What Should Be on a Writer’s Reading List?
Blogger: Michelle Ule
Our office occasionally receives queries from teenagers seeking representation for novels they’ve completed. If we have time, we try to respond to a young writer who has done something many adults talk about but seldom accomplish.
We encourage them to enter contests aimed at young people, take all the writing and English classes offered at their school, and read widely across all genres.
It’s that last part I want to emphasize today for all writers: Read widely and do not limit yourself to one genre.
Is there one genre in particular a writer should read?
Is there one genre a writer should not read?
Are there genres in which a writer could get stuck reading (and writing) and never move beyond?
Most of the teenagers who query us have written science fiction or fantasy–and often in staggering lengths. That’s because many young people like fantasy–they’re writing what they like and what they know.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se; you should know your genre and its conventions if you’re a writer. (For example, every romance writer should know that those stories are often told from two points of view with alternating chapters. That’s especially important to know if you want to write for certain publishers, who won’t even look at any other story structure.) But if you limit yourself to only reading in your favorite genre, you run the risk of falling into several traps:
- Unconsciously employing the same vocabulary as the other writers who create in your genre or category (seen many smirks lately?).
- Sticking with tried and true–and often overexposed–ideas.
- Missing out on concepts that could make your manuscript unique.
- Falling behind on what the trends are.
Obviously, some categories feature similar themes–a romance is about a couple falling in love–but you want to find a unique angle on your story. To do that, you need to read other material, and not just fiction. If you write nonfiction, you should broaden your reading list to include fiction.
My junior high history teacher, Mrs. Klocki, implored us to read history: “Not only are the stories more incredible than fiction, but they’re also true!”
So I read Russian history and watched Dr. Zhivago. Three years later I wrote a short story based on Russian themes that won a national high school writing award. I never would have come up with the idea without having read outside my preferred genre.
Besides, only seven basic plot themes exist, anyway. And nonfiction has only so many categories for a book to fit into.
Shakespeare made an entire career out of taking old stories and reinventing them in a different setting. He wouldn’t have known the stories, however, if he had confined himself to only reading the old plays at the Globe Playhouse. He read widely–current events, history, mythology and fantasy–and turned old story lines into plays we’re still reading today.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is on the surface a Civil War novel, but it’s based on Homer’s The Odyssey.
I walked out of Star Wars for the first time (straight from writing my last final as an English major) and saw all sorts of parallels to The Wizard of Oz and the Bible. One website lists a number of places from which George Lucas could have drawn his inspiration, including Through the Looking Glass, Ben Hur, Lord of the Rings and John Carter.
As writers, we’re always on the lookout for great ideas. I read a lot of nonfiction, still following Mrs. Klocki’s advice. I read sociology, biography, memoirs, history and narrative nonfiction. I’m interested in fiction with strong characters and unusual settings. I love travel books, and once, I even read a Star Wars novel: The Courtship of Princess Leia. I figured that was about as close as I was going to get to science fiction!
So, what’s a writer to read?
How about you? What’s your default book category to read in? How do you make sure you’re reading outside of your preferred genre? What have you found while doing so?