I’m often asked why I write books for kids and teens instead of grown up books, and my answer is always this: I write for kids and teens because the books we read when we’re young begin to shape and define not only our reading tastes, but our very selves. Rarely do the books we read as adults become a part of our emotional DNA in quite the same way.
As many writers quickly learn, once we become a writer it can be much more difficult to simply read for pleasure. I am too aware of the craft, too attuned to what makes a book ‘work’, too well-acquainted with my own internal editor, to fully lose myself in a book. So when that does happen, it is a big, big deal; something to be celebrated but also—because I’m a writer—studied.
When I deeply love a book as an adult it’s usually because it has managed to rock my world in such a way that I know it has permanently changed how I look at and approach the craft of writing itself.
It occurred to me that these books become a part of my writerly DNA just as surely as the books of my youth became a part of my emotional DNA. Much like the books of my childhood, these stories open me up to the world of possibilities—not just in stories, but in craft. They show me what amazing things can be done within the scope of story. They give me a moment of true astonishment where I often think, “Oh, we’re allowed to do that?” and my writing world tilts on its axis.
As writers, it can be hugely eye opening to sit down and really look at which books have formed our writerly DNA.
Our reading passion serves as a mirror, reflecting back to us our writing passions. Which might seem obvious, but it’s not necessarily. That’s not to say we don’t all have many different types of books in us, we most emphatically CAN, but the more conscious we are of our own essential writerly DNA, the more successfully we can execute those books, and across a wider spectrum of genres.
For me, some of those books were:
THE CRYSTAL CAVE by Mary Stewart
These stories set during Roman Britain featured Merlin as an historical character and were my first exposure to the concept of historical fantasy. They were about one of the most mythical of characters—Merlin!—but told as history, and I can absolutely pinpoint these books as the moment I fell in love with historical fantasy, which I have spent the majority of my career writing.
OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon
I had never even given the genre of time travel a second glance. It seemed too implausible. But that was before I met Jaime and Claire and became utterly sucked into their world. The world was rich and complex and detailed and completely altered how I viewed what was possible in storytelling.
Another book that had a similar affect was Emma Bull’s WAR FOR THE OAKS. It was the first book I read where the world of fairy spilled over into the real world, and I was both utterly transported, and made aware of an entirely new range of possibilities.
Also on my list were three romances: DREAM A LITTLE DREAM, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and WELCOME TO TEMPTATION by Jennifer Crusie, and THE PROPOSITION by Judith Ivory. To be honest, I could not for the life of me figure out what these books had in common with the others on my list until, after much pondering, I realized that each of these stories took the protagonist to the mat emotionally. Each had an extremely powerful sense of emotional catharsis and utter transformation, which I came to learn was a critical element for me as a reader—and something I wished to strive for in my own writing.
And yes, also on that list is HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling, but not because it was a phenomenal success. No, what I learned from Harry Potter was that no matter how many times a subject had been written about (I mean seriously, just how many wizard books had already been written when HP first came out??) a writer could still find a way to put her own unique stamp on the subject. It gave me the courage to not shrink from tackling subjects that had been done before, because they hadn’t been done in the way I would do them. It was a great big affirmation of the potential for a truly unique take on a familiar subject.
TURTLE MOON by Alice Hoffman was the first magical realism book I read and I was enthralled with this idea that we could use setting in such a powerful way. That we could let the subtext of what we were trying to say about the world be such a major focus of the story itself.
THE CURSE OF CHALION and PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold gave me permission to invent my own religion in my books, something I’d shied away from for a long time. But her books showed me how spiritual and religious themes and could infuse a book, and yet not come off as preachy or pedantic or allegorical.
It can be a hugely eye opening and fruitful exercise to sit down and come up with a list of these kind of books—the ones that rocked our world—and examine them. Look for the commonality. Sometimes it can be genre-related, but often times it is nothing anywhere near as obvious. It can be a sense of place, or adventure, certain themes. A mystery to be solved, or dealing with the Mysteries.
Other possible connections might include: a restrained hand with emotion so that it runs just under the surface as a thick undercurrent rather than overtly; catharsis; laughter; exploring the dark underbelly of the human experience; or perhaps its opposite—illuminating the enduring good to be found in the world; present or detached or unreliable narrators; a world full of possibility; a world where hope has completely disappeared.
As you look at your list, ask why do these books move you so very deeply? How do they shift your perception of the world, yourself?
But as writers, we can also take it further than that. If we are floundering in stories that aren’t shining, we can compare them to those that truly move us. If our own work isn’t incorporating the elements we adore in the books we read, why not? If that is what sets our reading hearts to fluttering, why aren’t we working in those same arenas as writers?
Sometimes there is a good reason. Sometimes we sense that we don’t know enough yet to tackle a project. Or we are still acquiring basic craft skills.
But often, we are afraid that we can’t do it justice, or no one will buy it, or it’s too corny or hokey or out there or will expose just how weird our own tastes are.
This is especially true if we’ve floundered a bit, trying out different genres, formats, and themes. A fair amount of exploration is essential, not just for developing writers but for established writers as well, as it is that sense of exploration and creative play that will keep our work new and fresh.
But sometimes market considerations will seep in or open override our quieter inner creative voice or instincts, telling us that YA is the hottest market right now, or dystopian, or that sexy New Adult is where all the biggest deals are happening.
It can also be simply too big a leap of faith for pre-published writers to spend months or years working on something that feels too new or different or out there. Especially when that desire to be published is burning inside them.
But whatever the reason is—it’s wrong. We should absolutely be striving to bring those same elements into our own work. What better place to acquire the writing chops than in the writing of a book we love on all levels? The thing is, once you have identified your writerly DNA, you can knowingly take those elements with you to whatever genre or format you care to experiment in–which will make that new, fresh experiment still uniquely YOURS because it is culled from—and therefore connects with—your creative/writerly DNA.
So sometime this week, give yourself an hour and list your ten favorite books, either comfort reads that you come back to again and again or books that blew your mind with their brilliance or however you want to define favorite. Then look at those titles, study them, and try to see if you can find what specific elements make them your favorite.
If you’re having trouble identifying commonality or threads, it can also be helpful to go back and make a list of your favorite childhood books. Sometimes our preferences can be more blatant there. For me it was all Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgeson Burnett, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R.Tolkien. Not a single contemporary, realistic fiction book on there. Which made me go, duh, of course, I write historical fantasy—the map to the writer I became is broadly hinted at right there in my list of childhood favorites.
As a reader, falling in love with a book is one of my most favorite feelings in the world. But as a writer, moments like that, books like that, acquire an almost holy place on my bookshelves.