Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. I don’t know a lot of people who would disagree with that. The two are so interconnected, that one of that most important steps you can take toward becoming a great writer, is being a great reader. Read everything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the better you will write.
In a recent article, I talked about reading craft books like Go Teen Writers which will directly help you improve your writing. And you should be reading those. (So should I…) But also, you need to be reading fiction. Lots of it. But what? And why?
What is your genre?
If you’re like me, you hate picking favorites. Because fantasy is my favorite genre unless sci-fi is and it might be both of them but it might be neither because spy thrillers are great and Harrison Ford action movies should get a genre of their own. Yeah, I don’t have a favorite; I couldn’t ever choose one. But I do know that speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy) is my genre much more than Amish romance or historical fiction.
What is your preferred genre? To read? To write? Are they the same thing? (Why not?)
Some people I’ve talked to recently have said things like “I write period drama but I really like reading mystery.” When I asked them why they didn’t just write mystery, they sigh and stare into the sunset and say “I could never do that.”
At first I was confused. If it was the genre they read, why did they seem intimidated by it? Why wasn’t it their best friend of the book world? Then I realized, they were afraid of it because they knew it so well. They had read so many great stories in their genre that they were certain they couldn’t be the next Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle.
My advice? Write what you love. I know that’s not a super controversial thing to say, but it’s true. Write what you love to read, watch, and think about in your spare time. You may not be the best at it (yet), but that’s okay. Give it a shot and see what happens. If you don’t like the result, try again next time.
So what is your genre? What are you going to write next? Take a note, because that’s what we’re talking about for the rest of the day.
Reading in your preferred genre
So when it comes to fiction there are two types of stories you could read, in genre and out of genre. As we’re going to see in a moment (spoilers) all of these books are important to helping you develop as a writer. But most importantly, or at least most obvious, are stories in your preferred genre, or “in genre” books..
In genre books help you connect with you readers. They help you understand what you readers want. What your readers are buying. I don’t personally believe that writers should write for the market, but writers should all have their audience in mind when they’re at the keyboard. Reading more and more of your own genre will help you to shape an image in your mind of what your readers want to see in a novel, and you’ll be able to speak to them on a more personal level because you are presenting that.
Another benefit of reading in genre is that it will help you avoid writing clichés. This seems kind of counter intuitive, but it’s not. If you read a lot of dystopian sci-fi, then you know that a lot of different dystopian sci-fi tropes have been used into the ground and then buried and then unearthed and trodden underfoot before they were sent to the capitol because they were in trouble with the old dictator (the only competent adult in the cast) who has problems with the disorder they’ve been causing. If you’ hadn’t read the genre, you wouldn’t be aware of how desperately it needs a fresh start.
Finally, reading in genre gives you a hint on how all sorts of things like narrative voice, plot devices, and story structure are tweaked for each genre. Every genre reads a little differently, and if you want to write well in one, you need to understand what goes and what doesn’t. But that varies by genre, and you’ll never know any of it, unless you read.
Reading out of your preferred genre
Much less intuitive, but almost equally important, is reading out of genre. (And I mean, way out of genre.) Each genre has its own strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to write a great story often means learning form genres other than yours.
A couple years ago I was handed a book by a dear friend who wanted me to read it because she thought it was wonderful and all the usual book recommending stuff. The book, Summer of Light, was so far out of genre I almost cried. I read, for lack of a better word, exciting books. This book, was about a dad who got laid off and spent the summer at home with his family. Yeah, for a guy who reads high fantasy and sci-fi and all that great stuff, it sure seemed like the whole book was going to be about nothing happening.
If I had said that however, I would have been wrong.
The book was great. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The characters were deeper than most of what I find in the speculative fiction genre, the internal conflicts were strong without being forced, and (perhaps most impressively) the stakes were high without the whole world’s existence being at stake.
The book opened my eyes to an entirely new side of fiction that I hadn’t been aware of (or maybe had been strictly avoiding.) The story was so vastly different from what I normally read, that it stuck out to me in a powerful way. Every genre has its weaknesses, and every writer has theirs, but you can help round out the edges and learn to create more compelling, complete fiction by reading everything, even that bizarre stuff you wouldn’t ever touch.
Another example, Arrival, is a movie I would have never watched without a recommendation for a friend. Aliens are not my thing, whether I write sci-fi or not, but it was so touching and honest and deep… I couldn’t believe it. It’s not strictly out of genre for me, but it was out of my comfort zone. Spending time out there, beyond my typical reading (and viewing) patterns, opened my eyes to what a great sci-fi story could be. What will it do for you?
Okay, so to wrap things up, I wanted to include a couple of different books from different genres to give y’all ideas for your Summer reading lists. However, this post isn’t getting any shorter so… how about recommendations on Wednesday? (Yay for special posts, right?) I’ll see you then!