Blog Post: Word Styling
10 Influential Books – For Me, That Is
Every now and then a challenge pops up on Facebook, and, even though I normally don’t fall for them, some of them do intrigue me. Recently among my book-loving friends, it was the “10 Works of Literature that Inspired Me” challenge. I made it several days before anyone tagged me, and, then, I got tagged by two different people. I didn’t mind this challenge because it made me reflect on the literary works which have inspired me.
Now, I’ll add, just about every book I’ve ever read inspires me either as an everyday, mostly normal person or as a writer (sometimes both), and if I’d kept a running list of the ten most influential, it would have been a fluid one. So the list here is what came into my head today. Challenge me again in a few months, and some of the books might change.
And I noticed people who accepted the challenge listed the ten books but never explained why any of them made their list. That would have been interesting to me–especially in cases where there was duplication with my list or a book, which when I read it made me gag. So, for my list, I’ve included a brief statement about why/how the book influenced me.
Some of you will likely turn up your noses at some of my selections and declare, “This is not literature!” There is, gasp, science fiction on my list and, horrors, popular fiction, too.
Oh, and since I was always the one who perversely broke every chain letter/e-mail/Facebook post I’ve ever received, I won’t be tagging anyone to post his or her “10 Most Influential…” list, other than to say: Anyone who reads this should do the same, but you have to explain how or why each book influenced you. Ready, set, dare ya!
10 Works of Literature That Inspired Me (in no particular order)
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This was the first book, other than a comic book or storybooks, ever given me as a child, when I was around six, I believe. I still have it, though my PITA little brother managed to tear the front cover off this hardback. How did it influence me? It sparked my life-long love of books and reading, and writing too, since I did nothing but write stories about horses for years afterward.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I read this book in the 1980’s it validated my feminism, which I only acknowledged privately to people I could trust not to “out” me. It made me less afraid of the “f-word” (feminism; I’ve never been afraid of the other) and made me proud to be a feminist. The fact that it’s even more relevant now is a testament to Atwood’s genius. I want to be her when I grow up to be a writer.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book made me a sucker for happy endings, in fiction and in life. Even in my own writing, which is sometimes dark and bleak, I consciously, or unconsciously, find a way to work a happy resolution in because this book showed me it can happen. On a personal level, I’m still waiting.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This book showed me what a happy family living with adversity looked like and that there were, indeed, happy families. That was quite the eye-opener to me given my combative and tumultuous immediate and extended families. Plus, there was the whole woman-writer thing going on there; I felt Jo and I were really the sisters.
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This book blew away all my preconceived notions of what a novel/novel-in-stories should be. It enthralled me and pissed me off and made me both question and challenge myself as a writer. To absorb this novel you have to shed your skin of mediocrity and just let it pummel you.
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Though I thought his later works were just plain creepy and some of his earlier works bordered on fascism, this book was incredible–well-written and timely. This book made me–finally!–question the origins of my own religion and put me on the non-theist path, for which I am forever grateful. Do you grok me?
- The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Another sci-fi icon on the list, this was the first, novel-length science fiction book I read. Before it, I picked up sci-fi from comic books, tv shows, and B-movies. I bought the battered paperback at a library sale for a nickel, and when I brought it home my mother swore the depiction of aliens on the cover would give me nightmares. She was wrong; it made me think.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Because it blew my freakin’ mind!
- On Writing by Stephen King. I’m one of those writers who like Stephen King’s writing because I see past the grimness and gore and revel in how he turns a phrase. This was the best instructional book on writing (pun intended) I’ve ever read, and it made me give up -ly adverbs, with reluctance.
- Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Don’t bother to see the movie (though it was decent); read the book. Wells never met my parents, I’m reasonably certain, but she coincidentally explained their complex and enervating relationship in a way I could ultimately forgive them.
Of course, I’ve been thinking as I’ve written this, and I offer this addendum: anything by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… Oh, hell, just ask me again in a few months, like I said, and the list will be different.
National Short Story Month + Friday Fictioneers = Great Reading
In case you didn’t know it, May is National Short Story Month, a celebration of that quintessential literary form, the short story. By the way, I have three collections of short stories published. What better way to acknowledge Short Story Month than to buy them? Should you feel so inclined, click here to go to my author website where you can link to their Amazon.com pages.
Okay, enough shameless promotion. Let’s talk about short stories. I love to read them, and I love to read them from a wide variety of authors. They are, however, some of the most frustrating to write, especially within a specific word limit, but doing so is a great exercise in making sure every word counts.
Short stories are an art form. Some writers, like Alice Munro, write them almost exclusively. Other writers are adept at both short stories and longer works. I can enjoy Ernest Hemingway’s short stories but rarely his novels. Stephen King, best known for his expansive novels, is also quite the short story writer, with several collections of his work and inclusion in many anthologies. A few years ago when he edited the Best American Short Stories 2007, he lamented in the New York Times that short stories were endangered. Walk into a book store and what do you see? Novels right up front and on the top shelves; collections of short stories get relegated to the lower shelves, the ones harder to peruse. Rather than sound the death knell for short stories, King said we need to remember “…how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter.”
Yes, they do, and I, for one, won’t stop trying to write good ones, ones that matter.
Today’s Friday Fictioneers prompt brought a current international incident to mind–I won’t say which; you can let it apply to whatever one you want. The title, “Hope in the Darkest of Days,” comes from a Dalai Lama quote: “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.” If you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
The Prodigal Returns
It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.
So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.
Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.
Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.
Louisa May Alcott – She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.
Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.
Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.
Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.
Ursula K. LeGuin – She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.
Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.
Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.
Kate Wilhelm – She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.
Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,
Isaac Asimov – As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.
Harlan Ellison – As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.
William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.
Thomas Hardy – I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.
Stephen King – He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.
Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.
Kurt Vonnegut – He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.
Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy
Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. 😉
Balancing Reading and Writing
Most any writing instructor worth his or her salt will tell you, “If you want to learn how to write, read, read, read.” In particular, read within the genre you want to write. That’s excellent advice; however, none of them manage to impart how to find the time to do that, especially when you have your own writing in the mix.
Like most writers who love to read, I have a literal stack of TBR (to be read) books and a virtual one on my eBook reader as well. I participate in book-reading contests, i.e., set a number of books to be read in a year. Last year I blew right past the goal I set for myself. This year? Not so much. No matter what I do, I’m consistently four books behind my goal, and the about of time remaining in the year is quickly shrinking.
I can, however, pinpoint the cause. I spent most of the summer rewriting and revising a novel manuscript I had a (self-imposed) deadline for, so reading was one of the necessities I put aside. Now, I’m scrambling to catch up so I won’t perceive myself as a failure for not reading an arbitrary number of books in a year.
There’s an offshoot issue of this. When I go to read books in the genre I write, I find them, well, unhelpful. First, they’re mostly, almost exclusively written by men, and the female characters are stereotypical, again for the most part. So, I rarely read thrillers. I substitute non-cozy mysteries by the likes of Sara Paretsky, or speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood.
Now, it’s not that I won’t read thrillers by the late Vince Flynn or Lee Child. I do because within them is how to structure a good thriller, but I go elsewhere to learn characterization. Even though I write what will likely be considered “commercial” fiction, I want to approach it from a literary fiction standpoint, so I read a lot of literary fiction, also, contemporary as well as classic.
And the ultimate thriller writer for me is Stephen King. Yes, his work often falls into the horror/paranormal category, but the man can write; he can develop amazing characters; he concocts intricate plots; he has the most amazing sense of setting; and he eschews those dreaded -ly adverbs. His books also meet the accepted definition of a thriller, and, along with his great tutorial book, On Writing, his body of work is a writing course in and of itself.
Even after all the positives of reading to aid in writing, I still feel guilty when I devote a day to reading–I should be writing. I also feel guilty when I devote an entire day to writing–I should be making a dent in that TBR stack. To put in contemporary social media terms: I have a #firstworldproblem.
For every writer friend I have who gets the fact you have to read to understand how to write, I run across someone who declares he or she has no time for reading, “I just want to write.” One of the writers I follow on Facebook is Anne Rice, probably an icon for a successful writer. She is always posting about the books she has read and what about writing she has learned from them. So, I think you can balance her approach against the “writer” who doesn’t see the need to read and gauge which one is a writer, not a scribbler.
So, I’ve been writing long enough. Off to do some reading–Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, by the way.
The Friday Fictioneers of October
Pumpkins have started to pop up everywhere. Leaves have begun to display color. The air is crisp… Well, our dog days of summer here in central Virginia arrived a bit late. We’ve been in the 80’s the past few days. Richmond hit 90 degrees a day or so ago. Eighties wouldn’t be so bad without humidity, but it’s the south. We have humidity.
Still, this is my favorite time of year. It’s as if I’ve been running all out up until this point, then I take a breath and wind down–as much as one can do that with Thanksgiving and Christmas looming. Something about the fall makes me begin to reflect on the previous part of the year. So, let’s have a look.
I entered a bunch of contests and made a bunch of submissions. I placed third in one contest, and all the submissions were rejections save one; but its notification date is March 2014 and could still be a rejection. (There will be twenty to twenty-five works in the collection, and the editor has already received more than 200 submissions; the odds aren’t great.) I’ve revised and rewritten a novel which a workshop instructor believes has definite promise for being picked up by an agent. I’ve edited and revised other manuscripts, participated in two weekly flash fiction events, and again amassed enough espionage short stories for another collection. I’ve been to ten writers conferences or workshops, participated in two on-line workshops, and taught one on-line workshop.
A busy writerly year, and I can’t even describe how fulfilling that is. As the go-to analyst/tech writer in my government job, I probably wrote a lot more than I do now on a daily basis, but the key difference is time. The deadlines I had in my job were rigid and often capricious, the whim of some congressional staffer with an overblown ego. Though the feedback was always good about a white paper or a report or a Q&A I did, I never felt as if that work were polished enough. I’d always come up with a better way of saying it. Now, thankfully, I have luxury of time to make certain what I write is the best it can be.
And I don’t take that for granted. I have too many writer friends with full-time jobs and families they juggle with their writing. I know how precious it is. I admire these writer friends so much for being dedicated enough to their writing that they make it a priority among all the other priorities they have. After all, that was I not that long ago, and I’m glad to have them in my writer life to keep me humble.
October is also a spooky month–it culminates in Hallowe’en, after all. So, it’s not surprising that today’s completely innocent-looking Friday Fictioneers photo prompt sent me into Stephen King-land. The fact I’m reading his sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, may have something to do with my story, “White Noise,” as well. I’m going to see if I can’t make every Friday Fictioneers story this month have a little bit of horror going for it. Bwahahaha!
As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
The picture has nothing to do with today’s topic. Rather, this is the fourth day in a row of drizzle, freezing or otherwise, and overcast skies here in the Valley, so I needed a reminder that the sun is out there. Somewhere.
I ran into a member of my writers group at lunch over the weekend. He was deep into reading a book on ancient history as research for what he writes. He was so engrossed in the book, I stopped by his table to ask if the book were good.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s so good, I wonder why I bother to write.”
I’ve had those moments, and you have, too. You know it. You come across a line or a passage in a book, or you close a book upon completion, and your shake your head and murmur, “Why do I bother?” Somehow, those rare occasions weigh on your writing psyche more than all the common occurrences of reading something trite or mundane and knowing you can do better. Well, we know good writing when we see it, and, as writers, we have to stop and appreciate the good, even while acknowledging the bad.
When I’m in the process of editing or revising, I’ll come across something I’ve written that’s so good, I actually wonder if I wrote it. Of course I did, but it resonates with me the same way as a passage from Faulkner or King or Vonnegut or Atwood or some other famous author I admire.
Now, I’m not saying my words are gold because, believe me, I’ve come across some real stinkers in my own work–including a story that won the competition to be included in the college literary magazine. When I do, I cringe, but I immediately start to see how I can make it better.
Like any other organism or system in our bodies, our writing grows and evolves. In five more years I’ll be a much improved writer than I am now–and I’m far improved over the writer I was ten or even five years ago. The only way to improve is to write–and write some more. And listen to the feedback without being defensive. That’s hard, I know, but it’s all part of that growth.
Even then, I’m sure I’ll come across a passage in something by King or Vonnegut or Faulkner or Atwood, and I’ll think to myself, “Why do I bother?” But it won’t stop me.
Who’s the author who makes you want to close the laptop forever?
National Short Story Month – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Writers
I was pretty excited about National Short Story Month (May 1 – 31). Though I don’t consider short stories my first choice in writing (despite the fact my only published book is a collection of them), I read a lot of them. My intention for this past month was to pick 10 short stories meaningful to me and write about each. Because of a cold that knocked me for a serious loop, I only managed three—Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.”
I’ve left you with the impression that I don’t read any modern short stories. Not true. I was working my way up to that before I got sick. Since I can’t cram seven more stories into a single post, I’ll do a quick list of stories and collections I recommend.
First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Master of Horror, Stephen King, but the story I recommend is considered one of his “mainstream” works: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” (They shortened the title for the movie.) A marvelous character story and tribute to, well, redemption.
Agatha Christie, in addition to her many (many) novels, also wrote several collections of short stories involving her best-known characters. The ones I recommend revolve around Miss Marple. Though I always found Miss Marple a little grating on the nerves with her false modesty, any of Christie’s short stories with Miss Marple is a gem—the mystery presented, discussed, resolved so succinctly.
Kurt Vonnegut—I miss him every day—has had several collections of short stories as well. Pick any one of them up, and he will transport you—into the past, the future, someone else’s head, his head. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.
Not because he’s a writer friend of mine but because his collection is so evocative, I’ll include Cliff Garstang’s In an Uncharted Country. (I mention him after Vonnegut because he might not like being so close to King. ;-D ) This is a collection of linked short stories about people and life in a fictional town in the Shenandoah Valley. Cliff links the stories in interesting and provocative ways, and there’s not a disappointment in the bunch.
If you think Vladimir V. Nabokov and your next thought is only, Lolita, think again. He has a large collection of short stories (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov) that will horrify, intrigue, sicken, delight, and amaze you. You begin to understand how seeing your father murdered in front of you creates an incredible writer.
Ray Bradbury’s “Beggar on the Dublin Bridge” has a hint of the fantasy Bradbury is famous for, but, mainly, it reminds you that opportunities lost can’t be recovered.
Be patient. I’m getting to the women in just a moment.
A literary e-magazine I subscribe to on my Kindle is One Story. Aptly named, it publishes a single story every three weeks. All the ones I’ve read have been excellent and by up and coming writers (which gives me hope I’ll be one some day), but “Filament” by K. L. Cook is a stand-out. If you don’t have or want a Kindle, you can purchase the stories individually as they’re published on the web site (click on the link).
So I don’t let my feminist sisters and brothers down, here are some stories by women writers I’d like to highlight. A lot of these are classics as well, and it’s not that I don’t like modern short stories. A lot of them just don’t give me the “kick in the gut” the “oldies but goodies” do. Oh, they are perfectly structured and punctuated, grammatically flawless, but many are so faultless, they move me only intellectually, not emotionally.
Sarah Orne Jewett – “A White Heron”
Willa Cather – “Paul’s Case”
Edith Wharton – “The Mission of Jane”
Edna Ferber – “The Afternoon of a Faun”
Dorothy Parker – “Big Blonde”
Eudora Welty – “Death of a Traveling Salesman”
Flannery O’Conner – “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Joyce Carol Oates – “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Like Bradbury’s “Beggar on the Dublin Bridge,” there are a lot of missed opportunities here—darn that “three-week” cold—but there’s always next year.