Books I wish I had written

(Or…What Inspires Me as a Writer)

We all have our favorite books—those we read again and again, that speak to us directly and touch something inside of us.

Writers have a slightly weird relationship to novels, especially great novels. Before I wrote my first novel, I could get sucked into a great story and let myself go, enjoying it for what it was and reveling in the world unfolding in the page and in my imagination. But things are different now.

Reading a truly great novel brings me a strange mixture of emotions: joy at finding a story that resonates with me, jealousy that I didn’t think of this idea first (and that I may not have done such a wonderful job with it), interest in the craft that went into the creation of the story, curiosity about the influences on the author both before and during the writing, and others.

It’s rare that I can lose myself in a story that I’m reading anymore. In some ways, I’ve lost something that I can’t ever get back. On the other hand, I know what It’s like to write a novel (or a few), and I’m intimately familiar with the hard work, the emotional roller-coaster, all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and that almost makes up for what I’ve lost.

Almost.

To be sure, the joy of actually writing—and make no mistake, I do absolutely love the process of writingdoes make up for what I’ve lost when I’m reading someone else’s work. But that’s a different kettle of fish, as they say.

As a reader, I’ve got a list of books that I love. And as a writer, I’ve got books that I wish I had written. The lists certainly have some overlap, but aren’t exactly the same.

And I’m not talking about the obvious books, either. Sure, it would be nice to be the person who wrote the Harry Potter series (and have the money that came with that incredible success), but that has nothing to do with the words on the page.

It’s also hard to put these in a particular order, so I’m just going to go alphabetically. I originally was going to name my top five, but keeping to a particular number was difficult, as you’ll see.

Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970 – 1978)

I’m cheating here a bit with this one, because the first chronicle technically consists of five novels (Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos). However, these are very short books (all but one are under 200 pages), and these five novels make up a single, continuous story. As I wrote last month, the prose is an absolute joy to read, and the characters are amazing. Zelazny makes the twists and turns of the chronicle seem effortless, and I’m driven to study his style of writing and figure out how he does what he does.

I’m not nearly as much of a fan of the second chronicle, which suffers from some problems. It’s not terrible, but also not a series I plan to ever reread.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I’ve read Dune too many times to count. In fact, I’ve read every Dune novel by Frank Herbert, and then went on to read every other novel by Herbert that I could get my hands on. But this was the epic science fiction story that started it all, and it has everything I could possibly want in a story.

Herbert himself played with the elements of narration in this book, burying haiku poems within the prose and other fun experiments, and it flows like no other book I have ever read. If there had to be a #1 on this list, Dune would be it.

It’s also great to note that Dune was turned down by over twenty publishers before “a little-known printing house best known for its auto repair manuals” published the book in 1965. It then went on to win the 1966 Hugo Award and inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel, and is considered the best-selling science fiction novel in history. Yeah, big publishers are the gatekeepers of quality all right.

Important Note: I suggest you avoid the Dune novels that were not written directly by Frank Herbert (which are only the six books Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune). I have literally nothing good to say about any of the others.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979)

This is much more than just a horror story, and Straub’s cast of characters are about as real as they get in a piece of fiction. Forget the movie, which simply couldn’t capture the weight of this story (and changed the villain to make it easier on viewers). Sure, Ghost Story is scary at times—in fact, it’s terrifying at times—but it’s a lot more than that, an exploration of how the past can come back to haunt you, both figuratively and literally.

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1990)

I’ve been a big Clive Barker fan for a long time, and I’ve read almost every one of his books. But I honestly wish this particular one was mine. While the theme of the hidden supernatural world that exists behind the scenes of normal, everyday life is present in most of his stories, this is the one grabbed me and didn’t let go. From the very first chapters in the dead letter office, to the hut of the sorcerer Kissoon that exists in a few looping seconds of time, to the veil that protects the world from the Iad Uroboros, there is so much there. It’s not just what he includes in the book, but all the stuff that its existence implies that really touches me, and it’s masterfully done.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons (1989 – 1997)

Like the Chronicles of Amber above, I’m cheating here a little, but it’s nearly impossible to choose one particular books out of all four in this series by Dan Simmons (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion). They are all fantastic, and together they make up one amazing story. The Hyperion Cantos (as the series is called) is an epic science fiction story, broken into two parts. The first two novels make up the first half of the story, and the last two novels make up the second half that takes place 272 years after the first half ends. I’ve read a few other novels by Simmons, and it turned out I didn’t enjoy them at all. But that’s okay, because these four books really inspire me as a writer.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2008)

As much as I love this book, I know I could never write something like this (which makes even more painful because I really wish I had it in me). As the most recently-published book on this list, I’ve had the least amount of time to reread this one (though I’ve already read it three times since it came out). This is an amazing combination of heist novel, fantasy story, and world-building. The dialogue is a joy to read, you can’t help but love the characters even when they’re being annoying, and Lynch makes the complicated plots-within-plots look effortless. Some people feel the sequels aren’t as good, but I think that’s mostly because the next books don’t have that feeling of discovering something brand new that the first novel had. Besides, when your debut is this amazing, it’s nearly impossible to meet fan expectations for any follow-up books.

Conclusion

Looking at the above list, it’s quite a mixture of horror (Ghost Story, The Great and Secret Show), science fiction (Dune, The Hyperion Cantos), and fantasy (Chronicles of Amber, The Lies of Locke Lamora). I hadn’t really given that any thought when I decided to make a list for this post, and it surprised me a little as all my novels so far sit fully in the sword & sorcery sub-genre of fantasy.

Now there are plenty of other individual novels and series that I love, and some I have read multiple times, but I love those purely as a reader. These are the ones that inspire me and, yes, do make me a bit jealous of the skill these authors display. But writing is an ongoing process, and all writers who keep writing continue to learn and grow.

And I’m driven by the combined process of creating and learning that is writing, which is why I see myself continuing to do so as long as I am able.

If you’re a writer, what books have you read that make you think “I wish that one belonged to me?” If you’re a reader, what (ideally fiction) books inspire you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.

Through the eyes of the first person…

Recently, I began reading the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny to my son. I’ve had The Great Book of Amber, which collects all ten novels in the series (though not the short stories) for many years, and this series has stuck with me since my initial read of it.

Zelazny published the first of the Amber novels, Nine Princes in Amber, in 1970, and the last novel, Prince of Chaos, was published in 1991. The series has had major influence on the fantasy genre since it was released, and Roger Zelazny is known as one of the great storytellers of our time. George R.R. Martin credited the Amber books—and Zelazny himself—as a major influence on his own career.

At this point, my son and I have just started the third book in the series, Sign of the Unicorn. They are not particularly long books, especially compared to the 500+ page epic fantasy novels that are published these days. But that makes them easy reads and the story always keeps moving.

The Viewpoint of One

Those who have read the Amber novels know that they are all written in the first person, with Corwin narrating the first five novels and Merlin narrating the last five. This is notable because there are few long fantasy series being published these days with first-person narration. You certainly couldn’t have a Game of Thrones or Malazan Book of the Fallen series told in first person simply due to the sheer number of viewpoint characters in each of those series.

Bernard Cornwell uses first-person narration to great effect in his Warlord Chronicles series and the epic Saxon Chronicles (also known as The Last Kingdom stories due to the television series). I can’t say if he uses that same narrative approach in his other books, as those are the only two series that I’ve read (and loved). But there’s no doubt about the popularity of Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles books around the world. They are at the top of the historical fiction genre.

And, of course, there is the Black Company books, by Glen Cook. Another great series that epitomizes the military fantasy sub-genre, the Black Company stories are told by the company’s historian, Croaker.

What all these series have in common are the way the voice of the narrator becomes an essential part of the story. The Corwin stories in the Amber Chronicles simply wouldn’t have worked if it they been written in the third-person. Corwin’s voice, his choice of words, what he chooses to tell the reader and what he withholds, all combine to bring the story to life in ways a third-person narration couldn’t possibly do.

What you learn about Corwin’s siblings only comes from his own point of view, and you cannot separate what he tells you from how you feel about them. Was Eric really evil? He certainly seems so at times, and yet the reader never sees Corwin’s hated brother through any other eyes. And so the reader’s experience is filtered through a single viewpoint, a single frame of reference, and this impacts the story directly.

When writing The Tower of Dust, I originally planned the novel to be in the third person. In fact, there’s a draft of the first couple of chapters on my computer written in that way. But by the time I had reached the beginning of Chapter Three, I was struggling with the prose. I kept slipping into Borolt Zale’s voice unintentionally. Finally, I went back and rewrote those early chapters in first person and everything fit into place.

For my other novels, though, I found that third person worked much better. Those novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that was necessary for me to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Having them be in first person would have changed them too much from what was in my head.

But when reading the Amber stories to my son, I’m really enjoying Corwin’s voice. There’s a rhythm to the prose that makes the story flow off the tongue. There are no awkward phrases or unusual word patterns that take me out of the story. Instead, I’m able to put myself into the mind of Corwin and tell the tale as I imagine he is telling it to his own son (which is actually what’s supposed to be happening as you read the story).

Conclusion

I’m glad I picked the Amber series as the next one to read after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. My son loves the books so far, and he’s bugging me to read more to him every day. He can’t wait to find out what is going to happen, now that Corwin has returned to Amber and the attacks on the city are growing more numerous and deadly.

Despite the first-person narration and the style of the prose, the books don’t feel dated at all. They hold up well despite the 47 years since the first was published. Corwin is a great protagonist, flawed in many ways but with a charm that is undeniable. You can’t help but root for him, even as his own arrogance gets him into trouble again and again.

What do you think of the Amber Chronicles? What other fantasy series have you read that were told in the first-person? And how did it contribute (or detract) from the stories themselves? Tell us about it in the comments.