I know too many people who “only read fantasy,” “only read non-fiction history,” or “only read romance.”
And if that’s what brings them joy, the more power to them.
But what shocks me is how many writers say the same thing, especially when the only genre they read is the genre they write.
If you are one of these people, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Diversifying your library is one of the greatest ways to become a better writer.
Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot.”
This is incredible advice, but if you only read a handful of authors in one genre, at some point, you’re going to hit the ceiling with your writing ability. If you don’t open yourself up to other styles, how are you going to push forward?
I mostly write fantasy and sci-fi, but I get more inspiration reading outside of my genre than I do inside. I’m currently reading three books. Their genres are young adult fantasy with heist components, non-fiction autobiography about travel and the environment, and Star Wars (yes, I’m claiming Star Wars as a genre, it’s big enough).
The genres of the books I’ve recently finished? A magical realism novel set in Japan with detective elements, a historical fiction with surreal elements that pits Ahab and Nemo in a battle to the death, an LGBTQIA+ high fantasy, a contemporary romantic comedy (more on this later), a sci-fi set in South Africa, a memoir from a Mythbuster, two music history books (one about Nirvana, the other about Woodstock), a book about time travel, a fictitious oral history novel about the near-romance between two singers, and a fantasy based on African mythology.
I pulled inspiration from each and every one of these. A tweak to my writing style here; a tweak to my workflow there (I’m looking at you, Adam Savage and your excellent book about process). And honestly, sometimes if the writing is not to my liking, I will actually learn what not to do.*
I even gleaned some new techniques for writing relationships from reading a genre I rarely ever read: contemporary romantic comedy.** I don’t eschew romance, but I tend to get my dose wrapped in a sugary substance that usually involves aliens, crime, or adventure. But I offered to beta read my friend Tova’s novel. I read a snippet of her work and thought I’d take the plunge into a romantic comedy. Not only was it incredibly enjoyable, I found the nuanced but believable relationship inspiring. It made me re-evaluate a non-romantic relationship that I’m currently writing. If reading gets you to look at your work critically, then you’re reading the right stuff.
Reading outside of your culture will help make you a better writer.
Let me pause for a second. This advice comes with a warning: DO NOT APPROPRIATE ANYONE ELSE’S CULTURE. JUST DON’T.
Okay, back to advice.
Our culture shapes the way we look at the world. Opening yourself up to new cultures is not only rewarding for your soul but your writing. In college, I took a class in Iranian films (this was in 2001, so some industry standards may have changed since then). At the time, due to censorship laws, there were heavy restraints placed on their film industry. This shaped how they told stories.† The films I watched were slower, focusing more on the visual landscape than insane action. It changed the way I looked at film.
I find this happens now with books I read. There is a different pacing to the narratives of Stieg Larsson and Haruki Murakami to Stephen King or Dan Brown††. They look at the world differently. I found my writing has shifted noticeably since including works written outside of America and England into my reading lists.
And I’m not just talking about leveling up techniques of storytelling, but also the stories. I get a lot of inspiration for stories from non-fiction history. Reading about the past sparks nuggets of ideas that I then morph and insert into my narratives. The current sci-fi I’m writing all started when I read a history book about the art that came out of 70s English punk culture. In the end, that inspiration will be a tiny part of the final story, but I wouldn’t have started the novel if it hadn’t been for an art history book.
Writers, please, get out and experience something new. You will grow, and your writing will grow. Take a chance on a genre you might never have read. A library card is gold for this, but let’s be honest, so is the clearance section of your favorite bookstore. Take a chance, read something new, and you will be pleasantly surprised.
* More on this in a future blog.
** While editing this blog, I realized that this statement is not 100% accurate. One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby, who can be accused of writing contemporary romantic comedy. But, let’s be honest, his books are more about brooding English men and music. The romance elements are flawed. I would never, I repeat, NEVER pull romantic inspiration from one of his novels.
† The New Yorker has a great article with the incredible Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami about the restraints placed on storytelling and filming in Iran. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/abbas-kiarostami-in-his-own-words
†† Comparing two sets of male authors brings up a whole other point…reading outside of your gender. Want to see how drastically different perspectives can be? Read an article about emo music by a male journalist and then one by a female journalist. I have and the article by a female journalist changed the way I looked at emo music. Reading outside of your gender will also be another blog in the future, one that expands on my personal experiences.