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Posts tagged ‘nick hornby’

What makes a quote a quote (02/03/2012)

I’m going to do something a little bit different today.

I’ve had my kindle for almost exactly a year today. I read quite a lot on it (about 40 books in the time I’ve had it) and I often highlight bits of nice phrasing, or sections that I find quite funny.

I thought today might be a good time to look back over that list and see what it actually is that’s good about them. I guess some of this is going to be really obvious, but it’s good to think about these things sometimes. Even if it means “explaining” jokes. Which is always the beginning of the end.

‘Who’s this Dexter then?’ her mother asked, peering at the back of the postcards. ‘Your boyfriend, is he?’ Then, with a concerned look: ‘Have you ever thought about working for the Gas Board?’

One Day (David Nicholls)

The abrupt change here makes me smile. Even after reading it several times. As does the mundane suggestion of working for “the gas board” of all places (other jobs wouldn’t be as funny). It’s a really nice portrait of a mother who wants a stable, safe career for her daughter. I also like the way we see this jump from Emma’s concerns (“your boyfriend”) to what her mum really wants to talk about (“working for the Gas Board”).

[…] they sat in a quiet place at the end of the harbour where the crescent of the beach began and drank wine that tasted of pine. ‘Christmas trees,’ said Dexter. ‘Disinfectant,’ said Emma.

One Day (David Nicholls)

There’s a good bit of understatement here. The joke tells itself in two short sentences. Nicholls hasn’t laboured the point, and let’s the gag tell itself in the off-beat. I’ve always liked different viewpoints of the same thing, and the undermining of pine as a romantic idea linked to “Christmas trees” by suggesting that it’s also like “Disinfectant” makes me chuckle. It’s a very “real” bit of humour – you can imagine people saying it. Again, it actually says something about their character too, which is very clever.

Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.

One Day (David Nicholls)

A bit of a throwaway one here. One Day is told in the third person in free indirect discourse as we see here. There’s a clever little shift in perspective here. Essentially the sentence is Emma’s thought. It could easily be “Sometimes I wonder if what I believe[…]”. A welcome little bit of humour to lighten the idea of “when it’s going badly”.

[…] and his residency with a Sunday night improv comedy team had proved only that he could be unfunny in an entirely unplanned, spontaneous way.

One Day (David Nicholls)

The negatives here make this sentence. And there’s an element of inversion. I think the word “entirely” is very important for the pacing (it’s an adjective, which editor’s love to cut, but it’s important to get the rhythm right). Keeping certain parts of improv (“unplanned, spontaneous”) but destroying their power with “unfunny” is what makes this work.

They should come out talking. Not conversation, not repartee, just basic practical information. Father, I have wind. This activity centre leaves me jaded. I am colicky.

One Day (David Nicholls)

This is one that’s sometimes a little tricky to pull off, but the humour comes from the complex and slightly unnatural and unusual words. “Father, I have wind”, is funny because of the use of “Father” (obviously, wind is also always funny – and in this stiff, starchy style, “wind” works better than “fart”). “This activity centre leaves me jaded” gets it’s humour from the word “jaded”, which is not a childlike word, but also “activity centre”, which is such a piece of academic pyschobabble.

The humour really comes from “colicky”, though, which is both a very funny word and also totally alien to a child. The idea of a baby saying “colicky” makes it even funnier.

‘It’s pronounced toe-bean. Like “toe” and then “bean”.’

‘That’s what I feared,’ she says. She lets this marinate a moment. Then, ‘No. Not acceptable.’

‘But that’s his name! That’s how you say it.’

‘I can’t be going around saying “toe-bean”. It simply will not do.’

‘Why don’t you just not say his name?’

‘He’s a popular writer.’

‘Read his books but don’t talk about them.’

‘No,’ (I can sense her shaking her head) ‘some situation will arise that requires me to say his name.’

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is such a nice exchange and so early in the book (I’ve even mentioned it before I like it so much).

It’s very, very funny, and makes you warm to the oddities of the characters so much. Her mum’s irrational dislike of his name sounding like two words put together makes her so real. And the way she takes it so seriously adds to the humour.

Have you ever eaten something appalling for breakfast, something really bad for you, a chocolate cake, and just thought, ‘Fuck it, this is bad, I’d better keep going. Christ, this is making me feel horrible, I’d better have more.’? And then have you ever left the last bite, less than the last bite, a morsel, a crumb even and said to yourself, ‘There, I didn’t finish it. That didn’t really happen. You don’t process the calories unless it’s the final crumby morsel. Everyone knows that. ’

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is an interesting one, because it’s not something I can actually relate to, but the phrasing is brilliant. That final fake “conversation” (“everyone knows that”) has such a great rhythm. I just race through this text as I read it. The short sentences and clauses urge you on. There’s real humour in the ridiculousness of it too, and the idea that ” You don’t process the calories unless it’s the final crumby morsel”, is so ridiculous, yet something that is possible to imagine.

Gloria Steinem, whom I have admired from so far for so long, listens as I describe the book, then asks if I was sexually abused. Did I say we’re on an escalator?

 Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

I believe this one is the beginning of a new chapter. Again, a lot of the humour from this comes from the pacing. The sub clause “whom I have admired from so far[…]” makes you wait for the heart of the sentence (“sexually abused”) and then is undermined by the fact they’re on an escalator. The abrupt change in scene is funny, but also the semi-breathless phrasing (“Did I say[…]”) adds to the humour. The phrase is redundant, since she’s writing it, so obviously knows she hasn’t already said it, but it works really well.

He sent me a couple of books. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, arrived, inscribed with elaborate indifference.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

Another case of a vital adjective. This is made with the word “elaborate”. It’s beginning to make me realise that the only time to use adjectives is when they’re unexpected or somehow reverse or undermine their meaning.

Each time I am caught unawares and wearing something more schlumpy, bizarre and unflattering than the last. Like I have on a poncho and worms coming out of my eyes and one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is a real joke of a sentence. I don’t like the “worms coming out of my eyes” bit, but the line “one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore” is so strange and bizarre that it makes you laugh. It’s such an unexpected and massively surreal change that it makes you sit up. It’s not even something you can properly imagine, so the oddness of it really hits home.

The day after the inauguration, my dad spends an inordinate amount of time photoshopping Aretha Franklin’s hat on to my baby photos.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

It’s not really the phrasing of this one but the imagine. True, the word “inordinate” (another adjective!) is vital for the humour of this sentence

So you might mistake it for one of those fiddly, sophisticated feelings like schadenfreude or low self-esteem.

For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker (Victoria Coren)

The classification of “feelings” here as “fiddly” and “sophisticated” works very well. Feelings are neither of these things, but you can understand how you can classify them as such. It’s a nice crossed idea that produces the humour. The example feelings are good choices as well.

I’m pretty sure that languages are important to a career in spying, and I do only have O-level French. It’s a Grade A, but still, in terms of actual espionage this pretty much limits me to infiltrating, say, a French primary school, or maybe, at a push, a boulangerie.

Starter for Ten (David Nicholls)

The word “boulangerie” here is important, as it enacts the joke – it’s a word you learn early in French, and demonstrates his limitations, as if he can only go to places he knows the word. Not to mention the fact that infiltrating a bakers is a ridiculous idea.

Ideally, of course, I’d like to wake up in the morning and be handed a transcript of everything I’m about to say during the day, so that I could go through it and rewrite my dialogue, cutting the fatuous remarks and the crass, idiotic jokes.

Starter for Ten (David Nicholls)

Again, not so much the phrasing of this as much as the actual idea and image. It really adds to the character. We’re all awkward and “staircase wit” (or here, inverted, as pre-party wit) is something very personal but which everyone seems to share. It really connects you to the narrator.

When I was younger I could get away with not eating something I didn’t like by claiming to my parents either that it was too rich or that it had fallen on the floor. (Later I would use this with people: “She was too rich” or “He fell on the floor—

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

The connection is quite clever here as the meaning really changes from the food to the people – food being rich is very different from people being rich. It’s a clever little associative jump, that you admire for the intricacy of it.

I nodded, trying to imagine the very particular sadness of a vanished childhood yogurt now found only in France.

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

Really, this is taking the micky out of the strange emotion that came from someone seeming a yoghurt that they haven’t seen since childhood, but the word “particular” is what makes this sentence I think.

I would do things like imagine ergonomic meant “thereforeish”.

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

This is a straight joke really. But one that makes us like the character more – it’s such a strange jump of logic and wordplay, and it takes a few seconds to get your head around it, but the incorrect definition makes you chuckle.

 “You emptied the top rack of the dishwasher but not the bottom, so the clean dishes have gotten all mixed up with the dirty ones—and now you want to have sex?”

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

I believe this was an imaginary conversation in the character’s head. Again, the abrupt change and association between dishwashers and sex is at the heart of this. The jump is funny, as the character is connecting two things that really don’t belong together at all

He’s two years old, two and a half, and has quite a good vocabulary for his age, but he always refers to himself declaratively in the third person, present tense. When you say it’s time for bed, he says, ‘Daniel isn’t tired.’ When you say, ‘Give Grandad a kiss,’ he says, ‘Daniel doesn’t kiss granddads.’

Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

The idea of a two year old talking in the third person is funny enough, but it’s made funnier by the final example “Daniel doesn’t kiss granddads” as it turns the specific example into a generic statement, which changes it’s meaning somewhat. Interestingly, there are only two examples here, not the normal three, but I think three would be too many. In actual fact, there’s three quoted piece of speech, so you still get the tricolonic rhythm without having to have so many exmaples.

My father-in-law tripped on a crack in the pavement and spent the rest of the week politely pretending he had not dislocated his shoulder.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Another adjective, and another case of the humour coming from the character. This is very understated, but contains in it about the character and the situation. Again, it would be nothing without the word “politely”.

[…] the human ape accidentally acquired consciousness and began asking the questions which will still be the FAQs on God’s website when He gets around to setting it up.

The Age of Absurdity (Michael Foley)

A nice little one here. It’s putting together the disparate ideas that result in the humour. I feel that the “when He gets around to setting it up” labours the joke a little bit, but

Cézanne is supposed to be involved in an intriguing ‘dialogue’ with conceptual art. (The dialogue actually goes like this – Conceptual Work: ‘You’re so over’; Cézanne: ‘You’re such shite.’).

The Age of Absurdity (Michael Foley)

It’s interesting taking the artistic use of the word “dialogue” and creating a literal conversation. I think “shite” is probably funnier that “shit” here. Whichever swearword you picked the “such” is vital though. I think the “actually” is important too.

Moskowitz is a man of uncommon exuberance and persuasiveness: if he had been your freshman statistics professor, you would today be a statistician.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (Malcolm Gladwell)

There’s so real economy of storytelling here. It’s such a clever method to state what the result would be, rather than explaining how enthusiastic and inspiring the man is, Gladwell personalises it. It brings you into the text too, and makes you engage.

That, Annie thought, was the sort of thing she’d have to come up with if she were ever to start picking up men in pubs. It was the speed that intimidated her. It wasn’t as if “Some of it” was a Wildean one-liner, but it did the job, and both men laughed. Annie, meanwhile, was still trying to twist her mouth into a polite smile. It would take her five minutes to complete the smile, and probably another twenty-four hours to produce an accompanying snappy verbal response. Gav and Barnesy would probably have left by then.

Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)

This is a really typical bit of Nick Hornby, and I love it. It’s the over-thinking a simple situation, and analysis of someone’s own flaws. There’s some light-heartedness in “Wildean one-liner” and the idea of a smile taking a while to generate. The last sentence perhaps over plays the joke, but really the emotional heart of this is the detailed description of the sort of thing that briefly passes through your head. You really get into the character in this line.

Is it possible to want to divorce a man simply because he doesn’t want to be rude about Ginger Spice? I rather fear it might be.

How to Be Good (Nick Hornby)

Another bit of typical Hornby here. He’s led us through to the idea that she is getting irritated because her husband is being nice about Ginger Spice, and has now pulled back and shown us how ridiculous this idea is. It’s the jump of scale, the sudden pulling back that makes us laugh at ourselves as well, as we were going along with it, until he pointed out how silly the idea is.

I am, by and large, boundlessly positive. I have all the joyful ebullience of an idiot. My diary entry for yesterday was ‘moved the deep fat fryer onto the other worktop – it looks BRILLIANT!’

How To Be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)

Again, another short extract that makes us like the character. The excitement about the appearance of the deep fat fryer is ridiculous, but likeable. I’m not sure if “ebullience” is quite the right word. The idea of quoting a “diary entry” is a nice touch too. She might not have a diary, but we don’t need to believe it. It’s funnier than saying “yesterday I moved the deep fat fryer and thought it looked brilliant”.

‘Chevy Chase?’ I will say, at a party very closely modelled on the ones I’ve seen in Dynasty. ‘Any relation to Cannock Chase?’ Cannock Chase is just off the A5 to Stafford. LA-born movie star and comedian Chevy is going to both get, and love, this joke.

How To Be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)

It’s interesting that Moran gets the humour here from explaining her own joke. I was running this one through in my head as I was hanging up my washing, and realised there’s a lot going on in here.

The unrealistic nature of the “dream sequence” prepares us for humour, and gives us an insight into Moran’s character. The mundane “Cannock Chase” and “A5” is funny when juxtaposed with LA and Chevy chase. Saying “LA-born movie star and comedian” is a very neat way of doing this – it gets the critical information over in the pre-modified adjective. If she’s said “Chevy Chase, who is born in LA[…]” the rhythm would have been all off. By putting it first, you race through it, and acknowledge it, without pausing over it. Finally, there’s something that works very well about “both get, and love, this joke”. I think the idea that both of these things will happen (when, really, they’re equally as unlikely) adds to the humour

I’ve missed out a lot of bits I saved on my kindle, partly because some were to jog my memory, and partly because a lot didn’t survive out of context. I was surprised by this, as in context, you’re so caught up, you think they’re hilarious. But when you take them out of context, they just don’t work. They don’t have the build up.

Reading through this, there are a number of “themes” and structures here that repeat, which both surprises and doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps the key thing here is that often it’s just a single word that turns the sentence from passable into memorable.

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Hi again, Fidelity (09/02/2012)

I think I was too quick to re-judge High Fidelity. It’s actually really good.

Or rather, it’s got really good. I think, thinking about the beginning, it has got better. And there are definitely some bits that could probably do with a slight tweak. But other bits that are like this, that are just fantastic:

First of all, — actually, first of all and last of all — this business about not sleeping with Ian. How do I know she’s telling the truth? She could have been sleeping with him for weeks, months, for all I know. And anyway, she only said that she hasn’t slept with him yet, and she said that on Saturday, five days ago. Five days! She could have slept with him five times since then! (She could have slept with him twenty times since then, but you know what I mean.) And even if she hasn’t, she was definitely threatening to. What does ‘yet’ mean, after all? ‘I haven’t seen Resevoir Dogs yet.’ What does that mean? It means you’re going to go, doesn’t it?

‘Barry, if I were to say to you that I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs yet, what would that mean?’

Barry looks at me.

‘Just … come on, what would it mean to you? That sentence? ‘I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs yet?’ ‘

‘To me, it would mean that you’re a liar. Either that or you’ve gone potty. You saw it twice. Once with Laura, once with me and Dick. We had that conversation about who killed Mr. Pink or whatever fucking color he was.’

‘Yeah, yeah, I know. But say I hadn’t seen it and I said to you, ‘I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs yet,’ what would you think?’

‘I’d think, you’re a sick man. And I’d feel sorry for you.’

‘No, but would you think, from that one sentence, that I was going to see it?’

‘I’d hope you were, yeah, otherwise I would have to say that you’re not a friend of mine.’

‘No, but — ‘

‘I’m sorry, Rob, but I’m struggling here. I don’t understand any part of this conversation. You’re asking me what I’d think if you told me that you hadn’t seen a film that you’ve seen. What am I supposed to say?’

‘Just listen to me. If I said to you — ‘

’ — ‘I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs yet,’ yeah, yeah, I hear you — ‘

‘Would you … would you get the impression that I wanted to see it?’

‘Well … you couldn’t have been desperate, otherwise you’d have already gone.’

‘Exactly. We went first night, didn’t we?’

‘But the word ‘yet’ … yeah, I’d get the impression that you wanted to see it. Otherwise you’d say you didn’t fancy it much.’

‘But in your opinion, would I definitely go?’

‘How am I supposed to know that? You might get run over by a bus, or go blind, or anything. You might go off the idea. You might be broke. You might just get sick of people telling you you’ve really got to go.’

I don’t like the sound of that. ‘Why would they care?’

‘Because it’s a brilliant film. It’s funny, and violent, and it’s got Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth in it, and everything. And a cracking sound track.’

Maybe there’s no comparison between Ian sleeping with Laura and Reservoir Dogs after all. Ian hasn’t got Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth in him. And Ian’s not funny. Or violent. And he’s got a crap sound track, judging from what we used to hear through the ceiling. I’ve taken this as far as it will go. But it doesn’t stop me worrying about the ‘yet.’

The conversation here is amazing and very funny. And the way it jumps from the thought process to the conversation is very neat. I think that’s an interesting trick to segue between sections. It’s so slick you nearly don’t notice it.

I also love the rhythm of the conversation. Both speakers are pulling in different directions and it works so well. You get a feel for their characters, as well as being driven forwards by the plot.

I think the other two things to take away from this is the variance and rhythm of the sentences. You can have simple sentences with long words, or you can have long sentences with simple words.

I ran High Fidelity through the Uber Word Count tool that I wrote a while back. The tool, I notice now, needs some tweaking and styling. And I’m glad I can see that now, as it means I’m better than I was when I wrote it.

To be honest, it didn’t really tell me that much, other than most of the words were very short, but it was interesting to see the results. And how long the novel was, and how many different words were used.

I think if there’s one thing to take away from this, though, it’s conversation. Conversation, conversation, conversation in novels.

Hi there, Fidelity (04/02/2012)

I started reading High Fidelity again the other day.

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers, so I was looking forward to reading something that was just unarguably good. However, I wasn’t as bowled over as I expected to be. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, but it’s not quite as good as I remember.

 It begins like this:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

1) Alison Ashworth

2) Penny Hardwick

3) Jackie Allen

4) Charlie Nicholson

5) Sarah Kendrew

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. 

It’s not a bad beginning, but it’s not as great as I thought it might be. Now I know this is in the character’s voice, but I keep getting the feeling that Hornby is sacrificing a little too much clarity or simplicity for voice or humour.

L mentioned something similar to me when she was reading a thing I wrote a few years ago. And I think there’s really something here: clarity comes before all else. If a joke isn’t quite good enough, or a piece of characterisation isn’t quite immediately understandable, then cut it. Clarity is the prime directive.

One of the things that really surprised me is that dialogue isn’t as sparky and wonderful as I remember it being:

(‘Want to come to the pub for lunch, Dick?’ Barry or I ask him a couple of times a week. He looks mournfully at his little stack of cassettes and sighs. ‘I’d love to, but I’ve got all these to get through.’)

‘Good morning, Richard.’

He fumbles nervously with the giant headphones, gets one side stuck around his ear, and the other side falls over one eye.

‘Oh, hi. Hi, Rob.’

‘Sorry I’m late.’

‘No, no problem.’

‘Good weekend?’

I unlock the shop as he scrabbles around for his stuff.

‘All right, yeah, OK. I found the first Liquorice Comfits album in Camden. The one on Testament of Youth. It was never released here. Japanese import only.’ 

I wonder if it’s just that I’ve got so used to the wonder that is How to Be Good. Maybe it’s just that he’s got better over time. Maybe it’s that I’ve got so used to the amazing dialogue in Your Voice in My Head. Whatever it is, this isn’t quite as good as I remember.

And also, some of the characterisation is a little clichéd:

He fumbles nervously with the giant headphones, gets one side stuck around his ear, and the other side falls over one eye.

This description of a socially awkward music geek seems a little obvious now. Maybe I’m just being picky.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love Nick Hornby and all he’s written. However, I think I need to remember the one key lesson from this: clarity comes before all else. And not just in writing. In design, in web design, in application development. Communication is about clarity, and that trumps anything else.

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