No author is self-made, but is a composite of all authors that he or she has read. Since my writing development has been influenced by so many authors, both past and present, here is a list of those who have contributed to important milestones in my journey.
When my family borrowed an audio version of Redwall from the local library, I was instantly intrigued by the world of shy mouse Matthias, and by the abbey in which moles, badgers, and mice lived in peace. Cluny the Scourge, a rat with grand schemes of domination, was a cliché villain, but I forgave that because of the imaginative storyline.
The part that really gripped me was the riddles. As Matthias and his loyal friends go on an epic quest to find the legendary sword of Martin the Warrior, they follow cryptic ancient clues that lead them from the abbey walls to the den of a very dangerous foe, one far more deadly, cunning, and terrifying than Cluny. Meanwhile, Cluny suffers nightmares of a fierce warrior-mouse who will one day vanquish him. After I finished Redwall, I devoured other books of the series, and found that they all followed a similar pattern: an action-packed adventure rife with riddles and supernatural visions or dreams.
Redwall directly inspired my first novel. I was ten when I wrote 265 handwritten pages about a black warrior-cat named Rho (the name of my family’s first cat). The story had a similar style to Jacques: many characters with multiple storylines, comic songs and ditties, descriptions of sumptuous feasts, and, of course, an ancient riddle that leads the heroine to her destiny. Actually, it was a very bad story, but I was so proud of myself that I determined to write another novel. So I did. And I have been writing novels ever since.
I don’t remember who brought The Book of Three home from the public library, but I know that, once I got my hands on it, I couldn’t put it down. The four sequels in the Prydain Chronicles followed soon thereafter, and I was thoroughly hooked.
The Chronicles contrasted with Redwall in their treatment of heroes and honor. In the Redwall series, warriors are always heroes, and the climax arrives when a Salamandastron badger is overcome by Bloodwrath, and slays his enemies fiercely. In the Prydain Chronicles, Taran dreams of derring-do, and cannot wait to be a warrior. But once he becomes one, he discovers that it is more difficult than he imagined and requires choices of him that hurt. Taran’s greatest moments are not those of prowess on the battlefield, but of the personal sacrifices which honor requires. He learns that a gardener’s duties are preferable to those of a warrior’s, and nobility of character is greater than the strength of a warrior. As Taran matured through the series, so did I.
When I was in my mid-teens, I began the Westmark trilogy, and here I was unmade. Theo’s wrestlings with his conscience are even more intense than Taran’s, and his choices more gut-wrenching. When I finished the trilogy, I knew that my writing would never be the same. I had caught a glimpse of the hero who struggles between opposing loyalties, whose conscience wages war more fiercely than any physical foe, and whose search for honor reveals no easy answers. I am fairly certain that no hero of mine has been created since who did not have a kernel of Taran or Theo in him—the hero who struggles to retain his own soul amidst many temptations.
J. R. R. Tolkien
I had read The Hobbit but never encountered The Lord of the Rings until I was about twelve, when we watched an animated version of The Return of the King. Some readers admit to a kind of sickness that comes over them when they encounter a particularly gripping tale, and their world and their imaginations are unmade by the power of a story. This happened to me. I think I spent about three days in a funk.
The horror of Frodo’s nine fingers—the sacrifice he made to rid the world of its greatest temptation—stayed with me particularly. I had never before encountered a hero who lost so much in the accomplishment of his goal, and who could not reverse the damage that his quest inflicted upon him. It was the first time I realized that heroes are not always invincible, and the depth of the idea has clung to me ever since.
I did what I had always done when I encountered a book that thrilled me: I wrote a book like it. The Sword of the Elves was awful, but I thought it was great. It was nothing like the Lord of the Rings and had so many plot holes and problems that I can’t stand to read it today. However, it became a stepping stone to other works which I consider much more worth sharing.
Megan Whalen Turner
My sister raved about the latest book from the library, entitled The Thief, so, with much doubt, I read it. That happy sickness came over me as it had for The Lord of the Rings and my mind exploded with possibilities. I had never seen an author accomplish plot twists with such deftness, and it was the first time that I realized it was possible to write from the first-person perspective and still conceal many details from the reader until the proper time of revelation. I thought I knew who Eugenides was. I didn’t. I thought I knew his purpose. I didn’t. I thought I knew his personality. I definitely didn’t. And I loved that surprise!
As I plunged into the next two books of the series, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, my respect for Ms. Turner grew. She accomplishes plot twists in this way: She seeds the story with subtle clues, and gives a quick pass over important events. Later, the author revisits those events and adds information to them, revealing a surprising motivation or perspective. When she returns to the event for a third time, it is to reveal the entirety of the plot and the brilliance of its creator (usually Eugenides, but not always).
After reading The Thief, I sat down at my computer and typed out Shiner, which was my first attempt at cleverly crafting a tale with plot twists, surprising schemes, and hidden identities. It had much promise, but too many plot holes, and is currently on my “to rewrite” list. However, the lessons I learned from reading The Thief series and from writing Shiner have contributed to many of my own works since then.
(Read my reviews of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by clicking the buttons below.)
C. S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia were favorites when I was growing up, and I can’t trace the full number of ways in which they (and other works of Lewis since then) have influenced me. However, I didn’t become a true Lewis fan until, sometime in my mid-teens, I read the third book of his Space trilogy, entitled That Hideous Strength. I had never seen someone combine history with mythology, modern times with ancient prophecies and curses, horror with buffoonery. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, the story would have been a horrible mash of genres and ideas, but in Lewis’ hands, it was masterful. Few books have inspired such grand opposing feelings in me as That Hideous Strength did—and still does.
Up until this point, I had a very rigid idea of genres. There was fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction, and rarely did they intermingle. But That Hideous Strength seemed uncategorizable. It was set in modern Britain (at least, modern for Lewis’ time), but incorporated Arthurian legend. The science of Bellbury was all intermingled with demonic influence, and the power of men was set against the power of ancient, other-worldly beings. Lewis broke my very formulaic view of genre, and now I have written stories that I hardly know how to label. Is Immersion science fiction or supernatural fiction? Is Reflections technically fantasy—or something else?
Lewis influenced me in a number of other ways, successively breaking down my idea of “writing rules” and teaching me that only one rule is important: Love the truth and tell its story. I expect that rule to be my guide until the day my own story reaches its end.