Nerd Alert: 10 Books That Shaped Me as an Author
It takes a certain kind of crazy to decide you want to get serious about this whole author thing. Becoming a professional writer requires a variety of personality flaws with which any self-respecting therapist would have a field day—fortunately, I’m engaged to my therapist. You have to be a tad masochistic, for example. You are literally going into the game knowing that you’re only opening the proverbial floodgates for all sorts of rejection and belittlement and character degradation that most people wouldn’t dare wish upon themselves. Furthermore, you have to be open to good criticism, bad criticism, and stupid criticism, which I’ll address in a future entry. You have to be impatient enough to keep grinding out chapter after chapter, book after book, and draft and draft, while also being somehow patient enough to tolerate the weeks or months that agents and editors need to assess your work.
My point is that the long road to becoming a writer usually doesn’t spring up over night. Joe Construction Worker doesn’t typically wake up one morning and decide, “I’m throwing in the towel on this whole labor-intensive, profitable occupation thing…I want to be a struggling writer.” No, the need to become an author is a sickness that typically starts young and it is tumor that only grows and worsens every time an aspiring writer’s aspirations are validated by someone else’s masterpiece. These are the books that turned my tumor into a full-fledged, terminal cancer.
1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – I’m not going to lie; reading was a chore for me growing up. Even though I torched my way through fifty something Goosebumps and Animorphs books during my formative years and read the likes of The Hobbit, Johnny Tremain (yawn), Gulliver’s Travels, and a hundred other classic books, I can’t say I ever did much of it for pleasure. This was the book that changed everything. The Poisonwood Bible changed what I thought was possible. It broke all the rules of narrative voice by telling one story through the distinct voices of five women. It changed what I thought I understood about the world and religion. Ultimately, this book permanently uprooted me from what I thought I knew about God and, for that, well…I’m not sure I’m grateful, Mrs. Kingsolver, but what I do know is that this book made me believe that one book can change a person forever.
2. The Oddkins by Dean Koontz – My mother had to remind me of this one, but her points are well made. The Oddkins was an especially dark story for me as a child, but it was one that dominated my formative years. When it went out of print, I remember spending the better part of a decade searching for it in every bookstore (this was before the days of Amazon, mind you). A tale of good toys being hunted and tormented by evil toys during the former’s search for a toymaker, the book taught me from a young age that moral themes often stand out best against the bleakest, darkest backgrounds. Elements of this truth are all over my first book, The Notice. I’ve always been shocked that this book isn’t more revered than it is.
3. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – If The Poisonwood Bible changed the rules that I thought reigned over writing, this book took those books and set them on fire—Dresden-style. Equal parts sad, funny, and flat-out weird, Slaughterhouse Five actually made me wonder if I might be too sane to consider pursuing this whole writing thing. A friend of mine said this book sort of ruined him, by basically changing the way he looked at life, death, and faith. I could see that happening. This book showed me how boring linear narrative is. Now I may never go back to beginning-middle-end storytelling ever again.
4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Ah, “LOTR” (pronounced “LOW-TUR”). My childhood revolved around The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings mostly because of my father’s obsession with the series, growing up. We have multiple copies of most of Tolkien’s works, including the obscure ones, and I even use to consult The Tolkien Companion (basically, a Tolkien dictionary) on many occasions to read more about Ungoliant and the Balrog and other eerie Tolkien creatures. This was my first experience with “Epic”. This book taught me everything about landscaping my artificial worlds, including the importance of outlining and character mapping. Everything you need to know about fantasy is right here and its winning formula has been imitated ever since. I can’t wait to do it myself one of these days…
5. Watchmen by Alan Moore – Yet another story that changed the way I look at narrative and characters. Watchmen bounces all over the place when it comes to time, and yet, while it’s time-traveling, it’s doing so at precisely the right…time, if that makes any sense. The flashbacks always make the story Moore is telling stronger—more…lived in. And I’ve yet to see more fascinating characters than The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and the infamous Rorschach. This book taught me that any genre can feel exactly the way it’s supposed to feel, even while being completely subverted. This book took comic book hero archetypes and turned them against each other, tore down the wall for graphic novels, and yet, endures as the pinnacle of what comic book storytelling should be. It made me want to tear down barriers with my own writing; it made me aspire to mimic the things I love, while also melting them down and making them my own.
6. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft – Never before have I read a book that bored me while also unnerving me enough to keep me awake at night. H.P. Lovecraft might look like the demonic lovechild of John Turturro and Nosferatu, but he did create a rich and eerie mythos that has terrified geeks for decades now. This haunting and slow-burning ode to the history of that creepy mythos is so dense with information and history and unthinkable, alien things that it isn’t terribly gripping to read (except for one terrifying interlude early on in the book), but the more you know and learn as you wander through the pages, the more his mythology starts to draw you in and terrify. Everything here is impossible, yet strangely familiar, and the cryptic finale only further cemented this story’s one overarching lesson: The devil truly is in the details.
7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – Few literary adventures satisfied me more as a pre-teen than watching Charlie’s (the protagonist) letters and prose lengthen, evolve, and mature as a medical procedure advances him from childlike simpleton to miserable genius. More than any other book at the time, Flowers for Algernon made me ask questions about my characters. What does my character know? What doesn’t my character know. And, more importantly, how would my character feel about the things I plan to do to him? Every chapter of this book is intimate and honest about the main character. I have endeavor to emulate this in every protagonist I’ve created since.
8. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank – The first book I ever read about dystopian/post-apocalyptic futures. More than that, though, is one of my first memorable encounters with character dynamics in the face of an overarching adversity shared equally by everyone in the book. This was a unique world rooted in our own—one that affected each character in distinct ways. Although other books and movies have run with its premise in fresh and exciting ways, Alas, Babylon has stuck with me for the better part of 15 years now. Not a bad accomplishment.
9. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I don’t know what I learned from this book, really. It’s not like I think I could ever imitate Douglas Adams. This is one of the funniest and most unique books ever written, while not sacrificing good science-fiction for the sake of humor. It strikes an almost impossible balance. However, Hitchhiker’s Guide is yet another example of a book that throws all the rules out the window in favor of unfettered imagination, big (and ridiculous) ideas, and charming characters that you love from Page 1. Isn’t that the point of all great books?
10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – Before you even ask me, no I haven’t finished reading the series. The important thing is that I HAVE read the first two books and I’m not basing this assessment just on the TV show (which I love). Martin’s books were among the first to show me what an art dialogue can be. Writing dialogue has always been fun for me and easy—maybe too easy—but after reading A Game of Thrones, I found myself wishing all of my characters were Robert Baratheon, Littlefinger, Tyrion Lannister—hell, even Joffrey! Martin’s dialogue drips with wit, intelligence, and undertones. I used to think I was DaVinci when it came to making dialogue; now I know I’m only just learning how to paint!
1. The Harry Potter Saga by J.K. Rowling - The pages are dripping wet with imagination, odd characters, unique ideas, and clever moments. What’s not to love?
2. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift - The book that taught me satire is a thing. It’s an art I’m still perfecting.
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy – A book with language, description, and storytelling as stark as its desolate, apocalyptic landscape. The pages are white. The text is black. The sum is an endless wash of gray and misery. It’s also a quick read, thank God.
4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – There are some very terrifying yet unavoidable truths about human society and civilization that serve as brilliant themes in this sci-fi masterwork. Elements found their way into my forthcoming The Last Cup.
5. Goosebumps by R.L. Stine - The best thing I learned from the Goosebumps series is that fiction can be cheap, prolific, formulaic, and profitable…with the right amount of charm and a few twists along the way.