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Brilliance and Dreck: Using Good and Bad Writers to Self-Motivate


I’m not sure when I first began wanting to become a professional writer, only that by third grade I had that idea firmly in my head. It wasn’t until a few years later that I got a particularly awful SF book from a bookstore–I think it had a robot on the cover, one of those jobs with the dryer-vent-hose arms and the antennae on the head–and really got fired up for the job. I thought (and this may sound familiar) “God, if a lousy book like this can get published, I’m going to be rich!”

Let’s skip over the many misconceptions and sad bits of naïvete lurking in that sentence, if you don’t mind.

Good writers had at least as much influence on me as bad ones, of course: reading Tolkien and LeGuin as a kid, especially, gave me something to shoot for. Here are some accounts from writers I know who talk about authors who drove them to write in the first place, either in admiration or disgust:

Donald Mead, whose work can be found in venues like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writers of the Future XXV, said

I suppose it was 20 years ago or more that I read Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. I found it to be an unrepentant rip-off of Lord of the Rings. I had no writing aspirations at the time, but after reading that disaster, I thought “Well, anyone can write a book.” And then it was a short step to “I can write a book.”

Funny, many years later I was on a panel at Capricon with Peter Beagle and he mentioned that he was the first reader for Sword of Shannara. He told the editor it was a rip off of LotR. The editor said “That’s great! That’s what it’s meant to be.” It was for the reader who’d read LotR eight times and just couldn’t pick it up for the ninth time.

Please note, I have nothing against Brooks. From all I’ve heard, he’s a great guy. I’m just saying if I ever make it big, it’s because of Sword of Shannara.

Incidentally, I found out it wasn’t true that “anyone can write a book.” I quickly found out I had no idea how to write; it was a lot harder than I ever imagined. I have a lot more respect for Brooks now.

SJ Driscoll’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sEllery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere, and her successful works include plays, many articles, and poems. Her inspiration was

Poe. I started reading him when I was seven, while those moronic learn-to-read first-grade textbooks were being stuffed down my throat. Death from boredom…. I never wanted to learn to read–I wanted to be outside doing things. My dad tried to teach me starting at age four, and I despised it. Then elementary school almost murdered me with dreariness. Squash, crush, stifle. Man, did Poe revive me. The way he used language! By the time I was ten, I’d read all the fiction and poetry he ever wrote. I used to think the word, “poetry,” came from his name. He taught me to use words to give the world hard edges. He started me writing stories because stories gave my strapped-down childhood a shape I could control. I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to do real things, I wasn’t free, so I wrote. I still write to give the world hard edges, to be free. Poe was the first writer to save my life. I honor him.

S Hutson Blount (Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight MagazineEscape PodBlack Gate, etc.), said

Most of my formative examples were negative. There was once a section in bookstores called “Men’s Adventure.” Mack Bolan lived there, along with Remo Williams, Dirk Pitt, Casca, and a bunch of hypothetical Third World Wars. This was where I went when I needed to reassure myself that if these guys could get published, I could too.

Melissa Mead (Sword & Sorceress and others–no relation to Donald), on the other hand, said

I first tried writing for publication after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series. I commented to my husband that it would be such fun to write for something like that, and he encouraged me to give it a try. S&S was invitation-only by then, and shortly thereafter MZB died and the series ended. By then, though, I’d had a story accepted by The First Line, and I was hooked.

Years and years later, when Norilana revived S&S, I sold a story for the 23rd volume, and the inspiration came full circle.

Yep, it was as much fun as I’d imagined. 🙂

The takeaway here, if you’ll indulge me for a second, is that if at any point we want to be more enthusiastic about some kind of work we might do, one option is to immerse ourselves for a little while in the work of someone who is either very good or very bad at whatever it is. While this may not work for anyone who has evolved beyond all feelings of indignation, superiority, or envy, for the rest of us it can provide a damn good shot in the arm.

This piece is reprinted (with improvements) from my “Brain Hacks for Writers” column at Futurismic.

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