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.

 

 

The Lousy Hero?

We love our protagonists, our hero/heroines.  Why else would we write about them?
Writers often create lead characters that they like, or would like to be like, a good person with problems, someone sympathetic, maybe even adorable, certainly spunky.   But I believe the writer who doggedly creates the good-as-can-be hero/ine path is short-changing his or her work and development as a writer, as well, of course, as the reader.

What about adding serious flaws to your “good” character, give him/her self-caused problems to battle instead of the problems all coming from the dastardliness of others or vagaries of fate?  Battling ourselves is at least as interesting as battling the bad guys ‘n gals.  The problems can be more difficult than bad parents or misleading friends, Martians, Corpo-types, nature-gone-wild, Vampirish Werewolves, the government, the greed of others, etc.

Too often I’ve heard in critique groups, “I just don’t like the main character; why would I want to read about him/her?”  Well, I suppose that’s a legitimate perspective and has some audience out there in reader-land.  But writing a nasty antihero, can help deepen your understanding of character and bring greater dimension to your work.  Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art:  Thoughts on writing says, “…it helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements.”

Badness is a juicy role.  We hate these characters because we love to hate them.   They’re so interesting.  Donald E. Westlake (<i>The Ax</i>, <i>The Hook</i>, and, writing as Richard Stark for the Parker mysteries) loved to use anti-heroes with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  But a large part of Westlake’s genius was in leading us to understand these “bad” guys, even seeing how we, his readers, could become so twisted as to kill the way they did.  Although, the frequency of their killing leads us again to doubt our changing opinion of them.  We as readers are in a rocking boat on a turbulent sea.  Isn’t that a great feeling while safe at home or the beach or (?) reading a book or Kindle/Nook/iPad/smart phone?

How do you feel about bad guy/gal protagonists?  Do they turn you off or intrigue you?  Who’s your favorite?  Have you tried to write one?  I welcome comments and will reply.