Inspiration And Influence

C6ucM8rU0AI0vbtI’m pretty sure anyone who writes, or creates, can sympathize with this!

As an aside: greatest comic strip ever.  No, really…Calvin & Hobbes had it ALL: art, writing, humor, and the right touch of feeling and honesty.  Even more than the next two on my list — Bloom County and The Far Side —  Bill Watterson was a freaking genius.

Today’s strips?  That’s harder…Dilbert comes to mind…but that’s about the only one that really stands out at the moment.  Some of the web-comics are interesting, but nothing out there comes anywhere near those “top three”.

[Note – apparently Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County again, via Facebook and GoComics … I haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, but that might very well be enough to get me to create a Facebook account…we’ll see.]

At any rate, due to lack of anything resembling coherent thought at the moment, I decided to call out some things that, well, just plain work for me.  Not necessarily things that are groundshakingly amazing, but things I admire…and learn from.

Simple, powerful prose is a wonderful thing, especially when it has a sense of humor.  From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

“Richard found himself imagining the earl sixty, eighty, five hundred years ago: a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, a terrifying foe. There was still the wreckage of that man in there somewhere. That was what made him so terrible, and so sad.”

Dammit, but I love that passage.  As a character description? It is incredibly evocative, and paints a picture in a mere fifty words that well and truly nails the character.

Writers, they say, write.  Well, writers also read.  And in reading, they study and they learn…and, hopefully, they improve.

To stay on theme, here’s another passage*…one that nails its setting (London) in an equally effective way (actually, this quote is pulled from the single longest run-on sentence I can think of — don’t try that at home…not, at least, until you are as successful and well-known as Gaiman himself):

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…”

*Can you guess what I’m re-reading right now?

Books are not the only thing from which to learn…not by a long shot.  I’ve talked enough about my love of music, even quoted from a few songs.  Well, there are some lyrics out there that are, quite simply, powerful.  As with good prose, good lyrics evoke and inspire…they make you think and question, and bring to mind thoughts and feelings far in excess of their few words:

“With everything discovered just waiting to be known,

What’s left for God to teach from his throne?

And who will forgive us when he’s gone?”

—The Gaslight Anthem, National Anthem

 

“With nothing left but a chord to stretch

And a word to get on by

Sometimes you reach for the bottle before the sky”

—Chuck Ragan, Nothing Left to Prove

There are dozens of additional examples I could give…an entire iTunes library, in fact, from which I could pull quotes and lines.  That’s not the point of this.  No, the simple point is this: words have meaning, and power.  Poetry and music just as much as prose.  Give yourself the time, and the reason, to study and to learn how others have harnessed that meaning, and that power.

Read the good and the bad, the new and the old…read to enjoy, but also to understand, and to learn.  There’s an old saying about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, that applies to writing as much as to science: read what has been done, read what has worked, and take it onboard*.  Pull it all in, mix it around, and feed your own style…

*An interesting writing exercise I’ve heard about a few times (but have never done): instead of reading a story you truly admire, transcribe it.  The thought is that, by writing, you will internalize the structure and words in a way you would not through simply reading…  Hand-cramps and time aside, that is an interesting thought. If anyone out there has actually done the exercise, let me know how it worked!

One Song To Rule Them All

Son…of…a…bitch…

I found my song.

You know what I’m talking about: that one key song that captures the emotion and intent of a story. That one song that captures the focus and inspiration of the story, and of the most important character(s).

No?  Maybe it’s just me…

At any rate, for Wrath & Tears it was “Ghosts That We Knew”. Of course other songs were also important (I once mentioned a playlist I have of the 25(ish) songs that really mattered to Wrath), but that one rose above as the instigating, driving force.

Silence is already building a soundtrack that is floating around inside my head, but nothing that has really risen to hit that top mark.

Until now.

And, goddammitalltohell, wouldn’t you know it…Mumford & Sons did it to me again.

I might love Gaslight Anthem, and have a man-crush on Chuck Ragan, and play Eric Bibb until my ears go numb, but Mumford & Sons is still very much a go-to sound for me.

When their third album came out – Wilder Mind – I wasn’t initially sure what to think of it. To be honest, it sounded more like a lovechild between The Fray and X-Ambassadors than it did Mumford & Sons. But it grows on you.

Oh does it grow.

I listened. And I listened. And the volume kept going up and up (sorry, neighbors!).

Some good damn songs on that album. But one…one in particular…it echoes the themes Connor is wrestling with, and suffering from. It echoes where he is, and where he is going:

“Only Love”

Oh yeah.

Time to go write some more…

 

Foundational Reading (kinda)

I’ve been letting myself get behind on this blog again. Normally, I put together three or four posts over the weekend and just schedule them to post during the week. So far that has kept me from getting too far behind…

I haven’t done that for the last couple of weekends, however, so I no longer have a pool of posts that are pretty much ready to go.

Grr…that means I have to make something up on the spot, and I’m not feeling particularly “bloggish” this morning.

Maybe I’ll do a quick bit on inspirations. Yeah, that can work.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on the fantasy and sci-fi that started my love of reading…and that led in a pretty direct way to the writing. I didn’t have the time to get in to the more recent, and more, err, intellectual reading that has also played a role.

Now, in some ways, I’m pretty old school – I think there are certain writers/works that anyone who aspires to be well-read and experienced should definitely experience, and this is an informal run through those. Please note, this list is in no way exhaustive: there are (obviously) very good writers out there that I have not yet read. The trouble is there just is always too much to read!

I am not going to try to put this list in any kind of real order. Not only do I not have the patience this morning, but I am also sitting in a strange* coffee shop and doing this off the top of my head (while trying to drown out the shit music blaring right above my head):

*Holy shit do I wish I had gone to my usual place!

1)  Tale of Genji – one of the oldest novels in the world, and for an American an education in other ways of thinking and acting
2)  Shakespeare – you don’t have to like the stuff, but the influence on modern literature is undeniable (and no, I’m not a huge fan of poetry or plays…)
3)  Tom Wolfe – good heavens, simply one of the best satirists and social critics of the last fifty-plus years
4)  Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens – a genius, and a master of the craft
5)  Aleksander Solzhenitsyn – start with Ivan Denisovitch and go from there
6)  Tolstoy & Dostoyesky – a tie here…the Russians can write
7)  Arabian Nights – you think Hans Christian Anderson had an impact on the stories we tell? These have been foundational
8)  Dickens – yeah, I know, every high school and college kid in the US gets exposed to Dickens and resents it…don’t let preconceptions blind you, however, just read him with an honest and open mind, you won’t regret it
9)  A Death in Venice – as a metaphor for the suicidal death-spiral of a civilization it is priceless
10)  Akira Kurosawa – okay, not a writer…but we are talking storytelling here, and making a movie is telling a story. Kurosawa is a genius, plain and simple – watch his movies and study the storytelling, you will learn a ton

I could go on for…oh, hours. Chekhov, Mann, Chaucer, Virgil, Plato…

Crap, time for some self-editing in order to end this post and get on with the rest of my day!

Influences, and the Books That Mattered

If you write, you read. A lot. I’m sure there’s someone out there who violates that tenet, but I have no idea who that may be. What I got to thinking about – or at least wanting to spout off about – was what people read.

Now, by definition, a blog is not really an interactive forum. Oh, comments can be a conversation (I take part as a “commenter” on a few blogs myself), but the primary message is a one-way street. That means this gets to be a soliloquy on what I read. Which is as it should be…what I read is the only thing that matters in the universe!

Ahem…

For me, there are several different “kinds” of reading…and, yes, I can complicate anything. Want to hear my recipe for scrambled eggs? It takes an hour and a half…

Can you tell I’m neither serious nor focused today? Yep…I’m writing in the brewery. My liver forgives me so you have to as well.

At any rate, reading “types”: pleasure, education, research and…umm…other.

I have three books going at any given time, generally covering three of those four options (and, no, other is not as dirty as it sounds). As of today, I am reading Alison Weir’s Henry VIII for education, James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes for a combination of pleasure and research (on how other sci-fi writers write), and Tomas Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight in the other category…in this case for some some low-intensity thought-provocation for some fantasy stuff I want to (eventually) write.

What really got me started on this post, however, was looking back at the books & series that “started it all”. The more intellectual and more current influences are a subject for later.  For now the focus is on what started the love of reading…and, more importantly, the love of story-telling. That’s what we are: story-tellers. A thousand years ago we would have sung our songs by the hearth, but today we write…or sing, or paint, or make movies.

So what started that love of stories in my little corner of the universe? Fantasy. Yep, my roots are in fantasy…and my heart as well. The sci-fi I’ve been working on is, first and foremost, because of the characters involved. The two characters you know – or should know, anyway: Connor and Oz*. The loudest of all the ghosts, and the ones that took over – and still have control of – my imagination and my brain.

*On a side note: one of my beta readers is still mad at me for the end of Wrath & Tears:
“How are you going to work Oz into the sequel?” he asked.
“Err, he’s dead,” I answered.
“Fuck you.”

It’s a glamorous life, I tell you.

Crap…SQUIRREL!

Okay, back to the very first series I remember reading:

Chronicles of Narnia & Lord of the Rings – c’mon, who didn’t start with these two first?!
Chronicles of Prydain – you don’t hear much about these anymore, but I loved ’em as a kid
Chronicles of Amber – the last of the four I got into, but the first “grown-up” books I read (in the 6th grade)…it also kicked-off my fascination with Zelazny, and my obsession to read everything he ever wrote

Now, as for sci-fi…that came a couple of years later, but the early influences still stand out in my mind (these aren’t really in order as I don’t actually remember the order I read them in. Shit, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast!):

Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh could write a menu and I’d read it…
Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula LeGuin. ‘Nuff said.
War With the Newts – a bit off the beaten track but stay with me on this one: we had a family friend who was an English Prof specializing in sci-fi at UofM, and he gave this to me to read – it was, and still is, a lesson that you can write a story that says something
The Hyperion series – original and strong at a time when a lot of the sci-fi coming out was pure schlock
The Forever War – oh yeah…more learning about the fact that a story isn’t necessarily about what it is about
Phillip K. Dick – just anything, and everything. Sci-fi wouldn’t exist in Hollywood if it weren’t for him…aren’t something like 99% of sci-fi movies based on his stories?

On the other hand, the older I get (and the more experienced) the more I find that not all the books I loved twenty or thirty years ago still rise to the same level. Stuff like Mote in God’s Eye, the Foundation series…writers like Heinlein and Benford (an old professor of mine back at UCI!!) and Niven are still very good and enjoyable, but they no longer stick with me in the way they once did.

On that note, I do want to give very serious Honorable Mentions to two fantasy series/writers that each had their flaws, but still did stuff that made a huge difference to me (and that I still enjoy):

The Belgariad by David Eddings – no, it’s not War & Peace, but Christ Almighty did he and Leigh (his wife and writing partner) create characters that quickly earned a place in your heart – for a light, easy read to get someone started in fantasy you cannot go wrong here (I still love an early description of Garion as a “sandy-haired cloud of doom”)

And…okay…I’ll talk about the 800-pound gorilla*: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I love this series. I love the characters…I love the vibrancy…I love the sheer insanity of the detail…but for the love all that’s holy, that man needed someone to stand athwart the subplots and yell “No more!”  I might be a wordy bastard, but Jordan had entire books in this series that could (and arguably should) have been cut completely.

*No, really, if you get the whole thing in hardcover it literally weighs like 800 pounds!

Okay…speaking of wordy…that’s enough for now. I was going to touch on literature and history and modern stuff but, well, I’m at 1,000 words already. We’ll save the rest, I think, for another day…