It’s finally summertime where I live, which means the season to spend time on a deck somewhere with a pitcher of ice-cold water and a pile of books to read! A couple of years ago, I started reading not just books that I was interested in, but books that I wanted, as a writer, to emulate: storylines that I enjoyed, genres that got me engaged, writing styles that enveloped me from the first line, anything that I was aiming to be as a writer, I looked for in the books I read.
This is not a novel (ha) idea; it is a well-known fact in the writing world that you write what you read, as a writer is greatly influenced by the books he or she reads. So this week we ask out group of writers: of the books that influenced you the most as an author, which handful would you recommend an aspiring writer first focus on? Which books do you keep returning to again and again? Which atypical book do you use as inspiration for your writing?
As a person — and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before — the book which most influenced me growing up was Dr Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg. My dad would read it to my brother and me, each of us sitting on a knee, and the book perched between us. Dad did the best voices: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%.” It’s a statement to stand by, and not just professionally. I’ve tried to live my whole life on this mantra. Plus, my dad made it pretty clear that you didn’t want to be one of life’s Lazy Maisey birds!
I’d love to return to books again and again — and I have reread childhood favourite To Kill a Mockingbird this year — but I no longer have time to reread books, when my to-read list is full to overflowing with new talent to discover. However, I recently attended StokerCon, the American Horror Writers’ convention in Las Vegas, where Bram Stoker Award-winning editor, Stephen Jones, reminded attendees of the importance of reading backwards in our genre, to rediscover those ground-breaking writers who made the genre what it is. It’s only reading those pioneers, that we can then challenge ingrained tropes to create something fresh, and perhaps ground-breaking in itself. So I may have to re-evaluate my thinking because re-reading may be just as important as reading something for the first time.
An atypical book I use for inspiration? Hmm. Maybe reading outside our own genres. If you never read romance, maybe pick up a romance. Or if horror isn’t your thing, try it again. Sometimes, reading outside our genre can help us discover innovative ways to approach our own storytelling.
I proofread a lot for other authors, and the books vary from erotic romance, to contemporary and urban paranormal. I guess this is why I tend to focus my writing mostly on contemporary and paranormal books. Reading these kinds of books gives you an idea of what other authors are writing, where their focus is. Its all about genre trends, and reading the latest books coming out lets you know where the trends are heading. Also reading their styles makes you realise what you do and don’t like about their writing styles, and adapting your own.
I don’t have a specific book that I read for inspiration, but J A Huss, Melissa Pearl, T. G. Ayer are my regular go to authors as I love their writing styles.
I’d suggest reading something from every major genre. Understanding the feel of the stories, the format and formulas will fuel their writing. Just because you love sci-fi doesn’t mean you might not have a gambling scene on a space ship that could have come out of an old Western. Just because you love fantasy, that doesn’t mean you won’t have an implacable foe that could do well in a horror novel. Just because you write mysteries doesn’t mean you won’t have a fateful meeting of two lovers worthy of a romance novel. To me, working with the different themes is like having different arrows in my quiver to draw on when I’m writing. Creating a story is more like working with a mixing board for music. You dial up some themes and down others, but you need to know what all is available to you.
That said, if you want a good book for a first-time writer as a reference, I’d recommend “How NOT To Write A Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide”. “The Emotional Thesaurus” is also a helpful one for avoiding the same words over and over. As for regular novels, it depends on what moves them. Mine include “Bardic Voices 1: Lark and Wren”, “Hogfather”, “Dragonsinger”, “Valley of the Horses”, “House of Leaves”, “The Billionaire’s Muse”, “Needful Things” and pretty much anything from Stephen King and Louis L’Amore. Go find yourself, and most of all, write.
Of all the strange books in the world, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones is the one I’d recommend for aspiring fantasy authors. It’s a hilarious romp through fantasy tropes best avoided. (In alphabetical order.) Warning, never lend it out, it may not come back. Unlike Grunts by Mary Gentle which will never come back if you lend it out. So always keep your copy close at hand, unless you want to stay young and innocent, in which case, run a mile.
The other weird book I’d recommend aspiring science fiction authors is The Martian by Andy Weir. Yes, it’s the same book as the movie. Written in diary form, it’s innovative and accurate (mostly) but really, given the fact I still know where my copy is, Grunts and Tough Guide to Fantasyland are the outstanding picks – and worth returning to time and again. More so even than Verdigris Deep and The Hobbit, my most loved, and longest loved stories, in that order.
Our full roster of authors, in alphabetical order: A. Carina Barry, D. Odell Benson, F.C. Etier, Jean Gilbert, J. C. Hart, Hunter Marshall, Catherine Mede, Lee Murray, Karo Oforofuo, A.J. Ponder, Meryl Stenhouse, Lorene Stunson Hill, Lynn Voedisch, and Sybil Watters.