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.
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: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au