By Brian Kaufman
Along the lines of “everything happens for a reason,” my wife believes that everything that happens and everyone you meet is there to teach you something. I don’t argue with that—if you care to learn from your experiences, you will.
The other thing to know is that I have read many books in my life. Some of those books helped make me, for better or worse, the writer I am now. Some titles are books on the craft. Others were novels that inspired me or showed me a new direction for my writing. My choices are a fine mix of classics and oddities. But all of them taught me something.
Start with my early reading. My first books were comics and Golden Books. Those first stories taught me the elements of fiction—theme (The Little Engine that Could), setting (A Day on the Farm), and plot (Scuffy the Tugboat).
I loved A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh tales the most. My folks even bought me Disney LPs with stories narrated by Sterling Holloway. (If you never heard the man’s voice, you missed out.)
As an adult, I understand the brilliance of Milne’s books—nostalgic, layered, and above all else, kind. As an adult, I see complex texts that can be interpreted differently. For example, I recently discovered the speculation that the residents of Hundred Acre Wood each represented a mental health diagnosis. A Canadian Medical Association Journal article suggested that Pooh suffered from OCD and ADHD. Milne taught me that simple stories told in clean, straightforward prose can be incredibly complex.
My first chapter books were classic Victorian science fiction. Jules Verne (A Journey to the Center of the Earth/From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) sparked a lifetime love of reading and an appreciation of speculative fiction.
When I was in junior high, a friend slipped me a copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and told me to read the first chapter. That was my introduction to a narrative so gripping that I simply couldn’t put it down—that thing editors advise for the opening pages of your dream novel. I experienced the same thing when I read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I have not yet crafted an opening that grabs readers by the throat like that, but it’s on my bucket list.
Character is the element of fiction and poetry that intrigues me most. The image of Tennyson’s Ulysses pitching one last adventure to the ghosts of his dead friends inspired me. As did the bluster and greatness in equal measure of Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Because I love complex characters, I am a fan of Jane Austen, particularly Sense and Sensibility. I was similarly inspired by Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Male authors don’t always do an excellent job with female characters. McMurtry made me want to dig deeper.
Well, the first man that comes along that can read Latin is invited to rob us as far as I’m concerned. I’d like a chance to shoot at a educated man once in my life.Captain Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove
I have a small selection of books on craft on my Always Keep shelf. The one that impacted me most was John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Chapter Five—Common Errors—is the single best piece of writing about writing I’ve encountered. I made a computer list of his notes, adding bonus errors that I’m personally prone to. It’s a prodigious list, I assure you. I don’t think I’ve gone a month without reviewing my notes.
I would recommend Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference because that’s something most writers want to do. I also loved Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. Charles Schulz was a subversive. Many of his cartoons were a sly commentary on art and artists.
I am a big believer in literary arcs. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike stories inspired my ideas about character arcs. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry introduced me to the notion of symbolic arcs.
Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose gave me an appreciation for thematic density. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged amazed me for the sheer scope of what the author attempted.
Lately, I’ve been reminded of additional elements of craft thanks to some excellent new novels. A love of lush prose and musical dialog sparked by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was refreshed when I read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s a narrative so pleasant to the ears that I bought an audio version just to hear the words spoken out loud.
Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle reminded me that fictional characters have jobs and can be deeply involved in the everyday details of business. You might think that the requirements of drama demand the removal of such things. (If you’re really old, you’ll remember that Ozzie Nelson had no visible job.)
But Whitehead reminded me that the ins and outs of the furniture business can be every bit as gripping as the shady business of crime.
Some books taught me what not to do. Such stories can be inspirational in a backhanded sort of way.
It’s one of the most commonly quoted Stephen King-isms. “Books are a uniquely portable magic. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
The NCW book bazaar happens on June 11th, which means there are books just waiting to inspire you. Buy books. Get busy.