I was supposed to be writing a book review for today’s post, but with everything else happening this week, I didn’t have a chance to finish reading one. Okay, that’s not exactly true. I could have. I got about 100 pages into a book. But then I made the not-unmomentous decision to stop reading it. (This isn’t the first book I’ve stopped reading, as I mentioned here, but it’s still not something I do lightly.)
This book, which will remain nameless, suffered from my largest pet peeve of a first person narrative: the reticent host. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a first person narrator, and you’re experiencing something that you understand, then you should explain it to the reader. You don’t keep it to yourself in order to have a “grand reveal” midway through the book. Anyway, enough of that.
I uhmmmed and ahhhed about what to put in today’s post. I even considered not writing one today. (Shock! Horror!) But then something that had been percolating around in my brain for a while floated to the surface.
Whenever you read an interview with a new-ish band, one of the questions they’re asked is something along the lines of “Who are your influences?” And every musician can (and is allowed to) name a few other musicians who have influenced their style. But it’s not something you often hear asked of an author. Surely an author has just as many influences as a musician, though. I know I do.
As a child, I wrote a lot. Sadly, none of the stories I wrote survived to this day. But I remember some of the “best” ones.
There was the amazing tale of Basketballhead the Monster. He was a monster with a basketball for a head. He went around terrorising villagers and living in a smelly cave, but was soundly defeated by a troupe of travelling basketball players.
There was an alien abduction, where the protagonist had to complete a series of three missions in order to be allowed to return to Earth. He won by relying on his superior intelligence to navigate his way through a maze with the use of only a super-large piece of string. And then, in classic fashion, he woke up and discovered it was all a dream. BUT – shock twist – he still had some string in his pocket. So… where did it come from???
Those early stories were, by and large, horrendous. But they taught me how to string sentences together to form a basic narrative structure. Then I read books, and my writing world expanded. So, without further adieu (or any more general waffling), here are the top 5 authors who have influenced my writing style.
When I read H2G2 as a young teenager, I had a revelation. Books could be funny. And not just joke books – actual, real, story-oriented books, with characters and a plot, could be funny. You were allowed to take perfectly normal, serious, and stand-up words and use them in a funny way. All of a sudden, Basketballhead developed one-liners, and the description of his cave became less earnest and more sarcastic.
I was first introduced to Clive Barker through Weaveworld, which I read when I was about 12. I fell in love with his style, and the idea of an entire world contained within the threads of a carpet, and promptly asked my parents to buy me a Clive Barker book for Christmas. They bought me Imajica, which is the single most amazing book I’ve ever read. Of course, if they’d known how much (often gratuitous) sex and violence is in there, they never would have let me get anywhere near it. This book is…. I don’t even have the words. It is master storytelling at its best. It’s a beautifully crafted world full of interesting and odd characters that inspired me to feel emotions that I’d never before experienced at the tender age of 12. And even now, when I reread my old, dog-eared copy of Imajica (being careful not to turn the pages too quickly and risk more of them coming unglued from the spine), I feel those same senses of wonder, enticement, fear, sadness, and the ultimate tragedy that permeate the very pages. Clive Barker taught me that there is beauty in horror, horror in beauty, sadness in joy, happiness in death, and tragedy in a happy ending. He taught me that wholly unlikeable characters have redeeming features, that wholly likeable characters are probably trying to sell you something, and that the interaction between those characters is what makes them both loveable and memorable.
Much like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett taught me that stories could be funny. Even not-funny plots could be funny. His early books were straight parodies of fantasy clichés, but in his later books, there was often a serious storyline. If you look at books like The Fifth Elephant, or Thud! you’ve got serious situations that mirror, in some way, situations in the real world. They deal with serious issues like war, racism, and tradition. But when you’re reading these books, you barely notice all that serious stuff, because you’re so wrapped up in the characters and the humour. Characters who are clearly written as jokes (possibly as punes or plays on words) have a serious role to play in the unfolding story, and characters who are part of the serious side of the novel are written irreverently. What I learned from this was that humour doesn’t have to be used as a battering ram. It can be the chocolate topping on a ice cream sundae. You can still have dessert without it, but it adds a delicious, irresistible sweetness.
I don’t write mystery stories, but I firmly believe that, much as all good tales have some romantic element, all good stories have a sense of mystery about them. Raymond Chandler is a master mystery storyteller. What I learned from him is that you can take a boring, dark, seedy, or dangerous situation and still write about it with beauty. He’s renowned for his use of metaphor, and there isn’t a single page of his writing that isn’t dripping with them. He was a man who loved the english language, and could spin words into gold. Without the need to trade favours with a bad-tempered dwarf.
The Dresden Files were the first urban fantasy books I ever read. They have humour, magic, mystery, and characters that are real enough you could invite them to sleep on your couch. But these books taught me two things. (1) Urban fantasy rocks, and is the genre I want to write in. Before this, I was struggling to write high fantasy. I loved the setting and plot options, but hate extensive world building. Urban fantasy gives me everything I need. (2) First person is not a dirty word. Two words. Whatever. These were the first books that I read and enjoyed that were written in first person, and I found myself wanting to practice and emulate that style.