Thursday, January 19, 2017

Read Outside the Box by Nola Passmore

Author:      I’ve just written a groundbreaking novel that’s bound to be a bestseller.
Publisher:  What’s so innovative about it?
Author:      There’s this teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire.
Publisher:  Um … it’s been done before.  You’ve heard of the Twilight series?
Author:      Is that a TV show?
Publisher:  It’s a series of young-adult novels that’s sold millions.
Author:      I don’t read much fiction.  Most of it's not to my taste.  But my novel is different.
Publisher:  How do you know it’s different if you’re not reading in the area?
Author:      Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.  
                  (Author shoves manuscript under publisher’s nose).
Publisher:  Oh it’s an historical novel?
Author:      No, contemporary.
Publisher:  Then why does the teenage girl sound like someone out of an Austen novel?
Author:      I like Pride and Prejudice and I thought I’d do something similar.
Publisher:  With vampires?

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that if you’re a writer, you ARE reading in your genre.  If you’re not, you may face the pitfalls of our hapless wannabe-novelist. 

Now I’m going to go out on a bigger limb and suggest that you should also be reading OUTSIDE your genre.  If you have eclectic tastes in literature, that won’t be a problem for you.  However, a lot of us tend to stick within the confines of our preferred style.  We only read murder mysteries or romances or Christian biographies or Amish steampunk.  It’s comfortable in our little genre box.  We know what to expect.  We don’t have to do any unwelcome stretching.  We don’t get lumbered with a book we’re not going to enjoy.  Why try the baklava when you can eat the lamington?

But what if you peeked out of your genre box and sampled a different taste?  There are at least three benefits.

It exposes you to other possibilities.  You may find another genre or sub-genre that you enjoy reading.  You may even try writing in that genre and discover you’re good at it.  I spent eight years struggling with watercolours before stepping out and doing an acrylics workshop.  I had instant success and have even sold one of my paintings.  If I’d never looked beyond by watercolour palette, I wouldn’t have discovered that I’m better suited to acrylics and mixed media.  You could make a similar discovery with your writing.

It helps you to engage with a broader readership and learn what sells.  Do you have a Christian message that you want to get out to a mainstream audience?  How are you going to do that if you don’t know what themes and styles are popular in mainstream literature?  Do you want to write a fantasy novel with universal themes?  How are you going to do that if you’ve never read a novel set in a different kind of world than your own? A popular catchphrase at the moment is ‘join the conversation’.  If you read outside your genre, you’ll be able to participate in more of those conversations. 

It can help improve your writing in your preferred genre.  Here are some of the strengths of different genres that we can apply to our own manuscripts.

  • Suspense/thriller – hooks the reader by getting straight into the action; has good pacing that keeps the story moving; ends each chapter with a page-turning sentence or phrase.
  • Romance – develops characters we care about; delves into relationships and family issues; offers hope.
  • Science fiction/fantasy – stretches the imagination and shows what’s possible; builds a world that supports and enhances the story.
  • Literary fiction – uses beautiful language; adds layers to the plot through nuance; explores deeper themes; provokes thought.
  • Historical fiction – uses background research to enhance a story; shows how to use setting to create the story world; explores the past through the eyes of the present; experiments with alternative interpretations of history.
  • Memoir – shows how to take the main character on a journey; connects with the reader emotionally; explores universal themes.
  • Creative non-fiction – shows how to make facts entertaining and accessible.
  • Poetry – reduces ideas to their essence; expertly uses language and imagery for maximum impact; allows for expression and exploration of different forms.
  • Humour – relieves stress and entertains; provides lighter moments for more serious works; can be used to critique and question systems or ideologies (e.g. through satire).
  • Children’s literature – stretches the imagination; shows how visual and textual material work together; helps us to get in touch with our own inner child; explains key concepts simply; explores values.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and many of the strengths cross over into different genres.  Can you think of others?

Set a Goal

You’re more likely to read outside of your genre if you have a specific goal.  You might identity a couple of genres or sub-genres that you would like to try and then set yourself a goal to read a certain number of books in each.  Although you might want to start with something close to your literary home, I’d encourage you to aim a little broader than that – fiction, non-fiction and poetry; contemporary and historical; realist and speculative; Christian and mainstream; bestsellers and award winners; books for adults, young adults and children.

There are also many established reading lists you can use.  For the last two years, I’ve participated in the Popsugar Reading Challenge in which you read books from different categories.  Some are specific (e.g. an espionage thriller), but most of the categories are quite broad (e.g. a book with a red spine), so you have a lot of scope in your selections. I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses books we’re reading and it’s been a great way to learn about different genres and styles. I’ve come across a few duds, but I’ve also discovered many gems I wouldn’t have read otherwise.  If you’d like to try this year’s challenge, you can find the 2017 list here.

Set Boundaries

While it’s good to read widely, it’s also wise to determine the types of books that you’re not going to include.  I don’t read erotica, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a book with one or two sex scenes.  It depends how they’re done and their importance to the story.  I don’t read grisly horror or books with strong occult or paranormal themes because I know they affect me negatively.  However, I’m not averse to the odd ghost, werewolf or magical twist. The list will be different for everyone, but you should still be left with dozens of genres and sub-genres that you can happily explore.

Do you read outside your genre?  Has it helped in your writing?  What pearls have you discovered?  I’ll be back later to respond to your comments, but right now I have to check out steampunk titles on Goodreads.  Will I choose Beauty and the Clockwork Beast or stick with a classic like H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine?  Perhaps I’ll read them both.

Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her writing tips blog at their website:  


  1. Great post Nola. Loved your beginning! :) Congratulations on your success with acrylics. I'm very impressed that you even sold a picture or two! Wow! You must be an artist! I really liked your descriptions of the different kinds of writing. Certainly inspires me to step outside my comfort zone in my reading. Many thanks for the challenge! And happy reading in 2017.

    1. Thanks Anusha, but don't get too excited about my acrylics. I've only sold one, so I don't think I'll be giving up the day job. But it's great to dabble in another creative pursuit. Maybe that could be another blog post: 'Try a creative pursuit apart from writing'. I do think different kinds of artistic expression can enhance one another.

      Glad you liked that genre list too. Can we expect some steampunk elements to pop into your nonfiction writing? I'll look forward to seeing the results. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Take care.

  2. Thanks for a great post, Nola. Love your run-down of learning points from the different genres. I've enjoyed the Popsugar challenge last year and this :) though I've always read rather widely. I think it helps to gain an intuitive knowledge of story, conflict, character. But most of all, I just love reading.

    1. You're the Super Reader, Jenny, with not only the Popsugar challenge but your 'author from every country' one too. But having that broad range of interests must help with all the different types of stories you write. You're so right that it helps us gain intuitive knowledge of story, conflict and character. I'll look forward to seeing more of your insights on the Popsugar group. Thanks for commenting.

  3. One of the things I enjoy about being a member of a book club is that it makes me read outside the box. I've read and enjoyed lots of books I wouldn't have read otherwise. I've also discovered some genres I definitely don't enjoy, like fantasy. Though I don't mind the odd fantasy twist, as long as it's set in the real world.

    The other good thing I find about a book club, is that once we have selected the books at the start of the year, they just appear every month without me having to spend hours browsing.

    The only slightly annoying thing about a book club is those people who complain about the books that aren't their favourite genre! If you join a book club, you have to be prepared to read outside your comfort zone.

    1. Hi Susan - Thanks for sharing your book club experience. That's certainly a great way to read outside your genre. How do you go about selecting the books? Do you have guidelines? Does each person just pick one? I guess the added advantage is that you get to discuss what you've read. That would make an interesting blog post :)

      I've never been part of a book club where everyone reads the same book, but I've enjoyed the discussions we've had on our Popsugar Facebook group. I should look into it more. Thanks for sharing.

    2. The last couple of book club groups I've been involved in, were organised by the local library. Years ago I was involved in one run by the Council of Adult Education - not sure if that still happens.

      Normally you get a list of the available books with a brief review, then the group meets to formulate a list. Some groups ask each person to pick a book, but normally it's a group discussion. One year we decided to pick all Aussie authors. Yes, the discussions are interesting. Sometimes people have such different views, you wonder if you really have been reading the same book!

    3. Thanks Susan. They sound pretty well organised. I don;t know if you ever watch Jennifer Byrne's "First Tuesday Book Club" on the ABC, but it's a bit the same re the different opinions. I sometimes wonder if they've read the same book :) Will have to check out what's around. Thanks for the reply.

  4. Hi Nola, what a lovely encouragement to do just what your title says. The Popsugar Challenge definitely gets us to broaden our horizons. Sometimes I think what fun the people who compile them must have. I like your idea of not minding a twist of this or a dash of that. I'm a similar sort of reader. As for those last two books you mentioned, I might reserve them as steampunk titles too 😊

    1. Hi Paula - Actually you inspired me to do the Popsugar one last year because I remember the blogs you did on it the year before. I thought it would be a good way to broaden my reading because it's so easy to just keep choosing the same sorts of books all the time. I only managed to do 31 of the 41 books last year, but I was happy with that because I discovered some great books I wouldn't have read otherwise, like the Lunar Chronicles series.

      As for the steampunk books, I can't vouch for 'Beauty and the Clockwork Beast' because I haven't seen it yet. The title just really grabbed me, and believe it or not there are two books with the same title by different authors. But I've just finished reading 'The Time Machine' and I really enjoyed it. I'll definitely try to read more in that genre ... or subgenre ... or whatever the heck it is :) Thanks for your comment.

  5. Really enjoyed this post Nola. A timely challenge! (I enjoy Kate Morton's books too!)

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Carolyn. I've read all of Kate Morton's books and met her at a book luncheon a few years ago. Lovely lady and very talented. 'The Forgotten Garden' is my favourite of her books.

  6. Haha, I think the contemporary version of that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies though vampires might give a new spin on things.
    It's something I've been meaning to do, though never explored. Considering last year I don't think I completely finished an entire book, my plan is to read at least one a month. Incorporating genres I'm not use to is a great idea. I'll pre-order your Beauty and the Clockwork Beast now if you'd like. 😊

    1. LOL Kirsten, I thought of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' after I'd finished the blog, so maybe our hapless wannabe author isn't so far off the mark after all :)

      And you've added something else I can nag you about (oops encourage you about). I can ask you once a month how your reading's going :) I know it's sometimes hard to find time to read other books, but reading short stories in other genres can also be a great learning tool. Easy to fit them in on lunch breaks and in waiting rooms.

      I'm not sure I can rival 'Beauty and the Clockwork Beast' - believe it or not two separate authors have each written a book of that name. But my novel is already set in Victorian times, so maybe I just need to add in some steampunk. Now that would take the story off in a direction I wasn't expecting!

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Thanks Nola for your post and your encouragement to read other genres. It's stretched me and I've joined the reading challenge this year. I think I've added a definitely serious bent to it, though! Next stop- the comedy section...

    1. Hi Pamela - It's been great having you join the reading challenge. There are some other serious people in the group, so you're not alone. Though I'll look forward with great anticipation for your review of something humorous :) Thanks for your comment.

  8. Love the opening dialogue hook, Nola! Also very helpful genredescriptions. And your acrylics analogy prompted a brainwave: how about a painting session at the retreat?

    1. Great idea Ruth. Pamela will definitely be into that. I might even toss the mini watercolour kit in the car :)