Improving your writing should be an ongoing effort.
It’s easy enough to find writing advice online, ranging from drafting the so-called perfect scene to 297 Words to omit. While much of it is sound advice, it is often difficult to find advice that is at your level, whatever level that may be. From learning how to cut out over-used phrases (for instance, my characters tend to shrug, snort, and raise their eyebrows often) to understanding how to seed information throughout your story as opposed to performing an InfoDump (very common in Fantasy and Science/Speculative Fiction), or even simply challenging yourself by going through your draft to cut out the words “was” and most any adverb (-ly words) … mercilessly.
Following even just the guidelines I just mentioned:
- The rough scheme of how to construct a scene
- Omission of words that serve as useless padding
- Awareness of one’s own tendencies
- Seeding information (avoiding InfoDumps)
- Restructuring sentences (but not necessarily all) to avoid using an -ly adverb or the word “was”
…Following even just that, I am confident the majority of would-be writers will see an improvement in their prose.
But what if that isn’t enough?
After all, once you’ve mastered the art of storytelling (which, as I said, is an ongoing process and as such mastery is a matter of subjective opinion), what if the story itself you’re trying to tell is downright not engaging? What if you’ve spent months-worth of hours crafting and inventing a world, but the story in which it takes place just isn’t all that interesting?
There is no formula for an effective story, as Andrew Stanton says in his awesome Ted Talk, but there are clues. I have heard his points reinforced by other writers, such as those found on the Writing Excuses Podcast.
I share these with you now to cover any bases, for those of you unfamiliar with these links and methods. But to be honest, I have researched all of these things before (which is not to say I mastered the aforementioned techniques, but I feel I’ve got a good handle on them), and I was looking for something more.
That’s where mentors come into play.
If you are someone I want to say lucky enough to have yourself a mentor, no matter the field, this is a boon for your career. If you meet someone who does what you want to do, has what you want to have, and they are willing to take time out of their life to show you the in’s and outs of this, that is a magical, special thing.
However the majority of us do not have such a person in our lives. And as it turns out for me, personally, most of the writers I admire are dead. But I, too, am lucky to some degree, for the most powerful research tool in the largest library in history is readily available as well as readily taken for granted.
I discovered another Ted Talk, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (he has a book of the same name). Watch this video.
Following the idea presented in the TED Talk, I drew up my own Influence Map. This is the result after a few hours:
A web like this makes sense to me, as a visually-oriented person, as opposed to, say, a spreadsheet or a simple list of names.
For the more technically minded, we can see from this beautiful and half-chipped white board more than a few familiar names. You can see that Isaac Asimov (specifically Foundations) and Frank Herbert’s Dune were each inspired mostly by … well, science and history. The same goes for George R. R. Martin, the works of whom I have criticized thoroughly in the past, yet I cannot deny he has had an influence on me.
Many Go-To-Influences include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings get put into the same rough genre yet differ greatly from each other. I’ve never been a direct fan of Tolkien (never read LotR, only The Hobbit), and Howard’s writing style had a profound effect on me — years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. Names like Roger Zelazney come up often as well.
Yet there are those inspirations for certain pieces and by certain authors that I may never be able to unearth. Cory J. Herndon wrote the first Ravnica books, novelizations for a particular setting in the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. He’s been relatively quiet since then, and like many of the MTG novels, creativity is doubtless involved, but for the most part, writers have the same recurring theme going on within the confines of a premade setting. Novelizations of a trading card game are, after all, promotional material at best.
Yet several of the MTG books stand as extremely influential for me, not least of which the Ravnica series by Herndon. Among a few other writers, he is unfortunately one of those whose background and influences I could not dig up.
And then, somewhere to the side next to “MTG Books” I’ve got Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where the Japanese creators of those geek-culture phenomena got their ideas is not so easily discovered. Granted, those were video games and an anime series — a team effort, with different members contributing different things. I would give up my legs for a translated transcript of those brainstorming sessions.
I would recommend the Influence Map exercise to anyone, regardless of what branch of creativity from which you sprout. Who inspires you? Who inspires(inspired) them? And who inspired *that* one?
Consider reading and learning from those books.