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Write On

Archive for October, 2010

Words and Pictures

Faith Erin Hick, Laurence Klavan, Susan Kim (L to R)

Faith Erin Hick, Laurence Klavan, Susan Kim (L to R) signing graphic novels at Comic Con

Hey, were you at Comic Con this weekend?

If you were, I definitely didn’t see you; it was such a giant, heaving mosh pit, I literally feared for my life at times. Over the past five years, NY Comic Con has mushroomed from a clutch of comic book collectors with card tables held together with gaffer’s tape into a sold-out, Javits Center media event that’s starting to rival the uber-Con in San Diego. My boyfriend and occasional writing partner, Laurence Klavan, and I are longtime playwrights, TV writers, and novelists (well, okay; he’s the novelist and I’m the TV writer) and are relatively new to the comic world. But we do have two graphic novels out and so were kindly invited to sign books at the First Second booth with the respective artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, as well as appear on a panel Friday night.

Considering that the Con officially closed each night at 8PM, we were initially suspicious when we noticed that our panel was scheduled for 9PM. “What gives?” we thought with writerly paranoia. Would anyone be in the audience? Would our fellow panelists even show? What if it was all a terrible scheduling snafu? We grimly fought our way past a vast horde of purple be-wigged Hit Girls, bikinied Slave Leias, and other characters who were waiting for a bigger, more popular event across the hall and were surprised/stunned to see we actually had an audience, and a pretty sizeable one at that, for our panel, “Building a World in Comics”.

I can’t speak for Laurence, but I went in feeling, well, kind of intimidated. It wasn’t just that I still thought there was a scheduling mistake and the audience was actually waiting to meet Stan Lee. “World-building” is an expression you hear a lot of in the comics world, since so much of the form deals with superheroes, aliens, historical figures, and anthropomorphized critters living on different planets or levels of reality. Don’t get me wrong; Laurence and I have both written quite a few surreal and/or supernatural plays, stories, and animated scripts. But our graphic novels in question (City of Spies and Brain Camp) take place, respectively; in New York City and upstate New York (what can I say? We like New York). Granted, one has a sci-fi element and the other takes place in a NYC that might as well be another planet, i.e. the one from World War Two. But what could we say about world-building that might inform or interest anyone, much less the core audience for Neil Gaiman, Bone, and The Dark Knight?

Our moderator was comics journalist and manager of Bergen Street Comics, Tucker Stone, and our co-panelists were cartoonists George O’Connor and Mike Cavallaro. George began talking about his work re-inventing the myths of the Ancient Romans, and Mike described how he depicted the alternate reality that takes over in the latter part of his latest graphic novel, Foiled. Both artists are supremely talented at creating heightened and mythic worlds; given our books, I was starting to feel if not like a bull in a china shop, then like a square peg in a distinctly round-hole kind of panel. Yet it was in response to a question from an intense guy in the front row about “getting all the details right” that I suddenly realized all four of us were all speaking the same language: and that’s the language of character, emotion, and story.

Of course, world-building needs research; details and specificity are crucial to good storytelling. And it’s tempting to research your envisioned universe so enthusiastically, you risk drowning in it. But no matter if you’re an artist or a writer, a good story isn’t primarily about the details of your world, whether it’s Ancient Rome, a far-off planet, 14th century Venice, or a summer camp in Dutchess County. As mighty as it sounds, world-building only exists to serve story; and story is always about character.

Room to Write

I’m writing this at a corner table at a coffee bar near my apartment. For me, this is so unusual, it’s practically freakish. I’ve always written at home; even when I was young and broke, I wrote at home. Back then, I was so poor, I didn’t have a desk and instead balanced my keyboard on an open dresser drawer. These days, I not only have a desk, I have a nice desk, a battered antique that a late friend of mine, a friend who was admittedly something of a lush, used as a bar. The writing surface is still covered with round white circles where various wet highball glasses and vodka bottles once stood and on humid days, I swear you can almost smell the bourbon.

I like writing at home. I like the quiet, the books, the food. I like being able to walk around in the ugliest t-shirt imaginable and take a nap (right on the floor if I ever wanted to!) whenever I have the urge. I don’t take my situation for granted. I know for many writers — people with young kids, roommates, impossibly tiny apartments – find it difficult if not outright impossible to swing this. A writer friend of mine shared a minuscule studio with an actress wife who was often home; he rigged up a circular shower rod in one corner and behind the heavy curtain was his laptop, the tiniest desk imaginable, and a pair of earplugs. Having a place where one can be alone with one’s thoughts, the proverbial room of one’s own, is so essential for writers, many of us have had to jerry-rig a few cubic feet and the illusion of privacy out of whatever’s at hand. And so while I’ve lived with my boyfriend (also a writer) for many years, I’ve always held onto my tiny Village apartment as an office. I once complained to a friend about all the artists’ colonies and writers’ retreats she’d been to that I wish I had gone to as well, and she seemed honestly taken aback. “But you don’t need to get away to write,” she pointed out. And she’s right.

Jean Kerr, author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, was so hard-pressed as a suburban mother to carve out any kind of privacy for herself that she would regularly pile her manuscript into her station wagon, drive a few blocks away, and covertly write against the steering wheel, hoping none of her brood would bike by and find her. My maternal grandmother was a novelist in Korea who supported a gigantic family (ten kids!) writing serialized stories in various newspapers. She regularly took refuge in the various tea rooms of Pusan, scribbling longhand, and handing the finished sheets to a trusted child (i.e. my mother) to hand-deliver. According to my mother, hers was a top-secret mission; but her siblings would invariably find out, the jig would be up, and my grandmother would be forced to move on and find a new refuge. I have a photo of my grandmother in one such restaurant, glasses on, holding a pen and focused absolutely on a stack of papers in front of her despite the guy sitting across from her, virtually no room to move in, and the noise of a city so obviously pouring in through open windows. I used to look at the picture and wonder: how did she do it? Then I became a writer myself and realized: she just did. This, after all, was a woman with deadlines, serious mouths to feed, and the compulsion to write. When she needed a break, she would head out and grab a bus, any bus, and ride along its entire route – staring both blankly and observantly at the world in the way we all do, wherever we live, whenever we need to get out of our heads.

writer Matt Koff at work in the Writing Room

Matt Koff at work in the Writing Room

So I’m thrilled that the Writers Guild East, now in its new location on Hudson Street just north of Canal, is finally opening a Writing Room: a quiet place with six work stations where members can come in, plug in a laptop or take out a Moleskine, and write.

Reservations are in four-hour blocks starting at 9:30AM and will be assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. Cellphones and food will be blessedly banned, as will, I hope, boisterous conversation and over-amplified I-pods. If people want to write in a Starbucks, damnit, they can go out and write in a Starbucks.

The Writing Room is nothing fancy; all that will be provided is a flat surface, quiet, wireless, an outlet, and some coffee. Yet while these things together might be considered a luxury in New York City for anyone, for the writer, they’re as essential as words themselves.