by Christina Lay
Most writers have heard the admonition to read extensively in their chosen genre. This is solid advice and I’m not here to quibble with it. Getting familiar with tone, tropes, voice, conventions, clichés and trends will help you to not only internalize structure and build your novel, but fine tune your approach to marketing and identify your target audience. What I’d like to point out is that the opposite is also true: read extensively outside of your chosen genre.
You’re probably thinking, how much time does she think I have? I read what I like, and what I’d like to emulate, so shove off, random blog writer of dubious intelligence.
Or possibly you’re thinking, why, yes, I know it’s important to feed my inner artist and gather knowledge and perspective from all parts of the globe. Terrific! That’s a good start. I’ve been a history buff for most of my writing life, and I know the nonfiction books I’ve read have greatly contributed to the scope and span of my fiction. My suggestion would be to go further, and to read books you have little interest in, or maybe even make you uncomfortable.
Why, in this time of stress and too little relaxation, would you spend your down time hefting up some dreary tome on the economics of snail farming in New Zealand? Well, you don’t have to go that far. Just pick something unexpected, random, oddly intriguing, and preferably, by authors from segments of the global society you know little or nothing about.
I would much rather curl up with a cozy mystery than stretch and work out my brain with something challenging, but I’m finding that this practice is becoming more important than ever, and not just for writers.
I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that social media and online marketing curates the articles we see and the ads that flash in the sidebars of every webpage we ever access. Facebook micromanages our “news” feeds, and Google obsesses over our every click. No matter how aware of this you might be, our world is shrinking, and it takes a vigilant consumer to battle against it.
Books, you might think, are a realm free from the tentacles of high tech. Let’s put aside any influence Amazon might have over your book buying habits and imagine we’re all perusing the shelves of our local bookstores with free will intact. Did a friend recommend a title? Are you looking for a favorite author’s new release? Did you hear so-and-so is the up and comer in your genre, and you want to check them out? All of these motivating factors are also curated, in their fashion. Your friend is most likely someone with similar tastes, not to mention social circles, socioeconomic class, a shared culture. If not, great, but we mostly hang out with people who are like us. Getting hooked on a favorite author is awesome, but also limiting. Best sellers, well, let’s head on back up to how Amazon and the other big book pushers influence who is published, not to mention who makes it to that book shelf in front of you, who gets marketing funds, and who gets to flash on your sidebar as you try to find out more about snail farming in New Zealand.
It’s all curated, winnowed, narrowed, marketing… all for you! Sometimes that’s helpful, especially if it comes through more organic word of mouth recommendations. But how often has your friend let you down, recommending something only because “everybody” is talking about it. The new trashy, actual piece of garbage that sold well because it went viral, so to speak. But I digress…
None of these methods for choosing your next read are bad or terrible, but the more we read, click and talk about what we like, the more our circle of options shrinks. What you don’t find out about, you won’t read. Our input and outlay of information becomes a closed loop, reining us in, choking off the weedy and wild pathways by which oddities and illuminations creep into our brains. And if we writers don’t keep the weird and wild in circulation, who will?
To hack my way back to the original point; yes, becoming familiar with your genre is a good idea. But becoming familiar with every and all genres is better. At the same time that you internalize the beats, rhythms and expectations of your chosen genre, try also to freshen and widen your approach by reading books with different beats, rhythms and expectations. Like feeds like, which can be helpful, but also stifling. When you go to the bookstore the next time, pick an author, genre and subject that you’ve never read before. Mix it up. Confuse the algorithms in your head as well as the ones lurking in your phone. Possibly it will upset the apple cart of your streamlined novel writing process, but consider for a moment how that might be a good thing.