I’ve been wondering lately about whether or not it’s a good idea to read what you write. I don’t mean to suggest people shouldn’t edit or proof-read their own writing. What I mean is, should you read the same genre that you write in?
I’ll give you an example. I have a novel idea, which I am particularly excited about. It’s related to a specific sub-genre, which I have consciously been avoiding in order to avoid undue influenced by what is already out there. At the same time, I recognise that being familiar with the genre in which you wish to write is important. Reading widely outside of your genre could help bring outside influences into the novel, help you make something new.
There’s also the question of whether or not you should read your own work, an angle that a few authors addressed as well. How obsessively should you pay attention to your work once it’s out in the world?
So, my question to you is,
“Should you read what you write? And why?”
I sent out a general invite by email and Tweet, and received quite a bit of interest. I’ve included the responses, below, from Jennie Ivins, Sarah Cawkwell, Jon Courtenay-Grimwood, Myke Cole, Mhairi Simpson, Anne Lyle, Robert Jackson Bennett, Mark Lawrence, Gail Carriger, Paul S. Kemp, Lou Morgan, Helen Lowe, and Justin Landon.
Please feel free to contribute your own thoughts and responses (on both interpretations of the question), in the comments. There may also be more authors’ contributions coming in over the next couple of days, so I will either update this or post a second round.
Responses ranged from the short-and-pithy to the more considered and longer. Assistant Editor and writer for Fantasy-Faction JENNIE IVINS (@Autumn2May) offered one of the first responses, and it’s compact and pointed, and is hard to argue with:
“I think yes. It gives you ideas and motivates you to do better.”
SARAH CAWKWELL, author of The Gildar Rift and Valkia the Bloody (review coming very soon) and many great short stories for Black Library, is in whole-hearted support of reading what you write, and had this to say on the subject:
Well, for me, that’s a fairly easy answer. The answer is “yes”. I was practically weaned on Fantasy and Science Fiction. My mother was a huge fan of Asimov and one of the earliest books I remember picking up and reading was The Hobbit. I’ve been a keen genre fan for all my reading life and apart from the odd break-out to mainstream fiction (which on the whole doesn’t engage my imagination in the way that genre does), that’s where you’ll find me in the bookshop. Fantasy and sci-fi.
It can be possible to overdose on it, of course, and so on occasion, I’ll deliberately move onto something that’s been recommended.
So go ahead and start recommending!
Also on CR: Sarah’s Guest Post
Debut Sci-Fi author MYKE COLE (Control Point) is another fervent supporter of reading widely within your genre – if, for no other reason, than you should (surely) be a fan of the type of novel you are trying to write:
I’ve actually had this conversation with Joe Abercrombie (one of my favorite writers). He told me that he barely reads in genre at all. He knows the fantasy world he wants to work in, and paints it over whatever his current stream of inputs is. Those following the development of his latest novel, Red Country, will not be surprised to learn that the guy reads a whole lot of westerns.
Other writers have told me that it’s a bad idea to read in genre, because writers are fragile, insecure, impressionable little things, and the work of others will be internalized, processed and regurgitated, even when you try your damnedest not to. To be truly genuine, to have an original voice, a writer must hermetically seal themselves off from science fictional (or fantastic) contamination.
That may work for them. But personally? I think folks who do that are missing out. I came up through fandom. I wanted to be a fantasy writer because I was a fantasy READER. It was the genre that made me, and the genre I want to expand and improve. If I elected not to read fantasy novels by other authors, not only would I miss out on everything I can learn from a craft perspective (and I learn a TON), but my inner fanboy would DIE. Sure, this is my living, but it’s also my hobby and my joy. I am absolutely the dork who stands in virtual line overnight to be the first to download A Dance with Dragons. I am currently impatiently awaiting Mark Lawrence’s A King of Thorns. I will gladly pay way too much for it if it means I can get the book sooner.
So, yeah. Some writers may choose to insulate themselves from their own genre. More power to them. I can’t, I just can’t.
Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.
ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is an awesome author, whose novels are dark and gothic, and very highly recommended – Mr Shivers, The Company Man and The Troupe.
The more I write, the more I think you don’t pick your genre – your genre picks you.
I mean that. When I was first trying to write, I tried to be a humor writer, but my stories kept getting dark and frightening, and what’s more, I enjoyed it – I could feel gears in my head engaging and starting to turn.
This was because I’d grown up reading fantasy, horror, sci-fi. I loved it. You read a genre, you fall in love with it, and you read everything you can on it. This is the beginning of your education – establishing the genre you love. It will form everything you write after, in ways you can’t change.
But, once you really start writing, I don’t think it’s wise to stay within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. You’ve found your genre and you love it, but part of growing – as a writer, and as a person – is exploring, going beyond what’s comfortable and seeing what’s new, and learning.
So read. Read constantly. Don’t read just your genre – read stuff you’d never imagine reading before. Do you like space operas? Try a kitchen sink genre. Do you like detective stories? Give family sagas a shot. Read plenty of history, plenty of nonfiction.
I’ll be honest – I bet nowadays horror, fantasy, and sci-fi makes up for less than half of my regular reading. I’m trying to read classics, history, nonfiction, plays, and poetry right now. These are things I've never read much before. Because if you love just one thing, and refuse to move beyond it, you’ll stagnate. You need to keep tossing ingredients into the mix.
See, what you’re doing is educating yourself. And finding new influences beyond your genre isn’t cheating on your genre – rather, if you bring those influences within your genre of choice, what you’re really doing is seeing what your genre can do. You’ve already found the stories that are successful within your genre – now you need to experiment.
Genres are like people. They can do a lot more than you think, if you let them. You just have to give them the chance. So read.
Also on CR: Interview with Robert J. Bennett
ANNE LYLE, author of the excellent historical fantasy, The Alchemist of Souls and soon-to-be-published The Merchant of Dreams, had this to say:
I think fundamentally you have to have read at least some books in the genre you’re writing – why would you choose to write in a genre that doesn’t interest you enough for you to pick it up? However, when it comes to keeping up with that genre, there are two contradictory schools of thought: one, that you should avoid it for fear of just regurgitating the same old stuff; the other, that you should read widely, so that you know what’s already been done. They can’t both be right, surely?
Personally, I think you need to read widely both inside and outside the genre you want to write, particularly before you start writing – but then it’s good to pull the periscope down and focus on your inner vision. I got very behind in my fantasy reading in the four years between starting The Alchemist of Souls and submitting it, and I don’t think that was a bad thing, because I’d been reading fantasy for many years before that and was aware of the clichés and tired tropes.
In any case, I get most of my inspiration from reading non-fiction: history, science, anthropology, linguistics. SFF requires solid world-building as well as an awareness of narrative, so this kind of reading is just as valuable as fiction. Reading outside your genre can also give you a fresh perspective – I’m sure my readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve read a lot of classic fiction and historical mysteries!
I started reading fantasy regularly again once I’d completed my first solid draft and sent it out to beta-readers, partly as a mental break but also to check out the competition! I think this is a very useful, even vital, thing to do once you start looking for an agent, because you need to know where to position your book in the market.
I’ve tried to keep up that habit, because I discovered I missed reading a good fantasy story. However, I still tend to read a lot less whilst I’m actively working on a book, as I get caught up in my own story and characters and don’t want to read about someone else’s. And at the moment I’m having to do a lot of writing – it’s one of the minor disadvantages of getting published.
Also on CR: Interview with Anne Lyle
GAIL CARRIGER, author of the hugely and justly-popular Parasol Protectorate novels (all reviewed on CR, so check out the ‘Reviews’ tab), scribbled down some quick thoughts, and errs on the side of caution:
I generally don’t. But them I’m very worried about inadvertently imitating some other author’s voice, or accusations of being derivative. Generally, if someone says, “I read this book and it’s just like yours. You should try it!” I’ll avoid that book like the plague for the sake of plausible deniability. I also don’t want to read something, hate it, and then be stuck regularly on panels with the author because we write the same genre. Or really love it and then have to dampen down the squee-ing fangirl within at any greenroom encounter.
Fortunately, I write alt-history, so what I can read are much older works and lots of primary sources in the hopes that they do color my voice as much as possible.
Also on CR: Interview with Gail Carriger
MHAIRI SIMPSON, fellow blogger and also an author herself, voiced some concerns that were similar to my own:
In the past I’ve found myself emulating the style of whatever I was reading in my own writing, and when you’re trying to find your own voice and style, that’s not a good thing, so for a while I didn’t read while I wrote. The issue seems to have sorted itself out over time. Maybe now I’m more grounded in my own voice and style. Whatever the reason, I find I can read other things in the same genre/subgenre now and not have my own writing affected. That said, I tend to stay away from similar stuff while I’m writing. Maybe because I might compare it to my own? Always a bad idea, that.
Aside: this may explain why I’m currently reading paranormal romance which is one of the few subgenres I’m NOT currently writing in.
As a general rule, I think it’s a good idea to read in the same genre you’re writing in. I also think it's a good idea to read in other genres, too. But then I think it’ s good idea to eat chocolate regularly, so you might not want to take my word as gospel here. The thing is, when I was just a reader, before I ever thought about writing, I read a LOT and developed definite tastes. These have gone a way towards deciding what I want to write. It's definitely an important stage in a writer’s development. How do you know what you like writing unless you’ve read it first? Or read something that made you think, what if I did *this*? Since what I now write is what’s closest to my heart, it would be a pity to stop reading other people's work in the same area just because I thought it would mess up my “craft”. Seriously, if my craft can’t handle a little interference from someone else’s stuff, then it just ain’t ready to sail.
(Great. Now I see a blog post coming on where I compare a writer’s development to shipbuilding. “Finding your voice is like laying the keel: get it right and your craft has a solid foundation. Get it wrong and it’ll just be waiting to sink.” Or something.)
When you’re still nailing down your voice, yeah, probably a good idea to separate your writing from other people’s. It’s a delicate time. But once you know who you are on the page? Run for the books. RUN!! You should never stop reading. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place and it may be the only way out.
Which reminds me, I really need to catch up on the Dresden Files. I’m at least two books behind and that’s practically heresy.
This is the type of question apt to generate six identikit and perfectly reasonable replies. If anyone deviates from “Yes, but you shouldn’t only read in your genre.” I will be surprised.
You read in your genre because you love it. That love is essentially impossible to fake and its absence in your writing will be noted, so unless your typical writer’s ego-monster has gorged on success to become a full-blown case of narcissistic personality disorder, then you’re going to read in your genre. An awareness of fantasy’s main works allows you to know what’s tired and what’s fresh, it allows you to channel the common-wisdom of the readership and to disrupt that expectation when most effective. And the flip-side of the coin I suspect all of us respondees are tossing is that the wider richer world of literature is where we all need to browse to refresh our imaginations and reconnect with the business of writing well rather than just writing to please.
For a good ten or fifteen years I read very little fantasy, but I also wasn’t writing – at least not in traditional forms. My starting to write in earnest coincided with rediscovering fantasy and seeing it delivered as properly grown-up literature by a certain GRRM. I read narrowly in the genre (and still do – mainly due to time constraints) but had the fortune to hit on some great authors, and that along with my broad reading in the genre back in the ’80s and my broad reading outside the genre in the 90s was, I feel, a great help.
No man is an island, John Donne told us. And he’s probably right. We may not be islands but we’re all swimming and it pays to be swimming in the right sea. My sea is a fantastical one in the ocean of speculation and I’m quite happy here as long as no-one expects me to go with the flow.
In conclusion, having just looked back and read what I wrote, I note that it is nine tenths gibberish and I change my mind to an emphatic “No, don’t read what you write, just plow straight ahead!”
Also on CR: Interview with Mark Lawrence
It’s something I’ve heard a few times lately: authors working on a new novel will stop reading their genre while they’re writing, to avoid cross-contamination with their own work.
You can see their point: there’s an argument for cutting yourself off from similar books – not just in terms of avoiding picking up a voice or a hint of the last thing you really, really liked… but also to avoid that heart-stopping, spirit-crushing moment when you realise that the really cool idea you just had has actually been done before. Twice. It’s about protecting your own world from the intrusion of others; however well-meaning or coincidental or subconscious that might be, and about ensuring the only voice that comes through your work is yours.
On the other hand, there’s the professional aspect of it. Writers really should know what’s out there. If you don’t read around your genre, how will you know what has already been done; what’s being read right now and why?
More importantly, how will you answer the questions posed by other books – or respond to the ideas other authors are exploring? All fiction is a dialogue: between reader and writer, between genres and between individual books. If you don’t know what others are saying, how can you hope to join in the conversation?
But above all these is the simplest, most basic argument. Writers tend to write books in areas which interest them, and with themes that interest them. It stands to reason they’ll want to read those sorts of books to… because they interest them. To set down a hard and fast rule that authors shouldn’t read the same thing that they write is rather like telling a baker that they shouldn’t eat bread.
You can take that slightly laboured analogy and work it into the ground, but what it comes down to is this: writers are also readers. They were usually readers first. Most of them will read both inside and outside their genre, because conversely (to go back to the baker, because I actually really like hi… I think he’s called Jack. He makes a mean sourdough) a baker who eats only bread will (a) pretty quickly get sick of it, and (b) will die of malnutrition sooner or later.
Some authors will want to put a buffer in between their professional and their personal lives. Some won’t feel it’s necessary. Some won’t even be aware that the two are different. Some will want to cut themselves off in a form of splendid isolationism while they work; others will want to retreat to their “to-read” pile to relax. All of them will, when they’re done, turn out their own books. And all of those books will be – like their authors – the product of every influence which has crossed their path, whether it was ten minutes, ten days or ten years ago.
Also on CR: Interview with Lou Morgan
I’m a big fan of Paul S. Kemp, author of a number of Forgotten Realms and Star Wars novels, and most recently his excellent sword-&-sorcery novel The Hammer & the Blade.
Ah! Don’t re-read after publication! That way lies madness and years of therapy! Whatever learnings you might otherwise take from a re-read will be crushed under the weight of the rage and shame you feel for writing THAT SENTENCE or using THAT WORD. You wrote the best story you could when you wrote it. Don’t go critique it now. Just let it go. Let. It. Go.
As for reading in genre: Yes, we should do it. Mostly because there are some great stories being told in genre, but also because it’s useful to know what’s happening out there. But I’m a strong believer in the idea that we should read often outside the genre in which we write, too. Perhaps even more than we read in genre. Reading in other genres (or reading literary fiction) protects against insular thinking (which will happen to you if all you ever read is fantasy or hard sci-fi or whatever) and spurs creativity. Think of the powerful way Woodrell marries the desolate, ruined setting of Winter’s Bone to the desolate, ruined people who inhabit the setting and you’ll get a sense of why reading out of genre can be a useful (even necessary) exercise.
Also on CR: Interview with Paul Kemp
Jon Courtenay-Grimwood, author of excellent The Fallen Blade and The Outcast Blade (Orbit):
This question has been staring me in the face for the last twenty four hours and every time I glance over I'm the first to look away. I still don’t know what it wants or what it’s asking me. Do I read my own work? Well, discounting the obvious, the edits, copy edit approvals and proof readings (all copy editors are passive aggressive bastards, just thought I’d mention that. Of course, copy editors will tell you all authors are foul tempered prima donnas.)
Do I read what I’ve written once I’ve written it? Very occasionally. Once, reading neoAddix, my first published novel, to be appalled by how bad it was, and again a few years later, to decide it wasn’t quite as terrible as I’d thought. And I reread End of the World Blues a few years ago to find myself shocked at how accurately it caught the lyrical bleakness haunting me at the time I wrote it. (And immediately and inaccurately decided I’d never be able to write anything like that again.)
If the question is should you read in your area – fantasy if you write fantasy, SF if you write SF – then yes obviously. Practically it’s important to know where the market is, and technically it’s important to understand the current writing standards (I’m leaving aside the obvious reason we all read, that we actually enjoy it!).
HELEN LOWE, author of The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost, is one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know (uh, virtually – we’ve never actually met). Her blog has frequent interesting posts, interviews with and guest posts from other authors. Helen also decided to approach this question from the angle of reading your own work:
Although I think the inclusion of “should” is almost the most interesting aspect of it, because the implication of “should” is always that you’re wrong if you don’t (do whatever.) Whereas my view is that there is no right or wrong in terms of writing process, or any one right way, only what gets the optimum result for an individual author. And just as we vary, so too will the optimum process.
So in terms of my response, I can only talk about what works for me – and that is absolutely that I have to read what I write; innumerable times in fact. I always re-read the previous day’s work when I start writing, and then ‘write forward’ from that point. I find that helps me improve the fluency and sense of that first cut and get in the flow for continuing on. Once I have a completed manuscript I find a read through of the whole “as a story” is really important as well, to decide whether it’s working as I intended and most importantly that the structure is right. It also really helps with picking up on continuity errors, whether large or small, as well as elements of writing that I feel are important, such as avoiding repetition of either large chunks of text or key words and phrases.
But once the book is published – you know, I have never actually sat down and read any of my books once they’re “out there” in the world. It’s almost a superstitious thing for me – that I’m terrified I’ll find the plot hole or continuity error I’ve missed, but also because the book has in large part passed out of my hands: now, it belongs to the readers as much as it does to me.
In terms of whether I “should” read the published book to improve my writing – because I revise so thoroughly at every stage up until that point, my instinct is that I have already maximised the opportunity for improvement through self critique by that time. So I consider reading others’ books a better use of my reading time, both for enjoyment (after all, I already know what’s going to happen in my books!) and to learn through appreciating what other writers do and don’t do.
Also on CR: Interview with Helen Lowe
JUSTIN LANDON, who blogs and reviews at Staffer’s Musings, took another approach to the question, related to book reviewers, which I thought was quite interesting:
I don’t write. Or at least, I don’t actively write fiction. I brainstorm a lot. I talk about how I’m going to actually write a novel, but I don’t really do it. Not yet anyway. What I write are reviews and commentary. So while I presume the question was geared toward writers of fiction, I’m going to answer it as a reviewer. Should I read other people’s reviews? What do I gain by doing so and what do I lose?
It’s an interesting pickle. On the one hand, every writer wants a unique voice. If I read too many reviews from other people, I risk my style becoming homogeneous – an echo chamber of criticism. This is particularly true when reading a review of a book before I’ve written my own, something I do try not to do. That’s a little different though. If I were writing a retelling of Moby Dick in a SFF setting I might want to avoid China Miéville’s Railsea and John Love’s Faith. Make sense?
That said, I absolutely read other reviewers. And I’m going to use a sports metaphor to explain why. Bear with me.
As an athlete there are two axioms that you live by. One is that you can only be the best if you beat the best. The other is that you can only get better by playing against people who are better than you. If I never read reviewers who do it better than I do, how can I hope to get better? If I practice my cross-over (basketball term) in the drive away over and over again, but never do it against another player, you know what’s going to happen? The first time I use it against someone good they’ll steal the ball. That’s why I read Lev Grossman, Jared Shurin, Martin Lewis, Adam Roberts, and others. I’m trying to get better.
Do I risk losing my own voice? I guess. Maybe. But, I think that’s an excuse to be lazy. I’ll sit at home and bury my head in the sand and believe that my nascent talent is good enough. It’s not. I can only be the best by reading the best, learning what they do and how they do it. If I end up with a little Lev Grossman voice inside my own, more the better.
Huge thanks to the contributors for this post! Now. What are your thoughts on the matter?