Thursday, 29 July 2010

Barking up the right tree: dogs in books and movies

There are many unforgettable moments in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. But two 'cinematic' scenes that stick in my mind include Mr Rochester's dog, Pilot.

Jane first encounters Edward Fairfax Rochester while she is walking into town to post a letter. On horseback, he races past her just before his horse skids and falls on the icy causeway. His huge black and white dog, who was leading the way, rushes back to Jane and barks at her to help his master.

In the other scene much later in the novel, Pilot immeditately recognises Jane when she visits the now blind Mr Rochester at Ferndean. "Pilot pricked up his ears when I came in; then he jumped up with a yelp and a whine, and bounded towards me: he almost knocked the tray from my hands."

Dogs are often used in books and movies, sometimes to provide a comedic element and to reinforce that magical relationship that humans have with these wonderfully loyal and trusting animals. Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich all get good mileage out of dogs that play important roles in their stories.

In film, two of my favourite pooches are Verdell in As Good As It Gets (a Brussels Griffon) and Buster in Legally Blonde (and I don't even like chihuahuas).

Dogs can also be cast as villains. Just look at the Dobermans in Boys from Brazil. I'd argue that sales of that breed plummeted after the film's release. And Stephen King's rabies-infected Cujo gave the usually docile Saint Bernard a bad name. ( In the TV comedy Kath and Kim, Brett's docile rottweiler is also called Cujo).

Writers can go overboard with dogs and exploit them for all the wrong reasons. I recently started reading a work of 'contemporary women's fiction' by an English author, who uses a hapless hound to set up all the supposedly funny bits in the book. After a while, it's a drag. I can't stand the thought of what the stupid creature might do next to wreak havoc in the lives of the even dumber hero and heroine.

So, if you're going to include a dog in your story, make sure it's for a good reason and use it wisely. Because there are good dogs and there are bad dogs.

Wikipedia's list of fictional dogs has loads of information on dogs in literature, film and TV. Even if you're just looking for a name for your canine companion, it's a fascinating read.

PS: The dog in the photo (dog is left, Miss Hissy is on right) is the most beautiful dog in the world. Gawd, look at all that fur on the carpet! I am a writer, not a cleaner!!!!!!!!!! Arrgggghhhh - WRITE THE BOOK so that is the truth!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Get Shorter! Why I'm a Flash Fiction floozy

It was an invitation too tempting to ignore.

Romantic suspense author Bronwyn Parry last week ran a flash fiction competition on her blog The criteria was simple - submit a 55-word story for the chance to win a copy of one of three books; Bronwyn's latest Dark Country, Helene Young's Border Watch and Joanna Sandsmark's The Wisdom of Yo Meow Ma.

The entries were to be judged by the doyenne of Australian romance writing Valerie Parv.

To cut a long story short, I won.

I was tickled pink that Valerie wrote on Bronwyn's blog that she kept coming back to my story because it had a beginning, middle and end (fair enough), a sense of plot, intrigue and deception. And that it featured dogs. (The dog comment is interesting and I will write about it in my next blog.)

Here's my 54 words (yes, I can write 'em shorter than 55) titled Foiled:

She turned at the tap on her shoulder.
"Did you drop this?"
He held out a cream silk scarf.
A sharp breath. Ooh la la. What harm can it do. "Thanks."
Ollie gave an approving wag of his tail. She bent down to pat his dog.
"Hey," another voice interrupted, "that's mine."

PS: I knew I was onto a winner when I ran the story by my partner Spanner and had to explain the meaning behind every line.

PPS: It's a shame I can't manage 55,000 winning words.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Don't worry about the 'ranga', just check out the slender Friar Tuck

When the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard named an official election date on the weekend, she was wearing a cream suit, pearls and a fresh red rinse through her sleek bob.

In 'Orstrarlia' we call redheads 'rangas' (after the orangutan with its distinctive reddish coat). In the olden days it was the more complimentary 'carrot top', 'Ginger Meggs' (after the cartoon character) or 'bluey'.

Julia's red hair has been a hot topic of conversation since she became PM three weeks ago. If she'd been a man, nowhere near as much attention would be paid to her hair colour or hair style.

To make matters worse, Julia's partner Tim Mathieson just happens to be a former hairdresser. No doubt he was adding the finishing touches to a colour, cut, wash and blow dry (no innuendo intended) as the plane they were on touched down in Canberra on Saturday prior to the election announcement.

Thing is, no one ever mentions male politicians' hair. When KRudd was PM my sister noted that he was about as interesting as his hair.

Why was it that my perceptive sister was the only person to notice poor old KRudd's flyaway, pale hair? And my sister and I both agreed he had it coloured - often his whispy locks looked too sunkissed to be real.

And here's breaking news... The federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott (aka Mad Monk - MM) has thinning hair. No one's broached this controversial topic yet (maybe because most of the country's political commentators are men).

What MM does to draw attention away from his hair (and this is just a theory I'm tossing around) is add product to the front and comb his hair forward so his fringe looks thicker. But if you look at the crown of his head you'll notice the 'Friar Tuck effect'.

Yep, there's a distinct crop circle atop the Shadow PM's nob. It's a shame he can't take some of the hair that covers his torso and implant it on his dome. Or, why not follow the lead of a legion of balding men, including Peter Garrett. Shave it all off.

If MM loses the August 21 election he could always get a gig with Ashley Martin. It earnt Shane Warne a heap.
PS: It's hard to find a photo of the top and back of MM's head. Every chance he gets, he covers up. If it's not a hospital cap, it's a swimming cap or bicycle helmet. Ah, so that's why he's into sport!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

How idle threats fail dismally in the mother-daughter relationship: talk to the door

It's as simple as this. I tell Precious Princess that if she doesn't clean up her dressing table I will drag its contents into a garbage bag and haul it outside into the big stinky bin.
This pic has not been tampered with. The drawers were dragged out on this angle when I entered the room to gather incriminating photographic evidence against my eldest daughter.
This is how a 19-year-old from a good family treats her own flesh and blood. How she pays back the mother, who's sacrificed her youth and sanity for her family.
I'm a neat person. Not fastidious. But I do dust occasionally. And I enjoy a certain amount of order in my life. So, where did I go wrong with daughter No 1?
Or will it all come good when she leaves home (please God?) and someone who has nothing at all to do with la famiglia cuts her down to size. Calls an ace an ace, a spade a spade. A mess a disgusting mess.
The really funny thing (always on reflection) is that when I point out the chaos that is her room (and I've only photographed one little bit of it) she looks at me like I'm the crazy one.
"Ok, ok, ok, ok. I'll do it, I'll do it, I'll do it." The usual response. Door slams in my face. I nag at door. At least door doesn't answer back.
Three weeks later, the dressing table doesn't look all that different. Though she has managed to shut the drawers.
PS: She doesn't know that I took this pic. That is my revenge.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Italian movie I am Love is all show and no substance, and why making a melodrama is easier than writing a book

The other night my partner Spanner and I went to the cinema. We saw the Italian flick I am Love (lo sono l'amore), which came recommended by my cinephile mother. She described it as "beautiful to look at" and paying attention to every little detail.

And it was gorgeous. I was mesmerised from start to finish by the magnificence of it all. The locations of Milan and San Remo are stunning, and afterwards I wanted to rush from the cinema and hail a plane to Italy.

Another bonus was Tilda Swinton in the lead role. She's not your bog-standard beauty a la Naomi Watts, but has a luminosity, how do you say it - je ne sais quois - to her being. She is interesting to look at. Of course, the camera takes advantage of this and spends a huge amount of time focussed on her perfect skin and elegant, cream-textured features.

But what about the plot? I am Love is melodrama at its most hysterical and, I think, the director takes the easy way out at the end.

The story revolves around a disgustingly wealthy Italian family, whose patriarch bequeaths the family's textile business to his son and grandson. As the saga around the business unfolds, Tilda Swinton, who plays the son's wife, embarks on an affair with her son's friend, a chef.

The story builds slowly to a dramatic climax, with Tilda Swinton's character ultimately finding her true self.

What gets me is the lack of deep and meaningful dialogue. I know, I know. A director paints the scene for the audience. But so much is left unexplained.

And the big love scene is so cliched it's almost embarrassing. A full-on orchestra accompanies the wife and chef as a soft-focus camera pans over the couple making furious love in a sunny meadow (the grass looked scratchy to me - and I was worried about Tilda getting sunburnt and stung). Their lovemaking is intercut with shots of bees and creepy bugs crawling in and out of flowers. It's pretty funny.

My point is that you couldn't get away with this in a novel. Script writing for the cinema allows the writer to take way more liberties than an author. If it looks good on the screen, you'll forgive the writer and director for other flaws in the story.

And better still if it's Italian. Italians get away with blue murder, just because they're Italian. I mean, only the Italians would have the audicity to call a film I am Love. After all, they reckon they invented 'amore'.
A more appropriate title might be I am Wank. Beautiful to look at but lacking in substance.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The humourless hero with bad table manners

During the numerous and lengthy ad breaks in MasterChef Australia I have time to ponder the qualities I want in the hero in the book I'm writing and what I don't want.

Using MasterChef as a research tool I've learnt I don't want my hero to be like one of the three judges, chef George Calombaris.

For a start, he has an ego the size of a small African country.

He also eats like a pig - this has been well documented so I won't go into detail here, except that he holds his fork and knife like a four-year-old, shovels in the food and chews like a toothless hobo.

But the worst thing about GC is he's humourless.

When a situation is funny, Georgie Porgie Puddin' and Pie doesn't crack a smile. I don't think he knows how to.

The show has its lighter moments, like tonight when four of the contestants had disastrous results with Adriano Zumbo's amazing macaron tree recipe. I must digress - these macarons are bright pink (with a beetroot and raspberry filling) and purple (with a kalamata olive and bergamot filling).

The contestants macarons were variously squished and cracked and couldn't match Zumbo's masterpiece. But rather than see the humour in their less than perfect results as the other judges did - including Zumbo - George remained poker-faced.

One day I might have a place for George as a minor character in a book, but never as the hero.

Unless he loses the attitude. And learns to eat properly.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Writing in June is over and I didn't make the word count but I've got the lowdown on MasterChef

I could have told me so. When I committed to the *RWA's June writing challenge I didn't expect to reach my 30,000-word goal.

I'm pleased I managed to write almost 11,000 words considering I work, have needy children, a dog, my partner Spanner (he takes some looking after) and a house to keep in order.

Then there's the other commitments, like MasterChef. I have to have something to talk about with my friends.

Talking of MasterChef, I was walking through the city the other day around lunchtime when I heard this office guy say to his office mates, "Yeah, it just wasn't fair to put them all in a shed in the howling wind and expect them to produce **CWA standard cakes and scones. I mean, how can you keep the oven temperature constant in those conditions?"

See what I mean? It's important to watch MasterChef in order to hold a conversation with every other Australian.

At our local organic food market last weekend (it's not really organic, but what a drawcard) I bumped into a woman whose daughter used to be in the same swim squad as Precious Princess.

I haven't seen this woman for at least two years. Yet, we chatted for half-an-hour about, you guessed it, MasterChef. The conversation grew animated as we discussed who we thought would win, the degree of recipe difficulty in this series compared to the last, the contestants we love and those we do not like at all. And so on and so forth.

It's amazing to think that around 2 million Australians sit down to watch this show, which is on the telly every night except Saturday.

I blame MasterChef for my low word count, but I thank it for giving me something in common with my fellow country men and women.

It's a shame my oven is bung (the fuse went again) and Spanner doesn't want to outlay the money for a new one.

How can one live the MasterChef dream in such a hostile environment?

Acronyms explained:
*RWA = Romance Writers of Australia
**CWA = Country Women's Association