Influences (the good)

Every author you read — whether they’re any good or not — influences you as a writer. They either show you what to do or what not to do. And the thing is, you have to pick and choose. Usually there’s something redeeming in almost any author’s work (with some notable exceptions). Over the next couple of days, we’re going to talk about influences: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I can’t remember the first book I ever read, but I can remember the first real novel I read — Sackett’s Brand, by Louis L’Amour. To this day, L’Amour’s novels hold a special place in my heart even though I see them for the incredibly repetitive stuff they are. L’Amour had about three stories to tell — and he retold those stories using new (or slightly used) characters, over and over again.

I’ve already written about Robert B. Parker in a previous post. I love his gift for dialogue. When I sit down to write a scene/chapter, I wonder how my dialogue holds up to his — or to Elmore Leonard‘s work. Those guys are the gold standard when it comes to dialogue.

Stephen King has a gift — not just for scaring the pants off of readers, but also for creating fully realized characters. The folks that people his novels are so real you can picture them walking down the street. That sense of terror happening to “real” people is one of the things that’s kept King at the top of the bestsellers lists.

Donald E. Westlake is probably my idol. He had a strong, middle-of-the-road career, with nearly 100 novels published under his own name or others. Some were bestsellers. Most were not. He’s credited with creating the comic crime caper — and novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry would have had a hard time getting their own funny crime novels published if Westlake hadn’t paved the way.

Then there are the classics. I try to read something by Hemingway and Fitzgerald each year to remind myself what the language can do — what writers are capable of doing when they’re at the height of their powers. I’m also a huge fan of Tom Wolfe (though I doubt I could ever fully realize a novel like A Man in Full. Too much work.) as well as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Joyce Carol Oates.


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