Something’s come up several times during the last twenty four hours that has me shaking my head — again. It’s not something new. I’ve written about it before and I think Sarah has. That doesn’t make it any less of a head scratcher when I see it, especially when I see it taken to the lengths it has been of late.
A little background. Five years or so ago, someone posted in a forum I was active in that he never read in the genre he wrote in. The reasoning was simple. His ideas were so unique and so wonderful that he didn’t want them contaminated by reading someone else’s work and possibly having outside influences sneak into his wonderful plot and prose.
Even though I hadn’t published anything at the time, that seemed wrong. I’d read all the columns and how-to books that said there were no unique plots any longer. What was unique was how you dealt with them. I wasn’t sure I bought the “no new plots” thing but I did understand the other. After all, how many variations are there out there on the boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy wins over girl plot?
But even then, I knew there was a problem with not reading in the genre you want to write. After all, if you aren’t reading the genre, how do you know what readers want? Mind you, five years ago, you didn’t have to worry about what was coming out on the indie side of things. All you had were the major publishers to really worry about, at least if you were writing in the main genres and not for a niche audience. I mean, how could you consider writing space opera and not read Weber or military science fiction and not read Drake or Ringo? How could you consider writing science fiction in general and not read Heinlein or Asimov or Pournelle or so many others?
So I filed away the comments by this wannabe author and went about my merry way of doing my best to hone my craft and continue reading not only in the genres I wanted to write in but that I enjoyed reading.
Then I came across a comment in a forum — a different forum — yesterday from an author saying that they wouldn’t even read a review of a book because they didn’t want it to splash onto their current work in progress. I’m not saying the author making the comment is wrong. There could be any number of reasons why they might not want to read the review. The one I can imagine — and even identify with — is that if their current WIP is the same basic plot as the reviewed title and the reviewer is head over heels in love with the reviewed book, a bit of “how can I do it any better” could move in and stop the creative flow. Still, the comment reminded me of the “I don’t read” comment of some years ago and had me wondering just how many writers out there really feel this way.
This morning, the question was raised again when yet another author brought it up on their Facebook wall. This time, however, the author posing the comment answered it with pretty much a “WTF?!?” He happened to agree with me that you have to read a genre you want to write in to know the cues your readers look for. You have to watch the lists of what’s selling — not the Best Seller lists from the NY Times or USA Today, but the hourly best sellers from Amazon, et al — to know what readers want. Reading the genre is doing your homework just as much as doing research into locations or science and technology is.
But it is also a way of seeing if your idea truly is new, or at least has a new twist, or something the last dozen so-called best sellers have done. If your brilliant idea is about a young woman standing in for her younger sister or brother in a lottery, guess what. It’s not new. Nor did it begin with The Hunger Games. But there were twists in that series of books that made it different, even if the basic premise wasn’t anything new.
There is another reason to read, whether it is in a genre you write in or not. Only by reading can you learn how the better writers — note I don’t say the best selling writers because not all of them are actually good writers — handle plot arcs, character development, and pacing. Besides, reading is fun.
When I think about the books I’d never have read if I worried about spoiling my own writing by reading science fiction or urban fantasy or mysteries, well, it makes my head spin. I’d never have read anything by Dave Freer or Sarah A. Hoyt, David Weber or John Ringo, Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, or any number of other authors I enjoy and respect. My life would have been a lot less fun as a result.
So I read. I read in the genres I write as well as others. I read fiction and non-fiction. I try to figure out what makes a book work and what doesn’t — and I work to apply what I learn to my own fiction. Most of all, I do my best to make sure that my stories, while they might have minor things in common with someone else’s work have more than enough differences to make them unique, to make them mine. After all, isn’t that what we should be trying anyway?
What do you think? Do you read the genre you’re writing in? Do you read it as you’re writing or do you read some other genre while working?