If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
If you don’t know that quote, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. If you don’t know Stephen King…. Well, I’d suggest you come on out of that cave you’re living in. You can’t be getting very good wi-fi in there.
Reading is an important part of being a writer. To quote Stephen King again:
I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.
Reading is important. And reading outside your genre is just as important as reading within it. Why? Allow me to explain.
1) Wax On, Wax Off
In much the same way you can learn ancient Chinese martial arts through doing household chores, you can learn a lot about writing through reading. That’s true regardless of what genre you read or write. Chances are, you probably decided to write in a particular genre after reading that genre extensively. Don’t stop doing that. Keep reading your favourite genre. But every few books, branch out and read another genre as well. Like the Karate Kid, you’ll eventually find that painting the fence, polishing the car, and cleaning the deck will invest you with practical skills you didn’t even know you were learning.
2) Learn From a Master
If you wanted to learn portrait painting, you wouldn’t ask a sculptor to teach you. So if you want to write a strong romance sub-plot, why are you reading science fiction? I’m not saying you won’t learn anything about romance writing from a sci-fi author, but wouldn’t you rather learn from a master of the craft? Broaden your reading horizons and you’ll find yourself adding all manner of writing techniques to your repertoire.
Reading romance novels will teach you how to build realistic romances. Thrillers will teach you how to build suspense. Police procedurals will teach you how to structure investigations. Fantasy novels will teach you how to build an authentic setting and reveal it without info-dumping. Science Fiction and Historicals will teach you how to seamlessly weave facts into your fiction. With all these masters at your disposal, don’t settle for learning from anyone else.
3) Understand Your Audience
Readers don’t generally delineate themselves by genre. If you ask someone what they like to read, they’ll say things like, “Oh, I like anything with a good story.” They may still gravitate to particular areas of a book store (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, YA, Crime, Literature, Whatever) but that doesn’t mean they don’t read other genres. Do you really think everyone who enjoyed Twilight describes themselves as Young Adult reader? Or everyone who read Harry Potter was a Fantasy reader?
Reading outside your genre helps you identify what it is about your own book that will attract readers. It’s easy to say, “My book will appeal to Crime readers,” but that doesn’t say much. “My book will appeal to Crime readers who enjoy Lee Child,” is a little more helpful. But it shows how well you understand your audience when you say, “My book is a space opera set in the year 3420 and will appeal to readers who enjoy the feel of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and the suspense of Lee Child.”
4) Avoid Snobbery
Literary snobbery is ubiquitous in the writing world.You’ve got everything from the old Literature vs Genre Fiction divide through to people who look down on YA fiction (“It’s not as sophisticated as “real” fiction.”), romance novels (“They’re all formulaic.”), and fantasy (“It’s all just made up.”). That type of snobbery doesn’t do anyone any favours. But once you’ve learned how to write your sub-plots from the masters and you’ve identified that your audience probably reads other genres as well, it’s hard to maintain that level of snobbery. I’m not saying every single book every published is worthy of your respect, but at least you can start dismissing individual titles instead of entire genres.
5) There’s No Place Like Home
One of the best things about going on vacation is coming home. Not just because it’s familiar (although it is), and not just because you can relax (although you can). No, the great thing about coming home is that you see your surroundings with fresh eyes. You notice details that you haven’t before. You realise the roses in next door’s garden are blooming (just like the ones out front of the B&B you stayed at!) and the guy who says hello every morning when you’re walking your dog always wears a red jacket (just like the one your tour guide was wearing!). You also notice what’s missing. (How did you not realise your town doesn’t have a Korean restaurant? And how have you survived all this time without a good china teapot?) In short, the world looks different, not because it has changed, but because you have changed through your travels.
Reading outside your genre works like this. When you return to the genre where you feel comfortable and relaxed, you’ll notice the changes. You’ll notice the techniques your favourite author has borrowed from other genres and you’ll notice when s/he should have done so and didn’t. And that in turn will help you use and avoid those things in your own writing.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and start reading!
Do you usually read outside your genre? Do you think it’s worthwhile?