They say you learn something new every day.

Posts tagged ‘quotes’

Understudies and Quotes (11/05/2012)

I enjoyed One Day a lot, so I got a copy of the The Understudy.

As withA Spot of Bother,sometimes it felt as if it was a little too obvious, but generally, it was really good. In particular, it felt very well structured. I wonder if that comes from writing TV scripts.

‘So, come in’ said Colin, opening the door just wide enough for Stephen to squeeze through. He wondered whether he should wipe his feet, then decided against it. That’ll teach him. 

A case of the little man here – and more of our friend free indirect discourse. I love the minor victory here that Stephen awards to himself here.

Her most recent boyfriend, Owen, an almost catatonically slothful and bitter wannabe screenwriter she had met at the restaurant, had become writer-in-residence on her futon.

The anticlimax works very well here. Just for a second you think this is going sensibly, until you get to “futon”.

He wondered if Nora had felt the same thing too, but judging by the vast quantities of hummus and pitta-bread that she was eating, the emotion that she mainly felt was peckish.

Describing things in non-standard ways is surprisingly effect – thinking of “hunger” as an emotion is quite funny. It reminds me a bit of that Victoria Coren quote:

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

The idea that feelings can be “fiddly” is very clever actually, even if technically makes no sense.

[…] he had a sudden overwhelming need to use the toilet in every way imaginable.

It’s a bit gross this one, but someone the “every way imaginable” removes that “gross out element”, and renders it quite funny instead.

‘More than Adequate’ screamed the critics. ‘Stephen C McQueen is okay!!’ ‘Absolutely Fine, Considering!’ ‘Not Nearly as Bad as Some People Expected.’ ‘He Tried! Really, he did!’ ‘I’ve Seen Worse!!!!’… 

I think I have a soft spot for imagined quotes. In some ways these are a case of critical suggestions by a writer in a novel. 

Pods and Quotes (10/05/2012)

I remember not reading JPod when I was younger, or even considering it, because for some reason I thought it was a non-fiction work about the modern world. Strange the misconceptions you have.

Ethan, are you aware that there is nothing green anywhere in or around your desk? Do you think you might be either partially colour­blind or perhaps genetically encoded so as to dislike green? What would be the Darwinian advantage to such a quirk? 

I think I’m drawn to the surreal. I love someone spotting something like this. There’s been a few things like this in books that I’ve come across recently, and someone, the oddness of it feels incredibly real. No one would invent someone suddenly discovering there was nothing green around them.

The direct speech is a little clunky here though – I’m not sure anyone would ever speak like that.

As a result I was home-schooled and didn’t even know that capitalized letters existed until I was ten.

Another bit of weird surrealism. It’s like that bit inAustin Powerswhere Dr Evil says:

My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. 

Picking on punctuation as a concept like this works very well, I think. 

Spots and Quotes (09/05/2012)

I remember A Spot of Bother very clearly – but thought I’d read it ages ago. 

It made me chuckle, although sometimes I felt the same joke was being used over and over again. Maybe it’s because the style and thoughts are very similar to the way my mind works, but sometimes the gags were too obvious. 

Jacob made a runway out of cutlery so his bus could take off and got quite heated when George said that buses did not fly. 

There’s humour to be had out of young children. This is a nice, and very real, exchange. I think being told indirectly (ie, not using direct speech) makes this funnier as well.

“What’s fiery?” asked Jacob.

“Gets cross, doesn’t she,” said Ray.

Jacob thought for a few moments. “Can we get the submarine out?”

This time, this works because of the direct speech, but it’s a similar thing. The random jump by Jacob is where the humour comes from.

(Jacob wanted to be a racing driver when he grew up, preferably on Pluto) 

Another one here – you see what I mean about the same joke. Again, I like it, and it’s the ridiculousness of the last statement that makes this amusing. Actually, I’m not sure if this one is so good – I’m not sure if children would talk like that – but the humour still stands.

And no one wanted the truth (“He was a man incapable of seeing a large-breasted woman without making some infantile remark. In later years his breath was not good”). 

A bit of black humour here. This is from someone imagining a speech at a funeral of someone from work.

Ian gave him another bear hug which Jamie now realized was a Christian hug, not a real one.

We’re in Jamie’s head now for a bit of free indirect discourse (one of my favourite modes). Made me chuckle this – I like the redefining of “hug”. And also I’m an atheist, so this would appeal to me.

Fink and Quotes (08/05/2012)

Another book I’d forgotten I’d read, My Name Is Russell Fink. I think like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Imperfectionists it’s sort of not really about anything. I don’t dislike that – but weak plots tend to mean I forget books a bit. Even if I like the book. A lesson there, I think.

Then he makes me promise to swallow my note when I’m done with it. After a surprisingly heated and rather childish debate, we agree that I’ll flush the note in a public restroom somewhere.

I like this bizarre detour into minutia. It’s quite real while being funny. Concentrating on the minor details and missing the main point is quite good for comic effect.

I check my mail trilogy — voice, e-, and snail

Bizarrely poetic – and I’m not sure I ever refer to actual mail as “snail mail”. But I like the word “trilogy” here.

“I was in line behind him at the post office, saw his mug shot on the wall, then smeared peanut butter all over his face to subdue him till the cops came.”

“Peanut butter?”

“Yeah, it was right there under his height, weight, and photo. Severe peanut allergy.” 

The thing about this is, it seems so weird, but has an explanation. I like that, it’s like the line in The Long Dark TeaTime of the Soul:

“I’m a private detective.”

“Oh?” said Kate in surprise, and then looked puzzled.

“Does that bother you?”

“It’s just that I have a friend who plays the double bass.”

“I see,” said Dirk.

“Whenever people meet him and he’s struggling around with it, they all say the same thing, and it drives him crazy. They all say, `I bet you wished you played the piccolo.’ Nobody ever works out that that’s what everybody else says. I was just trying to work out if there was something that everybody would always say to a private detective, so that I could avoid saying it.” 

I love this so much. I think it needs a long pause after “I see”. I kept expecting this to make it into the TV series. Maybe next series.

Perks and Quotes (07/05/2012)

As I said, I missed a week of these, but I aim to catch up.

It’s difficult to go through and think about each day what I did, so instead I’m going to flick back through my kindle at what I made a note of.

I did this once before with some quotes and it was surprisingly informative.

Sam blamed television. Patrick blamed government. Craig blamed the “corporate media.” Bob was in the bathroom. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

One of the nice things about flicking through your Kindle is remembering books you’d forgotten you’d read – like this book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’m probably a bit of a wallflower myself (although not as much as the narrator of this book – and definitely not for the reasons he was). The style threw me a bit at first, but flicking through my kindle, I see I highlighted a couple of quotes from it that make me smile now.

With this quote here, the humour, of course, comes from the banality of the final statement. A bit unexpected. Four is quite a tricky number here, and it may have been better with three, but there were four characters, so he was a bit stuck unless he missed one out.

Vincent, who took acid and tried to flush a sofa down the toilet. 

I find the image here hilarious. It’s such an unexpected and downright bizarre act, that it catches you quite off guard. I can’t even visual who he’d try to do this, which makes it funnier if anything. If it was, say, a fire extinguisher, you could see how someone you try to do that. But with a sofa…? 

Flicking back over my kindle, I see I also highlighted a few things from The Imperfectionists. The problem is, they are completely without context now. It’s surprising how easy it is to take quotes entirely out of context. At the time, I probably thought I’d highlighted enough. I really didn’t. 

Should be Prohibited (03/03/2012)

Anything invented before your 15th birthday is the order of nature.  Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.

Douglas Adams

As well as being very funny, in some ways I find this terrifying.

I notice this with people at work – people who are over 35  do struggle with this.  I’m turning 25 in two days time, so I have a little while to go with things being “new and exciting”.

In some ways, I can already feel it coming. When I first started using Office 2007, I hated it so much I uninstalled it. It was only when I was forced to use it at work, and needed certain features (the ability to view more than 65536 rows in Excel, the ability to have more than three bits of conditional formatting, sumifs etc) that I got used to it. Now, I love it, and dislike Excel 2003. But it was actually the enhancements to certain features that won me over. If there had been a version of Excel 2003 with those features in, I’d have stuck with that.

In occurs to me, again, that change is a real challenge. It’s an effort to change, and so it’s easy to sleepwalk into stagnating. I’m not advocating change for changes sake, but I think it’s important to continually examine what you’re doing. I guess, really, that’s the whole point of this site. In many ways, writing these daily “things learnt” is performative – that is, the act of writing them, in itself helps me to examine my life (“the unexamined life isn’t worth living” and all that).

I haven’t fixed all the things I need to fix (my sideboard is still a mess!) but I’m aware of it, and it’s on my list of things to do. I think, too, before putting something down now.

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.

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.

Pimp my Tumblr Some More (08/01/2012)

I’ve quoted Steve Makofsky’s description of his blog as “a backup of my brain – a permanent online record so I wouldn’t have to write everything down” before, but I really like it. I’ve realised it’s exactly what I’m trying to do here.

It’s surprising how often parts of my brain become corrupted and need to be restored from the backup!

When I went home at Christmas I found this book:

My Favourite Childhood Book

As a child this was one of my favourite books about cartooning (I wanted to be an illustrator, you see). I pored over it for ages. And in particular one picture:

My favourite childhood desk

I loved the look of this desk and wanted to have one like it day.

I’ve had this picture half in my mind for a long time (when I first left home I bought two massive pieces of wood from Ikea and put together a corner desk a bit like this). However, it was really nice to see the original again since it had meant so much to me when I was little.

It was also really good to recalibrate my interests. Sometimes, we’re so busy going through life that we forget what it is we actually want. It was useful to put myself back into my childhood state of mind to remind myself what I like doing, and what I want from life.

This leads me back to the purpose of this blog. One of the reasons I’m keeping it is so that I don’t forget things. And I don’t mean things like buying some milk or writing a thank you note to Aunt Mavis for the knitted gloves. I mean useful things. The interesting, useful things you learn and read but then forget.

This Guardian article about “waiting-for-lists” sums up the sort of problem I’m trying to solve:

[…] multiple times a day, at work or outside it, most of us make requests of people – underlings, superiors, friends, service providers – and simply assume they’ll follow through. Even non-managers like me, whose work involves no formal delegation, “delegate” like this all the time: that’s what’s happening when you order a book from Amazon, ask a colleague for a piece of information or email a friend about your weekend plans. Yet based on an unscientific survey of my acquaintances, what proportion of people have a systematic way to keep track of who they’re waiting to hear back from? Zero per cent, approximately. (I suspect the same problem infects entire organisations, too.) And though aficionados of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done will be familiar with this issue, the vast majority of “productivity systems” are no help at all: they’re fixated on helping you remember and prioritise your own tasks – even though, in truth, you’re far less likely to forget about those.

It turns out that keeping a “waiting-for” list is like being handed a pair of x-ray spectacles for peering inside your colleagues’ lives. Based on what does or doesn’t get crossed off the list, as people do or don’t get back to me, I’m pretty sure I now know who’s on top of things, and who’s inefficient or just lazy, their email inboxes backed up like clogged drains. (It’s possible, I realise, that it’s just me they’re not responding to, out of icy contempt. I hope not.) The only downside is wondering how many loose ends I must have let slip before keeping the list: how many mail-order items ordered and never received, how many plans suggested to friends then abandoned, just because it slipped my mind that I’d ever asked?

I’m shocked to think of all the interesting ideas I’ve read or thought, insightful quotes, fascinating websites, things I’ve learnt and then just forgotten.

I learn things and then I forget them again. Trying to get less stupid is like filling a bath with the plug out. You’re filling it, but at the same time, information is running away.

There’s a bit at the beginning of each of the Head First Labs books explaining why this happens:

[…] what does your brain do with all the routine, ordinary, normal things you encounter? Everything it can to stop them from interfering with the brain’s real job—recording things that matter. It doesn’t bother saving the boring things; they never make it past the “this is obviously not important” filter.

How does your brain know what’s important? Suppose you’re out for a day hike and a tiger jumps in front of you, what happens inside your head and body?

Neurons fire. Emotions crank up. Chemicals surge.

And that’s how your brain knows…
This must be important! Don’t forget it!

But imagine you’re at home, or in a library. It’s a safe, warm, tiger-free zone. You’re studying. Getting ready for an exam. Or trying to learn some tough technical topic your boss thinks will take a week, ten days at the most.

Just one problem. Your brain’s trying to do you a big favor. It’s trying to make sure that this obviously non-important content doesn’t clutter up scarce resources. Resources that are better spent storing the really big things. Like tigers. Like the danger of fire. Like how you should never have posted those “party” photos on your Facebook page.

I’m not convinced that’s fully how your brain works, but it’s close enough. And the end result is the same.

Writing things down is all very well, but as Samuel Johnson says, there’s two parts to learning:

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.

So today I reviewed my tagging of my posts. More importantly I added the “categories” bar to the side of this page.

At first, I was a little annoyed that Tumblr didn’t add a list of tags to the side of the blog automatically, like, say, Blogspot or WordPress. However, this has given me an opportunity to organise my tags a little better.

I want to keep this up to date, and regularly check that I haven’t inadvertently mistyped or created any new ones, and that’s where today’s script comes in.

set xmlhttp = CreateObject(“MSXML2.ServerXMLHTTP”) “GET”, Page, false
xmlhttp.send “”
Fetch = xmlhttp.responseText
set xmlhttp = nothing

I’ve written this vbscript function that downloads the contents of webpages into a string.

Luckily, on Tumblr, the complete post of each article is displayed in the summary page, so I can just work my way backwards through the pages until I get to the first article:


All we need to do is hold some unique text from the first article I wrote. Something like the unique Disqus key (of course, I can’t post it in this article, or I’ll break my script!).

We end up with a script that looks a little like this:

DO UNTIL Done = “Done”

NewPage = Fetch(PageUrl & PageNumber)
PageContents = PageContents & NewPage
PageNumber = PageNumber + 1

IF INSTR(NewPage,EndContent) > 0 THEN
   Done = “Done”


Now that I’ve got all the contents of my Tumblr articles in a string I can do some interesting things with them.

It’s actually a backup (although not the backup, as the proper one has to be automatic, and I’ve already solved that problem), but I can do stuff with it.

The first thing I did was this, so that I could pull out all the links:

Links  = Split(PageContents,”href=”“http”)

Then I looped over the array and removed all the junk data:

ThisLink = “http” & Left(link,INSTR(link,”“”“)-1)

To leave me with just the link name. Splitting the text string into an array may seem strange, but I think it’s the neatest way.

Now that I’ve got all the links I can pull out all the tags, check them against the current list on the website and just display new ones:


// This checks if it’s a tag 

 INSTR(ThisLink,””) > 0

// This checks if it’s a duplicate 

 AND INSTR(TagList,Mid(ThisLink,50)) = 0

// This checks if it’s already on the site 

 AND INSTR(ExisitingLinks,ThisLink) = 0


TagList = TagList & “
” & Mid(ThisLink,50)


But what I can also do is run each proper link against this function:

set xmlhttp = CreateObject(“MSXML2.ServerXMLHTTP”) “GET”, Page, false
xmlhttp.send “”
PageStatus = xmlhttp.status
set xmlhttp = nothing

And check that they work!

I know there are some link checking services out there:

Are the two that jump to mind. However, I find they tend to get a bit confused.

I ran my website through Xenu recently, and it spent the rest of the day trying links. Hundreds of thousands of them. Now I know I’m generous with my links, but not that generous. I think it must have got into a loop and was trying the same page multiple times.

I mean, even running the W3C Link Checker on this Tumblr site now, it seems to check the standard pages and then click into each article and check them as well.

I don’t blame them. There’s no way that they can know that the text of this article will be duplicated on the summary page and on it’s own individual page  – but since I’m getting the data anyway, I can run my own check, and it can do it customised to my exact requirements.

But we need a plot (07/01/2012)

I’ve been doing some story plotting recently.

It’s interesting because when you start plotting you think to yourself “gosh, anything could happen, this is going to be really difficult.”

However, when you start to think it all through, the options are much more limited than you think.

The plot I was thinking about was one of the characters being accused of something.

Now, in this situation there are only three things that can happen:

  1. He did it
  2. He didn’t do it
  3. You never find out

Those are the only three options. There are no other options. Logically, that’s all that’s possible.

Once you’ve got this far, you move onto the next stage, and again, there’s a logical pattern to it.

Whether he did or didn’t do it, there are only two options:

  1. He’s found out
  2. He’s not found out

Which gives us six situations:

  1. He did it – but they let him off thinking he didn’t
  2. He did it – and they find him guilty 
  3. He didn’t do it – but they find him guilty 
  4. He didn’t do it – and they let him off
  5. You never know – but they find him guilty
  6. You never know – but they let him off

Of course you can imply one way or the other (and that lies somewhere between you never finding out and the fact), but pretty much everything that can happen falls into one of these categories:

Of course, once you’ve set up all the logically possible alternatives you can start to think of ways of twisting it, the so-called “thinking outside the box”. Now we know what the box is, we’re free to do that.

  • Maybe the thing he is accused of doing never actually happened.

Of course, this is actually just a variant of #3 or #4, but twists it slightly.

  • Maybe something else happens that’s so momentous that the accusation is forgotten about.

Again, this is a variant of #5 or #6 but twists it slightly.

Of course, even if you don’t want to think too far out of the box, you can think about which of these has the most emotional weight. Thinking of these, the ones that move me most are the ones that contain the word “but” 

  1. He did it – but they let him off thinking he didn’t
  2. He didn’t do it – but they find him guilty 

It’s interesting, because Ali Smith’s characters talk about the power of “but” in There But For The

Mark: I’ve been invited to this dinner party next week.

Miles: But?

Mark: But, well, I don’t want to go.

Miles: But?

Mark: But what?

Miles: Just but.

Mark: What do you mean, but?

Miles: Exactly what I say. Those sentences all sound like they have a but attached.


Miles: So. You’ve been invited to this dinner party next week, but you don’t want to go. You don’t want to go, but—but what comes next? See?

Mark: I get it. You mean like a game.

Miles: I mean more than a game, I mean, like actuality, like how things happen. Like … I was going home, but, this man asked me to go for a drink, so here I am.

Mark: Is it always but? Can it be and?

Miles: Yeah, but the thing I particularly like about the word but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting.

Mark: Like … this thing happened at the end of the play which threatened to spoil the whole thing—but …

 There But For The

I suspect “but” is probably part of the key to emotionally engaging plots.

However, the real “discovery” here was about this way of thinking about plots. When you start plotting, you feel that anything could happen, and that it’s all up in the air. But, once you put down the “fixed” points, the options are more limited than you might think.

I feel it’s a bit like the idea of “back of the envelope” calculations:

It was in the middle of a fascinating conversation on software engineering that Bob Martin asked me, “How much water flows out of the Mississippi River in a day?” Because I had found his comments up to that point deeply insightful, I politely stifled my true response and said, “Pardon me?” When he asked again I realized that I had no choice but to humor the poor fellow, who had obviously cracked under the pressures of running a large software shop. 

My response went something like this. I figured that near its mouth the river was about a mile wide and maybe twenty feet deep (or about one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a mile). I guessed that the rate of flow was five miles an hour, or a hundred and twenty miles per day. Multiplying
1 mile x 1/250 mile x 120 miles/day ~ 1/2 mile3/day
showed that the river discharged about half a cubic mile of water per day, to within an order of magnitude. But so what?

At that point Martin picked up from his desk a proposal for the communication system that his organization was building for the Summer Olympic games, and went through a similar sequence of calculations. He estimated one key parameter as we spoke by measuring the time required to send himself a one-character piece of mail. The rest of his numbers were straight from the proposal and therefore quite precise. His calculations were just as simple as those about the Mississippi River and much more revealing. They showed that, under generous assumptions, the proposed system could work only if there were at least a hundred and twenty seconds in each minute. He had sent the design back to the drawing board the previous day. (The conversation took place about a year before the event, and the final system was used during the Olympics without a hitch.)

That was Bob Martin’s wonderful (if eccentric) way of introducing the engineering technique of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations. The idea is standard fare in engineering schools and is bread and butter for most practicing engineers. Unfortunately, it is too often neglected in computing. 

It’s my theory again that ways of thinking about computers can help in other areas of life. If you think logically about your plot, you’re not making up ideas, but you’re working through the options. Rather than making something up, you’re picking something. And choosing is easier than inventing.

If you don’t do this, I can’t help but think when we plot, we’re doing what Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think calls “satisficing” that  can easily lead you to plot yourself into a dead end:

[…] most of the time we don’t choose the best option — we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing. As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it. 

I’d observed this behavior for years, but its significance wasn’t really clear to me until I read Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Klein spent 15 years studying naturalistic decision making: how people like firefighters, pilots, chessmasters, and nuclear power plant operators make high-stakes decisions in real settings with time pressure, vague goals, limited information, and changing conditions.

Klein’s team of observers went into their first study (of field commanders at fire scenes) with the generally accepted model of rational decision making: Faced with a problem, a person gathers information, identifies the possible solutions, and chooses the best one. They started with the hypothesis that because of the high stakes and extreme time pressure, fire captains would be able to compare only two options, an assumption they thought was conservative. As it turned out, the fire commanders didn’t compare any options. They took the first reasonable plan that came to mind and did a quick mental test for problems. If they didn’t find any, they had their plan of action. 

Previously, I think this was how I plotted stories. However, in future, I hope to try out my logical strategy of putting down what I do know, and filling in the gaps with all the possibilities. It’s like creating a decision tree.

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