Influence from Great Writers

Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog“Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response.  It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that.  So, here goes:

At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.

Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love.  The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).

Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.

Ron Carlson:  a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels.  He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.

William Faulkner:  His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience.  Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay).  Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.

John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.”  Great characters who struggle with right and wrong.  My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.

Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read.  (Hey, he’s Russian.)  He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented.  Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie.  Many people consider Lolita a book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented.  Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.

Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse.  I strive for these things.

Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys.  Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her).  I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his.  Maybe too comfortable.

Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.)  Fair question.  I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories.  I just haven’t published them.  Why?: A)  I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that;  B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above.  But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced.  I’d love to know what you think of the novels.



My love-hate relationship with writing advice

I do not write in isolation.
I have a spouse (roommate/compatriot/lover/best friend) who expresses strong ideas about my lack       of self-promotion.
I am in three critique groups, each worthy of my devotion.
I have attended various writing retreats/programs (Centrum five times).
I was in a masters degree writing program (UC-Davis) before blowing town.
I spend several computer hours each day reading and researching about writing.
And it’s relevant to this piece that I began writing for publication well before the computer age, producing books, daily journalism, and academic stuff.

But I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off, writing production-wise, in a cell, solitarily confined.  How much have I gained from all of those (these) writing-related activities?

I cherish the comments I receive in critique groups, because the folks are usually paying attention to the work, though I use maybe one out of five comments.

I seldom go to writing conferences anymore because they yank me out of writing-mode, and most of the general advice I’ve heard before. The specific advice applicable to my pages hits home (is useful), again, maybe one in five.

As to writer-blogs and the bounties of the internet in general, it’s like trying to squash a one-pound slice of chocolate decadence cake into a four-ounce Chinese take-out container.  (Well, maybe not, though some of you will resonate to my meaning.)  Along with the tons of horrid junk available on the www, we can find some great stuff—Anne R. Allen’s blog, The Millions, Kristen Lamb , Jane Friedman, etc.—but even these take loads of time.   Sure, you can access the stuff fast, but you still need to digest and use it at far less than warp speed.  (One answer, of course, is for humans to evolve into cyborgs, which is not the sort of progress I would hope for.)

Maybe the origin of my problem lies way, way back in childhood.  “Shmuck!,” my mother used to say (not actually; it just felt that way), “Your eyes are too big for your stomach!”  I want the advice, but I don’t want it.  It takes too much time to get, then mostly reject.

So, who says I have to spend the time seeking it?  But if I don’t, then maybe I’m missing things.  A new writer-help program or product.  Insight or information about selling (a term I prefer to “submitting”) my writing.  New tricks for an ever-trickier trade.  The wonders of self/indie-publishing vs. the horrors of traditional publishing.  And vice versa.

And what if Asteriod XXX-fortyskugelfogwahwah passes too close to earth and wipes out all our data and programs and chapters?  What will literary (more or less) civilization do then?  Go back to the methods of Faulkner, Hemingway, Mansfield, Woolf, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Wharton, Lawrence, Ferber, etc.?  Wouldn’t that be awful, to have a new generation that wrote with less advice and minimal machinery?

Laszlo Luddite, guest poster

E-book readers pull data from you sub-rosa. So?

Lynn Neary (NPR, 1/28/13) recently did a report on the electronic tracking that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and probably others do of our e-reading, not only what we buy, but how we read it.  Maybe the first issue is that of privacy.  Do we, the purchasers/readers of books, want the sellers and the writers of books to know if we stopped reading, where we stopped, did we read passages on particular pages more than once, etc.?  Some readers, of course, will take the standby position that since they are doing nothing wrong, it matters not to them that they are being tracked.  As this particular post is not intended to be political, we can tackle that question another day, though the privacy issue may linger in one’s mind.

From a purely publishing/writing/reading stand-point, according to best-selling author Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild,

I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters, because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix. Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.

(A polygraph hitched to your readers, Scott?  Now that is interesting.)

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (The Goon Squad) says, in contrast,

…this speaks to the question of how important market research really would be for me as a creative person … [It’s] interesting to know, but should not really be predictive or part of the creative process.”

I for one (or 2 or 3, depending on whether dog and/or cat are on my lap) read in idiosyncratic ways, which I challenge a computer program to make heads or tails out of.  For example, I read several books at a time (upstairs book, downstairs book, and on my Kindle, from which I may read from several books, depending upon mood, need, or interest of the moment).  Sometimes I “quit” reading a particular book for several months.  Sometimes I quit a book “permanently,” meaning it’s lost my interest…until it regains my interest.  Sometimes I dump a book.  But if Scott Turow thinks I stopped reading at page 50, because that’s where it got boring, it may have been boring from page 3 and I just waded through until it got unbearable.

So, I don’t believe “they” can make accurate and useful marketing or editorial decisions from my patterns.  While I know that such decisions are made by computers from aggregated data (i.e., lots of readers), I believe my reading patterns are closer to normal than odd-ball.  In fact, if you want to read reactions to this new sub-rosa electronic feedback tracking game, check out the comments at the end of Lynn Neary’s NPR article.

Which goes to one of my favorite maxims that applies at least to the last 100+ years:
Just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

So, what do you think, not only about your reading patterns being tracked in the background (sub-rosa), but what editors/publishers and writers might make of the data, for good or ill?

The Fiction-writing Apocalypse…Or Not?


In the ever-tweakable world of writing on, if not for, the internet:  E-publishing Division, Amazon has added another tweak:  Kindle Serials, as expounded upon by Porter Anderson (on the great Jane Friedman’s blog).  Home base of the discussion seems to be, “If Charles Dickens could serialize his novels, why not 21st Century writers?”  And Amazon, as usual, is the provider (or enabler) of such writer-friendly venues.  Kindle Serials is subtitled, “Great Reads, one episode at a time.”  Sounds great, right?  To me, too.  But Porter Anderson raises an interesting and important question (marketing- related, of course) for would-be serializers to consider:  If a story is going to be serialized (i.e., released piecemeal to the public over time), why not “improve it,” given the opportunity to get feedback from readers over that time?

I put “improve it” in quotes because that’s the issue, isn’t it, whether the likes/dislikes/ideas of readers would improve the author’s product, especially when those are the people presumably buying it?  Would that process improve a piece of writing, or simply result in the proverbial camel, venerably defined as a horse designed by committee.  Well, here is my unabashedly sarcasm-loaded opinion on that:

Reader-influenced serialized stories, hmmm. Why not apply that process to musical compositions, even opera? Or how about paintings? Or dance. Have each performance stop at several points and have the audience vote on the next movements, whether or not they know anything about dance. Seems great for Broadway productions, right? The ultimate in audience participation.

But why stop there? Let readers—writing seems the most available for this, given its unfolding nature and the time it takes—grab each subsequent chapter and run with it, submitting their individual efforts to the “readership,” then have that readership—for a fee. Weee!—vote for the best submitted chapter, and so and so on. ‘T’would be the ultimate in this our Interactive/Interconnected Age. I just love 21st Century progress.

Missing in this commentary, of course, are other issues, such as ownership of a work, artistic unity, and the author’s original intent, etc, which should be considered.  Soooo, consider them, please, and let me/us know your thinking.