Tuesday, October 30, 2018

October's Book: Based on a True Story

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald
Comedy (2016 - 240 pp.)

Based on a True Story is what happens when Norm MacDonald, the famous Canadian comedian, writes a memoir: it is full of laughs, reflects on some old shows and jokes in a memorable way, and contains a mountain of creative license. The book's events sometimes appear realistic, such as MacDonald's job interview with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. Events quickly become questionable, though, from the larger (entire stories), to the fact that MacDonald is born in 1963 in the book (33) but he is born in 1959 on his Wikipedia entry. MacDonald's brother Neil, a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, discusses in more detail.

The story zips back in forth in choppy, short chapters between:

  • An embellished chronological account of MacDonald's life from birth until 1998;
  • A fictitious present-day car ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which parodies MacDonald's gambling addiction; and
  • The descent into madness of an alleged ghostwriter, Terence Keane, whose detached writing style is weirdly reminiscent of avant-garde science fiction.

Everything is written as though MacDonald is delivering it as a stand-up show, so the provisional rules are relaxed. Even the acknowledgments are notable; MacDonald says of publisher Julie Grau, "She believed in me and left me be, a fine gift." (239) May we all be so gifted when we write our own memoirs.

Running jokes include MacDonald attempting to win enough money on credit in Vegas to purchase a ranch in Montana, various comedians calling MacDonald "Einstein" (probably sarcastically), and constant consumption of Wild Turkey 101. The ranch joke gets surprisingly literary, as MacDonald's friend Gabe spends part of the Vegas trip looking at properties in Billings, MT; (79) when MacDonald meets with a man he suspects is the Devil slightly later in the book, the bartender is named Mr. Billingsly. (108) With all the themes that run through Based on a True Story, the one device MacDonald never repeats is that it only contains one footnote. (186)

Many of MacDonald's greatest jokes make appearances. The early parts of the books, about MacDonald's upbringing, are full of apocryphal family stories, including the rose joke. The moth joke, which you can see MacDonald telling Conan O'Brien here, is inverted so that in the book, a supposedly unfunny doctor tells it to MacDonald. (123-125) One chapter is nothing but a bullet-point list of MacDonald's 25 favourite SNL Weekend Update jokes, 24 of which are his. (156-160)

I hadn't expected to have a personal connection to Based on a True Story besides the obvious (I'm a Norm MacDonald fan, I'm Canadian), but there was a shocking coincidence. One of MacDonald's vignettes is of him meeting Slash of Guns N' Roses fame. (75) Later on, during an almost certainly fictitious funeral scene, one guest is wearing a Carolina Panthers jacket.* (139) Here's a picture of me wearing my Carolina Panthers hoodie to the Guns N' Roses show in Toronto a year ago yesterday. I really felt like a part of the story at that point.

My only real issue with Based on a True Story is that its plot points end so abruptly in 1998, with MacDonald's departure from SNL and the release of Dirty Work, despite the fact that the book was released in 2016. His 2000 movie Screwed deserved a chapter, in part so the reader could learn what it was like to work with Dave Chappelle and Danny DeVito. The Norm Show (1999-2001) is mentioned as a logo on MacDonald's T-shirt but the book never tells the reader what actually happened during the episodes. MacDonald voiced Lucky the Dog in Dr. Doolittle (1998) and its sequels, which deserved at least a page or two (MacDonald wasn't in as major a role), in part so the reader how MacDonald worked with Eddie Murphy. MacDonald's stand-up comedy album Ridiculous (2006) would have brought the book right back to stand-up, and it also saw MacDonald work with Will Ferrell. In a non-comedic context, but certainly relevant to the book's gambling theme, MacDonald placed 20th in the 2007 World Series of Poker's $3,000 No-Limit Hold 'Em event, yet this is never mentioned.

The book's 240 pages flew by. I was in stitches the whole time. If Based on a True Story can have a thesis, it's this: "A joke should catch people by surprise; it should never pander. Applause is voluntary, but laughter is involuntary." (152) My reaction was purely involuntary.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*MacDonald suspects the guest is there by mistake. That's not the joke, though. Listen to the scene here. (Carolina Panthers jacket mentioned at 11:57.) In the spirit of Based on a True Story, this review only has one footnote.

Friday, October 12, 2018

(Almost) All the Time Writing Tips

I encounter writing tips more often than most, or so I would guess.

Whether it's at the Toronto Writers' Cooperative, on Quora, or on a significant number of the literary blogs I follow, I'm bombarded with writing tips. Some are repeated to the point of being ingrained ("Show, Don't Tell", which I discuss below). Others are accepted by most of the literary community but still have a few naysayers ("Chekhov's Gun", which I discuss at Rule #4 here*). Still others are good practice for most of the time but not all of the time ("Use Active Voice"); passive voice has its place in every work, but should be applied like a strong seasoning. Yet others are applicable only to the point that they help with clarity and avoid redundancy ("Avoid Adverbs"); there are adverbs in this blog entry. Then there is the assumption that every story is wrapped up like a Christmas present, which cannot apply in any realist or slice-of-life story.

What writing tips would I give, then? Not many. Aside from the basic "make sure your spelling and grammar are good", there are few blanket rules I would attach to any work of literature. No one ever built an ironclad by following the rule of using good-quality wood. That said, I see easily fixable mistakes again and again. Here are five:

  • Show or Tell
  • Coordinating Conjunctions Starting Sentences
  • Comma Splices
  • Familiarity Assumptions
  • Names Again

Each of these tips naturally has an exception I state along with it.

The examples I give below are all of bad writing I then discuss. Anything indented should not be construed as good writing, as anything I would seek to have published (except as an example of bad writing, as here) or anything I would want to read.

Show or Tell. Whether you're abiding by "Show, Don't Tell", or telling because you need the story to advance faster, don't do both. In its most extreme form, showing and telling looks like this:
"I am wearing red," said the man who was wearing red.
In its less blatantly obvious form, showing and telling takes one of two main forms, although there doubtless others:

1. Describing something and then immediately telling what was described, or vice versa.
Arthur's cheeks flushed red. His hands balled into fists with trembling white knuckles. His breaths became heavy and short. His eyes lit up like fireballs. Make no bones about it, Arthur was angry.
The first four sentences show that Arthur is angry. What does the reader gain from being told Arthur is angry in the last sentence? Why does this sentence exist? Neither of those questions is answerable.

Bonus points for the hackneyed "Make no bones about it", especially in a story that may not even be in the first person.

The only notable exception to this rule is if the author wants to tip off that either the narrator or the speaker is lying. "I am wearing red," the man wearing nothing but blue said. The dialogue and narrative are barely describing the same thing at this point.

2. Using narration and dialogue to reach the same conclusion.
"Look... I... don't know if we can go on with this situation any longer. It's - just that I - I'm seeing someone else," she said in a nervous, stilted way.
Why does the reader need to be told that our character is speaking "in a nervous, stilted way" when it is clear from the structure of the dialogue? The dialogue tag "she said" is sufficient.

This is like the "man who was wearing red" example but subtler.

Never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is meant to connect two parts of a sentence. Starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is like installing a hinge on the wrong side of a door.
Bianca liked going to the confectionery to pick out the finest cakes for Sunday dessert. And she loved the taste of the crisp, sweet icing on her tongue.
The word "and" should either be deleted entirely, which means the second sentence should start with the word "she", or else the sentences should be combined. I would usually keep this as two sentences but it depends how central Bianca is to the story. Maybe her love of cake is only worth a sentence.

To unpack this further, imagine ending a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. To reprise our cake-purchaser Bianca:
Bianca liked going to the confectionery to pick out the finest cakes for Sunday dessert and. She loved the taste of the crisp, sweet icing on her tongue.
The quickest glance shows the first sentence here to be complete nonsense. The reader may ask "... and what?" This is a very reasonable question. The writer of the first Bianca passage should approach these passages the same way. The reader asks "...what and?"

Exceptions include dialogue and stream of consciousness. If we talked the way we wrote, conversations would be stilted and obtuse.

Never insert a comma splice. 

Separate thoughts are separated by a period. Quasi-separate thoughts are separated by a semicolon, uncommonly as writers should use semicolons. Commas connect parts of the same thought.

A comma, then, should never be in this part of a sentence:
The river flowed, the sun set.
The comma serves absolutely no purpose here, and also confuses the reader by creating the expectation that whatever follows it will relate directly to the flow of the river. It should be replaced with a period (more likely) or a semicolon (less likely).

To parrot the above rule: Exceptions include dialogue and stream of consciousness. If we talked the way we wrote, conversations would be stilted and obtuse.

Assume your reader doesn't know your characters.

Settings can be sufficiently familiar they need little introduction. Most English-language readers do not need to be told that New York City is in the United States. Although London isn't necessarily in England, any basic signpost can tell the reader the story takes place in London, England. A fictional setting probably requires some introduction but this can often be unraveled as the story requires. (For example, the first descriptions of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings hardly require the reader to know the location of the nearest post office.)

Characters can be anyone.

If a writer reprints a character sheet without giving any context to why the character is present, the reader is confused.
Uncle Carl is a good, honest man. He was born in 1958 to a family of dairy farmers who would always use the phrase "pass muster" and he took some very firm values with him when he went away to school. I saw him a lot in those days because he was caring for my mother's garden.
If this point by point description of Carl (which isn't well-written anyway) precedes any other mention of Carl, it takes the reader out of the story. If Carl hasn't been present yet, the reader isn't sure why he's being discussed in this way.** If Carl's existence hasn't been mentioned yet, the above passage sounds like someone accidentally copied and pasted in a passage from a different story.

The only exception is if the work of literature is a series of biographies, with the above passage beginning a section entitled "Uncle Carl" or something similar.

Names can be reused.

In an effort to avoid overusing character names, authors occasionally substitute in descriptions. This has the unfortunate effect of making it ambiguous to the reader how many characters are present.
Daria handed her paper to the teacher. The teacher's pen tapped each of the answers as she saw Daria had answered all but one of the fill-in-the-blank questions.
"Did you miss a question?" the teacher asked.
The shy girl never wanted to admit to not knowing the answer.
Is Daria shy? Presumably, at least two children in any given class of 20-30 is shy. Is the conversation only between Daria and the teacher, are there other students at the teacher's desk, or is the teacher making an announcement to the entire class? Replacing "The shy girl" with "Daria" fixes this problem.

Worse still is when a description may match more than one character but is adjectivized*** according to the author's own opinion of his or her work. The reader may perceive the characters differently, causing confusion over who is speaking. Using our character Daria from the above passage, meet her classmate Evelyn:
Daria handed her paper to the teacher. The teacher's pen tapped each of the answers as she saw Daria had answered all but one of the fill-in-the-blank questions. Evelyn stood behind Daria, a trembling finger tracing over the answers on her own incomplete test.
"Did you miss a question?" the teacher asked.
The shy girl never wanted to admit to not knowing the answer.
Which of Daria or Evelyn is "the shy girl"? Is Daria shyer than Evelyn or vice versa? Even if previous scenes have shown Evelyn being talkative and bubbly, maybe she has text anxiety. Again, replacing "The shy girl" with the character's name makes the reader's life easier.

The author can also specify who the teacher is addressing (e.g.: "the teacher asked Daria") but there is still no need to introduce an already established character as an adjective-noun combination.

The exception to this rule is if the author is attempting to keep a character's identity secret. There could be a crucial plot point regarding the reader's lack of knowledge of which student is shyer, although that sort of identity game is more likely in a spy novel or whodunit.


*My writing has improved substantially since I wrote that blog post. My formatting appears to have improved as well.

**Carl's presence in a photo album would still indicate that he is present.

***This can be a word.