As writers, influences hail down on us from all directions and creep up from unexpected corners. Our stories are glorious chimeras, created by snatching up a myriad of these fictional (and non-fictional) influences, stealing them away to the mind-lab built from our individual personalities, histories, neurosis, and then stitching something new into our own pages with the colored threads of our various crafts and styles.
My overwrought metaphor aside, I think that’s amazing. Profound, even. I’ve found the acknowledgment and embracing of influences to be far more productive to my writing process than trying to deceive myself into believing any of my creativity exists in a vacuum. Being a writer is not about the ideas/pieces that we take, it’s what we choose to set loose into the world, and the level of honesty with which we do it. It is suffocating to me, the idea of not recognizing and saluting the many many many pieces I stole to make my own weird word chimeras. (No doubt many other people have already used this very metaphor before!)
I also think it’s not uncommon for writers to have a few authors who contributed bigger parts to our chimeras.
So I’ve broken down my writing into three specific authors whose books have been torn apart by my psyche and stitched together into beasts that are different than any of the individual parts that went into them.
AKA Tilt the world, then twist it.
Holy shit ya’ll did my brain get a wallop from reading Jasper Fforde at an impressionable adolescent age.
It started with The Eyre Affair and meeting Spec Ops agent Thursday Next for the first time. I remember by eyes nearly bulging out of my skull as I steadily learned more and more about Thursday’s world, one where Will-Speak machines sit in random public spaces to deliver Shakespeare soliloquies for ten pence, and roving Baconians are a door-knocking nuisance here to convince you of the truth that Francis Bacon was actually the one wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It started with Thursday learning how to jump into books, and becoming a Jurisfiction agent who must do things like serve Heathcliff Protection Duty (and also lead the routine, mandatory Wuthering Heights cast counseling sessions.)
Even though The Eyre Affair started it, one my favorite books of all time remains The Well of Lost Plots (the third in the Thursday Next series). In it specifically I fell head-over-heels in love with how bursting at the binding it is with sideways cleverness and meta creativity. Characters who speak in specific fonts; entire conversations and plot points existing in the the footnoterphone; grammarcites flying rampant and fucking up sentences as you’re reading them; generics seeking their character classification and a book to live in; plot smiths who wander about offering mid-point narrative twists and ready-made backstories; and much more.
Fforde also gave me the Nursery Crime series in which family man Jack Spratt and his detective partner Mary Mary investigate crimes such as “did someone push Humpty Dumpty off the wall?” as well as the astounding Shades of Grey (which really really needs to be continued, and should definitely not be confused with “50 Shades of”) where society is based upon color classifications.
I love how Fforde unapologetically wears his own hodgepodge of influences on his sleeve, and I’m fascinated and delighted by how he builds his worlds. He creates weird, goofy, hyper-specific worlds that are gloriously rich, dense, and consistent without sprawling them outward. His worlds go on forever — but to me they go deep, they don’t spread wide. He takes our world and then remakes it as colorful wonder boxes with extremely specific cultural details.
AKA People talking counts as plotting? … Right?
Confession: Jurassic Park is probably my most-read book of all time.
Crichton’s stories — not exclusively, but largely — consist of various groups of smart people debating Things (often to the backdrop of some ‘scientific’ situation gone haywire.)
His stories have their issues, and they certainly are not the most challenging or deep or verbose reads. But on a certain level this man taught me ‘readability,’ especially how you can make pages upon pages of dialogue engrossing. All of my Crichton is in paperback specifically because it seems apropos somehow to read his stories in paperbacks that you can bend and smudge and put through loving wear and tear.
I think it probably because of Crichton that I picked up my predilection for delivering stories through an accessibility of sorts — coating your ideas in a layer of the sugary can make people perhaps not usually disposed to said ideas devour them.
I want to tell different stories than Crichton did. I have different ideas to communicate, and I don’t think I write anything like him (except for the lots of talking, of course). But I think he did teach me that there is a value in creating an easy-reading, potato-chip page-turner.
AKA The right word matters… and so do people.
David Mitchell is going to be a kind of cheat here. Whereas my first two examples were authors I read much earlier on, David Mitchell came to me comparatively quite late.
But I am including him for the sheer quality impact he’s had on me in a relatively short time. Because David Mitchell’s impact has been profound — not only on me as a writer, but as a person. As cliche a statement as it is (I do cringe a bit as I type it) — I think David Mitchell changed my life.
From him I learned lessons in Craft and Humanism.
The extent to which Craft is evident in every sentence is remarkable. Each word chosen, each constructed sentence is done with purpose. The degree to which Mitchell considers language and grammar usage, and how they convey different people, emotions, and states of mind, is truly astounding. Every writer has and works towards a sense of craft (and this is not to say that others don’t have it or aren’t very good at it), but something about Mitchell’s is a particular draw to me. His words and rhythms are chosen carefully for each perspective he writes, and the shifts in language perspective to perspective can be more pronounced or more nuanced, but there is always a shift. Sometimes there is no distinct, easily identifiable difference from one person to another, but they are very different and distinct.
Which also brings me to that second point about Mitchell: no matter what kind of person he is writing, they are all treated with the same level of thought and care. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is treated like people. That sounds simple and obvious enough. All writers claim they do this / strive for this. But for me, Mitchell’s accomplishment of that idea is stronger and more precise than anyone else I have ever read.
Not all of Mitchell’s books are ‘strictly’ SF/F, but fuck that. For all the ‘literary’ clothes he gets forced into, Mitchell’s books have the fantastical in their veins. I love that they defy being categorized easily into genres. His plots are generally amorphous and ephemeral because his tales are always of something beyond. His stories are, in essence, about how people are confounding and beautiful and cruel and compassionate. His worlds are ours — brutal and unfair places. The characters who populate these worlds can be any spectrum of noble or malicious (or even miraculous). And yes, all of them will die at some point (sometimes it’s poignant, sometimes it’s bitter)(sometimes it’s in text, sometimes it’s outside of it), but goddammit if the value of the opportunity of human life isn’t a story worth sharing.
Mitchell’s writing seems to understand how humanity and stories are intertwined, and are worth something grander than we can even understand. And it is not about religion. It is about purposes being undefinable, but no less existent, and our obligations to one another as humans all living and breathing and struggling to makes sense of ourselves, our environment, and our place in the scheme of the universe.
And if achieving that isn’t a worthy writing goal, then I don’t know what is.
Join us again next week when our Writing Influences series concludes with thoughts from Bradley!