A History of Writing

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, or rather, I’ve been creating stories, which for me is a good 90% of my writing process; the act of transferring those stories to the physical form of words on paper – writing – plays only a small part.

Like any child, I created adventures to put upon my plastic soldiers, or whatever toys I was playing with. Yet, unlike many children, I think, I would imagine an adventure in great detail – all I’the plot points, the protagonists and their enemies, and the story’s conclusion – long before beginning to play.

I recall one particular day when I laid out a rather involved war story, a Where Eagles Dare kind of adventure. I had all my men in place, arranged the living room just-so to accommodate the landscape I’d envisioned, and prepared for battle. Just then some friends of the family showed up with their son, who was about my age, and who I was instructed to play with. He immediately tore into what I had painstakingly set up and proceeded to ruin my plans with some kind of improvised conflict he made up as he played. (Sacrilege!) I was very unhappy, as much by having my “story” dashed aside as by his encroachment upon my maturing anti-social tendencies.

My writing would take many forms. I created comic books, complete with advertisements. Mind you, these were not artful in any way, the drawings were simplistic and rudimentary to say the least, but they were a means to put my ideas to paper.

I typed up short stories on an old Remington. Very short stories, with random plots to no logical conclusions. And then, I discovered a friend’s Super-8 movie camera! From there, for many years to follow, I put a great deal of energy into film making. (Wasted energy, it turned out, as my heart was never really into the technical aspects of making movies; it was only about the telling of my stories.) I attended the San Francisco Art Institute and discovered the world of avant-garde film…which I had no idea what to do with, but loved.

I wrote a horrible one-act play in college, and throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s I penned a few screenplays. Action movies, mostly. None of which, of course, made it to the big (or any-sized) screen. There’s one, however, that I was quite fond of, which I co-wrote with a friend. It was a horror story about a newly married couple who are killed in a car accident. The man is brought back to life by an experiment with a regenerative spell cast by a coven of would-be witches. Unfortunately, the man comes back to life in the same condition as when he was dead – with a broken neck and mangled limbs. He takes revenge on those who caused his car to crash, and hunts down the witches with the intent to use their spell upon his dead bride. It was sort of an homage to the Dr. Phibes movies, starring Vincent Price, that I loved so much as a kid.

Self-portrait: 1994

One of my goals as an author is to not always write the same kind of novel. I don’t want to be stuck in one particular genre. Sure, I will probably have some recurring themes, but one story may be speculative while another may be a western,and the next a mystery thriller.

My first rule of writing is to create something that would want to read; I write for myself, in other words. With that, I’ve enjoyed reading a variety of genres – science fiction (Asimov, Clarke); mystery (John Straley); action-adventure (Clancy), and literary (John Irving, Umberto Eco) to name a few.

Also, I don’t want my work to be predictable. One of my favorite authors is Iain Banks because when I crack open one of his books I’ve no idea what I’m getting myself into. All too often I’ve enjoyed a particular writer (or filmmaker, or band) only to not want to read them ever again because they simply become a predictable derivative of themselves.

When it came to market my book, I had to put it into some kind of category, wherein I discovered the wonderfully ambiguous and interchangeable labels of literary, mainstream, and contemporary – the perfect homes for writing that doesn’t adhere to strict guidelines of any one genre. The irony here being, of course, that literary, mainstream, and contemporary are considered specific genres.

I think every writer learns something from everything they read – good or bad; what works or what doesn’t – but there are select authors that have had the greatest influence upon their own writing. At least that’s how it is for me. Here are a few of my influences:

John Irving To me, Irving is a writer’s writer. The intensity of commitment to his work, his love and knowledge of literature comes through every page of his writing. That alone I find inspiring. But equally impressive is the way he makes his well-layered plots, in-depth characters, and thematic motifs so readable. The Hotel New Hampshire and A Widow for One Year are two of my favorites of his, while A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite novel.

Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 was the single greatest influence upon my first novel. They are really nothing alike, but the minimal manner in which he creates a fantastic yet believable world as the foundation for his book’s ideas and themes is impressive. My own effort, I think, was a little forced at times, but satisfactory for my first time.

Sherman Alexie I generally prefer writing that is to-the-point, prose that “eschews surplusage” (as Twain put it), like Hemingway or Carver, and Alexie is one of the best. His narrative has a poetic ring to it, and his unique world-view (unique for White people, anyway) makes for absorbing, powerful reading. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and Reservation Blues are especially good.

Iain Banks  What I like most about Banks is that I have no idea what to expect from one of his books to another. From the disturbing short work The Wasp Factory, about a sixteen-year-old serial killer, to Walking on Glass, a novel of three men in virtually different universes that have an unexpected connection, to Canal Dreams, about an Asian cellist who takes on terrorists in Panama. You can’t get much more unpredictable than that. I look forward to experiencing the whole of his body of work.

Harlan Ellison I had the pleasure of seeing Ellison speak many years ago. He’s intense, feisty, and always ready for a fight. His writing is the same way. He’s as original and prolific as they come. You may not like everything he writes, but he is never boring. Check his classic novella A Boy and His Dog, as well as the short stories “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman and All the Sounds of Fear.

What I learned most from Ellison, however, is something from an introduction he wrote for an essay in Writer’s Digest: “…never let mere money be an influence. A good writer can always make money, even if he or she has to drive a truck or lay brick or work in the steno pool.”

Algis Budrys An above-average writer of science fiction, his influence for me came as editor for the wonderful, yet now defunct, magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, and author of Writing to The Point –  a mere sixty pages on everything you need to know about writing fiction that sells. He was also one of the few editors to respectfully decline publishing one of my earliest stories. Even though I was rejected, he made me feel like a real, honest-to-goodness writer.

Valerie J. Freireich She creates other worlds of intricately layered social and political structures. And she does it seamlessly. She explains nothing, but rather drops you into the middle of the society she created as though it were the very universe you lived within and understood. I love her novels Becoming Human and Testament, and my all-time favorite short story is her Convert, which I read in the #13 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction in 1994.

Photo by Janice Wisman

The landscape of publishing has changed dramatically in recent years. The traditional path to getting their words to readers is no longer the only option available to writers today. Through a number of self-publishing platforms, authors can see the goal of their work being read within reach. You can connect with some of those writers here by Subscribing to my Newsletter, or by simply searching the web. And don’t forget to support your local Independent Bookseller by ordering copies through them. If anything, it’ll give you a chance to get out of the house. Thanks for reading!