I’m pretty sure you all know the importance, as writers, of reading books within the genres you write, yes? Obviously, this is a given. How are you to know the trends and meet the expectations of your genre’s audience if you aren’t also a member of your genre’s audience?
By reading within your genre, you learn which tropes to include, and which tropes to avoid. You learn your genre’s average pacing and plot structure, what’s been done and what hasn’t, and how to skirt that line between providing unique characters and a unique plot, while still adhering to the qualities and characteristics of your particular genre that will keep readers coming back for more.
But there’s something to be said for reading outside your genre as well. I used to be timid about doing this. For the longest time, I nearly exclusively read SFF books because that’s what I was drawn to. That’s why I chose to write within that genre, after all. I love SFF. I can relate to it, and at the same time, it transports me away from normal, everyday life.
Lately, however, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more widely. And you know what? Not only have I found that I enjoy a much larger selection of stories than I thought I would, my writing has improved as well. Tremendously. I know it’s improved, because I now find myself looking at my characters differently, and being more creative about the situations I put them in, as well as how I have them react to those situations. I’ve also honed my writing voice more—with different genres comes different ways of wording things, and my exposure to this is coming out in my own style of writing.
As mentioned above, I mostly write SFF. More specifically, I write urban and contemporary fantasy. However, so far this year, I’ve read mysteries, historical fiction, magical realism, contemporary romance, and dark, twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. Each one of these books has influenced my writing for the better.
Mystery has helped me figure out what information I should (and shouldn’t) reveal to the reader, and when. Historical fiction has taught me the importance of understanding the socio-political landscape in which my characters have been placed. Magical realism has influenced me to slow down during certain moments throughout my stories and really focus on the sensory details, drawing the reader into my character’s experience as far as I can. Contemporary romance has been a terrific study on the push and pull that takes place in character relationships, and how to add delicious tension. And thrillers with unreliable narrators have helped to remind me that every character is the hero within their own story, and they’re all going to want to portray themselves that way, whether their portrayal is accurate or not.
I have books in other genres waiting on my to-be-read list as well. Horror, for instance. And comedy. And I read plenty of non-fiction as well.
“Wait . . . non-fiction? You mean besides books about writing?”
Heck yes, you should read non-fiction! And not just for story research, either. Right now, for instance, I’m reading (well, actually listening to) a book about the quirky ways in which the brain works.* How is that helpful? Well, in understanding how the human brain works, I can better understand why my characters do what they do. I’ve also been reading biographies, which make great character studies, books on time-management, which are helpful for managing my writing life, and of course (since I have a degree in the subject) history books. History is the ultimate plot bunny source, let me tell you. Even if you’re writing a contemporary book, or a book set in the future.
So I challenge you now, if you’re hesitant about reading outside your writing genre, to go do exactly that. Ask trusted friends for recommendations, scroll through Goodreads, or take yourself down to your local library or bookstore and walk past your favorite shelves, over to new, unexplored territory. You can thank me later. No, seriously, after you’re done reading. Pretend I’m not here. I don’t want to interrupt you.
. . . Puts finger to lips and tiptoes away. . . .
*THE IDIOT BRAIN, by Dean Burnett
When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.