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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Under the Influence

February 24, 2011

I decided against doing the first Crusader “challenge” this week.  Writing a profile about my “personality” seemed like a waste of my time and yours.  It’s not like we’re ever going to meet up at a bar or Starbucks or anything.  Unless you want to stalk me, though I haven’t any idea why anyone would do that.

Instead, I’m going to talk about something relevant to reading this blog.  Influences!  When you claim to be a writer people probably assume your biggest influences are books.  That’s more true for the last 10 years or so, but my first real influences were movies and Saturday morning cartoons, not books.

If you’re a boy who comes from that generation born after Vietnam but before Gulf War Part I then chances are your greatest influence is the Star Wars Trilogy.  (The original one, aka the good one, not the stupid prequels!)  I’m not the only one who thinks this.  Chances are those were some of the first movies you saw along with Disney ones and some of the first action figures you played with.  (My brother and I accumulated a whole bag full of decapitated figures and their heads.  Around XMas we would also stage mock lightsaber fights with discarded wrapping paper tubes.)

I read a lot of books, but there was nothing that influenced me more than those three movies.  The only thing coming close were the Star Trek movies–II to IV–which are also some of the first ones I remember seeing in the theater.

If you wonder why, it’s pretty easy.  The grand spectacle of spaceships and lasers and lightsabers, not to mention an epic, albeit simple good-vs.-evil story could make quite the impression on young minds.  To a young boy do you really think picture books about cuddly bears can compare with lasers and robots?

So it’s no surprise that some of the first stories my brother and I wrote shamelessly ripped off Star Wars and Star Trek, only acted out with our stuffed toys in our own imaginary universe.  Those stories only exist in notebooks and homemade comics if at all.  Much later I wrote a rebooted version.

If you take a look at my archive site, you can see other stories bearing these influences.  I even have a Star Wars fanfic that really sucks, though I’d argue not as much as some of the published novels.  If you take a look at my first sci-fi trilogy, it’s obviously a combination of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Robotech, all three of which I watched as a kid.

It wasn’t until I got into literary writing that books really began to influence me.  If you read my novel Where You Belong (only $.99 for Kindle and $12.99 print right now!), I do my best to copy John Irving’s style in books such as The Cider House Rules and World According to Garp.  It was really the former that made me want to do some “serious” writing.  I had read some other literary novels before that, notably Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full, but for some reason those didn’t have quite the same impact.  Maybe there was something about the storytelling or the character of Homer Wells that really spoke to me.  Whatever it was, I made a change for years after that to try and do some “serious” novels.  With mixed results.

What’s interesting is that finding a book like that (or movies like that) it’s like falling in love that first time.  You can have better experiences later on, read better books, but you’re never going to forget your first.  In all honesty I have read better literary novels, but those by John Irving are still close to my heart because they got to me first.

This happened another time too.  When I was in grade school I read the “Chronicles of Prydain” (or whatever it’s called collectively) by Lloyd Alexander, starting with The Book of Three and ending with The High King.  Those might have resonated with me because they were a lot like Star Wars.  Orphaned farm boy defeats evil empire with the help of a band of friends–one of whom was even hairy like Chewbacca!  (Alexander’s novels were published back in the ’60s I think, so obviously they came first, but I didn’t read them before I saw Star Wars in large part because I saw Star Wars before I could read!)  Anyway, later when I read the first Harry Potter book I thought it was fine, but it couldn’t replace Alexander’s books in my heart.  I suspect that years from now Potter fans will feel the same way about whatever new series comes along.

For better or worse, we’re stuck with those first loves that help to mold and shape us.

There, that’s probably a lot more insightful than any lame blurb I could write about myself.

Come back Sunday for another Super Sunday Smackdown…


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  1. I’d stalk you anywhere, RM. ; )

    I agree with you about the Star Wars prequels. Yuck. It’s hard to fathom Natalie Portman being nominated for an Oscar after seeing her in those.

    I used to have such a crush on Luke, but now realize what a whiny ass he was compared to Han. Tastes do change.

  2. As a fellow Star Wars devotee, I salute you. There were so many cool things to latch onto during the late 70s early 80s: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Voltron, He Man, etc.

    Is it any wonder why people from our generation have overactive imaginations?


  3. That’s why I like watching “Family Guy” and “Robot Chicken;” they’ll reference Transformers or GI Joe or Thundercats and I think, “Hey, someone else remembers those too!”

  4. This made me nostalgic. I was actually a HUGE star wars fan when I was a kid. (the old movies of course, the new ones are crap) But I was also a Harry Potter fan. So I would stage scenes and battles with my HP and SW action figures on my bedroom floor, even throwing in some beanie babies when I felt like it. Those were my very first stories, and though I don’t write sci-fi now, I’ll never forget the impact they had on me. Great post.

    ❤ Gina Blechman (fellow crusader)

  5. You realize, you’re going to make it onto TBOE for referencing “Star Wars.”

    One problem I have with referencing is that far from “influencing,” referencing simply tacks whatever characters or themes you have onto the original — so the Robot Chicken & Family guy episodes don’t do anything more than make Peter into Han. They really bring nothing new to the story, as a good parody will. It can be funny to see stormtroopers talking about not having a railing — and I caved in with “Stupid Questions” so I’m no better — but where’s the creativity?

    One thing I’ve noticed for a while now is that as newer “creative types” move into roles of prominence, we seem to be recycling old ideas and not coming up with new ones. Some is simply using brand names — as pointed out, original ideas for screenplays often get shoehorned into “gritty reboots” of She-Ra because people will go see She-Ra but not “Generic Warrior Princess.” But lots of it is simply laziness, or a lack of experience OUTSIDE OF watching TV.

    To that end, I think influences need to be separated from “experience.” If your primary “creative” role is to have Family Guy — a major problem in this area — re-make “Tootsie” than you’re not being INFLUENCED by “Tootsie,” you’re simply a person who has no experiences (or creative thoughts) to bring to the fore. If, though, you were “influenced” by Tootsie (or other gender-swapping or role-reversing comedies of the 80s and 90s) you might create something new that blends features of those earlier products with a new take on them or a different outlook — not a remake or recasting, but something genuinely new, albeit with some old ingredients in it.

    A good analogy might be making a chocolate cake, versus making a new cake that has chocolate ingredients in it.

    So I’m getting lost here. I see your point that Star Wars is a major influence on almost everyone, including me — my second short story ever was described by my mom as “a blatant rip off of Star Wars.” (Mom did not mince words.) (My first short story was called “Apogee” and rather weirdly predicted, several years early, a shuttle disaster that had not happened yet.)

    But I digress again. The fact that Star Wars INFLUENCED me predisposes me to like reading/writing stories with that kind of scope, and those players involved — but I try mightily NOT to simply parrot Star Wars.

    As for other writers who’ve influence me, I really enjoy John Irving and like to think that I write somewhat like him, except that I don’t have stories that are as broad in scope as his. And I like to write horror, but I actually read very little horror, as I’m self-conscious about inadvertently stealing someone’s idea (plus I think, outside of Joe Hill, that very little horror is worth reading.)(And outside of my own.

    I’d almost forgotten about the Prydain books. They were good; I liked better “Master of The Five Magics” and “Secret of the Sixth Magic.” I also liked Robert Lynn Apsrin’s “Myth” series, which were comic genius until he fell into the parody mode too much.

    You’re right about the first great novels you read, and for me, it’s two fold: 1. Kurt Vonnegut, who I absolutely cannot write like but would love to, and 2. Charles Dickens, who, ditto. Dickens has a wit about his writing that makes it FUN to read, while Vonnegut is sad even when he’s not trying to be sad. No writer, in my mind, compares to those two, not even Irving, who comes close.

  6. This is why you’re the blogger extraordinaire–you’ve written a whole blog entry as a comment!

    Between the two “Robot Chicken” is actually more creative than “Family Guy” when it comes to that. They don’t just recreate the same stories, they use the characters to create new stories. Like if Inspector Gadget had replacement parts from Cyberdyne (the makers of SkyNet in the Terminator movies) and went on an insane rampage or if She-Ra was having her period or if superheroes were all living in the same house like “The Real World.” It’s tasteless and crude by most standards, but also really funny.

    I agree there is a difference between parroting and being influenced by something. When I wrote my novel, I tried to do a lot of the same things John Irving does in his books (unstable home life, private school, character is a writer, etc.) but still do them my way. And I refused to put any wrestling in it. Though I did do a John Irving reference story called “Spring in the Land of Broken Dreams” which is part of my “Carnival Papers” anthology of shorts. The moral of that was that you may really like your hero’s work but he’s probably a douche in real life.

  7. I loved Star Wars as a kid too. My husband recently got me hooked on Star Trek (orig. series) and I can’t get enough. I love the stories, characters, lol humor, all of it. I actually wrote about it in my blog today, so it’s funny I found your blog. I never thought I was a sci-fi writer, but I’m being pulled in that direction. Thanks to Captain Kirk and those darn Tribbles.

  8. I agree totally with you. Watching the trilogy growing up then the new ones coming out ruined it. Nothing beats the originals. I can picture using the left over wrapping paper rolls as light sabers because I have done it…yes even we females were Star Wars fans like that. Big time tomboy here!

    Still going to stalk your blog anyway!! Fellow crusader here say hello! Have a great weekend and thanks for the post.

  9. Your post made me realize that at 50 years old I still can follow into “good girl habits” from schooldays — it hadn’t occurred to me to not do the challenge! Yeesh. You’ve got me thinking now about my past influences too…. perhaps you’ve sparked a new blog entry for me — we shall see. Happy crusading.

  10. Braine, I can understand why you were influenced by Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books but when you said “Master of the Five Magics” and “Secret of the Sixth Magic”…ay carajo…I bought those as a kid and they were terrible. If anything, I was influenced in my writing by the great (and unfortunately now dead) David Eddings, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony (who’s become a snarky old bastard but I luv him).

    Onto why I wanted to comment. I’ve got my Star Wars laurels…I’ve read a ton of the novels, I’ve seen the original probably 200 times, yes I can go toe-to-toe with the Star Wars geeks with questions like “Name the Stormtrooper that was not at his post” and “what is the garbage disposal designation contained in the first film, etc. etc.) I even thought about getting an authentic stormtrooper outfit…but haven’t gone that far. And so, I think I’ve a right to say this…

    The prequels (aside from Jar Jar Binks) are better movies than the original. Yes, yes they are. Better acting…acting in Empire whom everyone says is the holy grail…is frickin terrible. I too love these shows…I too was inspired…but what went into Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith was sheer brilliance my friend. I finally understood why in “Empire Strikes Back”, Darth Vader lowered a gun trained on the back of Chewbacca as he was incredibly upset that Han Solo was going to be lowered into the carbon freeze chamber. Originally, I said, “He’s just some wookie…why should Darth care?” Then after seeing the prequels, it hit me…Chewbacca had C-3PO on his back. This was the droid that vader built. He wasn’t preventing someone from shooting Chewbacca…he was stopping further damage to his creation.

    Yes…sheer brilliance went into this plotline. The fact that Lucas thought that far ahead so many years ago to have seen and filmed that, only shows to me that he really does deserve the laurels of Science Fiction master.

    Oh and I skipped the first crusader challenge too. It just seemed so redundant with so many people doing it and after reading fifty or so of them, it’s gotten kind of boring.

    • Mike, I really can’t buy that the prequels are better. The original Star Wars movies are some of the most quoted along with “Casablanca” and “Godfather.” Are there any quotable lines from the prequels? Other than Ewan MacGregor and the guy playing Palpatine (until he becomes the Emperor) the acting in the prequels is just awful. Natalie Portman might win an Oscar for “Black Swan” but in all three of these movies she was essentially a mannequin for weird hairstyles and bulky clothing designs–and her acting was just as wooden as that of a mannequin. Jake Lloyd was just annoying as little Anakin and Hayden Christiansen was whiny. Then besides Jar-Jar there were those awful Viceroys and that winged blue mechanic thing.

      And I really doubt Lucas thought of the Vader-C3PO angle in Empire. There are plenty of other explanations that I’m sure fanboys can come up with. Maybe he just didn’t want to start a firefight right there if he didn’t need to.

  11. I have to agree with you. In fact, I don’t think any generation of writers were ever simply influenced by other writers. Psychology, philosophy, technology, painting, music were always ingredients contained in the thick protein shakes of great writing. Now, it’s expanded to cartoons, movies, comics.

    Yours is a good post.

  12. LOL, my mum thought the movies were too violent for us little kidlets and so we didn’t watch them until we were much older. A later influence maybe, but not an early, formative one for me.

    I think you’re right though, with what you say about Irving – the author who ‘gets to you’ first will be the one whose influence stays with you longest.

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