This is the fifth and final part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
I thought I’d close out this discussion of influential books with a genre that I don’t usually read: nonfiction. It’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve really started delving into nonfiction; before I just passed it by as something that I don’t dealt with for research, not read for fun. However, I started finding interesting books about internet culture, fandom, introverts, and writing. So, here I am to talk about three nonfiction books that helped influence me as a person as well as a writer.
This book saved my life. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that. I was deep in the grip of depression when my onii-sanDavid let me borrow his copy of Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck. I was in pain, confused, and trying desperately to claw my way out of a hole I had only recently realized I was in. I needed to make sense of what was happening to me, why I was so unhappy, and what to do about it. Listening to other people doesn’t help me much because I often find it hard to relate to someone else’s thought processes. But books…a book I can read. A book I can understand and apply to my own life and experiences. And Finding You Own North Star helped me do just that.
This is the fourth part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
The next round of influential books didn’t come until I entered college. Granted, I found lots of books that I loved between the age of 12 and 18, but truly influential books are much rarer. In my freshman year, I discovered anime and manga. Last Exile was the first anime I ever watched (I’m not counting random Pokemon episodes I saw when I was little), and reading manga soon followed. A six-year obsession with all things Japanese had begun. During that time, I read and watched so much anime that I needed a list to keep track of them all. Three series stick out in my mind from that time that remain favorites and powerful influences.
The first of these was Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino. This 10-volume series is a horror manga, not my usual genre of choice. It’s both beautiful and eerie, revolving around a pet shop in Chinatown run by the enigmatic, androgynous, and amoral proprietor known only as “Count D.” Each volume contains about four stories of various people who come into the pet shop and leave with a pet…under certain conditions. Like in Gremlins, disobeying D’s instructions as to the care and feeding of their pets often results in calamity. Sometimes the pets are helpful to their new owners, but most of the time it ends in tragedy. Weaving through these tales alongside D is Leon Orcot, a detective who is sure that D has something to do with the various mysterious deaths throughout the city, but is unable to come up with any proof.
This is the third part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here, Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
While writing these “Influential Books” posts, I’ve noticed that most of these books were read between the ages of 8 and 12. I’m pretty sure I was 11 when I picked up a copy of The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore.
It was after we’d moved, but we still came back to my hometown in Maryland occasionally. I think we stopped to get Chinese food or maybe we stopped by the hardware store. Either way, we had a little extra time, so Mom and Dad let us go into a nearby bookstore. I had $20 of birthday money in my pocket; a small fortune to me. I prowled through the shelves, not looking for anything in particular, although I always wanted to buy as many books as possible. Then I noticed the lurid cover of the February 2000 paperback Collector’s Edition of The Dark Elf Trilogy, which promised to contain the first three books of the Chronicles of Drizzt: Homeland, Exile, and Sojourn. That got my attention. I love omnibuses, origin stories, and complete sets, plus I’d never heard of a “dark elf” before, so I bought it.
This is the second part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here and Part 1 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
One of the earliest fairy tale books I remember checking out from the library was East of the Sun & West of the Moon written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. It’s an old fairy tale and there have been different adaptations of it, most of which involve a polar bear. (One of my favorite alternate movie adaptations is the Norwegian film The Polar Bear King.) I cannot tell you how gorgeous the illustrations are, and they’ve stuck with me my whole life. Even when I forgot the title, I remembered those pictures. The girl sitting by a pond, a unicorn in the forest, the goat with the corkscrew horns, the giant green fish with scales like mirrors, the prince’s icy prison, and the evil troll queen with a wooden arrow in her heart. The beauty of these illustrations transported me into a rich, living fantasy world and have influenced my mental imagery of fantasy works ever since. It also, for a time, made me want to become an illustrator for children’s storybooks. (Each of the illustrations in Mercer Mayer’s books are done in watercolor. Watercolor! His rendition of Beauty and the Beast is equally breath-taking.) I’d searched on and off for this book for years, but my efforts were frustrated by not remembering anything except those illustrations. But recently, I stumbled across it by chance on the internet, found the title, and ordered a copy.
This is the first part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
The earliest fantasy book I remember reading was Dragon’s Milk by Susan Fletcher when I was in second grade. (The only reason I remember when I read it is because I had to write a book report on it. Does anyone actually write book reports anymore?) The book is about the harrowing adventure of a young girl named Kaeldra. When her sister is struck down by a terrible illness, Kaeldra is told that only dragon’s milk can save her. But getting milk from a mother dragon is only half the battle. When the mother dragon is killed, Kaeldra is oath-bound to save the three hatchling dragons from the same fate. And even though Kaeldra has the ability to speak to dragons, her task won’t be an easy one.
In addition to adding new words to my fantasy vocabulary (notably “ken” and “dracling”), Dragon’s Milk introduced me to several new concepts, such as the power of names, the use of telepathy for communication with nonhumans, and the idea that dragons have an intelligence and view of the world that is very different from humans. Most little kid stories with dragons and unicorns have the creatures communicating, feeling, thinking, speaking, and seeing the world essentially the same way humans do. They basically are humans…just with a different drawing attached to them. Even Bruce Coville’s book Into the Land of the Unicorns, another founding fantasy series for me, had that element in it. The unicorns communicate telepathically, but their thoughts and world-view really isn’t very different from the human one. Perhaps that was to make them more understandable, more relatable.
But all my life I’ve wanted to be the kid who gets to cross over into the magical kingdom … Because even when I was a child I knew it wasn’t simply escape that lay on the far side of the borders of fairyland. Instinctively I knew crossing over would mean more than fleeing the constant terror and shame . . . There was a knowledge that ran deeper – an understanding hidden in the marrow of my bones that only I can access – telling me that by crossing over, I’d be coming home.
That’s the reason I’ve yearned so desperately to experience the wonder, the mystery, the beauty of that world beyond the World As It Is. It’s because I know that somewhere across the border there’s a place for me. A place of safety and strength and learning, where I can become who I’m supposed to be. I’ve tried forever to be that person here, but whatever I manage to accomplish in the World As It Is only seems to be an echo of what I could be in that other place that lies hidden somewhere beyond the borders.
As we approach the November elections and debates, both formal and informal heat up, I’ve noticed a distressing trend:
It’s easy to fall into the mindset that everyone sees the world the way you do. And those who don’t are “obviously” delusional, blind, or just plain stupid.
We all fall into this kind of trap in our daily interactions (moreso when intrinsic bias is challenged), and, since our stories and characters come from us, it’s also easy for them to follow the same pattern. I think that’s actually one reason why flat characters are so pervasive; their creator hasn’t tried looking beyond the obvious or from a different perspective. After all, each one of us is shaped by our experiences, our raising, how we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us. No two people even experience with world in the same manner…literally.
A thought struck me as I was rereading passages from some of my older, unfinished works: “Wow. I’ve certainly changed in the last decade.”
Rereading old works can be both cringe-worthy and heart-warming. Cringe-worthy because, hopefully, if you’ve been working to improve yourself, you’ll be thinking, “Good grief, I had NO grasp of pacing,” or “My magic system in this story made NO logical sense,” or “AHHH! SO MUCH FORCED CHARACTER DESCRIPTION!” (I’ve always been über-descriptive in my writing, so that’s always been a problem of mine.) But the cringing will hopefully be followed by the realization that, “Hey, I’ve come a long way since then. All those problems seem so obvious to me now and I know how to avoid them.”
I don’t know about you, but I also always get a warm, slightly nostalgic feeling when I reread my old stories. I’m like a parent amused and indulgent with her children’s finger painting and story-telling antics. They might not make sense in the adult world I now inhabit, but there’s a great deal of old-fashioned charm in the nonsensical-ness. Horses used doors and buckets, magic was thrown in willy-nilly to make up for a lack of opposable thumbs and tornadoes were a perfectly acceptable method of transportation.
It’s ironic that, fifteen years ago, the last thing I wanted to be was a writer.
During my elementary years as a homeschooled student, composition class was my least favorite subject. I suppose regular schools lump reading and writing under the heading “English,” but for me they were two separate things. Reading was fun and fast. Writing was a torture that dragged on for what felt like hours. I remember my father tell me that I would probably grow up and become a great writer. I looked up from grinding out another line of loopy, childishly careful cursive and declared that I would never, ever EVER become a writer. Not in a million years!
Look who had the last laugh on that one. As it turns out, Dad knew where my talents lay better than I did. It’s interesting how it took me so long to come around to writing, considering how much I loved to read. Plus, I always enjoyed crafting stories of my own, which I would reenact with my long-suffering toy horses, Barbie dolls, dinosaurs, and Hot Wheels cars. (I believe we still have one of my stories involving My Little Ponies floating around on videotape somewhere…) In any case, while I loved “playing” stories, it took me years before it occurred to me to write them down, or that my world- and character-creation was essentially the same thing real writers did. I had other careers in mind.