Saturday, December 29, 2018

Tomo-chan is a Girl! volume 1 won me over (Manga Review)

Tomo and Jun
I started reading "Tomo-chan is a Girl!" volume 1 (Seven Seas) on a whim. I had no idea it was a 4-koma series when I started. I have never really liked 4-koma, even though two of my favorite anime are based on ones in that format (Sakura Trick and One Week Friends). I kept thinking I was going to stop reading volume 1, and certainly not buy the next volumes, but something strange happened, and I actually found myself really liking the series and will probably buy at least the next one to see if I keep liking it. Pleasant surprise.

Tomo-chan is a Girl! is the story of Tomo, a rough and tumble girl who has been best friends with Jun since they were little. At first, before going to school, Jun assumed Tomo was another boy his age. Over the years, from elementary, though to high-school, they have stayed close. Throughout, Tomo continues to beat people up (her family runs a dojo) and otherwise not act the part of a traditional girl. But as Tomo got older, she realized she loves Jun. Upon confessing to him, he was utterly oblivious to what she meant by it, thinking it was a total brotherly love. That opens up the comedy of Tomo and Jun, destined to be together, if they can only get out of their own way.

I suppose there is some plot, but being a 4-koma, it's more like reading the sunday comics, each page has it's punch-line, and they mostly consist of Jun not getting that Tomo is a girl and how his interactions make her feel or how clueless Tomo is about all the "boyish" things she does that keep Jun from realizing his own feelings for her.

Both leads are likable, but the star is Tomo's friend Gundou. She's the straightman that every good comedy series needs. But she's also a jerk in the most likable of ways. She antagonizes Jun, teases Tomo lovingly, and sets them both up for great punchlines. It is also clear that she does want the two of them to end up together in the end.

The art is okay. Sometimes it's clean and clear, but other times the lines seem a bit heavy (almost as if it was drawn smaller and enlarged) - some of this may be the reproduction and not the original art. Overall the art is pretty basic, and that may be due to the constraints of a 4-koma layout. It's nothing special, but the character Tomo is drawn with such great expressions and body language that it ends up working. The characters are all discernible from each other which is helpful, some series I can't keep track of people or they aren't unique enough to tell apart, so that much is good. Overall the art is nothing special, but it's decent.

If you like broad comedy, and you like high-school romance, then you'll probably really like this volume. It ended up endearing itself to me enough that I'm going to try volume 2. I'm going to give this volume a 7/10 due to being surprisingly, and unexpectedly, good - somehow, Tomo (the character) endeared herself to me that I'm curious where it will go from here.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

After the Rain vol. 2 keeps the slow, delicate, pace going (Manga Review)

Akira
I loved, LOVED, After the Rain volume 1 (by Jun Mayazuki, published by Vertical Comics). That was somewhat surprising given what could/should be a really creepy premise. In fact, it might be the best seinen manga of the year (a genre I don't typically read, either). So I am extremely pleased to say that Volume 2 continues with the softness, sweetness, slow pace, and delicacy of volume 1.

Akira is a former high-school track star, former because of a severe ankle injury (ruptured Achilles tendon?). She is now working at a local family restaurant. There she finds herself falling in love with her middle-aged, balding, nothing-special manager. This is how volume 1 begins, and that should be a really creepy warning sign to stay away. But instead, it's an incredibly kind and sweet story, that almost (almost) makes it feel plausible that Akira could fall in love with him.

Volume 2 picks up as Akira has met her boss's son from a previous relationship. We are also introduced to Kiyan, Akira's former (still?) best friend and track mate. However, it's clear that Akira has distanced herself from everyone in track, including Kiyan, even though she remains friendly with other students in her class. Combining the tension of their interactions with her boss's statement that Akira doesn't know anything about him, and we get the central emotional point of the volume. We also meet a friend of her boss's and discover more about his past as a writer. A depth of character, that if continued to be explored, will serve this series well.

I don't want to give away any details, because there is minimal plot to begin with (a good thing for a story like this) and so reading it for yourself is the joy. It's the small nuances of facial expressions, pacing, the minimal use of text, the subtlety that makes this series so incredible, not the actual events. Therefore, giving you the details of the chapters is both useless and potentially ruinous to your enjoyment.

Suffice it to say that Mayazuki-sensei continues the quality of volume 1 in volume 2. My only thought was that volume 2 didn't seem as revelatory to me as when I read volume 1. I don't think it's because of any difference in quality, but perhaps volume 1 felt so amazing simply because it was unexpected, so volume 2 isn't as much of a surprise. That's not a criticism at all, because volume 2 is wonderful.

Let's talk about the art. The facial expressions on Akira are incredible. She is so quiet, and appears as though she would be the stock haughty character from any other series, but instead, due to the range of facial expressions she is given, she has the most incredible emotional range and we immediately gravitate to her and empathize with her because of those feelings. She's adorable, not in a fluffy moe way, but adorable in that she is so earnest and wears her heart on her sleeve (face), even though she isn't trying to let people in. It's wonderful to see a character that visually suggests one trope (she's tall, thin, athletic, long perfect dark hair, etc...) but actually embodies another (the cutesy, love struck, teen). She is vibrant and fetching and unique and the art perfectly accentuates and adds to how her character is written. Volume 2 simply continues this amazing artwork.

Further, the line work is delicate and refined throughout. The use of screentones is closer to that of a shoujo series than a seinen, but still a bit more understated than many shoujo. I love me some good screentone use, and it's used well here. Any more would ruin the delicacy, any less would leave the work too bland. Excellent balance. The characters are drawn long and lean (my favorite style), with not a hint of moe outside of some intentional comedic moments (I don't mind when it's sporadic, I just don't love when a whole series is that way - although I can get over it if the characters and story are awesome). Overall, it is graceful art for a graceful series.

Volume 2 is a strong 8/10. It isn't higher simply because it isn't shockingly amazing (it's just plain great!), nor are there any big moments that create huge emotional epiphanies or amazing singular moments (although there are lots of beautiful, subtle moments).

We're still early in the series and that understatedness is as it should be. My hunch will be that there won't be any big moments at all, but instead the slow steady development and growth of Akira into a young woman, whatever direction that takes. In the end, I anticipate this series being a landmark series, more than just the sum of its individual volumes. We'll see, but I'm super excited by the quality of the first two volumes.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Edna O'Brien's The Lonely Girls - a study in subtle storytelling (Book Review)

Edna O'Brien
"The Lonely Girls" is the second in Edna O'Brien's 1960's masterpiece and under-read (at least in this country) trilogy of books about two Irish girls moving from childhood to adulthood.

Where "The Country Girls" introduced us to our lead character, Caithleen (Kate) and her friend Baba and watched them through a series of transitions through high-school both in and out of their small home town, "The Lonely Girls" spends its time almost totally within a single moment. This moment is stretched over months (exploring a relationship), yet it is is much more a case study of the dynamics between two people and the evolution of Kate's understanding of herself as a women. It is strong, clear, and subtle writing at its best.

In "The Lonely Girls" we find Kate and Baba living in the boarding house in Dublin and Kate working in the grocery. They go out dancing at night, try on new makeup and the latest fashions, when they can afford them, and then promptly forget those heavenly new shoes on the bus when weather forces them to wear boots.

Just as in "The Country Girls," Kate and Baba are far from perfect, angelic women. What they are is REAL women. It is so refreshing and endearing and rewarding to read a book with an imperfect heroine. Kate has some good qualities, for sure, but she's also figuring a lot out, and doing so in the midst of early feminism, Irish Catholic/Protestant conflict, young adult-hood, and a rapidly changing world.

She is no moral center, she is not an idol, she is not an angel on a pedestal, nor is she a morality tale. O'Brien is chronicling the very real life of a very real person, through very real, but mostly mundane things, including what it means to find one's-self romantically and sexually (not in a forced way, but simply because developmentally, that is where a 21 year old's head often is).

As the plot, such as it minimally (and thankfully - I'm not much of a plot lover) is, moves forward, Kate meets an older man, Eugene, around 35ish, separated from his wife but not yet divorced, and living alone. As they get to know each other, his worldly charms (he's a documentary film maker) and grumpy quirks (he's a mix of a hermit, a farmer, and an artiste) work their spell on Kate and in some odd way, her external simplicity fills a spot in him.

The entire book is devoted to the small amount of time they spend together, with Kate ultimately (and temporarily) moving into his house, the havoc that wreaks on her family and the community, but also on what it means for two very different people, who need very different things, and are at very different developmental stages, to try and make a relationship work.

Two things are fascinating about these characters and the dynamic of their interaction. The first, is that while Kate presents outwardly simple: she's a country bumpkin, trying to be fashionable, trying to fit in, but honestly doesn't; she's actually (at least as the narrator) acutely aware and attuned to the world. It is through this mix of knowing her as an astute narrator combined with seeing how she presents herself to others (the 21-year-old vs. the wise narrator) that we get a true feel that the "real" Kate lies somewhere in between - a person who may quite literally (the scene's with her dad, yikes!) have been held back by her circumstances all these years.

The other fascinating thing is Eugene and trying to understand what he "wants" from Kate in a partner. Eugene was/is married to an American woman who is spoken endearingly of by his friends. Why isn't he with her, it seems she might even still have feelings for him. They have a young daughter together whom he seems devoted to even though he rarely sees her now that they are in America. He is a man of words and books and travel. He is also 15 years older than Kate and in a very different part of his development.

What then, does he see in Kate? Is it that she has the ruddy good-looks of a healthy Irish girl? Is it her striking red hair? Could it be the way she seems naive and simple and gives him an opportunity to teach her about the world and thus feel important? It is never quite clear what he is getting out of it. It seems however, that she cannot "keep up" with him intellectually and over time, their relationship proves quite fraught as she wants earnest doting traditionality and he is uncomfortable with any perception of being "tied down" or hindered by her own idiosyncrasies, fears, and anxieties.

At first that last sentence reads as though O'Brien were somehow reinforcing traditional gender and social roles and presenting stereotypical archetypes simply through having her characters exemplify them so typically. But O'Brien presents these as factors of their experiences and age, not only their gender, although for sure these are undeniably mid-century roles.

What makes the writing brilliant, is that O'Brien isn't judging either person or role or their expectations for each other. She is not railing for or against anything, yet we certainly feel the feminist and liberating undertones in the writing, but thankfully her writing is too subtle to beat us over the head. O'Brien is exploring two people, people who very likely would have felt and thought the things they did at the time this story is set, and what happens as those lives collide in the midst of overall changes in society (which play a strong undercurrent in the work). This isn't writing in judgment, it is writing about people, flawed, beholden to social constructs, explored because it is needed to be explored, but never for the point of making a point.

You can guess that Kate and Eugene's relationship does not end well, but it is the journey from flirting to romance to realization that makes "The Lonely Girls" so well done. Nothing really "happens" in the strictest of plot senses, although certainly events take place. It is more the subtle shifts of how they look at each other, themselves, and their relationship that are the substance of this work.

As with the prior book, the writing is clear, simple (without being simplistic), beautiful, with brisk pacing, detail when needed, and speed when warranted. Whether you are able to relate to Kate's story directly or not, it is a story that feels very intimately real. Please consider reading the whole trilogy. I'll be back with a discussion of the third book "Girls in their Married Bliss" when I've finished it. But if the first two are any indication, it'll be amazing as well. Happy reading!

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Hatsu Haru vol. 4 balances implausibility with endearingness (Manga Review)

Kai and Riko
Hatsu Haru vol. 4 (Yen Press) continues the story of two very likable high-schoolers destined to fall in love. Kai is the hot, smart, lady's man who used to tease Riko when they were growing up. But instead of being the victim, Riko was tough and always put Kai back in his place, more than able to hold her own. Now, in high-school, Kai has found himself uninterested in any of the girls and helplessly in love with Riko, who continues to balance her kindness with toughness and resiliancy.

Volume 4 starts with a confession, a confession that fails to register with Riko. This is where the volume is slightly (very) implausible. No matter how clear Kai is, Riko just does not believe he is actually confessing, and instead assumes that he's just trying to lift her spirits about her unrequited love with a long-time family friend.

Again, and again, Kai tries to make things clear, and Riko just isn't getting it. I find it hard to believe that when someone like Kai does all the kind things he does and then flat out says he likes you, that the girl wouldn't get it. BUT, even thought it's implausible, it's still executed well for the sake of comedy and keeping the series going. I'll excuse this lack of believability due to the nature of a comedy romance shoujo manga. Not fine writing, but it's a fairly common trope, so it's serving it's purpose. Other than that, the overall writing is well done with clear pacing and structure.

There is also a big reveal in this volume that furthers Riko's grieving over her unrequited love as well as a glimmer that maybe she could move on, and maybe even see Kai differently. So while the volume is mostly focused on the humor of Kai's failed attempts to get through to Riko, there is also some movement on her end.

Basically, if you like comedy/romance shoujo, this volume gives exactly what you would expect. It's also consistent with the prior volumes' tone and approach. The art is excellent! I love the style and quality. I love the way she does eyes.

This series is not about big thoughts, and it's not going to reveal any deep emotional epiphanies, instead, it's cute and predictable, but because the characters are likable and the art is great, it's a pleasure to read.

Volume 4 is a strong 7/10. It's not higher only because there isn't anything really original or novel and the thick-headedness/obliviousness of Riko goes a little beyond the believable. But if you liked the prior volumes, you'll like this one! It's a really fun series, even if we know where things will end, it's the journey that counts.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

After Hours vol. 3 is an unsatisfying conclusion (Manga Review)

Kei and Emi
I loved the first two volumes of After Hours (Viz Media). But after reading After Hours volume 3, I was left confused and disappointed with the conclusion of the story. It felt so out of place and disconnected from the first two volumes that I had to go back and reread the first two to make sure I hadn't missed any foreshadowing that might better situate the third volume. On second read, maybe because the shock was gone, it wasn't as bad as I thought, but was still ultimately unsatisfying.

Volume 3 opens with Kei and Emi on the night of the big event. There is some mild plot thrown in that leads to Emi saving the day and supporting Kei's moment in the spotlight. We also get a lovely scene with the two of them afterwards, the "after hours" of the title.

BUT, then this oversized volume (6 long chapters compared to the other volumes' 5 short chapters each) can't quite figure out what to do with itself and gives us a random new-years eve chapter, an aquarium date, and then...

Then Kei goes missing. The next chapters are almost like a side-story or a story that could have been worked into the middle of the overall series, but stuck on the end, after the big night, it just feels out of place. Further, and this is why I went back to reread the first two volumes, the central driving plot elements come out of nowhere. In addition, Kei's motivation, when finally revealed, doesn't make a ton of sense for her character. Even if it does make sense in an abstract way, there was nothing in the prior 2 and a half volumes that suggested this in any foreshadowed way.

We get a sort-of resolution to this disappearance that doesn't actually resolve anything, and leaves the story in a wistful, open-ended state. This doesn't satisfy.

In the prior volume, Emi had come to terms with breaking up with her boyfriend and realizing she was in love with a woman. In this volume, she expresses some desire to build a life for herself and not just be a mooch at 24. Kei is presented as a mostly stable, grown woman, with a decent job, a rich social life and passion-project but who has some normal jealousy and insecurity within her relationship with Emi. NONE of that has anything to do with the final chapters and Kei's disappearance. 

So while not poorly written in and of itself, volume 3 mostly isn't tied to the prior two volumes. Once the concert is over after chapter 12 (the second chapter in this volume), the next four chapters just don't add anything or even make sense in the flow of the series. I almost wonder if it was originally a 12 chapter story, and when it didn't all fit right for publishing, if Nishio-sensei was asked to add more to fill it out. 

Too bad. If it had ended with the rooftop scene at the end of chapter 12 at least it would have been internally consistent as a unified story. I still think there was room to explore much needed growth and dynamics between Kei and Emi, changes that could fill a much longer series (and would have been well worth it). However, short and sweet is okay too, if it had been left at that. But the four additional chapters feel jarring and actually lessened the tightness of the first 12 chapters.

So nothing awful or horrible occurs to ruin the series, but it is a disjointed volume that doesn't end with the same tone or themes from the main story. The art continues to be top-notch. Somewhat moe but also unique and adult at the same time. Great use of grays and blacks, and a sketchiness that I like. There is a rapidness and movement in the linework that feels appropriate for a story about underground DJs. 

It had so much potential, the first two volumes really held up on re-read, but the final volume is a let-down. I give the final volume is a 5/10 due to not upholding the promise of the first two volumes. The series, because of the problems at the end, is a 6.5/10, but the first two volumes are so good, it's all still highly worth a read. 

For a different perspective on this ending, check out the review on Okazu.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge vol. 4 follows the script (Manga Review)

Leo and Tenma
Meca Tanaka-sensei's newest work, "The Young Master's Revenge" (Shojo Beat/Viz) wraps up in volume 4. As you may know, I'm a fan of Tanaka-sensei's art and writing, so I have felt a little guilty reviewing this series and not loving it as much as some of her other stuff. Volume 4 brings us the expected conclusion and it's quality is in line with how I've felt about the first three volumes.

First things first, the expected conclusion. One does not go into a Meca Tanaka series with any expectation other than the lead couple will get together in the end. It's the journey we're in to. So yes, Leo and Tenma get together here, no shock. But like with the first three volumes, the journey feels rushed, frantic, contains random plot elements - mostly to create humorous situations, and the characters display a lack of communication that would have made the whole thing simpler.

It's not that I dislike this series. The art is still Tanaka-sensei's wonderfully unique style and there are some beautiful moments:
Leo and Tenma

But the premise of the series was built on shaky roots (revenge due to turtle bite scars on his butt that caused embarrassment in front of the girl he blamed/liked-but-didn't-know-he-liked), Leo isn't very likable nor is his basic emotional state very evolved (and thus how he treats Tenma early on is NOT okay), nor is Tenma a very engaging heroine. I like my shoujo with a strong, self-determined heroine, and Tenma is pretty minimally sketched out and not the agent in her own story. It's also told from Leo's point of view, and I don't really care for him much.

Volume 4 starts with Leo and Tenma having both realized they love each other, but are too flustered by those feelings to say anything (and Leo too guilty to believe it is possible for her to forgive the way he treated her early on). A series or random things happen that causes plot to happen - a retreat, the amusement park, a rumor made up by the other high-school, etc... This leads to a confession and they get together. More or less the end.

I think of all the things I'm saddest about in this series, it's that Tanaka-sensei created a really great character in Tojo, the public high-school student council president, and then totally underutilized her throughout the series. She might have been the one character I would have actually loved to see a whole series around (also, I'm not sure about how her story was wrapped up in the bonus at the end...still processing).

I don't really have much else to say after reviewing the prior volumes. If you love Tanaka-sensei's work, then The Young Master's Revenge will be worth the read. The art is simple but fun and well done (for the comic side of shoujo), especially if you're already a fan. The story is pretty by-the-numbers, but the humor didn't work as well for me here as some of her past work because it felt more contrived and I didn't really care about either lead that much, so it really wasn't that funny.

I'm still really hoping that her series Faster than a Kiss gets translated into English because I love Pearl Pink so much! I even enjoyed Meteor Prince more than this (and wish it has been longer). But at least we're getting some of her works translated into English, that's a good thing.

If you liked the first three volumes or just want to support a wonderful mangaka, grab volume 4. I'm glad I have the whole series, even if it isn't one of her strongest ones. This volume is a 6/10 and the whole series really is a 6/10 (fine but nothing special). It's enjoyable, cute, predictable, with nice simple comic art, but doesn't rise up the way some of her other work has in the past. I feel so guilty...

I STILL LOVE YOU TANAKA-SENSEI!!!!!!

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Kimi Ni Todoke vol. 30 - an end and a celebration (Manga Review)

Volume 30
Kimi Ni Todoke is a landmark shoujo manga series. This week, it came to an end in its English translation in volume 30. It would be a grave disservice and completely inappropriate for me to review the volume in the traditional sense. Instead, let this be a celebration of an incredible work of art and storytelling. Because, needless to say, if you've read through to volume 30 you already love the series.

So right off the bat, volume 30 hits all the right notes in ending the series. It has the same beautiful, slow pacing, hints of comedy, gorgeous art, softness and delicacy, intimacy, and emotionality as the series as a whole. It doesn't try to do some big thing to end, instead, it is focused on how each "ending" is a new "beginning" but also a continuation. While the series is ending, it is clear these character's lives are only just starting. It is wistful, melancholy, loving, romantic, sad, hopeful and so many things, all without being overly dramatic or plot heavy. As Karuho Shiina-sensei has done throughout the entire series, volume 30 is a perfectly balanced "conclusion" to the series (if not their lives).

Kimi Ni Todoke tells the story of Sawako, a shy, brilliant, but odd and oddly-misunderstood young woman who finally comes out of her shell when two other misfits realize there is a real person inside of her. From there, the rest of her class gets to know her and embrace her. This isn't some story of bullying and awful peers and the terrors of being a teenager, but really one about how we sometimes get slotted into roles and with the right openmindedness by everyone (ourselves included), those roles can be overcome; that there is inherent good in everyone and we can be embraced by others.

One young man in particular, Shota, has always been intrigued by Sawako. As she comes out of her shell, is embraced by the class, they get to know each other. This is the story of their falling in love. The final volume concludes their highschool journey, already dating, and into the transition to college. Without giving any spoilers, it is a fitting advancement in their relationship, done with sweetness and delicacy and all the quirks we expect of these two shy lovebirds.

Sawako Kuronuma and Shota Kazehaya

As I said, volume 30 is the perfect, delicate ending to the series. But what makes this series so amazing? 

First, it isn't overly dramatic. It perfectly blends sweetness, comedy, angst, love, passion, anger, frustration, daily life, confusion, and a host of other real feelings in the day-to-day lives of a group of teenagers. There are no big plot points or dramatic reveals. There are no hidden pasts that link them together through tragedy. There are no terrible parents or accidents waiting to happen. Instead, there are kids growing up normally and doing so sweetly.

The art is also exceptional. The range of depictions (stylistically) as well as facial expression for Sawako are incredible. In one moment she looks like the gothy cursed terror people initially assume her to be and in the next we see her subtle, radiant, classical beauty. And everything in between, including lots of funny faces, shy faces, blushing faces, ecstatic faces, loving faces, etc...

The line work is always top notch, the use of screen tones going beyond the minimum, adding depth and sparkle to scenes. The art is mostly realistic, with the long lines of classic shoujo, but delving into super deformed for humor effortlessly and without breaking the feel or pace. It is quite frankly, some of the best shoujo art to be found anywhere (and I don't say that easily, I'm really pretty picky).

The writing is soft and subtle but clear. It is nuanced and slow and purposeful. It doesn't interject unnecessary events to create drama, instead the drama comes from the natural interactions and collisions between people.

And let's talk about the people. Sawako and Shota are wonderful, they are the lead couple, we get to know them both as real people. But there is SO much more. The side characters are really given lives of their own and their stories are just as powerful and meaningful as our leads. Sawako's two closest friends, Ayane and Chizuru, couldn't be more different than each other or Sawako, but together, they complement each other so well. 

Each side character (and the guys too - Pin especially is a fan and personal favorite - boy does he have some hidden depth!) is given a unique and meaningful emotional and relationship arc, without any judgment, and without any pathos. Each takes a very different path forward, but their journeys are well worth the read. It is a rare manga indeed whose side character stories are just as well constructed and deep as the main characters' stories. This alone has been a huge influence on my own writing. It really opened me up to what true character building and the interrelations between side characters and main characters can mean for a work of writing.

I could go on and on, but you probably already love this series and have bought and read the final volume. If you haven't, and you like shoujo, this is one of the finest shoujo series ever written and is an instant classic of the genre, certain to hold up over time, and remain an influence on works to come. 

If you're not sure about starting the series, feel free to start with the anime which covers the first few volumes and is close enough to give you a taste. Just know that the entire series goes so much further with such subtle beauty and brilliance that the anime, no matter how well done, cannot fully capture. 

Thank you to Karuko Shiina-sensei for a stunning and profound work of art, and to Shojo Beat for the English translation.

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Saturday, December 8, 2018

My drafting and editing process (The Craft of Writing)

I haven't written about writing in a while, so I thought I'd talk a little about my personal drafting and editing process, especially since I've started writing my newest novel. Naturally, this is just what works for me and it might be a completely wrong approach for you. But none-the-less, since I like reading about how other people write, I figured I'd write about how I write in case you'd like to read it!

When I start a new work (Work in Progress - "WIP"), it usually starts with some key element that coalesces in my head. Maybe it's the penultimate scene, it might be a character, it might be a mood, a color, or even a style. From there, I tend to stew on it and let is just come in and out of my mind, often for months or even years before I decide to start writing.

During that time, I'm turning it around both consciously and unconsciously until it starts to take a basic shape. That shape, for me, is the character's emotional and development arc. I don't care about plot. Truly. Not in what I write, and not in what I read. I care about beautiful language and character development. The plot should be an organic and natural outcome of how the character thinks and acts in light of circumstances. If the character is well defined and their emotional journey makes sense, the plot naturally arises.

So when I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), what I have is a basic character emotional arc but usually not much else. So when I start the first chapter, all I'm looking to do is start this character in motion.

My first draft of my first chapter is usually a crude skeleton, just the structure of what the chapter will be. Sometimes it's a pretty good structure, sometimes it's awful and needs to be destroyed. But once I finish that first draft of the first chapter, I don't go on to the next chapter. Instead, I go right back and start the second draft of the first chapter.

The second draft will do a couple of things. If the first chapter's structure just didn't pan out, if it just isn't going to go anywhere, then the second draft will be a structural rewrite. If the basic structure is okay, then the second draft is nuancing dialogue, adding details, smoothing things over, cleaning up language, creating depth, etc...

Sometimes, it'll need a third or even fourth revision until that first chapter is strong enough in character, voice, and momentum that it makes sense to write the next chapter. Since everything in a book that follows is informed by what preceded, it makes sense to me not to forge ahead if the first chapter isn't basically in decent shape.

Once I get through a couple drafts of the first chapter, I'll move on to the second chapter. Now, mind you, I still have no idea what the plot is. Nor do I care, because the plot is simply what happens in everyday life that the characters respond to in authentic ways. It almost doesn't matter what happens, because it is the character's responses that we care about, so literally anything they can respond to will be rewarding to the reader.

Now, I'm not saying that plot isn't useful, but what matters is their journey, so my plots develop out of that journey and so without a sound foundation for each preceding chapter, the journey won't make sense. If I have a crappy chapter 1, do chapter 2, then have to go back and rewrite chapter 1 - then I'll HAVE to rewrite chapter 2 because it won't make sense anymore. I never move on to a new chapter until I've gotten the prior chapter in pretty solid shape. I see no value to writing all the way through a "first draft" straight away because of the interdependence of each chapter.

What has been cool about the process of multiple revisions on a chapter before moving on, is that it allows me to start embedding subtle hints and premonitions about upcoming things without actually having to have written those yet. Then, when I actually come to those later chapters, I've already got the glimmers embedded in the earlier chapters. It would be like building a house with no plans, getting to the roof, and then realizing you needed to double the size of a room on the first floor. What a waste of time an energy and all the missed opportunities for foreshadowing!

Now, I get that this won't work for everyone, but for me it's been very productive. Here's some of how it works though in practice, because it isn't as simple as writing a draft of a chapter, going back and editing it.

Starting the book, I've been stewing on the basic character arc for months or years. Then writing the first draft of the first chapter, often in two or more sessions. From there, I'll often take a break and just let the draft float around my brain. I do a lot of pre-writing in my head, tossing ideas around, playing with dialogue, looking for themes, unraveling motivations (frequently while in the shower or on the potty - sorry about that). I find the thinking time so much more valuable than the actual writing time. For me, the thinking IS the writing. The typing is just the process of getting it out.

When I actually go back to write and edit a second (or third or fourth...) draft of a chapter, I've spent so much time in my head living in the first draft, that the second draft is far more than just editing. It's more like taking a very rough pencil sketch and turning it into a photograph (or a painting).

After the second (or third or fourth...) draft of a chapter, I move on to the next. And for me, the process repeats. Get a chapter really solid, draft a new chapter, edit that new one until it's really solid, move to the next. I do this for each chapter until I finish the draft of the entire work. But that's far from the end. I consider this to the the "first draft" of the full book.

My next step is to go back to the beginning and start reading and editing it into a second draft, one that pulls the voice together across all the months or years of writing, that addresses any little threads and themes that got loose, and that ensures that dialogue is meaningful, language is well used, and that the work actually accomplishes what I wanted it to accomplish with emotion and character.

From there I might certainly do additional drafts. Additionally, during all the months or years of writing, I keep spreadsheets and other notes on what happened when, what will happen, why people did things, when they knew things, how they interacted, when we met people, etc... to keep track of the internal logic and consistency of the narrative. This has been really really helpful. It also lets me jot down editing notes for prior chapters that spring to mind while I'm working on a new chapter. It creates a reflexive back-and-forth with the work to bring it all together.

So that's how I work on a long piece. I'd love to know how you do it. Will you tell me in the comments? (Pretty please!)

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Ao Haru Ride vol. 2 is everything I want in a manga (Manga Review)

Futaba and Kou
Warning: I'm going to gush about a nearly perfect manga volume for the next several paragraphs. You've been warned! :)

Ao Haru Ride volume 2 by Io Sakisaka (published by VIZ in the US) is a nearly flawless masterpiece of shoujo manga. No, I'm not being hyperbolic. In summary, it has everything I want: a self-directed heroine who is not stupidly head-over-heels in love, complex emotional interactions between people that are messy and believable, characters we actually care about, and gorgeous art. Do I have your attention yet?

Ao Haru Ride is the story of Futaba and Kou, who had their meet-cute in middle school but just as they were about to take a step forward, Kou disappears. We flash forward to high-school where Futaba is struggling to find her young-adult identity. Just as she is beginning to recognize that things aren't going the way she wants, a young man, taller, thinner, older, but reminiscent of Kou shows up as a transfer student. It is him, but it's not. Gone is the shy, calm, kind middle-schooler, and instead we get a pensive young man who seems to try and keep people at a distance, controlling the temperature of the room clinically, but doing it to hide something.

Unlike so many shoujo where the girl can't take her eyes off the bad-boy, we get a much more nuanced take on that tired set of tropes/archetypes. Kou isn't a bad-boy, he's clearly someone who is struggling through some things. Futaba isn't madly in love with the boy she used to know nor the boy in front of her now, she's really just curious what happened to him and why he's changed. In fact, Futaba regularly talks about the things she doesn't like about him now, even getting comfortable enough to call him out on it at times. She's not a perfect young lady either, she's a really complex, messy, snotty, imperfect, but kind and fun and caring, authentic person. What we have is the story of two young adults, trying to figure out who they are, and remembering (or choosing not to remember) a time long ago when their lives were simpler and clearer.

Volume 2 picks up at the start of a new school year where Kou has been moved into the same class as Futaba and her friend Yuri and they are joined by Murao and Kominato, two very different classmates. Futaba, determined to take the reigns on her own life, volunteers to be a class rep, and is soon joined by the other four.

Of course, one of many fascinating and revealing moments, is Kou volunteering to be the male rep. Supposedly he isn't interested in the work or even being friends with Futaba, yet he frequently, in quiet ways, shows that he is aware of her. This volume is full of his struggles to accept that it is okay to have authentic relationships with other people and not always hold them at a distance either through coldness, sarcasm, or putting on a fake happy act.

The majority of this volume focuses on a student council retreat that lets the reader explore the dynamic between the five characters, and provides some opportunities for Futaba and Kou to interact. Again and again, we see Futaba finding ways to explore her curiosity about Kou, and Kou's responses being inconsistent. Sometimes he pushes her away; sometimes he lets his hand linger in hers.

This volume contains my favorite scene from the anime, at night, at an empty table in the retreat hall, Kou and Futaba's heads are down on the table next to each other, feeling a moment, but unsure what it means. It's a delicately rendered and very real scene depicting the complexity of human interactions and emotions.

We get some good insight into Murao and Yuri as well and the sense that these five might be together for a while. We also conclude with yet another glimpse that the old Kou has not been completely lost. He tries so hard to hide his authentic self, but it keeps slipping out.

So the writing is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, the moments are believable and complex but subtle and not overwhelming. What about the art? It's some of the best contemporary shoujo you can find! It's got the fairly realistic (ie, not cutesy or moe) style going for it. The lines are delicate and crisp. There is a huge variety of facial expressions (especially Futaba who shows her feelings so acutely on her face). Characters are distinct from each other. The use of screentones is wonderful, not just for pure shading, but for atmosphere as well (sparkles and overlays). It's everything I want in shoujo art, wonderfully executed, and well printed in the US version.

Basically this is damn near perfect. I'm not giving it a perfect score because it's too early in the series, we haven't had any big penultimate scenes or other things yet, so it's basically a perfect introductory volume. That makes it a strong 9/10; but if it's any indication, the series itself is headed towards "classic" status. Thank you Sakisaka-sensei for an incredible work! Thank you VIZ for licensing it!

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Monday, December 3, 2018

Yurine is unraveling in Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 7 (Manga Review)

Haine and Aika
After not having essentially any Yurine and Ayaka in volume 6, volume 7 of Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl (by Canno, published by Yen Press) returns our favorite couple to the forefront of the story. Not only are they the main focus, but Canno-sensei gives us more depth and insight into Yurine and explores how she is changing and reflecting upon the past year and a half of her high-school life: what it means about how she perceived her younger years, how she defines herself, and how she might move forward. This is the sort of writing and story that makes the less-serious or less-developed portions of Kiss & White Lily (as a series) worth getting through.

In this volume, the gardening club gets a new middle-school member, Haine, and she presents as a breathless Yurine fan. It is clear from the beginning though that Yurine's head is not in the game. Yurine, seeing how she is perceived by Haine, begins to further sink into her own head and question whether she is empty as a person. We've had hints of this line of thought before, but volume 7 explores it in depth. In fact, Yurine's journey of self-exploration takes up the majority of three chapters. And rightfully so!

Yurine discovers that Haine is an excellent pianist, a rising young star, who clearly enjoys what she is good at. Yurine has never enjoyed almost anything, no matter how good she has been at it. As she reflects on her middle-school days, was it the dominance or the competition that she liked? She certainly didn't care about the actual skills or activities or hobbies she would try.

The realization that she hasn't ever actually cared about anything throws her for a loop, to the point where she and Ayaka actually tie for first place on the exams instead of Yurine's normal dominance (a first!). Ayaka, sensing that things have not been right takes no pride in tying Yurine and pushes Yurine to continue to explore her feelings in order to get back on track. Ultimately there is some growth for Yurine in self-reflection and some, noticeable, growth in her relationship with Ayaka.

I'd like to do a side bar here, If I may (and it's my blog, so I may). What exactly is the relationship between Yurine and Ayaka? I had assumed after a year and a half, many kisses, from both parties, hand holding, blushes, etc... that they considered themselves a couple and that Ayaka was just being stubborn and even a bit Tsundere but in her heart, and in their alone and intimate times together, acknowledges their mutual feelings. 

However, there are points in this volume where it feels less certain than that. I thought I knew from Yurine's perspective where things stood so could just excuse Ayaka's freakouts, pushing Yurine away, grudgingly kissing her, etc..., as just parts of Ayaka's stubborn personality and not a reflection of what they were actually doing together or feeling about each other.

BUT, from Yurine's reactions, particularly in the final chapter, it seems that maybe Ayaka actually had the stronger, clearer, feelings. I don't want to give too much away, but either Yurine hadn't realized her feelings to date (after more than a year!) or those feelings just suddenly got a lot stronger in this volume. From her reactions, it seems Yurine is now "aware" of Ayaka in a wholly different way than before which makes me think it wasn't really romance between them up to this point (at least not from Yurine's perspective - although it might have been for Ayaka in her own silly way). 

It is clear now though, that Yurine is seeing Ayaka in a very different (and maybe more romantic and/or sexual) way and I'm hopeful that this could translate into some advancements in their relationship in future volumes. I'd like this story to go beyond will they/won't they and cute blushes to actually exploring the nuances of complex people in complex relationships. This volume presented some interesting glimmers of that future possibility.

The volume also features a side couple, centering on Haine and her young aunt, who is only about 4 or 5 years older than her, a third-year in high-school (Haine is a second year middle schooler). Haine has been all but raised by her aunt and they are very close, but in an undefined way. Both explore whether it is right to be friends, to be mom-daughter, to be aunt-niece, to be dependent on each other, to spend so much time together, and when and how might be the right time to let go. It resolves in a lovely example of what a deep platonic relationship between women can be and can be a model of for a non-romantic, non-sexual, deep relationship between any two people. While it was a bit of a "tying it up with a nice bow" ending with some fairly overwrought emotions (but hell, that's what the series is for), it still had some emotional weight and overall worked for me.

So this was a fascinating volume. I loved the deeper exploration of Yurine's psyche. I loved all the Yurine and Ayaka interactions (boy was Ayaka attentive to Yurine's needs), and I loved that Yurine has moved beyond Ayaka being something sorta important but undefined, and into a genuine romantic awareness of her. Hopefully this hearkens to more good things to come in future volumes. I'm giving this a strong 7.5/10 (and my guess is that in rereads after the series concludes, that this will prove to be a pivotal volume).

For another cool take on this volume, read Christian Le Blanc's review over at Okazu.

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