In class this week we were thinking about what makes us the kind of writers we are. This was good timing because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the writer I am, the writer I want to be, and the writer I will most likely end up being. All three are fairly different from each other, considering they’re all me, but I guess it’s hard to imagine the future. It’s easier to look back at what got me here.
An insane amount of books have all had some part in influencing me as a writer. From Robert Munsch and Dr. Seuss to S.E. Hinton and Maggie Stiefvater, every book I’ve ever read stays with me in some way or another, but I can think of five in particular that have influenced me the most, for better or for worse.
Age 13 – Anne of Green Gables
I was learning that even classics could be good. I had finished Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Socks, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and I was very excited for the next children’s classic on my list: Anne of Green Gables. All the signs pointed to it being an excellent read. It took place in Canada with a spunky young girl as the protagonist and the back cover promised some sort of feminism I hadn’t yet realized I was yearning for. What more could I want?
As it turns out, a plot. This book had none, it was more of a series of events. The other books took a day or two, no more than three each, but Anne of Green Freakin’ Gables took me an entire two weeks to get through. I forced myself to finish it because back then I was always worried I’d never get over it if I started a book and didn’t finish it. This was the first book I hated in a time when I didn’t think it was possible to hate books.
Age 14 – Murder on the Orient Express
I was gifted this one and unlike Anne of Green Gables, I didn’t think I’d like it. For one thing it appeared to be an adult book, and I wasn’t sure about adult books. To me, an adult book was just another name for a long dry book with big words (and let’s be honest, there are quite a few that fit right into that category). Adult books were the covers with minimal pictures and contained suspense and passionate romance, neither of which was really my thing. I would see them in airports and grocery stores and the undecorated parts of the library and think, someday I’ll be boring enough to find those interesting. It seemed to me that people who wrote adult books did it for the money. People who wrote books for kids and teens did it because they loved it.
When I started reading Murder, I thought I was right. The opening was dry, my eyes kept glazing over. It didn’t help that the writing style was old, but I managed to get through the first chapter without a dictionary so I kept going.
The ending made me aware of the power writers yield. Firstly, over the characters that they choose to spare or condemn, but more importantly they wield the power to affect the reader and the real world. Agatha Christie made me think. I thought about the justice system and whether it really was fair or just equal. I liked having what I thought I knew get called into question. I liked that the writer was the judge, jury, and executioner of the book.
Age 14 – Chinese Cinderella
Among the types of books I had deemed “boring” was non-fiction. Why would I want to read real-life stories? Wasn’t that what reading was supposed to help me escape in the first place? Wouldn’t it be more fun to read about superheroes and mermaids and aliens and hypnotists?
It would. Chinese Cinderella is not the kind of book you read to escape real life, it’s what you read to appreciate it. I read it seven years ago now, but it’s still the only book to have ever made me cry. Multiple parts of it made me cry, too, but I haven’t read it since so I don’t really remember what the parts were. What I remember is having to put the book down for a minute so I could catch my breath, sitting on my bed at four in the morning, clutching the book to my chest and letting it all out. For a cold-hearted person like me, that is quite the achievement.
Age 15 – Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment
I started Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment as we drove up to Edmonton one weekend, and I finished it on the way down. It was the perfect length for that road trip, and I loved it. I was about four or five months into writing Book 1 and went through the available books in the Maximum Ride Series as soon as I could.
When I was halfway through Book 2, over a year later, I decided to go back and reread Maximum Ride. I remembered liking it so much, but when I picked it up and started reading, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. It was horrible. The characters were two dimensional, every cliché in the world was used, a lot of it didn’t make sense and it seemed the writer was making it up as they went along. I realized I hated it. For a little while I was worried that my intense writing had somehow ruined books for me, but I soon realized it was only a symptom of my improvement as a writer and reader. Perhaps even of my growth as a person.
Age 16 – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
I’m not actually sure if I started reading Sherlock Holmes when I was sixteen, it could just as easily have been when I was fifteen or fourteen. The stories were mostly short and often frustrating. I couldn’t solve the murder along with Sherlock because Watson’s point of view never mentioned the right details in the many paragraphs of flowery and overbearing description. He never included the necessary points of knowledge when going over the backstory of a crime. We were in his head, but somehow he was keeping secrets from us anyway. This later became a thing I did, and still do, in my own writing.
On top of that, there was Sherlock Holmes. Oh, what a character. In real life he’d be a jerk, but as a fictional character he was endlessly fascinating, brave and admirable in the ways he’d serve out his own form of justice, intelligent in all his knowledge and patient observance. Of course, the other characters didn’t know he was fictional and therefore a fair many disliked him, and that was good. That made sense. That was how it was supposed to be. But I learned a bit more about what makes a likeable character from studying Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. (You know for sure he’s the author because he hated Holmes like many of the characters did. Our protagonists always seem real to us…)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes could easily be blamed for my dislike of description. I subconsciously avoid it now and often have to go back and add it in so my characters aren’t going around in a fog. But I did like those stories, even if from reading this it might seem like I didn’t.
You’d think with two detective stories on the list, three classics, and the two least-serious novels being the ones I most hated, my writing would be more serious mystery-drama stuff instead of the young adult fiction I tend to write. In fact, you have to inspect my style closely to see any of my influences at all. But when you look back on all of them as a whole, it might shed a little more light on who I am as a writer now.
See, I write in a lot of different genres sometimes. My style can vary from book to book, but the one thing that seems to remain constant is that I write for a young adult audience. This could be because all of these stories that influenced me the most did so between the ages of 13 and 16. Maybe that’s why my target audience is usually somewhere in that range. I know what it’s like to be affected by a book at that age, and now I’m hoping to influence other young readers. Hopefully the influence will be a positive one!
Are there any stories that had a big impact on you? I’d love to hear about which ones and why in the comments!
(P.S. I’ve written a guest post over on bearsleuth.com if you want to check it out!)