Read, write, review–and not necessarily in that order

Once upon a time, in a forum far, far away, an aspiring author commented that they never read anything in the genre they wanted to write. There was the online equivalent of a gasp, followed by stunned silence. Then a lone voice asked this author why? Why didn’t they read the genre they wanted to write? Virtual heads nodded as the online community waited, wondering what magical explanation the wannabe writer might have.

The answer was simple–and oh so misguided. They didn’t read in the genre they wanted to write in because they didn’t want their “original” idea and voice to be tainted by what was out there.

Now, on the surface, that might seem like a reasonable explanation. Except it really isn’t. You must read in your genre to understand trends and tropes. You need to read in your genre to know what’s out there and what has been done to death. Yes, you might have an original idea about how to handle your plot, maybe, and your voice might be different from what’s out there, but how do you know if you don’t read the genre?

However, there’s another reason, a more important one, to read in the genre you want to write in. You have to know what your readers expect. What tropes do they need to see in your book in order for them to enjoy it and recommend it to family and friends?

It seems simple, doesn’t it? But this is a lesson so many writers seem to overlook.

Too many wannabe writers think they can learn all they need to about a genre from reading how-to writing books and going to seminars (usually ones they pay big bucks for). Those can help (maybe) but reading is the one sure way to see what readers want. Of course, that means you have to decide what your publication plan is. Are you going to go the traditional route or are you going indie?

Yes, it does matter, even if it doesn’t make any sense. After all, the readers are all the same, right? They are. But the buyer is different. If you are going the traditional route, your first buyer is going to be the agent who finally takes you on. The second will be the publishers who may or may not buy your book. They are going to be driven by what books they are currently publishing, as well as those published by their traditional competition, are making the most money. They look at current trends to determine what will hit the shelves in 12-24 months. They are a bit more responsive to market trends than they used to be but they are hampered by limited number of publishing slots, antiquated business plans and a mindset that still hasn’t fully wrapped itself around the digital age.

That worked well enough before the influx of indie authors into the market and readers figured out you didn’t have to wait a year or more between books from a favorite author.

What brought all this home to me–again–is a conversation I had with a fellow writer not too long ago. I’d been noticing a trend in this writer’s work over the last year or so that bothered me. Twenty years ago, the trend wouldn’t have caused me a second thought. But today, with the changes in the genre they write in, it had me scratching my head. It finally dawned on me what was wrong. The books read like they’d been written twenty years ago.

So I asked specific questions about why the book we were discussing started the way it did. I looked at the tropes and addressed them. Even as I did, I started pulling up examples from the current best seller list for that genre on Amazon. You see, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t off-base. Then I waited to see what the author had to say, wondering if the delay in response (we were doing this via IM) signaled they were thinking about what I asked.

It all came down to two things: first, they couldn’t name a single book published in the last three years in their genre that they’d read and, two, they were doing what they’d been told to do in some long ago clinic. The first explanation was why I’d looked up current best sellers, ones I’d already read and knew they would be good explanations for what I wanted this writer to look at. The second explanation I suspected but it still had me wanting to beat my head against the desktop.

If you are a writer, you need to be aware of what your competition is doing. That means we have to read. This is Business 101. Yes, I used the “b” word. I know most of us would prefer it if we didn’t have to worry with this aspect of our profession but we can’t ignore it. Not if we want to be successful. So, along with worrying about writing, editing, packaging, promotion, taxes, etc., we have to keep an eye on what other writers in our genre and sub-genre are writing. We need to know how they are covering their books. We need to know what the trends are in plots and tropes. We need to know how those books are selling. Then and only then can we determine what we need to do to make our book stand out.

In other words, write to the market but with a twist.

But you can only do that if you know what is out there.

As for the second, all I can say is you have to be careful with any advice you are given, especially when it comes in a clinic or lecture format. Questions to ask, before you plop down your money, include (but aren’t limited to) what are the presenter’s qualifications? Are they an author, an agent, an editor, what? If they are an author, do they write in your genre? (Especially important if they are lecturing/critiquing on the marketability of your book). The same basic questions are to be asked regarding an agent or editor.

For example, a number of cons and writers conferences let you book time with agents or editors, often for a fee, to pitch your book. Before signing up and handing over your good money, do you take time to search to see what that agent’s or editor’s track record is? Have they sold anything in the last couple of years that comes close to your genre? Are the currently looking for projects llike the one you’re presenting? Do they actually work with authors in your genre or sub-genre?

(Just because they say they love science fiction, doesn’t mean they handle hard scifi or science fiction romance. Or, if they rep or publish romance, that doesn’t mean they do erotica or urban fantasy.)

Then, if one of them says to do something, like cut a chapter or more from the beginning of your book and they are doing so only on seeing the first chapter or two, think hard about the why of it? Ask questions. Then don’t blindly do what they say. Use a critical eye, of your work and of their comments. Decide what works best for the book. In other words, read, write and then review.

I’ve kind of gone off the rails here, but I’ve seen too many writers ruin books because they’ve come back from a conference or a pitch session and followed to the word what the agent or editor told them. Look, I get it. But I also get that these sessions are minutes long, on the whole. Some a short as five minutes. These agents or editors have seen, at most two chapters of your book. They are making plotting and pacing decisions based on a very minute part of your work. Yes, some of the critique is good. Some is bad. But none of it should be taken without question  or consideration unless a contract is offered and accepted.

The lesson, if there is one, from all this is to do your homework. Learn what is going on in your genre and sub-genre. You do this by reading. Reading in the genre, reading sites dealing with publishing (traditional and indie). Reading reviews for books to see what readers are saying they want and what they like.

Write. Write to the market, especially if you are trying for what is trending now, but put your own spin on it. Don’t just change the names and locations of a best selling book and expect not to be called out for it. That said, you can do a Hornblower in Space and not be deemed to be ripping off David Weber. At least not if you make it your own.

Review market trends, both indie and traditional.

Review what your readers say in their comments about your books after they are published. Review what your critique partners say. Is there a common thread? Is it a strength or a weakness and how to you play it up or make sure you don’t make the same mistake going forward? There’s more but it’s getting late and this post expanded into areas I hadn’t planned on. I’ll continue it a bit more cogently next week.

In the meantime, read, write, review.


48 thoughts on “Read, write, review–and not necessarily in that order

  1. Excellent information!
    I have a friend who is a writer, and never reads because of the reason above – wanting something “original.”
    I hope I can get her to read this article, as you state reasons to read much more eloquently than I seem to be able to!

    1. Thanks. There are the few and far between who can be successful without reading the genre but they are the exception and not the rule.

      1. My suspicion is that those few exceptions simply wrote the story they wanted to tell and only after the fact were pigeon holed into a particular genre.
        Don’t get me wrong, writing to meet a genre, and one you are intimately familiar with just makes sense, but you also don’t want it to squash your creativity. You might even find that those evil characters you’re trying to herd to the ending wind up taking you far afield from the genre you originally intended them to abide in.

        1. Uncle Lar, you’re right. You don’t want to quash creativity. But, if you are writing genre fiction, you need to be aware of the rules, the expectations and what is selling at the time. The last is especially important if you want to be successful. Sure, if you can find a twist that brings readers in on something that isn’t currently “hot”, awesome. But most writers can’t do that. At least not until they’ve gotten experience under their belt.

          Here’s an example. If you are writing something you bill as hard science fiction, you don’t want to hit your reader in the face with romance elements right off the bat. That will turn off the vast majority if those who picked the book up for the hard sf. Conversely, if you are billing your story as romantic suspense, having your main character meet their romantic counterpart for the first time on the opening pages and already thinking about how they want to bed the person doesn’t signal rom-sus. It signals romance or, more likely, erotica.

          This is where reading in your genre helps. You have to know the cues, the tropes and the expectations and you can’t get those without reading.

  2. Margaret Weis, one half of the team that wrote the Dragonlance books, does not read Fantasy. So I guess it can be done.

    Interview with Margaret Weis! Hopefully a link is allowed?

    What are some of the best Dragonlance, and other fantasy novels you’ve read in the last decade (besides yours and Tracy’s )?

    Sorry, I don’t read fantasy!

    That’s always weirded me out, l don’t get it, but there it is.

    1. See, and that’s likely why I never could become a huge fan of Weis’ work. David Eddings proudly announced the same thing–he doesn’t read the genre he wrote in. And to me, that explained a great deal. Because although I am quite fond of his first two series sets (Belgariad/Mallorean and Elenium/Tamuli)…they had the exact same plot. The only major difference was the experience level of the respective protagonists. Eddings even acknowledged that they were basically the same story–just one with the prototypical ‘innocent farm boy’ hero, the other with a more world weary experienced hero.

      And his later books/series? I couldn’t even read them (and I did try). Because it was still the same damn plot but with even MOAR deus ex machina added. It had become painfully obvious that his proud declaration of ‘not reading in the genre’ had limited him to a single plot–which even he admitted he’d more or less based off the basic plot of Lord of the Rings (his inspiration for starting to write in fantasy being because–he said–he was shocked to see LOTR still floating around on bookstore shelves and was sure he could write something just as good as that ‘hoary old chestnut’–I was also not impressed by his lack of respect for Tolkien. One does not have to be a fan of Tolkien, but respect his contributions to the genre, dammit.) And so it was the same characters as all his other books, just with different names, the same jokes, even, and pretty much the same *everything.* When the last two books of his I read (the Redemption of Althalus and whatever the first book of his last(?) series was) had zero real conflict–because the good guys constantly had the help of the resident god-character–I gave up.

      Honestly, though I never read much beyond the Dragonlance stuff, I found Weis/Hickman’s stuff to suffer from the same problem (I’ve never read Hickman’s independent stuff, however). Their characters seemed to be the same from book to book–even in different series–and, even worse, sounded the same. The plotlines were more or less the same (and I’m not just talking about the overall plot, which would be fine, but the actual beats of the plot. It felt like reading the same book, over and over.) I ran into the same issues with R.A. Salvatore and Anne McCaffrey (particularly in her later years). I have no idea if they, also, did not read in the genre–and so I’ve always considered it to be the ‘bestselling author’ problem: they were such big stars in their genres that no one dared say “Uh, this book is the same as your last THREE books, and you can do better than this.” But it’s also possible it was a symptom of not reading in the genre, and so not learning how to freshen up their go-to plotlines. :/

      Obviously, considering their sales, this wasn’t a big issue for them. But it did turn me, at least, from someone who initially would buy anything with their name on it to being extremely unlikely to buy their stuff–because I’d pretty much already read it several times before.

      (And even though I gather the original Dragonlance books were not actually based on an actual tabletop campaign–just on a tabletop game–I still SWEAR you can hear the dice rolling in the background…)

      1. David Eddings proudly announced the same thing–he doesn’t read the genre he wrote in.

        Interesting. I never knew that. I’m afraid I’ve read several of his books, and I’ll be damned if I can remember a syllable of them. Raymond Feist is sadly in the same category for me. 😕

      2. One of my favorite authors (Mercedes Lackey) fell into the same-story/different-book trap fairly early on, but I only noticed it much, much later. When waiting years between reading them, it’s less glaring. Binge reading an entire series from Amazon as fast as you can, it’s pretty obvious. On the bright side, she’s traditionally published so I save much money by not buying her ebooks.

        1. Her Elemental Masters series is about the only thing I’m willing to read these days–and even then, early on, I couldn’t get through many of them. (Her recent books have improved, at least in that series.)

    2. She is also an established writer. I’ll also lay odds Tracy reads fantasy. One partner can get away with it. An established writer can get away with it (maybe). Especially if they do their research into the elements of their story. A writer just starting out or without much experience under their belt needs to understand tropes, market trends etc. This is especially true now, with the market changing so much and as fast as it is.

      1. Yeah, I can definitely see how established writers get away with it. And speaking personally, I know it costs them fans–but probably not enough to get them to stop, in the long run. Oh, well, there’s always new writers to try. 🙂

  3. A friend i went to college with wanted/wants to write SF films… and yet, his knowledge of SF is only from films. He showed me a script and i was like ‘this is a twist on such and such’ (i don’t remember what it was now) and he gave me the ‘i don’t want to read a bunch because it will pollute my original ideas’ spiel.

    Said person also hated Starship Troopers, having only seen the movie. I made him read the book.

    1. I hated Starship Troopers too. Because I had read the book. 😡 Paul Verhoven is an ass.

  4. It’s a funny reaction, because you never see other artists do this. Even the stereotypical “gothy kid who draws manga characters” from high school pays attention to what other artists do.

    As far as more recent writers go, I blame J.K. Rowling in a weird way. I don’t know her actual reading tendencies, but the story, true or not, of her going from nothing to everything without a lot of thought inspired a lot of people.

    1. I don’t know how “without a lot of thought” works in there. I had thought she was following some child development text to the letter on how the kids behaved at various ages. It seemed very deliberate to me.

      1. In reality, no doubt she was deliberate. But many people heard a simplified myth of about the story popping into her head sans outside influence on her train (or was it bus?) ride and writing on a napkin. That’s influenced how they think about the writing process.

    2. Rowling has given several reading lists full of fantasy, mystery, and literary books that she claimed as influences. Most of them were older; few of them were surprising to someone taking her age and upbringing into account. Many of them were reprinted because of Rowling’s recommendation.

      1. I’m not surprised. Her stuff is clearly tied to a lot of older fantasy (was Earthsea one of her recommendations?) and I’m glad she embraces it.

        I tried to freelance edit fiction for a time and saw a number of young writers embracing the myth that she pulled Harry Potter from thin air and I think that’s why they don’t read their genres. The myths that arise around the creation of cultural phenomena change how people think of the creative process. You saw it with Star Wars. George Lucas’ original vision was not complicated, but it became such a thing that people assigned more complexity to it.

      1. That’s what I was trying to remember. I read those books when I was a kid, they were great.

  5. I’ve heard authors say that they read something out-of-genre while they’re writing in a genre. I’m pretty sure they also said (whoever it was) that they read in-genre between projects.

    I need to read more. Much much more. Not-reading sort of snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking. First, I think it was not realizing that I needed reading glasses so reading made me cranky and I didn’t know why. Or maybe that was second. First would have been babies and not having uninterrupted time to do anything at all, hating to put books down in the middle, and starting to read mostly books I’d read before and knew what happened in them. Third is probably Facebook. :/

    1. I don’t tend to read in-genre when I’m writing. Like right now, I’m finishing up editing on Revelations. While I was writing it, I didn’t read UF or most mysteries. But I read a lot of science fiction. Now that I’m starting on Battle Flight, the SF is closed and mysteries and UF are back on the list of to be read.

      1. I’ve gotten myself back into fiction by watching crap loads of a TV show over and over, because I wasn’t watching TV either. And I have started writing again, too, because it’s like some well gets full and needs to spill out. The problem is that it’s all following a TV episode tempo and plot development. Which isn’t anything like what works for a novel.

        I probably need to binge read urban fantasy and romantic suspense for a bit to get the proper narrative shape in my head for novels.

    2. When I’m writing fiction, I read non-fiction. When I write non-fiction (heavy day-job load) if I read, it could be fiction, or it will be non-fiction way outside what I’m doing for Day Job.

    3. I also hate putting a book down. The Kindle makes that so much better since it remembers where you are. A friend gave me Ready Player One in hardcover for Christmas. The first time I picked it up after a break, I was surprised I had to find my place. I used to just remember the page number when I closed a book. It had been so long since I’d read a physical book that I didn’t even think to look before setting it down.

  6. Excuse me, but if you don’t know your genre/subject matter, how do you know if you have a “Original” idea.

    ‘My original idea that no one has ever had before, and don’t tell anyone because it’s great, is’ –

    “Aliens invade the earth and treats it like a 19th century colonial power”
    ‘ah.. that not actually…’
    “An asteroid/comet/planet/wandering star threatens to destroy the earth”
    “well, actually..
    “Nuclear power unleashes weird mutants”
    ‘err… The 50’s called…’
    “A.I. suffers lovecraftian cosmic horror when it realizes the truth about it’s existence.”

    1. “A.I. suffers lovecraftian cosmic horror when it realizes the truth about it’s existence.”

      Might have to steal that.

      I read SF, and some other stuff UF etc, but the three Rs are my thing: Rockets, robots, and ray-guns. Wouldn’t even cross my mind not to read the genre I enjoy.

      1. Wouldn’t even cross my mind not to read the genre I enjoy.

        You just hit the nail on the head. The writers who don’t read the genre they want to write in suffer what may be a fatal flaw in their craft (unless they have someone–a co-author etc–who loves the genre working with them). They are trying to write something the don’t like, or at least don’t understand. This is the biggest problem I have when some folks tell you to write to the market. They focus on finding what part of the market is selling the best and then tell you to write to that particular market. What they don’t tell you is that you have to know the genre and understand it and what its readers expect.

    2. There was a guy on a Facebook forum I used to read regularly that insisted that it wasn’t even science fiction if it wasn’t an “original idea”. He finally annoyed everyone to the point that he got booted. When I asked him what he thought was “original” he’d list some stuff off and it really wasn’t, much. But even if it was, that wouldn’t have automatically resulted in a good or notable story.

      I do think that science fiction does benefit from a certain *feeling* of unfamiliarity, hitting those notes that make one realize they aren’t in Kansas anymore. But I think that “uncanny” is a technical craft issue related to *how* an author writes, not *what* they write. (On reflection, fantasy or “weird” stories, horror, probably are the same sort of creature.)

    3. How true! It’s when the unoriginal idea actually gets published and praised for originality that you wonder.

  7. I know several authors that aren’t up on the latest in genre… but that’s because they’re so busy writing, that they don’t have time to read much. Which isn’t the same thing at all, because they start from a wide base of knowledge in genre. I don’t know any good authors who are doing well at indie who haven’t read in their genre.

  8. “They didn’t read in the genre they wanted to write in because they didn’t want their “original” idea and voice to be tainted by what was out there.”

    These are people who have mistaken ignorance of an existing idea for originality. Theory being if you don’t know anything, everything you do will be original. In practice, not so much.

    Sadly, they actually teach that in schools these days.

    1. School teaches stupid things about art, too. Like… tracing is cheating.

      It wasn’t an artist that came up with that one, though it may have been an art teacher.

      1. Lots of kids out there making beautiful paintings from tracing photos. They lay down the face and body shapes with tracing and then add the colours, textures, what have you. An excellent step along the way to doing freehand portraits.

        They also say that making music with a computer and a Launch Pad isn’t “Music”.

        I detect a pattern here.

  9. I wasn’t able to read past the second paragraph – everything that could come after it seemed obvious.

  10. On topic, I hope, could some suggest some good Urban Fantasy? Other than Dresden and Larry Correia’s? Preferably that isn’t too heavy on the sex. I have ideas that refuse to be buried.

    1. I am fond of Patricia Briggs’ books, though I stopped around five or six due to a serious time crunch. I remember them as being lighter-than-average as far as sex goes, and Briggs’ solution to the editorially-mandated love triangle never ceases to amuse me.

      There’s also Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty” books, involving a werewolf named, well, Kitty. Who is a radio call-in show host. Again, haven’t read all of them but was favorably impressed.

    2. I’m currently re-reading Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. I’m not as fond of her Soulwood series, however.

    3. Chancy’s A Net of Dawn and Bones and Seeds of Blood . Takes the tropes adn plays with them. No sex. Detective, but not the sort who looks at vampire/whatever and says ooh, shiny. instead says ‘burn it from orbit!”.

      Neumeier’s Black Dog series counts, I think. But no detective. Werewolf focus.

      I’ve run across one I’d call rural fantasy, Deborah Coates’ trilogy that starts with Wide Open .

      How about urban fantasy in fantasy worlds, like Sagara’s Elantra,series (up to 12 books, I think) or Chancy (again) with Pearl of Fire .

      Chancy posts here and at ATH sometimes.

  11. I can understand not wanting to read books set in the same period and setting when one is in the process of working out a specific book set in that time and area. I absolutely drew the line at reading anything fictional set in War of Independence – era Texas when I was writing Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart. Also reading anything set in post ACW Texas when writing the last bits of the Adelsverein Trilogy and the Quivera Trail. I put myself on a strict diet of only contemporary-to-that-period memoirs and historical accounts – because I tend to latch onto incidents, personalities and colorful tidbits as materiel for the WIP – and I absolutely do not want to run the risk of those bits coming from another novel.
    But not reading in your own genre … careless. Very careless.

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