Writers who inspire, writers who intimidate…

I suspect that there are more than a few writers of greater or lesser achievement among this blog’s readers, and I wonder if any of you might be up to answering these questions:

1) Can you name a good writer (or writers) who inspires you to pick up the pen and start writing right away?

2) Can you name a writer (writers) so good that he or she has the opposite effect on you? In other words, who intimidates you into thinking “I might as well stop, I’ll never be this good.”

3) Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that was so terrible that it inspired you to write? In other words, made you think “If this clown can be successful, I know I can too.”

I’d love the names of the authors for the first two questions, along with the name of the title (or titles) that made you feel that way. For the third question, I’d prefer that you didn’t name the writer in question, but if you can tell me about the experience without directly identifying the work or its creator that would be good.

38 comments on “Writers who inspire, writers who intimidate…

  1. Chaz says:

    1) Iain Banks – with or without the M – always reminds me why I write: achievable mastery, I guess you could call it.

    2) Neal Stephenson is out of my stars, unachievable mastery. Also, when I read George R R Martin I do tend to think that fantasy has reached its perfect ending; nobody’s ever going to do the thing better than this…

    3) Whoo, yeah. Trouble is, that very argument – bright-burning and clear as it is, demonstrably true – tends to cut little ice with publishers, less with bookstores, none at all with the bookbuying public. Sigh…

  2. 1. Matthew Woodring Stover. Read any of his work, including the Star Wars (seriously, just check the free excerpt to Revenge of the Sith, and tell me I’m wrong), and it’s immediately inspirational. Scott Lynch is in the same vein. Both of them are people I hear or have heard a lot from regarding the writing process, though, including blood, sweat and tears. It might be that that has an effect on this… but goddam it, they’re both shit hot writers.

    2. Hal Duncan. ‘cos, y’know, how could I even come close to that kind of writing.

    3. Oh, hell yes. I’ve read a the first book and a half of a fantasy trilogy by a fairly well known author, and her grammar and sentence structure is so sphincter-puckeringly bad that I wonder how someone could in good faith publish such utter shit, let alone have it become best-selling. Fortunately, the feeling seems to be mutual amongst all who I’ve mentioned this hatred to.

    God, just thinking about those books gives me the shivers…

  3. Crowe says:

    1) My dad, Mervyn Peake (the Gormenghast trilogy, of course), and Alan Garner (especially Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet)

    2) Maybe Cormac McCarthy, but nothing really puts me off. For every unattainably brilliant published writer, there are ten thousand considerably less brilliant ones.

    3) Haha, yeah … would you like a list? It would start with David Eddings …

  4. Charles says:

    1) There’s usually a lot of writers who inspire me so but recently, I think it would have to be Tim Pratt. His writing has a certain elegance that’s both simple yet impressive.

    2) On the technical side, it’d have to be Jeffrey Ford as his short stories tends to be impressive in all the elements. Then there’s Ted Chiang who writes simply amazing SF.

    3) I’m based in the Philippines and so there are some local authors who make me feel that way. Then there’s some self-published material as well that just makes me shake my head…

  5. 1) I was gonna write Lois McMaster Bujold, Iain M. Banks, and Charlie Stross, but really, they’re not what inspire me to write. They’re the people I want to count as peers rather than inspirations. I’m inspired much more by really bad writers. Seeing writers like Christine Warren or Gabriel Reece (if you have no idea who they are, good!) in print infuriates me, and that inspires me to write.

    2) TC Boyle always stuns me with his auctorial voice. He just has such an amazing touch with language. Nabakov is another stylist I adore.

    3) is answered by #1.

  6. 1. Charles Stross – particularly in Accelerando. He´s inspiring very much right now – he writes the kind of stories I feel I can write as well.

    2. Alastair Reynolds – this guy gives me the literaty heebie-jeebies. Every one of his books and short stories (I´ve ready almost everything but Galactic North and Zima Blue) is a tour-de-force, but he makes it feel as if if it were nothing to him. I´m definitely intimidated by his writings – for he writes the kind of stories I very much WANTED to write! :-(

    3. I´m with Charles on that one. I´m based in Brazil, and there´s a whole lot of bad writers down here that definitely makes me do my best to write better and better every day.

  7. Sean says:

    1) Theodora Goss and Neil Gaiman – Theodora’s “Lily, With Clouds” in particular is stunning and inspiring, as is the rest of the stories in “In the Forest of Forgetting.” And for some reason, Neil Gaiman’s short stories always make me want to sit down and write. It’s great.

    2) Kelly Link – Story structure, voice, and layers… she is so amazing.

    3) err… yeah. I’m sure we’ve all been there, eh?

  8. Alan says:

    1) Kathe Koja. Her novel Bad Brains just blew me away – it still does. First time I read it, all I wanted to do was sit down and write something that brilliant and original.

    2) Well, aside from practically anyone who writes great short stories, right now I’d have to say Paul Park. I’ve been re-reading the first three Roumania novels; they’re even better second time around, but they’re also a stark remind of just how green I am when it comes to this writing lark…

    3) There are a couple of writers whose popularity and success has always strike me as disproportionate to their talent. But hey, what do I know?

  9. Laird says:

    Hi, Matt:

    The answer to question 1: T.E.D. Klein, specifically DARK GODS. His attention to observed detail, the rythms of dialogue and the ability to generate an atmosphere of impalpable dread continually amaze me.

    Michael Shea has inspired me for many years. His versatility and the poetry that inhabits his prose are quite special.

  10. Bob Lock says:

    1/ China Miéville
    2/ Dan Simmons (The Terror)
    3/ John Clute’s Appleseed (a good story mired down by its verbosity)

  11. 1) Peter Carey’s latest novel His Illegal Self made me want to get off my duff, although we have wildly differing styles. Same with Michael Winter (The Architects Are Here), James Morrow (Towing Jehovah), and Jim Dodge (Stone Junction).

    2) Vonnegut. I’ve read his stuff countless times, and it really shouldn’t work, but damn if he doesn’t pull it off. I cannot fathom how he did it, and made it look effortless.

    3) Ok, no names. Suffice to say, the author in questions writes many books about giant sharks. No sense of style, no grasp of characterization, no use.

  12. Larry says:

    1) When he was wearing his reviewer/critic’s hat, Jorge Luis Borges. Still am learning quite a bit from how he approached book reviews.

    2) Borges as an author.

    3) If I were to ever find the desire (unlikely) to be a novelist rather than a reviewer, it’d be dreck like Terry Goodkind. Very toxic shit, that.

  13. Mary C says:

    for 1 and 2, really, there are too many to name and most of the people who have influenced me have also intimidated me with a stunning image or stream of prose. Fortunately, we have the 3’s so there is still hope for me. :D

  14. Mary C says:

    Also, can I come play in THIS library?

  15. 1) It’s not so much a matter of how good their, as to actual authors that as I read my mind starts filling up with ideas (normally these ideas don’t have very much to do with the subject/story/plot that I’m currently reading). Gaiman, Bradbury, Bisson, all fall in this category.

    2) I’m not easily intimidated (I have a healthy outlook on my skills and know I won’t be as good as most, I accept that). The closest I came to this was reading Stross’ Atrocity Archives. Just like #1 though, there are some authors that I like, but I just leave my brain cold.

    3) Oh yeah, heck usually there’s one or two stories in “Year’s Best” anthos that have me thinking, “WTF did this do that had people thinking it was so good?”

  16. Mark A. says:

    1) William Gibson and Sam Delany. Reading Neuromancer and Babel-17 in quick succession at 15 completely rewired my conception of how language works and its capabilities, literally. All of a sudden the written word was no longer a clunky medium through which disassembled components of clunky information are transmitted direct from writer to reader. Prose is alive, it has muscle and sinew.

    2) J.G. Ballard. Empire of the Sun in particular attains such a perfect control of language, story and character that it could be the first and the last bildungsroman.

    3) Plenty, they’re all in shoeboxes under the bed.

  17. sheesh, I can write gooder now than yesterday I did.

  18. 1. It’s probably provisional in that I don’t know if there’s any writer who will always inspire me to write right away, but there are many who have at one time or another. Probably most recently Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and (a little before that) Catherynne Valente’s Orphan Tales.

    2. I can think of some whose internet personalities come off as intimidating, but that’s simply on a personal level. When it comes to intimidating because of sheer mastery…I seem to remember at one time Calvino falling into this category for me, but now he’s more likely to be in category 1.

    3. Yes. No one’s naming names here, so I guess I won’t. But I considered myself more a reader than a writer some 7 or so years ago…until I read a bestseller by someone whose name alone probably sent it into the bestseller lists and whom I’d heard of but never read before. I’d dabbled with writing before that and even had some mainstream fiction and poetry published, but that’s when I said it was time for me to write the kind of fantasy works I enjoyed. (If I’d been aware of the much broader fields of spec fic that don’t generally fit the bestseller type back then…who knows if I’d have stayed primarily a reader?)

  19. The immediate answer to both 1) and 2) is Jeff Noon. Most of the writers who fill 1) would also fill 2), to be fair.

    There are plenty of 3)s, but as Chaz says above, the argument sadly cuts little ice with publishers…

  20. Zach H. says:

    1. Gene Wolfe pretty much exhibits everything that draws me to fiction – highly complex and individualized characters who physically and philosophically move towards self-enlightenment, deeply immersive world-building, puzzle-style narratives that encourage re-reading – all this is great, and it’s even better when conveyed through elegant prose.

    2. See number 1. Curiously, this feeling of “unattainable excellence” was most apparent to me while I was reading the The Wizard Knight, the Wolfe work that’s often called his most accessible

    3. No. I write fiction when there’s a character or situation I have to put to paper, not because I consciously feel I can “beat” another writer.

  21. Ben Payne says:

    Two of my favourite authors are Kurt Vonnegut and Irvine Welsh, and both fit both 1 and 2; they inspire me to want to write stuff as great as their books, but both have such an individual style that I often have to push them out of my mind while writing, because they seep into my mind and I risk becoming imitative.

    In general though, most of my favourite authors fit the first category… I finish reading their work and I want to write something that feels as important as that book felt to me…

    I find reading bad writing quite inspiring too… it helps to bring to the surface the things that are important to me as a reader… it’s easier to recognise why things don’t work than why they do, often… so I often learn more easily from that…

  22. Eric Schaller says:

    1. Good ‘storytellers’ that move me with their creations. Some of the names of the good story tellers that inspire me include Jeff Ford, Kipling, Dickens. I can usually find some approach in their work that I can convince myself I understand well enough to steal (poor deluded fool that I am).

    2. On the other hand, there are also writers who are so different from my abilities, whether philosopical (John Crowley) or playful (Hal Duncan) that, even though I enjoy their work, it is so alien that I stand in awe.

    3. Yes.

  23. Oh, Vonnegut… both mentions slip him into number two category, which he also is for me. As Ben says, though, he could really be in number one or two! What a guy. There wasn’t another like him in the twentieth century. I just finished Hocus Pocus today, and while it wasn’t his best, it was incredible.

  24. 1) Jonathan Carroll and Neil Gaiman. Their work almost always inspires me to create more of my own. Sadly, I’ve written just about everything each of them has written, which means impatience for their latest fiction. Carroll’s Outside the Dog Museum and Gaiman’s Sandman are particularly inspiring.

    2) Hal Duncan and Samuel R. Delany. Erudition and mastery of the written word on the level of Vellum and Dhalgren just makes me feel like a drooling imbecile.

    3) Maybe not a whole book, but I’ve read stories in Year’s Best anthos that really made me question their inclusion, and the fact that they got published at all.

  25. Actually, that should have been, “I’ve read just about everything each of them has written.” Recovering from flu and not completely coherent yet.

  26. Andrew says:

    1. Robert E. Howard with the Conan the Barbarian Trilogy. He is very good at sustaining suspense and action and every time I read him he inspires me.

    2. JRR Tolkien.

    3. (A) Eragon, although it depresses me whenever I read it. (B) Some of those Wizards of the Coast writers who write about ‘Evil Elven Magic-Users.’

  27. Kate says:

    1. Samuel Delany, particularly Dhalgren and The Motion of Light in Water. He’s a fascinating man and unique author; Dhalgren just near shattered my mind when I first read it in high school. I’ve read everything he’s written ( a good and bad thing) since that first experience.

    2. Angela Carter. I’ve just decided to take a long break from her works because I felt I’d never write again if I continued reading.

    3. Harry Potter.

  28. Divers Hands says:

    1. Experimental fiction tends to get my busy little fingers twitching more than an individual author’s entire body of work. Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman” blew me away the first time I read them, changing drastically the way I would interact with my characters and the structure of my work. Steve Aylett’s “Shamanspace” made me entirely re-examine how I approached prose; his wildly exotic yet somehow entirely obvious linguistic acrobatics described a world I desperately wanted to experience. Salvador Plascencia’s “The People of Paper” is a work I find myself constantly going back to. His use of the page itself as both an artistic object and as an essential piece of the plot had me spending weeks looking at books trying to grasp just how many dimensions a bound collection of flat surfaces can present to the world. Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” is a work that still sends me rushing to my pens and keys with the pressure of its fabulous and recursive structure egging me on. And so on and so forth…

    2. Howard Waldrop. I do not care what anyone else ever does or says: He is not just the greatest living short story writer in America, he is the most impressive short fiction writer ever. The first work of his I ever read was “Flatfeet”, a short little piece that had me giggling about Keystone Kops fighting the classic monsters. But about ten minutes after I finished it, I found myself going back to it, troubled by niggling hints of something ignored. Why the post cards from a man who witnesses all the early twentieth century tragedies? the references to Spengler’s “The Decline of the West? the seemingly random order of the monster’s appearances? By the fourth time I’d read the thing I could not believe the sheer audacity of the piece. Ten or so pages that managed to represent Spengler’s path of history, hint at future declines and rises, portray the early history of Hollywood, and still make me laugh out loud every time I read it! How the fuck does he do it?! And it wasn’t just that work. Every single story I have ever encountered by the man is a fascinating and compex palimpset of ideas and metaphor and literary depth that initially comes across as a humorous tall tale using some of the most beloved aspects of forgotten pop culture. No one can compete with that. No one!

    But I still try…

    3. I work for the government. Sheer stupidity and horribleness in any aspect of society can in no way compare to the absolute terror and irresponsibility of modern legal/security/beuracratic systems. Nothing.

  29. 1. Sigmund Freud. Say what you want, he was willing to look into aspects of the human psyche that are fascinatingly unnerving. However limited he was by his own cultural perspective, I find many of his observations still valid and very much inspirational.

    2. Gene Wolfe. In order to continue writing, I have had to accept that I will never reach that level. Hell, I can barely crane my neck back far enough to see that level.

    3. Not really. I’m slogging through a Terry Goodkind book right now, for the purpose of being able to speak with real authority on how terrible it is and why. All it makes me want to do is curl up in a ball and never read anything ever again.

  30. Actually, let me revise #3. Yes, Phyllipa Gregory. Even Sofia Coppola can’t rape history the way she can.

  31. Safaa says:

    1 – Comics and graphic novels tend to inspire me a lot, more than novels. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, and many other comic writers with their mind-blowing stories inspire me greatly. Recently, I discovered Ted Chiang’s short-stories, also quite inspiring in their own special way.

    2 РE̤a de Queiroz, Angela Carter, Mikhail Bulgakov, Ursula Le Guin, Chekov, Borges, Mervyn Peake.

    3 – Terry Brooks. Also Paulo Coelho, gets shittier every hour. I’m based in Portugal, so here you need to be a successful journalist, a celebrity, a football player, a singer or the ex-wife of some famous husband to become a (god-awful) best-seller writer. Since I’m none of those, my chances of being NOTICED AND READ (it’s easy to publish) are very slim, unless I write a hedious epic fantasy that would make the likes of Terry Brooks blush.

  32. Eric Schaller says:

    Jason–loved the surrealistic slip of the tongue (finger?) that resulted in you ‘writing’ the works of Carrol and Gaiman.

    Kate–Delany’s work was/is quite inspirational to me as well, but not so much as a writer but in what they suggest about an approach to living life. They usually make me feel/believe that I can be a better person than I am. Dhalgren is one of those pivotal books when read while young (I read it the summer out of high school while working in New York City). I’m also glad to see the mention of the Motion of Light in Water, which is probably one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. In its own way it reminds of Boswell’s London Journals.

  33. Hannu Blommila says:

    1) Quite a many in fact. At the moment Laird Barron, Lucius Shepard and Peter Watts. They’re all not only damn good writers, Their writing is encouraging as well.

    2) Again, quite a many. Terry Dowling, Gene Wolfe, Hal Duncan and Ted Chiang are all too good for their shoes. They all make me want to just call it quits, go out and get drunk.
    I’ve never figured it out how some writers make you feel like “yeah baby, You can do it!” while others make you feel like talentless hack…

    3) Years ago, when I read The Mote in The God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, I thought that if this is supposed to be some sort of epitome of good SF, I can easily top it any day of the week. Brooks and Goodkind from the fantasy department make me feel pretty much the same way.

  34. euphrosyne says:

    #1 Another vote for China Mieville and Samuel Delany

    #2 Nabokov, the Viriconium stories, Haruki Murakami, and William Shakespeare :P

  35. Matt Staggs says:

    Nope, not Jeff – just me, Matt. I’m minding the store while he’s out.

  36. Brendan says:

    1) Balzac
    2) No
    3) No

  37. Mark Finn says:

    I’m coming late to the party, but yeah, I’ll play:

    1. Robert E. Howard. He always makes it look easy. Fun, and easy. Get the right story, and you’ll jump over to your computer.

    2. Raymond Chandler. That guy had a poetical economy to his work that is SO brilliant. The first time I read him, I had to keep stopping every few pages and shaking my head at the tight, clever prose. Then I got to “She had eyes like strange secrets,” and I threw the book across the room. Strange secrets? What does that MEAN? I don’t know, but it’s beautiful in its ambiguity, descriptive and intimate for everyone who reads it. And he threw it in there like it was nothing. That guy makes me want to hang it up.

    3. Yep. A few of them–usually the 800 lb gorilla-darlings who get to get away with the kind of rookie mistakes that would get me crucified. Two characters, one named Rose, or Rosie, and the other named Rosemary…took me a third of the book before I figured out they weren’t the same person. By then, I was awash in disgust, more interested in the subplot than the main plot, not really caring about either. I get pretty antagonistic when I come across a book I don’t want to read, but feel like I should finish. It’s like watching de Palma movies for me. Frustrating.

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