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Writing: The Influences

20 May 2008

(Still in Houston. It’s hot, but the humidity is bearable.)

A reader who enjoys the action sequences in my books asked me how I write them, where did I learn this craft, etc. It got me thinking because earlier (yesterday? the day before?), Janine at Dear Author said in reference to Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady:

Since I know you are a writer I will say that all my rantings aside, I think this is a book writers should at least take a look at (the library is always an option) because the prose is just masterly. I say this since I am an aspiring writer myself… If you at all like it, you will be very glad of having read it, because the prose is worth studying. It’s that good.

My response, which is two comments down, is basically I don’t want to mimic other writers. I don’t do writing courses or workshops. I don’t read books on writing or plotting or anything else. Unlike most other writers, I avoid these things like the plague because I don’t want to (1) get bogged down with technical details, (2) copy another writer’s style (although, this method has been successful for some writers *cough*Sunny*cough*), or (3) get writer’s block because I’m comparing myself to another writer and find myself coming up short. (Other things in life bog me down; writing is supposed to be fun.) I learned spelling, grammar, and story structure in grade school and those basics haven’t changed. Thus, I think I have a fairly good grasp of the craft of writing. And my ego is fragile enough I won’t submit anything for publication that I think sucks, so I try very, very hard not to inflict bad writing on readers.

So, what’s my point?

I don’t want to be influenced by other writers, but a significant part of my writing–the action part–is influenced by the movies I watch. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m a philistine (I’ve been using this word quite a bit lately) who HEARTS action films, especially those directed by Michael Bay. Mindless, fast-paced flicks with lots of mantitty, wisecracks, guns, and mega explosions. (Man, I feel an urge to watch Transformers right this moment.)

As I’m writing this post, though, I realized writing a story is a very visual exercise for me. I don’t lie in bed at night and think about the words I want to write; I have scenes, like clips from a movie, play in my head. I see and hear these scenes and then I try to put those sights and sounds into words.

(And the self-revelations keep coming tonight.)

In addition to action flicks influencing my writing, I’m also an avid comic book reader. Comics do not tell. Comics show. The best comics are concise but powerful. Actually, I think they are powerful because they are concise. A single cell can convey more than a thousand words. Characters in comics do not say they’re upset. You see the emotion in their eyes, the way they hold their bodies, the tension in their muscles. Comics do not have conversational info dump sessions. If a ruthless killer is introduced, you see that character actually killing someone in said fashion. You don’t have two other people discussing it over coffee (okay, sometimes you might). Thus, when I write, I’m taking the things I love most about comic books and employing them.

AztecLady paid me an awesome compliment when she said I show, not tell, in Rules of Engagement. To be honest, I don’t make a conscious effort to follow the show-don’t-tell rule. When I write, I’m conveying to the reader what I see and hear in my head. That’s it.

So, I guess I need to stop saying I write to explain the conversations that take place in my head. I write to explain the visions–complete with audio–in my head.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 May 2008 1:15 PM

    I like to attend workshops and read books on craft. Although I read fiction for pleasure, not to “study,” I’m convinced that examining another author’s style is helpful to my own writing. By understanding what works for others, I can recognize my own faults and weaknesses.

    And let’s face it, your entire post was about craft. Reading reviews, whether you agree with them or not, is about informing yourself as a writer. And where did you learn that info dumps are lame, or that showing is better than telling? You may have internalized this knowledge, but that doesn’t make it any less useful.

    So I don’t agree with you on all points, but I really like the comic book analogy. And I totally get your process. The blocking between my characters, their facial expressions, every interaction comes from a visual picture.

  2. 22 May 2008 2:39 PM

    And let’s face it, your entire post was about craft. You may have internalized this knowledge, but that doesn’t make it any less useful.

    Yes, I know; I’m trying to explain–perhaps poorly–how I developed and continue to develop my craft, which is not by studying other romance novels. Also, I never said the knowledge wouldn’t be useful. I totally agree you need it to write.

    If you find attending workshops and reading books on craft works for you, that’s great. I know for me, I’m anal retentive already and if I have to keep 30 different tips (sometimes contradicting ones) in mind while I write, I’m going to end up staring at a blank page at the end of the day.

    Reading reviews, whether you agree with them or not, is about informing yourself as a writer.

    Actually, for me, reading reviews is a way for me to find new books to read. I’m more of a reader than I am a writer. If I never write another word, I’ll survive. If I never have another book to read, it won’t be a pretty picture.

    And where did you learn that info dumps are lame, or that showing is better than telling?

    From really awful Steven Seagal movies. Years and years ago, I remember watching a clip where a bunch of bad guys stood around saying things like “I hear he took out an entire squad” and “He’s dangerous” and all that stuff about the title character and even at the age of eleven I knew it was bad.

    By understanding what works for others, I can recognize my own faults and weaknesses.

    Cassie Edwards has a technique that works very, very well for her. She has over 10 million books in print. I, however, don’t want to write like Edwards. I prefer something a little tighter, a little less showy. Obviously, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of other readers disagree with me.

    Anyway, Edwards aside, statements like the one you made saddens me a little because I don’t want to read a bunch of books that all sound alike. I love Anne Stuart for her spare writing and fast pacing. I love Jennifer Crusie for her snark. I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips for her witty and personable characters. And I’m learning to love Suzanne Brockmann for her action sequences. None of these authors write like the other and I love their unique voices. So, to be successful, am I supposed to copy one of them or mesh all their styles into one? Or should I stick with finding my own voice?

    And I totally get your process.

    Thanks. At least I know I don’t need to be fitted for a straitjacket.

  3. 22 May 2008 7:02 PM

    ~So, to be successful, am I supposed to copy one of them or mesh all their styles into one? Or should I stick with finding my own voice?~

    This is the part of the post that bothered me the first time, and I didn’t even respond to it. How is learning the same as copying? Are we in danger of copying another author just by reading him or her?

    The stuff I learn by listening to other writers speak, etc, may be the same stuff you learned watching Steven Seagall. I’m not saying my way is better than yours, but neither am I mimicking or copying. I don’t sit down to write with any particular method or list of criteria in mind. Like you, I just do it.

    Funny that you mentioned so many of my favorite authors. I love SEP, Suzanne Brockmann, and Anne Stuart.

  4. 22 May 2008 8:42 PM

    I think there are two items I should’ve separated in the post.

    How is learning the same as copying? Are we in danger of copying another author just by reading him or her?

    If you’re reading a novel for the purpose of studying an author’s prose, then aren’t you trying to dissect the voice and style and use them yourself? (I can’t believe the next words I’m going to type.) If you can find one of Sunny’s novels at the library, read it. Despite the warnings (or because of them), I eventually gave in and read her first novel, and, sweet baby Jesus, I thought I was reading LKH. It wasn’t just the setting and characters that smacked of LKH, but voice and style and word choice, as well.

    The stuff I learn by listening to other writers speak, etc, may be the same stuff you learned watching Steven Seagall [sic]. I’m not saying my way is better than yours, but neither am I mimicking or copying.

    Mea culpa on this one. I’ve never attended a workshop, but, IIRC, the presenters discuss things like active voice versus passive voice (which was taught in grade school), so I would classify these things as required learning, like knowing when to use simple past tense and when to use past perfect simple tense.

  5. azteclady permalink
    23 May 2008 7:49 AM

    Ann, not a compliment–I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.

    Now go, write some more :frown:

  6. 23 May 2008 8:52 AM

    ~If you’re reading a novel for the purpose of studying an author’s prose, then aren’t you trying to dissect the voice and style and use them yourself?~

    No. But I don’t read fiction to study. And I guess I should have said I like “speaking engagements” rather than “workshops.” Anyway, none of the information I’ve seen presented is about how to copy another author’s voice or style. They are just techniques that might work for you or might not. For example, I found your comic book analogy helpful. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write my next novel Ann Bruce style. See what I mean?

    Thanks for the discussion.

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