I was recently on a panel for which we were asked to talk about books that had influenced us as writers. It sounded like an easy topic, but the more I thought about it, the less clear my answer got. We’re influenced by our reading in both conscious and unconscious ways. In some sense every novel I ever read has influenced me. Reading is the way most of us learn the shape of story in our culture.
However, I eventually managed to name a few writers who I knew had influenced me. Even more important, I was able to articulate some principles about reading as a writer.
The obvious choice for me was Tolkien. To start with, I write fantasy and he’s the Ur-fantasy writer. Beyond that, the first fiction I ever wrote was Lord of the Rings fanfiction.
Tolkien didn’t influence me as a wordsmith. He wrote high romance, which we just don’t do these days. Indeed, the point of Tolkien fanfiction is often to try to translate that style into our more intimate, everyday kind of character portrayal.
What really influenced me from Tolkien was the sense that this story was deep and consequential. When you read Tolkien, you get the sense that he’s saying something that matters about what it means to live in this world. What kind of standards do we hold ourselves to as human beings? That’s a quality I’d like to believe is in the work I write.
Other writers who influenced me
From a different direction, I think I’m also influenced by Jane Austen, who’s my perennially favorite writer. Her work is the opposite of Tolkien’s. It’s intimate and domestic. But she also treats her characters’ sense of ethics, principles, honor, etc. as vital to society and to personal self respect.
I learned the value of subtext from Megan Whalen Turner, who writes of a character who always keeps some part of himself hidden. I’d love to believe her influence has actually affected what I put on the page but I don’t think I’m there yet.
If I’m trying to achieve a certain voice or other effect, I sometimes deliberately look to see how another writer did it and let that influence me. As a current example, I’m writing about Dilly, a sixteen-year-old girl who lived for a time on the streets. She’s in a better situation now, but that past peril has to affect her, and I needed a way to show it. So I reread the first story in Phil Klay’s Redeployment. That story is about a vet who’s newly home from Afghanistan and can’t let go of the hyper-alertness he needed to stay alive there.
Reading as a writer
As I thought about this topic, I formed three principles that help me think about reading as a writer.
First, I need to read within my genre. I once heard Lois McMaster Bujold say a genre was a conversation among writers and between readers and writers. A writer needs to know her genre to follow the conversation. She needs to know what subject matter and writing conventions are common, even if she then chooses to rebel against them.
Second, I need to read outside my genre. Otherwise I risk the boredom and burnout that come when all the books start to sound alike. Beyond that, reading outside my genre stimulates the kind creativity that comes from thinking sideways, from seeing a new thing and taking some version of it back to my own work.
Third, I need to read the best written stuff I can find. No matter what the genre, good writing is good writing. Reading it seems to tickle the right part of my brain so I start toward producing it myself. On the other hand, bad writing gets in my head and convinces me that if that person got away with saying a character’s eyebrow revealed their character, I can take a shortcut like that too. No. Just no.
Margaret Atwood is quoted as saying, “I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.” It’s possible being lost in a story like that is what influences all writers the most too.
What is the price of honor? Street kid Doniver is beginning to wonder if it’s more than he can pay. All he wants is to go home to the Uplands with body and soul intact, but it’s starting to look as if that might be too much to ask.