Reading Outside Your Genre Even if it Kills You

There are lots of ways to get better at writing. Sitting down and writing more is one of the more obvious. Another helpful way is to read a lot, and read often. That is also obvious. If you write science fiction you should read a lot of science fiction. If you write romance you should read a lot of romance.

But a step past that is to read outside your genre. It makes sense to read the genre you are working in. That gives you perspective to what is going on, what is being published, and the impact it is having within the genre. But reading outside your genre? Does that mean if I write science fiction I should read Regency romances?

Well, you don’t have to read all Regency romances. I am arguing you need to be familiar with them, what they are about, how they are written, the structure of those novels, etc. That goes for every genre. I firmly believe you need to cross-read into other genres to get a perspective on your own genre. The more you know about other books and writers the more tools and confidence you can bring to the table in your own work.

There are genres I despise. I mean, I absolutely despise them. But I have read a couple of novels and short stories within them to have at least a passing familiarity with them. I also bring that knowledge to my own work. My dark fantasy stories set in the mythological town of Haxan have the benefit of not only being westerns. In that setting I can write romance, fantasy, mystery, suspense. drama, practically anything I want. The setting allows versatility.

Therefore, if I am going to write a romance story  in the Haxan mythos then shouldn’t I at least have a passing familiarity with the genre? I cut my teeth in science fiction. I read it almost exclusively when I was growing up and that’s what I first started writing. But that is a narrow focus. Anytime you look to one genre as your template you are limiting yourself.

As I got older I started branching out and began to read everything. All right, being a voracious reader to begin with I was already reading everything I could get my hands on, but this time I started reading in order to understand what the genre was about. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I see a lot of that, by the way, from new writers in SF particularly. There’s a lot of “reinventing the wheel” that comes along. I know the SF genre pretty well, I think. I’ve exhausted it completely via my reading. Not difficult to do because while deep, the genre itself is rather narrow. As opposed to fantasy which is extremely broad in nature, but there’s not as much literary depth as one might like. Or westerns, which is both narrow and shallow. (More about that later.)

One good thing that comes from this is you can stumble across great books in other genres you might not necessarily have thought about approaching. I freely admit when I was younger I was an SF snob. I didn’t see any reason why I should have to read classical literarture. What did dead Englishmen know about SF, aside from the scientific romances of H.G. Wells? Shakespeare? Joyce? Shelley? Hell do they know about science fiction?

You can see the fault in my so-called “logic” I am sure. By limiting myself to only one genre I limited my knowledge of the genre I professed to be interested in: Science fiction. Because the more you know about other genres the more you know about your own. Fortunately, I grew out of that ridiculous assumption the classics were unworthy of my time, and now I love the classics. In point of fact they, along with history, are what I mostly read now, with the occasional foray into books I read in my youth for light entertainment: Burroughs, Fleming, Hamilton, Le Carre, and others.

So why don’t I continue to read a ton of science fiction? Because I have exhausted the field. As I said before, while the genre is somewhat narrow, it is deep. Even so you can completely exhaust the field via reading in four or five years. And I’ve been reading that stuff since I was a kid. I’ve seen it all. I know all the plots and I’ve seen all the variations. There is nothing new under the sun in science fiction other than different ways to tell the same story.

All right. That is true for any genre. I get that. But we’re talking about science fiction here because that is the genre I cut my teeth on. So once I realized I was reading the same book again for the umpteenth time I moved on to other genres, other work, other voices. I don’t always like what I see. Actually, unlike when I was a kid, if a book or a story doesn’t grab me right away I move on. I don’t give a book “time” to grow on me. I try not to do that as a writer, and I don’t like coming across it as a reader. Besides, there are lots of other better books out there, so if something doesn’t grab me right off I move on.

Writing is always red in tooth and claw. That’s the way it should be.

Finally, a word about westerns. I am deeply involved in working this genre right now. My attraction to the genre is well documented: I fell in love with the old time radio series Gunsmoke and wanted to write something like that. Meanwhile, I began to read through the genre to get a feel of what was out there.

Hoo boy. A lot of crap, mostly. Even the so-called “classics” of the western genre are achingly bad. It didn’t take me long to realize there wasn’t a whole lot going on here. Very little growth, almost nonexistent literary quality, and an almost obsessive dependence on myth and cliche.

It didn’t take me long to read through the genre at all. There’s simply not that much out there that isn’t a clone of something else, and the times you do run across something new and different like Cormac McCarthy, or Ed Gorman, or Estleman, well, it’s a real pleasure.

But because the genre is so narrow I realized here was a great opportunity. I could write anything I wanted if I created the right setting. I could experiment with all sorts of stories. I am not saying I am the first one to do this in the western genre. I know better. I am not saying I am doing it better than anyone else, either. I am merely stating I love the opportunity to work like this and hopefully, by some small part, bring a fresh look and a reawakening to a genre that, at best, is on life support.

Well, I’ve said a lot in this blog post. You may or may not agree with all of it. But one thing I want you to take to heart, particularly if you are a beginning writer. Read everything. I mean everything you can get your hands on. You don’t have to like it, but be familiar with it. When you start writing your stories and your books and your plays, you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel like the other writers around you.

You will have read outside your genre. You will be well armed and well prepared to meet whatever obstacle comes your way as you write your story because of your breadth of knowledge. Want to be a writer? Then write.

And read. A lot. No. More than that. Read everything.

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4 Comments

  1. Melissa

     /  January 24, 2012

    Reading a variety of genres is something I’m working on this year. I find myself reading classics and historical fiction almost exclusively and decided I need to focus on reading current fiction, especially. It isn’t always easy (see my review of The Tiger’s Wife) but it can be surprising (my enjoyment of A Visit from the Goon Squad). Right now, I’m reading The Englishman’s Boy, a Western by Guy Vanderhaeghe. It is the first in a trilogy which has good reviews on Amazon, though not a great number of reviews. I’m not far into it so haven’t formed an opinion but am excited about it. I hope it’s fit to read since I bought all three on Kindle.

    Reply
  2. K.M., I can going to be very naughty here and recommend you read at least half of one of Janet Dailey’s romance novels set Out West on a horse ranch! How bad was THAT of me, huh? My mother-in-law and sister-in-law will read almost NOTHING for pleasure except Harlequin romances! At least I did not go THERE with you! P.S. I too love the classics and have recently dipped back into Beowulf stuff–VERY S.F. if you ask me!

    Reply

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