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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Anatomy of a Neo Story-Part 4


By Paul Kupperberg

Portrait of the artist's workspace while drawing "Digger" Graves
Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I get ideas for stories, characters, scenes, bits, whatever, all day long. I get them while I’m working on other projects, while I’m driving, while I’m making dinner, while I’m watching TV, while I’m in the shower. My mind is always working, always processing my thoughts in that mysterious way that turns random electrical pulses in the brain into a story or a creative concept. I couldn’t shut it off even if I wanted, which, of course, I don’t. Ideas are my job, my bread and butter.

I have probably twenty or thirty of them a day...although, truthfully, most of them turn out not to be very good . Execution of a good idea is hard enough; execution of a bad one is downright painful. The young, inexperienced writer thinks all their ideas are gold; the experienced ones, in the words of Kenny Rogers, “knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em.”

With about a thousand comic book stories under my belt and almost two decades behind an editor’s desk, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what will work and what won’t. Sure, it’s easier to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to other writer’s ideas, but once I get past the initial “Eureka!” thrill moment of the birth of any idea, I can usually spot it for the dog it is.

Likewise, I know a good one when it comes my way. The way you know if an idea has any legs is that when you sit down to develop it, it will almost (as we say) “write itself.” Characters come to life, you can hear their “voices” in your head, and situations and stories suggest themselves almost as fast as you can write them down.

So it was with Digger Graves, Paranormal P.I. As I recounted in an earlier post, the bare bones concept--“Son of Dr. Graves, supernatural investigator”--popped into my head during a Facebook Messenger chat with Roger McKenzie, and came to life in a subsequent work session that lead straight into the first script, “’I’ of the Beholder!” which was handed off to artist Andrew Mitchell to bring to life.

And, man, did he ever! The East Village of Digger’s reality is a world full of the demonic, the damned, and the dead, and Andy captured the casually weird and spooky ambience I had pictured in my mind’s eye while I was writing the script. Last time around, I posted Andy’s preliminary sketch for the first page of the story, re-presented here for the sake of comparison...

...With the near-finished art...

...Which is followed by final art, with Mort Todd’s lettering laid in...

...And, the fabulous finished page, colored by the talented Matt Webb...
And there you have it...how an idea makes its way from a spark to a comic book story. But this isn't the end of "Digger" Graves. The next story has already sparked in my brain, just waiting for me to get it on paper so we can start the whole process over again.

© Paul Kupperberg / Art © Andrew Mitchell

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Writer In progress 4: The Script Is The Thing

By Derek Adnams

Ah – the script! Where most novice writers immediately begin before doing all the frontend work discussed in the last three posts. 

And that’s fine, because, at least for me, it’s the most enjoyable step of writing a comic book! 

With all the “structure” previously discussed, one would think that the script itself would adhere to a rigid format. Well, it doesn’t! Unlike the screenplay and the story or novel, which needs to have a set format to even be looked at by a publisher, the comic book script has no such thing! Of course, there are aspects all comic book scripts need, like page and panel numbers, panel descriptions and dialogue, but it can be formatted any way you want!

When looking for a format that works, there are a ton of resources available today, like The Comics Experience Comic Book Script Archive.

I use a mash-up of the formats Scott Snyder and Jonathan Hickman employ on their scripts, all of which were available in the back of various hardcover collections.

The script is really a letter to your artistic collaborator, telling them how you envision the story so they can take those written words and interpret them through their own prism into what will eventually be shared with the world. That being said, there are two common ways to write a script: Marvel Method and Full Script.

Marvel Method is when a basic plot with a few details is given to the artist and they go on to interpret it any way they feel works best. The writer then goes back and retrofits the dialogue into what the artist has drawn. I tend to do this with prolonged action scenes. Unless there are specific motifs or details that need to occur, I will five the artist instructions along these lines: “Pages 14 – 16: have the characters fight, just make sure Character A gets hit on the head and is lying unconscious in the last panel of Page 16.” 

For non-action scenes, I write Full Script. This is similar to a screenplay in which everything is spelled out, literally, for the artist. Full script is how most modern comic books are written, and it does serve as the best representation of the writer’s intent. I like writing full script, mainly because that is how I have always written comic books, even when my buddy Brandon Bullock and I were making comics on copier paper back in high school. It leaves no question in the artists mind as to what is going on and allows the writer to include little details, imagery, and motif in case you want to get all literary and stuff.

Another common issue when writing a comic book script is whether to write the action first or the dialogue. Again, there’s no real set method, so what I do depends on the focus of the scene or “beat.” If it’s a “talking heads” scene, I’ll write the dialogue then break it into panels, taking the page count and the page turn and reveal breakdown into consideration. If it’s action, and it needs to happen a specific way so I’m actually scripting what transpires, I’ll write each panel out, then break it into pages, then add any dialogue, if necessary. I’m not a proponent of dialogue during fight scenes, unless it can add subtext to what is transpiring, or one of the characters is Spider-Man.

A few rules I have acquired over the years have made my relationships with artistic collaborator much better. The first is to script no more than 5 or 6 panels per page. This gives the artist plenty of room to show-off and add panels if they feel a different approach will improve the visual flow. I stole this from Jonathan Hickman. 

The second rule-of-thumb I employ regards word count. You don’t want so much dialogue that the balloons cover the art, so, according to 2000 A.D.’s submission guidelines; you want no more than 25 words per balloon or caption, with a maximum of three balloons or captions per panel. This may seem draconian, but honestly, once I incorporated this into my writing, it made the editing and rewriting phase much easier.

And that’s where we’ll pick-up next time!

Next Week – The Red Pen Edit

Further Reading (or, Books That Make Me Seem Kinda’ Smart)

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud
Comics and Sequential Art: Principals and Practices of the Legendary Cartoonist by Will Eisner
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner
 
 © Derek Adnams

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Writer In Progress 3: Breaking It Down


By Derek Adnams

I am a self-confessed structure junkie. That’s not a secret, and now that I have my story all worked out and I’ve made sure it fits into both The Three Act Structure and The Hero’s Journey (see the previous installment of “Writer in Progress”), I can further satisfy my craving by constructing the actual comic book I’m writing by Breaking It All Down For A Four-Color World.

The first step is to look at the story and decide which format best suits what I’m looking to accomplish. Is this a 22 page one shot? A graphic novel?A 6-pager for the good people at Charlton Neo? Or have I written my Sandman-esque Magnum Opus? If you’re a beginner like me, you’re probably looking at nothing longer than a four issue mini-series. 

For our purposes here, let’s assume I have a 22 page one-shot on my hands. Once I know for sure how long the project will be, I break the story into “beats” or “scenes,” a.k.a. the major actions that take place in the story. It’s always a good idea to either open with action or a unique visual image, and to start the narrative as late into the story as possible without ruining the integrity of the tale. No one wants to read about the hero going to the grocery store...unless, of course, that’s the story you’re writing.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have a great technique they use when working out story beats. In a speech they delivered at NYU (I think), they said that they make sure that between each beat they can say either “therefore” or “but.” For example: this happens therefore this happens but this happens therefore this happens but.... You see where this is going. I find this very useful in making sure the story has the necessary twists and turns to keep a reader’s attention and isn’t a boring linear list of events.

Once the major beats have been worked out, the next step is deciding how many pages each beat will need to properly convey the story. Remember, people buy comic books for the visual aspect, so no matter how catchy your dialogue is, the audience for a 22 page talking head book is not very abundant. I try to keep consecutive talking head pages to no more than two at a time, breaking them up with some sort of prolonged visual action or effect.

Probably the most useful piece of advice I received when I was beginning to seriously write came from Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. In it he stated that he would write the numbers 1 through 22 down the side of a piece of paper, then detail what takes place on each page, being sure to remember that odd-numbered pages are page turns and even numbered pages are reveals.

I’ll repeat: odd-numbered pages are page turns and even numbered pages are reveals.

What this means is that you want your cliff-hanger story points to occur on odd-numbered pages, and then have the resolutions to those cliff-hangers or the introduction of a new character happen on an even-numbered page.

Now that I know what will happen on each page of the comic book, and the story beats are worked out, the action scenes, as well as the page-turns and reveals, you get to the fun part!

Next Week – The Script

Further Reading (or, Books That Make Me Seem Kinda’ Smart)
Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics by Alan Moore

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

© Derek Adnams

Thursday, December 4, 2014

At Long Last...PROcastination 2

By Roger McKenzie


So how then do you get started? I’ve tried various things over the course of my career in (and out) of comic. And have a few suggestions that I hope will help.

I used to set a “page count” goal for myself. Five pages a day. I can do that. After all, I’ve written five pages a day before. Many times. But not every time. And therein lies the trap. Because sooner or later the day will come when you don’t reach your goal. So you try to write more than five the next day to make up the difference and that doesn’t happen either and before long the whole plan crashes and burns.

I’ve always found it better to set a specific time to write. Especially if you don’t have a deadline. If you are a “newbie,” for example, juggling a real job (or two), maybe a family. You know…life. Carve yourself a specific chunk of time. It doesn’t matter how much. Or how little. It’s your time, though. To write. Or draw.

Or just to sit there. Yes. Or even to just sit there. Because, even if you just sit there for however long your allotted time is, you are creating a discipline for yourself. You are, in effect, showing up for work and putting in your time. And sit there…just sit there…long enough, odds are you’ll start writing or drawing out of sheer boredom…

We are, you see, creatures of habit. After a while you’ll sit down at your allotted creative time because that’s what you do.

Another trick I learned from an article written by pulp writer Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, is to stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Then, when you begin again, you can pick right back up where you left off and get started without that blank page staring at you.

But here’s the thing: If you simply must procrastinate, then procrastinate later. Otherwise you’re doing it all wrong, you see…
© Roger McKenzie

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

PROcrastination


By Roger Mckenzie

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a while. But, ironically, I kept putting it off for other things. Like the latest spellbinding episode of Jerry Springer. Or checking Facebook because surely there’s been a new kitten video posted since the LAST time I looked--five minutes ago.

Procrastination. It happens to many of us. Maybe most of us. Because time is our best friend…and our worst enemy.  And, if you are a freelance writer or artist, procrastination can be a back breaker.

Why we procrastinate would take a book to explain. A large book. I’m not going to explain the whys…but give you a tip or two on how to overcome the inertia of getting started. And dealing with the dreaded “Blank Page Roadblock.”

You will face it head-on. Probably already have many times. The empty word processor screen with the blinking cursor. Blink. Blink. Blink. Waiting for you to write something. Daring you to begin. Reminding you of the last time you tried and how badly that worked out. Or that blank and pristine art board. Reminding you there’s still so much you don’t know…how much you still need to learn.

So you put it off. Until later. And the mountain grows. And the next time you sit down to create something the mountain is more daunting than it was before. And so you put it off again. Until later. Until you tell yourself “Tomorrow!” That’s right, tomorrow you’ll have a fresh start. Really dig in. Work hard. Get that story finished!

Except tomorrow winds up being just like today and pretty soon all the yesterdays of procrastination pile one on another until you spiral downward and your dream of writing or drawing comics begins to dim. To fade away, slowly but surely. And the doubts begin. Sure you want to do this. You know you can, And you will, you tell yourself with steely-eyed determination…

…later…
© Roger McKenzie

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Charlton Memory


By Dave Noe
 
When I was a youngster just starting to collect comics, some of the first books I had was…Spider-Man. Yep, I loved the ol’ Webhead, him and the Fantastic Four. I must have had twenty or thirty of those Marvels in my special comic book box (it had handles!). One day, I decided to go back and read some of those old comics from the year before, when I noticed something strange. My box had extra comics in it. These comics were different than anything I had ever seen. They were from companies called Gold Key and Charlton. They were ghost stories and monster stories.

I was just a kid. I didn’t remember buying them. I didn’t have any money anyway, so I couldn’t have bought them. My parents claimed that they didn’t buy them. Surely they were putting me on. It seemed like the comics just magically appeared. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them tremendously, and read them over and over until they were nearly shreds of pulp.

Not long after that, I was sitting in the waiting room of an auto garage with my mom while she had some work done on the car. I was so bored. There was nothing to do but pester Mom about buying me a candy bar from the vending machine. The news on the TV was mind numbing. Finally, she told me to come sit down and read a magazine.

“Here,” she said. “Here’s a comic book.”

What?? I had been through that stack of boring torn up magazines several times, and I had not seen any sign of a comic book. Yet, here was a perfectly good Ghostly Tales, just sitting there waiting to be read. Incredible! It was like magic.

Many years later, I decided to introduce my young nephew to the wonders of comic books. I pulled out an old well read stack of comics from my collection. It was a well rounded selection, including some magical Charltons, of course. Well, you should have seen the look in his eyes when he started shuffling through the stack. Finally, he locked onto a book that caught his attention, and you’ll never guess what it was. That’s right… Spider-Man.

Oh, well, the more things change, the more they remain the same. My guess is that once he goes through all the Spideys a few times, he will give the pile another going over and magically discover a whole new world, including Charltons old and new.
© Dave Noe

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writer In Progress 2: It's the Structure, Stupid!


By Derek Adnams

When last we saw our intrepid Writer in Progress, I was writing the story that would become a full blown comic book script. Well, I may have misspoken. When I say “story,” what I mean is a brainstorm of the events that will take place in the arc, put into chronological order, with whatever pieces of dialogue, particular scenes and motifs that are germane to the tale. It certainly is not a full blown short story, ready for submission to a literary journal. The “story,” as I see it, is the basic material I’ll use for the eventual script. But it’s always missing something, and that something is structure.

I must confess – I am a structure junkie.  I always felt my ideas were good, but it wasn’t until I started studying story composition and screenwriting that I discovered how much fun writing within defined borders could be. This is why I have gravitated to writing comic books, which, while having the unlimited budget of imagination also have some of the most stringent physical constraints of any medium.

When it comes to structuring the story, I put the draft through two filters: The Three Act Structure and The Hero’s Journey.

The Three Act Structure is the tried and true Rosetta Stone of screen writing, and what it does is give your plot cohesion, rising action, and a resolution.  It looks like this:

1.     Opening
2.     Inciting Incident
3.     Act 1 Turning Point
4.     Mid-Point
5.     Act 2 Turning Point
6.     Crisis
7.     Climax
8.     Resolution
9.     Final Page

I call Step 9 “Final Page” instead of “Denouement” because I don’t want my story to have Lord of the Rings Disease, where the story is really over but there’s another hour of Hobbits crying that the audience has to sit through. When it’s done, it’s done. 

Once I know that the story has all these elements, I then worry about character, which brings me to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:

1.     The Ordinary World
2.     The Call to Adventure
3.     Refusal of the Call
4.     Meeting with the Mentor
5.     Crossing the Threshold (end of Act 1)
6.     Tests, Allies & Enemies
7.     Approach
8.     Ordeal (near mid-point)
9.     The Reward
10.  The Road Back (3/4 of the way through)
11.  Resurrection (climax)
12.  Return with the Elixir

If you compare The Three Act Structure to The Hero’s Journey, you’ll notice that they overlap, but The Hero’s Journey is much more concerned with the Hero, hence the name. It’s important to note that The Hero’s Journey does not have to happen in the order stated above. “Meeting with the Mentor” could easily happen during the “Test, Allies & Enemies” portion, at the beginning of Act 2.

What is important is that every part of these two structure templates serves the character and the story you want to become your comic book masterpiece.

So now that you have a well structured tale and a compelling hero to put through the ringer, how do you turn this into a comic book script?

Next Week – Breaking It All Down For A Four-Color World

Further Reading (or, Books That Make Me Seem Kinda’ Smart)
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O'Neil

© Derek Adnams

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lost Treasures 5: Dick Giordano In Love

Can you feel the love?  More from the collection of Rob Jones' recently uncovered treasure trove of photocopies of Dick Giordano's Charlton Comics covers.
Nurse Betsy Crane #17 (July 1962) Inks by Vince Colletta

Romantic Secrets #51 (September 1964)

Romantic Story #72 (June 1964)

Sweethearts #75 (January 1965)

Teen-Age Love #31 (April 1963)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Writer In Progress


By Derek Adnams

I’ve wanted to be a “comic book writer” since 1979 and I saw Amazing Spider-Man #188 on a spinner-rack. If you had asked me then, that’s exactly what four year old me would have said. As a child of the 1980’s, I got a little more specific by the time I was eleven and decided that my career goal was to be “Frank Miller.”

After spending my twenties (and most of my thirties) away from comics, I received a “Happy New Year” text from my childhood best friend a few seconds after the clock struck 2012 (a year of change) telling me that he’s professionally making comics.

So I started to write.

For the past two years I’ve been studying the craft and writing comic book scripts regularly, but I’m hardly an expert. My goal with this blog is to show the steps I use in crafting a comic book story, giving another “Neophyte” some ideas on how to get started and opening a dialogue on the process.

So where do ideas come from?  Grant Morrison said it best in Supergods:

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.”

Since you never know when that portal may open, I carry an old-school Mead Composition book with me. 

Always. 

That’s where the idea, the image, the passage of dialogue goes to breed.

That’s also how stories come to me–as building blocks of something larger. Once I have enough pieces, I begin to construct the story. 

Writing the story as a prose narrative is always my first step.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are two kinds of writers: “Swoopers” and “Bashers.”

I used to be a “Basher,” but that was before I discovered the joy or rewriting and editing. Now I’m a “Swooper,” especially when writing the initial story draft. I go through my notebook, type out all the relevant scribbles that relate to the comic book script I’m beginning to form, and type away. I cut...I paste...I add and subtract. 

When I’m done, I have the story.

Now what?

Next Week – Structuring Your Tale

Further Reading (or, Books That Make Me Seem Kinda’ Smart):
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison


On Writing–A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King


© Derek Adnams

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Moving On Up

By Brian K. Morris


When you read the credits in the classic Charltons, it almost reads like a history of comics. Through either acquisition of old material (such as The Blue Beetle and the non-Batson Fawcetts) or just paying their contributors regularly (however little that was compared to other publishers), the company amassed quite a list of veteran creators.


Some names who had made their marks elsewhere include Joe Gill (of course), Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, John Buscema, Neal Adams,Wally Wood, Jack Binder, Nicola Cuti, Al Fago, John Severin, Charles Nicholas, Vince Alascia, Tom Sutton, Don Perlin, Jack Abel, Tony Tallarico, Wayne Howard, Vince Colletta, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, and of course, Steve Ditko.  



I suspect, however, that many old Charltons are in demand today because of the talent that emerged mostly via the fanzines of the day or completely out of the blue. Those names include (but are not limited to) Paul Kupperberg, John Byrne, Roy Thomas, Dick Giordano, Joe Staton, Jim Aparo, Steve Skeates, Bob Layton, Denny O'Neil, Gary Friedrich, Pat Boyette, Sam Grainger, Mike Zeck, and Don Newton, all of whom went on to work for other comic book companies.



For me, when I got serious about amassing a set of Charltons back in the day, I marveled (I couldn't very well have DCed) at how inexpensive they then were. My gain, every other local comic snob's loss. I took a special interest in the artists that moved on to other, more verdant pastures. For instance Luis Dominguez went on to draw lots of mystery and western covers for DC. Jose Delbo drew just about every female feature at the same company and did a fantastic job at it. Colorist Wendy Fiore spent some time working for Marvel and First Comics while Charles Nicholas wound up at DC doing mystery and super-hero work when Charlton closed its doors.

When looking back at the company's rich history, it's not that the company lacked for talent. It's been said that the company appeared to be almost an intermediary step between fanzine work and The Big Two. This certainly makes Charlton a vital step in the evolution of comic talent. Or talent that worked in other fields, for that matter.



In a personal sense, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, the absence of the Action Heroes made my heart yearn to see them revived. So I spent one summer researching my old issues of Captain Atom, Ditko's Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt with the intent of turning them into a super-team. First I drew up the story in pencil on unlined notebook paper, embellished the art with ball point pen ink and lettered it in a fashion that never knew an Ames Lettering Guide. After the story was completed, I translated it into a script and mailed it to the Derby, Connecticut offices.



The only parts of the submission process that I managed to execute correctly was to get the page count right and to include a self-addressed stamped envelope. My sincerest thought was that the cost of the second envelope and what had to be about a quarter's worth of postage in those pre-Internet days was probably a waste of cash. Surely my script would be snapped up!



However, in re-reading the script during a recent move to Indiana, I realized it read like it was written by a too-smart-for-his-own-good fifteen year old…which I just happened to be at the time. The script was–and is–totally cringe-inducing. But anyway, in an act of extreme benevolence, then-Assistant Editor Nicola Cuti  included a copy of the classic The Comic Book Guide for the Artist/Writer/Letterer with my rejection letter, a publication that sent me on a path to learn what "submission guidelines" were all about and how to follow them. 

As it was, despite a couple more tries to break into the company as The Next Joe Gill, my only contribution to the old Charlton line was a letter printed in an issue of Haunted. But upon receiving that Comic Book Guide and seeing how things were supposed to be executed, I grew more serious about learning my writing craft. I went on to write mini-comics, articles, stage plays, short stories, and eventually novels.



Now, I'm hoping to crack the Charlton market all over again...as are many of us. Which one of us might be the next Paul Kupperberg? The next John Byrne or Joe Staton?



In the future, who will be picking up the Charlton Arrow back issues and finding themselves amazed at who went on to bigger and better things? "Hey, wait a minute! They used to...?"



Perhaps one day, they will be talking about you.
© Brian K. Morris

Friday, November 7, 2014

Found Treasures 4: Unusual Giordano

More from the collection of Rob Jones' recently uncovered treasure trove of photocopies of Dick Giordano's Charlton Comics covers. We've looked Dick's Western and romance covers, so this time we thought we'd go with something a bit more...unusual!
Unusual Tales #36 (November 1962)
Unusual Tales #39 (May 1963)

Unusual Tales #43 (January 1964)

Unusual Tales #45 (June 1964)

Unusual Tales #46 (August 1964)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What Inspires You?

By Paul Kupperberg


Writers should be readers. They should read extensively and continuously in whatever field or genre they work, and they should read outside their field as well, fiction and nonfiction. They should read writers great and merely good. They should read for inspiration and what they read should make them envious, inspiring them to write better or to be more productive.

And, yes, a lot of my inspiration comes from the great comic books I've read (and reread) in my lifetime. Will Eisner's The Spirit, Jack Cole's Plastic Man, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four (particularly their run from around #40 to #100, in my opinion probably the greatest run of any series ever), and too many others to list. I just finished reading the Sergio Aragones/Denny O'Neil/Nick Cardy Bat Lash (thank you, DC Showcase Presents series!) and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman, and I plan next to dig into Steranko's run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. But I also read as much as I can of fiction and nonfiction, in as wide a range of authors and topics as possible. American history and biography aside, some of my favorite nonfiction books have been about oysters, codfish, and giant redwood trees. I doubt if any stories will ever spring from them, but they're fun and fascinating reads that tell us a lot about our history and connection with the natural world.

My inspirations start with what is, in my opinion, the greatest novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald (keep in mind I was an English lit major in the 1970s!). It’s a beautifully written, stunning achievement of story telling that I reread at least every couple of years. Despite its dated and deeply ingrained Jazz Age flavor, it remains a gripping tale of one man’s need to reinvent himself in pursuit of an American Dream--not necessarily the American Dream, just the one that Jay Gatsby imagined for himself. That his dream is, in reality, a vapid and ordinary bit of fluff like Daisy Buchanan is what makes his efforts and his fate so heartbreaking.

But that just lead me to another favorite novel of self-reinvention, Jack London’s autobiographical Martin Eden (1909), the tale of a San Francisco waterfront tough who by the sheer power of ideology and muscular intellect shapes himself into a man of letters and renown who, despite achieving everything he’s sought, is unable to live in a world that can’t also be reshaped to fit his proletariat beliefs. But then, I also love his Sea Wolf (1904), which is less a rousing seafaring adventure than it is a psychological thriller that pits brawn against even brawnier intellect. And then there’s London’s John Barleycorn (1913), another autobiographical novel, this one dealing with the author’s love of and struggles with alcohol.
Of course, it’s impossible for me to think of John Barleycorn without comparing it with another great American work on the subject, Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life (1994), another tough guy writer who dealt head on with his demons and addiction to drinking, this one in the form of a memoir that, if you haven’t read, you owe yourself an apology and the immediate purchase thereof. And how can I talk about Hamill without recommending his lyrical allegorical novel Snow in August (1997) and the fantastical Forever (2003), about a man who draws life from the hero of most of this author’s writing, New York City.
Oh, and speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I didn’t mention his wonderful and heartbreakingly funny Pat Hobby stories, a series of short stories about a circa-1940 down on his heels Hollywood screenwriting hack, written near the end of the author’s life, when his art began mimicking his life. And, while I’m on the subject of humor, there’s no way I can ignore the surrealist offerings of TV writer Jack Douglas, whose collections of short pieces, My Brother Was An Only Child (1959) and Never Trust A Naked Bus Driver (1960), both first read when I was eleven or twelve years old in the mid-1960s were, besides Mad Magazine, Jerry Lewis, and my father, the biggest influence on my thoroughly warped sense of humor. Not so funny (although it has its moments), but written by another 1950s television writer, is Helene Hanff’s epistolary masterpiece, 84 Charing Cross Road (1970), following her twenty year correspondence with London-based bookseller Frank Doel, a clerk at Marks & Co. located at the aforementioned address (also a sweet, charming film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins), which says more about the love and respect of friendships to me than anything since Huckleberry Finn.
I could keep going, on and on (and on and on and on), from longtime favorites acquired in my childhood like Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Sidney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” series, and Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories, to my two candidates for best science fiction novels of all time, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1953), to the great detective and noir writers, including Rex Stout, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block, and Elmore Leonard, to name just a few, to novels by the likes of Gore Vidal, Frederick Exley, Kurt Vonnegut, William Goldman, Joseph Heller, Graham Greene, and absolutely anything by Phillip Roth...anyone who has ever made me stop dead in the middle of reading what they’ve written to soak in some line or idea. (The latest instance of that happening was while rereading Greene’s Our Man In Havana (1958) with the line, “Time gives poetry to a battlefield.” I mean...wow!)
And I’ve hardly even touched on short stories--J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948); “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw (1939); Ernest Heminway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936)--and non-fiction, especially biographies of writers, or the great comic book writers...but don’t get me started! I could literally write a book on the books and stories that have had an impact on me and my writing. And, lately, I’ve been reading a lot of plays and screenplays by everyone from Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams to Paddy Chayefsky, Aaron Sorkin, and others looking for inspiration in the craft of writing dialog.

The point (at long last!) is, there’s some inspiration to be found in everything you read. If you’re lucky, it’s positive inspiration that leads you to take a chance on a new way of expressing an old idea or to up your game and reach for the level of prose and quality of writing you’ve just experienced. At the very least, even bad writing can be inspiring, if only as inspiration to avoid duplicating its badness. In the end, it doesn't matter.

What inspires you?
© Paul Kupperberg