Category Archives: Quotables

When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Join Mark Zuckerberg’s Book Club, Rediscover Why Books Matter

Mark Zuckerberg is starting a book club. A Facebook book club, which seems appropriate, considering he is Mark Zuckerberg.

BUT he said one very insightful thing that should give everyone hope for millenials – we aren’t necessarily shallow, visual-obsessed youngsters with short attention spans. At least, maybe not if we join Mark’s book club.

Here’s what he said:

“Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

The thing is, he is absolutely right. How many times have I gone looking for information on the internet, only to find the absolute basics of a topic repeated over and over again, but no info beyond that? I remember, in my second English course in university, finally resorting to the library to find sources on Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, and was stunned to find TONS of scholarly articles I could use. My thought at the time was – if it’s not on the internet or scholarly internet databases, it doesn’t really exist, right? But it turns out there’s still a level of detail not available on the internet.

(No, I’ll be honest – I just wanted an excuse not to leave my computer and walk to the library…)

So – go Mark Zuckerberg! If anyone can make our surface-level-knowledge-obsessed culture realize this is a shortcoming, it might be you!

Also, apparently both print and ebook versions of Mark’s first recommendation flew off the shelves – print is surprisingly still popular, one article concludes. Of course it is. Print will never die! Go ebooks (and do check out the ones I wrote ), but yeah, print is here to stay.

Tell me – are you planning to join Mark Zuckerberg’s book club. Or maybe another one? New Year’s reading resolutions, here we come!

  • (I, for one, hope to tackle more ‘classic’ novels this year. I’ll update you on how that goes in a couple months.)

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How to Catch a Man 101: Show More Affection Than You Feel

AKA Dating Advice from Dear Jane Austen

Bingley&Jane_CH_55

Bingley and Jane, by C.E. Brooks. {PD-US}

“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” [said Charlotte]. “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6

Here’s the trouble with romance!

Let me start off by saying this is not true in most books and movies out there. If you took the romance advice of most plots, you’d begin to think the way to fall in love with someone is to be as deliberately antagonistic as possible. Insult him to his face! Slap him! Try to avoid him as much as possible – if he’s really fallen in love with you during that half second that you met, he’ll keep coming back for more. Beyond any reasonable expectation, he’ll keep coming back again and again and again, no matter how much you insist you don’t want to see him. He’ll wait for you to change your mind.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

So – more evidence Jane Austen is a cut above (many) other romance writers out there! She’s dealing with reality here. She’s dealing with the reality most people aren’t masochistic enough to keep chasing someone who keeps pushing them down. Most people aren’t that good with rejection.

But I said this was the trouble with romance, didn’t I? Why is this a reality a problem?

Well, mostly because you have to show a lot of interest before you even know you’re interested, logically.

Most people aren’t going to hang around forever while the person they just felt a flash of attraction to makes up their mind, especially if that dithering looks a shade too similar to rejection. Move on. Plenty of fish in the sea. No time for this.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just reality! Just the crazy system we have to live in. It makes us appreciate the true romances that actually work out, that’s all.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into Jane Austen, I don’t think she completely disagrees with her character, Charlotte Lucas (the character I’m quoting up at the top). After all, Elizabeth’s sister Jane does lose Bingley because she is too guarded and he can’t tell how much she likes him. Neither can any of Bingley’s friends.

Elizabeth argues to Charlotte that Jane is just taking her time to get to know Bingley (which seems to be quite sensible). Charlotte doubts whether this is a good strategy for the situation.

Here is Charlotte’s very practical (perhaps cynical?) solution:

“Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.”

Here’s where I (and perhaps Jane Austen) part ways with Charlotte’s logic. Making someone else fall for you first, before you decide to fall – that seems little self-centered. A little too self-centered.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t one. That’s why romance is a mystery. That’s why it’s beautiful when it sprouts mutually for two people at the same time, and miserable when it only sprouts for one of them. That’s why we eternally write books and movies and plays about it. Because we can’t figure it out.

There’s my thoughts on it, anyway. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Oh, and stay tuned to this blog in the upcoming weeks! There may be some exciting changes and experiments in the new year!)

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Filed under Jane Austen, Quotables, True Romance

Update! And Quotes!

Whoa, haven’t blogged for a while! What’s been going on? Well, for one thing – I moved. A huge undertaking, as it turns also. Secondly – I got a new job. I now work in, wait for it… a library! How appropriate!

(Where did I work before? Well, actually I sold computers for Microsoft. Turns out having a history degree is surprisingly flexible, and not just for honing your writing skills 🙂 )

Anyway, while I was moving I came across this, which I decided to share with you all.

WP_20141205_16_53_26_ProIt’s my old high school binder! I (or some of my friends) lovingly inscribed quotes from books and other things all over the front of it, and it’s a great trip down memory lane to see what I thought was important enough to decorate my binder with back then. I don’t remember where they are all from though, so if you do know, let me know! Here they are, in no particular order:

– Don’t Panic (the source for this one is rather obvious)

– “Alas, earwax!” (also, rather obvious)

– “Me, sir? Pool, sir? But I don’t know how to swim!” (the excellent ending lines to Go Jump in the Pool! – otherwise known as the first Bruno & Boots book I ever read (and loved))

– “If you were waiting for the opportune moment – that was it.” (Pirates was a bit of an obsession in my school)

– Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time (I wanted a Chronicles of Narnia reference on there. Now I feel like I should’ve put the one about ‘not a tame lion.’)

– “All that is gold does not glitter.” (I personally had a bit of an obsession with Lord of the Rings.)

– “…in a circle and suppose, but the answer sits in the middle and knows.” (Someone else inscribed this quote and it sounds kind of cool, but I have no idea where it’s from, and the first words of it are rubbed away…)

– “Bad smell plus good smell does not equal no smell.” (From The Twinkie Squad, another enjoyable story by Gordon Korman)

– “If I got mine and you got yours, then we got ours. So what are we waiting for?” (Another friend’s contribution. It sounds like a song lyric to me?)

– Correlation does not imply Causation. (Wow. Good thing I inscribed that on my memory).

– “I must be the only person in the world ever to be punished for breaking my neck!” (At first I couldn’t remember this quote either, but the only book it makes sense to come from is The Lives of Christopher Chant. Or possibility Charmed Life. Both are wonderful.)

What works were you a fan of in high school?

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Deadlines, Oh Dear

quotables button“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

  • Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Apparently this is me as well, even with arbitrary deadline I set for myself! In other words – no post on Stories and Stuff last Friday, even though I promised myself I would. Anyway, I always loved the humour in this quote. Douglas Adams was known for missing deadlines, so it’s nice for all of us procrastinating authors to know we’re not alone. Also, he wrote several popular and famous books, so if your (and my) motivation is letting you/me down, don’t despair. There may yet be hope.

Have a great Family Day weekend, everyone! (At least, those of you fortunate enough to live in a place that celebrates it).

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Two Impossible Things to Get in Life

cup of tea

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough, or a book long enough, to suit me.”

-C. S. Lewis

Don’t you love it when people know you enough to get you something for Christmas that’s just perfect? Here’s something that combines three things I love: C. S. Lewis, tea, and books. Isn’t it a great mug?

And yes, despite my admitted addiction to coffee, I will never say no to a cup of tea. Or to a long book, unless it is so poorly written as to not be worth the effort.

What about you? Get any perfect gifts this year?

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Rebellion of the Starry-eyed Idealists–Let’s End the Irony!

Starry NightThe next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things.

–          David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

Everything is ironic nowadays. Hipsters, as everyone knows, dress ironically. People like Justin Bieber–but, you know, only ironically. You can figure out what that means for yourself, if you decide that the word “irony” actually means anything anymore. But hey, you can’t deny idealists stick out. People who don’t regard our culture with weary cynicism, and actually feel there’s a message worth getting out there.

David Foster Wallace wrote the above quote (and essay) back in 1993, and he was talking about television. The essay is basically about how television relies on irony to keep people watching, despite humanity’s sneaking feeling they might be not making the best use of their time doing so. And because so many writers are raised by television, this ironic attitude carries over into fiction. Some of which is beneficial for fiction, to point out when it takes itself too seriously. But you can’t just keep using irony to tear down fiction, and the culture surrounding us, forever.

Basically, this essay blew my mind. I’ll put a link to the full thing here, even if it’s forty-four pages and I know most of you won’t read it–but, you know, just in case you do want to. I long for an update that takes into account the way the internet has changed things. In some ways people are less passive about their entertainment, but in other ways everything is still the same. We still waste endless hours living life through “more exciting,” imaginary people’s eyes. And irony still rules–if anything, the default mode of the internet is to look at everything ironically.

It does take bravery to stand up and decide to treat the world’s problems honestly, and dare to suggest ways of coping. It’s easy to be cynical and tear down facades endless. Because we know so much–we know millions of ways to poke holes in solutions, view things from a different angle and point out why it’s invalid from a certain perspective.

But, even though I myself am cynical all the time, I know Wallace is right when he says irony is only useful for deconstruction. It’s good to tear things down sometimes, but at some point we have to start building things up again. Give people something to believe in. Believe there’s truth out there.

It’s about finding the right words to start putting those “single-entendre,” earnest values out there.  And then finding the nerve to do so.

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Filed under On Writing, Quotables

Learn From the Pros – Read Like a Writer (Not A Reader)

quotables button When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer. You should always be asking yourself, if you want to become an expert reader or perhaps a writer, you should always say, “How is this being achieved?” “How is this scene being managed?” “How is this being brought off?” Because the characters are artifacts. They’re not real people with real destinies and I know that feeling, when you’re reading Pride and Prejudice even for the fourth time, you feel definite anxiety about whether they’re going to get married, even though you know perfectly well that they do. There’s a slight sort of, “Come on, kiss her!”

Martin Amis

Writers are generally told to do two things – write and read. But here is lovely advice from Martin Amis (whose work I’ve never read, and who I don’t know much about, but whose advice here is spot on). There is a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. I’ve always done both, but if I want to learn why some books are classics, I should do more of the latter.

Because there are so many lively, witty young women in romance novels, and yet Elizabeth Bennett stands above them all. How does Jane Austen make us care about her? It’s easy just to straight-up identify with what Elizabeth is feeling, and more difficult to dig through the layers and figure out how the writing helps you identify with her.

So – something to keep in mind next time you read!

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“You Too?” What Friendship Is, and Why It’s So Hard to Find

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 I’ve always found friendship a tricky thing – I’ve watched other people quickly and easily slide into friendship in a matter of days, and wondered why

Jerry_Weiss,_Friends

“Friends,” by Jerry Weiss (CC BY-SA 3.0)

the process of ‘becoming friends’ always appears so daunting to me. It’d be simplistic and easy to blame it all on ‘extroversion’ and ‘introversion’ (me being the introvert, of course), but it’s more than that. I simply place too much emphasis on that magical moment of ‘connection.’

 Look above at that quote. When I read that I realized C. S. Lewis had put into words what this ‘connection’ feels like in a way I’d never managed to myself. You know what it feels like when you’ve been acquainted with someone for years, and done all sorts of activities with them, but still don’t feel like you really know them? And then there are others you feel connected to right away? Because with some people you reach that ‘you too?’ moment right away, and some people you never do.

 And that’s why some books feel like friends! We all want some evidence that our experience is not completely abnormal, and when an author can reach out and connect to us through the printed page, we might decide the book is a masterpiece. This, incidentally, might also explain why some of us absolutely love some books, while others cannot see what’s so great about them. All our lives are different.

 I realized I found this ‘you too?’ moment so important in friendship because I was writing it all the time – when I wanted two of my characters to like each other, they had to find a moment of connection at some point during the plot. (They say introverts value this type of connection in relationships, and I guess I’m just more evidence of that!) And it irritated me in other books where characters were ‘such good friends’ or ‘so in love,’ when nowhere in the book did the two of them ever really talk.

 Now, why did I say ‘too much emphasis’ on this connection up there at the beginning of this post? Because it’s easy to think I don’t have anything in common with someone, before I reach this ‘you too’ moment. When I’m staring at a stranger, I can’t imagine I’ll ever find anything in common with them. It’s too easy to give up on ever reaching the stage of a relationship known as ‘friendship.’ But most people are worth the effort – and the human experience is meant to be shared with others. I’ll end off with another C. S. Lewis quote:

 “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

 

So there you have it – what do you think of this definition of friendship, and do you think it rings true? Do you find it easy to make friends, or difficult?

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The Book Doesn’t Exist? Then Write It

About time for another Quotable, don’t you think?

quotables button“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

I once read a book, hated how it ended, and started writing my own sequel. Now, this was when I was in elementary school, so I never finished this great Canadian novel – but it does show that what you want to read often drives what you write. It’s what still drives me, and often frustrates me as well when I let this get out of hand.

For example, it’s very easy to think, while in the midst of writing – I would never have the patience to read this scene – and then your writing muscles all seize up and you can’t get another word out. Fear is a very potent immobilizer!

But so very often I pick up my pen (and I do mean a pen, because I often still write out stories longhand) and write because I just want more of certain types of characters, plots and stories.

It offers a very simple solution when you run out the type of books you like to read. No more of that type exist? Then you must write them.

So this quote sums the feeling up quite well! Remember the joy of finding a book you love and aim for that, and don’t fret too much while you’re writing it or it will never get done. And hopefully you will produce something that you love, at least.

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