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What you write and what you read

I was at lunch with an editor today who noted, “I can’t imagine what you read for fun is the sort of stuff you represent.” It took me aback, and a sort of generic, “I’m an omnivorous reader…” response was at the tip of my tongue until I actually took a moment to think about it. (Bonus points to me for thinking before speaking!)

I represent a lot of paranormal fiction, young adult novels, the occasional narrative nonfiction, cozy mysteries, and contemporary romance. The last few books I’ve read? Chad Harbach’s literary debut The Art of Fielding, Danielle Evans’ story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (can we agree this is the best title of the year?), and Justin Torres’ stunning novella We the Animals. And I’m currently toting around the new Jeffrey Eugenides.

Sure, if you go back another few weeks, you’ll also find Marie Lu’s YA debut Legend and urban fantasist Karen Marie Moning’s Shadowfever, but as much as I enjoyed those books, when I read them, I kept thinking about them as signposts in the marketplace. “Oh, so this is what the competition is doing.” Awareness of the market is important, of course, and I’m glad I read both. That said, I don’t know that my motive for reading either was purely  pleasure.

For me, there is a healthy level of awareness of the market that needs to be maintained—not just knowing what the competition is, but also actually reading said competition. On the flip side, if that was all I read, I suspect I might actually lose my mind.  I need to read great books that aren’t at all related to what I do because I put a lot of importance on the ability to bring a fresh mind and an energetic eye to new material. The best way I personally know to do that is to recharge periodically by getting lost in a good book. And how lost can you get when your reading experience is spent analyzing a novel in comparison to other novels.

So my question for you, dear readers, is what your own approach to reading is while you’re writing. Do you exclusively read in the categories you write in? Do you also need to “turn off” and recharge with a great book from a totally different genre from time to time? Or (gods forbid), do you not read at all while you’re writing?

19 Responses to What you write and what you read

  1. Tracy Clark says:

    I have to admit to reading very little in my genre while I’m actively writing a book. If the book has a really strong narrative style or voice, I find myself losing my own voice just a bit or unconciously emulating the style and I don’t want that to happen. I’m never without a book, but I’ll tend to read something totally different from what I’m writing while in in the thick of things. After that, I’m all over the map though I do make it my business to keep up with what’s happening in the YA world since that’s what I write. Currently, I’ve got two nonfiction books I’m reading for research for my trilogy, reading a YA sequel, and about forty-six magazines I’ve neglected to read while working on my last ms. You’d think this would make me nutty…Okay, you’d probably be right. :)

  2. I just read Shadowfever last week. (Delayed my revision schedule by 2 days, hehe). I find that whenever I read the (very steamy) Fever series and went back to my (relatively tame) YA fantasy I lose the ability to see ANY of the sexual tension I’d put in my WIP. I knew it had to be there somewhere, because I’d felt all scandalous writing it, but dang, it’s like eating a strawberry after you’ve had an ice cream sundae. My “sexy detector” was all out of whack. Maybe I should just make my main character a death-by-sex Fae. That’ll fly, in YA, right?

  3. Nathan Rudy says:

    I read a lot of mysteries, and write mysteries. But I also read literary (read The Art of Fielding in September), urban fantasy (love Jim Butcher), comedy (just ordered Tim Dorsey’s Xmas novella) and kids books since I have a seven year old.

  4. Andrea says:

    Everything I read is also a form of studying the art of writing. I´m not a published author, just a writer working on her first proper novel, and thoroughly enjoying the journey. I write fantasy (the more “classic” stuff, not urban) and I love reading it. By reading in my own genre, I get a feel for what´s happening on the market of course, of what´s been done before (well, everything) and what I think the genre lacks and my novel could possibly provide. Sometimes I read a good novel in which I can really lose myself. When that happens, I enjoy the reading experience and afterwards I go back to the book and try to figure out how the writer did it. Sometimes I read a mediocre novel and to keep away the boredom while reading, I think about how this story could be improved. (Very often the answer is better character development instead of a desperate and obvious attempt by the author to be original). If I read a bad novel, it makes me feel better, because if this book got published, then there is hope for me 😉

    What fascinates me most in novels is good character development, which is why I get frustrated with fantasy once every so often. So in between fantasy novels, I read literary classics or more modern literary works. I´ve also been reading a bit about literary criticism, which is very interesting and helps me a lot to think about my own writing from a different perspective.

    So yes, I read as a writer all the time, but I´m not a professional, which makes all the difference, I guess. I´m just enjoying myself.

  5. I try to mix it up. I write mostly YA, but I like to read adult books too. Mysteries, thrillers, literary… I’m all over the map.

    That said, a good YA with a strong voice will always draw me in.

  6. I try to read a lot within my genre (SF/fantasy) both because I like it and in order to be familiar with the market, which in some cases leads me to read books I might not have picked up solely for my own pleasure. I’ll admit, if I read a couple of these in a row, it can become a bit tiring, and lead me to mix it up with something from a totally different genre. But that’s good, too! Not only does it refresh the brain, it widens one’s perspective. I think it’s important to take in stories in a variety of genres and media in order to grasp the bigger picture of publishing, life, the power of stories, etc. Literary fiction teaches me a lot about writing realistic characters who aren’t necessarily in fantastic situations, graphic novels teach me about the importance of facial expressions and physical reactions and movement, and so on. Plus, it’s simply entertaining to shake things up once in a while.

  7. Sarah Henson says:

    To be honest, it’s something I don’t really think about. I read based on what I’m feeling at the time, whether I’m writing then or not. Occasionally I’ll find a book on the shelves that has a similar premise to what I’m writing at the time (I write YA) and will pick it up to gauge the “competition”, but typically I go based on my mood. My most recent reads have been “Heist Society” by Ally Carter, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Homer’s Odyssey” by Gwen Cooper, and “Full Dark No Stars” by Stephen King. I tried reading “Heart of Darkness” but I wasn’t in the mood for something so literary, so I turned to King. While it can be helpful to read based on what’s in the market for your genre, the main purpose of reading for me has always been for the joy of it. As long as it’s a good book and a compelling story that I can get lost in, I don’t care where it fits.

  8. Ciara says:

    I write contemporary YA and primarily read YA of every genre but of course I also read adult mysteries and adult contemporary and a smattering of historical if it’s the right period. I find reading adult mysteries like the Stephenie Plum series most relaxing. It’s so different from anything I do that I never have those niggling thoughts the way I do when I read (for example) Amy Reed and think “God she’s a million times better than me, I suck, I should give up…sob”

  9. Ciara says:

    My last reads were Sweetly by Jackson Pearce, The Mortal Instruments and The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.

  10. RamseyH says:

    Well, if someone could tell me what genre I write, then maybe I could answer the question…

    Nah, I’m a schizophrenic reader. My favored genre fiction is hard sci fi, but I’m just as likely to be reading contemporary fiction, interesting nonfic, a biography, or a piece of classic literature. I think I lean more towards nonfiction when I’m in the midst of a first draft, probably because it doesn’t interfere with my “process.” When I’m reading with the aim to inform my own work, more often than not I’ll pick up something that my protagonist would read, as opposed to something in the genre I’m writing. I do the whole “getting in character” thing.

    Currently reading: The Hunt for Red October.

  11. Kaitlyne says:

    I tend to avoid things that are similar to what I’m writing. I know that goes against advice, but it helps prevent me from being influenced by anything similar. I tend to actually go for books very outside of my element while I’m actively writing, which is great because it’s exposed me to a lot of different types of things I wouldn’t normally pick up. I also will set aside my writing for a couple of days if I start a book that feels too similar.

  12. Kristy Shen says:

    I read whatever catches my eye, regardless of the genre. I tend to like books with a very unique premise (like Jackson Pearce’s “As You Wish”).

    Even though I tend to read a lot of books in my genre (YA fantasy) for research purposes, I also read horror, thriller, non-fiction and historical fiction. I find that it helps me gain a different perspective and stimulate my brain to think outside the box.

    What’s interesting is that after I started writing, I learned to really appreciate books that are well written. I actually stop reading frequently to admire the beauty of the prose. That never happened in the past. I used to read just for the plot but now I read for the craft as well.

  13. Suilan says:

    I can’t stand to read the same genre I write (which is epic fantasy) even though it is my favorite genre. I get depressed by thought about how I could never write anything this great (if the book isn’t great, I stop reading) and worse, if there is any plot point in the story that is remotely like something I have in my own, I panic and start doubting that I managed to come up with a single original idea.

    So instead of reading epic fantasy while I write, I prefer to read urban fantasy, historical novels, historical non-fiction, cozy science fiction (McMaster Bujold), children’s fantasy (mainly Frances Hardinge, Joseph Delayney, or Diana Wynne Jones), and books on language/linguistics and creative writing. And the occasional Terry Pratchett, whose a genre all by himself.

    These genres are close enough to what I write but there’s just enough distance not to make me uncomfortable.

    Now all I need is to finish my current manuscript so I can finally get to the Collegia Magica Trilogy by my favorite epic-fantasy author Carol Berg.

    • Suilan says:

      That’s Joseph Delaney, not Delayney. (And who’s, not whose. Ouch.)

    • Barb Riley says:

      I agree with you about seeing elements of your book in others and how it’s crushing! Lately, I picked up a few new books in my genre for research and when I see something that’s similiar to mine, I cringe in horror!!!! I even worked really hard to come up with an original theme, one I didn’t find anywhere on any website, and a current best selling adult fiction I picked up has my theme, word for word, in dialogue between characters. I was like son of a b@(#*!!!!!

  14. Hillsy says:

    I’m a very slow reader (about 3-4 books a month), so I don’t get much choice. I have to read exclusively Sci-Fi and Fantasy or I simple wont have the time to read all the books I want to read within those 2 genres alone….hell, there are 7 more books in the Runelords series and 9 more in the “Malazan Book of the fallen” series I’ve got to catch up on. Thats me done up to February on those alone!!!

  15. Plenty of comments on this one and no reason for me to add to the pile, but what the hell? What I read while working on a project tends to vary, depending on the project and how confident I am in its originality. If I’m taking on a genre and trying to subvert it, I’ll read the top titles to get a sense of what I’m trying to flip. Mainly, though, I’ll do what I consider weird, tangential research reading to get at the emotional core of a character or characters. An example would be reading about lightning strike victims while working on my novel, “Rapture,” about humans randomly sprouting wings. I figured a change like that would — psychologically speaking — be like a bolt out of the blue, with a lot of “why me” overtones. I also read the confessions of a therapist because I had a therapist character to write and I read Oliver Sacks, because I needed to know a little bit about neurology. I also read about viruses and coming pandemics (which I don’t recommend if you want to sleep and don’t happen tp be writing a novel). The best research I did, however, wasn’t a book. I flew in a two-seater plane over the Detroit River and that experience helped inform my opening chapter. Any time you can call flying about a thousand feet off the ground “research” that’s a hell of a job to have. Now if someone would just buy my latest… oh well.

  16. Rebecca Downey says:

    I recently completed a thriller with paranormal elements, and had difficulty reading anything except writing self-help books during the process. When it went off for editing, I lounged on the sofa with a good mystery, and this felt very self indulgent–like eating a hot fudge sundae. Enjoying the straightforwardness of the mystery, I began to wonder whether or not I could write another paranormal book. A few weeks later, my editor wrote me to suggest I begin a sequel.

    Reading other works is a necessity for authors to help you explore and compare the purposes and consequences of your own writing with that of other novelists. Reading keeps you grounded, and then, of course, you can go back to the genre of your choice when your mind is ready.

  17. Lynn says:

    I read anything and everything regardless of my WIP. The only thing I diversify is the language. If I read two novels in French, I’ll then read a self-help book in English, or poetry in Spanish, and on it goes.

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