Monday, April 8, 2013

THE WRITERS WHO CHANGED ME a guest post by Ariel Allison from She Reads


The greatest part of a writers time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson


Something odd happens to me in the months before I begin writing a novel. At some point after finishing one novel and beginning the next, I stumble across a book that moves me. I always feel the same after finishing one of these books: shaken, delighted, in awe. These books become landmarks in my own journey as a writer and their authors an unknowing mentor. While I read dozens of books between projects, there is always one that rises up and becomes the new standard for my own writing. Three books come to mind now, each having found me in that very moldable state prior to beginning a new work of my own:

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. This book was recommended to me while I was still in the concept stage with my first novel. An editor who knew my love of smart historical fiction suggested I give this thousand-page tome a try. I adored its intricately woven plot and abundance of historical minutia. I marveled at the creativity and top-notch writing. But there’s something else that Stephenson does very well. He gets you by the throat at the beginning and ending of every chapter and scene break. I won’t soon forget the opening line: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” Who is this woman? Why is she being hanged? How can you not keep reading after a line like that?! Neal Stephenson taught me how to weave history and plot in a way that forces the reader to keep turning page after page.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I’d heard about this book for years before I finally picked it up. A long road trip with my family proved to be the perfect excuse to see what everyone was talking about. Five hundred pages and two thousand miles later I was completely changed as a writer. In my opinion, Setterfield writes mystery better than anyone else on the market today. Not in the traditional, Agatha Christie way, where the red herring is king. But in this fantastic, sprawling, intelligent, trust-your-reader sort of way that makes for epic fiction. Setterfield takes you on a journey and sets the most delightful traps along the way—not just for her characters, but for her readers as well. She never inflects her writing. Never makes it easy for us. Never assumes that we can’t follow along. Diane Setterfield taught me that readers are smart enough to figure it out, and if by some chance we don’t, even better! We will love you for the thrill of not having figured it out!

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read all eight hundred pages of this novel in three days last November. She has two profound talents in my opinion. The first is that every scene, every character, every piece of dialogue in her novels serves a purpose. There is nothing superfluous. No dead weight. Every single thing matters. She may introduce a seemingly random character or plot thread at the beginning of the book only to build upon it so that it becomes the pivotal twist at the end. The second is that she takes her reader to the broken, exhausted, exhilarating point of every emotion. Whether writing a knife fight, a journey, a love scene, a homecoming, a betrayal, or even torture, she builds her scenes (none of them are short) until the page quivers with tension. Where a lesser writer would have mercy on the reader and cut the scene short, she takes it to the most brutal, unexpected, and profound conclusion. Her characters and readers suffer alongside one another. They weep together. They are redeemed together. Her devoted, almost rabid following is proof that readers invest themselves entirely in her work. Diana Gabaldon taught me to earn the trust of my reader by never, ever letting them off the hook. When I pick up one of her novels I know that I will be shaken and grateful at the end.

All of these are things I have needed to learn before beginning a new project. And I believe they are lessons that can only be fully grasped through the act of reading. I couldn’t have learned them in a classroom. I had to feel them first.

Question for you: what authors have changed you as a writer? How? What did you learn from them?


7 comments:

Katherine Scott Jones said...

Beautifully said, Ariel. It's fascinating to see how what we read so profoundly influences what we write. Part of the mystery and magic of books, I believe. Of the three books you mention, I've read only Outlander but I agree with every point. Now to add those other two to my list...

Cherry Odelberg said...

The authors I most enjoy and would like to emulate, are those who weave profound wisdom and truth into a fiction plot and make me think, "Oh, of course. I never thought of it quite that way."

(Not sure I want to invest myself entirely in the work and feel shaken at the end. Life does that to me personally anyway. When I read, I need to be encouraged and prodded to greater heights-not live vicariously through someone else's horror)

Authors who have encouraged, challenged me to profound thought, broadened the abstract of spiritual possibility remain C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Tolkien. Once in awhile there comes a newbie such as Vanessa Diffenbaugh, who is so intuitive and experienced with the human condition that she can both pain and heal the reader at the same time.

Sharon K Souza said...

Ariel, I too loved The Thirteenth Tale, and when I have some free reading time, I want to read it again.

I don't know that she's changed me, but Elizabeth Berg, particularly in What We Keep, inspires and encourages me to continue to write the type of novels I've written so far, but hopefully with measurable growth.

Lisa Samson remains one of my favorite authors, one whose work I really admire. I don't try to emulate other authors, but I'm inspired to write the type of fiction they write.

Jennifer Major said...

Jeanette Windle, for teaching me that story world is VITAL. She can have you sweating bullets with her descriptions of the Colombian and Bolivian jungles. And Laura Frantz, for teaching me that one can write thunderous emotions in 4 or 5 words.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I agree with Sharon, Lisa Samson is one of my favorite writers, too. Lisa's writing changed me because I discovered her writing when I was a frustrated newbie, trying to figure out where I fit in the Christian market. I found "Embrace Me" and realized that I could make it. Also, when I met her a few years ago, she encouraged me to keep working at the writing gig. That was so meaningful to me.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The novelists I meet here are the ones I credit with all encouragement and writer craft I have received. I would not be writing anymore without this community.

Josey Bozzo said...

Ariel,
This makes me feel like I have found a kindred spirit in you. I too have often read books and felt like it was a book that I was supposed to read at that appointed time for some time of learning experience.
Authors that have changed me (not sure if they have affected my writing or not)
Eric Bauermeister (sp?)-she showed me how to tell a story from different viewpoints but keep the same story moving throughout. Also, there is one scene in The School of Essential Ingredients that I still to this day cannot get out of my head. She takes the reader back and forth between the present and the past so seemlessly that the only way I could describe it was "sensual"
Francine Rivers and Liz Curtis Higgs-both of these authors gave us biblical stories told as fiction, which I didn't even know could be done.
Karen Kingsbury-for this one very important reason, she was the first Christian fiction I ever read, again didn't even know fiction was possible in the Christian world (obviously this was quite a long time ago)
And last but certainly not least Ann VosKamp. I know she isn't a fiction writer, but reading 1,000 Gifts showed me a different form of writing that I had never experienced before. This poetic, literature like stream of concousness type of writing that basically breaks all the rules but is somehow beautiful and moving all at once. Again, I didn't know you could write the way Ann