All authors write because they are inspired by something they have read before. I wrote my first novel at 12 because of Brian Jacques’ thrilling and active Redwall series. I wrote my first trilogy because of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wrote my sci-fi novel The Memory (projected publication: 2015) because of C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Series, and probably a few more books. Every book is an opportunity. You see possibilities in writing style, content, plot, and characters that you never saw before. The more you read, the more material you’ll have from which to write.
Want to know how to cramp your true potential as a writer? That’s easy: Read only what interests you. Reading a wide variety of books is the key to graduating from mediocre to good (and possibly great). I struggled with Melville, puttered through Dostoyevsky, and slogged through Dickens. However, I owe all three a great deal. You don’t have to like a book in order to mine very rich material from it. When you ponder why you like one author but dislike another, you unconsciously shape your unique style.
Writing is like practicing an instrument, or training for an athletic event. If you don’t train, you will fail. If you don’t write when you don’t have time, you will not write when you do have time. So if you buy a voice recorder and dictate your story while you drive to work, type furiously while pedaling on your recumbent bike, or spend a good chunk of your day off writing, you’ll have company. I’ve done all of the above.
I used to get angry when people told me to write what I know. How, then, do all the fiction authors write so eloquently about things that do not exist? Gradually, I understood. Every good story, regardless of genre, is about reality. Think of the stories that most grip you. Identify the realistic elements and consider what their removal would mean to the story. Study human nature. Introduce supernatural elements sparingly, and with great caution. Bend the laws of nature only occasionally. You will find that paralleling reality is much more powerful and effective than departing from it.
At times, you will delight in your own literary achievements; at other times, you will question your writing abilities. This is natural. Just remember: Your craft is always a work in progress. It will still be a work in progress when you die. C. S. Lewis, the author who has influenced me more than any other author (except, perhaps, Lloyd Alexander), once wrote that he always felt lacking as a writer, and wished he could live up to his own ideal. Yet when I read Lewis, I see immense richness and fullness. Persevere, and perhaps someone will recognize the beauty in your writing that you cannot see yourself.
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