduring Love, and found it OK.

I still haven’t seen the film, but this tiny coincidence brought it to my mind. That coincidence is of course slightly boosted by the fact that the plot of Enduring Love is driven by someone falling out of the sky. I looked up the trailer on YouTube. At the very start of it, Daniel Craig puts a lot of emphasis on the word ‘bond’, and then Rhys Ifans (who looks nothing like Jim Carrey) says ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I feel this final brace of coincidences, together with the manifest untruth of the latter statement, brings this minor obsession to a close, and I can safely never think about it again unless I decide at some point to actually watch the unremarkably-received film of a novel I enjoyed a bit.

Incidentally, the trailer I’ve linked above features the name ‘Rhys Ifans’ in large capital letters, and doesn’t feature the name ‘Jim Carrey’ in any letters at all. I have decided that this is not the trailer I saw.

18 Sep

A rubbish word game

This tedious challenge popped into my head the other day. How long a chain of words can you make by adding one letter at a time to a starting word? For example:

A > AN > PAN > PANS > PANTS > PLANTS > PLANETS
A > AN > CAN > CLAN > CLEAN > CLEANS > CLEANSE > CLEANSER > CLEANSERS

You’re not obliged to start from a single letter, but it provides some easy steps.

Alternative rules:

  • disallow pluralization
  • allow changing one letter, word-ladder style, but not twice in succession
  • allow removing a letter instead of adding one, without repeating words

Post your best chains in the comments – or don’t, because this genuinely isn’t a very interesting game.

25 Aug

Announcing the winner of my recycling

The world’s greatest short story competition came to a close at the start of this month, and after a long judging process that has mainly involved going to work, doing lots of washing up and having a cold, I have chosen a winner.

It was a difficult decision: the field was very strong, and the fact that I had the minimum number of entries required to hold a competition meant that there was less opportunity for a stand-out entry to take the prize.

The winner is Paul Kilbey’s story about H from steps drinking a lot of gin. I would justify my decision, but I don’t think the absurdity of Paul’s story can be expressed by anything other than the story itself. I am a little worried about him.

You can read more evidence of Paul’s loose grip on reality at Pleasure Notes/Pure Seal Tones. He also does sensible writing about music and things but I don’t understand that quite as much.

Paul wins one of my used index cards every month for a year, starting in September.

25 Aug

Competition entry: Paul Kilbey

H from Steps was alone at last. Being fun-loving is exhausting, he mused to himself, as he stubbed out his cigarette and reclined into a bean bag. His friends never seemed to understand that “H” didn’t really stand for “Hyperactive,” as he used to tell journalists for a laugh, but for “Hushed,” “Heartbroken,” “Hurt.” Yes, that’s right, he mumbled, reaching for the gin. My friends don’t understand my pain. Maybe I should have called myself “P,” for “Pained” and “Pathetic.” How different, he thought, my life would be, if I had been P not H.

For starters, he’d never have got recruited for Steps if his name had been a homonym of an excretory function. There was just no way. So I’d probably just have stayed put at Butlins, where I used to work, he thought to himself, the cold glass rim of the gin bottle pressed between his lips like a delicious glass penis filled with gin, he thought to himself. And then what would have happened? I’d have spent my whole life smiling at wankers, telling them which way to the beach or whatever, and they’ve have been like, “Thanks.”

And another thing, right, if I’d been “P,” he realised, as he tilted up his arm slowly and watched the slim trickle of remaining gin creep gently up the bottle and felt an expectant rush within his lips, I’d have got the shit kicked out of me at high school. And he realised as well that if he’d said to his bullies “No but guys, it’s cos I’m pained and pathetic,” that would have just made it worse. It would, in fact, have made him deserve it somewhat. There really would have been no escape from a young-adulthood of pain, opprobrium and obloquy. He would perhaps have had to change his name.

But at least, he wondered, the final drip of gin at last reaching his throat with a sweet burning tang like the first touch of a poisoned mushroom in the heavy August rain in Kent, I would have been spared this tortured life of semi-famous hell, in which my friends assume I love to dance and sing and laugh. I don’t! he mentally exclaimed, suddenly aware again of the empty gin bottle protruding vertically from his mouth, his anger only intensified by its tyrannous right-angled precision; I don’t at all!

Those bastards! he exclaimed out loud, deciding in a flash to hurl the bottle at the chic neo-modernist plain white wall to his right, as if within this empty bottle were contained the spirits of all his many enemies and everything his life had come to stand for; they take and they never give! And the thought: I have gone too far, flashed immediately through his mind as the bottle went from being bottle to being numerous inadequate bottles with no plausible reservoir section, because it smashed against the wall, because actually my friends do care for me. Perhaps they are just trying to cheer me up, when they force me to smoke loads of drugs and party.

But that’s not who I am, he resolved, wearily pressing his arms down into the bean bag in a mediocre effort to stand up, much like a newborn foal, he mused, unsure of how to use its limbs but dimly conscious that if it didn’t then life was going to be pretty rubbish and wet: I’m an artist. And I will write a story. That is how I will channel my feelings. Into a story.

It shall not be a story about me, H from Steps decided, resting half-way to the vertical on one knee and simultaneously scouting for a pen but seeing only broken glass around him, like an over-eager vulture surveying a normal picnic; then he found one; but it shall be about someone whom I am not; some stranger; some… P. He pulled himself into a standing position with a heave reminiscent of how an unfit man would pull himself into a standing position at some other point in time, and sat down again, with a pen.

25 Aug

Competition entry: Boiled Egg for Breakfast by Frederick Forsyth, by Chris Taylor

He replaced the spoon on the plate. Most people think that spoons should be made of silver, but they are wrong. Silver is a relatively soft metal, expensive, and tarnishes in the presence of atmospheric sulphides. Jacobs’ spoon was stainless steel: cheaper, harder and infinitely more versatile. It had already been used on the egg that stood before him, supported by its specially designed ceramic container. The steel edge of the spoon had fractured the shell exposing the layers below.

Just below the outer case of an egg is a layer of albumen. This is normally a transparent liquid but, when subjected to temperatures in excess of 60C, its protein is denatured and it becomes a white, plastic solid. This egg had been immersed in water at 100C for more than 3.5 minutes. An area of albumen had been lifted clear, using the same stainless steel implement, to reveal a yellow layer beneath. This inner layer, insulated by the albumen, still retained its fluidity, though this was not apparent to the casual observer, being masked by an invisible membrane.

Bread, particularly the white sliced variety, has little mechanical strength, especially if the outer edge has been removed. Jacobs knew though, that when bread is subjected to high temperatures for the right length of time, the processes of dehydration and partial carbonisation produce a hard, textured surface. He had several such pieces of bread before him now, each one precisely cut to be just narrower than the removed area of albumen.

He selected one, and applied a thin layer of congealed milk solid, known as butter. He took care over this, working quickly so that the surface of the bread did not soften. There are those who frown on the use of butter, believing that its long term use can damage the cardiovascular system. Jacobs had no time for such concerns. His life held danger enough without worrying about minuscule risks.

He paused only to sprinkle a few milligrams of crystalline sodium chloride on to the target area before plunging his bread into the central part of the egg. The flimsy membrane was no match for the thermally hardened bread and there was barely any resistance. After precisely 2 seconds, Jacobs extracted the bread, its newly acquired yellow coating blending with the melted butter. Perfect.

17 Jul

Publish early, publish often

…and give your blog posts misleadingly bold titles.

This article from Forbes, ‘Don’t Publish that Book’ is one example of a species of very sensible advice that’s been going around ever since self-publishing lost its stigma. The short version: don’t publish your horrible early writing, because it’s horrible and it won’t do you any good in the long term.

That’s almost certainly good advice, and in the article it’s rather more subtle than I’ve made it out to be. But I do wonder if the changes to what publishing means might be more exciting than this career-centric approach suggests.

Under the old model, publication indicated that somebody thought a work was, in some sense, good – even that sense was more financial than artistic. The very fact that a book was available suggested that it was more worth having than the mountains of unpublished manuscripts in the world. This is changing. We are decoupling availability from approval.

We’ve done this before, with Myspace and iTunes and YouTube and, well, the internet. It doesn’t seem to have been terribly troubling for other art forms. It’s cool to like an unsigned band, an obscure comedian or a play by a small company. It’s only authors who have to ‘sell out’ to be taken seriously.

It seems like we’re willing to forgive a bum note from a new band, or a young actor flubbing their lines, but a novel is expected to be polished and professional. I wonder if that might be ready to change. Maybe we’ll start stumbling on exciting novice writers who are brave enough to publish work they’ll look back on one day and cringe over, and following and encouraging them. Some people are doing this already; some people have being doing this for years.

It might not happen, and it might not be the best model if it does. But I think there’s something exciting about the thought of writers across the world publishing early and publishing often and letting readers work out what they like.

04 Jul

It’s not what you know, it’s what they don’t

I was walking down the street, not even minding my own business, let alone anybody else’s, when a man in a hi-vis tabbard started shouting inaudibly at me. It turned out, once I had pulled out my earphones, that I had walked straight past the barrier he had put up and was in imminent danger of taking a hammer to the skull from the workers on the roof above.

I looked back. The barrier covered about half the pavement and wasn’t much wider than it was deep. I had assumed it was covering a loose paving slab. I apologized, although really it was my head at risk.

“It’s not just you,” the man said. “It’s been about fifty people today.”

I couldn’t help thinking, but didn’t say: If forty-nine people have walked past already, wouldn’t you stop and wonder if there might be a problem with your barrier? But apparently he reached that conclusion anyway. The next day, a sign had appeared explaining that there was work overhead.

Setting aside the not insubstantial portion of the blame that lies with my lack of attention, I think the problem was that he knew what the barrier was for when he put it up. The barrier wasn’t meant to stop people physically. That was clear from how narrow it was, and from the fact that its partner at the other end was just a wheelibin. It was meant to be a signal that you shouldn’t keep walking along the pavement. But nobody tasked with putting it up could have judged properly whether that signal would be understood, because they already knew what it was trying to communicate.

At the time, I didn’t know that I had been involved in another misunderstanding of this kind earlier in the same shopping trip. Instead of toilet paper, I had bought kitchen roll. The packs were the same size, the labels were almost identical, they were on the same shelf in the shop and the shop had never sold kitchen roll before. I didn’t read the label. I didn’t even realize I hadn’t read it.

When I discovered my mistake, I thought: this is stupid. Why don’t they make the labels more different? They could make one of them blue instead of green and this would never happen. But why would they? They know that a package that shape with that style of label could be toilet paper or kitchen roll, so they look at the two next to each other and think, very reasonably, that the text makes it clear. My mistake required me to already know what their toilet paper looked like, but not to know that there was also kitchen roll that looked like that.

It’s very hard to imagine what you might think or do if you didn’t know what you know. That’s why software is impossible to use and first-draft short stories don’t make any sense. So next time I think something I’ve made is ready for primetime before anyone else has even seen it, I’m going to remember that thinking like that can lead to nasty head injuries and having nothing to wipe your arse with. Which isn’t a good combination.

19 Jun

Short story competition: Win Mark’s recycling!

While trying to find which notebook I’d put something in, I came across the opening of a story that I’d forgotten all about. Clearly, I had run out of steam on it. Can YOU finish it?

Thundering creativity

Readers are invited to submit their continuations of this exciting opening to mark+hcomp@markstephentaylor.com, or via a link in the comments. (Feel free to post any particularly brief entries in the comments in full.) You may enter as many times as you like. By entering, you give permission for your entry to be published on markstephentaylor.com. The winner will receive one used index card from me every month for a year. Entries will be judged by me, and my decision is final.

The competition closes at midnight on the 1st of August 2012.