“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
As the above quotes show, reading is a necessary step for writers. There’s no shortcut around it. We learn how a story is put together by reading. We develop our vocabularies, get a feel for how to write dialogue, feel our way towards crafting sentences that ring true. We fill the well, generate ideas of our own, develop a love of the written word that turns into a passion for writing.
It makes sense that we have to learn from what has come before us. As Hemmingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
If I decided to become a painter, no matter whether I decided to go to art school or teach myself from books or on-line tutorials, likely one of the first things I would be instructed to do would be to copy the masters, so that I could study their use of light and of line. I finger painted when I was a kid, and took some basic art classes in school, but that doesn’t mean I can do my own pro-level illustrations. I would have to up my skills. Likewise, most people have learned to compose a grammatically complete sentence, can put together a story with a beginning, middle and an end. But picking apart – or even copying elements from — other people’s writing helps us to level up our own skills.
I’m not advocating plagiarism here. There’s a difference in copying technique in order to learn and copying passages from someone else. I am saying pick apart things you love. See how your favorite author introduces characters without resorting to mirror-gazing scenes. Look at how they use symbolism without it feeling heavy-handed. Whatever you’ve been having trouble with – or whatever your critique partners keep telling you isn’t working for them – see how writers you like do it right.
Read Inside Your Genre
Whatever genre you write in, can you name five books you’ve enjoyed that were published within the last three years? If not, why aren’t you reading what your peers are writing? Things that are winning awards?
If you know the genre’s “conversation” – the things current writers are saying about (for example – since I write SF – trends in science research, the ethics of cutting-edge tech, current visions of what the future might look like) you can figure out what you have to add. What story can only you tell? What can you build on / reinvent / revolutionize? If you don’t agree with the conclusions reached, you can still see how those writers got it wrong – and how you can write something better.
But wanting to keep up with contemporary writers doesn’t mean you should just ignore the classics. For literary fiction, I mean The Classics. In Science Fiction, look at writers like Verne, Asimov, and Clarke to see where the genre roots itself. Don’t forget Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, quite probably the first Science Fiction Novel ever written. Or Anne McCaffrey, to see where the lines between SF and fantasy started getting blurry. Whatever genre you’re working with, it has been many things, presented by many different voices. Getting to know those voices will help you zero in on what you love most about the genre – which will tell you what you should be writing.
Sometimes writers will say they don’t read in-genre because they want to stay original. Honestly, though, there are only so many ideas, that chances are whatever whiz-bang concept you’ve come up with will be something another writer has already done. Better to know that – and to own it, if you still want to use the concept – up front, instead of when you start querying agents – who do read widely, and will know. That way you can say how your story is different, and how it has updated / changed / made the concept more relevant.
Also, if you know the roots of your genre, you can layer in references, Easter Eggs and in-jokes. There is a long tradition of this, especially in SFF and mystery stories. Look at how many references to contemporary/earlier writers Verne included in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And think of how many different ways Sherlock Holmes has been referenced/re-interpreted – he is practically his own sub-genre.
Read Outside Your Genre
If you only read a few favorite authors, or even one genre of literature, you are really limiting your storytelling skill set. Reading widely removes the safety net of familiar tropes/conventions, so that you interact with the story on a whole different level. It takes you to unexpected places and allows you to see through different eyes – which can make you a more empathetic human being. Which for a writer is important – as our books are one long act of empathy.
And the novels we’re writing – no matter what genre – aren’t usually all one thing. Maybe your novel needs an action scene. Read some of the best thriller writers to get a feel for how it is done. Maybe your mystery feels like it is missing something. Could your detective need a few romantic elements? Romances come in all heat levels – surely you can find something that feels appropriate.
You can also over-saturate yourself on your chosen genre – especially as you keep reading and re-reading your own work and work that might serve as comp titles. This can drop you into a rut, or make you lose the joy you first brought to the project. Read something completely different – maybe a couple of things – and you can come back with fresh eyes.
“By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it’s possible to learn how things are done – the mechanics of writing, so to speak – and which genres and authors excel in various areas.” — Nicholas Sparks
“Read. Read. Read. Read many genres. Read good writing. Read bad writing and figure out the difference. Learn the craft of writing.” — Carol Berg
“Writing is writing, and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?” — Tanith Lee