For as long as I’ve been writing, people have been telling me what reading strategies they think I should follow to make me a better writer. Well, it’s always fun when someone with little to no writing experience tries to tell you how to become a better writer, but the question they raised is still important enough to discuss.
Should writers read outside their genre or focus on reading the genres they intend to write in?
Time for a little anecdote. When I was young… let’s say, well through elementary school, I was very much into my horse-lover phase. It lasted far longer than most. Throughout the whole of it, I was reading everything related to horses. Pony Pals, the Saddle Club, I am the Great Horse, you name it. If it had a horse on the cover, I was taking it home with me. Can you guess what I played on the playground and imagined in my bored daydreams? Horse-related stuff. I was either the horse or the rider, galloping across the playground or my backyard (and yes, at that point, I had four distinctive gaits to mimic a horse’s four gaits, and could “gallop” faster than I could sprint. It was the best time of my life). Now, back then, I wasn’t doing much writing because I didn’t have a writer’s sheer determination required to get through an entire story, but what short stories or half-finished ideas I was jotting down, I believe, was quite often related to horses.
The librarian(s), who knew me well because I practically lived in the library, on occasion would suggest I read something to expand my reading horizons.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t just horse stuff I was reading. When I wasn’t dreaming of galloping through an open plains, avoiding capture like in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, I was dreaming of dragons and elves and magic. The very first novel that I finished writing had all three of those things. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I read the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini and the Graceling series by Kristin Cashore.
My point is this. A good writer knows that avid reading is important to their craft. Without reading, you can’t know what’s been done and what’s been overdone. You can’t know the tropes of any particular genre which, however overused they may or may not be, at least help define what separates one genre from the next. And I was well-read for a kid my age, but my expertise was very focalized. It still is, to be honest, though I’ve dropped the horse books in favor of the occasional dystopian novel.
In essence, the problem with libraries is that there are too many books on the shelves, and authors are going to have to be selective about what they read. And, if you’re going to be sticking to a particular genre, you’re going to want to spend most of your reading time studying that particular genre. Well, perhaps “study” is a strong word. I’m not suggesting you take a book and read it several times, picking it apart piece by piece to determine what makes it work. But writing a novel does a strange thing to your brain where you can no longer just enjoy a novel; your brain just starts to sort of pick up on things on its own. When you read, you might get bothered by something that doesn’t quite fit, and by acknowledging that it doesn’t fit, your brain might automatically start wondering why. It’s the wondering there that helps your own writing, then, because you’ll want to make sure you don’t make the same mistake. Multiply that wondering times the frequency with which you read, and you can understand how it’ll influence your writing.
On the other hand, what makes books so fascinating is their ability to turn the normal and make it something vastly more interesting. By normal, I don’t just mean the literal, everyday aspects of life getting turned into an adventure. I also mean things like tropes getting undermined or blatantly challenged so that, for example, the only kind of fantasy book is one that includes dragons and elves and magic, but rather one that includes anything that is made-up or not specific to our own world. A broader definition then allows for things like urban fiction and steampunk and the like.
By focusing on one particular genre, an unfortunate truth is that I think our imaginations get warped so they can only focus on “fantasy-specific” ideas. It’s possible… actually, probable, that new subgenres will appear in the years to come. By reading other genres of fiction, and perhaps even expanding that to certain genres of nonfiction, we lessen the extent of the warp.
I would argue, then, to start with books you know you’d like to read. From there, I know that there are many books who draw from other genres (though to what extent varies from book to book). Maybe use those as a springboard to determine which other genres you might like to dip your toes in, if only to expand your reading and writing horizons. And who knows? You may end up reading something you never expected to like and fall completely in love with it.