Answering an Aspiring Author: Who Do I Love

The friend o’ mine embarking upon a program of self-loathing and torture bit of sci fi writing asked me about my influences, including novels and short stories. So I took a quick turn about my shelves in search of. I have lots, yet they’re only a tiny fraction of the SF universe, and tend to cluster around just a few decades and authors. So grain o’ salt, follow your own star and all that.

The list appears below, but first, I shall say a few words about reading in order to become a writer.

J.R.R. Tolkien, da morto. Image and caption courtesy Daniel Prati via Flickr.
J.R.R. Tolkien, da morto. Image and caption courtesy Daniel Prati via Flickr.

All writers will, of course, tell you that you must be a reader first, and that is true. Reading the works of other authors is the only way to get a broad and intimate view of the art of wordsmithing. I’ve listed my influences here, meaning those authors whose work was particularly potent, the stuff with staying power. But they don’t include the vast number of authors I read who were wretchedly bad, or indifferent, or classic but not particularly influential to me – at least, no consciously. But all were valuable. The bad ones taught me which mistakes to avoid, boosted my self esteem, and gave me hope that if they could make it, so could I. The indifferent ones taught me how to punch my own writing up; without them, I may not have recognized the dull bits. And the classics gave me a solid grounding in what used to be state-of-the-genre, and probably taught me much more than I knew, even when they weren’t firing me up.

Octavia E. Butler. Image courtesy Nikolas Coukouma via Wikimedia Commons.
Octavia E. Butler. Image courtesy Nikolas Coukouma via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading fiction is essential, but so is reading about the craft of fiction writing. To that end, I’ve included a short list of books that were particularly helpful in turning me from a rank amateur into someone who could scribble things of interest outside the immediate circle of family and friends and others who felt they owed me shameless flattery. I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Some have been rather hackneyed attempts to take advantage of inexperienced but eager people, but many more have been quite useful. Some writers can teach themselves the craft, but it’s always helpful to have good teachers.

But it’s not just books on how to write that are useful teaching tools. Get your hands on books about some of your favorite authors and their creations. Look for biographies, literary criticism, philosophy of their worlds, science of their worlds, other authors’ essays on how awesome that author was and how their own writing was influenced by, etc. Choose one or two or a few amazing authors, and delve into their craft, learning as much as you can about how they did what they did.

Read collections. Collections of the best, the boldest, the cutting edge, the classics. There are endless anthologies out there – avail yourself of them. Stuff yourself with stories until you’re overflowing.

Robert Jordan. Image courtesy Jeanne Collins via Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Jordan. Image courtesy Jeanne Collins via Wikimedia Commons.

And speaking of stories, don’t forget they’re found in more than prose works. Read comics: there is some extraordinary storytelling being done there in those colorful pages. Watch teevee: many television series can teach you essentials of the craft you may not have picked up from your reading. So can movies. And don’t forget to listen to the commentary, where you can pick up all sorts of useful tips and tricks. Video games, I’m assured by those who play them, can also contain amazing stories and provide inspiration. And all of these very visual (and sometimes auditory) mediums can help you visualize your tale in the kind of vivid detail it takes to help create story worlds your readers feel they’re actually in, story people they feel are more real than the flesh-and-blood folk around them.

Connie Willis. Image courtesy Ellen Levy Finch via Wikimedia Commons.
Connie Willis. Image courtesy Ellen Levy Finch via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, don’t forget that influences and inspiration come from all sorts of unexpected places: it’s not just within your genre or things immediately related to the art and craft of storytelling that will influence you. Be prepared for anything. Consider each moment, each experience, to be potential fodder. A writer never stops writing, even when they’re not putting words on a page; words aren’t always what influence our writing the most.

That said, words are important. Here is a list of people who are very good with words indeed, and books that may help you on the journey.


Neil Gaiman. Image courtesy moi.
Neil Gaiman. Image courtesy moi.


Books on Writing

A note on submissions: most of these books were written before the electronic age. Find another source for current submissions guidelines.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. (No, I can’t stand him as a human being, but that doesn’t change the fact this book was invaluable when I was just starting out.)

Elements of Fiction Writing series by Writer’s Digest Books.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas. Sounds like a gimmick, I know, but it’s solid advice by a good agent and helped me immensely.

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by the Editors of Analog and Asimov’s. It’s worth it for Connie Willis alone.

World Building by Stephen L. Gillett.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.



Neil Gaiman

C.S. Friedman

Octavia E. Butler

J.R.R. Tolkien

Robert Jordan

Michael Flynn

Ursula K. LeGuin

Connie Willis

Patricia A. McKillip

Robert Holdstock

Terry Pratchett

Lynn Flewelling

R.A. Salvatore

Guy Gavriel Kay

Ken MacLeod

Elaine Cunningham

Melanie Rawn


Patricia A. McKillip. Image courtesy Stepheng3 via Wikimedia Commons.
Patricia A. McKillip. Image courtesy Stepheng3 via Wikimedia Commons.


Story Collections

Redshift. Al Sarrantonio, ed.

Again, Dangerous Visions. Harlan Ellison, ed.

Legends 1 and 2. Robert Silverberg, ed.

Flights. Al Sarrantonio, ed.

Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Datlow et al, eds.

Fairy Tale Series. Datlow and Windling, eds.

Starlight I and II. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed.



Buffy and Angel

Battlestar Galactica


Doctor Who

Answering an Aspiring Author: Who Do I Love

12 thoughts on “Answering an Aspiring Author: Who Do I Love

  1. rq

    I was waiting for the Neil Gaiman photo there… ;) It must be had!
    For collections, I would also recommend reading such ‘national’ collections, where they collect authors from a specific ethnic group or country or religion to write sci-fi. I know there were two such Canadian anthologies (Northern Suns, and Northern Stars), and an Australian one (Dreaming Down Under is the one I’m thinking of, but it turns out there’s plenty more!), and I believe Stephanie Zvan mentioned an African one and a Muslim one (could be wrong, here) on her blog towards the end of last year. Many times, these anthologies showcase less-read and less-well-known authors due to the stipulation that some specific nationalistic/ethnic criterium must be fulfilled, and many many times, these authors have a very fresh view of the world.
    And thank you for reminding me of Guy Gavriel Kay (which made me remember Charles de Lint; same reading period for me). You reminded me that I miss his prose terribly (beautiful writing – I think Tigana was one of my favourite novels of his, mostly for the bittersweet ending, but Lions of Al-Rassan is a favourite because it’s the first book by him that I read).

  2. 2

    That was the first book by him that I read, too. An extraordinary book – I can’t do it justice in words. If you could imagine Beethoven’s 9th in prose, that might be sort of close – joy and sorrow and beauty all wrapped up together. He and Patricia A. McKillip are the ones I turn to when I need lyrical prose as well as stories that will rip my heart out while making me smile at the wonder of it all.

    Have you ever read McKillip’s Book of Atrix Wolfe? It’s one of the most amazing books I’ve ever encountered.

  3. rq

    I have not read that, but it’s going down on my list. To be honest, I haven’t read much of McKillip (just like I haven’t read a lot of Pratchett at all), I’m not sure why. At one point in my reading career, I turned towards shorter fiction (so less multi-volume epics) and shorter ways of writing, with the exception of CJ Cherryh, whose books I just ate up, even though nothing ever could stand beside the first of her books I ever read, Fortress in the Eye of Time. That, and Downbelow Station are my all-time re-readable favourites by her.
    The likes of William Gibson and somewhat shorter, harsher, more technical yet also very image-inducing language had the upper hand for me for quite a while. However, I have been recently (re-)discovering longer literature, both through Sherlock Holmes (As inspired by you, honest), H.G. Wells and through other lyrical authors (currently, Jack Vance – through an anthology in honour of him by lots of awesome authors written in his style). So I’ll put down McKillip for the prose. :) And a re-read for some Guy Gavriel Kay.
    Oh, a stream-of-consciousness-ish book with lots of great literary references and just an overall awesome mood-setting is A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. There’s something about his style in this book that is very poignant and … there’s a word I’m looking for but not finding – painfully sad and yearning all in one? My favourite obscure book.

  4. 6

    If I might add in a few other suggestions….

    Go to genre conventions, particularly the ones that are fan-run rather than commercial for-profit enterprises. Many science fiction, fantasy and steampunk conventions (and almost certainly the equivalent for horror, romance, etc.) have panels that discuss the craft and business of writing, with panelists that include authors, editors and publishers. Writing conventions, too.

    The Pacific Northwest is especially rich with these, as so many great authors make their homes hereabouts. Foolscap is a mid-size (as such things go) weekend-long writing workshop that focuses on science fiction; it is in September. Clarion West is held at the University of Washington every summer; this year Elizabeth Hand, Joe Hill, and Samuel Delany, among many others, will be mentoring aspiring short-story authors. Rustycon in January, Steamcon in October, OryCon in November.

    And, of course, Norwescon later this month (you will be there, right?) Not only do we have a strong writing track, there is also a track where established and upcoming authors will read from their works and answer questions. This year’s guests of honor include Catherine Asaro, Dr. Edward Tenner, Lee Moyer, Gardner Booth and Terry Brooks. (Disclaimer: I’m the one running the biological science track. You can’t write good science fiction without good science, after all!)

  5. 8

    Yesyesyes for Octavia & Ursula.

    I rode the bus with her a few times. We had a couple of quiet conversations, just to women on a Portland bus. The first time I didn’t even know that she was UKL – we didn’t exchange names. But she asked me what I was up to & I was writing and I think I had to ask her if she had done any writing. She spoke vaguely and very modestly. But after I got off the bus I realized that we were coming from her neighborhood (It’s no secret she lives in NW Portland on Thurman street, past 23rd – though even if I knew her address I wouldn’t wanna share it) she was the right age, and she didn’t look unlike the pictures I had seen of her that had been taken 20 years earlier.


    Next couple of times I saw her, I confirmed it, but it was really a moment to get off the bus and walk away thinking, “that was a nice convo, I wonder who…wayduhminit!!!!”

    So, other authors?

    Anna Livia’s schtick isn’t SciFi, but she does slip some SF into her human situation stories.

    Jo Clayton is awesome. Reed Skeen’s Leap.

    Spider Robinson is good, though occasionally predictable (but there are very few SF writers who employ *no* predictable tropes, I still think he’s a good one or I wouldn’t mention him here).

    Jules Verne still gets me.

    that’s all for now.

  6. 11

    Some great recommendations there. From the period a lot of them come from, the most glaring omission to my mind is Mercedes Lackey. I love Melanie Rawn’s work, and recently picked up her newest book, but very reluctantly, and I can’t quite bring myself to start it. She’s written 2/3 of a fantastic trilogy, left it at a complete cliffhanger, and I’ve been waiting a decade or more to know what comes next! And instead she’s starting brand new series’ and I know it’s going to be so good that I’m scared to start book 1 in case book 2 never happens. From that I’d say a hint for aspiring writers is don’t start writing a series unless you know you can tell the whole story!

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