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Apr 21 2011

Wellsprings of Inspiration Part I: Novels and How-To

Glacial Till asking about how I became a blogger and Nicole asking about my long-term writing goals got me to thinking about inspiration.

Inspiration doesn’t always come standard.  There are times when the magma chamber’s emptied, and there’s a dormant phase before the volcano’s ready to erupt again.  I’ve gotten used to those phases, resigned to them, one might say.  But I don’t sit idle.  Magma chambers don’t fill all by themselves.  There has to be a source.  And I’d like to talk about some of those sources.

We’ll skip childhood, although I reserve the right to revisit the authors who set my feet on this road in some future musing.  And we’ll just have a shout-out to me mum, who spent a good portion of her young life feeding stories to an insatiable kiddo.  Without her, we wouldn’t be discussing writing, because I wouldn’t be a writer.

Right, then.  We should start with Robert Jordan.  I hadn’t planned on writing fantasy.  Hated fantasy, in fact, until a friend forced me to read The Eye of the World.  When I finished that book, I knew what I had to do.  I had to write fantasy.  And the later books in the Wheel of Time have kept me on that road.  Robert Jordan taught me the importance of building a richly-detailed world with vivid characters.  And because of him, I don’t fear writing maclargehuge books.

Another Robert, R.A. Salvatore, planted my feet further along the fantasy road.  You wouldn’t think that a series of books based on a roleplaying game would be all that special, but if you think that, you haven’t read The Dark Elf Trilogy.  Fiction, I learned, and particularly fantasy fiction, was an excellent way of exploring the really essential issues, the ones too tough to face head-on.  And yes, Virginia, you can write a pulse-pounding sword battle.  I once stayed up finishing one of his books by candlelight because the power had gone out right in the middle of one of those battles, and there was no way in the universe I was going to just set it aside until the sun rose.  That’s how intense he writes ‘em.

Another friend foisted Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on me.  Before I read Preludes and Nocturnes, I wasn’t a comic book fan.  After, I was.  Spent an entire afternoon in Phoenix going from bookstore to comic shop in search of absolutely everything he’d ever written up till that point.  Neil Gaiman showed me the power of myth and how to weave it through stories, and why it’s so very important to do so.

When I made the decision to write science fiction and fantasy, I decided that getting a book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card might be an excellent idea.  To this day, it remains one of the most valuable how-to-write books I’ve ever read.  And since that had been so good, I picked up Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead to see how well Orson practiced his preaching.  Pretty damned well.  Speaker for the Dead remains one of my favorite books of all time.

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman taught me the value of a good anti-hero.  I still think it’s one of the absolute best trilogies in all of science fiction and fantasy, and I feel very sorry for people who haven’t read it.

Connie Willis blew me away.  Absolutely left nothing but scattered atoms behind.  One of my major goals is to become the kind of writer that writers like Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis read, because then I’ll know I’ve made it.  I mean, we’re talking about a woman who can tell you, the reader, something the narrator doesn’t know when writing in the first person.  I didn’t think anyone on earth had writing chops like that.  She also got me interested in science fiction per se, because in her hands, it’s far more than just rivets.  She showed me it’s possible to be funny and profound and tragic, sometimes all in the same page.  She’s amazing.

Lynn Flewelling and her Nightrunner series showed me it’s completely possible to write kick-ass, non-preachy gay characters.  I’m indebted to her for that.  And for the best brothel scene ever.  I love those books.  They make me feel that all’s right with the world.

Terry Pratchett honed my humor skillz.  And showed me that it’s possible to mix science and magic to excellent effect.  And created some of the characters I love most in this world.  Sam Fucking Vimes and Granny Bloody Weatherwax, people, that’s all I’m saying.

Warren Ellis did things to my brain with Stormwatch and The Authority I’ll spend the rest of my life sorting out.  His Jenny Sparks is one of the most hardcore female characters ever written by any author anywhere in the world.  And he did with superheroes what no one had ever done before: he dodged away from the tired old vigilante or forces-for-good wanker tropes and headed straight for, “We’ve got this immense power.  We’re goddamn going to use it to make this world a better place.  Under our terms.”

Which leads me to J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars, another superhero comic that went where no superhero comic had gone before.  That one forces you to face issues and questions and dilemmas that most superhero books are too busy beating up the bad guys to pause and consider.

And no comic book paen would be complete without mentioning Warren Ellis again: Transmetropolitan.  Killed my fear of taking characters to an extreme, that did.  And I want to be Spider Jerusalem when I grow up.

Back into regular books…. I love reading the gritty stuff, but I’m not particularly good at writing it.  What I really, really want to be able to do is write symphonies with words.  And there are a few authors who do a particularly fine job of that.

Rober
t Holdstock’s Mythago books weave a peculiar kind of magic.  Incredibly haunting stuff.  Utterly mindbending.  And I had the bizarre experience of reading Lavondyss for a second time after years away, and it seemed like the entire book had changed.  I sometimes wonder: if I open the book again, what will I find?  What will it have become?

Patricia McKillip writes some of the richest, most lyrical books I’ve ever known.  Just read The Book of Atrix Wolfe.  That’s all I ask.

And Guy Gavriel Kay.  Oh, reading him, it’s like sailing a sea of sound and sensation.  It’s like a voyage home through fantastic places.  When I read The Lions of al-Rassan, I knew, just knew, that was the way I wanted to write.  Not what, mind, just how.  I want my words to flow and dance like that.  I want to leave my readers with that feeling, a bit of delightful melancholy, a glorious uplift. 

But how to get there?

There was this one book on writing, the one single book I believe every aspiring author, no matter what genre, should read.  It’s called Writing the Breakout Novel.  I almost didn’t read it because the title sounded too much like that schlocky foolproof-method-for-writing-bestsellers! bullshit that’s so often foisted upon the unwary.  But I picked it up, and read a few pages, and realized this was something altogether different.  It utterly changed my perspective.  Donald Maas isn’t talking about a formula for flash-in-the-pan fiction.  He’s talking about writing the kind of novel that endures for generations.  When I read that book, it forced me to reassess everything I’d ever planned to do, and put me on a new trajectory.  I was able to figure out what my stories were all about, really, at core.  And it gave me the patience to go back, strip everything down to the fundamentals, and start rebuilding from the ground up.

Finally (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a nice transition from Part I to II, because I didn’t like Tolkien until I’d seen Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.  I mean, really, seriously, didn’t like Tolkien at all.  But as you’ll see, those movies got right down into my soul.  I saw on screen what I’d always hoped to do in print.  This led me to attempt The Lord of the Rings again.  This time, loved it.  But I didn’t stop there.  I read other books by him: Tree and Leaf, Father Giles of Ham.  I read books about him: biographies, letters, essays by authors inspired by him, books on how he’d created Middle Earth.  I learned about his languages and his motives and all of the things he’d done to make that world come alive.  It was quite the education.  And that was when I went from being a two-bit hack to being someone who could actually begin to craft a story.

So there you go.  There’s some of my major influences.  Next episode, we’ll move on to the movies and television programs that have inspired me, some of which have filled the magma chamber to such a degree that we’ve ended up with VEI-8 eruptions.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Dan McShane

    Inspiration and craft and skill. Good luck. As for Tolkien, I was and still am fascincated by Tom Bombadil (spelling?) and the old forest. So much hinted at and left unsaid. There was so much more to the world of miidle earth we don't know. Kind of like our own world.

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