A Conversation with Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng

April 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm 9 comments

Written by Kean Patrick Murphy (2O412)
Photographs by Lu Wen Hao (2I314)

Gone Case Graphic NovelOn Monday, 19 April, for the first 2011 Library Week and World Book Day afternoon event, writer Dave Chua and artist Koh Hong Teng participated in a Book Talk about adapting Chua’s prize-winning novel Gone Case into graphic novel format, with Mr Jason Erik Lundberg as moderator.

I learned many valuable lessons from the talk. For instance, Mr Chua mentioned that a writer gets many inspirations, especially from other authors. He or she mainly uses past experiences as a reference in writing stories, while adding scenes from the imagination along the way. A good example would be the very book they were talking about, Gone Case. Mr Chua described the setting of the book as coming out of his life experiences and the HDB block that he lived in as a boy. He used the issues that he encountered in his home as a focal point for his story. This interests me as when I write narratives in school, I often do the same thing. Which means that this way of writing is constant not only from published authors, but anyone who writes. A writer also has to read widely to gain inspiration. Thus, if you don’t read many books, you can’t become a good writer.

Mr Chua brought up the fact that there is a difference between comics and books in terms of people buying them for the first time. Books are harder to assess at first glance, while comics are easier as people are able to judge them immediately by the quality of artwork. The artwork needs to be striking enough to attract the reader’s attention, while the first chapter of a book needs to be engaging enough to motivate the reader to continue on. Mr Lundberg added that sales are also affected by the stigma of self-publishing, with books suffering from it more than comics. I think this is so because many people have the mindset that a book is only self-published if established publishers have rejected it, and so it must be rubbish. I disagree, as some self-published books that I have read are very good, and certainly worthy of a publisher, but for a variety of reasons the author has chosen not to go the traditional route.

A good tip that I picked up was that no matter how unrealistic the story is, you must always remember to keep the story believable. If the story stretches your imagination, people enjoy it, but if it is ridiculous, they won’t like it. On a related point, you must make sure the scene fits the setting. For example, many student writers describe gun fights in Singapore, but guns are banned in Singapore, so the situation seems out of place; writers must be careful to avoid falling into this trap. Another tip is a good way to kickstart your drawings: Mr Koh takes reference photos of a scene he might want to draw, then goes back to the drawing board, takes the best photo angle for the scene or panel, draws it in his own style and adds in more personal details. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr Chua encouraged us to write what we enjoy! If you are writing about something that you have no interest in, the story will turn out bland and won’t be interesting. Once you write about something that captivates you, you can spend a long time on it and your passion for it will come through in the writing.

The issue of memorable characters was also brought up here. Some characters will stick in the reader’s memory long after the story has been read. Sometimes, they may not even be the main character, and may have a short “page life.” Mr Lundberg described the Malay barber in a scene from Gone Case being one of the most memorable characters for him in the graphic novel, despite the barber’s appearance lasting only a mere three pages; I can recall a few characters just like that from other books.

The graphic novel adaptation as a form has always puzzled me, as conversion from a prose work always seems to twist the story into something else, shortening the scenes and taking out some of its true meaning. Now I know that this technique is actually purposefully intended by comics creators. Mr Chua gave Mr Koh free reign over the story, letting him plan it like a director doing storyboards for a film, and then collaborating on the dialogue and other details.

In conclusion, this talk was very informative for me, and a valuable experience. I can’t wait for the next time authors come to HCI to give a talk. I am especially interested in two Singaporean authors, Jeffrey Lim and Wena Poon, whose writing I enjoyed after reading an anthology which included short stories by them. I used to think that Singaporean literature was a waste of time and of poor quality, but talks like these have broadened my vision and changed my views.


Entry filed under: Books, Events, News, Recreational Reading, Singapore Lit, Writing.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tan Ye Kai 2a2 32  |  April 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Hi there Kean Patrick Murphy, despite not being there for the talk, your reflection was so good that after reading it, I felt as if I was there for the talk! I have learnt many things from your reflection and I also agree with many parts of it. I learnt that a write gets inspiration from many sources, including other authors. This is an especially good piece of advice because I now learn how to draw inspiration from many places and from other people too. Also, I learnt to make my essay more relevant and realistic. Next time, I would probably not write about aliens landing in Singapore again! The thing that I agree with you is that some self-published books are very good, perhaps even better than some book published by a famous publisher.

    • 2. Jason Erik Lundberg  |  April 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

      Ye Kai, remember what was said here, and what I’ve said in class: your story need not be realistic, but it does need to be believable. So if you want to write about aliens landing in Singapore, as long as you make it sound believable, go for it!

  • 3. Rosalind Lee  |  April 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Great job with the write-up and photos! I am glad that useful insights were gathered from the talk. This might be a good idea for a Language Arts project – team up with someone who can write or draw.Who knows, what two creative minds can come up with.

    We need more people like Dave and Hong Teng, in Singapore, to capture the sights and sounds of life in this metropolitan city.

  • 4. Mervin Lim  |  April 22, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Hello Kean Patrick Murphy,

    I was at the talk as well, but i was unable to capture and understand everything that these two fantastic people, Mr Dave and Mr Hong Teng. However, fortunately, i came across your reflection, and benefited a lot after reading it.

    What intrigues me the most was the graphics and art that illustrated the story line and plot of the book much better. As most of the students now, i belief, are visual learners, this graphic novel would definitely be appealing towards them.

    Furthermore, this graphic novel, as said during the discussion, is about the problems that a 12 year old boy living in a HDB flat faces, which includes Racial and Religious conflicts, due to different practices. Therefore, i feel that this book is very useful as well, as it helps us in understanding more on other races and religions and also corresponding to the novel “To kill a mockingbird”, we can learn and stop discrimination as well.

    Also, previously, i thought that art was just a piece of drawing. However, now after hearing Mr Hong Teng talked about how he drew the pictures and why he drew them, i became more interested in art, and had the sudden urge to learn it, and further understand it. Mr Hong Teng said that he used mostly his childhood memories and a little bit of reference to other sources when drawing the images, and therefore, every picture he drew, means something to him, and while drawing, he will be able to recall on his childhood memories. I feel that this is something really interesting.

    Last but not least, i gained a very valuable tip, which was also mentioned in this informative reflection, and that is to make your story believable, even though it is unrealistic. This is a tip that will definitely be etched in my mind, and it will definitely help me in my future assignments and tests.

    Thank you!

  • 5. Tan Chuan Xin  |  April 22, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Kean! This is a very sound reflection that you have done up. I was unable to attend the talk because I had something on that afternoon, but from your reflection, I gathered quite a lot of information about the talk. Not being there to listen to the author talk about writing techniques is quite a pity for me, because I cannot write short stories well. If I was there and heard the part about the ‘believability’ of a story, I am sure that I would have benefited a lot from the talk. My stories are always VERY believable, and too much so. This makes it very dull and boring as everyone can guess what will happen next. I feel that if I was there, I could have benefited from the tips and pointers that the author would have given. However, thanks to your guide, I know what I wanted to know and more. Thanks a lot!

  • 6. Clement Chia Hui Tien  |  April 24, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Hello Kean,

    I did not attend the talk but after reading your reflections and overview of the whole session, I am able to picture how it was like during throughout the whole session. Mr Dave seems to be a great author and Mr Hong, a great illustrator .I think I could understand how it feels to write and publish in Singapore. Writing a book where the plot is in Singapore is not easy, as I can see from your reflections on the talk. There are many restrictions to having the plot be Singapore, for example, students describing a gunfight in Singapore. You mention that this was not likely to take place in Singapore as guns are banned here and I totally agree! It is difficult to make a suitable story , where things make sense and is interesting also. An author must not be to ridiculous in describing the events that happen throughout the story if not the readers would not like to read the book. I think that this point is very important as when I read books, I really find it ridiculous when something illogical happens or there is a break in the book. Therefore, connecting the events together is something really important too. You mentioned that Mr Hong used mostly his childhood memories and reference to other sources when drawing the images. I feel that this is something really interesting as it lets the younger readers know how Singapore looked like in the past. Therefore, the book is not only interesting, but also quite real in a sense. Using childhood memories is a really creative way to illustrate scenes similar to the past. Creativity is most vital in writing or illustrating a book. Lastly, I am grateful for the tip about making a story believable, even though it is unrealistic. This is a tip that will definitely be essential in a writer’s life, in assignments and in novels..Thank you!

  • 7. Justin Foo  |  May 11, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Kean, after reading your reflections, I have learnt and seen certain things from your perspective. I feel that you have a deep understanding of what was discussed in the talk.
    I have to admit that I am a great fan of comics, and I feel that it is not easy adapting a prose novel into a graphic novel format. Furthermore, they did it in a little group of 2, which was quite impressive.I doubt many of us here have such abilities and such good teamwork skills. According to Mr Koh Hong Teng, at the time when he met Dave, Mr Koh was looking for a local writer, and when he read Dave’s book, he found that it was interesting, and worth investing his time in co-operating with Dave. On the other hand, Dave found Koh’s artwork quite impressive and local. After some discussion, both agreed not to go for a text-heavy book. In the process, Koh said his artwork was inspired by the things he saw in the HDB estate, and decided to incorporate it into his drawings. There was a scene which he drew that depicted a kid having fun at a game arcade with his mother standing behind him. The background was quite colourful and included many different interesting toys which could be won. After Mr Lundberg asked Mr Koh regarding that picture/scene, Koh said that those toys were actually stuffed toys he used to own.

    The first thing I learn was the strength of a team. No matter how small a team is, it is strong if each person has different talents and abilities and their various abilities can come in great use for their project. Before this, I used to think a team was good as long as there were many people and the work was split. But when I listened to the talk, I realised how important was the abilities of various team members, the respect for each other’s abilities and trust. When Koh and Dave met, Dave found Koh’s artwork good and suitable for they were supposed to do and Koh liked Dave’s book. Respect is very important, as well as trust. There was respect for each other’s abilities, work and talents between Dave and Koh, and they were able to work together because they know, and they trust that it is worth it working with each other. If we think it is impossible, Dave and Koh have already proven, that the size of the team is not important. What is important is mutual trust and respect, and the ability to work together and make use of the talents they had. During the talk, they also spoke of how they had to plan the project… about setting a timeline and deadline, and planning how much time they would give themselves for each phase of adapting the comic. I learnt that when we do something. We must be able to see the end of the project, and to plan our steps to our goal, and not just do it aimlessly. Because if we have no aim, we will never achieve what we want to.
    The next thing I learn was about Koh’s inspiration to draw. Well, to put it simply, Koh was inspired by his surroundings. I used to think that inspiration is just nonsense, and we should just draw simple stuff, use stickmans, and just put things simply. But when I looked at certain pictures and scenes in the adapted graphic novel, I actually found that his drawings had many things and details inside, and that it seemed quite real. The colour, the details, that every space on the paper was made full use of. On the way home after the talk, I thought back, and I came to realise, that when we draw something, let’s take a gangster’s bedroom for instance, we should think about what it is like, we should imagine it. Because when we draw, it would be better for it to look like what it is supposed to look like, to make it look more realistic. What is the point of drawing a gangster’s room when all we put inside is just a bed? One thing we know for sure is that it is not a ganster’s room. Because, at least there will be a cupboard, scratches on the floor(maybe from the sharp weapons), and little parts in the picture showing some wine bottles and sharp weapons beneath his bed. It is about making things real.
    I heard that when Dave wrote the novel, he wanted to take a break from his stressful work, and he chose to write about certain things around him. When we write, most of us would have a message we would want to convey, something we want our reader to ponder about, or to let our reader know something. Let’s say I write about murders. Perhaps I want to tell my reader abotu this cruel world where no place is safe, or about cruel reality, to show the bad sides of the world. There should be a motive when we write.

    In conclusion, this graphic novel talk has taught me many new things, which I would never forget, and I have also learnt things which I would never learn by reading textbooks.

  • 8. Tan Jun Jie  |  August 16, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Hi Kean,
    I’ve attend the talk and I find it very interesting because of the comics, I am not really interested in books, but when I see comic, I feel that they are suitable for me because of the art work. Although the language used in comic books might not be profound and most actions are performed through art, there would only be dialog and a brief description of the scene. Thus, we might not learn much by reading comic books, but what I feel is important is when we read books for enjoyment. Mr. Koh’s artworks are mostly based on the Singaporean life and the environments in Singapore (HDBs for example) and it is easy to draw or write around because we get to interact with this things daily, but our imagination should also be added into the story that we are trying to write. For example, writing a story to the point where it is exaggerating but not too ridiculous. This way, we can attract our reader’s attention and also make the story original. Mr. Chua encouraged us to write what we enjoy, so the work will come from the heart and it will be of the same quality throughout because we enjoy it, if not, we might give up halfway and the story will then not be too nice. Mr. Koh takes reference photos of a scene he might want to draw and this method might help those who are not artistically inclined, because with a reference, it is always easier to draw something. In conclusion, I enjoyed the talk, learnt some ways we can write a comic book, and understand how a comic book can captivate its reader.

  • 9. Ng Siang Hwee (2o4)  |  August 20, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Hi Patrick,

    I agree on your idea that books is only self-published if established publishers have rejected it, and so it must be rubbish is wrong. I have a friend who wrote his own book and he gave us a copy of his book. His book was actually quite interesting even though it was a self-published book. There could be many reasons why a writer would self-published a book for it could have been his dream to published his own book and thus the reason why there is no publisher.
    Next, I like the point on that your story can be unrealistic so long as it it believable. This is quite true for I had actually written several unrealistic essays before and their marks varied. This could be because some of them are realistic while others are not. Your post had given me much to ponder on.


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