When I first began my writing journey nearly about five years ago, I was inspired by Stephen King’s book On Writing, in which he encouraged writers to read often and read a variety of book titles. Around that same time, I had started volunteering for a non-profit group that provided books to incarcerated women, and I became familiar with the books they often requested from our library (most of which were donations). So I was reading everything from true crime, prison life and re-entry to African-American and Hispanic fiction.
Adding fuel to the fire was a blog post I came across about a reading challenge—reading books under certain categories, themes, genres or book titles—no matter how crazy those titles might be. The list included everything from reading a non-fiction book, a book about motherhood, a book turned into a movie or TV series, or a book with a color/number/person’s name in the title. You get the idea. The challenge wasn’t about how many books you could read, but the variety. It simply added another layer of fun to the activity of reading.
Put altogether, reading a variety of books became ingrained in me. So what that I rarely read the current bestseller? I learned as much by reading a classic John Steinbeck novel as anything else on the current bestseller list. I learned that every book you read can teach you something about writing.
More important, reading a variety exposed me to authors I probably would never have read (Toni Morrison, for example) and about different cultures and perspectives (Indian culture through the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, for example). It showed different uses of language and unique and interesting characters and settings (fantasy, for example).
Reading a variety has also shown me the things that don’t always work in storytelling and what does and does not appeal to readers. That knowledge is helping me craft better stories, stronger plots and more interesting characters. (At least I hope it does.}
Reading a variety can nudge you out of your comfort zone and challenge your brain to see things differently. If all you ever read is the same genre, boredom can settle in and you’ll likely see the same plot lines and the same types of characters over and over again. When that happens, it may be time to mix things up a bit. After reading a couple of historical fiction novels, switch it up by reading a memoir or a classic. You can always return to your favorite genre.
Here’s what you can learn about writing by reading outside your favorite genre:
- Sci Fi/Fantasy – Learn about world building with its own unique population and language. This challenges you to think outside the box.
- Mystery/thriller – Learn techniques for pacing and creating suspense.
- Literary – Learn about character-driven plots, character motivation and story arcs.
- Memoir – Learn about a person’s history, emotions and experiences. What makes them tick? How did they become the person they are now?
- Non-fiction – Learn to explain technical or complex subjects. Get background information about a subject.
- Commercial fiction or current bestseller – ask yourself why they are so popular with readers. What is their appeal? Why are people buying this book?
- The classics – Learn about the use of language from years ago. Important if you’re writing historical fiction.
- Plays/drama – Pay attention to dialogue. How do the characters speak and relate to one another?
- Read Latino, African-American, Native-American, Middle Eastern, Asian-American authors – Notice how their culture influences their story telling.
The way I see it, reading is the flip side of writing. Without reading, we would never experience the fine art of storytelling. So read a lot, and read a variety. Your creative writing self will thank you for it.