Monthly Archives: April 2009

Nicole Hayes in SORCERERS & SECRETARIES (Portrayals of Writers)

We meet Nicole Hayes, the main character of the two-part manga SORCERERS & SECRETARIES (written and drawn by Amy Kim Ganter, for readers age 13+, ISBN 1598164090 Part I, ISBN 1598164107 Part II), at a crossroads in her life.  She’s majoring in Business at college in order to help run her family’s business once she graduates, but her true love is writing.

But like most writers I know, the stories won’t shut up and begin to spill over into Nicole’s dreams.  Once she gives in to writing a story down, it grips her and won’t let go.  One of the many things I enjoyed most about this manga was that the reader gets to experience the life-cycle of a story from seed to finished version (i.e. we get to read the story Nicole is writing and making revisions on).  Also, the creator Amy Kim Ganter does a great job of showing how real life can interfere with creating a story, and how a creating a story can interfere with real life.

There is also a wonderful romance subplot between Nicole and her neighbor Josh, and the impact they have on each other in their lives and careers.  Josh helps her grow as an artist, and she helps him to stop drifting in a dead-end job.

Here’s a brief excerpt (missing the drawings unfortunately) from Part II, Chapter One:

Nicole: Sometimes…my dreams are so vivid they push out of my hands and onto this book, my dreamlog.  I get so wrapped up in the story, sometimes I even forget who I am or what I’m doing!

In the end, though, they’re just scribbles.  They won’t help me get my degree or help the family business.  Still, when I’m writing it’s the only time I feel truly alive…

These two manga would make a great gift for teenager (especially a girl) who wants to be a writer or manga artist.

John Gardner’s ON BECOMING A NOVELIST

John Gardner’s ON BECOMING A NOVELIST (ISBN 0-393-32003-0) was published back in 1983, but its chapter on “The Writer’s Training and Education” is as fresh and relevant today as it was then.  If you know someone who is pondering whether to major in English or Creative Writing as an undergraduate, or wonders if a MFA makes sense, this chapter is what I’d have them read first.  It’s shorter than an entire book on the subject, but goes into greater depth about the benefits and perils of a formal creative writing education than most books on fiction writing.

For example, he discusses in depth the hazards that novelists may face in a workshop geared towards short stories and poetry:

…most creative writing workshops are oriented towards short fiction.  For the young novelist, this can be troublesome.  His talent may go unnoticed: his marathon-runner pace does not stir the same interest as the story writer’s sprinter’s pace; and the kinds of mistakes workshops focus on are not as important in a novel as in a short story….Sometimes it happens that the young novelist distorts his art in an attempt to compete with the short story writers in his class.  He tries to make every chapter zing, tries dense symbolism and staggeringly rich prose; he violates the novelistic pace.

Gardner is part of the “literary fiction” tradition, so he does diss particular fiction genres in a couple of paragraphs (such as science fiction and horror).  However, he spends just as much time ripping into the excesses of literary fiction.  As someone who has written science fiction, fantasy, and horror, I came away amused instead of offended by his commentary.  (Note–he doesn’t say all science fiction and horror are bad, but felt most of it was hackery.)

When I first read his book,  he provided me with an Aha! moment that I was, and still am,  grateful for.   The insight was that the writing needs to trigger a waking dream–vivid and continuous–in the reader.  And how that waking dream is created is as follows:

If the dream is to be vivid, the writer’s “language signals”–his words, rhythms, metaphors, and so on–must be sharp and sufficient….And if the dream is to be continuous, we must not be roughly jerked from the dream back to words on the page by language that’s distracting.

Throughout the book the psychological aspects of being a writer are explored in depth–what are the typical personality traits of a novelist, the problem of severe self-doubt when starting out, the stress of financial uncertainty, the feeling of a lack of support from the typical American community (i.e. the attitude that arts are a waste of time and money), and more.

There is much to be gleaned from reading this book, though I confess I’d hesitate to recommend it to new writers who felt insecure about their choice to write genre fiction.   I’d want them to gain some self-confidence first.

Scott McCloud’s MAKING COMICS

Even though I don’t write for comics, reading Scott McCloud’s MAKING COMICS: STORYTELLING SECRETS OF COMICS, MANGA AND GRAPHIC NOVELS (ISBN 0-06-078094-0) was a joy.  I can see why it won the Quill Award in 2006 for best graphic novel, and is becoming a “must read” classroom text for those entering this field.

Sometimes the best way to approach our own medium with fresh eyes is to explore the mediums of others.  McCloud goes into great depth about the issues and artistic challenges of planning, framing, drawing, inking, and finishing a comic.   He also discusses writing for comics, though mostly in the context of how words and pictures can interact in different ways to tell a story.

People who want to write picture books could get a lot out of reading this graphic novel.  He discusses in Chapter 3 (The Power of Words) mistakes made by writers and artists when they try to collaborate on a work, and I’ve seen the same problems crop up between writers and illustrators on picture book projects.

Reading this also reminded me that whatever the artistic field one is in, there are always difficulties with craft, voice, storytelling, and interpretation.  Writing is not the only field with “literary” pitted against “commercial.”   I’d like to quote from Chapter Six where McCloud talks about voice since this issue is universal for all artists:

If I had the good sense to write an ordinary how-to book, this would be the chapter where I explain how to “choose a style that’s right for you.”

But style isn’t really something you can choose off-the-shelf like a scarf or a pair of socks.  Its roots go deeper than that.  And you don’t always “choose” your style.   Sometimes it chooses YOU.

“Style” usually describes surface details like line quality, a way of drawing faces or one’s use of dialogue.  But mannerisms like that are just byproducts of artists’ attempt to present the world as they see it–and to capture the aspects of comics that may have captivated them as readers.

Behind that struggle lies their fundamental outlook on life and art–a statement of their passions and priorities–an echo of the times and places they’ve come from–and a signpost to where they want their chosen art form to take them.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that the above quote leaves out important information because the pictures have been stripped away.  This is book that teaches by “show, don’t tell,” and so both pictures and text are needed to understand fully what is being taught.