It never ceases to amaze me. I’ll meet someone at an event who says, “I always wanted to be a writer,” and I’ll ask, “What do you like to read?” – and that person will say something like, “I’m really not much of a reader.”
Why would anyone want to be a writer who doesn’t like to read? And how does anyone figure out how to write without reading everything they can, first?
It’s basic primate behavior: monkey see, monkey do. We learn to speak by imitating adults who speak to us, and we learn to write by imitating what we read.
Here’s a secret for first-time novelists, in particular: it’s okay to be derivative. It’s okay to imitate what you think is good. As long as you’re not plagiarizing – as long as you’re using your own words and telling your own story – it’s not only fine, it’s helpful to try to write in the style of authors you admire.
We all do it, and it’s one of the most frequently-asked question any author gets: “Who are your influences?” It takes a long time to find one’s own voice, and even then, we’re all products of every other book we’ve ever read, and every person we’ve ever spoken to.
It’s not just writing; all artists do this, whatever the medium. Picasso’s early work, for example, borrows heavily from the old masters – and then, when he felt he’d learned as much as he could from them, he used what he learned to create his own unique style. How many times have you heard a band described as “Beatlesque,” or “the new Dylan”? Brian De Palma’s movies started out as faithful homages to Alfred Hitchcock, and Peter Bogdanovich acknowledges the heavy influence of Orson Welles on his early work.
It’s tricky, of course. Harold Bloom looked at this phenomenon in The Anxiety of Influence, a book about modern poetry. Bloom looked at the work of modern poets such as Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, and argued that their work evolved first as a product of, then as a reaction to, their influences. Creating lasting work, Bloom argued, requires a poet to create his own voice, fighting against influences while still drawing knowledge and skills from them.
You can see this for yourself in the works of several top-level mystery authors. Robert Crais’ first novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, is a wisecracking homage to the great hard-boiled novelists, somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. The tone of his books took a major change in L.A. Requiem, and the voice of Crais’ protagonist, Elvis Cole, in his most recent novel, Chasing Darkness, is very different from the way Cole sounded in The Monkey’s Raincoat.
Lee Child talks openly about the influence of John D. Macdonald on his Jack Reacher novels – like Travis McGee, he says, Reacher is rooted in the ancient tales of knights-errant traveling the countryside, correcting injustices. I’ve heard Harlan Coben talk about the influence of William Goldman’s Marathon Man on his own work, and you can see it – the protagonist caught up in events beyond his understanding or influence, a premise I’ve used once or twice myself (PARANOIA, COMPANY MAN, KILLER INSTINCT…).
So the key is, if you’re writing, to read good stuff – and then to trust your own instincts. Many authors I know can’t read within their genre while they’re writing, and I’ve become that way myself; if I’m writing something, I need to know that it’s come out of my own imagination, and that I haven’t borrowed some cool plot twist from Harlan Coben or Lee Child.
But when I’m not actively writing, I’m reading everything I can in the genre. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege – and responsibility – of serving as Chief Judge for ITW’s Best Novel Award, and had to read all or part of about 300 thrillers within the span of about six months. It left me in a daze, but it also was a phenomenal master class in thriller writing. At the end of all that reading, I knew exactly what worked and what didn’t, and had learned a lot that I could use in my own writing.
Before I started writing novels, I set out to teach myself how – and I did that by reading and rereading the best of the genre, picking apart the books to see how writers introduced characters, what information they revealed when, how they wove subplots together, and so on. Every writer has to find his or her own inspiration, but if you want to learn from the best, here are some books that helped me:
Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal. The book I still go back to, a masterpiece of plotting (and atmospheric detail, too; see my main April newsletter for a discussion of how Forsyth’s attention to food continues to inspire me). The Odessa File is also fantastic.
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler used to write on short slips of paper, inserted horizontally into his typewriter, and the end of every sheet was a cliffhanger. His long essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” includes some of the best advice any writer could want, including the immortal wisdom, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
Nelson DeMille, The Gold Coast. Any early Nelson DeMille novel is a master class in plotting, but this was the book that showed me the importance of a character’s voice, and how important humor can be in thrillers.
William Goldman, Marathon Man. I’m with Harlan on this one. One of the keys to any thriller is how you balance what the reader knows with what the protagonist knows, and one of the key tools for achieving that balance is point of view. Marathon Man is a virtuoso work for so many reasons – pacing, surprises – but Goldman’s treatment of points of view is unmatched here.
John Grisham, The Firm. The novel that showed me – and every thriller writer working today – that thrillers don’t need to be set in exotic places or the inner circles of government, and that a creative writer can find villains and heroes everywhere.
John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the Smiley books. Le Carre’s characters often do terrible things, but we keep reading because he makes us understand why they do them.
Robert Ludlum, The Matarese Circle. Everyone recommends the Bourne books, and while those are great, I love the dynamics of this one, which goes from cat-and-mouse to global conspiracy. And talk about a page-turner; don’t start this unless you have time to finish it.
David Morrell, The Brotherhood of the Rose. The International Thrillers Writers have just announced that David Morrell is the 2009 ThrillerMaster of the Year, and I’d give him the award for this book alone. The attention to detail here is astonishing, but it’s the structure that makes this book required reading for anyone writing a thriller; everything pays off, nothing is wasted, and it’s all put together like a Swiss watch. Take notes.
That’s good advice in general, in fact. When you read something that impresses you, take a few minutes to figure out what impressed you – and write it down. Keep a notebook or a clipping file of ideas and inspirations, to remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve (and, not incidentally, to make sure you’re not plagiarizing).
And remember that no matter how many people came before you, every author who sits down to write a book is writing that book – or that chapter, or that line — for the first time. We’re all figuring this out as we go.