We all have those reasons that we got into writing. Maybe we were that kid that was bullied at school and so wrote her own endings. Or maybe we just woke up one day with a story in our heads and a need to tell it. Or maybe we have a constant love affair with language. Or maybe we were just determined to actually make use of that English degree. For many of us, it’s a whole ton of them rolled up in one. In my experience, however, there is one common denominator that we all share.
We love books.
I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t also have a love affair with reading. It comes in different forms. Some of us (hands up guilty) consume books like water and don’t feel right unless we have at least three on the go. Some of us are more specific, with a certain genre talking out to us. And some of us even just have that one series that we couldn’t live without.
As I said in my festivals post, we writers have a bit of a stereotype personality. We (tend to be) introverted and quiet. Books are our place of refuge. Our place of escape. Our chance to shed our skins and be someone else for a while.
There is that old saying people love to use, “you can’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been”. So that is what today is about. Today is about looking back at our beginnings, at the days where we were just readers and remembering what it was back then that inspired us to put pen to paper and a few tips on how to harness that inspiration on the days you need it most.
We all have that author. The one that holds a special place in our hearts. The one we secretly (or not so secretly) hope to write as well as one day. The one who can take our breath away no matter whether we are reading them for the first time or the fiftieth.
For me, it’s JK Rowling.
Yes. It’s a cliché for my age and my generation. I am part of the Harry Potter generation and I wear that badge with pride. I was seven years old when the first book came out. At that time, I was a hesitant reader at best. I dreaded the hour in the day at school where we had to read those ghastly stories they write for kids (Biff, Chip and Kipper – see, that’s how much it’s burnt into my brain – why do we do that to our children?). But I had an annoying habit of winning school awards and invariably that always meant that little envelope and therein enclosed, the book voucher.
I still remember stepping into Ottakars (Remember them?) and just walking around a little lost, my feet automatically aiming me towards Enid Blyton and the dear old Secret Seven when this skinny burgundy book caught my eye. On the back was a handdrawn-style picture of this old man in (what my seven-year old self saw as) a long red dress and a long grey beard. I wish I could remember what particularly caught me. What made me take that one to my parents to use up the vouchers. Maybe it was the word ‘wizard’. Or maybe it was the background image of Hogwarts. Or maybe even just the now iconic font. This is all before it hit off. No one really knew about these books yet.
I read that book in two days. And then read it again. And again. And my love affair with fiction started. I’d read my way through most the school library (books designed for kids way older than me) before the end of the school year. My teachers were astounded at the sudden turn around. And I also wrote my first writing project (a HP fanfic – I still have it somewhere).
And even now, I read that book and it sets a fire burning in me. It’s not her best written. It’s not the most complex of stories. It isn’t even a particularly good representation of the world as she explores it with much greater depth in later novels, but that book has a very special place in my heart.
Whenever I am feeling disillusioned with this whole writing lark – this is where I go. I need to be reminded what started me off in the first place. My advice? Don’t be ashamed to go back to your childhood. Don’t feel the pressure of your university lecturer bearing down on your shoulders, expecting you to pick an Austin or a Tolstoy. I roll my eyes sometimes when people tell me that the book that inspired them to write as a kid was some doorstop classic. I’m sorry but no it wasn’t. That might be the book that inspired you to change the way you viewed writing but I refuse to believe that any 11-year-old would have fallen in love with reading after War and Peace.
I am not ashamed to have a full collection of Blyton, Rowling and Lawrence on my bookshelf, just like I am not ashamed to admit I still read them from time to time.
This is where Tolstoy belongs. For me, authors on this shelf include (but are by no means limited to) George Orwell, Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Bronte to name just a few as well as more modern writers such as Hugh Howey and John Green. The books these writers produce are beautiful. Not necessarily in story but in craft. I love just sitting back and enjoying the showcase of mastery being laid out ahead of me. These are the books I learn from. These are the books I aspire to write as well as.
Each genre I write, I have a list of authors that I personally think do it right. And those are the books I reach for to inspire me in my own work. Each person will have their own list but here’s a few of mine:
Fantasy: Jim Butcher; JK Rowling (yes, again); GRR Martin; Bram Stoker
Sci-Fi: George Orwell; Hugh Howey; Isaac Asimov; Stephenie Meyer (judge me all you like but I really like The Host); Suzanne Collins (for YA)
Romance: Catherine Alliot; Sebastian Faulks; Marion Keyes; Cecilia Ahern; Phillipa Gregory (historical); John Green
Crime/Legal drama (as you can tell, I’m not a big crime novel reader): John Grisham; David Baldacci; Marco Puzo
Action/Adventure: Clive Cussler; Michael Critchon; Richard Castle (Storm books ONLY); Ian Fleming
There is nothing I love more that discovering a new book or series to fall in love with. At school I had this thing where I worked across the library from A to Z. If I didn’t like it, I’d return it and move onto the next author. I got to P before I left. It was a great way to discover someone new.
Nowadays, I have a little tradition where every month I choose (completely blindly without looking at reviews) a random free/99p book on Kindle by an author I’ve never heard of them. I’m not going to lie… like 60% are complete disasters or disappointments but every so often, I hit gold. I love those moments. They remind me that one day someone might be doing the same thing on my books. I believe 100% in supporting my other struggling artists so I’m always up for trying new material. What can be more inspiring that reading the product of someone else’s Cinderella story and knowing that sometimes even crazy dreams come true.
In short, my advice can be summarised in three simple words…
Just Keep Reading.