Influences Make the Writer

Authorial Essentials
Authorial Essentials

I suspect that most authors, at some point in their career, get asked who influenced them as a writer. The question came up again in a round-about way this afternoon with a writing cohort. And because of the way we got to the question, I realized I’ve been answering the question all wrong.

Maybe I’m not alone.

The instinct, at least for me, is to point to authors who shaped my style and voice. But those are things that are honed once you’re getting serious about writing. They’re conscious or semi-conscious attempts to emulate the things you like in the writing of authors.

Yes, I learned a lot about pacing from Tim Powers, and how to build and unveil a consistent magical system. And I learned a lot about dialogue from Joe Landsdale and Harlan Coben. I learned a lot about how to set the hook in short fiction from Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Without a doubt, they had a huge influence on the kind of writer I turned out to be. And I’m still learning from other authors and adding in those skills and tricks. It’s a never ending process.

But who influenced me to become a writer is a sticky wicket. And it’s very telling in unexpected ways.

See, the friend I was talking with today doesn’t care for short fiction. As a result they’ve never been compelled to write it, but are now considering that path. And there are good reasons to write short fiction. Beyond polishing your craft, it’s a good chance to build a market and name recognition. And ultimately it’s easier to get short fiction published than it is to get someone to plunk down an advance on a novel. It’s just simple math.

All of which is kind of an alien mindset for me. I write short fiction because I love short fiction. Because when some kids were playing ball or reading the classics, I was devouring anthologies, collections, and magazines like candy.

To put these influences in perspective, let’s consider when I first realized I wanted to be a writer. I was twelve when I tried to write my first novel. I’d been writing poetry for a year or so before that. Horrible, horrible poetry that I can trace to three very specific influences: Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allen Poe, and the two A.A. Milne collections, “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We are Six.” I’m sure some of those poems still exist somewhere, tucked away in a folder, forgotten at my mom’s house. They were probably illustrated, too. They were bad. And dark. And they rhymed. I’m honestly surprised my parents didn’t put me into therapy because of them.

But by 7th grade, I decided my project in Independent Study was going to be a novel.

Ambitious, I know. And a horrible idea. It was science/fantasy and sprung from a rudimentary reading of King Arthur stories. And honestly, I don’t really know where that idea came from because in 7th grade I was reading very little fantasy. I’d seen the Hobbit, but not read the book. By strange coincidence, there was this hippieish pizza place in town called Hobbit Hole Pizza, and I had a stronger association with it than with the worlds of Tolkien. I remember two fantasy novels from that year, Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, and The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin.  I had probably read the Prydian Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander the year earlier, as well as the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Oh, and The Sword of Shanarra which I consumed in a week in 6th grade. That might have influenced a lot of what I thought of as “Fantasy” novels up to that point.

But I was a heavy reader. I had started reading the Hardy Boys books somewhere around 4th-5th grade, and blazed through them until I realized it was all a formula. I switched to Nancy Drew for a big chunk of time, and though I quickly realized it was the same formula, I liked the characters better. But I could also knock one of her books out in an afternoon. Then I switched to The Three Investigators which I consumed like a wildfire sweeping down on a tinder-dry KOA campground. Gods, but I loved mysteries. And there was a certain spookieness to the Three Investigator books that appealed to me.

This was due, in no small part to all the non-fiction I was reading in 6th grade. Mysteries of the Unexplained stuff. If there was a book on UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle, or crystal skulls in the Yucatan, I was all over that. If the library had it, I read it, both in the kids collection downstairs and then upstairs in the main library. I squeezed those shelves dry. I kept notes on famous hauntings and alien abductions on index cards. You know that weird kid who, at age 11, could talk your ear off about the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, or Betty and Barney Hill (first reported alien abduction, in 1961)? I was that kid.

Actually, that weird kid still lives inside me.

You never shake your early influences.

And I was already tainted by Edgar Allen Poe at that point. Both by Poe and by things with Alfred Hitchcock’s name attached, which led me to a beloved collection of horror stories I got at a tender age. Christmas, when I was 10, I believe. There are pictures of me holding up the book, happy as hell. That summer I made a little shelter in the side yard against the chain link fence so I had shade and a breeze, and read the whole damn thing cover to cover. And from there to every horror anthology I could find, notably the anthology series Whispers (I could swear that was the name of that series) and Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant. Somewhere in there, I discovered Ray Bradbury, possibly thanks to my dad who brought a complete collection of his home from the college library for me.

By the time I hit 7th grade, I was a junkie for short fiction. Couldn’t get enough. It just stuck with me.

Sure, I read novels. Weirdly, a period of reading of Louis Lamour westerns hit sometimes that year and I read a good dozen or so of them, and several Destroyer novels picked up at garage sales for as little as a nickel each. Both reflected a love of pulpy action, despite the difference of subject matter. *Speaking of which, my parents were asleep at the switch in the whole child-rearing department. I suppose they were glad that I was reading, but the Destroyer novels were trashy. I mean, tremendous fun, and really well done for what they were, which was “Men’s Adventure Fiction.” But damn. Not reading material for young boys.*

So when you consider the influences question in context–not who influenced my style, but who influenced me to write–you get a much better feel for why I write what I do. I write short stories because I love short stories. Most of the ones that I read in my formative years were horror, which echoes my short fiction output now. I have a fondness for the supernatural, but also for mysteries and that rugged western feel, which factor heavily into the flavor of my Cobalt City stories (especially Gato Loco). I have a fondness for short, fast, pulp novels, and I’ve written a few. I’ve found NaNoWriMo to be perfect for that, actually.

Will I ever write a big door-stopper of an epic fantasy series?

Probably not. I don’t really READ them. Sure, a few in the last decade or so, but it was never my thing as a kid. It’s not a style I know intimately enough to work in. To date, my longest novel is Cobalt City Blues, which is only around 108,000 which makes it longer than the first three Harry Potter books. Barely, in the case of Prisoner of Azkaban which clocks in at 107k and change. Order of the Phoenix is 257k, while the first four books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice average out to around 300k each. I can’t even imagine writing a book that long. No, I think I’m likely to stick to the 50-95k range which is where I’m most comfortable. It’s what I know. It’s what I like.

More importantly, it’s where the stories I like to tell tend to fall.

As to the unasked question of should you write short stories, my answer will always be the same. Write the story you want to write. Everything else is just marketing.


2 thoughts on “Influences Make the Writer

  1. This post takes me back to my own childhood and teen years, devouring many of the same books you did. I think my answer to “who influenced you as (or to become) a writer” is “everything I’ve read.” We learn not only from the books, styles and genres we love, but also from the ones we dislike.

    Like you, I’ve always loved short stories. As a teen, I read through short detective fiction,science fiction anthologies and short story collections like your KOA wildfire, and when I write fiction, it’s always short. I love what can be done in a small piece, and I think saying everything that’s needed in as few words as possible appeals to the editor in me.

    I’ve read a lot of very long stuff too, and found much to admire in it, but aside from some idle dreams when I was a teen, I’ve (so far) never been inspired to write novel-length fiction. I’m much more likely to write book-length nonfiction. Also just finished reading a monstrous tome (800 pages) of nonfiction, and as a writer, I was paying attention to the way the author wrote as well as to what he wrote. I caught myself thinking things like “his journalism background shows through here” and “oh, this is a writing no-no but look how well it works here!” Yep, my writing is influenced by every author I read. I don’t try to emulate anyone, but I try to learn from what works and what doesn’t, and I feel inspired to try new or experimental styles.

  2. Interesting self-examination! It’s got me wondering what my influences to write were… *thoughtful*

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