This came up as a topic on David Farland's writer's group. I understand why people love limited lists like this. But to be honest, I've been influenced as a writer by everything I've read or watched. Some are positive role models I want to emulate, such as the five I have listed. Some are negative examples, people who's mistakes or awkwardness I want to avoid. Naturally, being human and thus perverse, I the latter group makes me feel better while the former makes me doubt myself. Of course, self doubt is just one more monster to be slain if I'm going to do this professionally.
Seriously, how can I limit it to five? How do I leave off Robert Howard or Robert Heinlein, the twin Roberts of my boyhood that stood as the Ur-examples of what Fantasy and Science Fiction was. Do I leave off The Wire with it's street-level authenticity? How many writers contributed to that wonderful show? I assume Gunsmoke won't make the cut either, though Jame's Arness's Marshall Dillon is as heroic an archtype as anyone would want. The most painful cut might be to leave off Andre Norton and Lloyd Alexander. They wrote some of the first novels I ever read and you never forget your first. They still hold up today, too. Those are my models for my own YA novels. I hope they will forgive me.
Then there are the writers that have influences me, career-wise. Brandon Sanderson gave a talk while I was working at Google in Kirkland. He gave more advice for new writers in an hour than anyone else had in my years at Iowa State. Likewise Steven Barnes, the first 'real' writer I had the guts to talk to and shake his hand. He spoke about the passion and sweaty necessity of writing. I blame this severe writing bug on him, I think it was in that handshake. David Farland's 'Write that Novel' seminar was the right class at the right time. Dave shared more good stuff in his weekend than I can relate. if anyone's serious about being a writer, you have to take his workshop.
Space may be limitless but time, my time at least, isn't. So we'll talk about five indespensible authors to me.
First has to be J.R.R. Tolkien. It wasn't the first fantasy novel I'd read, that fire was lit by Lloyd Alexander. But the Hobbit and it's big brother, the Lord of the Rings, is the upper bar for epic fantasy. Middle Earth felt real, lived in, plausible like Robert Howard's Hyborea but more so. It spoke of huge conflict and little, fussy details. The characters were heroic people, but real, flawed. They failed at times; Boromir's death and Frodo's final failure still has the power to wrench at me. So does the melancholy of the ending, the orcs may be defeated and the future belongs to Man but the light of the West is passing out of the world. Lord of the Rings was action and emotion and none of it felt fake.
Next we come to the heir, George R. R. Martin. Even the names seems similar, which might be synchronicity and might be something else. Either way, the Song of Ice and Fire cycle is as epic as Tolkien and as tragic as Shakespeare at his darkest. It's as much MacBeth as it is Middle Earth. Multiple plot lines, multiple POVs, multiple, multiple, multiples of characters. Another world that feels real even if there are fantastic elements that can't be real. He's a storyteller better than 99% of the fantasy writers out there, a fact that keeps more than one writer awake at night, professional and aspiring author alike. Who'd have guessed it from the guy who edited Wild Cards and created a telekinetic turtle-hero? GRRM also writes horror and that shows up in ASOIAF as well, no one is safe. Heroes don't just fail here, they get betrayed by their daughters and decapitated by tyrannical products on incest. Best way to end up dead in A Game of Thrones is to try to be a good guy.
On the opposite pole of that axis of heroism is David Gemmell, one of my favorite writers. He may get repetitive, I won't argue that. I own all his books and he has a myth arc of his own that he follows. But the late, great Gemmell made Heroes. Men who might kill and might even do it with a wantonness unfamiliar to us sheltered 21st century types, but who at their core served something greater than themselves, even if it was a personal code of honor. You might die for being honorable and stubborn, but by The Source, that death won't be in vain. David Gemmell understood violence and the morality of it, how sometimes you have to kill, not just to survive but so others, weaker, can survive. That's what heroes do. I'd walk the mountains with Druss any day and sleep soundly at night. You're safe if you're with him, no matter who you are. Just don't face him on a battlefield.
Another UK bloke who might have been under most people's radar is Dan Abnett. Forget that he's writing books for Games Workshop's Black Library imprint. He's writing pure military Sci Fi and doing it better than just about anyone else. He takes the most nihilistic, and frankly silly, setting imaginable and makes it seem real. Plausible, even. Frank Herbert famously set Dune in the year 10,191. Is the 41st century that impossible. He writes soldiers and he writes them so well you'd think he's spent twenty years as the official historian of the Coldstream Guards. But he's never served, so far as I know, instead he serves us, his readers and his characters by making them real, consistent and, against all odds, heroic. If you know anything about the Warhammer 40k universe, you know what an accomplishment that is.
Finally, I have to go to the man who's novel 'Hardwired' represents cyberpunk to me. William Gibson may have made the bigger splash but believe me, Walter Williams did it better. Sex and violence with high technology. A world debauched with heroes made into smugglers to survive. But the world keeps turning and there are wonders wrought by the hand of man. They're available online and they have free shipping for orders over 250 credits. You can be a prostitute and still end up as lethal as a 1943 Marine, just don't kiss her on the mouth. Too risky. Despite the attempts to cloak Hardwired's world in dystopia, the wonder is still there. You can jack into a vectored-thrust armored tank and go zipping across the Dakotas. Technology may save us and it may not but it remains cool even in the future. Pure Science Fiction and with character with three dimensions and then some.