Friday, December 3, 2010

Writers of Influence.

Once again a post by my Live Journal friend Altariel has inspired another column. Not long ago she challenged us to name "Fifteen writers who've influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes."

I came up with one shy of a dozen. (I'm sure I'll think of more once people start chiming in with their own favorites.)

Robert A. Heinlein. A master storyteller. While he is best known for Stranger in a Strange Land, his juvenile novels like Have Space Suit; Will Travel or Podkayne of Mars are worth seeking out. Heinlein is also the archetype of the writer as no-nonsense craftsman. My approach to the process of writing is based on his: don't write drafts, write a story. His rules for being a writer should be posted above every monitor:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Toni Morrison. You just sort of dive into her prose and luxuriate. Her novel Beloved garnered her the greatest praise, but her Song of Solomon is far and away my favorite. (Do not read The Bluest Eye unless you are well fortified against depression; it's that effective.) My favorite quote of hers: "I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it."

Ray Bradbury, whom I first met through Dandelion Wine rather than his more famous Fahrenheit 451.. The Martian Chronicles, October Country, I Sing the Body Electric – I'd pay full cover price for any of his anthologies in a heartbeat. His gift for evocation and for presenting the alien as us – and vice versa – is unparalleled.

John D. MacDonald. The absolute master of the first-person mystery novel; his narrative voice is flawless. He never insulted – and never bored – his reader and always played fair. He gives us everything in advance and still manages to surprise and satisfy. Read any of the Travis McGee series.

Kurt Vonnegut. Hard to explain how this man's writing, his "unstuck in time" plotting affected my own approach to how a story can flow. I know Slaughterhouse Five is the Vonnegut novel everyone recommends, but go read it. Like Heinlein, Vonnegut had rules for writers:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut added that great writers break all of these rules except the first.
Ursula LeGuin for world building.

T.S. Elliot for what he can make words do.

Tony Hillerman for his ability to make his adopted culture so real to the reader that you find yourself regarding your own way of seeing things as strange.


Bill Bryson. Though he hates my native south, his Lost Continent taught me how to make a location real. Notes From a Small Island and In Sunburned Country give Britain and Australia the same treatment.

Barbara Tuchman. History more vibrant than historical novels. I recommend A Distant Mirror.

And I have to add two writers who had a great impact on me as people before I'd read their works and who, as writers, have influenced my own work:
Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith. I am a writer – rather than a wannabe best-selling author with delusions of grandeur and a trunk full of half-begun manuscripts – because these two took the time to beat some sense into me.

So what about you? Whose work influenced your writing?


Charles Gramlich said...

Bradbury, MacDonald, Heinlein, and Eliott for sure in my case. I only recently discovered Bryson. But two nonfiction authors I adore are Lewis Thomas and LOren Eiseley.

Terence Taylor said...

I would agree with many of yours, and Bradbury's "Zen and the Art of Writing" is up there next to "Elements of Style" as guides to what I do.

I would disagree with Heinlein on one point -- 3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. -- I think you do need to know when to fold 'em, as the song says, and stop noodling at a piece of work, but I don't believe that the first pass is always the best, and go more with Bradbury's "Vomit in the morning and clean it up at night" which means go back and make it make more sense before you start submitting it around.

I read a great story by a friend recently that she is adamant is what she wants it to be, but my editorial eye wants to see it improved and better focused. A good writer should be able to edit their own work objectively after it is on the page, in my humble opinion.

I knew too many writers in LA who prided themselves on their creative output, but never learned to do the work it took to get a script on paper and ready for shooting, and always had a partner who did the "work" for them. Be autonomous. No writer should ever "need" a partner, though partnerships can be of benefit to both.

KeVin K. said...

Jewel Amethyst said...

I can't pinpoint any one writer with major influence on my writing, but some people whose style impact me include James Patterson, Robin Cook, Harper Lee, and Terry McMillan. I've just read two YA books by Karen Cushman and they already have me thinking about doing a book in diary style.

KeVin K. said...

Oh, thanks for reminding me of James Patterson. I knew there were a few I'd left out.

Liane Spicer said...

Yup, you've gone and given me an idea for today's post, KeVin...