Writing Diet

by Chris McMahon

Thinking over the last few things I’ve read lately, these have included a contemporary thriller, an autobiography, and I am half-way through a SF anthology. Before that I was re-reading a favourite fantasy series.

I’ve always been jealous of people who have had time to read all the literary classics – the books I feel like I ‘should’ have read. Although I have read the ones that appeared on the bookshelves at home when I was a younger, time since has left me too little time to play catch up. And my university days studying Chemical Engineering did not give me too much scope either.

But what ‘should’ a writer in the speculative fiction field be reading? There are those who strongly advocate reading extensively within the genre, and I would have to agree that every writer should delve deeply there at least once or twice to get a good feel what has been done and where the leading edge is.  Beyond that I’m not sure.

A long while back I read Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. It was a good read. One of the things I remember from it is that he himself believed in not reading within the genre he wrote in. He would read all sorts of other non-fiction or other literary works, but nothing in the SFF field. Reading Ray Bradbury this probably all makes sense:)

Along the same lines, some people stay away from genre material fearing that it will ‘contaminate’ their own ideas or storylines.

I’ve always tended toward the idea that on some deep level we are guided by an instinct on what is right for us at any given time – a kind of ‘healthy eating’ instinct, but this time focussed on the written word. 

Either way we are probably all suffering from not having enough time to read as much as we would like. I know for myself it often comes down to choice between either writing or reading.

Do you read only within the SFF fields or do you wander where you will? What do you think of the ‘don’t read in the genre’ theory?


  1. One of the things my writer’s group said about my first attempt at fantasy is, read more fantasy! They seemed to think that what had been written before was much more brilliant than MY story. (The nerve of them!) I soon came to realize that my pathetic attempt at the genre was just that – pathetic. After delving into the genre, I realized that I could not expect to write a better wizard story than Tolkien or a better travel-to-a-different-realm story than the Narnia Chronicles. I chose my own path, having my character time-travel to the past. When I told my friend what my story was about, she suggested reading Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series because it had a similar premise. I refused to read it, though, until I had completed my stories and had them picked up by a publisher. I was worried that I might inadvertently ‘steal’ some of her ideas without realizing it. So, I suppose, there are pros and cons to reading the genres that you write. I still read fantasy because I enjoy it and maybe one day I will re-do my original story, but in the meantime, I read what I like without thinking whether it is something I might write about in the future.

    1. So you got your story picked up by a publisher? Congrats – if that is not an endorsement then I don’t know what is!

      I must admit if someone made a similar recommendation – i.e. to read something because it’s similar to what you are working on – I’d feel a definite hesitation. Not so much because I would be worried about stealing the ideas, I would just not want anything to come between me and the story in terms of the ‘feel’of my original inspiration.

      I really wonder about the motivations people have in terms of their own reading. I tend to just be instinctive about it – but feel guilty sometimes I should not be reading non-fiction or autobiographies because I have such limited reading time.

      Is your series out yet?

  2. Hi Chris,

    I read in and out of the genres I write, but I have to admit that my writing tends to wander a little too. I began writing humorous SF, but then wandered towards paranormal and horror. This was not so much mirrored in my reading habits, as in my TV and movie watching habits.

    I am now conciously writing a bit of both. Reading, well I struggle to get the time these days but I tend not to read much long-form SF. In fact everything I do in life right now is short-form. I don’t have time for anything else. I’ve decided to write a ‘mosaic’ novel. I’m planning to have the first four chapters published as shorts, then begin to weave them together as the story progresses. The first was picked up just the other day so I’ve taken my first step 🙂

    1. Hi, Chris. I battle with the same issues in terms of getting time to read – hence my jealousy of people who have time!

      That sounds like an interesting project. What genre are you planning for the ‘mosaic’ novel? I’d be interested to hear more about your concept for it. Congrats on getting the story published, but you must tell more! What was it called and where did you get it published.

      1. Well the first story has been picked up by Ticonderoga for their Damnation and Dames anthology which will be launched at SwanCon 37 over Easter. I’ve just been sent the cover and TOC and it looks totally amazing!

        But the concept for my ‘mosaic’ (and I don’t know if I using the word in the traditional sense) is to develop 3 separate, but overlapping stories featuring characters who’ve been seriously messed up and are out for revenge. These will encompass the first three stories/chapters, one with a paranormal noir feel, one with a western horror feel, and the last set in a mystical Chinatown (anytime).

        Then it gets a little tricky of course. How to blend them? There is a fourth setting that links the three protagonists, the dream setting to which they all will travel to fulfil their revenge fantasies. That’s about as far as I’ve got. I am an extreme pantser after all. The first 3 stories are all pretty-much there. The last needs a bit of a touch up, but getting the next two accepted as shorts is my next challenge.


  3. I think you have to read enough of your field to know the common tropes, the classics, what the readers expect, the sort of things that have already been written. Reading something very similar to what you have planned right before or during your writing is probably not a good idea.

    I very often find that reading stimulates new and very different ideas. Either something the writer didn’t do intensionally or things that I would have resolved differently.

    Best example would be Dave Freer’s Dragon Ring. He has a dragon so old the form of language has changed and his name is pronounced two different ways. This confused me, at first. I leapt to the conclusion that the dragon had a split personality, which led to a (currently uncompleted) story where all dragons have both a good and a bad personality.

    Different resolutions? Ray Bradbury’s “There will Come Soft Rains” the story with the automated house, post nuclear war. He had the dog die and the house burn down. I thought the house and dog ought to have been the start of a long friendship.

    Knowing the tropes doesn’t mean you have to use them. But you need to know the field.

    1. Hi, Pam. I am with you completely in terms of knowing the tropes. It is amazing what the work of other writers will inspire in you indirectly. It is one of the things I really thirst for when I am reading or watching SFF movies and series – that ahh! Moment when I go ‘ but what if. . .’ Great stuff! Nice to see you have capitalised on a few of those!

      Chris McMahon


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