Under the Influence

book-21849_1920It’s one of the repeat-ad-nauseam lessons of being a writer: read. Constantly. Incessantly. Passionately. Fanatically.*

Reading is important, and not just for brownie points on how many Russian writers you’ve checked off your to-read list. It teaches you about writing and grammar. It teaches you about what works on the page and what doesn’t. It’s first-hand experience on how to tell stories.

And for writers, the material one reads is the material one often mimics, whether it’s deliberate or completely inadvertent. For better or worse, there will be books that stand out from the shelf and mark your writing, style and interests in a way that can be extremely difficult to change or remove entirely. You are what you eat.

Let’s take my way of writing, for example. Even this blog post. It’s conversational, but not entirely pedestrian in its use of language. It favours fractured sentences and phrases – strictly speaking, they’re not grammatically correct. Whatever subject I discuss, and whatever literary tricks I use to freshen up my approach to that subject, there’s a degree of style that I can’t shake without conscious effort. (There’s a lot to talk about here on identity and an author’s voice, so stay tuned and I’ll come back to this in future posts.)

I didn’t develop in a bubble. I didn’t develop my way of telling a story cross-legged on the top of a mountain. I owe a lot to the books that have influenced me – whether it came from their stories, their method of storytelling or their general character.

For the sake of argument, here are some examples from my own development:

  • Stephen King: probably an obvious one, but if writers go through several different ‘voices’ through their initial development, then my first voice was parroting half of Skeleton Crew.
  • J R R Tolkien: The one saving grace is that I didn’t learn dialogue from Tolkien. But The Lord of the Rings was the first epic I ever read. I dabble in fantasy writing from time to time, and I still haven’t moved out from Tolkien’s shadow.
  • Bret Easton Ellis: I’ve spoken before (No Offense?) about my fandom for American Psycho. After first reading it I experimented endlessly with my own takes on the relentless passages of stream-of-consciousness, and the sharp-tongued dialogue of the characters.
  • Knut Hamsun: Probably not a widely-known name outside of northern Europe, Knut Hamsun was a Norwegian writer in the first half of the twentieth century. I only discovered him after a friend at university gave me a spare copy of Hunger. I read it in one sitting, and it left a footprint on everything I wrote for years to come.

Of course I read material from many other writers at the same time. But those other works didn’t leave the same kind of impact on me. That isn’t to say that I liked their material any less, or respect the writers any less. The books that influence us can’t be chosen. They strike us without warning. And in the context of discussing influences, it doesn’t matter whether I like Clive Barker’s Weaveworld or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods more than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – LOTR is the one that came at the right time, in the right way, to echo through my own material.

I think a lot of writers, while they’re developing, make two errors in judgement where their sources of influence are concerned (omitting the obvious one of copycatting other authors):

1)      They force themselves to be ‘inspired’ by classic names and iconic books, because they think emulating these writers is the necessary step to both development and wider acceptance as a writer (a good example might be Lovecraft for horror).

2)      They have natural sources of inspiration that they’re ashamed of admitting to, usually because of negative public perception (e.g. Twilight).

And both are utter bunkum.

The first point is garbage because you can’t ‘decide’ to be influenced or inspired by anything. By all means, read the classics and maybe you’ll enjoy them, but don’t pretend they hold the answers to every one of your writing woes. Lovecraft has a lot to offer, but even after schooling yourself on Cthulhu you need to leave yourself open to the possibility that a cheap pulp novel from a second-hand store, by a writer you’ve never heard of, might have a more natural influence on your development and sense of experimentation.

The second point is garbage because it’s self-denial. Maybe something in Stephenie Meyer’s books inspired you to write – even if you don’t have the confidence to proclaim that in a writer’s circle, at least be comfortable with that in your own way. It’s still a popular series, and a lot can be learned from them – even if it’s what not to do in some respects. Plenty of people got something out of reading the books. You might as well.

So if ‘you are what you eat’, why am I telling you to not exclusively go for fine dining? Why am I telling you that it’s okay to sneak a McDonald’s meal while sitting in your car even if your friends will smell the synthetic meat on your breath and tut-tut disdainfully?

Because you won’t learn anything by eating only fine dining, in the same way that you won’t learn anything by eating only McDonald’s.

Read, but read as wide a variety of material as possible. Don’t let preconceptions stop you from a book you might enjoy, and might give you something you never would have expected. And never fight what influences you just because you feel like it’s the wrong book to be influenced by. Maybe you’ll look back in years to come and loathe the material you wrote as a result of the spell a particular book cast on you, but then you’ll look at the material that comes after and see the evolution of your own voice.

Feel free to comment below with the books and authors you’ve been influenced by, whether they’re predictable or totally unlikely. Share what influenced you, what stayed with you, and where that influence led you in your own writing. Or, just take a moment to think about it – and see the stepping stones in your own development as an individual, unique writer.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

*Another common lesson is to use adverbs sparingly. Irregularly, even. 

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