Thoughts on Writing
#13: Reading Outside The Box
by Seanan McGuire
Today’s essay is going to be a little bit different, because
today’s essay is going to be just as much about being a reader
as it is about being a writer. Reading is an enormously important part
of writing. The temptation to say ‘oh, I can’t take
the time to read
that, I’m a writer, I have to be writing’
going to be there. Most writers are essentially junkies; our drug of
choice is putting words on paper. Cheaper than most of the things you
can buy on the street, but very time-consuming, and like all junkies,
we can get resistant to things that might get between us and our fix.
Even when we do make the time to read, the
temptation to say
‘I’m just going to stick with what I know I
like’ is intensely high.
It’s also intensely bad for us. So here’s what
we’re going to discuss
Read outside your preferred genres. I'm an old-school
horror girl. I love fantasy and funny genre fiction. I read more books
on epidemics than anyone outside the CDC really needs to. But that
won't make me grow, so I also read trashy crime thrillers and westerns,
hard science fiction and romances, and pretty much anything with a plot
that looks like it might hold my interest. Seeing what they're doing
outside your comfort zone will help you understand what's inside your
comfort zone much, much better.
Because our topic is a
little less cut-and-dried than some of them, we’re going to
be taking a
slightly different format today, defining genres and discussing things
that may qualify as ways to step outside of them. I’m also
going to try
to offer alternatives, in those cases where the genre is one that tends
to alienate those it doesn’t embrace. Hopefully,
you’ll be able to look
at the options I offer and come up with a few options of your own.
Make sense? Excellent. Let’s begin.
going to start big and get small, because that seems like the best way
to do this without possibly missing something. According to
Dictionary.com, a genre is:
“Of or pertaining to a distinctive literary type.”
That’s nicely vague. Wikipedia, on the other hand, says:
genre is a loose set of criteria for a category of composition; the
term is often used to categorize literature and speech, but is also
used for any other form of art or utterance.
Genres are vague
categories with no fixed boundaries, they are formed by sets of
conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of
borrowing and recombining these conventions. The scope of the word
"genre" is sometimes confined to art and culture, particularly
literature, but it has a long history in rhetoric as well. In genre
studies the concept of genre is not compared to originality. Rather,
all works are recognized as either reflecting on or participating in
the conventions of genre.”
Well, okay, then. Basically, a genre
is any set of criteria which can be used to group a selection of
literary works together. I’m going to define various genres
sub-genres throughout this essay. Feel free to come up with genres of
your own. Remember that larger genres can contain dozens or even
hundreds of sub-genres, and someone who proudly proclaims their love
for your favorite genre may have absolutely no books or authors in
common with you.
Big Mama Spider: Fiction vs. Non-Fiction.
first two genres are fiction and non-fiction, both of which are the Big
Mama Spiders of the written word. Practically anything you can get your
hands on is going to fall cleanly into one of these categories. (I say
‘practically’ because some things, like, say, an
of Beowulf, will skirt the line a bit.
It’s a fictional work in
a non-fictional structure. Never say that we can’t complicate
As a writer of fiction, it’s important to read
fiction. Reading fiction will help you learn how pacing, flow,
characterization, and dialog all work. You’ll do a lot of
through osmosis. Early in your writing career, there may be a fine line
between ‘osmosis’ and ‘outright
theft,’ but that’s okay; that’s what
editors are for. Reading will help you learn what works, and writing
will help you learn to do it in a style that’s entirely your
a writer of fiction, it’s also important to read non-fiction.
Non-fiction is full of amazing facts about the world, many of which are
totally new to most of us. I’ve never read a non-fiction book
didn’t teach me at least something. Not only that, but
books can make amazing references -- the entire reference section
is considered non-fiction -- and reference is really what’s
make your fiction come alive. If you want to write realistically,
you’ll need to know what you’re talking about.
Reading fiction can give you technique. Reading non-fiction can give
you ideas. Both of these things are vital.
The Age of Man: Children’s Stories, YA, and Adult
another big meta-genre, if you will: the divide between the perceived
‘reading ages’ that various books will be aimed at.
The three genres
I’m defining here -- Children’s Stories, YA (Young
Adult), and Adult
Lit -- will contain both fiction and non-fiction books. (You can
absolutely argue that these aren’t ‘real’
genres, since they’re
definitions of reading level, rather than type of story. For the
purposes of this essay, I’m calling them genres, because each
categories has important ‘why you should read this’
can find almost any type of story in any of the three, although there
will naturally be variations.
Children’s Stories are the books and tales
aimed at kids under the age of twelve. A great many of the classics
fall into this category -- Alice in Wonderland, The
Wizard of Oz, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales,
just to name a few. It may seem like children’s non-fiction
as helpful to an adult author, but actually, it can be a great way to
get your foot in the door of an unfamiliar topic. The magazine Muse
is aimed at older kids, and is full of fun, factual information
sparked several story ideas and research paths for me. The facts are
still good, even if they’re presented in primary colors!
YA (Young Adult) Literature
contains the books and tales aimed at teenagers and young adults. This
is a genre that’s been growing by leaps and bounds in the
years, and now contains a wide range of books in an equally wide range
of genres. There are some amazing things happening in YA. Because YA
effectively spans ages twelve through nineteen, you can find things in
that genre written for a variety of reading levels and covering a wide
range of subject material. Rejecting YA books because they’re
for kids’ has never been a good idea, and it’s
getting less clever
every year, as more and more authors discover the amazing things
Adult Lit covers everything above the
cut-off age for YA. It’s the largest of this particular set
and will include most ‘serious literature,’ as well
as most of the more
technical reference materials. This doesn’t make it better.
makes it bigger, and means it eats up more of your average bookstore or
Are You Going To Keep Going?
could literally spend the rest of the day defining and differentiating
genres, but it would give me a headache and probably make everyone want
to beat me with sticks. I mean, here’s a partial list of
fiction, fantasy, horror, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, supernatural
romance, space opera, romance, modern romance, historical romance,
western, historical fiction, adventure, thriller, medical thriller,
drama, poetry, reference, mystery, historical mystery, general fiction,
giant sharks eat tourists, horrible diseases kill everybody, anthology,
I could keep going. And I could sub-divide every one
of those genres fifteen or thirty times, depending on how fiddly I
wanted to get. (Yes, disturbingly, you can even sub-divide
sharks eat tourists’ at least three times.) There are so many
there already, and so many books being written every year, that as long
as you’re willing to read in two or three genres, you can
read and read
and read and never leave your comfort zone.
Please note that ‘can’ and
‘should’ do not mean the same thing.
important to remember that exciting things are happening all across the
spectrum of the written word. New trends develop, new ideas come to the
forefront, and new things are pioneered, sometimes in surprising
places. Remember, indirect speech was rare before Jane Austin. There
are no literary tropes that didn’t start somewhere, and by
stretching yourself as a reader, you can constantly stretch yourself as
a writer. You may not realize it’s happening, but
you’ll still reap the
Where Do I Start?
There are a lot of
great resources for finding books. Ask your local librarian. Ask
friends who like unfamiliar genres what they’d recommend. Ask
local independent bookstore clerk. Wander around the Internet looking
for ‘if you like X, then you’ll like Y’
lists. No two people will give
you the same set of suggestions, and there’s something
fabulous to be
found in all of them. (Personally, I like wandering through the
bookstore new releases section and seeing what jumps out at me.
brought home some weird, weird books that way.)
Whatever you do, don’t pigeonhole yourself. There’s
a whole wide world of wonderful literature out there.
Go get to know it.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.
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