For the past month we Killer Moose have been talking about writers that have inspired us, and I have to say in tribute to all of my colleagues, that was some pretty bad ass writing all around. So it falls to me to finish out our series and follow amazing articles by Hanna, Cole, Jae, and Clarice. And if you think that’s a tough act to follow keep in mind I have to do it without using Peter S. Beagle, Diana Wynne Jones, and Douglas Adams.
For writers, reading is everything. It is as important to doing good work than putting words down on the page. In order to put out good work you first have to consume it with a ravenous hunger for words like the one George R. R. Martin has for food. As writers we’re always looking for new ways of telling stories, new techniques and ideas we can use to bring our words to life, and the easiest way to do that is to steal it from people you admire. The writers I love do it, and the people they stole from did it too, we may be thieves but we’re more like awesome space thieves.
One of my internet heroes Widge from Needcoffee.com likes to call the writers that influeneced him his Uncles, as a great writer is like a cool relative who gets you in the most awesome kinds of trouble. I honestly couldn’t agree more. (Check out the site by the way, I have some old articles on there and the content is great.) So here are some of my favorite Uncles, who left things out for me to steal one day.
Diane Duane was hands down the most influential author of my childhood, with good reason as everything she writes is absolutely fantastic. She’s written episodes of Star Trek, Gargoyles, and Batman: The Animated Series as well as tons of novels, and one thing I always appreciated about her writing is while what I was experiencing was for YA audiences, she never talked down to children, nor did she simplify her plots very much. Her Batman episode for instance is about Alfred’s past as an MI6 agent. But I knew her as a child for one other wonderful series.
Young Wizards should be the most beloved series about wizards…ever. Yes while a certain scar-headed wizard wins out for a variety of reasons Duane made a more diverse genre bending universe in 1983. The first book in her series So You Want to be a Wizard not only includes two great, realistic, culturally diverse 13 year olds, but a White Hole as well. Yes, one of her main characters is a hypothetical region of space-time. Diane Duane looks at genre definitions and says “Excuse me, what are these now?” If you want to learn wizardry on her turf you’re going to have to bring a calculator, and a good one, because you’re going to be doing entropy calculations and estimates of gravity and distance between celestial bodies. And you’d better hurry because your first mission as a wizard, your Ordeal, will usually set you against her universe’s version of Satan, The Lone Power.
Book two has the characters meeting whale wizards, three has them meeting newly created life in a distant galaxy, book four has them fighting against invading demons from Irish Mythology that you as an adult have probably never heard of, and they just get more complicated from there. Diane Duane has an alien tree wizard named Filifermanhathhumneits’elhhessaifnith. No more needs to be said. I still think of her every time I start to plot out a story. Don’t be afraid to mess with genre, make the craziest stories you can, go outside the box, then stomp on it and throw the box away.
This guy you may have heard of. While Diane Duane was one of my earliest influences, The Neil is probably one of my latest formative ones. I’ve had people I’ve admired since certainly, but no one stretches the limits of what a story can be quite like Gaiman. I first encountered him co-authoring Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, basically hitchhiker’s guide to the apocalypse, which is a wonderful introduction to both of these two incredible men. Then I encountered Sandman and I absolutely lost my mind. Gaiman’s another one of those people who knows all the rules for stories so he can break them, and that comic breaks them all. He has fairytales mixed with superheroes, mixed with Shakespeare, mixed with mythology, all without breaking a sweat.
Then I found his other novels and each subsequent one made me more astounded. It also doesn’t help that Gaiman does all the ideas I’d love to write but does them so much better than I had imagined. “I want to do a book about if old mythological gods were still around!” “You mean like American Gods?” “How about a book where Fairy Tales are real?” “You mean like Stardust?” His short stories are just as incredible too, though most of them read more like novels, things like Snow, Glass, Apples or How to talk to Girls at Parties feel just as rich as if you’d read a 1000 page book. Whenever I write something that picks apart my favorite kind of story, or when my writing goes sideways down a dark, shadowy lane, I know it’s Gaiman at my back.
You may have heard of this guy. It’s actually kind of hard for me to understand people who don’t like King. You have 54 novels, and 200 short stories to choose from, surely you can find one of them to enjoy. Of course it seems like King’s detractors focus on things like Cujo, Pet Semetary, or Firestarter instead of The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption or The Body (which became Stand By Me). Over his long career King has written basically anything you could possibly want to read: fantasy, sci fi, detective novels, pulp, and -of course- horror. And as a writer he has one endlessly admirable quality, more than any writer in the business King treats writing like a job. Every day Stephen King gets up and he writes 1,000 words and he keeps doing that until he has a book, and then he starts another book. When he’s not writing he is devouring books like he’s a kind of paper eating bacteria.
In addition to his frankly insane output of fiction King also managed to put out one of the best books about how to write ever published. On Writing is something I go back to any time I need to be reminded how writing is a profession and what the expectations are. I’ll admit there’s a lot of my writing influenced by King: I love over the top villains, monsters from dark places outside the universe, and clever protagonists against unbeatable odds. Not to mention I love great first lines, and King has probably the best one in fiction. Go read The Gunslinger and you’ll see it across the first page, “The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
Out of everyone on this list I think I owe the most to the great elder statesman of the writing community, who unfortunately left this world in 2012. A little over 10 years before that I walked into EJ Thomas hall at Akron University and got to see Bradbury give a lecture on his life as a writer. He was 80 years old, wheel chair bound, his eyes magnified by thick glasses but he still held an audience of nearly 3000 people captive with his stories. Most people never read much of Bradbury after they’re assigned Fahrenheit 451 in high school the shame of it being that it pales in comparison to his other works, not to mention most people miss the point of it. Everyone says the book is about censorship, but he was adamant throughout his life that it was really about how fewer and fewer people were reading books, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he said, “Just get people to stop reading them.”
I sat there and listened to him talk about walking out of moon landing coverage because they didn’t respect what it meant for humanity, about writing a script for John Huston’s Moby Dick film after reading the novel the night before, about staring down Hollywood executives when they wanted to cut Judas from King of Kings. Every story was pure poetry, the most eloquent wonderful ideas about what humanity should be and where we should be going, from a midwestern boy who never grew up. That’s when I knew I wanted to write, I came back to it a roundabout way, through theatre and playwriting, but I knew that telling stories was what I wanted to do, no matter how I had to tell them.
Every time I pick up one of his books, I’m reminded of how a story is so much more than the plot. Pick up Something Wicked This way Comes and you get more than a story about a scary carnival, you get the most gorgeous thoughts on growing old that have ever been put on paper. Read The Martian Chronicles and with your space travel story you get real thoughts on what it means to be human. Even his children’s book about halloween The Halloween Tree is about friendship so true that the kids he writes about would sacrifice anything for one another, and he still manages to write an educational fantasy about Halloween around it. You may not be able to sit in a room with him like I did, but if you open any of his books, you’re right there with one of the greatest storytellers in history.
I’ll close by sharing with you two of my favorite things from Bradbury, first, the moment he himself became a writer, while I was sitting in an auditorium with him, he was sitting in a circus tent with a carnival act named Mr. Electrico: read it here.
And finally, a thought from his book Zen in the Art of Writing if King teaches you how to be a writer, Bradbury teaches you why. And here’s his best thought on it:
“And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation. So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”