Five Reasons to Read Outside Your Genre

Life is a busy thing these days and sometimes it’s hard enough to carve out writing time every week. But as Stephen King says:

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?

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38 Comments

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38 responses to “Five Reasons to Read Outside Your Genre

  1. I’m currently reading a Regency period romance/mystery, a memoir by Michael J. Fox, a book of essays by Ray Bradbury, and a book about the romance genre that I picked up at the RWA conference. I have romance, mystery, SF, historical novels, and women’s fiction waiting to be read, and at least half a dozen non-fiction books on the “soon” stack above my bed. I just need more TIME. She who dies with the most books wins.

    • Your book buying ability is nothing short of legendary, Kay. I love the way you’re so open to reading books of just about any genre, and also that you have the same open-mindedness when it comes to TV and movies.

  2. Great post!
    Personally, I deliberately read eclectically – not so much as a deliberate policy for my writing, but because I enjoy mixing it up, rather like composing a good menu. A meaty classic needs to be followed by a fruity light romance, or the whole thing gets too heavy. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I love your comparison of choosing books to designing a menu. It’s such an apt description, and one I can certainly relate to.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I was a professional musician for a while, and every musician I met (with one exception) listened to a much wider range of music than you would have guessed based on the music they played.

    “Learn From a Master” I think this is so important. I am always dismayed when I see writers getting all twisted around because they just learned about some “rule” that they suddenly feel they need to follow. Always consider the source. Is this blogger/teacher/writer with the rules a great writer? Like top-ten-of-the-century great? Not just “he sells a lot of books” great? If not, then go and learn from the best, not from anybody else.

  4. You know what is funny, Jo? Well, many things. I’m a talker. When I am unable to talk, I write. Reading was always something I considered ‘work’. I’d much rather talk or write than read. Several years ago I realized – I needed to put the pen down and read, much like one needs to stop talking and listen.

    This may come as a shock, but my genre is non-fiction writers like Robert Fulghum, Lewis Grizzard, and David Sedaris. Surprising, eh? A person who likes to talk prefers books by writers ‘just’ talking?!

    Anywho… I’m trying to broaden my horizons. Truly. And, I’m quiet enjoying crime dramas by Lee Child, Harben Coben, Zoe Sharp, and Karen Slaughter. I wish Zoe’s books were more readily available in the US. I quite like Charlie Fox.

    • You know how they say wine is an acquired taste? (Although I had no trouble acquiring it!) Well, reading is an acquired love. The more you do of it, the more you start to enjoy it. It always makes me a little sad to hear people say, “Oh, I don’t like reading.” Because I wish I could magically introduce them to the wonders of making that nigh-magical connection with an author through reading their written words.

      Glad to hear you’re broadening your horizons. And hey, now that you’re officially hanging out with Kim more often, you might even be inspired to read some of the books she recommends. 🙂

      (I can put you on the list of people who will read my book one day though, right? 😉 )

  5. In library school, we were assigned to read books from various genres and I discovered that I was a huge fan of science fiction.

    • Sci-Fi is either hit or miss for me. I’ve really enjoyed some Jack McDevitt books and I love Julian May’s writing. But I find that the really hard science based sci-fi is too much work. I prefer novels where the story is the star and the science is there as the foundation to hold it all together.

      What’s your favourite sci-fi book? And did you find any genres that you particularly didn’t like?

      (I’m full of questions today.)

      • I am an urban fantasy gal, but I will dabble in real science fiction. Right now reading Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It hooked me immediately. At the moment that’s hard to do because I just got new glasses!

      • High five to another glasses-wearing urban fantasy girl! I hadn’t heard of The Windup Girl, but have just added it to my TBR list. I was in need of somemore good sci-fi. 🙂

        Cheers, and thanks for commenting!

  6. I would say that I do read outside of my genre, simply because I read lots of different things but have so far only published in SF. However, I’m not sure I’m ready to say that SF is “my genre”. I read a bunch of urban fantasy and then wrote an urban fantasy (not yet published). I read some mystery and started thinking about writing mystery. I read some relationship books and started thinking about a book saying what I wanted to say on relationships. I’ve even been watching romance films and starting to think about writing a romance. And so on, and so on.

    Every time I come across a good story in some genre, I find that I want to start telling stories in that genre, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t know if that makes me directionless, limber, or perhaps just a tad egotistical.

    • Well, tehcnically sci-fi and urban fantasy both fall under the super-genre of “Speculative Fiction”, so they’re not too far separated. But mystery and romance and non-fiction… yeah, that’s a broad range of genres.

      I find that really interesting in itself. For the most part, people tend to stick to a particular genre/s because either that’s what they enjoy writing, or they don’t want to stray too far from their audience base with their next book. (Thus people using pseudonyms for alternate genres.) But I wonder how relevant that is in today’s self-publishing world.

      It’s also interesting because when you look over the entire body of an author’s work, you can usually find the through-line; the theme that connects them all and provides an insight into the author’s mind and philosophy. You get that in visual artists and songwriters as well, where it’s sometimes more obvious. So with all those genres happily bubbling along in your mind, it sounds like either you’ve got a very broad through-line, or your through-line is so universal that you can put characters in any type of place, plot, and scneario and still hold true to what you want to say.

  7. You know, I don’t have a genre (I don’t think). I go to the library and sometimes I pick up recommended books by either Amazon or Mom but often I just look at titles and covers, because the books are all sorted by author rather than genre. However, I don’t think I’ve read much sci-fi so I guess I should give that a try, and I’m not sure I’ve read much nonfiction or romance (do I HAVE to read romance?!?!?!) Fine.

    • geminye

      A good entry level book to excellent sci-fi would be “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card.

    • Ah-hah! Is that lirerary snobbery I hear in your voice when you talk about romance, Ms Kim?

      If you want to try something that’s still romance, but possibly not what you’ve got in your head, try historical romance or paranormal romance. 🙂

  8. Nicely said! And agreed. 🙂

  9. Great post. I wouldn’t say I have a genre, but I know what genre’s I avoid. That’s kind of the same thing right?

  10. Pingback: Five Reasons to Read Outside Your Genre « geminye Studios

  11. geminye

    Great post, and great advice for any reader.

    I try to read anything that is just “good writing,” regardless of what genre, though admittedly, I have not read a romance book as far as I am aware.

    I like Katkasia’s analogy to food. That is quite an apt observation. Just like a healthy diet, one’s literary menu should include choices from each of the food groups. Doing this will give you a healthy and fit mind. And, there is nothing wrong with indulging in a few junk food books here and there!

  12. geminye

    Reblogged this on Birth of a Writer and commented:
    Here is a great post by Jo Eberhardt from The Happy Logophile.

  13. Great post, Jo, common sense as we should know it. I read anything that comes my way except for porn. I’m not sure, though, that reading Science Fiction (as opposed to Fantasy) will teach you how to write it.

    • Thanks for reading! Reading science fiction isn’t goimg to teach you the science that you need to write the genre, but I do think it’s instructive as it will reveal methods of revealing that science without too much exposition andhow to utilise facts to build effective fiction.

  14. I wouldn’t say I intentionally avoid reading outside my genre (within the fairly broad genre category of “speculative fiction”, at least, which includes many very different subgenres), and I wouldn’t say I don’t have time to read… but my time comes at a pretty high premium, and so when I do read I stick primarily to my genre (the above-mentioned broad genre category). I don’t have time to read just anything, and I’m still falling farther and father behind on my reading list even just sticking to my preferred genre. Plus it takes me even longer to read something I’m not enjoying… So although I agree with the general outlines of your advice, within my specific case it’s not advice I can follow.

    • Speculative Fiction is certainly a broad genre, so at least you’re not saying: “I only read Epic Fantasy.” When time is at a premium, certainly you’ll want to maximise your chances to get through that ever-growing TBR list. Perhaps one day you’ll find yourself with some extra time on your hands, and have the chance to branch out into something unusual. 🙂

      (It’s actually one reason I quite like delving into YA on occasion — the books are typically much quicker reading as well as being physically shorter.)

  15. I fortunately am blessed with both time to read and a high reading speed; however I have an almost pathological need to read (it is a rare advertisement break that I do not spend reading a book) as well, so if I stayed within a genre (or three) I would empty the library then go bankrupt in a fortress of books.

    Of the many books I have read in the last year, there have been none I have not finished and only one I did not enjoy in any way. From all of them I gained ideas, and form the one I disliked I gain a better understanding of what I do not want to do.

    • You know, of all the places to go bankrupt, a fortress of books sounds more appealing than most… 🙂 I’m incredibly envious of you having plenty of time to read. I look forward to the times when I can find half an hour or an hour of solid reading time rather than the five minutes here and there that I usually get. Although I’ve found that audio books in the car make my driving much more enjoyable.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your perspective.

  16. ava

    I rarely read outside my genre Jo but this post just inspires me to. Thanks!

  17. Pingback: 18 Ways to Boost Your Creativity- JourneyCraft.tv

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