As a writer, you need to read in order to write. It’s just one of those truths out there. I personally can’t stand when I talk with somebody and they say “I’m writing a novel.” or “I’m thinking about starting a novel.” My next question then is usually “What kind of book are you writing.” They then start to sputter because their book is far too complicated to be stuck in a single genre and be summed up in a mear couple sentences. So then I follow up with, “What do you read?” And let me tell you, it is incredibly sad when the response I get is “I don’t really read all that much.”
If you want to be a painter, you need to be immersed in paintings. If you want to be a musician, you need to immersed in music. If you want to be a writer…I guess that’s all you need. No! You need to be immersed in books. The question then is, what should you, as an author, read?
I think there are about four levels that an author has in their reading list. The first level is the most crucial for them to read. It’s their genre and where they will get a lot of their voice from. The second level are the classics. They help immerse the author in truly great works in the art. The third level is the out-of-genre modern books. These, if time requires, should be sacrificed, but are important none the less. Finally, we come to the non-fiction aspect. Here you can gain incredible insights into how the world, mind, people, organizations, etc. work. Reading non-fiction, while it won’t necessarily help much with your prose and story telling, it will give your writing a real sense of legitimacy.
So obviously reading in your genre is the first thing you want to do. You need to know what types of things fans of your genre like and expect. You need to know whether or not certain themes have been done to death and become cliched. You need to figure out what things have not been done and would make your work new and unique. You also will find that a lot of descriptions are shared throughout genres. Romance will describe love making pretty frequently. If you write romance you better have lots of ways to describe that. Fantasy will describe new and interesting characters/worlds. You had better be able to do that if you write fantasy. And so on and so on. So I’ll stop here since I shouldn’t have to convince any of you on this point.
With respect to the classics, you might say that it’s a waste of time to read those. You might say that “people don’t write like that anymore.” or “That style sounds so dated.” But there is a lot you can learn. First, each writer will have at least one fundamental aspect of story telling down right mastered. Be it plot, voice, dialogue, characterization. No matter the time period, those aspects never go away as requirements for a good story. So learn from them because they are classics for a reason.
Imagine you read the ten greatest books published each year (as defined by Professor Smith’s 2134 Literature 435 class at Yale) How would those books on rank overall on average? Perhaps the top book might crack the top 200 of all time, once in a while. The 10th greatest book that year, probably in the 1000’s. So to hammer this point even further. Even if you read (regardless of genere) the best books each year, chances are they still won’t match up to the classics in terms of greatness. So since you emulate what you read, read great books.
Now onto those out of genre books. They will provide you with a good round backing for the rest of your story. There are some things that certain genre books do quite well. For instance those a fore mentioned romance books. If you read some of those, I will guarantee you that the next little romantic encounter you throw into your thriller novel will be written much better. Similarly for the romance writer: If you read more thrillers, you will be more apt to put a compelling bit of suspense and action to spice up your romance.
The same thing goes for all the other genres. Literary fiction will teach you characterization and good symbolism/theming. Fantasy/Scifi will teach you how to really create a compelling setting. Mystery will teach you how to create suspense and good puzzles. Even childrens books will teach you how to convey a message in as few words as possible.
Finally, as for non-fiction, reading those types of books will give your books that last little touch of legitimacy that can change something from good to great. Reading a book on psychology will make your characters more believable in their actions and emotions. They can give you insights into family situations you don’t have personal experience with. They can teach you just how far a person can go in terms of mental illness. Other books can teach you just how the inner functions of government work. Another might give you some great perspective on the life of a police officer. These books might not be relevant for whatever you’re working on now, but you never know when this knowledge will come in handy and help you craft the perfect scene and or book.
So keep reading, read wide, and read often.
Please let me know if I forgot anything.