Casablanca: What a Damn Near Perfect Movie Can Teach About Writing

My wife and I watched the 1942 classic Casablancaa few nights ago. It had been over a dozen years since I had seen it, and it was the first time for my wife. All I have to say is that the movie is classic for a reason, and that it gets better with each viewing.

And what struck me were the lessons this movie provides about novel writing. Sure, it’s a different art than screenwriting, but several techniques translate very well across the mediums. Here are the ones that struck me.

I won’t give away the plot here, since this isn’t a movie review per se, and because I want you to watch it in a pristine, unspoiled state. But there may be mild spoilers, so don’t get mad at me if you keep reading! Continue reading Casablanca: What a Damn Near Perfect Movie Can Teach About Writing”

Reset: Chapter 37: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (2)

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Eyewitnesses report that Joseph Gallagher, eighteen, of Lowell, Massachusetts, burst into Logan Airport’s Terminal B running with his arms outstretched and shouting “ALLAHU AKBAR!” Other witnesses stated that Mr. Gallagher also let out a high-pitched ululation some likened to a cry of pain. Onlookers initially thought him to be a run-of-the-mill crazy person and didn’t react, mainly because very few travelers were aware of what typically followed shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” or what it even meant. However, most seemed well aware of the meaning of his next words and how they tended to affect those traveling by air.

“Bombs!” he is reported to have yelled. “Bombs on the planes! For the Glory of Allah, we will blow up your planes!”

Mr. Gallagher streaked around lines of passengers, focusing on the American Airlines service desk.

“We will fly planes into buildings! All across the country! I won’t tell you which ones! Allahu Akbar!” And he continued shrieking.

Mr. Gallagher dashed through the security line, pushing several customers and knocking over a guard who was manning the metal detector. He made it as far as Gate 23 before being tackled by two uniformed security guards and one concerned citizen.

The rest of what happened never made it to the general public, beyond vague assertions that a major terror plot was thwarted in the nick of time, thanks in large part to the Federal Aviation Administration showing great wisdom in grounding all flights nationwide. Shortly after Mr. Gallagher’s arrest, one Mohammad Atta, an Egyptian national, was arrested at Logan International Airport along with nine other accomplices.

At Dulles International Airport in Virginia, five men were arrested.

At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, authorities captured four.

None of the nineteen would-be hijackers had ever heard of Joseph Gallagher of Lowell, Massachusetts. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 37: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 36: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (1)

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Nick Christakos spent Tuesday morning sitting alone in his dorm room, staring at the television. Six turned to seven, seven turned to eight, and eight turned to nine. Nothing.

Nothing.

Nick relaxed, surprised by how much his body hurt. He had clenched himself like a fist and had sweat through his t-shirt.

Nothing.

But why?

* * *

When Joe didn’t come back Sunday night, Nick had figured he had spent the night with that Gwendolyn chick. When he called her, she wouldn’t say any more except that Joe was really mad at him. No surprises there.

He checked with Jonesy and Carlos. Nothing. Same with Game and Quinn.

Amy told him he should call the cops, but Nick didn’t. He couldn’t. What would he say? That his time-traveling companion was going to stop the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States and left without so much as a hug and a kiss? They’d be right back where they started.

He even called Zack Henderson. Miracle of miracles, Zack picked up the phone. He was terse, but not rude. “He came by, yeah,” said Zack. “He was pretty steamed.” But Zack had no idea where Joe might have gone.

So Nick waited, spending his time, as usual, with Amy. Things were going great in that department. They clicked; Nick literally felt a click when he started talking to her at Zeta Zeta Nu. Love was a beautiful thing. She was the whole reason for this adventure, the Helen that launched him back in time. Now he would be happy, would maybe finally have the courage to get some help and work through his issues without resorting to hookers and blow (though those things had been fun for a time).

Joe had to be on campus. He had to. He had no car, besides. What was he going to do? Thwart the attacks himself?

Sunday night rolled around, and still no Joe. Nick waited.

When Nick sat in class on Monday, listening to Delino drone on about how Bush was single-handedly destroying the Earth, he began to worry. Amy had noticed it, insisting that they go to the police.

The jig was up. It would be too suspicious if he did nothing about his missing friend. So they went to the Hollister PD, bypassing the campus cops who tended to stick to parking violations, and reported Joe missing. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 36: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter 35: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (4)

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Joe stood in front of Zack’s door knocking loudly, a plastic bag full of NHU shirts and a jacket clutched in his other hand. He’d give it a five count, and if Zack didn’t answer–

Two seconds later, the door widened a crack and out popped Zack’s head. Anger flashed on his face, his mouth open with a rude word chambered and ready to fire, until he saw the source of the interruption. “What’s wrong?!” he said, his eyes wide.

“Hi Zack. Got a minute?” Through the crack in the door he could see a very attractive, very naked co-ed covering herself with a sheet.

“Uh, that’s, uh . . .” Zack flushed. He lowered his voice and spoke close to Joe’s ear. “I didn’t, um, we . . . you know, I didn’t–”

Joe held up a hand. “I’m not your father, Zack. I just wanted to say thanks for everything.”

“What’re you thanking me for?”

“What’s the problem?” called the girl.

Zack turned. Joe noticed he had no shirt on. “One second.”

“I can get going . . . .”

“No!” Zack stepped out, wearing nothing but his boxers. Joe admired his hard, muscular body, eighteen and already built like an action figure. “I don’t know what you got going on, man, but I’m going with you.”

“Not so loud,” said Joe, flapping a hand like the words were real and he could bat them away. “And no you’re not.”

“Come on, we’re in this together. Let me just get dressed and we’ll talk, get our plan straight–”

“No talking, Zack. That’s the point. I didn’t come here to talk.” He put a hand on Zack’s upper arm, resisting the urge to squeeze just to see how hard the muscle was. “I’ve messed things up enough without dragging anybody else further into it.”

“Come on, that’s not fair.”

“No!” He said it dad-stern, one of the few advantages of being a thirty-something trapped in the body of a teen–it lent him a certain gravitas unattainable for most college-aged boys.

Zack clammed up with an audible snap. Joe went on: “I came here just to say thanks, and to see you before . . . in case . . . you know. I figured I owe you that much.”

“The only thing you owe me is letting me help you.”

The door crept slightly open. “What’s going on?” said the girl, peeking into the hallway.

“Hi,” said Joe. “He’ll be with you in a second.” He caught a glimpse of the girl’s lovely mocha body and quickly turned away, feeling like a dirty old man.

“Shut the door,” said Zack. “Please.” The girl did as asked.

“You’ve got more than enough on your plate, Zack,” said Joe.

Zack waved a hand over his shoulder. “I don’t care about any of this, man. I care about saving those people. I couldn’t forgive myself if I just let it happen and did nothing.”

“You won’t have to. This isn’t your fight. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, blank pages waiting to be filled. Play football–”

“I don’t care about that.”

“Play football,” said Joe, “get your degree, do all the things you never got a chance to do before you . . .

“Died,” said Zack softly. “You can say it: before I died.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 35: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (4)”

Reset: Chapter 34: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (3)

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The dream was shocking. Audacious. Like it had come from the devil himself, designed to scare the foolish mortal to death in his sleep.

He was on an airplane, sitting with the other passengers, frightened but docile. He heard the shouts, the chanting–“Allahu Akbar!” and the ululating cries of victory. Some laughter, but mostly screams. The woman next to him started to talk; her mouth moved but Joe only heard sounds like drums emanating from her blurred face.

And then out of the window he could see, growing bigger, the North Tower, the plane drawn to it like it had gravity, inviting the impact the way a catcher calls the winning pitch. Put ‘er there, buddy boy. He can’t hit the ones that come in hard and fast.

Hard and fast . . .

He awoke before impact, jerking upright and gasping the way he thought only happened in movies. The buzzing in his brain began anew, the telltale sign of that cognitive dissonance born of the impossible. Something else that should be impossible was the woman in the bed next to him. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 34: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (3)”

Book Review: The Monster of Mordwin: A Tale of the School of Spells and War, Book 5 by Morgon Newquist

Alis and Cahan are back with another adventure through Thillon with The Monster of Mordwin, the fifth tale in Morgon Newquist’s series of short stories, The School of Spells and War. Here, the wizard Alis and the warrior Cahan are sent to Mordwin College to investigate the appearance of a strange, moaning, and rather muddy golem that’s been menacing the lands near the school.

The format of the series has settled into a pattern–the odd-numbered books are adventures, and the even-numbered books are more interstitial character studies set at the titular school (the Scholae, as the characters call it). At least, this has been the pattern so far.

And it works, since Alis and Cahan are both employed by the school as investigators who help those facing some sort of unsolvable crisis, magical or otherwise.

It’s a fun series, especially if you’re into no-frills, fast-paced fantasy with a gentle sense of humor and a dash of “will-they-or-won’t-they?” romance. Mrs. Newquist is a lean writer, and you won’t find many wasted words here. Even better, her characters are likable and heroic.

Without revealing the plot, I will say that I like how the villains in these books are rarely cartoonishly evil: They are often sympathetic and have reasons for doing what they do, though these reasons don’t excuse what they’ve done. And there is an overarching threat, first encountered in book one, that looms over the entire narrative, the strange beings of darkness called the Formless.

That said, I do wish there was a little more sword-fighting and magic-slinging. I’d love to see Cahan finally get a chance to let ‘er rip and slay some baddies. He seems kind of sidelined by the magical nature of the problems he and Alis have checked out thus far.

I also want to see more of the Formless, but this is a minor quibble. I’m sure they’ll be popping up again sooner or later.

The Monster of Mordwin is another fun entry into the School of Spells and War series. Do yourself a favor and check them out if you’re into traditional fantasy told well.

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Reset: Chapter 33: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (2)

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Her voice came crackling over the loudspeaker in an angry snarl. “Who’s this?”

“Hi Gwen,” said Joe into the intercom next to the door. “It’s Joe. Can you let me in?”

“Joe! Are you alright?”

Joe sniffed noisily and gave his nose a swipe with his arm. “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”

“Okay, stay right there. I’m coming down now.”

Joe nodded, as if Gwendolyn could see him through the speaker. But that technology was at least a decade away.

He glanced at his watch, groaning at the late hour. He shouldn’t have woken her up. He should have gone back to his own dorm room and into his own bed like a responsible adult, keeping his worries to himself. But he couldn’t stand the thought of Nick. And Joe knew he wasn’t a responsible adult. Not anymore.

When Gwendolyn opened the door, Joe marveled at how good she looked given the time of night. Dressed in a Navy blue pajama set with furry moccasin slippers on her feet and her hair piled haphazardly on top of her head, she still appeared controlled, beautiful. She was also wearing glasses, big thick ones that would be all the rage among young women in another ten years.

Joe hurried through the open door to spare both Gwendolyn and himself from the chilly wind. The door shut behind him with a soft whump. “Are you sure you’re alright?” said Gwendolyn, “what’s going on?”

Joe sniffed again, corralling some errant snot. He looked around the lobby of Parsons, empty but still too public. “Can we talk in your room? Continue reading Reset: Chapter 33: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (2)”