Inspirational Reading

Recently the skillful poet Thom Sullivan wrote about the poetry that he found inspirational in his development as a poet. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery and I thought it was an interesting question to consider: what novels have been influential to me in my writing?


Notwithstanding the frailty of my memory, the earliest novels which I remember enjoying were Australian author John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began series. The teenagers-turned-freedom-fighters mixed together with the maturing hormones captured my imagination. In my experience a heady blend of (limited) war, independence from adults and finding yourself developing into a hero speaks to every young adult male.

A lot of books seldom fit precisely into genres, and so I shall take liberties with a little genre-crossing on this list. The pre-and-post apocalyptic adventure/war/faith-based Left Behind series by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins also spoke to my prepping instincts, and merged my love of reading and faith. After all, what plot could provide more of a challenge than being a minority group of people vs. the rest of the world in both the physical and spiritual realm?


Naturally, Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings must rate a mention in fantasy. It is a grand epic adventure which blends together aspects of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal into a story of sacrifice and struggle. Tolkein opened my eyes to the fantasy world like so many other readers before me. Though at times he was a bit of a waffler, he is the grandfather of the fantasy genre. (To a lesser degree was CS Lewis’ Narnia which I probably enjoyed first, but which pales in comparison).

I remember also being captured by the sweeping and deep world-building of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (WoT) series in my early twenties to the detriment of other important things. Sadly the belated publishing of the latter books stretched out to the point where now the final books by Brandon Sanderson remain unread; awaiting a time when I can re-read the series in its entirety.

The WoT series was my first introduction to an in-depth and heavily interrelated world building. I loved the fact that multiple cultures all revered the same character, though knowing them by different names. I also appreciated the way that the environment was woven into the culture but still avoided existing clichés; for example the Ariel who lived in the desert and used expressions of endearment such as ‘shade of my heart’. Excellent!

Science Fiction

This list would be grossly incomplete without mentioning the epic masterpiece of Frank Herbert’s Dune, by which all science fiction is measured against in my mind. (Not to say that it is the best in all aspects of writing and story-telling, but is a very sound measuring stick; especially as a series). The beauty of Dune is in its complexity and time-scale over generations. The world-building in Dune is like an elaborate ecosystem; a multitude of gears where turning one cog results in all of the others moving also. Each concept is tied together into a beautiful interconnected tapestry of cause-and-effect throughout the entire Dune universe. Frank Herbert was indeed a formidable world builder, and one worthy of great respect.

Few minds are as great or imaginative as Isaac Asimov who wrote a plethora of amazing short stories. I think especially of the Foundation trilogy; which shows deep insight into human nature and projects it outwards far beyond his own time. I am only a novice at writing short stories – two of which I am especially proud of available on this site – but Isaac Asimov was a master.


I could say that is started with Jesus and all of his parables ‘There once was a man…’, but it was probably earlier than that… In modern terms, Francine Rivers showed me how powerful story-telling could be in the Mark of the Lion series. A story, told in the emotive perspective of characters that you fall in love with, can speak to reader in ways that a cold essay could not. Philip Yancey wrote it best when he said that ‘a piece of flattened pulp can penetrate the mind, bypassing its defences and lodge deep inside the psyche’ (paraphrased and expanded).

When I look back over my reading history, these are the books which stand out brightest in my memory. As I consider them, even now they beckon me to read them again.

What are the books which you have most enjoyed?



The Science Fiction genre

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 8 and 9. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Why we write/read science fiction

  • Philip K Dick said “Science fiction and fantasy is about writing and experiencing new things.” Science fiction is conceivably possible, fantasy is conceivable impossible
  • Because it is optimistic – telling tables about the wonders of the future, or telling cautionary tales.
  • Science fiction originated as a ‘meant to instruct’ story-telling, but is now more reflective.

These quotes (from BrainyQuote) also speak to ‘why’ science fiction.

  • “Science fiction is trying to find alternative ways of looking at realities. Iain Banks
  • “Science fiction has a way of letting you talk about where we are in the world and letting you be a bit of a pop philosopher without being didactic.” Brit Marling
  • “A good writer should be able to write … fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder…” Neil Gaiman

I found this to be a particularly important comment that I need to try and remember for the future (no pun intended):

  • “A short story reveals character through actions, a novel reveals action through who the character is.” Philip K Dick

Personally, I like to write science fiction and fantasy because of:

  • the freedom that it gives me to re-imagine social structures, norms and technology.
  • it is a blending of my rational mind and unconstrained imagination
  • ironically, it gives the ability to craft a more realistic story than the classic hero vs super villain story. In an alternate world super-human people (good or bad) can legitimately exist.
  • …and rightly or wrongly, it also means less research is required – it doesn’t have to be as precise as a Period writing

What does it take to write good science fiction

  • An understanding of the current sciences astronomy, biology, chemistry… You need to work out what is plausible. You can do this by reading the work of others, and then researching the aspects which grab your attention.
  • In order to get a unique plot, it is much more important to know what has already been written.
  • More than other genres, science fiction readers are looking more for new, exploration and discovery. (However there will always have new people to the genre and if you write for the young adult market you will know they are likely to have read less).
  • Books and authors they mention: Larry Niven (“Flight of the Horse” and “Neutron Star”), Isaac Asimov (everything, but especially the “Foundation” series), Robert A. Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Kim Stanley Robinson (“Mars” series)

Science fiction sub genres (episode 9)

Note that back in May I provided a summary of genres.

Space opera – travelog, world-to-world, station-to-station. It is the missing link between science fiction and fantasy. e.g. Star Wars. It has a compelling main character and fun comes before science.

Hard science fiction – where science is paramount. It has to be something plausible under current knowledge of science. You have to know your science. It is about inventing the future. e.g. Arthur C Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Larry Nevin.

Military science fiction – the realism of military lifestyle is very realistic. Has a focuses on weapons technology. Credibility as a military personnel is very important to you, otherwise you must consult. e.g. David Weber, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, John Scalzi. Tom Clancy is a good source of military.

Cyber punk – near future dystopian. Extensive modification of the human form. Blurring the line between humanity and technology, trend projection, privatisation. e.g. William Gibson

Why is it important to know which genre you’re writing?

Because you need to be able to

  • categorise work,
  • to stay on task.
  • write what you’re passionate about.
  • identify what you’ve already written, what else is out there and talk about the sub genre so you know who else is writing in it.