To read or not to read

That is a question many authors, especially new authors, ask themselves. Should they be reading anything while writing a book? Should they read the genre they write? How about other genres? Or, if they write fiction, maybe they ought to read only non-fiction.

This question has always amazed and confounded me. That was especially true when I read a comment by a new author who proudly said she never reads in the genre she writes because she doesn’t want her wonderfully original idea to be diluted by what she reads. Yes, you read that right. Not only did she honestly feel she had a truly original plot but that it would be “tainted” by what she might read in the genre.

There are two basic problems with that statement. The first is the belief that she had a truly original plot. Sorry, but there are only so many basic plots out there. Originality comes with how you handle that plot. The important thing is to remember that. Your story may be one of exploration — nothing new — or a coming of age story. Again, nothing new. But how you handle that story, what you put your character through and how your character handles what life throws at him, that is what you make your own.

The second issue is with believing your plot can be tainted by something you are reading. Now, if you are afraid you will wind up lifting elements of the plot from the book you are reading, well, the problem lies with you. You either don’t have a plot already set in your head or you are so uncomfortable or so unsure about what you are writing that you unconsciously know you are in trouble.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether you should read the genre you write.

My answer is a resounding “yes”. You have to read your genre to know what is selling, to know what the readers want. I don’t mean to just read what comes out of the major publishers either. You need to look at the best sellers list on Amazon to see what indie books are selling well and read some of them. This is important because indies can and do, on the whole, publish more often than traditionally published authors. So you can read multiple books in a series in short order.

You also need to read outside your genre because, whether you realize it or not, my guess is your current work in progress encompasses more than one genre. You may be writing a mystery but if there is a romance as a subplot, you need to read some romantic suspense books to get the feel for what sort of cues you need to put in. It’s the same if your mystery has a ghost story interwoven through it — read some horror.

Last week, as I prepared to write Nocturnal Challenge, an urban fantasy/police procedural, I read several books in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. I also read the last couple of Eve Dallas books by J. D. Robb. Now that I am working on Challenge, and knowing that the next book I will be writing is Honor from Ashes, I’m reading David Weber and Peter Grant. Once I start Ashes, which is science fiction, I’ll go back to reading fantasy in preparation for writing Dagger of Elanna, the second book in my fantasy series.

So, while I don’t read in my genre while writing it, I do read it before and after. I will also throw in a healthy dose of non-fiction and other fiction genres like mystery/suspense and, heaven help me, even some romance because several of my series have romantic sub-plots.

But there is another reason why authors should read. We learn by reading. we learn the pitfalls of the craft we want to avoid and we learn how the better authors plot or develop characters or worldbuild. But, if you are like me, you also read for entertainment. I have loved getting lost in a book for as long as I can remember. My imagination is much more powerful than the images on a movie screen or on TV. I can — and have — read something and had nightmares afterwards because it set my imagination flying.

But what about you? Do you think a writer should read the genre they write? What’s the last great book you read? (Yes, I’m looking at padding my “to be read” stack)


8 responses to “To read or not to read

  1. What an incredible conceit to think that your writing may be “tainted” by something that you read. Reading something by a really good author can only make it better.
    I have found myself stuck while I was writing and when I decided to pick up a book and read, the problem was solved. It may have just been a word that writer used or the way he phrased a sentence. But that’s all I needed to break through the dam and I was rolling again.
    And as far as reading a certain genre goes, being someone who enjoys writing historical fiction I have to read both fiction and non-fiction for my stories. I enjoy them both so that isn’t a problem.
    I’m sure some of these people who are worrying about their writing being “tainted” would be surprised at how many great books were written because the author had read something written by someone else. And suddenly had a great idea.

    • Well said, Joe, and I agree. I do also break my rule about not reading the genre I’m writing in — WHEN I’m writing it in — when I get stuck. What is a common problem is that I’ve been thinking about the next project on my list of things to do and have gotten out the right genre “head”. So, by going in and reading something, even just a few pages, of that particular genre, it helps center me again.

  2. Interesting twist on what you’ve been telling us, but information all around. Thank you Amanda.

  3. I’m in complete agreement with you on everything you’ve stated here. And not just because you say it often. I’ve always read everything I could because I think we limit ourselves if we stick with just one thing. Or maybe I’m just a Renaissance woman who thinks we should try it all.

    • Maybe I misread something. I thought Amanda DID say that you shouldn’t limit yourself and should read other genre’s other than what you normally write.

    • I’ve never understood the idea that a writer can write and yet never read. Or maybe I should rephrase that — I don’t get how a writer can write for publication and yet never read what is out there.

  4. Hope all is well with you Amanda – no doubt lots of writing. As you know I read a lot in many genres. It’s important to know the word flow, word choices, and see where literature is going. It’s also good to read an “oldie but goodie” to see where literature has been. My latest fave has been Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children and the follow up Hollow City. Very creative. Enjoy

    • Good to hear from you, Joanne! You’re absolutely right about reading. I love going back and reading some of the older books. Not only does it show where things have been but there is a lot to be learned about the craft from those books. There is a reason so many of them are still around.

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