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Common Threads in Reading and Writing

July 6, 2009

threadsOne of the pearls of wisdom given to writers who are starting out is to write in their favourite genres – or write the genre they know best. And of course the best way to know a genre, to see it done well and done terribly,  is to read it. In a nutshell – write what you know.  But what if there are things you don’t realise you know?

A few weeks ago I had the delight to befriend emerging novelist Holly West via Twitter.  Reading her blog  Adventures in Bedlam I came across her post Three Favourite Books of All Time which got me thinking about the commonalities between reading and writing, and that perhaps there were many more layers to “writing what you read”.

West’s post is based on questions posed in literary agent Donald Maass’s book Writing the Break Out Novel. While Maass’s book is geared towards the emerging novelist, the questions West posted and answered on her site seemed to me to be valuable to writers of both long and short prose alike.

The three questions which appear on West’s website, from Maass’s book are:

What are your top three novels?
What do they have in common?
What do you bring into your novel from your top three favourites?

Three Top Novels

Despite all the books I have read over the years I still find in reasonably easy to name my favourites.  In no particular order my top three are:

Lightning by  Dean Koontz
Magician by Raymond E Feist
The Time Travellers Wife by  Audrey Niffenegger

With the exception of The Time Travellers Wife I read the first two in my early twenties.  I have lost count the number of times I have read Magician. I love the smudging on the pages which reminds me of sitting on the top of a combine harvester ladder in the middle of a wheat field during a break down reading it for the first time, covered in wheat and bull dust under the harsh Spring sun.

I have both Lightning and The Time Travellers Wife slated to be read later on this year when Mercury goes Retrograde next. I’m intrigued to know if Lightning will stand the test of time given I’m always citing it as in my top five favourite novels but haven’t been back to re-read it since I was 19. The Time Travellers Wifeis something I intend to read (and blubber my way through) every year – a bit like Magician with fewer boxes of tissues.

The Commonalities

I’d never given a whole lot of thought as to what any of my favourite books might have in common. After reading West’s post and mentally creating my list on the way to pick my son up from Kindy, I realised one strong common element – time travel.

The other thing I notice in these top three is that none of them belong to the same genre – which is perhaps where my dislike of genre  pigeon holing comes from.

Reading some of Koontz’s thoughts on the publication of Lightning I saw another thing these books have in common – they are cross genre books.  While Magician belongs in the fantasy section – I’d like to think it is equally a cracking adventure story. The Time Travellers Wife is firmly grounded as a love story, but has definite  sci-fi and thriller elements.  Then there’s Lightning which is a hybrid with equal lashing of romance, suspense and sci-fi.

Lastly all three books came recommended by people I admire and play/or have played a pivoutal role in my life.  Lightning came via my Dad, Magician via my oldest friend who was also my flatmate at the time and finally The Time Traveller’s Wife on Paul Anderson’s high praise.  And I just noted – they’re all males!

Reading Influencing Writing

I have to admit it was a bit of a shock to see time travel/dislocation as a common theme in my favourite books.

The emergence of time travel as a strong theme/premise in my favourite books shouldn’t come as a big surprise  given the diversion my writing has taken this year.  It took joining the dots together between the books to see it … my writing since November last year has been geared around time and dimension displacement – some voluntary and others beyond the choice of my characters.  However because of the many guises in which “time travel” has taken and the number of genres it has crossed it wasn’t immediately obvious to me in my own writing.  I’m a bit slow or not given over to this type of introspection – after all, I do maintain I simply tell the stories which come to me.

There’s Celia whose story involves a time machine (like Lightning and to a lesser extent The Rift Machine in Magician)  I put a genetic tampering take on time travel with Light Years (though it is not a “condition” per se as it is in The Time Traveller’s Wife).  The project I am considering for this year’s NaNoWriMo has a character going back in time to relive parts of her teenage years again but this time armed with new knowledge about people and events. It has definite dark elements of which there are numerous in  The Time Traveller’s Wife but it has the underpinning of Lightning – that you are unable to escape the line of destiny set out for your life. There’s also another collection of short stories which have at the heart of them a sense of time travel (they’re unnamed at this point) – but it is more a sense of time repeating over and over, waiting for the right elements to fall in place and offer and resolution.

Then there is my own personal sense of travelling through time as a writer to set and explore stories in the future – last year’s NaNo project Blue Melissae and this year’s Dirk Hartog series of short stories (which with Dom Benoit’s encouragement and ascertain that Hartog is unlikely to leave me alone, may become something more than a collection of short stories – thanks Dom!)

Now I’ve seen a definite theme emerging outside of the regular run of the mill ones (love, betrayal etc) I’m going to invest some time in researching different theories on time travel and see where my writing may go as a consequence. The challenge with time travel is creating a unique take on a rather done to death scenario.

Without finding and reading Holly West’s blog I would have been none the wiser.  I’d like to think I might have had an epiphany at some points, probably years down the track, about this fascination with time travel – but who knows?  Thank you Holly for sharing your reflections and inspiring my post this week and I hope it motivates others to look a little outside the square too.

What are your top three books and what do they have in common?  What are you able to pick in your writing which may have roots in the pages of your best loved novels?

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Jodi Cleghorn’s interest in time travel isn’t confined to books. Among her favourite shows are Doctor Who and Life on Mars. She remembers her Grandfather attempting to explain a theory of time travel to her as a child. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. July 6, 2009 6:03 am

    Wow, that was a really excellent post. I want to try this too but it will end up being a blog post of its own rather than a comment here.

  2. July 6, 2009 7:35 am

    How about you come back and leave a link to your post when you’ve written it Benjamin?

    I’m glad you liked it – was a little worried it as self indulgent. Kudos again to Holly West for sharing the questions and her reflections in the first!

  3. July 6, 2009 7:38 am

    That I shall do. I might even write it up tonight and schedule it to post tomorrow.

    I always tend to love posts that talk about how things influence people’s writing, particularly reading. I think reading is almost as equally as important as writing.

  4. July 6, 2009 9:56 am

    Well, for me listing three favorite novels is _damned_ hard. Ask me tomorrow and you may get a different list, but for right now it’s Lord_of_the_Rings (that’s one, not three), Dune, and Year_of_the_Unicorn.

    Aside from the fact that all three fall broadly into the F/SF genre, I think what they have in common is a very vividly realized imaginary world, made up of landscape, culture, language and “magical” or fantastic elements. (The latter are less prominent in Dune, but I regard the sandworms and the semi-religious awe in which the Fremen hold them as fantastic if not magical). Also the intertwined elements of a physical journey and a personal journey towards realization of one’s potential.

    Those are certainly elements I brought to my novel and that I see in a lot of my shorter fiction.

  5. July 6, 2009 12:22 pm

    Thanks for all the mentions, Jodi! I actually think your post about this subject is much more reflective than mine, but glad I inspired it!

    But I guess the real thanks should go to Donald Maass, who posed the questions in the first place. It’s definitely a helpful exercise.

  6. July 6, 2009 7:18 pm

    Loved this one Jodi – and while I struggle to name three favourite novels, unsurprisingly, top three non-fiction is a cinch!

  7. July 7, 2009 6:57 am

    My post as requested:

  8. dan permalink
    July 7, 2009 10:16 am

    Great post. Will have a pop at this and post a link soon 🙂

  9. July 8, 2009 10:51 am

    Had a crack at this too – interesting exercise. Here’s a link:

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